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  • Guest: Charlotte Bewersdorff, Pierrette Renee Widmeye

  • Company: Merit Networ

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

    Craig:

    Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin, thanks so much for joining us today. Oxford’s English dictionary defines digital divide as the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. The digital divide is, and has been, a stark reality for millions across our country. And while the FCC last year reported that 34 million Americans have no access to the internet and that an additional 21 million don’t have what’s classified as high speed internet service, the truth is actually far, far worse. 12 months ago, an analysis by Microsoft found that 162 million Americans don’t have internet, that’s virtually half the US population. Under normal conditions consider the challenge of getting by in a high tech world without internet accessibility. Throw in a global pandemic with nonstop demand for distance learning, tele-health, and a highly remote workforce, and you quickly see the inequity facing one out of every two Americans.

    Craig:

    Thankfully, there are many individuals and organizations, hard at work, bridging the digital divide and closing the home-work gap. Among them, Merit Network. Founded in 1966, and based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Merit Network is the nation’s longest running research and education network. One of the most important and life changing initiatives they’ve undertaken is the Michigan Moonshot, a call to action to bridge the digital divide in the Wolverine state. It is a privilege to welcome two members of the Merit Network team, Vice President of Community Engagement, Charlotte Bewersdorff, and Pierrette Renee Widmeyer, Director of Marketing and Communications. Charlotte, Pierrette, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

    Craig:

    We appreciate your time and are excited to learn more about what is going on with Merit Network and the Michigan Moonshot.  In order to assist our listeners, if you could give a bit of an overview of Merit Network and what you do.

    Charlotte:

    I’ll take that. This is Charlotte Bewersdorff, and as you mentioned, I’m Vice President for Community Engagement with Merit. I’ve been with the organization just under seven years coming up in October. In my operational role, I provide senior leadership to our member engagement team, which is a community advocacy team, located all throughout the state of Michigan and regionally within the communities they serve.  I also lead marketing and communications in a small internal business support unit. In addition to my operational roles, my strategic focus, since 2018, has been to build and operationalize our Michigan Moonshot Initiative, which I’m happy to be here to talk about today. I want to talk about Merit at first just to give a little bit of context to who we are as an organization and how as a research and education network, I think that we are really well positioned to take a state leadership role on solving the digital divide for Michigan communities.

    Charlotte:

    Then I’d like to pivot a little bit and do a deeper dive on a lot of the work that we’ve done around data collection, utilizing the citizen science crowdsourcing methodology that really helps get citizens involved on developing accurate maps for Michigan communities. Pierrette?

    Pierrette:

    My name is Pierrette Widmeyer, and I’m the Director of Marketing and Communications at Merit and my team primarily assists in the development and crowdsourcing of computer resources and community network resources. Our main goal is to help communities, municipalities, interested citizens, and co-ops really get a scope of the level of information they’re going to need to help them plan, build, run, and secure community networks. As we talk a little bit more today about Merit and the Moonshot, you’ll get a broader understanding of the ecosystem that we’re hoping to build between policy and funding, data and mapping and all of these educational resources.

    Pierrette:

    Charlotte mentioned that we’re the longest running research and education network in the US and we’re governed by 12 of the 13 public universities in the state of Michigan. We own and operate more than 4,000 miles of fiber optic infrastructure throughout the state. Through that infrastructure, we deliver network security and community services to other nonprofits, higher education, K-12 and municipal organizations throughout the state of Michigan, in addition to community anchors. We connect a great majority of the higher education institutions in Michigan and we also run the state education network for our K-12s.

    Accurate Broadband Data Collection & Mapping

    Craig:

    You mentioned the number of route miles in the network, and when you look at it on the map, the entire state of Michigan is covered from tip to tip. It is impressive that many of the institutions of higher learning are involved with what’s going on at Merit and that obviously has made a huge difference in the lives of so many in the world of higher education. You referenced earlier, Charlotte, the importance of data collection. And that is of the essence in everything related to the expansion of broadband connectivity, to those who need it the most. There are huge inequities in the federal maps as they exist, versus what reality is. Talk about how the data collection has become such a big part of what’s going on there.

    Charlotte:

    Data collection is one of our primary pillar areas with the Moonshot Initiative and obviously a big challenge which has received a lot of national attention over the last 18 to 24 months at the federal level. There’s a lot of work going on at the FCC and the NTIA to try to address the current mapping mechanisms that essentially determine whether a community is at a census block level are eligible for federal funding. It has a tremendous impact on eligibility for federal dollars, and it’s an obstacle to a lot of local communities. We began our data collection work about 18 to 24 months ago, that started with a formal research project in partnership with MLab and Michigan State University’s Quello Center. We had faculty researchers from Michigan State that were on the project, and this was done under formal research under the IRB at MSU. We partnered with a number of different K-12 organizations at primarily the intermediate school district level throughout the state to work through, about a nine month working group, which was mostly centered around student privacy and some of the challenges that doing data collection in this space brings.

    Charlotte:

    We were able to work through that and inevitably chose three organizations across the state that were geographically diverse to pilot a citizen science crowdsourcing methodology that really gets granular, accurate, and unbiased information at a household level on broadband access and adoption. That was our first project, we did that over the 2018-2019 school year. I can definitely dive deep today on some more about the methodologies and some of the stats involved. That led to a publishing of formal findings this past March and those results are out there and have been cited nationally many, many times. I think the important thing to mention at the top of this is that we were able to isolate the impact of broadband on student outcomes and controlling for all the other socioeconomic drivers that tend to lead to outcome statistics. We were able to really isolate it down to just that impact of the lack of broadband access on students, some of which have lifelong impacts.

    Craig:

    You’ve had a number of different projects, it’s not just one approach to the acquisition of that information. You mentioned the citizen scientist, K-12 pilot study, you’ve got the Wayne State University data collection project among others, so that you truly are getting a wide variety of approaches to this. What has been the response to those who have seen the initial publication of the findings?

    Charlotte:

    The response has been tremendous from both the national community and at the state level. From that K-12 work in our initial pilot, we pivoted to kind of what we view as a more pragmatic application of the methodology. We worked with Washtenaw County in Michigan, actually Merit is headquartered in Ann Arbor, so it was right in our backyard, and again we mapped, using the citizen science methodology, the household level access and adoption data across 15 townships that participated throughout Washtenaw County. There’s a misguided belief that Washtenaw County is well connected and that it looks like a lot of other counties throughout the state of Michigan. It’s not in what many would consider a truly rural area, but there are a lot of rural pockets and townships outside of Ann Arbor proper that have either poor connectivity or no connectivity. Areas, where along one side of the road there is access to higher speed broadband services and the other side has little to none.

    Charlotte:

    So there was really a need to get down to that granular household level. In the end, we mapped all of this unserved-served, speed test and the whole kit and caboodle back to the property parcel database and deliver that back to the County. In addition to a number of different outputs, I think we did about 15 to 20 maps, graphs, and other visualizations that helped us. It really helped informed an executive summary that we provided to the County commissioners and others and on the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force.  I think we delivered that sometime in June. They’ve taken that information and they’ve moved on to the next steps in broadband expansion planning and are conducting feasibility and engineering activities at this point.  They’re utilizing our data, not only as a decision-making mechanism to move the process forward, but also to inform those further planning activities.

    The Digital Divide – “Worse than We Thought”

    Pierrette:

    I think one thing that’s particularly interesting to note is that with all the research studies and all the findings that we’ve been able to produce there do seem to be a few commonalities, even if the research questions and some of the methodology is a little bit different. The underlying theme that we’ve seen through all of these studies, whether we’re looking through a lens of K-12 or we’re looking through a lens of adoption, or access, or the actual speeds through the measurement platform, is that overarchingly, the problem is worse than we thought.

    Pierrette:

    Whether we’re talking about the student homework gap, the implications on standardized test scores or the likelihood to attend college or grade point average or standardized test scores, whether we’re looking at actual infrastructure availability, whether we’re looking at the speeds at which we assume households are connected overall, and every study that we’ve done across the board to date, regardless the research question, regardless of the environment, in which we are asking the question, and regardless of the scope of the methodology, it’s overarchingly the problem is worse than we even anticipated. That’s important to share going forward with other communities who might be thinking about doing some of these research studies or data collection methodology is that whatever your hypothesis is – the problem is probably more significant.

    Craig:

    It must be staggering to compare the findings and data collected from the various projects versus what the FCC data map shows, which is based on the premise that as long as a single person in a census block is served then that entire block is considered to have service.  The reality is stark.

    Charlotte:

    I can speak to a little bit on the statistics we found in our Washtenaw project with a comparative directly to the FCC Form 477 data. We’ve definitely found some fairly large discrepancies, which I think are on par with what we’ve seen in some of the national figures with others doing similar work. So on a broadband level service, measuring 25 Mb down and 3 Mb up at a minimum, (capacities at that and greater), the FCC, for the Washtenaw County townships that participated in this data collection process, states that 98% of homes in those census blocks are served. The Merit speed test and survey analysis demonstrates that only 37% from our respondents are in fact served with broadband services – that’s about a 61% differential.

    Pierrette:

    One thing too that you should know about the survey and a lot of the surveys that we do, even though we’re measuring things like the speed compared to the speed purchased or the speed compared to FCC standards for broadband, there were a lot of other data collection points in these studies. We did collect data in other ways. For example, in Washtenaw County, we actually mailed surveys to homes to reach populations that were unserved. We’re also developing and piloting other methodology such as text message surveys or phone surveys. So we’re not really using a selected portion of the population. When we received some of this information back, it’s not just serving the individuals who are already connected or ensuring that through a lot of the data collection and resources that we provide, we actually do hear from the population of the unserved we’re actually trying to reach and study

    Broadband Expansion Starts with Accurate Data

    Craig:

    Charlotte, to your point, with regard to taking that data and then how that evolves into funding conversations and policy considerations, based on the information that is accurate for all the communities being looked at, how does that process then begin?

    Charlotte:

    As a fundamental first step, you really have to have a reality check. To Pierrette’s point, we’re seeing large discrepancies in just about every avenue that we’ve looked and that’s something that’s been acknowledged at the federal and the state level. Your question was about policy, but I’ll speak to what the data collection process has done at a local level in order to see the progress and really see communities taking directional, tangible, actionable steps that move their broadband expansion efforts forward. Primarily, we’re seeing that this is a first step that serves not only to get that accurate information, which helps inform feasibility and engineering and refine those numbers through that planning process.

    Charlotte:

    But it also serves as a really important mechanism to include citizens within the activity locally. It’s a community engagement tool that allows citizens to have a voice and really get active, which is very, very beneficial.  Activities that include things like getting millage rates passed in order to fund broadband initiatives. A lot of communities look at that, at least as an initial step, in trying to get the infrastructure funded before they’re looking at undertaking something potentially at the federal level, which takes a lot more resources, timing, and really the moon and the stars aligning. Many of our rural communities in Michigan are not really resourced properly to compete at the federal level.

    Charlotte:

    So that’s another big focus of our Moonshot Initiative is to try to centralized resources, not only from an educational standpoint to get people up to speed and to understand the landscape of what’s happening at a policy and a funding level, but also to understand how they can engage with that process and if they should engage with that process.  We try to get them educated and how to work through more of the actual block and tackle of taking the steps that are appropriate for their local needs and based on local decisions.

    Craig:

    Merit Network has done a lot with regard to providing resources to assist in that journey, including an online resource guide and also an educational series. Would you tell us about that?

    Michigan Moonshot Broadband Framework

    Pierrette:

    The Michigan Moonshot Initiative has developed a number of resources, as you mentioned. First and foremost is the Michigan Moonshot Broadband Framework. What this framework guide really serves to do is provide a 100-foot overview for communities, municipalities, and individual citizens to understand everything that goes into their community network journey. This overview is about 100 pages long, and it’s broken into sections – Plan, Build, Run, and Secure. In it you’ll understand the landscape, we provide timelines, we provide guides and questions about philosophy and goals and an overview of a lot of the technologies. We talk about all of the different ways in which you may serve your unserved populations.

    Pierrette:

    We talk a little bit about concerns such as, what do you need to know if you’re going to go out for an RFP for engineering or architecture or outside plant. Then in addition to that, we also have provided an 800-page resource appendix. In that appendix you’ll find documents that provide sample municipal resolutions, they provide information on the Michigan Metro Act, they provide inner local agreements and things like that. Communities may not be ready or may not be familiar with some of these things that they may need to do in order to actually facilitate the building of their community network, those resources are all there.

    Pierrette:

    Then in addition to that, we do have an educational series, so this has taken both a physical and a virtual approach. So in the physical world, in a non-pandemic environment, we’ve hosted the Michigan Broadband Summit for the first year, last year. This year, we’re actually doing it virtually in November. We also have provided an ongoing online series which includes recordings and live events that look at both very large topics, such as navigating the Michigan Metro Act and very large questions, big picture questions, about architecture and goals all the way down to very nuanced information about grant funding and legal considerations from the national, state and local level compliance. We look at finance models, funding models, and we look at a lot of the technologies in a lot more deep detail as well.

    Pierrette:

    So what’s great to know is that, not only is the Michigan Moonshot Broadband Framework and the resources appendix available online and as a download for free to anybody that wants to access it, all of our online recordings, all of the Michigan Moonshot series, the webinars, all of those resources are all also available as well to help everybody further their own community networks and their own missions. And I should mention right now, if anybody’s interested in any of those resources, they can go to the Michigan Moonshot website here which provides all of the information on how to access the resources as well as all the executive reports that we’ve talked about so far regarding the findings from all the data collection initiatives.

    Craig:

    I know that there is a desire to look for developing a group of trusted partners as the opportunities evolve across the state, if you would talk how that process is working.

    Fostering Broadband Partnerships – The Merit Marketplace

    Charlotte:

    Before I pass it over to Pierrette to talk about our Merit Marketplace, I think it is very important in the longer term to actually be something tangible for communities to use.   We’re trying to create the structure and the ecosystem for public-private partnerships and private-private partnerships.  One of the initial goals of Moonshot was to create this one-stop-shop, which we’ve done in the educational space. We wanted to bring clarity and unbiased access to data collection, and we’ve made a good amount of progress there. The last piece in creating this ecosystem, is kind of two-fold, it’s really about community engagement all the way through the local, regional, state and national stack. We’ve put a lot of work into developing relationships at all of those levels in order to tie those together and create cohesive strategy that we can then try to transition into tangible success.

    Charlotte:

    Then the other piece that it’s really important for in this ecosystem is this Merit Marketplace concept. Pierrette, I’ll hand it to you because that’s another piece of the program that you are running point on. I think just sharing a little bit about how that structure really incubates the engagement that we’re doing and then gives folks a place to go in order to evaluate and select providers throughout the life cycle is really important.

    Pierrette:

    It is absolutely critical because, for a lot of communities, this is their first foray into providing any kind of a community network or broadband access.  Even for a larger or more well-established community, a lot of this can seem daunting.  All of the Michigan communities and many of the communities nationwide as well, are working together as best they can, but everybody’s ultimately undergoing these journeys on their own. So one of the mindsets as we developed the program, our data collection, our policymaker education, our educational resources, was to understand that everyone going into this process will probably be completely unfamiliar with it, and a majority of the champions that we’re finding this arena are also untechnical or don’t come from a technical background.

    Pierrette:

    We realized that in order to be able to make this successful, we needed to be able to provide the information, the guides with funding, and vendors and resources, that nontechnical people could use to be successful. So the Merit Marketplace and the Michigan Moonshot Initiative within it, really aimed to provide a robust set of trusted partners who can either be used in a piecemeal approach for certain areas of planning, building, running, and securing a network, and also to provide turnkey vendors as well if that’s the approach that a community would want to take.

    Pierrette:

    So for example, in the marketplace, you’ll see that we have feasibility study vendors. We’ve got individuals that can help with financial modeling. We do architecture and engineering, we’ve got some outside plant, we’ve got some wireless and antenna and cell phone signal boosters. We’ve got Wi-Fi hotspots and devices, and just in general, a very robust network of organizations and individuals who can provide all of those assets, all of those resources that communities are going to need to build these networks out.

    ETI Software Partners with Merit Marketplace

    Pierrette:

    I do think it’s important to note that I am very excited that ETI has actually just become one of our newest Merit Marketplace program providers, and we have a number of Open Access network and Software as a Service vendors. We are just in the initial stages of opening that partnership up and those opportunities up to our community, and it’s one thing that I’m very excited to be able to offer.

    Craig:

    We are excited at ETI to be part of what has been assembled there.  It’s obvious that both of you have a tremendous passion for what you’re doing in this effort. You have put everyone so far ahead of the curve with this information. When you look at the mission statement from Merit Network, connecting organizations and building community, it’s all put in into very plain form with regard to the impact that is being made as more and more communities take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. Just curious from a personal standpoint, for both of you, what it’s like seeing this evolution?

    Charlotte:

    I think with the onset of COVID-19, things have been put in a fast-forward time warp over the last nine months. I feel personally that, even though this entire initiative is not yet three years old, we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount of work in setting up a foundation. Now our focus is to turn to the Michigan communities that need these resources, knowledge, and access to people committed to the issue, and we hope to bring all of those things to the table to help communities make tangible forward progress. I really believe that we are well positioned to take a leadership role in this area. And now it’s about block and tackle, move it forward and let’s pull up our sleeves and get to work.

    Craig:

    Pierrette, from your perspective?

    Pierrette:

    I would absolutely echo that. One of the reasons why I was so excited four and a half, five years ago, to come work for Merit is because the mission at Merit is to connect organizations and to build community. We do that in a way that helps make our society, in general, a better place to learn and to discover and to work and to live – all while upholding the principles of a free and open internet. For myself, access to information and civic participation, should be considered a basic human right. And through the Michigan Moonshot, doing this as one way to further, not only my personal beliefs, but also those of the organization. It’s been absolutely incredible to be able to play a role of providing those resources, to allow our strong Michigan communities to recognize that the problems that they have within their own access, the challenges they have, and then to be able to leverage what it is we’re doing to facilitate these goals on their own, in a way that’s going to make life better for everybody here.

    Michigan Moonshot at the BBC Summit 2020

    Craig:

    Before we close, I wanted to mention that Charlotte will be a panelist, spreading the word at the Broadband Communities Summit, September 22nd – 24th.  The BBC Summit is one of the biggest shows in the broadband industry which this year will be a virtual event due to the pandemic.

    Charlotte:

    Thanks for the reminder because I did want to give a shout out and invite folks to learn more about the Michigan Moonshot Initiative. I’ll be joining Joanne Hovis from CTC Technology & Energy & CLIC at the BBC Summit. I think our session is September 22nd, from 3:00 to 4:00 pm. Again, it’s a virtual conference and we’ll be exploring public-private partnerships specifically and how the Moonshot is really about the ecosystem to support and incubate what’s necessary in order for communities to accomplish public-private partnership success.

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