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Broadband's Impact

The Broadband State of the Union? Obama Touts Apple- and Microsoft-Funded eRate Initiative in Address

Drew Clark

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WASHINGTON, January 29, 2014 – President Obama highlighted the importance of broadband connectivity in his State of the Union address Tuesday, and announced that Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon were contributing funds to enable ultra-high-speed broadband connections “over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.”

The statement appears to be a reference to ConnectED, the White House and Federal Communications Commission initiative announced in June 2013 to update the eRate component for enhancing broadband spending under the Universal Service Fund.

The FCC has been overhauling portions of the USF in recent years, and the effort to tackle to the eRate components addresses an important component not yet addressed by the agency.

When Obama announced the ConnectED initiative at Mooresville Middle School in North Carolina in June, he said:

Today, the average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though obviously there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home. Only around 20 percent of our students have access to true high-speed Internet in their classroom. By comparison, South Korea has 100 percent of its kids with high-speed Internet. We’ve got 20 percent; South Korea 100 percent. In countries where — in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools? Right? Why wouldn’t we have it available for our children’s education?

At the time, Obama called on the FCC to use the existing eRate program to direct the government to provide the necessary technology and training for teachers to use it and urge the communities to support the program.

One month later, the agency’s acting chairwoman took the first steps to implement the initiative.

And in a blog post from last Friday, January 24, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler began to articulate the motivation behind the administration and the FCC’s approach to ConnectED/eRate changes. Wheeler wrote:

It isn’t enough to simply emphasize the need for more broadband; the focus has to be on what high-speed Internet connections enable, whether in fully connected classrooms or after school in a library. We must lead the world in this effort. I am firmly committed to meeting the goal of connecting 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband within five years.

The fact of the matter is that we have moved from the era of “computers in the classroom” where a few PCs sat along the wall for occasional use to “computers on the desks” where students interact on an ongoing basis to not only learn their lessons, but also to acquire the computer literacy skills necessary for 21st Century careers.

That would suggest that the new version of the eRate is going to be about much more than broadband connectivity – it will be about digital literacy training through the sort of programs that have attracted the interest of computer makers like Microsoft and Apple.

In Tuesday night’s speech, Obama referenced the eRate as follows:

Last year, I also pledged to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.

Immediately following the speech, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler released the following statement:

Harnessing the power of digital technology is central to improving our education system and our global competitiveness. In the Internet age, every student in America should have access to state-of-the-art educational tools, which are increasingly interactive, individualized and bandwidth-intensive. The Federal Communications Commission shares the President’s commitment to seizing the opportunities of digital learning, which is why we’ve already launched an effort to modernize our successful E-Rate program – the nation’s largest education technology program. By applying business-like management practices to E-Rate, we can take steps this year that will make existing funds go farther to significantly increase our investment in high-speed broadband connectivity for schools and libraries for the benefit of our students and teachers. Together, with my fellow Commissioners, Congress, educators and other stakeholders, we can ensure that all of America’s students get a 21st-century education.

My former colleague, Chloe Albanesius, now at PC Mag, has these responses from Apple and Verizon:

“We are proud to join President Obama in this historic initiative to transform America’s schools. Apple has a long history in education, and we have pledged to contribute MacBooks, iPads, software and our expertise to support the ConnectED project. We look forward to announcing more details with the White House soon,” Apple said.

A Verizon spokesman, meanwhile, said that “we share the President’s vision for broadband as a transformative technology for educators and students, and in the coming weeks, we look forward to discussing how Verizon can help ensure America’s teachers and students have the tools and skills to succeed in this 21st century information economy.”

Drew Clark is Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund, and wireless spectrum policy at http://twitter.com/broadbandcensus. Nationally recognized for his knowledge on telecommunications law and policy, Clark brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband: job creation, telemedicine, online learning, public safety, the smart grid, eGovernment, and family connectedness. Clark is also available on Google+ and Twitter.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Broadband's Impact

Multilingual Digital Navigators Crucial For Inclusion

Digital liaisons who speak multiple languages can help guide multilingual communities for the digital future.

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from the Net Inclusion webinar

April 19, 2021 – Encouraging multilingualism among digital navigators will help facilitate better inclusion in digital adoption, experts said last week.

Speaking Spanish is a huge plus for digital navigators in Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, as many of its focused neighborhoods needing to be connected to broadband speak the language,  said Shauna McNiven Edson, digital inclusion coordinator at Salt Lake City Public Library.

Edson and other panelists spoke last Wednesday at the 2021 Net Inclusion Webinar Series hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a digital inclusion advocacy group on what skills are needed to become a digital navigator.

At the Salt Lake City Public Library, progress is there but challenges persist for digital inclusion and navigation. Edson said there were about 450 participants in its library program’s group for digital inclusion. However, only about 5 percent of participants, or 22 people, have adequate broadband at home. Seventy-five percent of members said they needed help finding a computer or internet-enabled deice, and 10 percent of its 450 members have contacted the library’s support staff for It issues.

Digital navigators are crucial because they connect community members with the skills and resources they need to become digitally literate and help them get adequate broadband. Navigators can be volunteers or cross-trained staff who already work in social service agencies, libraries, health, and more who offer remote and socially distant in-person guidance. 

Compared to the rest of the country, Salt Lake City is highly connected, said Edson. Every community has a unique demographic make-up, and if the communities who need access to broadband mostly speak Spanish or English or even Mandarin, there should be community anchors with highly trained digital navigators to help the underconnected.

Andrew Au, director of operations at Digital Charlotte, said digital inclusion should include adult education. Every library and public institution that offers internet services should have digital navigators available and onsite to guide individuals in their communities and offer continuing education resources to keep digital skills literacy up, he said.

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Broadband's Impact

Mentorship Instrumental To Women Involvement in Telecom Industry

Experts advise mentorship and encouragement to get more women in the industry.

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Mitsuko Herrera, center, via Montgomery County, Maryland

April 19, 2021 – A group of women were asked to rate gender equality in their workplace on a scale of 1-10. Their average score? About a four. The solution? More mentorship early in their lives.

The women, experts in network companies, spoke at the event, “Women in Broadband: Achieving zero barriers,” hosted by fiber network company Render Networks last Wednesday.

Kari Kump, director of network services at Mammoth Networks, said that in the broadband industry, she rates it a four, and in government jobs, a bit higher at five. Kump said she sees lots of women in marketing positions and non-technical managerial positions that “may oversee tech.” She said the worst gender equality in her view is at the construction site, where women “pay the bills” in the office rather than being out on site.

What’s causing gender inequality? The problem starts long before the job interview. Mitsuko Herrera, from planning and special projects for Montgomery County, said in her current work, only 2 out of 25 colleagues are women.

“The opportunity may be there, but we don’t see a lot of qualified women in the industry,” she said. Even before they reach college, women and girls need to have opportunities for engagement across various industries. Having mentors at an early age would greatly increase women participation and influence at work. In the workspace, praising women privately is just as important as praising them publicly, said Herrera. Women need to know they are supported at all times with all people.

Having better representation at the table is crucial because diverse perspectives affect industry and society for the better, said Laura Smith, vice president of people and culture at Biarri Networks. “The groups making decisions should reflect society,” she said.

And even if there is diversity, it’s not enough to have women at work for diversity’s sake—you also need to listen to that diversity and not ignore it.

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Broadband's Impact

Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say

Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.

The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.

Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.

“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”

He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.

For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.

Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.

Partnering with anchor institutions

Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.

“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.

“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”

Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.

High cost challenges

“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.

In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.

Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”

For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.

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