Ask Me Anything! with BJ Tanksley, Missouri Director of Broadband Development

Ask Me Anything! with BJ Tanksley, Missouri Director of Broadband Development Banner Image

Aug 25, 2023

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About Our Distinguished Guest

BJ was brought on to serve as the director of Office of Broadband Development a little over a year ago in January of 2022. Before serving in Missouri's Department of Economic Development, BJ spent nearly nine years with the Missouri Farm Bureau, first as a regional coordinator and later as the director of State Legislative Affairs.

Event Transcript

Drew Clark: And we're live. Good afternoon. Welcome to Ask Me Anything! In the Broadband Community. I'm Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, and here to welcome Missouri's BJ Tanksley. BJ is the Director of Broadband Development for the Missouri Department of Economic Development, and we are so excited to have you, BJ. Thanks for being with us.

BJ Tanksley: Yeah, thanks for having me. It's obviously an exciting time in the state of Missouri, but thrilled up to be here.

Drew: Well, before we dive into the Ask Me Anything! With any of your questions that you all have put forward and are already in the community, we want to remind you that we have got a super busy September coming up. In fact, we've got Ask Me Anythings every Friday the month of September, doubling our normal pace of Every other week. September 1st, we have an Ask Me Anything! With Sachin Gupta, the Director of Government Business and Economic Development at Centranet. Keep your eyes open for two upcoming events, the next week, September 8th with Jason Cohen of MyBundle, and following, an Ask Me Anything! With Katherine Townsend, the Executive Director of Measurement Lab, a critical, critical organization in this realm of broadband data and broadband, mapping and understanding the real state of broadband deployment.

Drew: But of course, today we're here with BJ. BJ's got actually an extensive career in broadband, in state broadband advocacy through his work with the Missouri Farm Bureau. I certainly wanna ask you about that, but probably I think the thing that's most on people's minds is the fact that it appears that Missouri, the "Show-Me" state, is really the Show Me The Money state. You have got the third highest total of broadband funds in the country. The $1.7 billion that Missouri will receive is third only to Texas at $3.3 billion, and California at $1.8 billion, multi-regional states. And here we are, Missouri, how did you score this coup, BJ, seriously? 

BJ: [chuckle] Well, I think, truthfully, it's a humbling number, it's what it is to me. There's just a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of unserved places across the state of Missouri. It's a big number and we're very excited about it. I will say our team did work hard though. We partnered, in our planning efforts, with the University of Missouri, our regional planning commissions across the state, and then our office as well. And when that map challenge process came up with the FCC, we were very active in it. We did some radio promotion, we did some one-on-one promotion through the mail system. We actually did radio. We went old school and did some marketing for it to try to get as many challenges in, and I'd say that played a role in what we ended up with. But also, when you look at the break down, we're not overly surprised. When we initially thought, "Hey, how many un-served locations do we think we had in the state of Missouri?"

BJ: We thought we would be well over one billion, but then when you looked at the extreme high cost, which was a big part of what the breakdown ended up being, I think that's what really put us over the top. Missouri's uniquely situated in that we have a lot of... We're not as sparsely populated as some of the states to the West of us, but we also have a lot of people still lacking service, and so I think those two things combined here in Missouri to be... There's a lot of work to do. We're excited for the funding, but there's a lot of work on the table.

Drew: Let's just dive in a little bit more, break that down. You raised two issues. One is challenges, and I wanna ask about that, but you also referenced the extremely high cost threshold. And even though we do have a good group of people who know this terrain, follow this, it'd be worthwhile for us to take a second and just review, what is the extremely high cost threshold? Have you defined it yet for Missouri and how's that playing into the funds allocation we're just speaking about here? 

BJ: Yeah, so the $42 billion that NTIA had in a pot was broken out by state, by need of the state, and then there was a portion of those funds that was dedicated to the extreme high costs, and that was an estimate run by NTIA, of extreme high cost in Missouri versus extreme high cost across the United States. That's what I was referring to. When I look into the numbers, from what's been shared, we got a good portion of that, largely because...

Drew: What portion? Do you know what those numbers are? 

BJ: I think it was over $300 million of our funds was from that extreme high cost. That's a rough estimate 'cause I couldn't tell you off the top of my head and didn't bring that number in the room with me. But I think it was well over $300 million. And honestly, from Missouri's perspective, we don't have as much public land as others, but we do have Mark Twain National Forest across southern Missouri, and a lot of sparsely-populated areas and tough terrain down there, and those are where a lot of our unserved locations are. We have unserved across the whole state, but that area needs a lot of work and we'll be spending a lot of time and effort down there trying to get service. And so I think that's where a lot of that plays in. Now, you also brought up that kind of...

Drew: The challenges.

BJ: Cost per location threshold for the state when it comes to the planning. We have not set that number yet. We've been in extensive conversations with other states and with NTIA about what that number should be, and we've been talking quite frankly throughout our planning effort, 'cause we knew that number, it's a pivotal number, right? And we've been engaging providers at every regional meeting that we did and saying, "Hey, what should that number be?" And no one came back... I was like, so nobody would want to in front of everyone, but nobody ever said, hey, here's what we think the number should be, we're still open to those conversations, but I think it's... 'Cause it's a bit of a moving target and it's tough in both directions. So we've got about a month here to put the wrap on that, but we really are, and we know that that's a pivotal number. We just did a ARPA funded broadband program, and I think it came in.

BJ: Just over 5000 per passing when you looked at the totality of the program, but there were dramatic differences in cost from project to project, and as a relatively new broadband director, when you saw those you raise your eyebrows, but then when you looked at the project areas, it was pretty clear, if we don't help fund this, this project doesn't happen. And so we want to, whatever we do with that number to still be able to have that flexibility, we don't wanna let a number prevent us from being able to move forward with good projects.

Drew: So let's just recap what you said. There's really two uses of the extremely high cost. One was as a portion of the funds allocation which you helpfully identified as roughly $300 million of your $1.7 billion. So good chunk. That certainly helped getting you up, up, up that number three position, right? That's different from the extremely high cost threshold that states are gonna have to set. And again, just to nail this issue home, what does it mean when an extremely high cost threshold is set wherever it's set at, whether it's five or 25,000? I mean, and I've heard everything in between. What is it gonna mean in terms of like whether someone gets a particular type of broadband project deployed to their location? 

BJ: Yeah. My understanding of the major impacts of that are the type of technology you can use in that area. Meaning if it comes in over an estimated certain amount of cost technologies beyond fiber are by, are an option in those areas. And then also the matching requirements are lessened in some of those location, those areas as well.

Drew: Okay. Important, important things to keep in mind and unpack. Let's go to that first part of that question on challenges. And you highlighted how active you were. And let's talk a little bit about this. And it was kind of a bit of a cluster last fall on this whole issue of locations and availability and challenges by location of the fabric and challenges by availability. Talk just a few minutes about that, BJ and the types of challenges you did. Can you tell us the order of magnitude or the number of challenges you did and how many were successful? 

BJ: You know, as a state, we didn't file any. We just did a lot of promotion and working with citizens to do so.

Drew: Interesting.

BJ: Our university of Missouri extension offices were open for people who didn't have access to the internet, it was always the hardest phone call to have, which was I'd like to file a challenge to my location, but I don't have the internet to do it on. So they made themselves available. A lot of our libraries across the state made themselves available. And then we did kind of grassroots promotion of this, radio and a little bit of television out there where they helped us promote it. We went somewhat viral across the southern part of the state. I know because our phones were backlogged for about three days with solid voicemails. So we did a lot of that type of thing and really did the boots on the ground.

BJ: We didn't do a lot of just widespread of saying, this is right or this is wrong, because we thought it was an interesting position that the state was in as you had to have firsthand knowledge of the availability there. And we thought that that was a level so high that the FCC set it almost too difficult for states to really have a meaningful impact from that perspective. But we did know that we had thousands of challenges, which were upheld and we know that those really did impact the number in the end.

Drew: So who was doing the challenges? 

BJ: Yeah, those were citizens across the state truly. We had some providers probably that did too, but the ones we know about were individual citizens.

Drew: Okay. Okay. So we've got a question here about, rural electric cooperatives. And of course, BJ Missouri is home to many leading RECs. Could you talk including, united fiber, right? Which is actually like x like five, I think five or maybe even seven times its electric cooperative subscribers are taking fiber, right? So that's just one example of one of many rural electric cooperatives. Can you talk a little bit about the role that these electric co-ops play in helping to connect rural Missouri homes? 

BJ: Yeah. You know you're right, you covered it well, so I won't rehash it, but we're very lucky in the state of Missouri that in some of our rural areas we have non-traditional providers that have been very active. Both rural electric cooperatives and telephone cooperatives, both have been very active in their areas. I'm probably not telling anyone they don't know, but the major benefits to that is they look to serve everybody within their area. And so you see a more complete level of coverage oftentimes with those types of providers. So it's been a great asset to the state. We were luckily able to partner with a number of those, with our ARPA funded program and help them expand in their areas. About a third of the projects went to cooperatives of electric or telephone with the funds we were able to spend there.

BJ: And we were very excited to be able to do so. We have some areas that are still lacking a provider and there may be an opportunity for electric cooperatives in some of those areas when we talked about some of the tougher to reach areas of the state, Southwest and South central parts, and even along kind of the Iowa border to the Northern half too. Like I said, the major asset of that rural electric cooperative situation is they look to serve everybody. And when that's the main goal of the program this next, we've titled our IIJA efforts are connecting all Missourians 'cause that's what we're looking to do. And in that kind of situation, it's nice to have a partner who truly is looking to finish the job, get out to everyone they serve.

Drew: BJ we're really moving squarely into the BEAD implementation phase with the award announcements two months ago. And the kind of the planning, the initial proposals being circulated. We actually had news on that front. Louisiana and Virginia are battling out to be the first state to issue their volume two. Virginia issued theirs last week and Louisiana just issued theirs today or yesterday. We got the story on this. But BJ when are you gonna get your, talk about the plans that you've got and when yours is gonna come out and kind of what that means for these providers, including the rural electric co-ops. How should they fit into and think about the planning that you're in the midst of right now, BJ? 

BJ: Yeah. It's the thing that's right around the corner, right? So five-year plans are due Monday, I have the final draft on my desk for one more review before we turn it into NTIA and then make that publicly available. We're coming right down onto the wire on that one, which isn't typically our way. But that's where we are. And then with the initial proposal largely focused on the challenge process, our team has really taken a deep dive and we've got some pretty creative solutions that we think will be interesting that we'll propose in that initial proposal, with that took a little bit more time and review. We're excited about some of those ideas, but we also wanted to have the chance to share that with some of our friends at NTIA.

BJ: Obviously they couldn't give us the final thumbs up or thumbs down, but we wanted to make sure we weren't going too far outside the suggestions before we made that public. The other thing for the state is we're doing our own mapping effort. Missouri's never had its own broadband map. And we are wrapping up that contracting right now. They're in the middle of the review for that. So we don't wanna release our plans for challenging until we have that partner secured, and then we know exactly what timeline we're on with them as well. 'Cause we wanna be able to share that as completely as possible. And then as far as second volume two on that, we expect to have it out... So volume one, we're aiming at mid-September right now, September 15th is our goal internally.

BJ: And then for volume two, we're anticipating early October to have it available and out there for public comment. You said what can everybody do? Really, we want extensive public comment on this. We wanna hear from everybody, potential applicants, potential people in need of service, and then also stakeholders at large to let us know what looks good, what looks like it should be taken another look at and then move forward. So we're excited about, there's a lot of work going on, even though those deadlines are about a month, month and a half at this point.

Drew: Well, and just to recap, I mean, there's, this can get bureaucratic. It can seem bureaucratic, but you basically talking about four separate things, right? And we actually talk about three of them. I wanna ask about the fourth one too. You've got your five-year plan, which is the one you've got there under your mug there. And you're gonna review it and get that out Monday. You've got volume one and volume two of the initial proposals, which are heavily dependent and reliant upon the maps and understanding them. And that's why you said you, you've held off for a little while on map, on, on volume one, September 15th, target October for volume two. There's also the digital equity plan. And could you just talk a little bit about that and how that fits into the five-year plan and to the initial proposals that you're working on? 

BJ: Yeah absolutely. So the digital equity part of the public engagement and stuff and the five-year plan are all included. They're ready to go. We've been doing some interesting things on the digital equity side but for as far as digital equity planning, we think it'll be around October 1st too where that part of the proposal will be available as well. Very excited about what we've done there. We actually because there were funds available and we didn't need it for the staffing side, we actually funded 10 digital demonstration projects across the state, partnering with people in that digital equity world largely promoting ACP promotion and then also doing some digital skills training. So we're really excited about that. Those efforts are starting to come back now where they're sharing what they were able to do with the funding we put out there. So we're excited. The state had never funded digital equity opportunities in the past. So it was kind of a first step with that before here in about a year, we'll get a lot more funding for digital equity work. So we wanted to have a little more background on that. Some firsthand knowledge of what funding it looked like, how we judge those applications and that kind of thing before we go in with what will be $20, $24 million worth of effort in the coming years.

Drew: We have a good follow up on this point from Kenneth Yancy. Does the state of Missouri plan to use any of the BEAD dollars for digital equity and workforce development projects? 

BJ: If it's available and the infrastructure side is done? Yes. That would be my first answer to what do we plan to do with BEAD funding and if there's any leftover would be working on this digital inclusion, digital equity side of things, that's where we'll try to go. The truth is, with $1.7 billion, it's a huge number, but when you divide that by almost 300,000 eligible locations to be funded, it's not as big as it seems. And so the question is how, the other question that comes from that is how much funds do you think you'll have over? I don't know that we will, but if we do, yes, we will try to take advantage of that.

Drew: And just to be clear, the digital equity funds, each state has a small amount of digital equity funds, and then there's also an opportunity to apply for digital equity funds at the NTIA level. Again, any quick thoughts on how those entities that are seeking to do projects can relate to your office on this? 

BJ: Yeah. Obviously take advantage of both opportunities if you can apply directly for those competitive funds from NTIA, please do and then in the summertime of 2024 is when we will do a competitive round of grants. We'd love to visit with you about what you do now. But that's when the funding opportunity will come. The challenge in the state of Missouri is, we have some, digital equity work going on in our, in Kansas City and St. Louis, but in the less populated areas, less so. So our real goal will be to try to get this kind of work going on all across the state but yeah, engage with us. We have a monthly stakeholder calls. We also do, we keep our up our website updated on all times so people can engage with us personally or wait for those opportunities too, to keep up with the latest on that.

Drew: BJ let me put in the plug here as well here on, and the Broadband community. We have channels for each state, and we wanna make sure we get information from Missouri, into that. What is the date of your regular, stakeholder meeting? Can I just have that, BJ? 

BJ: Yeah. Interestingly enough, it's the last Friday of the month at one o'clock. So I actually hopped off of that call and onto this call 'cause it's always the last Friday at one o'clock.

Drew: Great. Well, what did you talk about today? 

BJ: Today we talked about, 'cause our state, our office is also doing a cell tower program. It's an ARPA funded program trying to focus on cell service in places where there's not. So we talked about our cell tower program. We talked about our mapping effort, securing that contract, the BEAD planning and the digital equity planning. So it was a, kind of a deep dive, shallow dive, but across all programming.

Drew: I was gonna ask this a little bit later, but let's just jump into this. This is an interesting thing you're doing this cell tower grants program, and you've just referenced that it's an ARPA program, a American Rescue Plan Act. And in particular there's a portion of that called the State Local Fiscal Recovery Act. And I'm taking it, it was from this, this $20 million program just, and it's opening, I think today. Is that right? 

BJ: Applications closed the end of July. The challenge process for it is opening today.

Drew: Okay.

BJ: 'Cause we wanna do similarly to what people do with Broadband. We don't wanna fund it where there's already service. Right. But we were very lucky, our leadership, governor Parson in the state and our legislature agreed. They actually appropriated us $20 million to work on this program and we spent some time because we had never done a project like that before. We looked at what other states had done that had been successful and when we closed in late July, we actually had applications for almost 60 different towers and it looks like we'll be able to take advantage of all the funds, and may build more than 40 towers across the state. And it may sound wild to some people on the call, but there's big areas of Missouri where there's not great cellular coverage. And although it's not a Broadband connection every day. But if you don't have a cell connection, you're really outta luck. And we wanna get that base level service in a lot of places.

Drew: That's not surprising to me at all. BJ, as you may know, I was the state Broadband officer in Illinois during kind of round one of this process back in, 2010-2013. And I traveled around the state, including the area of western Illinois that's sometimes known as Forgottonia. Right. Which is right across the river from your state. And cell service was literally impossible to come by. Right. So my concern is less kind of acknowledging that plain reality as sometimes people kind of knocking out potential areas from coverage because oh, we're covered. Right? And the truth of this is, is that these areas that, that are served by cellular service or if they are served, are definitely not in the 100 by 20 camp. Right? So they're certainly underserved and very likely unserved as well. So could you just speak to this point and can you assuage any of my concerns, BJ? 

BJ: Yeah.

Drew: That the challenge process is gonna, hamper the true deployment of areas to true need.

BJ: Yeah. So from my opinion, people probably need to have access to both, right? They need a quality cellular connection and a quality Broadband connection. And if those both can come, that's great. We made sure that we measured the cell tower program on cellular service. It's a tower being built, and it had to have a cellular provider providing cellular service on it. If there's ancillary benefits of Broadband, that would be great for the... Can be served by it. But that was not the goal of it. And we wanna make, we tried to make sure that we were making the right balance there. These towers will take some time to be deployed. And so I don't think it will make a major difference in who's fundable and who's not, through the Broadband grant program. That'll be BEAD funded. It may, but we hope that it plays a beneficiary role with each other rather than competing with each other.

Drew: They don't call this and ask me anything for nothing. Okay. So we got bunches of questions. I'm gonna go through them. Jeff Subotica asks, BJ, what role do you see the new Middle Mile builds, that are playing to connect isolated unserved and underserved communities in Missouri? And what is your strategy to get those projects funded? Did Missouri have any successful Middle Mile projects BJ? 

BJ: Yeah, we had one NTIA funded Middle Mile project. Big one. It was 40 some million dollars. Very excited about that. Serving some area kind of western and then up all the way kind of into Central Missouri. Very excited about that. We hope that to have access to it as much as possible and take advantage of these, we fully, as an office recognize Middle Mile being a very important part of the process. But it's also been difficult historically as an office from the state's perspective, when you're trying to connect households. It's hard to measure that against, the Middle Mile infrastructure that's more like a highway system. I totally get that both play a vital role in this. But it's always been difficult. The NTIA program will allow us to fund Middle Mile as long as it's directly correlated to a last mile connection.

BJ: But it also measures that against the, are you connect before we could do a Middle Mile specific project, they have to feel secure that we're gonna reach all unserved locations and underserved locations before we can do other things like middle mile or digital equity. So we would love to be able to, we haven't determined yet that we can or cannot. Like I said, we fully feel that it's an important part of it. I also want to say that if we don't hit the mark with our proposed full plan with our second volume two, right. Wait, let us know.

Drew: Well, you've answered another question that Justin Fazzari had about, noting that middle mile can be funded, in the BEAD if they are tied into a project. And you've, pointed out that, well, yes, but we have to make sure unserved and then underserved are, and then anchor institutions are taken care of. I did wanna, build off, again, questions are coming in all over the place here, but let's talk a minute about that $1.7 billion that, again, we started off saying how much it is, but you've actually pointed out we may not be able to, and Mike Faloon asks, do you anticipate that the $1.7 billion will be enough to bring fiber to every unserved and underserved missourian? Or is there still a shortfall and you won't be able to get fiber to unserved and underserved? 

BJ: Yeah, it's a bit of a moving target. I wanna make sure everybody's clear. We were funded based on unserved of the FCC back in the summer. Still a big number, but we also have to reach all those underserved as well, as well as any new unserved that may come up through the state challenge process. So it's a bit of a moving target. As we've estimated as a team, we're looking at probably in the neighborhood of 250,000 unserved and underserved and unfunded locations. So those are top priority to over 250,000 locations. And then an additional 75,000 underserved and unfunded locations that we have to reach. Now, that's just details to say, when everybody says, are you gonna get to everybody? Well, we're sure gonna try to but there's also some unknowns in how high does inflation get? How much more does this construction cost in 2024 and 2025, than it did when we first saw estimates of this. I will just say, Missouri, in preparation for all of the, all of the funding, ARPA and IIJA, we actually did a Broadband status of the state of Missouri with Tilson and ConQuest, and they did a great job at that point. They estimated the need at just about $2 billion, and we did 260 with...

Drew: That's to get fiber everywhere that estimate? 

BJ: Everywhere. They did two separate measures. They did one to do wireless everywhere and one to do fiber everywhere. The reason they did it as two models was they didn't wanna say where one was better and the other one was better. So they said, what does both cost? And they both came in just around $2 billion. And so, when you add what we did with ARPA $260 million plus, what we can and will be doing with, IIJA funding, we're gonna be real close. I think the remaining question is, you know, what are those outside factors that impact the overall cost? So we're hopeful, and I think we get a long way there. But I think that's the biggest question. And I can't tell you 100% yes, but that sure is what we're working towards.

Drew: Now, we have a very active, participant. In fact, he was a, we did an Ask Me Anything with this, person. David Tate, he asks this question at every Ask Me Anything. So if you've seen one before, you may know what I'm going to, have you read the B tag report on latency, on Broadband latency, and what is the importance of Broadband latency? How would, if someone came up to you in a supermarket and said, Hey, I'm concerned about Broadband latency, what would you say to that person? BJ.

BJ: Well, I did my homework by seeing the comments and I did not read the whole report, but I did at least scan through it. And I will say that we also, I mean, there's a lot of things in there, but talking about the overall user's experience and how important latency is in that, and I think there, you're absolutely right. You hit the nail on the head. It's not all about speed, but there is about drops. And that's a big deal. Those delays and those drops really do impact the play and everything. And that's why, when we measured for our ARPA funded program, we ask speed and latency to try to make sure we were getting those best products out there as possible. And so I do think we have to keep that in mind with every project that we fund. And those things all do play. I will not pretend to be a latency expert but we do know it's important.

Drew: Dave also asked another question. He says, about 20 years ago, St. Louis went into, went all in on creating community fiber, but before it became deployable, a governor, a new governor made it impossible for local entities to actually use it. Could you actually speak to this question, because this comes up, there's about 17 states that have various restrictions, and Missouri is one of them on municipal Broadband. Could you speak to how you in that role of state Broadband officer are addressing this question of municipalities that may want to get involved in BEAD? 

BJ: Yeah. Every municipality across the state has to make their own decisions. And as the Broadband office, I don't, I do not give legal advice in any way, but will, what I'll say is, the impact of that law is, seems to be varied on interpretation. We do have several municipalities across the state who have gotten into Broadband and have been successful in doing so.

Drew: Yes. No, I should point out Springfield. Yeah, it's a very well known spring net. Right. And how did they do that? Right. So in other words, you're basically saying it's not an out and out restriction, it's just there's some kind of limits and, and what are those limits? 

BJ: It seems to be a bit vague and up to the interpretation at this point as to whether or not it's 'cause what the restriction impacts. But Springfield Missouri, Houston Missouri, Marshall Missouri, and there's a few others but those are the three that kind of come top of mind. Just from my days working on kind of the advocacy side. They have been successful in doing municipal networks, and continue to grow those in their areas. And that's kind of Springfield being a population for those that don't know that are listening. 300,000 people, so not a small community. And then the other two, Houston, Missouri being really small, and Marshall being, kind of midsize, probably 10 to 20,000 people. So.

Drew: We have a question here from, Johannes Zewge, again, apologies, Johannes, but this is a good question, important question. The BEAD, letter of credit requirement asks service providers to show 25% of the funds they're asking this and other requirements seem to favor big and national service providers. Does Missouri expect a lot of the funding to the big ISPs? 

BJ: This is a deep question. And with many different answers, I do think we share concerns. We have shared them with NTIA over the 25% letter of credit. We included that actually in our public comments on the uniform guidance piece, that this is an opportunity, let's weigh in on this. And we'd look for flexibility, for some of those things. We have in the state of Missouri used performance bonds or letters of credit and let the provider choose their path. And so we'll see, if we get some additional flexibility. The thing I think is, and I'll say it here 'cause I've told NTIA this, I think it's a little funny that we ask for a letter of credit that then we can reimburse for.

BJ: So that seems a little bit funny. We're kind of just driving up the cost of the program. As far as, expectations and impacts, I think, and, and Missouri will continue to work towards a program that allows as many different applicants to be a part of it and successful in it as we possibly can. Large providers, small providers, all across and non-traditional, munis, anybody that would be interested. We try to very hard and diligently with our ARPA funded program and came out, I think, pretty successful in that. And we were will try and continue to try, to push for those flexibilities that we think are important because we do worry, I worry, that some of those types of restrictions could lead towards one provider over another or provider type. And we think the best way to be successful at this is to have a lot of entities, a lot of providers doing work at the same time. Let's get a lot of people engaged in this. We have 300,000 locations. It'd be a lot better off if we had 30 different providers out there working on it than few working on really large projects. So I don't know that I can say what exactly the impact is, but we wanna make sure we're fighting for that flexibility as much as possible.

Drew: Well, and just to editorialize a tad, right? I mean there's a matching funds requirement that that projects bring at least 25% and the state, I guess you can set a higher threshold, I don't know if you will, you can maybe answer that BJ, but, that is serving a very different purpose than the letter of credit. The matching funds is basically amplifying the funding that's available because it's pouring private capital and to the public funding the letter of credit is just contracting because it's basically locking up funds that can't be used. And again there's a lot of attention on this issue. There may be some movement on a national level, but I think you've kind of tried to address some of this and I know that was a question that ranged across a couple of of areas. But have you been involved in any for, I guess two part question. One, what's your thinking on the matching funds rule that you have or will have? And two, do you kind of have any, have you shared any of these concerns or do you have any of these concerns that I've raised about the letter of credit.

BJ: So matching funds, I think, matching funds is one of the places that's gonna be competitive for the grant, right? I think it's one of the areas, what we did in the past is we scored higher for those bringing more matching funds. And that was one way that we made our ARPA funds go further. I think it makes total sense. Those that can you try to benefit you try to make your dollars goes as long as, as far as possible. So I'm not necessarily opposed to the 25%. I do think...

Drew: Right, are you gonna raise it it higher is what I'm asking.

BJ: I think we will try to make it a competitive factor, not raise it higher, but make it a competitive factor.

Drew: You get more points in your application if you bring 30, 35, 50, whatever.

BJ: That would be my goal and allow that to organically, that way a provider knows what works for them and what doesn't. If I try to force that on people, I feel like I'm impacting the competitiveness of the program. I want those providers to be able to make those decisions knowing that it's gonna weigh into their score. But it also reaches my goal of let's make these funds go as far as possible if given the opportunity of NTIA, let's me those are the kinds of things we'll do with that. As far as a letter of credit, yes, we have shared concerns along the terms of letters of credit with NTIA. I will tell you, because here we are, they don't seem like they're ready to move very far on it. But we have continued to share our concerns with it. Overall, from my perspective, you're just raising the cost of the program. You're getting fiber in the ground by making everybody pay for something that, quite frankly, they're going to be willing to reimburse for.

Drew: Yeah. Benjamin Kahn asks, how did your role at the Farm Bureau prepare you for your current role? And obviously, it was nice to get this short profile of you out there that highlighted this and I was intrigued to learn about this role. Tell us what you did. What is the Farm Bureau? What did you do for them? And literally, how did it prepare you for what you're doing now? 

BJ: In many ways. So Missouri Farm Bureau is a membership organization representing largely rural interest and then obviously agricultural interest for across the state of Missouri. Missouri Farm Bureau has over 300,000 members across the state of Missouri, so we represent a lot of people. What I did for them was advocate in the state capital on behalf of their grassroots policies. And so through that, I really got to, one of the main priorities of Missouri Farm Bureau was let's try to get broadband to people that don't have it. In the state of Missouri, we knew these conversations were happening in other places. But in the state there really wasn't a leading voice for broadband in 2015, 2014. Those early years of this conversation.

BJ: It had kind of come and gone with previous programs. And so we had made it a major priority of Farm Bureau back then and just kind of led the way in the conversation. We were very lucky early in the conversation to have partners like the Department of Agriculture at the time, the Department of Economic Development, the Governor's Office was supportive, but we also had outside partners like the University of Missouri, their education parts of MOREnet, which does, middle mile fiber to anchor institutions. And so we had some really strong partners in that effort who came together and hosted a big meeting. And out of that meeting came that the number one thing in the state needed was to have a renewed office of broadband.

BJ: And who would have known in 2016, I was lobbying for an effort that then I would work on behalf of, but it was a lot of fun. The real question was, how did it play into what I do? It was a really awesome time. So we advocated for the office, and then shortly after that started talking about what a grant program should look like. It allowed me to be a part of those conversations. But most of the time that conversation was being had between provider and provider, and I was the voice of the end user in many of those conversations. I was the person saying, hey, I know you like 25 3 and you like 10 1. It's hard to believe we were talking 25 3 and 10 1.

Drew: Hard to believe.

BJ: Yeah. And I was saying, let's get as much out there as we can. And so I got to be a part of those conversations, really understood the arguments at the state and federal level, because I was a part of them, and then brought that background knowledge of knowing the providers across the state, the issues that they face, and then already bringing that knowledge to the state. Now, a little, we were very lucky to be coming here at the time when we were going to be, who would have known, investing close to $2 billion over the course of 10 years, but here we are. So it was a great program. Really got to know them without making a lot of people mad. I got to understand a lot of the challenges they face.

Drew: Well, I really appreciate your talking about that. And particularly, I think what you said in this that I'm taking away is you get to be the voice of the consumer and the user. And that's really key because too often the conversation, like you've just said, has been like ISP1 and ISP2, and maybe the government that's funding, but you really need to get that consumer voice representing that like, hey, I want good broadband, and I want it cheap, and I want it with low latency and all those things, right? And but my follow-up to you, BJ, is what can the Missouri Farm Bureau do now that you're not there but at the State Broadband Office? What can organizations like that do in Missouri and in other states? 

BJ: Yeah, there's still a lot of work to be done. The funding is here, but we also still need advocacy on these things that matter. Letters of credit, uniform guidance, things like that, that are gonna be challenges to deployment. We still need voices beyond providers and offices that are weighing in on these things. Because obviously, oftentimes it seems self-interested when they come to the, with the... With talking about a challenge. But when there's real things like that, there's still a major opportunity for advocacy on that front. The other thing that our office weighs in on or needs big-time from the public is we weigh heavily on public support for a project.

BJ: We don't wanna fund projects for, a provider that the public in that location doesn't want. We need that voice. We have 10 people here in the office, or 13 in the office now, but we don't have the capacity to be everywhere, every time, talking to every voice. Those kind of outside groups can help let us know, hey, this is what this community needs. This is where the map doesn't look right. They have an opportunity to weigh in on the challenge map and that will be huge. So those are a lot of things, public engagement and weighing in at every corner.

Drew: Dina Kim asks a great question that's worthy of a follow-up. What does the public comment period look like? Right, and you've mentioned you've got your five-year, your five-year plans can be released on Monday. You've given us kind of tentative dates for the volume one, the DEA, and volume two. There's a 30-day comment period on the five-year plan, is that right? Or no? 

BJ: There is no official comment on the five-year plan. The five-year plan is more high level, it's background, what did you do there? We would welcome people's input on it, but there isn't like official comment because it doesn't have to be heard before it's submitted.

Drew: So what does the comment period for those other ones, because there is a 30-day comment period for each of those, what does that look like? And I think just going a little beyond what I think Dina is asking is, how do I get involved in the comment period? 

BJ: Yeah. Through our website and our email systems, we will send them out all through our social medias and those things 'cause we will have a form to comment on every section of the challenge process and we'll have it open for at least 30 days and then we'll take those comments into account. We will publicize that as far and wide as we can. We will do press releases and surprisingly a lot of newspapers when they see this amount of money being spent and the ability for the public to weigh in, they do use those. But we will have 30-day public comment periods for each piece of this in order for people to weigh in.

BJ: We also will be looking for other unique opportunities for people to weigh in. We're exploring possibly an in-person meeting as well as other opportunities for people to make public comments beyond just the online opportunities.

Drew: So, I want to move to a series of questions that Garland McCoy has raised, and I see he's trying to raise his hand. Garland, we know you're passionate about this. Let me start off with this one. Are you looking, BJ, to independently audit BEAD funding ISP network improvements and expansion as the BEAD language now allows the ISPs to self-test, self-audit their network? So I'm getting at this trust but verify concept here. And again, we started off a little bit with this, BJ, is there's a lot of networks that are claiming coverage that simply does not exist. So how do we verify that? 

BJ: Just for clarification, are we talking on existing service through like the challenge process or are we talking funded service through awarded BEAD projects? 

Drew: Let's talk first about the existing services and then maybe we can talk about the future too. But so on the challenge, exactly this point, for things that are allegedly served, allegedly underserved, how can someone, or how can you, I guess is really what I'm getting at, is what are you doing to verify? 

BJ: Yeah, I can't speak a lot about it, but some of our mapping partners would potentially have staff to go do these things, meaning actually boots in the ground in the field going to do some verification of hot spots that may look like places where there needs to be some verification of availability. And then the other things we're doing is through our proposed challenge process model, there's some opportunities in there to be a little aggressive. And we're going to try to be where we would apply area challenges to things beyond what the existing models would say.

BJ: And hopefully we're able to put that burden of proof back on the provider to say, yes, it is there. We wanna be fair, but we also want to be as honest about this as possible as we go forward with mapping. We just wanna make sure that every fundable location is correct before we have to close that door. So we've got some of that going on. Some of our mapping partners may be very helpful in that too, in places that look like they need it. When we look at some of these things, and the other thing I think we have to, Missouri has a lot of funded areas, whether they were CAF funded or RDOF funded that plays into this.

BJ: Some of those areas may be areas of concern about the amount of service being provided or whether or not it's available. The problem for our office is, it's in a funded area, so it's not fundable through our BEAD program. And so that may be a challenge in some of our, and by I say that, a difficult place for us to be. We use the word challenge way too many ways in the broadband world.

Drew: Yeah, yeah, there are. Could you just speak about that burden of proof points you've raised? I have heard this as well, but I'd love to hear it. How is it you're planning to flip that burden of proof, as you just said? 

BJ: Yeah, you can. There's some things called pre-challenge modifications, things like whether or not DSL or copper-based service should all be considered underserved. I can't, but I don't... My mapping expert's down the hall right now, but I don't know how big of an impact that is. But that's one of a few things the NTIA told us we could do. There was also some, if a number of locations within an area were challenged, then the whole area with the same service becomes challenged. Some of those types of things, then what that does is instead of it just being dot by dot, well, then it applies to a lot of locations.

Drew: Yes.

BJ: And that gives some more. And then the provider has to prove that, yes, the service is available there in spite of the evidence you did see. And so I think it'll be a work. It'll be a process to work all that out. But we want to while staying fair, allow the citizens and nonprofits and municipalities to be able to weigh and improve this thing as good as possible, because it's so vital. I have a $1.7 billion. But we wanna make sure we can fund all that we can.

Drew: And let's take the other part of Garland's question, like going forward, like what are your plans to ensure compliance? And he also asks about testing access provided to the tower. Could you just speak to now going forward, how are you gonna ensure that these speeds are delivered? 

BJ: Yeah, in our, proposed, grant closeout, there will be some proving of service availability. We're doing some of that through our, it's either in our BIP awards that came through NTIA in 2022, or in our capital projects funds where our team actually physically goes out. They go out partway through the project and see the deployment. I mean, they don't see every single location, but they do a sampling of that. And then we'll do similar samplings of the actual speed availability. That's been being built into our broadband infrastructure program, the NTIA VIP awards that we received in 2022, and we'll do similarly. We are, we'll go back to the legislature when we ask for our BEAD spending authority and we're going to be asking for additional staff and to be able to do these kinds of things. We do, we love our providers and want to see the numbers, but we also know that it'll be important for us to put boots on the ground actually out there and see it for ourselves too.

Drew: Casey Burke, KJ Burke, excuse me, has a follow-up about how will the high-cost areas be determined for BEAD funding. We did talk about this, but maybe we didn't address how you're going to make that decision and when, if I may add.

BJ: Yeah, when our proposal will be included in our volume two. So people will be able to see at least what our initial thoughts are, and then weigh in on that. How will it be determined? One of the big pieces of this, short of having heard from a lot of providers, which I mentioned we haven't, is I think we're gonna take a look at our experience and what we saw through the ARPA-funded program that we are in the process of, and say okay, let's measure this out. Should it be the top 10% and see where that trigger number is and then go from there.

BJ: There's talks of whether or not we could be flexible throughout the program, knowing that, this is a moving, kind of a moving target depending on where, costs go. But I think that's what we'll do. We'll take what we've done into account. There's also some intelligence out there. NTIA has some tools where you can look at project areas and expected cost. We'll play with some of those things as well as kind of the experience through ARPA to to get a good idea of what a number is that makes sense in both directions.

Drew: Right. In the Broadband Leaders profile published here two days ago, you spoke about the tight timeframes that you're facing to deploy BEAD funds, only 365 days. And you said in particular, you may only be able to have one or two rounds of grants rather than multiple rounds of competitive grants that engage many providers. How would you have done it differently? And is there any chance to do anything a little differently? 

BJ: Yeah, you may be hearing more about this from the state of Missouri because we are pretty frustrated. From the time I came to the office and had my first meetings with NTIA, we were very vocal that we wanted to do multiple rounds of grants, and that meant three, four, five, six rounds of grants to shrink the map over time and make sure that every round was as competitive as possible. I'll say our broadband, our ARPA-funded program, we had $260 million. We got $1.3 billion in request. But some of those projects obviously weren't as good as the ones that scored high enough. We want to fund great projects.

BJ: We want to get it all done, but I don't want to be forced to fund projects just because, hey, well, I got to get that area and this is the one project I received for it. So we will continue to talk about this. It was up until June of this year. We had been led to believe that we would have more time to be able to award all areas. So it came as quite a shock to us that just a couple months ago they said, nope, 365 days is it, get them all awarded. And I think that'll be a real squeeze for our office to do this. We'll do it if they make us, but we're gonna try to have a conversation of where does this go? I don't think it's the right path. I don't think it's good for anyone, frankly.

BJ: Like I said earlier, we wanna get as many people involved as possible. We want to have as many different construction projects going on at one time. That way we're getting it done at the same time. And I'm concerned with a few rounds 'cause we could pull off probably two rounds. When I look at 365 days, we could probably pull off two rounds of grants. But if two rounds is all you have to get to everyone to spend all of the money with what that looks like for everybody. So we're going to continue to talk about this. I personally would have rather had, and we will be asking for at least one additional year, because we think that's the best way to do it. One of your questions earlier asked about, do you think this favors a few providers over many? I think this is one of the things that really would, is who can afford to apply for the biggest project areas versus those that can work in incrementally.

Drew: How are you gonna measure kind of metrics for your own efforts? What success do you look like? What do you want your office, grant office to be doing 1 year from now, 2 years from now, 5 years from now? 

BJ: Yeah. We labeled it connecting all Missourians. And that's truly our goal. If given the opportunity to have more rounds, the goal will always be to be working ahead of that dollar per passing number, which says we're still getting to everybody. If not, if we're given more time the goal will be let's get this all awarded and then work diligently to get through it 'cause there still will be a lot of work to do. But yes, that's our ultimate goal. The metrics between there are making sure that we're serving our customers and the citizens of Missouri well, meaning the providers and the citizens. But we really want to, the ultimate goal is get to everybody.

Drew: We have a bunch of questions about technologies and the form of technologies. Obviously, some are building on the latency points, Kenneth Yancey raises the issue of jitter and how that affects applications. There's others talking about wireless and the role of fiber versus wireless. There's others talking about satellite, microwave. Could you just speak to the technologies? Obviously, NTIA has put out a framework. It's definitely kind of putting its thumb on the scale on fiber. There's good reasons for that. It's not 100%. We've talked about the high cost threshold, but how do you think of these other technologies that are raised, including satellite, microwave, fixed wireless, and so forth? 

BJ: Nothing's perfect, but in an ideal world, let's get fiber to as many places as we can. And I think, thinking about it meaningfully in those extremely high cost places, if other technologies can do it in an effective manner, I think that makes sense. So we will, as a state, work to facilitate fiber as much as we can. This is one place where people that already have access to right-of-ways, whether they be communities and telephone cooperatives and electric cooperatives and others that already have access they save themselves on some of that cost by being able to get there a little bit faster and a little bit lower cost.

BJ: But some of those areas that are really far between, it may be more cost-effective. The one thing I will say that's sometimes undersold about that is if it takes multiple towers to get to a location, that cost is pretty expensive too. And in some of our most remote areas, that may be the case. So I think we have to be mindful about how we do that, but I think there's also places for technologies that all make sense. And so we're open to that. We'll try to set a high cost threshold that facilitates that. Satellite is a little more difficult. In talking to NTIA, they may allow it if you ask for specific exceptions.

BJ: So we'll take a look at those options. We haven't made final decisions. But we'll try to set a threshold that allows for things, but also still stays true to, we've always been a technology neutral office. We're just not a service neutral. We wanna make sure we're getting good service to everybody.

Drew: Yeah, Adam Puckett asked a two-part question. First, do you feel like you've got a target on your back for having $1.7 billion? And secondly, the magic wand question, you've sort of answered this, but what does it look like for everyone to be connected? What happens as a result of everyone being connected? 

BJ: The target, well, the phone rings a lot now, that's for sure. Lots of people wanna talk about how are you going to do it and what's the plan and how can we help and those kinds of things. But that's a good thing. We're glad that people are interested in here in Missouri. The size of it is also humbling. And I very much mean that. It means there's a lot of work to do. Early when it first came out, people called and would say, congratulations. I was like, what are you talking about? This isn't a job. It's been many years worth of work. Here we go. But it is exciting. And mostly exciting for what I know as coming from Farm Bureau. There's hundreds of thousands of people out there with little to no access.

BJ: I was talking to a friend today in just that situation, and he's like, hey, when's this happen? And it happens every day that people call and say we don't have access. The cool thing is we're gonna be able to change that for a lot of people. And I'm excited about that. So what does it look like? Every single person has a different impact, but what I say all the time is we want people to be able to live where they want to and not have to choose where they live based off the services available to them. So we're super excited that we're gonna be able to have a huge impact on that across the state.

Drew: Well, we still have many or at least a few. We've gotten a lot of it. We covered a lot of ground in this hour, but we're going to have to go to the final question. And, I have not spent a lot of time living in Missouri. I've traveled through it many times. I've told you I was in Illinois, so I was right next door. And, I've come to appreciate Missouri is, it's a pretty underrated state. And by that, I mean, you've got a lot going for you from the only state that has two Federal Reserve Banks to the original underrated person, Harry S. Truman, right? Who was so much a show me type of person. What do you think BJ is the most underrated aspect of Missouri that you'd like our national listeners to know about? 

BJ: Wow, that's a good one. I'm real proud to be from Missouri, grew up in Southeast Missouri, live in Central Missouri. I just think we're an extremely diverse state that some people could come and live and enjoy in many different ways. Probably the most underrated is our natural beauty, even for people that live here. Whether it's the seasons of the agricultural industry, whether it's corn growing in the fields, or actually, the south central Missouri with so much wild lands, it's really a beautiful place. It's right here in the middle of America. We don't have a lot of waterfalls or an ocean front, we've got beautiful lakes and rivers and wild places though. And I think it's really underrated. But not far away, Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield and Columbia, where you can go and live some city life too. I'm proud to be from here and I'm proud to have an impact on it.

Drew: Well, before we thank our guests, we wanna remind you, we got Ask Me Anythings coming up every Friday this coming month on September 1st, Sachin Gupta of Centranet on September 8th, Jason Cohen of MyBundle, September 15th, Katherine Townsend of Measurement Lab, and just confirmed during this AMA, Marc-Andre Campagna, CEO, co-founder of Oxio. On behalf of the Broadband community, BJ, it's been such a pleasure to be with you and spend this time with you, and we'll see you next week.

BJ: Thank you for the opportunity.

Drew: All right. Take care.

BJ: Thanks.