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  • Guest: Kathryn De Wit

  • Company: The Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Research Initiative

  • Welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. We are joined by Kathryn De Wit from The Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Research Initiative. They have most recently released a report on how states are expanding broadband access. Kathryn shares some of the promising practices, insights, research findings, and universal truths from her research.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    We have several resources on the website. The first, of course, I would encourage folks to read the report. It’s dense, but there’s a lot of information in there. Also, we have several other analyses that really document trends that we found in our 50 state research. So we have pieces on trends and policy, how states are funding broadband initiatives and then how they are structuring their responses at the state level.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    I’m very excited to talk further about this report that came out a few weeks ago on how states are expanding broadband access. And before we get into the report and what drove you there, I think it would be really helpful to give some context about you and your role. I know you started at The Pew Charitable Trusts a few years ago. What brought you there, and how did you get there?

    Pew Charitable Trust – Research on Complex Policy Questions Like Broadband

    Kathryn de Wit:

    So, first, The Pew Charitable Trusts is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institution, which is a fancy way of saying that we do research. Our teams inside the building, research everything from state rainy day funds to international fisheries. Really, what we do is we try to bring research to complex policy questions. And one of those complex policy questions is broadband.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I started at Pew about two years ago, and I came to Pew from Booz Allen Hamilton, where I spent about five years supporting telecommunications consulting. And when I joined Booz Allen, I was fresh out of graduate school, and my background is in regional and economic development. And they staffed me on this telecommunications project that was a telecommunications grant program at the Department of Commerce.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    And I said, “What in the world does broadband have to do with economic development?” And they said, “Oh, just you wait.” And that was how I got into the field. And I ended up at Pew because of this project. Part of my consulting work at the Department of Commerce was helping NTIA think through how they wanted to engage with states, how they would continue engaging with states after the state broadband initiative ended. They were working closely with Pew at that point. Someone alerted me to this position, and luckily I ended up at Pew and have had the good fortune of leading this research for the last two years.

    Tactics to Connect Unserved Communities with Broadband Access – Pew Charitable Trust Research

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    You’ve done a lot of great work. I know I’ve seen some of your earlier research last year, and there’s a lot of tools on the website for folks that you guys have been producing. But we’ll pick up on those on the backend of this conversation. Just to dig into the report. So this report came out two weeks ago. What drove you to dig into… And I do like the subtitle of the report on research identified tactics for connecting unserved communities. I think that gets to the heart of it. What did you see that really needed to dig into this and kind of externalize the findings here?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    When we talk about gaps in broadband access, we tend to focus it on the national number first. Somewhere between 21 and 162 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. So we start there, and then after that, we look at how the federal government is responding and how local governments are responding.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Our research observed that states were largely being left out of the conversation, and states have actually been doing quite a bit to expand access to broadband. So that’s where the impetus for the report came from, and that’s really where we’ve been focusing our efforts on the last two years. And there’s been, as you’ve pointed out, quite a bit for us to examine. I’ve got a great and I’ve got a very talented research team that works with me, so thankfully they’ve been able to tackle some really complicated issues in a short span of time.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Somewhere between 21 and 162 million, that’s a giant gap there. Is it getting more in focus for you? Do you think it’s closer to 162 or 21 million?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    We don’t know. That’s not really an area where we are gathering research. I think the important takeaway from all of the discussion about data is how states are using data. What are they using? How are they engaging in conversations about data and mapping? And then what are they using data for with respect to their grant programs and statewide broadband efforts?

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    You’ve published the report and I know you’ve been actively promoting it and trying to socialize it. Personally, what is your hope for this report?

    How are States Bridging the Broadband Access Gap – The Broadband Research Report

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Well, I think first and foremost, state and federal and local leaders are all looking for how to bridge the gap and broadband access. We know that broadband is foundational technology to so many policy priorities today, whether you’re talking about economic development, agriculture, education, healthcare. But in order to initiate many of those policy priorities, you have to have a high speed, reliable internet connection to do it.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    So as public leaders at every level of government are looking for solutions, we hope that they look to states. We hope that this research elevates and amplifies, as you put it, the tactics in order that states are using to effectively bridge the digital divide. I think the second point is that we’re hoping people focus on the fact that there really is no one policy or solution that’s going to solve this problem. It’s a multifaceted challenge that requires multifaceted solutions. A different way of putting it, as one of our interviewees said, is that it’s not about finding the silver bullet. It’s about using silver buckshot.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    And then the third piece, and this really builds on that no one policy point, is that we talk about solutions… Traditionally, in this field, talk about solutions in the context of very black and white options. So all private, all public. But what we found in talking to state leaders and providers and communities is that there isn’t just one model or one solution. They’re all working with different providers, different funding structures and different plans in order to meet specific state and community needs.

    Broadband Access and Economic Development

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    I wanted to go back. So your foundations, your personal background in economic development and the conversation around broadband. When talking to economic development folks within the states, some of them, the conversations that I’ve had, they’ve really seen broadband as a separate industry, as a separate component to manufacturing or healthcare. But really the way I think is a better way to look at it is it’s enabling capability across all industries. I think some of the folks that you’re talking to that are a little bit more in the more mature markets have made that connections and some haven’t. I was just wondering if you had seen that kind of thinking as well.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    We have, and I think that the important thing that really emerged from our research is that broadband is not the solution, it is part of the solution. So whether we are talking about… The presence of a connection isn’t going to be enough in order to galvanize large economic change. But when broadband is incorporated into an overall economic development plan that works with your private industry, that accounts for the skills that folks need in order to use it in a meaningful way, that leverages your community institutions, that’s when you see the best economic outcomes. And candidly, that was why our finding about stakeholder engagement was so important. Engaging all different types of stakeholders in both identifying the problem but then crafting solutions to address it was really crucial to all the states that we highlighted in our report.

    Broadband Research Report Methodology – 5 Key Broadband Activity Areas

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    What was the methodology that you took? You mentioned a little bit about interviewing, maybe you can walk us through on how you approached this problem?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    First, about 18 months ago, we started with a nationwide policy scan of looking at how states were addressing broadband in policy and legislation. And we did that because we just wanted a firm starting point of really kind of what trends were happening in state legislation across the country because there’s been a significant increase in activity on this issue over the last several years.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    What we found is that states were focusing their activities in really five key areas: That was defining key terms. So what broadband is or is not. They were establishing programs. They were standing up or implementing funding and financing mechanisms, addressing access to infrastructure and addressing competition and regulation. So we published those findings in our State Broadband Policy Explorer that is online. And what we found is, again, coming back to this idea that I’ll detail a little bit more in a minute, but that states are kind of addressing these in similar ways, but adapting those similar tactics to meet their own needs.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    We started with that 50 state analysis, and then completed some additional interviews with various researchers, state broadband leaders and industry partners. And then my team went out into the field and they were in the field for three months interviewing more than 300 people across nine different states. And they interviewed state broadband leaders, legislators, internet service providers, business owners, community leaders. Really anybody who could touch a state broadband program, my team of two spoke with. So after they completed that field research, they isolated nine states and then five practices that were working across those states.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    It was a combination of building off the original research on the Policy Explorer, which is online and we’ll add a URL at the end so that you guys can explore that. And then the interviews across the field of the nine states and these five practices. I guess that leads us to what are the key findings? What are the things that the listeners should be thinking about from a state perspective of best practices or tactics?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    So we walked away with five, what we’re calling promising practices. And we don’t call them best practices for a lot of wonky research reasons that you guys are probably not interested in, but we’re calling them promising practices. So the first is engaging stakeholders. The second is establishing a policy framework. The third is supporting planning and capacity building. The fourth is providing funding for deployment and operations, and the fifth is assessing impact and using that to shape next steps.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    So of the five findings, which ones surprised you the most that you thought was the most… that you didn’t expect to find? Or are these all in-line with your expectations?

    Importance of Broadband Stakeholder Engagement

    Kathryn de Wit:

    That’s a really good question. I think we kind of joked around that there wasn’t anything in this research that was going to be earth shattering for really anybody who’s ever worked in public policy. I think the really interesting stuff was when you get into sort of the nitty gritty of how states were actually implementing some of these activities. But I think what did surprise us in some ways was the importance of stakeholder engagement. And that really was the promising practice that showed up in every other practice and really informed and shaped every other practice.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    When we talk about engaging stakeholders, we are talking about stakeholders across government, down to the local level and up to the federal level. But what’s important is engaging a diversity of perspectives because this isn’t just about the technology, it’s about how that technology is used. And so it’s about talking to your business owners and talking to your educators, your healthcare providers, your farmers, the organizations that they work with, all sorts of entities to understand how this lack of access is affecting their communities. And then talking about the types of solutions that will work for all of their needs.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    How did some of these successful states figure that out as a key enabler? Was it by accident or experience?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Experience, I think. You look at a state like Virginia, for example, that has the Commonwealth Connect Coalition. And the Commonwealth Connect Coalition has dozens of organizations representing those interests that I just talked about from your private sector businesses to your school district and education associations. Those entities all work together in order to shape policy recommendations and work with the state broadband initiatives in order to come up with a program that works best for the state.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    So other than stakeholder outreach and engagement do you have any other example of what is working and what’s not working across the other five promising practices?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    One more promising practice, and then there are some other findings that I will share with you. But we started with policy for a reason. And I think that our research truly emphasized the importance of policy in this space. It establishes a framework for stakeholders in the state to respond to a clarifies even how the state is defining broadband, who can provide it, who in the state is responsible for overseeing efforts. These are all really important questions that need to be answered in order for stakeholders to start thinking about and addressing the problem.

    Universal Truths of Broadband

    Kathryn de Wit:

    But in terms of additional research, we found we did identify what we’re calling universal truths of broadband. And these characteristics were true across all nine states that we looked at regardless of their program structure. The first is the importance of executive and legislative leadership. I talk about the importance of policy, the importance of stakeholder engagement. That is where your executive and legislative leaders really come into play. They take this issue on as something that they champion and then they carry that through by identifying policy barriers or policy gaps and then implementing solutions to address those barriers or gaps.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    The second is this idea that we have about the programs and the projects or the people. Having a person who is the responsible entity, the state broadband coordinator, the person who is in charge of those efforts and then their teams is really important. And it’s important because you again have that point person, someone to pick up the phone or answer questions about grant applications. But it’s also about the visibility, the fact that they show up at community meetings. They’re there for network lighting ceremonies and to cut the ribbon, whether that’s metaphorical or otherwise. But there is a visibility and a buy-in with communities that the state is showing up to help.

    Broadband Advocacy of State Broadband Officers

    Kathryn de Wit:

    The third is about the role that those state broadband officers play as neutral parties. They are viewed by both community leaders and private sector partners as neutral advocates. So they are advocating for increased connectivity across the state. They’re not necessarily advocating for any specific perspective from one end of the spectrum or the other. So they are viewed as being as trying to figure out what is best for the state. So that means that they can act as a neutral facilitator and coordinator, which is really important when you need communities and providers working closely together in order to craft solutions.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    That’s interesting. So it really comes down to people, right? I mean, so what you kind of laid out with all this technology talk about 5G and fixed wireless and all the other technologies, what it comes down to is that you have to have somebody at the top that really cares about this mission and is willing to stake their name on it. You need to have people that take ownership and they have a persistent presence to keep that message at the forefront of conversations. And somebody who’s straddling all the lines to figure out what’s best, not what he wants, what they want. And that’s interesting.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    So how do you find that person in the state? I mean, have these people just kind of grown up through the ranks? Are they coming out of private sector? Is it just a personal passion? Any thoughts on what kind of DNA, how do you find that DNA for these folks?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    All of the above is the answer there. So it depends on the state, but you see people who, one, are very passionate about this issue. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This is a hard challenge. I mean, this is something that takes time and resources and patience to solve. But I think really what we’ve found is that these people who run these programs are very special people who have an aptitude for coalition building. They are politically and policy savvy, and they’re able to really focus and keep attention on the issue at hand, which is increasing connectivity in their states and not allowing themselves to be distracted by certain narratives I think that are pervasive to the field. They are solutions oriented, and that is incredibly important.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Interesting. What is your recommendations to other state leaders, folks that are later in the development process? Anything that you can advise them on other than the universal truths and some of the promising practices?

    States Should Start by Focusing on Broadband Policy

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I think start with policy. The policy is, as I’ve elaborated on at length, sorry, really is important. And focusing on policy in those five areas that we outlined of: define what broadband is for your state, figure out whether or not you want a program or an office, establish your funding and financing. Link broadband to other policy objectives, which subsequently allows it to be eligible for additional funding. Really look at what your state policy has on the books and where you can use a legislation to create opportunities.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    I guess the other thing is coming back to people, how approachable are the folks that you talk to? I mean, I know we go to these conferences and you see people connecting with each other. And I’ve seen everybody’s been very generous with their time.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Yes, very. Yeah, I think they are. I mean, I think the state broadband leaders are, they’re very approachable. We actually kept a separate list of all of the nice things and compliments that people in states said about their state broadband leaders. But the superstar is one thing that got thrown around. If it would be helpful, we’d be happy to introduce you to some of them. But they’re kind people who really, again, just want the best for their state and want to figure out what they can do to solve problem.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I mean, one thing that we talk about, my researchers and I talk about, is how hard this job has to be, particularly when you’re the one fielding phone calls from people who are saying like, “My kids can’t do their homework. My grandparents can’t stay in touch with their kids. My business, it takes three days to download a software update.” That’s a hard message to hear over and over again. And so these people really keep their nose to the grindstone to make sure that they can help those entities.

    State and Federal Broadband Engagement

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Yeah, it’s interesting. What about at the federal level? What’s your advice up to that level to help the states move faster and have less friction?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I mean, continue talking to states. We have a wealth of knowledge at the state level. I mean, there’s a lot of discussion about: What do we do to solve this problem? And really states are making progress. So talk to states about what’s working. And talk to states about what federal policies or efforts could be put in place to, as you said, better facilitate their own efforts. I think the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, NTIA, which is in Commerce, they have their state broadband leaders network, which has been really helpful at creating a cohort of practitioners of state broadband leaders who talk to one another who share best practices. So the more that we can facilitate that state-federal engagement, the better.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Yeah. One thing I would add to that, I was talking to some of the folks in the rural broadband areas, and they were talking about coming back to funding. And while there’s a lot of funding opening up to municipalities, going from zero to a full blown broadband program takes time, and the funding response times and the funding timelines may be a little bit disconnected from some of the smaller, less mature communities.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    I think it would be interesting to have that dialogue between the national folks that are providing funding and the folks that are not winning funding because they are not able to respond, or they’re not sure if they can actually get to the milestones that they need to get to. I don’t know if you’ve run into any of that disconnect around the funding conversation at all.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Well, I think that what we heard from states is that state broadband leaders are also playing that role of coordinator and facilitator and communications conduit up to the federal level, and they’re working with their local providers to see where they can help position them for federal funding opportunities.

    Private Sector Broadband Funding for Rural Communities

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    There’s a lot of folks. There’s a lot of private equity. There’s some of the large social media folks that are getting into this marketplace. How can the states work with those folks? Are they interested in helping out rural and state communities to provide broadband? Have you had any of those conversations?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I think the best example of that is Facebook’s engagement in West Virginia and how the company has worked with the state to build out a plan for a Middle Mile Network that will cross the state, how the state can access that Middle Mile Network. It seems at this point it’s a pretty good deal, and it’s a win-win solution. But what that comes back to again is the relationship building and facilitating those conversations between the public and private sector to find a solution that’s going to work best for both and as a feasible solution that’s going to work best for both.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    And with every state, they emphasize the importance of having those conversations with the private sector and with community leaders to identify: What is the real issue? How does broadband fit into your broader objectives if you’re a community? And then what type of technology really makes the most sense given those objectives, where the community is situated and what the provider landscape looks like? But, again, it comes back to that stakeholder engagement.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Yeah. And I think there’s a reluctance to consider some of those because you’re not really sure the motivations, but there are folks, like in the Microsoft Airband, trying to leverage the white space. I do think there’s more and more interest from the large software companies that are trying to help there.  And they’re at every event that we go to talking about it as well. So they’re definitely approachable and interested. And I think if you’re in a part of the state organization, you shouldn’t fear reaching out to find out how they can help or work together.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Definitely.

    What are the Next Areas of Broadband Research?

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    This is a lot. I mean, so what’s next? Did you surface any other questions that you want to dig into as your next research effort?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    We’re actually still scoping that out right now. I mean, I think the obvious thing is how states that have been running their programs for a little bit further, or maybe a little bit further along in their efforts, is what’s the next step? What are the things that they’re thinking about? And one of those issues is digital inclusion, and there are several states that already have digital inclusion efforts in place, candidly, because the infrastructure, the success of a network relies on the business case.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    And you need people to actually use the service. There are several states that already have those initiatives in place. But more and more states are thinking about both getting people online, making sure that they have the skills to use it in a meaningful way. And while sending email is very important, we’re really talking about job skills, upscaling people. One state that’s doing digital inclusion initiatives is the state of Tennessee. So they do it in two ways. The first is providers document whether or not they have some type of broadband adoption or digital inclusion initiative in their grant application, which really demonstrates how they’ve engaged with the community and how they prepare the community for this network build.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    The second is the state partners with the Tennessee State Library and Archives in order to implement community level digital inclusion training. And then also the equity issue. So what does affordability mean? When states are thinking about affordability, what are the things that they should be considering both about the cost and the quality of a connection?

    Building Digital Broadband Literacy

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    That’s two great points. The adoption I think is important too, right?  If you build it, they will come mentality, I think we know works for some part of the community, but there’s some folks, the aging communities and some others, there needs to be some help. So have you seen any states putting any adoption practices in there, making sure that there are… not just wiring to the houses, but getting folks actively included?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Yeah, I think that you hit the nail on the head that it’s going to work for some communities. And I think that that’s true really about any policy initiative in place here. What works for some may not work for others. That’s why it’s important to have many options, tools in the toolbox. But specifically with digital inclusion and broadband adoption initiatives, Tennessee’s a great example. They incorporate a provider’s digital inclusion initiatives in their grant scoring.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    So, does this provider in their grant application account for digital literacy training to get folks in their communities online and using it? Which, again, it’s about the business case. And you can’t make money off of a network. It can’t be profitable. And, subsequently, it then can’t be a good investment for the state if people aren’t using that network.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Right. Yeah. In the same token around affordability, one of the concerns that I have is the rush. And there is some overbuilding happening, and I do think 10 years from now, we’d be talking about overbuilding or overbuilt. What about sustainability? Have you talked about, or are there states, some of these mature states, looking at not just getting the networks built but getting the networks built so that they’re sustainable for the next 10, 30, 40 years?

     

    Broadband Networks – Scalability, Supportability and Sustainability

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I think that the focus is on the scalability of technology. So making sure that states are supporting builds that can meet the technology needs of today and tomorrow. Tennessee is, again, a state that’s doing that. Minnesota is another state that’s doing that as well. So the scalability of that technology is what they’re weighing.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    Interesting. Yeah, because I think scalability is a component of it. But I do think parts of what you were talking about with Facebook and some of the things that are happening in more of the open access network areas where there’s shared infrastructure, which I think lends itself to more of a sustainable longterm network. But I think the data will prove that out over the next couple of years anyway. Okay, great. So you’ve pointed to the Policy Explorer online, this latest research. What other resources can our listeners look to you guys to provide?

    Kathryn de Wit:

    Well, we have, as I said, the State Policy Explorer, and then we’re publishing a set of additional research based on that 50 state research. One of them is how states support broadband project. So, how are states across the country funding broadband initiatives? And then what are they funding? Another is kind of how states are structuring their actual broadband initiatives. We have a document on the site that illustrates who in the state is responsible for broadband, whether they have a statewide broadband plan, which is really crucial to know. And then whether or not they have data collection and mapping initiatives as well.

    Kathryn de Wit:

    I would just continue to point people to the report. There’s a lot in there. I know that it’s not always… Well, for the nerds who are really interested in this issue, 40 pages seems really light, but it’s a dense document. But there’s a lot in there that we hope people can walk away with some valuable insights from.

    Pete Pizzutillo:

    It’s a great report. Thank you for your efforts there. We’ve been speaking with Kathryn De Wit from The Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Research Initiative on their latest report on how states are expanding broadband access. Kathryn, thank you very much. I appreciate it. I look forward to running into you again in DC and some other events, and I look forward to your next report.

     


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