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July 29, 2022

Making High-speed internet service affordable to all

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. My name is Pete Pizzutillo and I am joined today by Kathryn de Wit of the Broadband Access Initiative for the Pew Charitable Trust. Kathryn, thanks for joining us today.

Kathryn De Wit:

Pete, thanks so much for having me back.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. You’re repeat offenders, we like to call you guys. So thanks for joining us. I know you’re super busy. I mean, you guys are doing a lot. You’re on a lot on the scenes with some thought leadership. You’re talking about funding guidance for folks. You have a ton of resources. You’re out there lobbying. So before we get into it, most recently, you guys had an event, the Broadband Access Summit last week. Before we dive into that, I would love it if you just give us a quick top-line review of what you all are doing at the Broadband Access Initiative.

Helping to increase the availability and affordability of high-speed reliable internet.

Kathryn De Wit:

Absolutely. So Pew Charitable Trust, so we are a non-profit, nonpartisan organization. So for anybody who isn’t familiar with us from NPR, as my parents are, we do research and analysis to help lawmakers really across a range of issues from pensions to penguins, as we often say, solve complex policy problems. And one of them is broadband access. My team focuses on policy solutions for lawmakers and practitioners to help them increase the availability and affordability of high-speed reliable internet. We work with them on designing programs, designing policy solutions, and also in providing research and analysis to help them implement these incoming federal funds, which was what this event was all about.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. No, that’s helpful. And we see each other at a couple of events bouncing around. And when I heard that you all were putting together this summit, one of the first questions is there’s a lot out in the marketplace. Why this event? What was the goal that you guys were trying to meet that was a little bit different than all the other events that are out there?

Kathryn De Wit:

I think that it is a busy, busy time and busy season not just because of all the events going on, but because I think just with the amount of money that’s coming forward, people are eager to get back in rooms to figure out how are they going to meet this moment. So we really kept that in mind as we looked at priorities and needs for the state lawmakers and practitioners and state broadband officers that we work with. And we came back really realizing that we had two priorities in bringing together this community of people that we work with. And the first was in demonstrating the art of the possible. Yes, we are looking at standing up a brand new type of broadband program. We have never as a field implemented this type of federal funding program for broadband before. This is the first time the federal government has provided money to states for implementing broadband infrastructure and digital equity programs at this scale.

Kathryn De Wit:

Additionally, this is the first time that the federal government has implemented broadband programs that have these requirements related to universal access, related to affordability, that have these requirements around local stakeholder engagement in planning. These are detailed and complex programs. And while it is new at the federal level and at this scale, these are activities that state broadband programs have actually been doing for years. So we wanted to be able to show folks this is possible. We can do this. Yes, it’s overwhelming. Yes, there’s a lot to do. But we wanted to bring in the experts and practitioners and the local partners and internet service providers who have been working with state and local governments over the last decade-plus to implement these programs. So part of the possible was first.

Kathryn De Wit:

But the second point was also around building community. Everything I just talked about, whether we’re talking about implementing low-income access programs, whether we are talking about stakeholder engagement and data collection planning, or writing grant requirements, all of this requires a lot of input from different areas of the community, from different industries, different sectors. And we all at this point from the public sector, from the private sector, from philanthropy, local leaders, now is the time for all of us to really throw our shoulders and our hats in the ring, if you will. Sorry. These are terrible cliches. But this is an all-hands-on-deck effort. And so we wanted to create the space to bring these folks together who not only would be talking about these issues in the years to come but really would be the groups and programs and organizations implementing these funds. So we wanted to create this space to start building those connections.

Pete Pizzutillo:

And I think a couple of things that I really enjoyed that you all did was I was able to attend virtually. And so sat through some of the sessions that they felt more like facilitated discussions where it wasn’t just a bunch of panelists that were bouncing out of the room 20 minutes afterward, going on to the next wherever they needed to go. It was a 90-minute session. The panels that you had up there were folks that were up and down the food chain, which is great. But taking the time out, as you said, the community sitting shoulder-to-shoulder next to the folks that were maybe a couple of states away from you, that participation was a different energy than I’d seen in the many shows that I’ve been to the past few years.

Kathryn De Wit:

Thank you. That’s a very nice compliment and great feedback and exactly what we wanted. I think what you said about that representation from different levels of government and people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder from across states and from across different areas of delivery, that’s what we need, and that’s really what we wanted to demonstrate is needed for achieving internet for all. So I’m glad that came through for the folks sitting in the audience.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. And also being virtual, not everybody has the time or the ability to travel. So being able to meaningfully participate. So what was the representation like from your perspective? Did you guys meet your goal?

Kathryn De Wit:

We did. We had several hundred people there in person, which was exciting, would always be exciting, but I think particularly as we’re still in the middle of this pandemic and we’re still figuring out what life is like as we grapple with that, as we are starting to hit deadlines with these federal funding requirements, it was great to see that many people together in the room. I think of course there are always opportunities to improve engagement and to get more representation, particularly from local government and tribal governments as well. So I think that as we look to future events, we’ll certainly want to make sure that we’re working more closely with states, local governments, and tribal partners to ensure that we have that meaningful representation to facilitate that type of coordination that we know is critical for successful program implementation.

Pete Pizzutillo:

It’s good. When I go to these events, there’s always something that surprises me, and I think it’s either something new that I learn or just a perspective that I just never considered before. You’ve had a couple of days now to process it. I mean, is there anything that jumps out as your biggest surprise of something you just didn’t expect to hear or somebody would be thinking in that manner?

Kathryn De Wit:

I think probably the biggest surprise to me… this is actually not about the content of the event… was just the different way that the facilitators, the ones who led the panel discussions actually approached these sessions. And we asked these folks to lead these sessions for a reason. And I think that that was the thing that surprised me was just looking at the way that some folks chose to structure their discussions around, as you noted earlier, truly facilitated discussions. Others really treated them as mini-workshops. And I think that it was really fascinating to watch the discussions and little groups and conversations evolve within the room because it happened in very different ways. And you saw pockets of people getting very enthusiastic as they were starting to make connections about programs that they were establishing. “Oh. This is how we’ll measure our program as we stand it up,” or, “Oh. You need to meet this researcher because they have been doing research on user experience and with low-income broadband adoption programs.”

Kathryn De Wit:

And so I thought that it was really great to see these experts apply their knowledge not just in making sure that participants walked away with a better understanding of things like building ecosystems for advocacy or measuring impact or drafting broadband plans, but they were applying that expertise to really help their participants meet other people and learn in different ways and absorb that material in different ways. Sorry. I don’t think I’m actually answering your question, but it was a really fascinating exercise to watch how the little social systems popped up through those discussions.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. I think that an important observation is understanding how people learn and interact. I mean, one of the things that surprised me in that one session, was Tamara Holmes I think moderating it. And she asked people to rate their own broadband office from F to A scoring. And I think predominantly we’re around a C, which I thought was interesting because I think either people… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just my jaded sense, their over-inflated sense of, “Hey. We have our act together.” There wasn’t really anybody that they said we nailed this, and that there were a lot of opportunities to learn. Nobody really trashed it and said, “Oh, my God. This is a dumpster fire.”

Pete Pizzutillo:

So I thought that was an interesting, realistic self-assessment with a lot of optimism in there. Different reasons for why they were at a C. Some people were really good at coordination and some people had a really good technical plan. But for me, just trying to get… Because from the outside in, that’s where all the money’s coming in, especially from the infrastructure, from the bead money. You’re hoping that they have their act together. That’s the first point of failure right there.

Kathryn De Wit:

That’s true. That is an interesting observation. I hadn’t realized that Tamara had asked that question. I missed that part of her session. That doesn’t surprise me, though. I think that’s great though, because there’s a lot of, as you know, trepidation about states leading this effort. People aren’t familiar with state broadband offices. What have they done? What are they doing? Are they brand new? Why are states involved in this? Should states be involved in this?

Kathryn De Wit:

And so if people are just starting to learn what state broadband offices have done or are currently doing, or they’re getting high marks on stakeholder engagement but maybe not so high marks in other areas, okay, we’ll take that. That’s room for growth and room to improve. So I think it’s good to know that people are being open-minded about the state-based solution and being open-minded to building those relationships because as you said, that’s where the money is flowing through. But I’m hoping that we as Pew and some of the other partners that we are working with can help be assets in building meaningful coordination between state offices and their partners and communities and in the private sector as well.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. And you had a chance to interview Joseph Wender from the Department of Treasury. Are there any takeaways that you had from that conversation?

Kathryn De Wit:

I think the first is for the state legislatures that have not taken action yet on and governors who have not taken action yet on capital projects funds, encouraging them to use those available dollars for broadband infrastructure and other related uses. The money’s there. Every dollar will be needed. So to the extent that states have not yet taken action, would encourage states to take that action and do it quickly.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. I saw that you guys provided it, it was an article about leaving money on the table, a few, I think earlier in the spring. I mean, do you feel like that’s changing at all in the last quarter?

Kathryn De Wit:

To be honest with you, I don’t know yet because most states are out of session, but we’ll know in the coming months once refiling starts. But I think that one message that we will be repeating, and I think that we heard a bit of that at the event as folks were talking about the sustainability of programs and sustainability of operations and impact, the money in the IIJA programs, and the bipartisan infrastructure law… Sorry, I don’t know which acronym we’re using today. It’s not going to be enough and it won’t be enough for sustainability. That’s not what it’s designed to do. So we need to be directing every dollar possible to infrastructure and in partnership with that to digital equity.

Kathryn De Wit:

And we need to be thinking about how we are really pivoting dollars and moving dollars towards ensuring that communities are benefiting from this investment in broadband infrastructure and in digital equity. And that’s focusing the discussion on things like telehealth and workforce development, remote education. So I think the more that we can really talk about what does internet for all means, the more helpful it will be for lawmakers to understand why we need to be using every available dollar possible for the investment in the internet infrastructure and digital equity.

Broadband Workforce shortage and its effects on new deployments

Pete Pizzutillo:

One of the questions, I feel like there’s this learned helplessness, just helplessness around supply chain issues and the skills gap. And I know you guys spent some time talking about this skills gap there. Are you getting that sense that even we have this money, we have a plan, we’re just not going to have the material and personal resources to get there? Or do you feel like people have some hope?

Kathryn De Wit:

I think there’s an acknowledgment that this is likely a challenge that we will need to address. And I think the immediate follow-up to that is, “Okay. So what frameworks and solutions do we have in place in order to address those challenges? And whose responsibility is it then for seeing that through?” And the state broadband offices themselves are charged in the NOFO, in NTA’s notice of funding opportunity in the plan to identify how they will be working with entities within their own state to develop appropriate workforce development plans and supply chain solutions.

Kathryn De Wit:

There are certain states that already have efforts underway, including Ohio, Louisiana, and Vermont. Other states will be following suit. But America Achieves, the Center on Rural Innovation, and the Urban Institute are actually releasing a report, a report at our event looking at this issue of the broadband workforce and detailing a few solutions for meeting this challenge and how it could be met over the next several years. So I think that there are solutions that are being elevated and it’s something that both federal and state lawmakers and practitioners are taking very seriously.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. I do hope that we trying to find ways to solve that problem. I don’t know what the supply chain issues are, how that’s solvable, but just the skilling. There are just a lot of folks that can be re-skilled and there are a lot of incentives to get people to compete… We have a lot of our industry going towards the wrong industries. But there are just a lot of opportunities that I think are once in a lifetime that hopefully, we tap into those groups. Before the event, you and I spoke about mapping and it was intentionally not part of the agenda because of a couple of reasons. Did maps come up in the conversation at all?

Kathryn De Wit:

Of course, the maps come up. The maps always come up, as they should. The maps are a really important part of the funding verification process, and the data collection and mapping are an underlying element to everything that we talked about at this event, whether we are talking about planning or advocacy, whether we’re talking about engaging local leaders or measuring equity and measuring impact. Data and then the mapping is a critical piece of all of those conversations. So yes, of course, mapping and data came up in all of the sessions, and it will continue to come up, again, as it should because the FCC maps will determine final funding allocations.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. There are a lot of folks… And I hope the FCC, there’s some opportunity for some creative thinking because there are a lot of private folks that I see that are rushing to solve that problem. I’ve seen some really interesting data sets that I know there are other private parties that they’re using. But I feel like if we can get all our wood behind that one arrow because it is kind of the cornerstone to releasing the funding, then we can worry about everything downstream. But I’d be interested to see if there are any creative solutions that are entertained in the future.

Kathryn De Wit:

I think so too. I think that we’re never going to have a perfect data set. And I think that’s why the data collection and mapping discussion is so challenging because it’s always changing because connections are always going online. But I think that the ultimate question is whether we’ll always come back to what are we collecting this data for. What are we trying to better understand and how are we going to use it? And I agree. I think the more that we can really focus on those questions and design our data collection around that and ensure that it reflects that, ultimately, and that it really reflects the local need and we can use all this information to drive accountability, I think the better off we’ll be. So we shall see.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. We shall. One of the keys when going into the event is you had some comments about how the thinking around business cases needs to evolve. Did that come up at all? I mean, was there any interesting thinking that you’ve seen from some of the states in terms of how they expand the definition of the business case?

Kathryn De Wit:

I think you’d have to talk to the states about that. But I think we heard it though from Alan, Assistant Secretary Davidson on the first night in his opening remarks where he was talking about the internet for all. And I asked, “What does that mean to you? What does internet for all mean to you?” And he said, “It’s not just the connections to every household,” which he was very clear it is connections to every household. He did talk about fiber. But it’s also affordability. It’s making sure that folks have the skills that they need in order to use these connections to improve their economic well-being, to access education. It’s all these things that we associate with a broadband connection. That’s really what NTIA is focusing on… That’s where they’re focusing their program design and Assistant Secretary Davidson did make that quite clear.

Kathryn De Wit:

And I think that focus really did reverberate throughout the event, and that emphasis on how do we get to every single person? And every single person then means figuring out how to mobilize your local leaders, how to mobilize your local organizations, and not just your organizations that focus on digital equity and access, but your senior centers, your public housing facilities, your libraries, maybe some of your nontraditional community anchor institutions that folks wouldn’t typically think of. So I think that’s really where we saw the conversation going in terms of getting to that universal access is how do you mobilize the local organizations to get to the folks that are difficult to connect with and difficult to reach rather than the actual financials of building a different business case? That said, I do think that there was a really promising discussion around emerging questions around financing broadband programs that I would encourage people to watch once those recordings are up and live.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. That was my question. Are the sessions, they are going to be posted and available?

Kathryn De Wit:

They will be posted and available. Yes.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Okay. So I think you guys have done a nice job taking a good step in trying to continue creating an inclusive community or network or folks that we’re counting on to solve this problem. What else can we do to facilitate that? I feel like we have trade show season right now. Do we have to wait till this time next year to do it again or is there some kind of more constant connections that we can make?

Kathryn De Wit:

No. Absolutely. No. We are not waiting until next year. I think first, we’re always happy to point you to other events at the state and local regional levels where we’ll be having conversations like we had last week in Cleveland. But I’d also encourage you to sign up for websites like the National Broadband Resource Hub. We are working with partners to really focus on trying to build out that resource into a digital community and online community where we can have those types of conversations and training and learning sessions much like we did last week because unfortunately, or probably fortunately from the perspective of my event planning team, we can’t have these events once a month.

Kathryn De Wit:

And I do think though that we hope, to your point, it’s trade show season. We also have to show up at those trade show events. We can’t be off in a silo of nonprofits and government and a few private sector organizations and research entities that are having these events every couple of months, That representation needs to be present in both spaces. So that will certainly be something that we will continue to… We’ll try to be building those lines of communication and visibility between those two groups in the coming months as well.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. No. I think that’s extremely helpful. And it’s interesting because if you’re in the industry, you see the wealth of resources. And I think you said this before, there’s an unprecedented amount of knowledge, tools, and community to solve this problem. But from the outside in, it’s challenging to find those things. I think it’s just you get lost in a sea of articles and sales material and whatever. So trying to find these virtual watering holes where we can take somebody by the wrists and bring them up to speed in an inclusive manner, I think is still missing from our industry. I don’t know if you agree with that or not.

Kathryn De Wit:

I do. I do, very much so. And I think that’s something that we are thinking very hard about as we are working on our own materials at Pew and also as we’re working with partners on things like the National Broadband Resource Hub because I think you hit the nail on the head. It can be really overwhelming to all sorts of users, whether it’s internet service providers who want to figure out how to work with communities or don’t have experience working with state programs, maybe they’ve only worked with FCC-administered programs before, or maybe it’s a community leader or a local government official who doesn’t know anything about broadband. I mean, this is overwhelming and it can be really scary. And there’s a lot of, I think, maybe not so well-intentioned marketing going on.

Kathryn De Wit:

So we really want to make sure that there’s a safe space for folks to go and learn and ask questions and be able to trust the information that they’re getting is not only from trusted resources, but it’s also valid and that it’s evidence-based and that the partners that they’re working with can also serve not only as just a source of information but also as a connector to other experts, practitioners, folks who can really help them get the job done.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. Well, you personally and your team has done a lot of that. So thank you for all that passionate effort and great work. So how can listeners find out more about you or look into the Broadband Access Summit recordings if they want to dig deep into those?

Kathryn De Wit:

So you can learn more about the Broadband Access Initiative. You can go to Pew Trusts, that’s Pew trust plural.org/broadband. You can follow us on Twitter at the Pew States. You can follow me on Twitter, which sometimes is good. It’s a lot of stuff about broadband and our latest information. Other times, it’s tweeting about my Basset Hound named Bo, but you can find me at km_dewit. That’s D-E-W-I-T. And you can also find us on LinkedIn as well. So stay tuned for more postings with reporting on the event, although if you attended the event, you can access all of that information now on the attendee hub.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. That’s great. And thank you for your energy. Keep it up. We need your momentum and enthusiasm.

Kathryn De Wit:

Thank you.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Looking forward to the next time we catch up in person. So thanks for joining the show.

Kathryn De Wit:

Really appreciate it.