Connect with us

Broadband's Impact

Running USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Isn’t Andy Berke’s First Act in Broadband

Almost all of Berke’s work seems to be about making a difference for higher-quality broadband.



Photo of Andy Berke by Drew Clark

The time to close the digital divide is now, says Andy BerkeAnd, as the newly appointed administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, he’s poised to do so. Berke is unique in that he’s served in local, state, and federal government. Multiple entities, even!

To fans of connectivity, almost all of Berke’s work seems to be about making a difference for higher-quality broadband. Most notably, he was the two-term mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and helped build the Gigabit City’s brand for top-notch and top-speed internet.

You won’t want to miss the Ask Me Anything! with him hosted by Jase Wilson on Friday, November 11, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET. Administrator Berke will share his thoughts on the future of RUS, rural broadband, federal funding efforts, and much more. And in honor of Veterans Day, he and Wilson will  discuss the importance of broadband to those who have served our country.

In his Stanford element

A native Chattanoogan, Berke left his hometown to attend Stanford University as an undergraduate. He thrived in the community of Stanford, according to a retrospective in the Stanford Daily. He tutored kids in the low-income area of East Palo Alto from his first week on campus. He worked in student government, ran the speakers’ bureau, and had such a broad involvement on campus that the newspaper’s editors invited him to become opinions editor. He even met and married his wife while at Stanford.

Berke went on to earn his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. After returning to his native Tennessee, he joined his family’s law firm, Berke, Berke, and Berke.

Building the Gigabit City in his hometown

In 2007 and 2008, Berke won back-to-back elections for the Tennessee State Senate. He gained a reputation as an energetic senator, garnering recognition from such organizations as the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, the Tennessee Education Association, and Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice.

Berke next set his sights on Chattanooga’s mayoralty. He was elected in 2013 with 72 percent of the vote. His first move was to reorganize the city government, cutting waste and saving tax dollars. He also oversaw drops in violent crime and unemployment.

Then-Mayor Berke made headlines in the broadband industry for his work promoting municipal broadband and digital equity. The EPB in Chattanooga, formerly known as the Electric Power Board, had in 2010 made Chattanooga a Gigabit city – the nation’s first – with a fiber-to-the-home deployment initiated on the basis of “smart grid” deployments for electric infrastructure. By 2015, available speeds reached 10 Gigabits per second.

Berke used a “Tech Goes Home” program to provide digital-literacy training to students and seniors and helped them purchase devices. Chattanooga also ensured that in-need families had access to high-quality, low-cost internet service.

“The system has proven an unqualified success,” Berke wrote in a 2021 article for the American Prospect, co-authored with Jonathan Gruber. “Over half of the homes and businesses in the service area are signed up with ‘The Gig.’”

Mr. Berke goes to Washington

In January 2022, after his second term as mayor, Berke became a special representative for broadband at the National Telecommunications and Information Agency. Then in October, President Joe Biden tapped Berke to head RUS.

Administrator Berke’s goal is to show communities that getting connected is a truly feasible and beneficial option. “Chattanooga saw tremendous economic benefits and quality-of-life benefits from our broadband service,” he said in a brief interview. “It’s not just about the connection, it’s about what the infrastructure does for you as a community.”

What’s more, Berke brings an understanding of what it’s like to implement, operate, and get community buy-in for networks, a trait uncommon in much of Washington. With his experience at the NTIA, Berke said he believes he will be better able to navigate the complexities of the federal government’s multiagency broadband-funding schemes.

Extensive governmental experience with broadband

In the end, Berke said every federal agency is working together towards the same goal of getting broadband to the Americans who need. But unlike the NTIA, which is still planning for the rollout of its flagship Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the RUS is ready to “connect people today,” Berke argued.

“We need to ensure that there’s confidence, reliability, and trust in what we’re doing so that communities can use this infrastructure to empower rural Americans to live a better life,” Berke said.

Come armed with questions for the upcoming Ask Me Anything! With Andy Berke on Friday, November 11, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET. With Berke poised to be a major player in shaping our nation’s broadband policy going forward, and you won’t want to miss his answers and insights.

This piece was originally posted on on November 9, 2022


Digital Learning is Here to Stay, Necessitating Multi-Sector Collaboration: Connected America Conference

The pandemic heightened the urgency of closing the digital divide, but several barriers remain.



Photo of panelists at Connected America 2023

DALLAS, March 29, 2023 — As technology continues to play a growing role in education, successful efforts at closing the digital divide will require collaboration between schools, government agencies, community organizations and the private sector, according to industry experts at the Connected America conference on Tuesday.

Lack of digital access has short-term impacts on students’ grades and test scores, as well as compounding long-term effects on their ability to succeed in the workforce — and these impacts are particularly significant for students of color, explained Ji Soo Song, digital equity advisor for the U.S. Department of Education.

The pandemic left millions of students struggling to participate in remote classes, heightening the urgency of closing the digital divide.

“In Texas alone, it was 34 percent of students that did not have full internet access,” said Tonjia Grimble, founder and CEO of STEM It Up Sports. “That’s about 1.8 million students.”

Although schools have largely returned to in-person learning, the pandemic “opened a door that can’t be closed again” in terms of technology’s role in education, said Jennifer Berkner, education lead strategist at AT&T’s FirstNet.

This shift enables a new realm of learning opportunities, but it also presents challenges for both students and educators, panelists agreed.

“Affordability is still the main barrier to access,” said Francisco Gallegos, digital inclusion program manager for the Dallas Innovation Alliance.

For some schools, their actual physical infrastructure poses a problem. “You have schools that are built in concrete — you can’t get service through concrete,” Grimble said. “If their structure itself is not sound, then they’re not going to be able to get what you’re trying to get them… More of our states need to start thinking about improving that infrastructure.”

Song pointed to a September 2022 report, stemming from the Department of Education’s Digital Equity Education Roundtables initiative, that detailed existing barriers and potential solutions for increasing digital access. Among other recommendations, the report advised that community leaders should develop public trust by partnering with a broad range of local entities, including educational institutions, internet service providers, nonprofit organizations and more.

“The education sector needs to be in collaboration with the broadband sector as the digital equity plans are developed, because we can’t have siloed solutions,” Song said. Many states have already announced opportunities for community members to contribute to the digital equity planning process, he added.

In addition to the digital equity funding established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Song highlighted a variety of other government funding programs that can be layered to support digital learning. A “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Office of Educational Technology in January provided guidance for maximizing this range of federal funding.

Private companies can also play a role in narrowing the digital divide, said Garner Duncan, vice president of sales for Ezee Fiber. Noting the longevity of fiber, Duncan advocated for service providers to focus on a longer-term return on investment in order to better support digital education infrastructure.

“We have returns that we have to make, but we need to be less rigid,” he said.

Continue Reading

Broadband's Impact

Lindsay Mark Lewis: As Inflation Spiked, Broadband is ‘The Dog That Didn’t Bark’

Why have internet prices remained constant while demand surges? It all boils down to investment.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Lindsay Mark Lewis, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute.

There are many lessons to be learned from last year’s midterms, but Democrats should not take the results as some broad endorsement of the economic status quo. Midterm voters identified inflation as the most important issue driving their votes. And while the latest Labor Department data shows the producer price index decreasing by 0.1% in February, prices remain 4.6% higher than a year ago, which means lawmakers still have work to do to bring inflation under control.

And as they search for ideas, they may want to examine the dog that didn’t bark – in particular, the one sector of the economy that has been an interesting counternarrative to the otherwise troubling inflation story.

Home internet service is one of the few major living costs that isn’t skyrocketing. In fact, the most popular broadband speed tier one year ago actually costs 15% less today, on average.

This success story – and the bipartisan policies behind it – offers important lessons.

Remarkably, broadband prices are declining even as demand surges. The pandemic made home internet service more essential than ever for education, job opportunities and health care – all driving internet traffic 25% to 50% above pre-pandemic levels.

So why have internet prices remained constant – even declined by some measures – while demand surges? In short, it all boils down to investment.

When the pandemic cratered economic activity in the spring of 2020, executives in many industries – from lumber to oil refineries to computer chips – made the snap decision to pull back on long-term investments in new factories and manufacturing capacity. When the economy roared back, those industries couldn’t meet demand, sending prices soaring.

In the broadband industry, conversely, providers responded by investing $86 billion into their network infrastructure in 2021 – the biggest one-year total in nearly 20 years. These investments are fueling faster speeds – fixed broadband speeds are up 35% nationwide in the past 12 months – while making sure networks have the capacity to handle growing traffic needs.

This teaches us three things.

First, we should observe a Hippocratic oath and “do no harm.” America’s broadband system has thrived under a decades long bipartisan consensus for light-touch, pro-investment policies. Nearly $2 trillion in private capital built the networks that now deliver American consumers higher speeds at lower per-megabit prices than consumers enjoy in Europe, despite having to cover greater distances and more difficult terrain.

This further tells us that it’s precisely the wrong time to abandon this successful model in favor of price controls and utility-style regulation, as some House and Senate progressives have proposed. Even Democratic policy experts acknowledge that approach would be toxic for private investment.

Second, policymakers need to recognize that broadband isn’t immune from the supply chain crunches plaguing so many other sectors of the economy. Broadband buildouts are already getting delayed by shortages in fiber cable, network hardware and skilled labor. And that’s before $42 billion in federal infrastructure funding goes out the door starting next year, which will only intensify demand for these scarce supplies.

That means rural buildout projects funded by federal dollars are likely to see inflationary pressures – and take longer to complete – than Congress expected when it passed the infrastructure bill in 2021. That will put pressure on state broadband offices to be even more diligent about waste, and to emphasize reliable supply chains with experienced network builders. Bidders will also need the flexibility to buy fiber from wherever they can manage to source it, even if that means relaxing the program’s strict “Buy American” rules. This requires a regulator ability to do smart tweaking of rules to expedite buildouts cost-effectively.

Third, we need to help more financially struggling households get connected. Thanks to President Joe Biden’s Affordable Connectivity Program – and an agreement with 20 broadband companies – 48 million households can now get home internet service for free.

But more than a year later, just over a third of eligible households have signed up. Investing in enrollment campaigns and digital literacy training programs is the fastest way we can crank up the dial on enrollment. Relatively small investments here could pay huge dividends in bringing millions more Americans into the digital economy.

Even with these remaining challenges, the overall contours of American broadband policy – encouraging investment, competition and affordability – are working well. And as the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In an inflation-roiled economy that defies easy answers, we should learn from – not mess with – this all-too-rare success story.

Lindsay Mark Lewis is executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute. Contact him at This piece was originally published in the Richmond Times on March 24, 2023, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Broadband's Impact

Josephine Bernson: The Customer Experience is About More Than Fiber

‘Listen to the customer’ is a fundamental pillar in gaining a satisfied customer.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Josephine Bernson, Chief Revenue Officer at Great Plains Communications.

Customer experience and the digital customer experience are what makes businesses today stand apart from competitors. In our connected world, it means delivering products and services via high-speed internet, provided by a network that’s reliable and scalable according to rising bandwidth demand.

Yet, we must keep in mind the other component of a first-rate customer experience: customer service excellence.

Customer service excellence, from the beginning

How does a fiber provider successfully work with the customers and the community from the very beginning? And, continue to provide exceptional customer service each day thereafter?

It begins with listening.Listen to the customer” is a fundamental pillar in gaining a satisfied customer, whether it’s meeting with business executives, community leaders or residents. What are they hoping to achieve with their network, short-term and long-term? Any concerns that should be addressed?

Respond with solutions that meet their needs.  Personalization is better than a one-size-fits-all approach. Each customer has different needs and unique bandwidth specifications that should be taken into consideration. For example, the ability to adjust availability to accommodate peak work hours for a financial institution or local government complex or the flexibility needed for a local business that serves an online global market.

Get to know your customers. Focus on getting to know your customers through participating in local events and spending time in the community. Teams that live and work in same community they serve care about providing their neighbors with high-quality products and superior service. Valuable feedback comes from customers who directly interact with local employees immersed in the community.

Timely and convenient customer service options. If there’s a problem, how can customers contact you for a resolution? Does the customer service center or 24/7 operations center always have agents available? Are there easily accessible online resources equipped to handle common questions? Automation is a big trend in CX. While we enjoy our personal relationships with our customers, we also leverage technology for self-service tools. It’s important to enable customers to do business in whichever manner works best for them.

Happy employees for a happy customer experience

Happy employees have long been credited with increased productivity and better service for customers. Great Plains Communications’ culture has always been to attract, train and retain workers from the areas it serves.

Customer service representative Marisa Benham has been with Great Plains Communications for 15 years. “I’ve always been a people person so I really love talking to people! I love helping them figure out what services they want and helping them if they have an issue with their account.”

As for the GPC team itself, she says, “The biggest thing I love about our team is that even though we’re a large company, I feel like we are still trying to get that small company family feel.  I really love that about Great Plains as well.”

For any business to survive for a long period it must continually evolve. Great Plains Communications is a 113-year-old company serving nearly 200 Midwestern communities.  As a leading digital telecommunications leader, our core focus remains the same: customer service excellence. We believe in our high-performing network and high-performing people.

Customer loyalty depends on the customer experience, but it must be earned. It’s more than state-of-the-art technologies. It’s the people behind the innovation. It’s the teams that deliver and support the technology that make all the difference.

Josephine Bernson is the chief revenue officer at Great Plains Communications. This piece is exclusive to BroadbandBreakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Signup for Broadband Breakfast News

Broadband Breakfast Research Partner