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Ask Me Anything! with Andy Berke, Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service

Ask Me Anything! with Andy Berke, Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service Banner Image

Nov 11, 2022

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About Our Distinguished Guest

Berke served as a state senator for Tennessee's 10th District from 2007-2012. He then went on to serve as Chattanooga's Mayor between 2013-2021, where he won widespread recognition for many accomplishments, including his work on digital equity and for his heroic efforts to establish a municipal broadband network through the local power company.
President Joe Biden appointed Berke to become the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service administrator in early October. The role puts him in charge of helping with infrastructure improvements to rural communities. These include water and waste treatment, electric power and telecommunications services.

Event Transcript

Jase Wilson: Hey, welcome y'all and Happy Veterans Day. And everybody please join me in a virtual welcome for our very, very special guest. The man that just broke the record for the number of questions asked on an Ask Me Anything! In the Broadband Grants Community, Mr. Andy Berke, former mayor Andy Berke, former special representative of Broadband at NTIA, Andy Berke. Current administrator of Rural Utility Service for USDA, Andy Berke and many other titles that we'll get into on this important call. So Andy, thank you very much for making time to hang out with the Broadband Grants Community.

Andy Berke: Thanks so much, Jase. Happy Veterans Day. I am surprised if there's anybody on this Ask Me Anything because I figured everyone would be at Wakanda Forever. They're either at a Veterans Day event or they're at Wakanda Forever. And so I can't believe anybody might be joining us today.

Jase: Some of these guys catching the matinee, that's cool. But there's always tonight for that. That's a good point though. But Andy...

Andy: I'm tomorrow afternoon, so.

Jase: How were you able to get tickets? 

Andy: I went online. You gotta go early.

Jase: Yeah, you guys, you have a planning, you have somebody planning in your household, in the Berke household, don't you? This is really good.

Andy: Yeah. It's me.

Jase: No, that's good, Andy. And it's a real honor to get to hang out with Andy. Just for background and context, we met many moons ago at a US Conference of Mayors event while you were still mayor going into your second term for Mayor of Chattanooga. And then we reconnected recently at the keynote address to the US Conference of Mayors leadership in Miami. And you blew a lot of minds that day, including mine, as to the things that you were saying and the amounts of perspective that you accumulated in all your different hats. It wasn't known at the time that you were about to be tapped by the President of the United States to become the Administrator of USDA's Rural Utility Service. But we got the chance to connect and I thought that it'd be good, Andy, if you could just start us off with a quick background and context from your point of view. And then I'll add some of my point of view, like what are you up to? You were tutoring kids in East Palo Alto when you were a student at Stanford doing tennis, right? Like you've done all these amazing things since then, but I wanna hear from your words.

Andy: Well, that's some deep research about my tutoring days. So congratulations on that. So yeah, I'm from Tennessee. I still live in Tennessee, although today I'm in Washington DC and happen to spend a fair amount of time in DC right now. But I grew up there. Nobody in my family was in politics. Nobody in my family ever wanted to be in politics or to be part of government. But I think over the course of time, as I grew older, I both really enjoyed government and elections and things like that. And also thought it's the only way to help people at scale is to be involved in the process at this level. And so I ran and won as state senator, got reelected to do that, became the mayor of Chattanooga. As you said, after I was term limited out, came to DC and now I'm in this role. And a big piece of what has motivated me over the last decade plus is this issue of making sure that people have access to high speed internet and the way that that can change their lives. And so the last thing that I'll say and then go back to you, Jase, is that one of the things that is central to who I am is this idea that we all need to have power and control over our lives.

Andy: That's just something that I really believe in. And there are far too many people in America and across the globe who feel like it's the mortgage company, it's the landlord, it's the credit card company, it's the politicians. Somebody has power and control and it isn't me. And one great thing about internet that has always motivated me to be in this space is it's another way to try to give people power and control over their own lives to do their own research, to become who they wanna be, to watch the entertainment, whatever that is, to create things. And so I really love being in this space.

Jase: Well said, Andy, that's deep. I feel that, man, like access to information is a defining challenge of our time and you've been a pioneer in that space. I gotta say, like when we met, you were still building out and scaling up what has become internationally recognized as like the example of municipal broadband networks, right? We're chatting in Fiber. We wanna dig into how you got there, how it started, right? There's a ton of questions from the community about mechanics of it and advice and stuff like that. But I wanna surface something to the community that you pointed to me, and this is one of the things that blew my mind in our time together in Miami. Andy, and it was like, I was like, "Man, you did all this stuff," and you're like, "Yeah, and I'm tired of being the example." Can you talk a bit about that? What's that about? What did you mean by that? 

Andy: Well, there's a bunch of tellings of the Chattanooga story and one is in a book called Fiber by Susan Crawford. Another is in a book called Monopolized by Dave Dan. And then I wrote alongside a guy named John Gruber, a pretty substantial piece in the American Prospect so people can look up that stuff, which is online for free at the American Prospect. But this was a long journey for Chattanooga. So Chattanooga has a legacy of public power. And this has to do with what I'm doing now as well. So close to 100 ago, President Roosevelt started the Tennessee Valley Authority, along that was the wholesaler for public power. Alongside that, a number of entities started like in Chattanooga, the Electric Power Board to retail that. And over the course of time, EPB, which instead of Electric Power Board, it became EPB. EPB was this reliable power provider that you got your service from. But far-sighted leaders there understood that there were these other things that the community needed and where infrastructure was going. And so a number of different initiatives, it started out small. And you're talking about over roughly two decades to do what they call Metro Net and connect up the university with different anchor institutions and things like that.

Andy: But eventually, EPB decided to do a smart grid and actually was able to get a grant from the Department of Energy for smart grid work. And as they built out that fiber network, the issue was, of course, what else could we do with this amazing resource that we had? And as part of that started the EPB fiber product, which we know today. And so we were the first Gig city. We built out the network to every single home and business for 600 square miles. So the first community to do one gig. Then in 2015, let's call it 15-16, don't quote me on that, even though I'm on it, Ask Me Anything. We did 10 gig, first community to do 10 gig. And then after I left, just a few weeks ago, EPB became the first community in the country to do 25 gig universally. And I'm happy to talk a little bit more about this. But alongside of this technological advancement, doing huge things about how do we use this for economic development? How do we use this for equity and to ensure that everybody is coming along? And that became part of our journey as well.

Jase: That is a dazzling trajectory, Andy, to get involved with that. That's really amazing. And there's so much to unpack there. And they touch on the questions. You're actually, in a strange way, I know you hadn't looked at the questions so that there could be some impromptu on the call. But you actually... Gary Bolton was naming the dates specifically when you became the first gig city, when you became the first 10 gig city, and when you became the first 25 gigabit city, which is absolutely astonishing to think that that's the case. But it's also extremely forward looking, knowing, like Nielsen's law, for example, that the high end households bandwidth use doubles every couple of years. And that's compounding. And that's why it's solely that we have these definitions, like 25 over 3. But you're setting that bar so high. You're just continuing to move that bar, which is awesome. That's cool.

Andy: Yeah. Well, I remember when we did a gig, and a friend of mine who was in the business laughed and said, who needs a gig? You've got to be kidding me. And my response then, and I think this would be my same response today, about 25 gig, actually. Because let's be honest, people don't really need 25 gig today. But my response is, the only thing that I know about the internet, one of the only things I can say with certainty is, the history has been that you always need a bigger pipe. That's just been since the day that it started until today. You've always needed a bigger pipe.

Jase: Mathematically approvable.

Andy: And so to build a place where you can do this work and see this go on. And the last piece I'll say about this is, that it's great... That the first city to do this was Chattanooga, Tennessee. And not with all... I love New York and San Francisco and all those places. They're terrific places, and I'm all for them. But there are a lot more places like Chattanooga than there are like New York and Washington DC and San Francisco. And it's great that the first 25 gig city in the United States was a place that wasn't one of those "superstar cities" that you hear so much about. It was a mid-sized city in southern US.

Jase: Absolutely spot on, Andy. One of the things that I'm personally most passionate about is something that you're laying the foundation for, and it's telehealth. And it's especially advanced telehealth. It needs a bigger pipe, like you said. And the stuff that's coming, the stuff that's possible in a few years is completely game changing. We have a question actually from a community member, Justin Fulcher, who's the founder of RingMD, which is an international telehealth platform that's boundary pushing telehealth platform. And among other things, runs the telehealth for IHS, for Indian Health Services. And he asked, administrator Berke, what can telehealth do for veterans in rural America? And that's assuming that they have the connectivity that they need.

Andy: Yeah, and that's a great question. And let me... And I also point out, I have to do a little bit of advertising for our own stuff here at the Rural Utility Service, but we actually have some funding for distance learning and telehealth, some grants for that. And so it's one of the things I'm excited about is are those grants. But I think this goes back to some of the stuff that we were talking about at the beginning that motivates me, Jase, and that is that there are lots of people who want to live in the place that they love, like their home in the middle of rural America, but have often felt like I have to go to the city because that's where my doctor is, that's where my job is, that's where I can get the schooling, and so on, and so on, and so on. And so the great thing about telehealth and the work that's being done there is people don't have to make those kind of choices as much or as often if they have access to high speed internet that's affordable and reliable.

Andy: And so it's not just about the fact that veterans and others have all kinds of different physical issues. They can have mental health issues and we're able to serve them. It's also about giving veterans more options and more possibilities because they can choose to have that in the place where they live. And they don't have to say, listen, I'm living 175 miles from the VA. I either have to decide to drive three hours or I have to just move closer because I need to go so often to the VA. They can live in their house. They can be near their family, be near the people they love, or to be doing whatever they want to do. That opens up new possibilities for people. And our veterans deserve that. Absolutely, they have defended us. They've been part of our country's story. But so do other people who are living out in rural America.

Jase: Yeah, that is spot on, Andy. And we're very excited about the potential once the connectivity is in place for folks to do, as you said, to live where they love. And that brings up another topic like what can we do for folks? Once those pipes are in place, there's so many services that folks can be getting in the place they love, not necessarily having to commute, more time with family. There's all these wonderful benefits. So that's really awesome to hear that you're already thinking ahead. And that's good that you're shouting out the programs that you have. I think that's a huge theme inside of the questions. There's dozens and dozens of questions. Community, we're sorry we're not going to have time for them all, but one of the themes is what do you got? And so you just touched on the telehealth and remote learning grants that you all have at ARIA. So let's dig into some of the questions that are coming from folks from operator's perspective for a second. That's really cool, Andy, that you started off with... The Chattanooga fiber starts inside of EPB, right? And there's this sort of theme. Are you seeing this theme of information providers becoming... Energy providers becoming information providers? Is that something that you've noticed? Because it seems like there's a lot of folks, like rural electric cooperatives alongside the power board folks doing that stuff.

Andy: Yeah, I think that this is a big piece of the story, Jase, is I actually think that one of the most important things that happened with the bipartisan infrastructure law is not just the $65 billion which is huge. I'm not denying that that's an amazing achievement. But the president made a pledge that every American will have access to affordable, reliable, high speed internet, and people inside the government, for whatever it's worth, I know sometimes people don't think that this is... Like it's just a statement, whatever. People inside the government take that seriously. I take that seriously. Other people take that seriously.

Andy: And so I'll say it again, every American should have access to affordable, reliable, high speed internet.

Jase: Affordable, reliable, high speed.

Andy: And what that does is it starts to make internet fundamentally infrastructure, not a luxury, not something that some people have depending on where you live and how much money you make and this, that, and the other, but it's like roads, like water, like electricity. It's the baseline that you need to live the life that you want, to have that power and control over your lives. And so that is phenomenal. And the second piece, as you said, is that, much of this stuff is consolidating and coming together because we can see the benefits that you get from having fiber that can do all kinds of things. So let me start in the non-fiber world for just a second.

Jase: Please do.

Andy: The Rural Utility Service has three divisions. It has electric, it has water, and it has telecommunications. Well, if you just think about those, when I was mayor of Chattanooga, we had a wastewater treatment plant. That wastewater treatment plant was half of our carbon footprint. So half of our emissions came from that wastewater treatment plant. So we built a solar array to defray a bunch, to decarbonize that place and to make sure that we were using renewables on this huge piece of our energy usage. Then you have, as you said, electric grids, smart grids, that start to look like fiber networks. And as I always point out, one strand of fiber can carry all the data in the world. And so once you build that infrastructure, we probably don't know all the different applications that maybe 20, 30, 50 years from now, people are going to be using fiber for. But you could also use fiber for all kinds of different smart things even on the water side. And so as part of this, we have to leverage all these different pieces. And what that means is that there are many different types of providers who can get into this space.

Andy: Munis, non-profits, for-profits, all kinds of different providers are out there looking to get into this space. And it's possible. And the last piece I'll just say about this is, this is good for the consumer. We want people to have more options because when they have more options, first of all, we know that much of America needs an option. But as options expand, then that lowers prices because fundamentally, I believe in the market.

Jase: Likewise.

Andy: And as we get more products out there, it improves the quality of what people have, maybe improves the plans that they see, and lowers prices.

Jase: Yeah and the competition is a good thing. That's spot on Andy. And so to continue with that theme we have... Darren Farnan, who's the COO of United Fiber and has built out in the footsteps of in many ways the VPB and Chattanooga model. What has become the largest rural electric cooperative powered ISP in the US. And I think that last check they were something like 8,000 electric members and then north of 25,000 ISP subscribers. So that theme that you had started the trend for it towards energy providers to information providers. Darren says, "Hey, congratulations on your appointment and great to see someone with your marketing experience at the helm, Andy. Your work at EPB shows how much current and future benefit can be gained from smart grid applications." And Darren has a two part question. One, as an electric co-op, how can co-ops go about getting fiber to the meter when so many wireless providers have been awarded broad census block areas over the 100 megabit threshold? And then two, is there anything that can be done to simplify and speed up the application process through the RUS to expedite the rural broadband delivery mandate? 

Andy: Yeah, so those are good questions and I would just say that at the Rural Utility Service we have $2 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law to implement the president's pledge. We also have regular year over year funding for what most people know as ReConnect. And we have been using that almost solely to build out fiber networks throughout rural America. That has been mostly what we've been doing. And that is really important because we are building out these pieces today. As my friends where I used to work at NTIA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, are doing all this planning for the $48 billion that they have over there to build out the network state by state. We're kind of... Right now we're seeding the ground with all these networks to improve where that's going to be. And places as you know, Jase, better than most, are trying to map where all these investments are going.

Andy: And so it's not a secret that the administration favors fiber. That's been a consistent position that we've had. Obviously, I've had a long association with fiber, but we also know that there are going to be other types of networks that get built in this state by state piece. The FCC also has legacy grants that I think he's talking about that may have some other solutions. But for the most part, we're really building out fiber networks throughout rural America. And then the second piece, remind me what the second question was, Jase? 

Jase: So Darren's second question is around, is there any way to streamline the process? And I think he's speaking from the perspective of RECs, but any applicant in general that would have the ability to go in and make an application to ReConnect and we have for example folks that use the Broadband Money grant application platform for Broadband grants to use for getting ready for ReConnect, getting ready for all these programs. And we have one of them that is very exhausted at the end of the ReConnect 4. So what's your vision for ReConnect 5? And is there a way to look at the standardized data models and data platforms to help make it somehow more streamlined for the applicants so that you can get that competition that brings the new products to market? 

Andy: I would just say two things about that. Number one is that we want that to be more streamlined. From the application process and we're working very hard on the back end too which is, after we award the grants how do we make sure that people can follow through, get through the process, get permitted and out. That's something that has been improving and we'll continue to work on. And the second piece is I'm happy to hear from people where they think that we can make the... What steps we might be able to take that would help the most from the applicant side that may be the places where we can make some progress. Again, knowing that we have certain federal mandates that we have to abide by. And also just to be honest with you, we have limited resources to implement these things. So it's... When it comes to, oh, let's just make a new... Just make a new platform and do these 25 things.

Jase: Sure. Where you are...

Andy: Yeah. It's like, well, that's may be great but we're limited where we are. And now with all that as background, I will say we've had an incredible amount of applications for ReConnect 4 and there was a very small window. And it's roughly three times the amount of money that we have out there. And so that's not a defense. We should still make it easier. We should still make it cheaper. We should do all those things. But my comments to the team after the window closed was the good news is that even with a short window. Even as hard as it is to apply, we have a good enough reputation. There's enough demand for the money that people are out there coming to us and trying to get.

Jase: Absolutely. You probably flooded with four applications, right? 

Andy: Yes.

Jase: The number of folks that we saw going through that journey is absolutely astounding and y'all... Gary Bolton made the point... What does Gary say? RUS is one of the first if not the first to move. And y'all have been there since the very beginning. This is some of the first programs that were offering support. You're one of the reasons I can get fiber to the farm in my hometown in Maryville, Missouri. But there's other reasons for this, but I can't get fiber out here in Livermore, California in the Bay Area next to two national laboratories. So y'all have been doing the good work in rural for a long time and that's awesome.

Andy: And we're going to try to get these four awards out as quickly as we can. And that's part of the president's command to us and to me. But it's also something that I want to do because every day that we wait, there's another day that people go without this resource and it's also...

Jase: Thank you for saying that.

Andy: It's also another day that things get more expensive and more complicated. So we've got to keep things moving.

Jase: Thank you for saying that, Andy. It tells that you're actually empathizing with the people who are on the other end of this line. I know a lot of guys that they want to get involved in help and that's great. But at the same time, they're thinking about it from another agenda. And you're talking about it from the real deal perspective. You genuinely want these people to have awesome access to the next generation and stuff and that's really cool. And that gets us into another question that borders on technical and program that both Brendan Dailey who's director of government affairs at NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association, as well as Gary Bolton the CEO of Fiber Broadband Association. I think both probably are Andy fans and part of the Andy fan club, but the RUS is one of the first if not the first to move from minimum speeds of 25/3 to 100 over 100. I believe that 95% of your ReConnect 3 awards went to projects over 100 over 100. Are you still getting pushback from the Hill on tech neutral, or do they see now how RUSs' leadership is succeeding in building our critical infrastructure right from the first time? That's from Gary. And Brendan's a follow up.

Andy: I think there'll still be pushback. There's still going to be pushback and I think that's part of the process. And we've still seen in some legislation that there's still questions about that. And we'll in time again, I think there are... As we know when the Broadband equity access and deployment initiatives are designed at the state level, my guess is that we're going to see a few different solutions at that level. But our ReConnect 4 money you're going to see in four. It's going to go to people who can build out 100 over 100 in rural America. That's almost always going to be fiber. And so I know we're going to keep getting questions about this. And we'll answer them. And again, we'll do whatever Congress tells us that we're supposed to do. We will obey the law. But we want to make sure that people understand that individuals... Whatever that solution is, and of course I'm a fiber advocate and always has been, and we want to build future-proof systems throughout the country. But people in rural America deserve every bit as good of a system as the people who live on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Andy: And that's just it. And let's face it most of the stuff here and almost everybody who lives on Capitol Hill, you move in, I moved into my apartment. I'm doing this from my apartment. And I got a thing with a couple options of gig systems. You just get a little thing with your apartment that says, which gig do you want? People in rural America should have that same kind of options with something that we now define as infrastructure.

Jase: Yeah, spot on, Andy. And that gets us into Brendan's question as a follow-up. He asked that the third round of ReConnect required providers to offer 100 symmetrical. He talked a bit more about why that service level is important to rural communities which you just touched on. But then he asked, did you see a high level of demand for that program and were providers able to meet that level of service in hindsight? 

Andy: Yeah, there was huge demand. Providers are able to do this. We had an earlier question and you were talking about this, Jase, about the different types of providers. Especially in rural America, we see co-ops. We see non-traditional providers. We see mom and pops. There's all kinds of different people who are doing this. And they usually want to provide an excellent level of service. That's their goal. But the capital costs sometimes make it extremely difficult especially in places where you don't have a lot of density. People live far away from each other, and the capital costs per household tend to get really high. And so what we're able to do is to defray some of those capital costs. Make it... Lower the debt burden on some of these providers and that therefore makes the products affordable, more affordable and the business model pencil out. On top of that you have the Affordable Connectivity Program which is $30 a month for most everybody who makes 200% of property or less. You're talking about $75 on tribal lands. And so all of a sudden now, you can put that into your proforma and start thinking, for people who might not be able to afford it at the same level how do we... There's a way for us to add those consumers into our market.

Andy: Some providers are doing that better than others, but we've got that piece on top of it. And so I think that there's been huge demand. The good news about that 100 over 100 as I said, Jase. One of the reasons why that's been so good is almost everybody has chosen to do that by building a system that with some pretty small upgrades or maybe they can already do it now, can get to 1,000 over 1,000, 1 gig, 10,000 over 10,000, 10 gig, 25,000 over 25,000, 25 gig. And so you have this future that you're building for in places that you don't want to get left behind. And that's so important because Congress probably isn't going to give us $65 billion next year to do this again. And so we've got to maximize what we're getting out of this funding.

Jase: That is spot on, Andy. And I think that's a good segue into another topic space. And I want to transition over to a question from Scott Woods who's a former NTIA and also a member of the Andy Fan Club and now...

Andy: He's awesome. Great, great person to work with.

Jase: Yeah, and rather likewise we have the fortune of getting to work shoulder to shoulder with Scott as the VP of Community Engagement here at Ready. But he asks, Andy, how can federal agencies like NTIA and the RUS work better together to ensure that broadband funds are allocated more efficiently and effectively? Is the bureaucracy and bureaucratic red tape just part of the process? And what can we do about it? 

Andy: So great, great question. And let me say in the nicest way possible as a federal government employee for the last roughly a year. Bureaucracy and paperwork is part of the process and that's going to be the case for good reasons, often. There's a good reason why you often have to document things and to make sure that we're doing this. And I think that we are... I am committed. I used to work with Alan Davidson at National Telecommunication and Information Administration. I know he's committed. The FCC's chair is committed. It's that we got to use this funding really well and again we all know that hopefully sometime down the line there'll be more funding come particularly on the digital equity side. But this infrastructure piece we just have to get it right. And that means getting as much as we can as many... Every American connected with the money. And so we can't waste a dollar. We can't do this. Secretary Vilsack is part of this. Secretary Raimondo, we have to coordinate. And that can be really hard because what NTIA has money for is a little different than what we have money for which is a little different than what the FCC has money for.

Andy: And on the FCC side you have awards that are going back several years that still haven't been built yet. And so we got to get people internet today. We have to do that. And so I think that we are on paths to sync up where it's a whole government approach. And by the way, I didn't even name Treasury, which also has Capital Project Fund doing this work. So we're synced up. We have inter-agency coordination meeting.

Jase: Coordination.

Andy: All those types of pieces, but one of the first things that I did was really talk to our team about how we get these processes down packed so that it's not just about coordination, it's like we know if you can repeat it, it's like shampoo, rinse, repeat. As these awards come up, we all know here's how we do it. Here's where we are. Here's how we sync up. And we can just get this done as efficiently as possible.

Jase: Spot on, Andy. And you touch on a couple of important mechanics there. You mentioned inter-agency coordination. We know that for folks who are going to get BEAD there's not already an RDOF winner. There's not already any of those other programs. But at the same time you're a creative dude. And your primary... Your flagship product is a loan. It's a low interest loan. Is there a universe in which folks that can go after ReConnect 4 and potentially even ReConnect 5 if the timing works out that could use that either as something in lieu of equity for matching funds or as a source of the entity that's doing a letter of credit? Or I guess there's some kind of creative solve there that meets inter-agency coordination requirements with the spirit of not doubling the money, but also providing a pathway to these local folks that can get the job done with the BEAD money.

Andy: Well, ReConnect is largely grant. So we do have other... We do have loan products as well. But with the great expansion of grant products at Treasury, NTIA and...

Jase: Yeah, going forward.

Andy: Those have been less attractive over the last several years than grant products. But as I said, we have, again roughly three times the demand for ReConnect that we can get out. And so we're going to continue to find ways to get these dollars out. We have for distressed communities, for communities with problems, we have some other tools that we can use. And I think, Jase, the key here is that I'm all about this mission. Every American will have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet. And we're going to break down any barrier that prevents us from doing that. At least that's certainly what I'm going to do. I know that's what this administration is about.

Andy: And the last piece, I'll just say to the people who may not be able to see it at quite the same place that I am able to see it from the vantage point is, like, this is a presidential priority. Lots of things happen in the federal government. I'm sure the administration cares about lots of things. This is like, they're on this. They are on this. Like, the highest levels, people are on this. And that means that there's one more click of urgency. There's one more click of scrutiny. There's one more, like, everything is dialed up pretty darn high. And if there's something that people think is a problem, on the inside or on the outside, you get some... There are some pretty high level people who are like, okay, if this is a problem, let's figure out how to get rid of it. And so people with the power to at least make some things happen...

Jase: You mean like the president of the United States calling Andy Berke like, hey, Andy I know you're busy, being special rep for Broadband and all that...

Andy: I wouldn't want people to think that the president Biden is like, hey, I want to make sure that Andy is doing his job, it's 3:30 on Tuesday, I'm going to call and make sure that he is doing his job. I hope and believe he's got other things that he's doing. But the point is that the White House is engaged.

Jase: A lot of folks behind him.

Andy: In a good way, like, in a good way, in a way that says, okay, we've heard this is the problem. Now let's figure out how we fix this and bring the resources to bear both on thinking you were talking about being creative. Like, if we need people inside the government, if the problem is some permitting at the Department of the Interior, let's bring some people to the table who are going to fix this.

Jase: I love it.

Andy: And that just gives you a little bit and one more click of urgency about those things.

Jase: You sound like you're in the excuse removal business, as I've heard it framed in the past from...

Andy: That's great. That's a good term. I was in a meeting about something else yesterday, it was not on this topic, where there was a... It was a pretty high level meeting. And there was definitely an excuse removal meeting. That's a good one. That's the way I would think about it.

Jase: Totally, dig it, Andy. And we're getting towards the tail end of our time together. And we know you're busy. And we, again, appreciate you on Veterans Day making time. We appreciate all the veterans that are tuning in. Thank you for the service to make this country awesome and to everything that Andy and team are doing to help folks get connectivity everywhere. And I want to transition into... We're going to come upon a lightning round. We're just going to rapid fire through questions. But before we get there, one thing that in our prep talk with Drew Clark from Broadband Breakfast, who's a mutual ally and also Andy fan club member, he was saying, you Andy, have probably the most holistic informed perspective of anybody working on the problem in Washington and Broadband because you've seen it from city, you've seen it from state, right? You've seen it from NTIA perspective. And now you're seeing it from rural perspective. And so this is going to tee up another question that comes in. And we'd already broken the record for the number of questions on your AMA going into this call. And there are new questions pouring in.

Jase: Joan Engebretson from Telecompetitor asked, how important do you think precision agriculture will be and what will the communications infrastructure to support it look like? And what can policymakers do to ensure that infrastructure is put in place? I'm asking that one because I'm out here in California and it's like a terrifyingly low amount of rain this year. And there's so much that can be done if the Broadband is not just in to the home, but to the farm and to the land and everything like that. So what do you think there, Andy? 

Andy: Yeah, it's huge. When I was the special representative for Broadband, I went to 31 different states and many of those states several times and heard a lot from people about precision agriculture. So let me just say a couple of things. And the place where I did a whole roundtable in Iowa about Broadband and high speed internet there, and they really talked about a couple of different things. One is this precision agriculture and how you could grow things now and just had to have connectivity to do that piece. And that was so important for them. The second piece of that was that you had this animal welfare piece that they were concerned about, which is now you can monitor what the feed is for your animals based on some sensors that were in the barn and then know when you needed to feed them or have automatic changes for this.

Andy: So all that was so important both for the animals and also to keep the farm moving and profitable for the people in Iowa. And the last piece I'll just say, I would put under quality of life, which is like a farmer would say, "Hey, I want to go. I'm at my farm. I want to go spend the night in Cedar Rapids or wherever." And I know that I can leave my farm behind because I have this connection. I can see what's going on there. I have the experience if I need to get back, I can get back. And these are small farmers who don't have like a million people there. That's part of their quality of life. And then the second part is a lot of the people who are out in the farmlands, they may have a spouse who doesn't want to work on the farm. They want to work for somebody in Minneapolis or wherever it is.

Jase: Remote.

Andy: And they can do that if they can work remotely online. And so for the non-farming spouse, so you've got these three things. You've got animal welfare. You've got precision agriculture. And you've got these quality of life issues. And again, it goes back to that thing of like, don't we want those people to live wherever they want to live? You want to be a farmer? And your spouse wants to live on the farm, but work in someplace else? That's awesome and gives people more power and control over their lives.

Jase: That gets back to your driving principle, Andy.

Andy: Yeah.

Jase: You're the real deal dude. Okay. So I'm going to switch gears on you for a minute and go back to ask you to put your mayor's hat back on. This is great for rural. And when you left NTIA, as the special rep for Broadband to go to head up RUS for USDA. It's like a huge win for rural America. But what about mayors? And what about folks that are inside of the city, right? That are like still... I know you pointed out, like in DC, you've got those options. You've got those choices. It's good, right? That's probably in a good part of DC. There are parts of DC that have been skipped over, redlined, and it appears that they have the service, but they don't actually have the service. And they're in the situation where they have the actual lion's share of the population of the United States. So what advice do you have for mayors and folks that are city leaders to make sure that they get their share of these upcoming programs? And I know that's a weird question to ask you. I know you have that polymath perspective.

Andy: No, no, no. It is so important. And I think, I say this as the head of the Rural Utility Service, this is not a rural issue. This is an American issue. And it is certainly acute in rural America, but it's also a huge problem in urban America. And we cannot, cannot overlook that, should never overlook that. And there are huge portions of our country that have been ignored. And I like the word ignored because it's purposeful. It has not been... There not been... It's not been an overlook or some kind of accidental thing. There are portions of our country that have been ignored when it comes to these types of opportunities and these products. And so we have to do this. So there is old infrastructure that hasn't been updated in the middle of cities. And we know that. There are places where the affordability is not there because of the type of things that people are providing. We... All those issues are critical. And we have to partner. First, we have to get the maps right that are going to come out here very, very soon about where Broadband is so that we can get the funding right, so that we can get the resources to the right location.

Andy: And all of that is in service of making sure that it's every American. And then the last piece I'll say about this is there's also this issue of affordability. And as you know, Jase, one of the last things that I did when I was mayor was we made internet free for every family with a child on free or reduced lunch.

Jase: Yeah, that's so cool.

Andy: So that was 300 symmetrical. That was free for every family with a child on free or reduced lunch. And so all of these pieces together are what create true access. And so one of the things that I'm most excited about for the future is to build up this idea of digital equity, which has been a lot the last decade talking about, and to say that we need true access. If we had... There are toll roads, of course, but if we had an opportunity for people to drive on roads, but it costs you $10 a day to get on the road out of your house to go to work, then all of a sudden, that changes the equation for you. And so we know that people pay for electricity. They pay for water. There's all kinds of things people pay for. I'm not suggesting that everything has to be free. I'm just saying that the affordability is part of the equation of access.

Jase: It is. It is a root of access. Somebody that grew up early life, single mom, working three jobs, I appreciate you taking care of folks. And having that kind of program, that kind of leadership, and showing what's possible is still internationally celebrated as a top network. And it's self-sufficient economically. And yet, it's still able to provide for folks that need that leg up access. And so that's really awesome, Andy. So I'm going to switch gears again on you. I know I do that a lot. But we're entering into lightning round. It's time, dude. There's so many freaking questions flying in. But I want to show you something real fast. We've been working for the last couple of years on developing a purpose-built Broadband grants research and development application platform that does full lifecycle stuff. And we're getting ready to release the Broadband audit for 55,000 places in the United States. And we have all these published at Broadband.money. The communities that need to get a leg up on understanding their current Broadband reality can do so.

Jase: Tribes, rural towns, small places. Here's a small town in Iowa that shows the truth, that shows based on evidence, even if a self-reported map might say otherwise, it's actually quite unserved and underserved by the definitions of those programs. With anchor institutions, like you mentioned everything. So I wanted to show that real fast. I need to tee up an important question from our VP Data Science Yuan Fan from MIT. She asks the question, Andy, can we get the shape files for all the Reconnect winners? Because we want to map them as part of that story. It's like, you already have somebody that's serving there. There's already won something in the past that's been recognized by the RUS as capable of serving. And tell that story to the folks that are teaming up so that a platform, a data platform, can be used to help facilitate inter-agency coordination while still respecting that there's a market and there are people that have done this stuff. Can you get the files? 

Andy: Well, I'll have to find that out. I'm happy to do that. I do think I fundamentally believe in open data. If you go to Chattanooga to chat a data or you can call it chat a data, but I prefer chat a data.

Jase: Chat a data.

Andy: But you could go look on that. We were kind of a pioneering city...

Jase: Absolutely.

Andy: On this whole open data push. And it does enable communities and people to find their own solutions and to also innovate and to have entrepreneurship. There's all kinds of great things that happen. I do know that there are lots of federal policies and implications to things. So I don't want to promise. But we'll be happy to look at it and see what it is we can do.

Jase: Dig it. Lightning round, Andy. Thank you for that. Dave Todd has been working to get the latency out of networks. Ask a question about what are your thoughts on latency, stuff that's beyond download, upload, speed. What do you do there? Because everybody talks about download, upload, but latency is as important, if not more important, to the future of those distributed applications.

Andy: The latency is incredibly important. And I think maybe in our preview session, Jase, I told you that maybe my technical expertise ends once you start talking about pings. That might be the place where I lose this. But there are standards on latency. We have that certainly at the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment notice of funding opportunity. We have that at ReConnect. Because going forward, you're right, I think one of the things that we're going to see is that latency becomes a bigger portion of the conversation rather than just speed because of gaming and internet of things applications and all kinds of other pieces. But I think that one of the places where I probably need to understand more is are there things that we need to be doing? Where are we going to see the gaps? And where are we going to be able to close those gaps? How are advancements going to help us there? Because that's such an interesting issue. But it's a place where people are really not nearly as focused as we need to be.

Jase: Spot on, Andy. Lightning round continues. Garland McCoy asks, what are your thoughts, Andy, about metering Broadband as many ISPs have been violating their consumer terms of service for years and decades? I know there's an upcoming label, but what are your thoughts about metering? Because you described it. And I think I tend to agree with you that it's inevitably going to be thought of this utility in either way.

Andy: Yeah, I think that's my piece is that again, if we think of this as a utility, then it starts to change how we look at all these different issues. And I think that that's the way that we're going completely. Now, there's always going to be some tension because unlike some of the other infrastructure places, there's a lot more of the private sector, for-profit private sector involved. And again, that's fine. That's healthy for us. But we have to strike that right balance that says, this is infrastructure. And you do have to obey your terms of service. And this is where we need to get to.

Jase: Yeah, spot on, Andy. And community member Stephanie Stenberg asked, Andy, can you please talk about the role of nonprofit, state, and regional research and education networks in rural Broadband development? You touched on anchor institutions. And I think that Stephanie does important work on helping those anchor institutions.

Andy: So when I was mayor, we started the first innovation district in a mid-sized city. And one of the anchor institutions was the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. And what we were able to do is to involve UTC and basically everything that we did from running a test bed in the middle of the city to kind of doing research on where we had equity issues, where there were problems going on in our network, things like that. And so right now, for example, as we're rolling out this in Chattanooga, when I say us, I better make clear who us is. It's not me. Chattanooga is now continuing on with this work to make internet free for every family with a child on free or reduced lunch. We're also doing a study on how does that affect these families, their opportunities, their quality of life, things like that. And so we need to be data-driven. We need to understand what's going on. And that is always going to be that. And we've got to partner up with credible, reliable institutions who can do the work.

Jase: Spectacular, Andy. Thank you for advocating for coalitions and advocating for getting the anchors involved. Next question, lightning round. We've got two more minutes. We've got to go and do a quick meta moment. This is us live in the meta. Well, I won't say that term, but I have to show this to you. It's kind of ridiculous. It's from community member Greg. And it's about the logo for the upcoming program. And I think it's maybe not a serious question. But I don't know if you're a Star Wars fan or not. But there's thought that this could potentially be your new logo for Reconnect. I don't know if that's going to help or not.

Andy: Which one? I can't see it.

Jase: Oh, you probably can't see it.

Andy: I can't see it.

Jase: Go to the page afterwards and see that Greg is asking about the logo for Reconnect. It looks a lot like Star Wars.

Andy: Number one is I have the day off. So this morning, I watched episode 10 of Andor. I don't know if people are watching Andor. And maybe I can't endorse any product as a federal official. But on my day off, I'll just say watch Andor if you're not already.

Jase: All right.

Andy: And I'm always happy to have a meta type of logo. So send them along.

Jase: All right. Look, there's another question. You just surface... You're a dad, right? 

Andy: Yes.

Jase: I'm a dad recently. I got a two-year-old boy. Do you have any gently used dad jokes that you can share with me and hand me down? Because my team tells me my dad jokes are just not that good. The Ready Knit team, they're amazingly talented people. But I just continue to let them down. So do you have any good dad jokes? 

Andy: Well, you do need a broad band of jokes, Jase, for what you're going to do.

Jase: Next level.

Andy: Okay. So...

Jase: Industry-specific dad jokes. Brilliant.

Andy: I feel like I'm done here. My work here is done.

Jase: My wife the other day asked me if I had seen our cat's bowl. And I told her I didn't even know that they could.

Andy: Ha ha ha ha. That's a good one. I like it. Yeah, that's good.

Jase: No, I need to work on it. I know. We're good there. Andy Berke, you're freaking awesome, dude. You're an inspiration to a lot of people. You've done a ton of crap for the Broadband industry. I wonder at some point if you can... We'll connect again, but I'm wondering about the trajectory that goes from all those things that you've done to what you're doing now to what's that future look like? Are you like... You seem like you got the POTUS vibes? Someday you could do that kind of thing. But it's really an honor to hang out with you, man. And we're out of time. Community members that didn't get a chance to get their questions answered from me personally, Andy, if you have time, go onto the page, check out the logo for ReConnect 5 and drop in some answers to some of those other questions if you would... Really thank you again for making time, Andy.

Andy: Thanks so much for having me on, Jase. Hope everybody has a great rest of their day.