Skip to main content

Transcript for Did Pandemic Response Funding Help American Connect in a Crisis

Terry Gerton:    Well, hi everybody. I'm Terry Gerton, I'm the president of the National Academy of Public Administration and I'm delighted to welcome you to our third joint event with the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. This forum today will be focused on the question, did the pandemic response funding help Americans connect in a crisis? Our previous events focused on the impact of the pandemic response programs on underserved communities and the impact of housing and rental assistance programs on underserved communities.
    And we'll post the links to both of those prior events in the chat so that you can go back and catch up on them. But we're delighted that you're joining us today. And we're excited to be planning more of these forums with the PRAC in 2022 as we continue to examine these important topics. So now I'm going to turn it over to Lisa to introduce the PRAC and today's discussion. Thanks.

Lisa Reijula:    Thank you so much, Terry. Hi everyone. I'm Lisa Reijula, associate director of outreach and engagement at the PRAC, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. We were created by Congress in the CARES Act to protect pandemic relief money from fraud, waste and abuse and to let the public and policy makers know whether the money reached those it was intended to help, which brings us here today.
    And we're happy to partner with NAPA to raise awareness of how pandemic relief programs have impacted historically underserved communities. As Terry said, this is the third event in our joint series. And today we're taking a look at how effectively efforts like the Emergency Broadband Benefit program are connecting communities to the internet. As we all know, having reliable home internet became more important than ever during the pandemic as work, education, and even our healthcare shifted online.
    So did relief funding help narrow our existing digital divide and what lessons can we learn to help us be prepared and connected in the next crisis? We have an amazing group of panelists to help answer those questions. They've each done extensive work in this area across think tanks, nonprofits, and local government and we're very grateful for their time today.
    I'm also excited that the PRAC is contributing to this conversation through our data stories blog, our website features a new interactive map that shows the number of households enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, as well as other interesting data points. So I encourage you to head on over to pandemicoversight.gov to learn more. Thank you for tuning in today, and let me turn it over to Joe Mitchell of NAPA who is the moderator for today's event.

Joe Mitchell:    Great, welcome everyone and welcome to our panelists. We have a great group of panelists today who on the issue of broadband access and the digital divide who are going to talk to us a little bit, kind of help us set the stage on this issue, assess program design and performance and also offer some recommendations for the future. I have lots of questions for the panel and could certainly talk with them for more than an hour, but want to make sure that you have plenty of time as the audience to ask your questions too.
    So we'll ask that you put your questions in the chat or the Q&A function whenever you think of them and we'll get through as many of those as possible over the course of the conversation. So we want to make sure that this is as interactive as possible. So to get us started, I'd like to call our panel members to the stage and going to ask each person to just briefly introduce themselves, in particular thinking about what should the listeners today know about you and especially what got you interested in Broadband access, the digital divide and what you're doing to promote it. So Kathryn de Wit, I'd like to ask that you come forward first and introduce yourself.

Kathryn de Wit:    Sounds great. And thank you so much for having me. And yeah so I'm Kathryn de Wit. I'm the project director for the broadband access initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts. I've been working in broadband for just over eight years now. My background is actually in economic and community development, although I probably can't really say that anymore because I've been doing this for longer.
    And I got into broadband actually after I finished my masters of public administration at the University of Pittsburgh. I got a job with Booz Allen Hamilton in DC helping to administer recovery act funds. And my project lead said, "Oh, you can write, you do things in local communities and economic development, go work on broadband." And I said, "I don't really understand how the internet works." And they were like, "You'll figure it out."
    So that kind of fortuitous trial by fire ended up opening a whole new career field for me. So my team right now, I've been at Pew for about four years, my team is looking at how states have responded to the digital divide. We are working right now with almost half of states on preparing to implement federal funds, so standing up new programs and expanding the footprint of their existing initiatives. And of course, we're Pew so we'll continue to do research on the effectiveness of public spending in the years to come.
Joe Mitchell:    Well, Kathryn, great. So glad that you're joining us today. And the way you got into the digital divide sounds to me like how people get into public administration in general. So it's always an interesting path that brings us here. So thank you very much, look forward to your contributions today. So Mr. Evan Feinman.

Evan Feinman:    Thank you very much. I'm Evan Feinman. I have two roles in Virginia. The first is I'm the executive director of the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. It's an economic development agency focused on growing and diversifying the economy of rural Virginia and I had that job for a couple of years. And one of the key barriers that we identified in deploying funds and trying to attract businesses and population to the region was the lack of broadband availability.
    And so we set aside right around $20 million and began investing in last mile broadband connectivity and learned a lot. And so then when the next governor came in, the current governor, Governor Northam, he asked me to take on a second role as the governor's chief broadband advisor. And in that role, we scoped the problem, we built a team and then scoped the problem, developed a plan to reach universal broadband coverage initially by 2010.
    We've since cut that down by 2010... In 10 years by 2028, we've since cut that down to 2024. And we just had an extremely big day on Monday. We announced that we were making around 722 million in additional broadband investments which will reach universal coverage in 70 of Virginia's counties. That's going to close about 90% of the digital divide that existed when governor Northam's administration began four years ago, and it's going to lead to connectivity for around 278,000 homes and businesses across Virginia.
    And so we think we're one of the states that's leading the way on broadband connectivity in Virginia. We're going to be in a situation where nearly every Virginian has a fiber to the home connection again by 2024. And we're excited to share our progress and then work with others to take the next steps to go from good to great or great to extraordinary depending on how you want to characterize it. So thank you for having me.

Joe Mitchell:    We look forward to hearing more about it. That sounds like a lot of progress. And I do have to say that you're the first of two Evans, as with a name like Joe, I'm used to there being multiple Joes. So I'll have to figure out a way to distinguish you for my two Evans. Around here I'm Joe M because there are so many Joes. But anyway, we'll figure that out over the course of the conversation. So thank you. We have Dr. Dominique Harrison. We'd like to ask you to tell us a little bit more about yourself and what got you interested in this topic.

Dr. Dominique Harrison:    Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to be here and I'm so excited to be on this panel to talk about this important topic. As Joe mentioned, I'm Dr. Dominique Harrison. I am formally the director of technology policy at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. While there, one of the tenets of the program that I oversaw focused on broadband. And I published a report entitled Affordability & Availability: Expanding Broadband in the Black Rural South which focused on 152 counties that have populations that are 35% or more African American across 10 states in the rural south.
    So really proud about the work that was done there in spotlighting that important community. I really got into this work because I completed my dissertation on broadband issues, but in the context, in the international community focusing on Jamaica and ensuring that stakeholders knew and understood the challenges that women and girls would face in their access to internet and computers.
    My other role that I occupy outside of work is that I'm chair of the digital empowerment and inclusion working group at the FCC Communications, Equity and Diversity Council. So really excited about that work. Just came off of our initial meeting today where we were talking about, Angela was there as well, she's a working group member, we were talking about getting together some model policies to ensure that there's no digital redlining occurring.
    So really excited about that work and excited to really help the FCC implement some important practices and policies that ensures that everyone is able to get access to broadband regardless of zip code, age or color. So happy to be here, thanks.

Joe Mitchell:    Thank you. So it sounds like you're doing great work in that area and we look forward to hearing more about it over the course of the conversation. Thank you, thank you. So our second Evan, Mr. Evan Marwell, I'd like for you to tell us a little bit about yourself.

Evan Marwell:    Great. And you can just call me Evan M, and that should be easy for you.
Joe Mitchell:    [crosstalk].

Evan Marwell:    Good morning, everybody, or good afternoon. I'm Evan Marwell. I'm the founder and chief executive officer of EducationSuperHighway. We are a nonprofit that I founded back in 2012. Our original mission was to close the digital divide in America's K-12 schools. When we began work in 2012, only 10% of the schools in America actually had broadband that was good enough for students and teachers to use technology in the classroom.
    Over the course of seven years, we closed that from 10% to 99.6% of classrooms being connected. And we were actually ready to sunset the organization in 2020 when the pandemic hit. And so we're still around because when the pandemic hit, 50 million students got sent home, 15 million of them or more did not have internet access, and therefore didn't have a seat in the classroom.
    So we started getting calls from all the constituents that we had worked with historically to close the school broadband gap, whether it was governors' offices, superintendents, policy makers in DC, and pivoted the organization to then work on how do we connect those 15 million kids. Over the next eight months, 3 million of those students, and made a decision that the home broadband issue was still too important to go away. And so we've relaunched the organization with a new mission, which is to close the digital divide for the 18 million households that have access to the internet but can't afford to connect.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, I'm so glad that you have stayed in business. It's definitely something that's needed. We've certainly seen that over the course of the pandemic with kids in school. So thank you. And our last panelist is Angela Siefer.

Angela Siefer:    Hi. I'm Angela Siefer with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, I'm the founder and executive director. I got into this work during undergrad so 25 years ago, which seems insane to even say out loud. So I was setting up a coalition in Toledo around these issues, which back then we called community technology and was setting up labs, things like that and then about seven years ago, founded NDIA.
    Because there wasn't an entity that was representing digital inclusion programs around the country, so that's what we do. The folks that are on the ground that are teaching digital literacy, helping their neighbors get signed up for the low cost offers or now the EBB and finding devices or refurbishing devices, their voice was missing when federal policy was being made. So we're now that place where they share, there's a lot of peer to peer networking going on, a lot of best practices being handed from one to another.
    But then also NDIA hears what's being said, and we take those learnings, that expertise from the ground to the policy makers. And so we are way excited about the infrastructure act, way excited that the EEB has been extended into the affordable connectivity program. And there has been a lot of lessons during the pandemic because so many more folks have been involved in this work. So I think having this conversation with this group is really fabulous. Thank you.

Joe Mitchell:    Well, great. We're so happy to have you here. So I think as our audience can see, we have a great group. So I always like for people to introduce themselves, I feel like they can do a much better job and tell you a lot more about themselves than I can. So I think it's great. So I'd like to call everybody to the stage and we're going to spend just a little bit of time kind of setting the scene here. And the first thing is with Evan M, so Evan Marwell, if you could tell us a little bit kind of about where really are we today and the state of broadband access across the country. Where are we? What's the current-

Evan Marwell:    Yeah. So if you look at the available data from the Census Bureau today, there are roughly 28 million households in America, so roughly 25% of the house households in America that do not have internet access. That represents almost 80 million people, which is really a stunning number in 2021. If you break that 28 million households down, about 3 million of those households say they don't want the internet. So that leaves us with about 25.
    And despite the historical narrative, which has been that the digital divide is really about building infrastructure into places where it isn't, the kind of work that Evan has been focused on in Virginia to make sure that every household has access, it turns out that two thirds of the digital divide of those 25 million households are households that have internet in their neighborhood or at their front door, but just simply can't afford to connect.
    So affordability because of the investments that have been made by states and by the federal government over the last couple of decades, affordability is now really the primary issue inhibiting people from getting on the internet. There are still 7 million households without any infrastructure available to them, but there are 18 million that have internet available but can't afford it.
    And so one of the questions that this panel I think is meant to address is how did the work of the pandemic relief funds impact this? And I think what we've seen is a couple of things. So some of the early dollars that came out with the CARES Acts had a significant impact on specific populations, namely students. There was a tremendous effort by school districts and others to get students connected. And schools were able to use, as I mentioned before, some of those dollars to connect about 3 million people in the first eight months of the pandemic, 3 million students and their families.
    But when we look at things like the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which the mission of was to actually make sure that people did not lose their internet connections first and foremost, what we see is that they've done an okay job of that. We had about 20% adoption of the Emergency Broadband Benefit out of the eligible high households, which is consistent with historical adoption rates of federal broadband subsidy programs, but clearly not very good.
    And the other thing to know about the EBB is it primarily went to people who already had broadband services. When you look at the reporting by the FCC, what you can deduce is that probably less than half a million of the folks who signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit were people that did not have broadband before the start of the pandemic.
    So I think one of the major questions going forward is as we transition from the EEB to the ACP, which Congress has made clear is really about connecting the unconnected, the Affordable Connectivity Program, how do we make sure that it actually accomplishes that as opposed to simply supporting people who already have internet access in their homes? And so I think that is the landscape. And states and cities have a critical role to play here and we're looking forward to working with everyone on this panel and states and cities across the nation to help people figure out where to focus.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, thank you for kind of that landscape view. So 28 million households not having internet largely because of affordability, not the lack of infrastructure, that's fascinating. That's contrary to a lot of the conventional wisdom. So I wanted to ask Kathryn, if you could tell us a little bit more. Evan mentioned some stuff around the federal dollars and programs, but Kathryn, if you could talk to us in a little bit more detail about those federal dollars and programs and where the funding went and where is the future funding expected to go?

Kathryn de Wit:    Sure. Thanks, Joe. So let's talk briefly about the funds that were available specifically for broadband in response to the pandemic. I make that distinction because broadband was an eligible use in several other sources of funding, but I'm focusing my remarks on four sources, CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Bill and of course, the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which was part of the December, 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act.
    Let's start with CARES. To date, states have spent about $1.1 billion on broadband expansion from the CARES Act itself. And we saw trends in spending really coalesce across a few specific categories. First is in digital learning. So not only devices and subscriptions to ensure that students could stay online, but helping make sure that institutions of education K through 12 and higher ed and other institutions of education had the connectivity and infrastructure in order to actually stay connected and deliver digital learning.
    Same thing with telehealth. States also spent funds on telehealth. So that is getting clinicians and patients connected to apps, text messaging, telehealth devices and also ensuring that healthcare institutions again had connectivity. We heard a lot about public access, public wifi at libraries. Many states used CARES Act funds to support those public access points, both by deploying those wifi in public spaces and by having things like hotspots and other devices that households could rent.
    Finally, we saw states also spending CARES Act dollars on last mile connectivity. And that includes both the build out of last mile network so that's the part of the network that connects residents and businesses. One of the interesting points that I'll come back to in a minute is how states were also using these funds for line extensions. So when we talk about last mile, connecting a home, connecting a small business, we really are talking about bringing that wire in front of the premise.
    And Evan touched on this briefly a few minutes ago. Those line extensions, which actually takes that connection all the way over the threshold and into the house can be really expensive and cost prohibitive for families. So we did see a few states actually use funds to support and defray the cost of those line extensions. For the American Rescue Plan Act, as of November, about half of states had designated about $5 billion in those funds for broadband.
    And when you're looking at these sources of funding, particularly as you review state budgets, it's important to note whether the sources of funds that states are allocating are coming from the state and local fiscal recovery fund or the capital project fund so two separate sources of funding. And so I recommend that you look at that not only so you can track dollars, but that also you can look at the funding requirements associated with both sources of funds.
    Again, we see here states are using it to expand their existing programs, funding last mile deployment. Some of them are also using it to address issues in middle mile connectivity like in California, others are using it again, to continue line extensions, these line extension programs, Virginia is one of them. And other states like Colorado and Washington are using these funds for digital equity initiatives, which brings us to the dollars to states.
    This is for states to lead programs that will address the availability, affordability and usage of broadband itself. So I'm not going to speculate on what those funds will look like because we have a few months until we find all of that out, but we should get guidance on that funding by early summer. And it's also a reminder to everybody too, that that notice of funding opportunity is really just going to kickstart a multi-month planning process that will be critically important not only to understanding the strategy by which states will outline spending their funds, but how we also measure impact over time.
    And my team is getting ready to publish some research on how state plans already address this and where we've seen this be effectively used in programs to date. So I'm happy to take questions on that. I am going to turn the mic over to Angela Siefer to cover the equity issues or the equity aspects of the IIJA and the Emergency Broadband Benefit. But before I do, I do want to make three quick points on what we've learned so far.
    First, we have an affordable access problem. So there is an issue with the availability of connectivity across the country. How states have appropriated dollars over the last two years, not only in federal funds, but in their own state dollars shows us that there's a problem there with the availability of connections. Second, it's really important to entrust states and locals and to empower them with authority to address this problem because we are talking about a very, very localized issue.
    That said, federal funding requirements are critical. Set the guardrails, set the minimum. Finally, and we'll all touch on this in various ways throughout this discussion, remember that we are building for the future. This is not just about connectivity that's needed for the next two years or three or four years, we are really thinking about and have the funds available now to be building networks that are going to be useful 10, 15, 20 years in the future.
    And thinking about all of connectivity approach for communities, how are we really building connectivity initiatives and plans that will ensure economic opportunity and improve quality of life for everyone there? So with that, Angela, I'll turn it over to you.

Angela Siefer:    Thank you, Kathryn. So super quick, the digital equity portion of the IIJA or Infrastructure Act, the biggest piece in it is the Digital Equity Act. So the act itself was a standalone bill and it basically copy pasted and through it in here. And what it gets at is that we need to make sure that we're covered, folks don't understand how to use the internet, that digital literacy, digital skills piece, that it needs to come from the community. The problem has to be solved at the local level, that we can address the device piece of it because that's part of the whole problem.
    And then helping people sign up for these subsidized offers. That is proved to be a huge barrier, understanding what's available. Do you trust the government to give you something for free? Right? Do you trust an internet service provider? Right? They might charge me $70 next month so I don't know about that. So this really comes down to who's supporting the work at the local level and do we trust them.
    So that Digital Equity Act money inside the Infrastructure Act is really essential to that. And it very much ties to the fact that the Emergency Broadband Benefit was extended and the name changed to the Affordable Connectivity Program. Some of the rules changed too, I know, and nothing can be too simple, right? But the fact that we do have this broadband subsidy is super important.
    And then the fact that we have also the Digital Equity Act money is also super important. And those two things connect because we can make good use of those subsidy funds. Last point is inside what folks are calling BEAD, so those are deployment monies. Inside BEAD is a requirement that those who receive those deployment funds have an affordable option. That is not something we've really seen before. Only a couple states have headed down that path previously.
    The federal government had not been down that path before. So the fact that when the federal government invests in this incredible infrastructure that more folks need, that they're not just investing for those who have financial resources because that's pretty much what's happened in the past. So that's a big shift in how we think about who has access to it and it addresses that affordability issue in a very head on kind of way. Joe?

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Thank you so much for that great or overview of the federal dollars and programs, both in terms of what has actually already gone out and then the proposal. So Angela, I'd like to continue talking with you and I'd also like to talk to Dominique about the kind of different challenges that underserved communities are facing trying to get broadband access during a pandemic. So Angela, I think you were already moving in that direction so I'll ask you and then also ask Dominique to address the same question.

Angela Siefer:    I was yes. And Evan is completely right, that the primary big barrier in all of this is the cost of the internet. But then when you get into actually doing this and I think we all learn this very deeply during the pandemic, we can't just cover the cost of it, it's more complicated than that. The folks don't trust. Sure, free internet. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Tell me another one. There's lots of reasons for somebody to say no to what you just offered them.
    So the trust issues of where the message is coming from and how the message is delivered, but then also the related issues of digital literacy device, what am I going to do with an internet connection and if I don't have a device to use it with, that all of those are connected and that we need that holistic kind of response. One of the solutions that we saw develop organically around the country is this idea of a digital navigator.
    And folks call it different terms, this is just a term that has stuck around the longest, but it's the idea that there's someone at a trusted institution who's leading local folks through, okay, what is it that you need? Is it the internet service themselves in your home? Is yours unstable? Because often there is service, but it is unstable. A mobile phone, not a long term solution. The device, which device do you have? You have a phone, but you really need a laptop or you have a tablet, but you really need something else? Right? So what is it that someone needs to accomplish their goals.
    And then that digital literacy, where do you find that support from? And so knowing who in town provides that digital literacy training. And then that last piece is I have this thing I need help with right now. I need somebody to help me sign up for these unemployment benefits because I'm about to throw this current device in front of me out the window. And so that is like a very urgent kind of need and who's doing that in our communities?
    And so what happened during the pandemic was this kind of an idea sprouted up around the country in very much an organic kind of way because we didn't really have that in the past. You had some libraries that provided kind of, but it wasn't a program that was really laid out as doing all of these things or maybe they just covered digital literacy or they just covered device help. But this is finally where we're recognizing the need to have people who know all the resources in town around digital access. Dominique?

Joe Mitchell:    Dominique, yes. You've done a lot of research in this area.

Dr. Dominique Harrison:    Yeah, absolutely. And much has already been said, but what I will add is that for communities of color, the primary barriers as has been said before to broad access are availability and affordability. And this was especially true when examining broadband in the black rural south. And so these barriers exist for people in both metropolitan and rural areas.
    And for us, while I was at the Joint Center, what was important to complete this research is because broadband discussions rarely give attention to the unique challenges of black and brown communities of rural areas. High speed broadband is not available to some households because the service has not been deployed in that geographic area by an ISP or in areas where high speed broadband infrastructure is available, some low income households lack access because the service is not affordable.
    So during the pandemic, as Angela has stated, these challenges were exacerbated, especially for communities who had inadequate broadband speeds in their communities, or for many people who lost their jobs and needed to work from home. And even for folks who may have wanted to work from home or children who needed to do school online, many people lacked devices that would enable them to use broadband services.
    So as with what folks have been saying, these are just some of the challenges that were experienced by many Americans. And I look forward to talking a little bit more kind of about the unique situation of other aspects of the programs that need to be addressed to ensure that more Americans get signed up.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, so I did want to continue the conversation with you just to kick us off in terms of our program design and performance conversation. So we've identified a lot of the challenges, we've identified kind of what some of the federal dollars and programs are designed to do but in your research, what are you finding in terms of how the pandemic relief programs that were created are actually performing and are they effectively connecting underserved communities?

Dr. Dominique Harrison:    Yeah, absolutely. So great question. I mean, I think that research and data are so important because they inform how we create our program, develop our policies or goals and then the outcomes that we want to achieve. So so far the data has shown that enrollment has grown steadily in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. By the end of June of this year, 3.1 million households had enrolled, a figure that rose to 7.4 million by the beginning of November. So that's an increase of about 158%.
    Some analysis by John Horgan also shows that this growth is not evenly distributed across states. So for example, South Florida, Detroit, Chicago and New York City have all seen very strong growth in enrollment since June as opposed to other states around the country. At the same time, the general pattern of enrollment indicates that places most in need of the program, that is people with low home broadband adoption rates have the highest rates of households signing up for the benefit.
    So that's a good thing. That means that the benefit is reaching people in the places that have the most people in need. One of the biggest challenges though in connecting communities to these programs is outreach. Some survey research conducted in Philadelphia by John Horgan has shown that 13% of respondents had heard of the Emergency Broadband Benefit and 31% had...
    So that means that there's a big problem there. That means a lot of do not know about these kinds of internet subsidy programs. And many of them are low income households who need these kinds of services to do the kind of work and school in order to be able to get the kind of needs that they want or desire. So there needs to be more concerted efforts by cities, localities and states to work with community organizations to increase public awareness of these available discount internet services.
    And much of what Angela says, it's important that folks are working together to ensure that people have the information and the awareness needed to really take advantage of all the monies that are out there. I'd love to hear also more of what other folks on this panel think about the challenges that we're facing in these programs.

Joe Mitchell:    Yeah, great. Thank you. So are any other thoughts in terms of just kind of the program design and performance, the challenges, how these programs are performing.

Angela Siefer:    One of the biggest challenges of the EBB/ACP, the Broadband Benefit, we should probably just start calling it that, is that outreach piece that Dominique mentioned. And so the FCC right now has an opportunity to invest in local outreach and NDIA is a big fan of that idea. As has already been discussed, the necessity of the folks on the ground, being able to help someone get connected and understand how to sign up and how does long as it last and figuring out which plan is the best, that's often a human doing that. So for all of us to think about out what the human side of this is, the technology is essential, right? But in order to get folks being able to use that technology, there's a human involved.

Evan Marwell:    And the other thing I would add yeah is beyond awareness, beyond trust, there's actually also just a challenge for people to sign up, right? So it starts with the primary mode of signing up for the Broadband Benefit is over the internet and yet we're talking about people who don't have internet access, right? So there are paper forms and things like that, but there's a recent GAO study that shows two thirds of the people who try to use the paper form never make it to the finish line.
    So one thing that we think is particularly critical in addition to helping local organizations do the outreach, trusted organizations do the outreach, is figuring out how to support people and actually making their way through the process. And again, the FCC has an opportunity to allow other organizations, nonprofits, local, city governments, community based organizations to not just help people learn about the program, but actually walk them through the process and help them sign up whether in person or over the phone.
    And we think that that is going to be absolutely critical if we want to improve adoption, especially for the people who are not connected today, who don't have access to the internet. And if we enable those folks, there's actually a really good model for this. The IRS for over 50 years has had a program called the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program targeted at exactly the same people, the same target audiences as the Broadband Benefit that has about 300 organizations across the country that provide free income tax preparation services for almost 4 million people a year.
    The IRS funds the program with grants to these 300 organizations, mostly again, nonprofits, educational organizations and local government organizations. And they offer a virtual option where people don't have to actually come into a center to get the help. So there are great models out there and cities and states and the federal government needs to look to those models to really help with this challenge as well.

Evan Feinman:    Well, and just to build on that, Evan, in addition to being incredibly well named, brings up a really good point, which is that we need to do a better job supporting people in taking advantage of these funds. And the model that we're pursuing in Virginia is actually one that's well trod ground in other service provision settings, which is actually letting departments of social services which are currently coordinating the flows of federal dollars in a wide variety of other areas to households, be the receiver or coordinator of fund distribution to eligible households and then ultimately be the payer of the benefit to the ISPs.
    And the two reasons we think that could be really effective are one, it takes the burden off of... You're not even just coordinating, ultimately we'd like to do it for low income households because they got more than enough on their plates right now just keeping things on the rails. And then the second is by allowing an aggregator like a department of social services to do this work, you can then entice internet service providers to provide service at a reduced rate, perhaps one that would be entirely covered by the federal benefits. So there's no additional subsidy needed. We're in the very early days of that so far, but the model certainly pencils out. We'll have to see how it responds to engaging with actual implementation.

Joe Mitchell:    Well, great. Well, Evan, that's a great segue because I was going to ask you to talk a little bit more about kind of the factors that have affected states' abilities to use the funds effectively and in particular, your experience in Virginia in designing state level programs.

Evan Feinman:    Happy to. I mean, as you heard earlier, there are two sides to the digital divide. There's the question of infrastructure access and then there's the question of affordability and digital literacy. We decided to take on as our first step, the question of infrastructure access for a couple of reasons. One, it doesn't matter how digitally illiterate or financially stable a household is for the hundreds of thousands of Virginia households that had no infrastructure, they could not get online until that problem was solved.
    The second is that frankly, it's the easier policy question to attack. It's hard and complicated to try to solve questions of digital literacy and affordability. We know how to build infrastructure, what we needed was more political will. And so by building a really broad coalition around this idea that it's an economic necessity, it's a political demand and it's frankly a moral and ethical obligation to make sure that all those who don't have access to the internet are brought into the standard of living that the rest of Virginia and that the rest of America enjoys.
    We set about devoting hundreds of millions of state general fund dollars and more than 700 million of our ARPA funds to closing the digital divide. And so we're very optimistic that we're going to get that done. We believe ahead of any other large state in the union, all due respect to our colleagues in Delaware and Rhode Island, they might have had a somewhat easier challenge than those of us with a little more challenging topography and scale.
    The next step for us having gotten these major construction projects underway is turning our attention to that question of digital literacy and affordability. And we're really anxious to try to generate both a really strong subsidy model with our department of social services and also use forthcoming bipartisan infrastructure bill funds to build purpose built networks within our denser areas.
    So you think about the two populations we're dealing with. We've got some folks for whom we had to subsidize a single network. We're certainly not going to build a second network for low income folks where it didn't make economic sense to build one at all, absent government subsidy. So there we're going to have to pursue a subsidy model, at least for the near to medium term. But in our denser areas, purpose built affordability networks can be a really powerful tool.
    Using the CARES Act in Virginia in 2020, we were able to pursue six different models for which worked to actually see if we could get service to low income folks. And we learned a lot, both from the two models that didn't work and the four that did. But in Portsmouth, Virginia, for example, we in partnership with the local government, were able to fund a fiber to the home model for over a thousand public housing units, that's at no charge.
    The residents of those public housing units, they've got gigabit service, they just plug in a router or plug in their device and they're online. Similarly, in Hopewell, Virginia and Martinsville, Virginia, two former industrial towns, both of whom still hanging on and muddling through, we've built publicly accessible wifi that's throughout their downtown areas. And we're working to see if we can build on those models in the future in some of our larger urban areas.
    We'd love to see Richmond, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Spotsylvania and Northern Virginia localities like Arlington and Fairfax, really investing in networks that K-12 students and that low and moderate income families will be able to access at low or no charge to them. And this ought not be perceived as terribly threatening to incumbent providers. These are by and large, not people who are taking service, as you've heard on their networks.
    This is not going to be something that's going to create a business problem for them, but they are tremendously apprehensive at any mention of publicly owned networks. And so I think we've got to get into a place where we're comfortable talking about that conceptually and there's enough political will to devote these funds to building out some of those networks and making sure that everybody gets to take advantage of the digital opportunities that are afforded to the rest of us.

Evan Marwell:    If I could just add one thing. So one of the interesting things in the infrastructure bill when it comes to talking about these purpose built affordability networks, is that Congress specifically included funding for installing wifi networks, free our low cost wifi networks in low income apartment buildings. And it's a critical opportunity because as Evan's saying, if you look at the density, probably 20 to 25% of the unconnected households... in apartment buildings or public housing.
    So it is a tremendous opportunity. And what as Evan says, the challenges that the providers historically have not really wanted any of these kinds of public networks. But what I will point out is that Verizon recently moved a little bit off that position. And when they introduced their own proposals for affordability, one of the things that they talked about was that maybe there is a place in certain instances for publicly owned and managed networks.
    And I think what Evan's talking about is exactly the right place. If you focus on the areas where they don't have a lot of adoption, they'll be much more willing to play ball in those places because someone's still got to provide the back all.

Joe Mitchell:    I was going to say there's got to still be a role for them. And so obviously we're using a lot of different models and I certainly think Virginia is a good kind of test case, given the size of the state and the topography, the different geographies. So we will definitely be watching that space and appreciate you sharing your experiences. So Evan M, I did want to get a sense from you and then our other Evan about the kind of data that the federal government is collecting. So what do we know, what don't we know in terms of the data that's out there, that the federal government is collecting?

Evan Marwell:    Data is a huge problem. It turns out that historically we've been relying on Federal Communications Commission maps that count one address in a census block being served as the entire census block being served. And so there's now broad agreement that those maps don't work. So in response to that, the federal government passed the Broadband Data Act to create a whole new set of maps.
    And they're basing the distribution of funds from the Infrastructure Act on those maps. Unfortunately, those maps are nowhere to be seen yet. And they awarded a grant or a contract to first as a first step develop what they call the address fabric, which is what are all the broadband serviceable locations in the US and then that contract award was promptly challenged by a losing bidder.
    So one of the things we are really nervous about is that a lot of the distribution of these funds are really going to get delayed by the fact that these maps are not available yet. And even though Congress gave the FCC a mandate for having them available quickly, the reality is they're not going to be available quickly. And so I think that's one thing that we're very concerned about.
    The other thing though, is that we also need a second kind of mapping, which is what I'll call for lack of a better term, adoption mapping. Who does, and does not have broadband internet? Because one of the things as we talk about outreach to unconnected households in particular, industry has shown us and many other government programs have shown us, general marketing campaigns only get you so far.
    Building awareness only gets you so far. And you really need to be able to target unconnected households with direct outreach to those households. So we need adoption mapping on top of infrastructure mapping to be you able to actually get the job done and close the digital divide.

Joe Mitchell:    Got it. Very good insights about the data, about the maps. Evan, any additional comments on that topic?

Evan Feinman:    Yeah, I think there's two really important things. The first is that we have been using a model in Virginia. Well, I'll start by saying it would be great to have really good data. It's excellent that the federal government is moving toward creation of strong maps. And I completely agree with Evan that we need to see adoption rates as well. I mean, it should be transparent who's taking service and who's not. In the same way, it should be transparent where there's network and where there's not.
    But one of the things that stymied progress here for years before our team took over, and I think stymies progress in other states is the belief that's perfectly reasonable upon first hearing that you need to have a good map and you need to have good data before you can start solving the infrastructure problem. And the simple fact is that's not true.
    If you come to the problem with a bias toward action, you know that you're going to have... you're going to deal with tens or hundreds of thousands of locations that need connecting. So you can start connecting them and then design your networks as you go. The second is by using what we've called a challenge process, you can design a network that covers an area that's larger than the area that you think is necessarily going to need to be filled out and then invite incumbent providers to prove to you in the context of an NDA where their network is and isn't.
    And once they prove that they're... you want to cover a wide area, they say, "All right, I'm serving this portion of it." You can excise that from the publicly subsidized portion of the network that you're constructing and thereby build right up to the edge of it and ensure that you're connecting all the folks that are not currently connected to infrastructure. And so one of the things that really worries me is when we correctly and necessarily talk about the data issues, if you don't follow up with that point, it can be heard by decision makers as a reason to delay action or expenditure of funds and it needn't be.

Kathryn de Wit:    If I can add to Evan's point on the data and usage, I think it's important as we think about data collection in the coming months to think about two things. First is what are we actually using this data for? Is it informing our understanding of where connections are or not? Is it to inform actual decisions on how funds will be spent?
    And so subsequently state and local leaders should not only be looking at what information the FCC is collecting, but channeling that into their own data collection methodologies. But they do need to be paying attention to what the FCC is doing for all the reasons we outlined and also because there is a challenge process built in for states and locals to submit challenges to the data that the FCC will be releasing.
    So as we're thinking about... This is one of the sticky things that we're all going to be watching and that we're working with states on right now, is how can they balance really thinking about what their individual states and localities need against candidly, some fairly ambiguous information right now about what federal leaders will want to know, what information they'll have at hand. And so it's a little bit of a balancing act at this point. But looking at that challenge process and how states and locals will engage in that will be really important to understanding the distribution of funds.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. So thank you. So it sounds like the maps are important, the data's important, we need that, but at the same time, we do want to have a bias to action. So I appreciate hearing about, especially what's being done in Virginia. I think that's really good. So we do have a question from the audience. And so as audience members have questions, please send them in, I will work those in.
    But it sounds like... So what we're talking about, we're talking about networks, we're talking about partnerships. Are there additional partnerships that you think the government should be making with private companies or nonprofits? Are there additional opportunities there? And I would just throw that out to anybody.

Angela Siefer:    So I'll offer that we really see the value of folks at the local level of getting together and figuring out what are your assets, who's already teaching digital literacy? Is anybody providing computers? Who understands EBB and ACP? Who are the organizations that are trusted by the communities that are not connected? And could they scale up, could they start doing digital inclusion work, even if they're not doing it now? And what are your gaps? What's the data say?
    It's not perfect, but there's a little bit out there that you can use to get started. You could also use the numbers of folks that have signed up for EEB for either zip code data on that. You can also look at data from the school district, as much as they're willing to share that on what they did during the pandemic when they needed to provide some services because a lot of them know closer than we know about non-school kids. Oh, who's connected and who's not?
    So that kind of figuring out what's going on, those partnerships are essential because when the Infrastructure Act money starts becoming real, the first thing that's going to happen is going to be planning done. And if that locality often led by the local government, this is just what this is the reality of what's happening out there. If they know what they have and what they don't have, then they're going to be able to have that discussion with the state and it's going to be a little smoother, it's going to be faster and the state's not going to have to do as much of that leg work themselves. They're going to be like, "Sweet. You did some of this for us. Here's your chunk of the money."

Joe Mitchell:    So you're going to get your funds sooner if you know what's happening on the ground right now, and that requires partnerships. Other thoughts in terms of additional partnerships that would be useful in this area.

Evan Marwell:    Well, one thing that I'll add is, so we've now developed a program in partnership with 130, well, more than 130 ISPs, including all the large ISPs that allows school districts right now and we're beginning to expand this to communities more broadly to figure out which of their students and ultimately, which of their households do and don't have internet access.
    And essentially what school districts do, and we've had about 4 million students go through the program so far, is they provide address data of their student households anonymously and under NDA and then we facilitate an exchange of that data with these service providers who come back and tell us for each household, are they already a customer of somebody? If not, could they be served by someone or is nobody able to serve them?
    And so this is the kind of data partnership that I think we're going to need to get that adoption data, but also can really help both school districts and then hopefully in the not too distant future, communities at large, figure out who's unconnected. The other thing I'll say is that the Affordable Connectivity Program being made more permanent, it's not permanent, it's funding that's expected the last four or five years, really creates a new business opportunity for internet service providers, which is an affordable connectivity segment at a third...
    Probably a 7 or $8 billion a year business opportunity for them. And so I think there are partnerships that can emerge between ISPs and all the groups we've been talking about to really get the ISPs to turn their energies towards helping find and enroll and sign up these households.

Evan Feinman:    An associated thing about partnerships that I think is really important. One of the things that we did here is even though we were in the executive branch and we had a majority of the governor's party in both chambers of our legislature, we ran our entire broadband program at least in part as if it were an advocacy campaign. We built a coalition outside of government of around 140 different organizations.
    So folks you'd expect, the tech companies, the ISPs, but also our associations of cities and counties, nonprofit advocates, the veterans association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the PTA, the education association, all these folks. And that became an incredibly important piece of leverage at every single decision point. We wound up deploying our own coalition within our own building to try to make sure things were moving forward, as well as with decision makers.
    There's only so much not just in the way of financial research sources, but attention that can be allocated across any different legislative session or executive term. And if you don't rally the rest of society around the idea of the digital connectivity is an absolute necessity at this point, it just goes on the list. It doesn't rise to the top.

Joe Mitchell:    Got it. Good. So I wanted to get into some recommendations. We've got about 15 more minutes here for our conversation. So Dominique, I'd like to get you to help frame this for us in terms of what are the lessons learned on outreach to communities and what are some effective practices for future programs?

Dr. Dominique Harrison:    Yeah, absolutely. So just as Evan was just saying, Evan F, community leaders need to invest in funds for outreach, public awareness and advertising. If you think about it, these folks need to be inundated with messaging and information about where they can go find resources and how. And what research has show that outreach from trust institutions, such as local public libraries or HBCUs, churches, and other organizations in the community might help some households pursue discount internet offers.
    I'll also say that research is very important as we have stated on this panel. Leaders need to understand who in their community is underserved, that is people who do not have adequate broadband speeds and those who are unserved. So those are folks who do not have broadband at all. And of course, then we need to answer the why to this question as well. This kind of research must be done both by qualitative and quantitative methods to really get at the information that is needed to understand the problem from which we are trying to solve for.
    And lastly, I'll say is that leaders need to tailor their strategies to meet specific needs of their communities, right? Older adults may have special needs for digital skills training, low income residents may need assistance in finding programs for affordable internet plans or computing devices and non-native speakers may not be able to access already available information online. So it's important to gather as much information as you can in order to make the best kinds of goals and outcomes that you seek to achieve.
Joe Mitchell:    Great, and great insights. Thank you. Angela, do you have other thoughts based on your work in this area?

Angela Siefer:    So we're seeing high value from coalitions. The places that have figured out how to work together, San Antonio is a great example. They've had a coalition for years and the city got really engaged in the city led creation of a digital equity plan for San Antonio. And so they have different sections, right? There's the devices and digital literacy and they have big dollar amounts attached to those.
    And they know who's doing the work and that's really important. And so I think as this moves forward, we need more folks to figure out how to create those partnerships. And in some places, it might be a couple of organizations get together and they form that partnership and they figure out what they're going to do but in as many places as we can, having these stronger coalitions that are made up of all the different folks that are impacted by digital equity and then also those that are doing that digital equity work.
    Because it's also there's also that advocacy piece of it. I think it's important to think about the fact, not only do we need those organizations and partnerships to do the work, but we need them to explain to policy makers at the state level, what it is that they need so that those funds get allocated in a way that has the greatest impact.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. So Evan F, any other thoughts that you have based on your work in Virginia in terms of effective practices, lessons learned for outreach?

Evan Feinman:    I mean, the coalition work's really important. I think you've got to rally people around. I would say all three ways in which we made the argument. I touched on them briefly before, but I'll do it again. There are hard-nosed people who want to take the green eye shade economic approach, there is a winning argument for access and affordability expenditure on just economic rate of return.
    There are people who are very sensitive to the needs of communities. Well, for communities that don't have the ability to get online, this is their top priority. And if you're going to be a good and responsive elected official or leader, you need to be responsive to what people want. And then there are people who believe that we have a moral obligation to do what we can in society and there are really strong, moral, and ethical pushes toward this, whether it comes to the downside risk for kids, for the elderly, for our veterans community.
    The ills of disconnection accrue most strongly to the most vulnerable in our population. And so it's really, really, really important that people understand that this is not a luxury at this point, it's not just so people can watch Netflix. This goes to people's livelihood, it goes to people's health and it goes to the fundamental connectedness of our society person to person. And this is something that we should take seriously in the same way people took seriously rural electrification.

Joe Mitchell:    It's modern day rural electrification. Well, great. So as we're wrapping up here, I wanted to ask each of you, challenge you, you've got no more than three recommendations to make to policymakers, so make them count. What would you recommend that policy makers do? No more than three. And Kathryn, I'll start with you.

Kathryn de Wit:    Thanks, Joe. So first and foremost, keep it simple. We found in our research time and again that providers, particularly those who don't have a lot of liquidity appreciated the simple application processes through communication on funding requirements and accountability measures that states were bringing forward.
    So to the extent that lawmakers are able to, especially if they want to incentivize the growth of either smaller, non-traditional providers, keep the funding requirements and the application guidelines simple. Beyond that, I think there's not really much that I can add to what everybody else has covered today. I think though, the final thing that I would note is that really think about the goals of these funds.
    This is again, not about the short term idea of trying to get folks online for today tomorrow. Think about the ways that broadband connections, that skills, affordable access devices are really going to open up opportunities for communities and people across the country. We're talking about industry and transformation change, economic mobility. So structure those funding requirements and the way that we evaluate programs, the way that we assess opportunity around those big goals. So back over to you, Joe.

Joe Mitchell:    Great, definitely. And keep it simple, I think is one of the number one lessons for policy implementation across all of our domains. I think back to grad school, [Aaron Wadowski], [inaudible] economic development administration, number one lesson. Evan Feinman, what recommendations would you have to policy makers?

Evan Feinman:    Sure. The first is, and we haven't talked about this today, but the first is bring everybody to the table. One of the key leverage points in Virginia was bringing our electric service providers, both our investor owned utilities and our electric cooperatives really strongly into the mix. That's really important. They own the poles, they've already run one wire to everybody's house. It's less daunting for them as a prospect.
    The second is don't reinvent the wheel steal, steal, steal from other states, from other offices, from other models. On the affordability side, I promise you, there are nonprofit navigators and state social service offices that are already providing services analogous to this. Don't reinvent that wheel, do what you need to do. And then the third thing is really work with building out a strong stakeholder community and invest in people.
    We grew our broadband office staff early, and that gave us the ability to then ask more from local governments and ISPs because we had the technical expertise in-house and at no cost to them to support them as they got more ambitious. And as I said, I think we're a long way down the road and we're really excited to finish the job.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, thank you. Dominique, your thoughts.

Dr. Dominique Harrison:   So first I would say as leaders tailor their programs to the needs and challenges of their community, ensure that you are employing equitable and inclusive services in programs, have mechanisms in place that account for the process, systems, goals and outcomes in reaching targeted communities. The National League of Cities just came out with a digital equity playbook that city leaders can use to bridge the digital divide.
    So there are a lot of resources out there that can help you in making sure that equity is at the center of any kind of implementation, which gets to my second point in the need to apply a racial equity lens to the policies and programs that you develop in order to prioritize communities that are historically and consistently excluded from access to resources. That is going to be very important as these kind of digital equity plans become amended into communities, ensuring that the right people get access to the resources.
    And lastly, connect with local community organizations and anchor institutions like HBCUs which I continue to champion. HBCUs have a unique relationship with their surrounding communities who are often African American. And HBCUs can provide technical expertise, research and resources needed to develop the kind of policies and programs to address the challenges you are trying to solve for. So thank you.

Joe Mitchell:    Great insights. Thank you so much. Evan Marwell.

Evan Marwell:    So a couple of things that are really reflections of what we've talked about in the panel. Number one, start taking action now. Don't wait. I mean the money's not going to come for a little while as we heard, but you need to start taking action now. And the three things that I would highlight in terms of taking action now, one, get the word out about the Affordable Connectivity Program. That program is already available, people can sign up now.
    Two, make sure that you start identifying who the people are in your community that can be part of this coalition. That's going to take some work, but you can get started doing it now. And three, start taking inventory. And so of what you have and what you need and so on and so on because as other people have said, if you can be the one who's funneling that information up to the state, then you can be the one who's going to get first shot at the money. So that's number one, start taking action.
    Number two, focus on these, as Evan called them, these purpose built affordability networks. There is money to put broadband in low income apartment buildings, free broadband. It is a humongous opportunity. We think that there are over four and a half million households across America that are unconnected that could be connected in that way. And that means starting by figuring out which are the apartment buildings that you should do that in.
    And then the last thing I would say is start thinking about your outreach strategies. There are good models out there for how people have done outreach, both in partnership with community based organizations, but also by doing things like setting up call centers and things like that to do outreach. So Clark County, Nevada, the school district connected 80% of their unconnected households by having a call center that reached out to all of them and helped them sign up. So those would be my three suggestions.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Thank you. And Angela, your three suggestions.

Angela Siefer:    I have lots so I'll just limit it to the three.

Joe Mitchell:    I know. I'm making people [inaudible] only three, it's hard.

Angela Siefer:    No, I know. I appreciate at the challenge. The first one is that I'm going to direct these to three different kinds of policy makers. The first one would be NDIA. I got to keep my hands down because then my screen goes blurry. That's my mother's fault. So in the Infrastructure Act, there is planning that needs to happen for deployment and for digital equity. Let's merge that planning process, and as Dominique has reminded us, that equity has to be front and center.
    So let's have that equity starting from the beginning of the planning process for rural or urban, tribal, suburban, everybody from the beginning. And that would happen through the planning process. And then the second would be that the policy makers at the federal level in Congress, that they devote a specific fund for devices. That did not happen in all of this. There was a possibility and then it didn't.
    So right now, the place where devices can come from are the emergency connectivity fund or the Digital Equity Act and it's not going to be enough. One of the data points when we were working with the Salt Lake City Public Library and their Digital Navigator was that most people calling in, they wanted a computer. Like the computer is so valuable, there's no other place to get a computer. And if you're a student, that's one thing, but if you're not a student, you don't have any other options. So that device piece is important.
    And then the last one I'm going to direct to local and state folks is to find your local experts. There's somebody who's already doing digital equity work. Who is that that's already doing digital equity work in your town or in your state? Find them and utilize their expertise.

Joe Mitchell:    Great. Well, thank you and thanks to everyone. This was a rate panel. So obviously a very critical issue around the digital access and the digital divide, especially in the midst of the pandemic. I mean, it's even more important. I mean, it's a matter of life and death and our livelihood. And I really appreciate all of your practical suggestions. There a lot of commonalities around kind of getting ahead of this, planning, equity, partnerships and really keeping this as simple as possible.
    So I want to thank you all for your time. And thanks again to the audience for participating and sending in your questions. And to the PRAC, we really appreciate this partnership and we hope to have additional sessions on other topics with regard to the COVID Relief Fund. So please check us out online, napawash.org, and we will be announcing future sessions on our website. So thank you all for participating today. And we really, really enjoyed it. Thank you.

For more information visit the Event page for Did Pandemic Response Funding Help Americans Connect in a Crisis?

Thank you for your feedback!
Would you tell us more? Feedback
Was this page helpful?