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Broadband's Impact

Panelists Clash on Adequacy of Government Web Sites Under Coronavirus Strain

David Jelke

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Photo of Dustin Hailer from his web site

April 20, 2020— U.S. government websites have handled the coronavirus strain with varying degrees of success – depending on which panelist from Wednesday’s Information Technology and Innovation Fund webinar you asked.

ITIF recently published a report on the amount of government websites that have crashed. According to the report, 28 states failed the mobile page load test for sufficient speeds.

Many of these websites that have crashed or been slowed are government unemployment websites that have buckled under the weight of 17 million Americans who have lost their job in the past couple weeks.

“Legacy tech has really been a problem” in government software, said Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer of eRepublic. These websites “were not designed for the CARES Act,” referring to the $2 trillion COVID stimulus package recently passed by Congress.

Government websites, Haisler contends, were designed to be prepared for emergencies but not for a 100 percent remote work-society. Unlike hurricane season, Haisler said, “a lot of people just didn’t see this in the cards.”

The government “has done an incredibly good job from our perspective,” said Brian Anderson, the chief technology officer at NIC Components Corporation, acknowledging that the government is dealing with “an entirely unprecedented” situation.

“The response has been amazing in a time where most of these offices are entirely empty right now or on skeleton crews.”

Anderson commented on the unexpected intensity of the COVID-induced traffic. Government websites are currently experiencing traffic that “we might see in a month but in a matter of hours.” The pandemic will set “a new bar” for how government responds to the demands put on these systems, he said.

Panelists also discussed the outbreaks impact on a long-standing issue in broadband equity. Anderson said that fixing digital divide during the outbreak also happens to “[meet] a need that serves” disconnected parts of the population. “The government still has to overcome that,” Anderson said.

David Jelke was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in neuroscience. Growing up in Miami, he learned to speak Spanish during a study abroad semester in Peru. He is now teaching himself French on his iPhone.

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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