June 23, 2020

Next Century Cities (NCC) – Advocates for Universal Fast, Affordable & Reliable Broadband Access

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

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin, thanks so much for joining us. Our guest today is Francella Ochillo, Executive Director of Next Century Cities and a truly passionate digital rights advocate, who is very much committed to the vision of expanding broadband access for underserved and unserved communities everywhere. You will regularly find this dynamic leader on Capitol Hill, testifying before Congressional committees, meeting with the FCC, and delivering agency filings.  She is a sought after speaker at events around the country and has been quoted on Axios and in The Washington Post.  Francella earned her Juris Doctorate degree from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and is a member of the District of Columbia Bar Association.

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Craig:

I introduced you as being passionate about what you do and that’s an understatement because you are truly a dynamic advocate for universal availability of fast, affordable, and reliable internet access. If there’s a time in our nation’s history that that is extremely important, it is now.

Spotlight on Digital Divide

Francella:

Yes definitely. While COVID has introduced a host of challenges, it has also put an important spotlight on being able to connect every community, to make sure that they actually have digital opportunities.

Francella:

One thing, especially for advocates who’ve been working on this for years, I don’t want us to shy away from this moment. There’s going to be a time after this that everyone laughs again, everyone goes outside, and everyone returns to some semblance of normal.  But right now, in this moment, we have to harness the eyes that are on this issue.

Francella:

So, how do we galvanize people, how do we bring new people into this conversation? How do we come up with an actual plan? And, how do we ensure that every single stakeholder, regardless if you’re a citizen, a government official, a private entity, how do we make sure that every single person claims a piece of addressing the digital divide?

Craig:

That is extremely important in what is going on, not just in our cities, but even more so in the rural areas around the country. I know that you work with a variety of municipalities, cities, counties, all across the country but for those who might not be familiar with Next Century Cities would you us an overview of the organization and its mission?

Next Century Cities Mission – Visionary Broadband Solutions

Francella:

Next Century Cities is a non-profit based in Washington, DC, however our membership is comprised of a number of municipalities across the United States. We have members in 40 states, that span from coast to coast. Our members have very different geographic, demographic makeups, and also have different needs, so that’s one of the reasons why our job is to make sure that people can see various pathways to connectivity. Whether you are trying to collaborate on public and private partnerships to expand broadband access and adoption, or you are trying to get information about erecting the municipal network, or trying to find out ways to build Wi-Fi networks, or wherever you are in the journey, there is a place for you in our organization.

Francella:

Specifically, we’re focused on elevating the voices of local officials that, very often, just do not have enough of a platform to engage on, especially Federal policy, but state policy as well.  We want to make sure that local officials have a seat at the table when we’re talking about issues and policies that will trickle down to have an impact on their communities.

Craig:

Much of what you’re involved with is filing comments on behalf of your members. Within the last 30 days, you’ve been busy, in particular, with The Lifeline Program, and being able to support local connectivity goals all across the country. Tell us about that?

Francella:

Clearly, you’ve been doing your homework on us because I didn’t mention anything about our filings. They are so important to ensure that local officials are actually documented on the record.

Francella:

The Lifeline Program, for those people who aren’t familiar, is the only Federal telecommunications program that provides a subsidy for low income households to have access to broadband, (as well as telephone services if they choose). The reason why that’s so important as a part of the digital divide is because the populations that are very often struggling the most with connectivity are struggling with issues of adoption. Cycles of poverty, income levels, those are things that end up being obstacles for them to be able to maintain subscriptions.

Francella:

The Lifeline Program offers subscribers an opportunity to actually get a package that’s at reduced cost, and very often they get a handset with that, and they’re able to at least connect online. Now, being able to connect on, for example, a mobile phone is not going to be the same as a fixed connection, but it is, at least, an opportunity for people who would otherwise be disconnected to be able to participate in a digital society.

Craig:

You referred to the digital divide, and that is something that is a reality, has been, and will continue to be. Unfortunately, even though we hear from many appointed and elected officials that the digital divide is lessening, in reality that’s not the case.  The digital divide is actually growing with regard to the bandwidth that is available across the country. Talk about how that impacts the work that you do at Next Century Cities.

The Digital Divide is Widening

Francella:

We ae are squarely focused on making sure that every single resident in every single community has an opportunity to be able to get online. That means that we are going to have to engage with people at the local level, we’re going to need people at the state level, to make this an issue that they take ownership of, and we’re also going to need this to be a national priority.

Francella:

At the Federal level, what that means is that both policy makers and the agency of jurisdiction, which is the FCC, as well as members of Congress, really need to be engaged. They need to not only be saying that there’s a digital divide, but actually making a plan to address it. When I hear, people who are hesitant and saying, “Well, that’s not really our issue” or “It’s just so big, it’s really hard to address it.” Maybe some people are in the place where they don’t think that it’s a necessity but very often, we’re hearing from people who are already connected.

Francella:

The people you’re not hearing from – whether you are a farmer who is trying to use precision agricultural tools or you’re a small business owner in a hard to reach community that can’t have a brick and mortar storefront and you need to be able to operate online or you’re trying to get new job opportunities and maybe you can’t stay in the place where you live so you need to look in other places – all of these people who are essentially struggling with being able to have reliable access on an ongoing basis, those are not the people that we’re hearing from. For them, the digital divide is very real, there is no convincing.

Francella:

I’m based here in Washington, DC, and before COVID, I traveled a lot because I really wanted to make an effort to be face-to-face with people and hear their stories. Here in Washington, DC, I think that a combination of, whether it’s policy makers, lawmakers, that people are sometimes a bit inoculated from having to come face to face with that. COVID changed that because it became an issue for everyone. You realize it’s in your neighborhood, it’s in your community, this is happening to kids who go to school with your kids. This is happening for seniors who are now, essentially isolated. This is real for everyone.

Francella:

Our goal is to make sure that we’re not only identifying the problem, that there are millions of people who are disconnected and while the FCC’s estimates are around 18 million, (updated just a few weeks ago), private research says that’s closer to being over 100 million people. What we know from COVID is that there are millions of households that simply are not going to be able to weather this storm because after these three months or six months, these credits and programs will expire.  Then what do we do to make sure that these people can get connected?

Francella:

So, when we talk about the digital divide at Next Century Cities, we’re not just talking about it as in this is stating the problem, what we want to do is make sure that people have opportunities to offer visionary solutions.

Craig:

You touched on a lot of points that are extremely important. One is the number of students, numbers as high as 18 to 20 percent of all students nationwide, that don’t have any access to the internet. That is a huge issue, especially with the demand on distance learning. You hear examples of school systems that are utilizing their buses as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, where they’ll bring them into a neighborhood and park them for half hour so that the children can download their homework assignments before it moves to the next neighborhood. It is impossible to say how that is affecting their ability to learn, not just today, but in the future. It shines a white-hot spotlight on the fact that we are woefully behind the curve in addressing this issue. We’re in a position now where no one can turn a blind eye to that need.

Craig:

From the standpoint of impressing elected officials, those in positions of power, how do average Americans make an impact and have their voices heard?

Every Citizen Can Help Make Broadband Access a National Priority

Francella:

There are a couple things that we need to think about right now, that should give us all pause and opportunities to see what’s the pathway forward here.

Francella:

As to the actual problem, I want to acknowledge that there are people, as of today, as in May 2020, that still do not believe that broadband is essential, that it’s only something that advocates are saying.  Those are people that are in power, as policy makers and lawmakers, that do not believe it today.

Francella:

It always brings me back to one of the stories that, when I first started as an advocate, I met a young lady who lived in Lost Hills, California. She said that her dad used to take off alternating Fridays from working in the fields, to take them to Bakersfield so that they could use computers there because that was the only place that they could get internet. What stuck with me about that story, when she told me this it was long before COVID, is I think about she was one of the people who got out. She was one of the people who found a pathway out of that. There are so many kids that are not going to have the same opportunities, simply because they are now limited by geography, and can’t participate in an online space.

Francella:

What COVID shined a light on is that it does matter if my neighbor’s child can’t be an engineer or can’t complete their school year. What happens when I live in, for example, LA County, and there are 40,000 students who aren’t checking in for class? That now becomes a public issue because we all have to claim that. Even if your child is going to school, that issue belongs to all of us, and what are we going to do?

Francella:

I see this as an opportunity, not for blame, or shame, but to do an honest assessment about where we are, and to actually start planning on how we can move forward, in partnership with various stakeholders. I don’t think this is an issue that policy makers can solve alone, that lawmakers are going to be able to come up with a remedy, that private partners are going to be able to offer their services for free on an ongoing basis, this is not a sustainable solution. So, we’re going to have to find ways to say, “This is where we are in this area. What can we do to put our hands on getting a step closer on access, on adoption, on digital literacy?” And being able to look at it with a three-dimensional view, because throwing money at the problem is only getting to a certain number of communities, and certain unserved and underserved communities can’t get in line for more resources.

Francella:

We need to really ask hard questions about not just throwing money at the problem, but really galvanizing around it being a national priority, and saying that every single person has an opportunity to contribute to the solution.

The National Broadband Plan – Ten Years Later

Craig:

You touched on a couple of very important things, with regard to throwing money at the problem. That’s a big concern, given the fact that there are a number of programs with a lot of money, waiting to be doled out. The key is being able to make sure that it’s going in the right direction and used the right way. We’re here at the 10th anniversary of the National Broadband Plan, how you see the decade that’s transpired with how we’re approaching expansion of broadband?

Francella:

The National Broadband Plan was a really important milestone. It was an acknowledgement that connectivity actually has a direct connection to our larger national goals. If we’re talking about economic mobility, being able to connect online gives people job opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities, that didn’t otherwise exist. If we are talking about telehealth, and telemedicine, especially for those who are able to connect, that introduces new opportunities for overall wellness of, not only individuals, but a community.

Francella:

When we talk about education, there is no way for us to compete on a global level without expanding access, and being able to reach students not just in a brick and mortar classroom, but being able to engage their minds, train them to be creators, and not just consumers online. Those things are just a few examples of why it’s important for everybody to be able to get online.

Francella:

Now, 10 years later, I think that there are a lot of missed opportunities, and things that people would do differently, when it comes to the National Broadband Plan. But I see this as an opportunity for us to reset. There’s opportunities right now for, not as a part of a stimulus plan, not as a part of somebody just saying, “Oh, we want this to be either an executive order, or just part of this administration,” or whatever, there’s an opportunity for Congress to say, “This is one of our priorities, and we’re going to make it happen, no matter what.”

Francella:

This is an opportunity for various branches of government, different agencies, at both the Federal and the state level, to recommit. Any sort of plan moving forward is going to have to engage with stakeholders at various levels of government, as well as engaging private partners, to be able to come up with something that gets us a little bit further than we are right now. Because I do feel like if we don’t treat this with the urgency and reverence that it deserves, we are going to be having the same conversation five and 10 years from now.

Ramifications of Broadband Access Policies – Expanding the Tribe

Francella:

The problem is this has economic ramifications, it has public health ramifications, there are all sorts of other far reaching consequences that are connected to this. So, I think that we need to at least acknowledge that, even if you weren’t sure 10 years ago, whether or not broadband was essential, we’re here now, in this moment, where there is proof positive that it is.

Craig:

There is no way around the fact that broadband is no longer a luxury, it is very much essential. When you look at the need of being able to access the same information for everyone across the country, that’s just a very basic thing. We tend to think about the digital divide being in rural areas, but there are students in New York City that do not have access to broadband. Its mind boggling that in our nation’s largest city, there isn’t blanket coverage for everyone to have broadband.  What it’s going to take for that light to go on in those who need to take action?

Francella:

The reality of the situation is that this has not changed everyone’s hearts and minds but has expanded the tribe. People need to own the power in wherever they sit. If you are a concerned citizen, this needs to come up at your city council meetings. If you are running for office at any level of government, this needs to be an integral part of your platform. If you are already in power, you are a lawmaker, a policy maker, at any level of government, this needs to be a top priority.

Francella:

Because the more that we can infuse conversations, vocabulary, solutions, be able to socialize ideas around how do we fix this, it stops being something that is reserved for a very small pocket of people who are making decisions that affects the masses. I think that when I walk into a meeting in DC, and maybe we’re talking about people who are putting in comments on a policy, very rarely … Let’s just say we’re talking about a policy that affects low income consumers, very rarely do you have any low-income consumers at the table. Very rarely has anyone had any sort of meaningful engagement with the people who might be affected by these policies.

Francella:

I think that if we start involving people who can actually give real insights on how do we solve this, making sure that if we’re saying, “It’s going to take community buy-in and community partnerships to increase adoption. Who’s going to need to be a part of that?” Well, local leaders, so when we’re talking about it, we can’t work around that. When we’re talking about what are the things that we can do to improve certain policies, let’s talk to people who are actually going to be impacted, instead of assuming that the small enclave of people who are making decisions are the ones who know all of it.

Investing in Broadband Access – Not Just Money

Francella:

We need to get the nuances of the story, we need to get new ideas, we need to start thinking about new ways to actually invest resources that aren’t just financial. Sometimes we get lost in the dollars and cents of this, when some parts of it are going to be about partnerships, and actually getting people to commit their time. Because even once we get people the actual nuts and bolts, the wiring into their neighborhood, we’re also going to need to get past those adoption obstacles. And finding out, what are the barriers there? Why might some communities be reticent, distrustful, concerned?

Francella:

Then, we need to get past that, and get to, where can we find tools? Where can we refurbish tools, or get them from other agencies, or companies that have other equipment to spare? And then, we need to get to the digital literacy piece, and that’s going to take partnership. There are lots of parts of this, where people can actually be a part of the solution. What worries me is that if we keep talking about it as this lofty issue that can’t be solved, it remains an issue that, seemingly, cannot be solved.

Craig:

You mentioned digital literacy and that’s an extremely important part of the conversation. How do we redefine digital literacy?

Francella:

We need to reimagine the definition of that word. Digital literacy is not just about being able to actually get online. How do I turn on my laptop, how do I create an email account, or do the bare minimum? We need people to actually be able to participate, to contribute, to actually be a member of a digital ecosystem.

Francella:

Some people are happy with the minimum – they can get online to bank or use their social media account and occasionally connect with a few people from high school, that might be adequate. But, what we need to really think about is are we creating, as we’re thinking about how it ties into education, and rebuilding our workforce, and creating new economic opportunities, we can’t just have people who are consumers online, we have to build the next generation of creators. That’s going to take them not only being aware of the digital ecosphere, but them actually being fluent in the language.

Francella:

That extends to not only what they’re contributing, but also how do they navigate curating their profiles? What do they need to be aware of when it comes to privacy considerations? Because these are profiles that will live on in perpetuity. So really thinking about changing our dialogue, around what is digital literacy, because it is much more expansive than when people were talking about it 10 years ago.

Craig:

I’m curious about the concept of being able to encourage long-term thinking. We tend to just look for the short-term fix, the short-term answer. But what you’ve talked about is very much a long-term solution that’s required. Now is the perfect time to address that. Your perspective?

Broadband Access for All – Long Term Solutions

Francella:

I think a lot about this in regard to when they decided to extend the superhighways. At the time, they weren’t super, they were just highways, and it was originally a plan to make sure that they could get, largely for economic and defense reasons, to make sure that you could connect hard to reach communities to some sort of mainstream pathway. Essentially, back in the ’60s, as they actually started to develop that project, when I think about the did they know how they were going to do it, did they know where the money was going to come from? At the beginning, no, that was just a, “We decided to do it, and we found a way to do get it done.”

Francella:

We’re in a moment like that right here, where we have to find a way to get to hard to reach communities, we’re going to have to find a way to make sure that we’re talking about this as an economic issue that it is. I also think that it’s important for us to know that we’re not all going to agree on how we do it, but we all have to agree that it needs to be done. Very often, the people who aren’t sure that it needs to be done are already connected to those superhighways. If they’re going to be an obstacle, or going to be in the way, that means that we need to find a way to elevate the voices of the people that are still in those unserved and underserved areas, that need a voice.

Francella:

We need to find a way to train them to run their own networks if providers don’t want to go there. We need to make sure that people actually have a starting point when they want to look for resources. What do I do if we’re in our community, we’ve been trying to get connected, and we’re unable to do so? How do they make that an issue for maybe their state government, and elevate it if they’re not getting the answers at the local level? How do we create pathways for ongoing engagement for people who might not be cloaked in an organization, but are really concerned about this issue? There are so many ways that we can take steps forward, but we need to all agree that it’s time to take the step forward.

Francella:

When I look at this, it’s also as an economic issue and it adds a layer of urgency, where we can see there’s a cost if we keep talking about it as someone else’s problem. We’re all going to pay a collective cost when we have a certain percentage of our workforce that isn’t able to get back to work, when we have large percentages of students who aren’t going to have a competitive education, there is a collective cost embedded in that.

Francella:

So if you’re not sure about the human impact side of this, then maybe we need to think about the economic side of it for us, because one way or the other, whether you’re online or you’re locked out of digital opportunities, we all pay something.

Expanding Broadband Access – Elevating the Voices

Craig:

You make reference to a couple of very important phrases. “Elevating the voices, expanding the tribe.” How close do you think we are to that tipping? So that magical moment when the concepts become social behavior, that brings about the growth and the expansion of broadband as it needs to be. How close are we to that?

Francella:

I actually think that we are in a really beautiful moment right now, where people feel like they actually do have a voice in this issue, that there are eyes and ears that are watching, and listening, that they can change hearts and minds, even if it’s just in their community. To say, “I don’t know the language, I don’t know the policies, but what I know is that I want our kids to be able to compete. I want to make sure that we can connect with people who are stuck in isolation for as long as this pandemic looms.” I think that we’re in this place where we have a really beautiful moment, to actually deputize new people into this conversation. Give them the actual information, the resources that they need, to actually create movement, because I do think that we can create groundswells in communities that Washington, DC has been resistant to embrace.

Francella:

But what worries me, is that we are going to get to that moment where people go back to laugh again, and get outside again, and then this won’t hurt, and it won’t sting as bad, and that we forget about the people who still are locked out of digital opportunities. And while I appreciate the generosity of companies that have been able to create a short term solution, these short term solutions are not lasting, there is an expiration date, and people are going to have to reckon with broadband bills as they’re thinking about how to pay for food, and shelter. We are going to have to think about what does 2021 look like, when these deals have expired, then what?

Francella:

If we’re not really thinking about that, what does 2021 look like, are we going to have this same conversation in 2030? Are we doing the work? I think that’s one opportunity that we have right now, that I’m not sure that the stars would align in any other way, more so than they have right now, at this moment.

Craig:

I love the phrase that you used, “deputizing people into the conversation”, that is so apropos, because that’s what it’s going to take, across the board, regardless of where you are or what you’re involved with, to be in the conversation.

Municipal Broadband Communities and Digital Inclusion

Craig:

We’ve focused a lot on the challenges that are very much reality today, with regard to broadband. But, the flip side of that conversation, Francella, is that Next Century Cities has been extremely successful in working with a number of municipalities, organizations all across the country. And, you probably have some examples of things that have gone well, with municipalities that have embraced broadband. Any that you could share with us?

Francella:

I want to focus on the past few weeks where we have had opportunities to circle up with communities who, essentially, are able to say, “We’re glad that we’ve been doing the digital inclusion and digital adoption work. We’re glad that we’ve been elevating certain conversations.”

Francella:

It warms my heart when we specifically had a member who was in Jacksonville, Illinois, and that person who was really wanting to make this a central issue for their city council reached out. And we were able to connect them with another city in Illinois, that has actually already been through that process. When we talk to some cities, especially like when I spoke to the mayor in Mount Vernon, Washington, and she actually stated explicitly, “We would not have been able to get through this period, continue government operations, without our broadband network.”

Francella:

When we think about things like that, there are success stories, there are ways for us to get this right. But there are also a lot of people that are still struggling with this, and who really want answers. Specifically, one that comes to mind, when we were speaking to one of the officers in Oxnard, California, he eloquently stated that, “If we don’t come up with solutions, we will not economically survive.” So, really thinking about how this impacts a municipality, especially municipalities that are dealing with lost revenue, finding ways to make sure that students can stay in some semblance of their normal education programs, and things like that, getting people back to work, this issue is real for them, every single week.

Broadband Access is the Fourth Utility

Francella:

Sometimes, that gets lost in the mix, because for some lawmakers or policy makers, they have long lists of work to do. But for people who are disconnected, this is the first and last thought of their day.

Francella:

Yesterday, I was on a program and it was hard for me to hear a policy maker actually say that they did not believe that this was as important as other necessities, like food and water. What worries me, is when those types of ideas get traction, the people that they resonate with, and the people that are putting those things onto, and really giving them oxygen, are all connected. So, when we have meetings with local officials that are really worried about this, they take these personal stories home with them, and really are thinking of ways, how do we problem solve this? For them, this is not something that they can run away from, they can’t just log on and get relief.

Francella:

I think that I never want us to forget about the human impact side because, quite frankly, what moves policy in Washington are your numbers, the data, the economics of it. But, when we leave Washington, DC, the human impact side, that is real, and things that the local officials cannot run from, because that’s their reality every day. So while there are several examples of how this is going well in several cities, and there are different models about how it can go well, I always want to remind the people that we work with at every level of government, this is urgent, and we need solutions now.

Learn More

Craig:

You have a phenomenal team in place at Next Century Cities. For those who might want to learn more about your organization and what you do, what would be the best way for them to make contact?

Francella:

Please check out our website, nextcenturycities.org. You’ll see, especially when you dropdown under blog entries, you’ll see a lot of information about recent work that we’re doing, things that are important. We also share our newsletter, the next one comes out on June 3rd, so those come out on a biweekly basis. We’re constantly putting updates, and also featuring stories from different municipalities across the country. Most recently, we featured Hanover, New Hampshire, and that is a really important story about an unserved or underserved community, that is looking for answers. We also feature solutions. So most recently, we featured a partnership in Santa Monica, so there are lots of examples there. We are always interested in your ideas, and especially for local officials that are looking for a platform, we create those as well.

Other Passions – Spin and Jambalaya

Craig:

As we wind down our conversation, I would remiss if I didn’t talk about a couple of your passions. I know you are an avid cyclist and that you appreciate jambalaya.  How have you been able to stay active on the bike during the last couple of months?

Francella:

That is a great question, no one’s asked me about that. Although lots of people in DC have been to my spin class, most people don’t know that spin is one of my side passions.  For the past 10 years, I have actually taught at the YMCA. That is my contribution back to my community.  It is a place where, when I go into my spin class, I can just get lost in a great playlist and check out.  I feel like, in a spin studio, you leave all your worries outside of the walls and you just have to be your best, just for that hour.

Francella:

In terms of cycling outside, COVID has been difficult. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been very strict about the stay at home orders, so I usually walk a little.   I wasn’t sure about cycling but I am going out this weekend and I do have a road bike.

Francella:

In terms of jambalaya, there’s nobody who makes better jambalaya on the planet than my youngest brother. I actually think he should have had a restaurant just called Jambalaya. It reminds me of everything beautiful about home.

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