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Ask Me Anything! With Earnie Holtrey, Deputy Director of the Indiana Broadband Office

Ask Me Anything! With Earnie Holtrey, Deputy Director of the Indiana Broadband Office Banner Image

Apr 14, 2023

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About Our Distinguished Guest

Earnie Holtrey has served the state of Indiana in its broadband office for the past four years. Previously, he worked as a project manager for the Office of Broadband Opportunities -- a precursor to the the state broadband office. 

Prior to his work with the Office of Broadband Opportunities, Earnie served as the East Central Community Liaison for the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which helped to dispense broadband grants.

Earnie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Ohio State University. 

Event Transcript

Drew Clark: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Broadband communities. Ask me anything! Today we are joined by Earnie Holtrey, the Deputy Director of the Indiana Broadband Office. I'm Drew Clark of Broadband Breakfast. I am so excited to welcome Earnie to this program to talk about state broadband officers, the challenges they're facing, how they're managing it, how they are coping with the incredible opportunity and, of course, tsunami of funding that is coming their way through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the BEAD, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program. Earnie, welcome. Tell us what it's like in Indiana right now? 

Earnie Holtrey: Thank you, Drew. I appreciate it. I appreciate the forum and the resources on the broadband.money website. And Indiana's happy to be involved with the team there and look forward to future engagement. I know I'm on the shoulders of giants with some of the last guests that you've had on and some that you have scheduled. So I really appreciate the opportunity to highlight some of the things that we're doing here in Indiana. We have a second-term governor and Lieutenant Governor, Eric Holcomb, and Lieutenant Governor, Suzanne Crouch, who been instrumental in Broadband clear back into 2014, 2015 right at the election cycle. So very excited to highlight some of the things that we've been doing in Indiana the last couple years and then what we have planned for the infrastructure monies coming our way next year.

Drew: Well, let's actually talk for a minute or two about that history, that legacy because that's been so critical to building a framework, a platform, if you will, upon which federal funding can come in. And for those who are just joined us, we certainly hope that you'll look at the upcoming events as well as the past events on this Ask Me Anything! Series we're here almost every other Friday at 2:30 Eastern Time. We've had state Broadband directors from Kansas, from Arkansas, from Mississippi, Maine. We've been doing a circuit tour of the United States and, Earnie, we are so excited to have Indiana here. So what I wanted to do is just let's get started by talking a little bit about how broadband got going in Indiana. You've mentioned Governor Holcomb and Lieutenant Governor Crouch. What did they do in that period after their election, 2016, 2017, that strengthened the existing activities and really kicked them into a higher gear with the founding of your office in 2018? 

Earnie: So, I think, as with most broadband programs, a funding source is extremely important. So in 2018, we were able to dedicate a funding source from the Indiana Toll Road fees charged on the Northern Toll Road of Indiana that connects the Ohio border to the Illinois border in northern Indiana. So with those funds, we were able to set aside a hundred million dollars as our initial state broadband funds. Along with those funds sister programs were set up for next-level connections roads, next-level connections trails, and then the next-level connections broadband funding platform. So that allowed us to create a state broadband funding program in 2018, of which we initially deployed roughly $20 million of that fund near the end of 2018, the beginning of 2019, to kick off our initiative of funding rural connectivity across the state.

Drew: So tell us a little bit about the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, OCRA and you've already mentioned the Next Level Connections program. How does that fit into the efforts of this Office of Community and Rural Affairs? 

Earnie: Sure. So we're a little bit unique in Indiana in that we have two separate offices, the Indiana Broadband Office and the Office of Community and Rural Affairs through Indiana Code, office of Community and Rural Affairs, we're tasked with the administration of the Next Level Connections program. So starting with day one, the creation of the grant application process, the challenge process, the biddings and scoring process, and then what really seems to be the real heavy lift of running a state broadband program is that backend implementation. As you start to receive those signed grant agreements and our ISP partners go to work and they start building these networks, we compensate them quarterly on a reimbursement basis. And that next-level connections for all three of our rounds of funding has followed that.

Earnie: But OCRA was the agency that was tasked by our state legislators with administering that program. Simultaneous to that, we created the Indiana Broadband Office in 2018, and the Indiana Broadband Office focuses more on the outreach and engagement to the local communities, a more intimate level approach with the ISPs whereas OCRA remains at arms length as the funding mechanism. So I think that's a real strength of how we have things set up, is that our office is able to touch some more sensitive subjects that OCRA is not able to simply because they hold the purse strings. So that's worked out very well for us. And then also our Indiana Broadband office moving forward has spent a lot of time focusing on the federal activities. So COVID we were using state dollars with COVID in the capital projects fund state and local recovery monies. And then the IIJA monies that will, I'm sure we'll talk about extensively for the rest of the hour, are really a focus of our office moving forward while OCRA handles that down in the weeds day-to-day administration of the grant process itself.

Drew: No, it's fascinating. I know we've talked before about how every state has a different way of structuring their broadband office and you've certainly got some unique aspects to it in Indiana, and you've talked about maybe the difference, the ability to kind of you all in the broadband office to be more down in the weeds and the dotted line connection of OCRA. And just to be clear we've talked about the ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act, had a significant chunk of funds. And For those who follow this discussion, who are in the broadband community could see there is lots of announcements of funding that have come out really for more than than 5 months. Every state planning office has gotten grants and now there's all the Treasury Department funds that are coming out, the capital projects funds, and these are basically part of the ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act. How do you see the ARPA funds that have been and are being awarded, playing into the rollout of the much more substantial funds that will be coming through IIJA? 

Earnie: Sure. With our legislative session two years ago we were appropriated $250 million in funding to piggyback off of that first initial $100 million of investment. And those were truly the ARPA funds themselves. It was right at the time of the announcement of the state and local recovery funds. We used $203 million of our capital projects fund to put into our next level connections, and then filled that delta between the 203 and the 250 appropriate aided with $47 million of the state recovery funds. That was our refill of next level connections with $250 million of appropriation of ARPA funding.

Drew: Are there different, there are different rules for ARPA versus what we're seeing with BEAD and IIJA? How does that kind of jive or fit together? 

Earnie: Sure. With that $250 million, we did a round three of funding of about $180 million in applications. We were very fortunate that we were literally able to award funding to every qualified applicant in that round and then still have nearly $80 million left over that we'll be announcing Next Level Connections round four, sometime probably middle of next month in May. And that is a perfect segue using that $80 million to fund additional projects through those treasury funds that will get us to the calendar new year when we can be really excited about accessing that first 20% of our BEAD funding.

Drew: Alright, well Let's dive into BEAD, of course. The broad structure, of course, is that states got their planning grant. You all got $5.8 million, I believe, and you're busy using that to develop a 270 day plan five-year plan for broadband. There's a second big deadline that will happen once you get your actual award amount by June 30th, and that is 180 days from then. Talk about your vision for getting all Hoosiers. Is it Hoosiers? How do you say it? 

Earnie: Yes Hoosiers. Yep.

Drew: Hoosiers. It's not a silent H? It's not Oosiers, right? It's...

Earnie: Correct. Hard H.

Drew: All right. Hoosiers What's your vision for getting all Hoosiers connected to high quality, good broadband? 

Earnie: Sure. I think with that comes planning and we're very fortunate as our state partners are as well to have those planning funds from NTIA. We did receive about $4.9 million for our BEAD planning grant. And then about $850,000 for our digital equity. As we finalize those plans, our BEAD plan is due to NTIA the second week of August. And then I believe November 1st is our deadline for our digital equity plan. Those should really call out what our next steps will be. But we do realize that with the overlap of that June 30th, allocation date from NTIA that we need to be very proactive right now on starting to determine what that initial plan back to NTIA is going to look like.

Earnie: And right now I'm simply referring to it as next level connections 2.0 what we call it and what the parameters may be. I think will really be flushed out in local engagement and working with our consultants with BEAD and digital equity plans to figure out that last piece. But I think that the chicken before the egg scenario that has to be discussed is that we do not know the X in our formula until we have that grant funding allocation amount from NTIA on or about June 30th, it's difficult to write that final or that initial proposal even because some of the math is missing. So how do we set that high cost threshold to move from one technology to another to stretch the BEAD funds to serve every last Hoosier? 

Drew: We've been talking about multiple plans and deadlines and so forth here but let's just drill in, what are the specifics of this five year plan and also the specifics of the digital equity plan, I think, you said November 1 that you got. And how are those different from the next plan that will be 180 days from your final amount? What's gonna go into these plans? Just think of it from the perspective of any state broadband official.

Earnie: Sure. With our BEAD plan we've tasked our consultant with number one, helping us with the FCC map challenge. Number two, coordinating the local engagement process. Number three, submitting and curing the five-year plan with us and with NTIA and then developing a resource of state broadband plans kind of best practices and good examples to take a look at how we may need to modify some of the pieces of our next level connections program, number one, to fit with the federal guidelines. But number two, building off of all the positives of our current state plan and removing maybe some of the negatives or the hiccups or the gaps and filling those in with things that have worked for other states or pulling that information out of the BEAD NOFO or NTIA guidance. At the same time I'm, go... I'm sorry.

Drew: No, No. Continue, please.

Earnie: Oh at the same time working with Purdue Center for Regional Development and Dr. Roberta Gallardo on our digital equity state plan and understanding that there's additional gaps in Indiana as well as across the country that aren't relative to that fibre coming to the doorstep or to the curb. That there's gaps with the affordability devices understanding and use of the technology need for digital navigators, the trusted local resources in Messenger. So we have a big job ahead of us to manage all these competing timelines and then knowing that we stop with our planning process of the five year plan, but pick up right away with how we submit that initial proposal to NTIA to actually show a more granular level of project areas and how we connect the maybe the Swiss cheese funding that's occurred in the past.

Drew: We got some great questions, and we'll weave them into the discussion we have here. This is from Mike Faloon. How are you incorporating Hoosier Net into your five-year plan, and how has that altered the state's ability to get fibre into places that may not have been reachable, regardless of grant funding? So, tell a little bit about Hoosier Net and how does that fit into the plan? 

Earnie: Well, that's a great question. I'm glad that came up. It's a resource that we now have in Indiana that we're super excited about. So Hoosier Net is a group of approximately 20 of our smaller rural telcos across the state. Some of them were former members of Indiana Fibre Network or Intelligent Fibre Network when they changed their name. So they came together to connect all of their assets into a giant middle mile loop simultaneous to Hoosier Net doing that a second group called Accord is a group of approximately 20 of our rural electric co-ops that formed a similar agreement and organisation to connect all of their REMC networks together.

Earnie: And then Hoosier Net and Accord came together in one big group to connect approximately all 40 of their pieces together. Super excited about that. NTIA has a grant application from them for the Middle Mile program and amazingly enough, those approximately 40 entities could be connected with 671 miles of fibre connectivity would connect all 40, approximately 40 of those entities together. So having that as a resource and a backbone for backhaul and for really a strength in numbers of the small guys because, I think, we all do recognise that the IIJA program is a cumbersome program. We acknowledge that with money comes hurdles but it does tend to skew a little bit towards some of the bigger providers and we would sure like to have a level playing field here. And I think the Hoosier Net/Accord partnership will really assist with that.

Drew: Another great question here from Scott Woods. How, or can you explain your office's approach to local coordination, specifically to underserved communities and your office's utilisation of broadband and digital equity data to enhance your outreach? 

Earnie: Sure. And obviously the importance of data is really key. We're working with a company called Guide House on our BEAD plan. We have already exposed them to the Indiana Farm Bureau speed test that we've been doing for about the last 18 months. We had a consortium of five or six different private entities come together and fund a speed test. We have about 50,000 dots on those mapped. While we acknowledge that the FCC map is not a... Is far from a perfect resource, there is some value to be gained from looking at multiple platforms.

Earnie: And then knowing that additional platforms that are out there that can really aid in our public engagement and in our mapping, in our analysis and even project development very important to know that platforms like ready.net broadband.money are out there to assist us with some of that decision making that states really don't have access to unless they invest in technology.

Drew: How, let's, divert for a moment and talk about mapping and the mess that is mapping, So what are the ways that you all verify the claims of providers? Like what data sets can you dive into and make use of? And you've mentioned ready.net as a example of that. How are you expecting that data to be helpful when you get to this process of checking and validating what the FCC has put out now in its version? 

Earnie: Sure. And I think this was a real gap in round one and round two of our next level connections in 2019 to 2021 in that or, at least, to 2020 that pre COVID, there's a whole different mindset about funding for broadband across the country. It was a really touchy subject on if taxpayer monies should be used to fund investment and build out. COVID probably changed that for just about everybody at which I think is definitely a positive of COVID coming out of that. But the need to know and understand what's really going on in the communities is extremely important. We feel like in Indiana that's, maybe where we're ahead of the game, in comparison to some other areas is our local engagement.

Earnie: Because in the past, I think, we really have been behind on the mapping piece here in the state. We've been more reactive to displaying maps of what our investment was as opposed to being proactive and really understanding every single unserved household across the state. But we're making up the gaps quickly. We have individuals at the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, OCRA, that travel the state weekly, visiting as many as 15 counties in their region over a one month period. And those folks can report back to us the gaps in coverage. We also have our Broadband Ready Communities program where we have 76 cities, towns or counties that are designated as broadband ready. So those task forces that have created those... That broadband ready community, really know and understand. They live in the community and they know where the gaps are.

Earnie: Leaning on the technology piece with Farm Bureau and mapping resources. And then really institutional knowledge. Every day that I come to work, I learn more and more about where the gaps in our coverage are, and I'm starting to feel more and more secure that I can look at two or three data sets and know with almost 100% certainty if that area is covered or not covered. And this problem will be solved... I like to say this problem will be solved when the phone calls stop. When there are no more residents making phone calls to our governor, Lieutenant Governor's office or sending emails to their legislators. Then we know that we've solved that connectivity program. So, we have to put out a quality state challenge process that upholds valid challenges and denies challenges that aren't valid because that's the only way we will have the phone calls stop and achieve that expectation of a 100% connectivity.

Drew: And from the point of view of valid challenges, are you gonna... Will you have to reject a challenge that says "Hey, I know the internet company says I get broadband at 40 by 20, but I don't get anything close to that and here's the speed test to prove it." What's your... How do you deal with that scenario? 

Earnie: We keep hearing over and over this comparison to building the airplane as we're flying it. So I think that's a good analogy again for this. It's something that we're gonna need to tackle for that initial proposal. I don't have a solution to propose today. In a perfect world or in a vacuum, I think that I can, with all of the stakeholders we have involved, know for sure, if that challenge should be upheld or not upheld. But we know that at times, it's not that simple as operating in a boardroom or in a vacuum. So that is something we're gonna have to navigate as well all of our other states. But at the end of the day, I think, if we keep in mind that the expectation is that every last resident of our state is connected, we can work backwards from that assumption and make some good decisions.

Drew: Well, let's actually step back in the process as we've been digging into BEAD, we'll keep digging into BEAD, but Jim Mercantis I'm not sure of the pronunciation there, Jim asks, how did Indiana decide which counties and municipalities received portions of the $250 million capital projects funding? In other words, what maps did you consult? How did you dig into that and how will that be different when we get to IIJA? 

Earnie: Sure. I guess, a robust challenge process starting point for Indiana in Indiana Code is 25-3 as the served-unserved threshold, even moving forward with the ARPA funds of capital projects. Given that that's Indiana code, that's where we left our decision making process at that 25-3. But what we did see was we went from nothing to really, really good in that all but one of our applications in round three was funded at a one gig down and typically most were a 500 up. So, we went from those areas not having almost nothing to the best of the best technology. So, moving...

Drew: And you invested in fibre builds mostly. Was there any wireless funding? 

Earnie: We did have one wireless project, and that was really the most back and forth that we had with treasury on curing our capital projects fund. But we were able to satisfy them on scalability, and then that was able to move forward.

Drew: There's lots of good questions coming in. We wanna get as many as we can. Michael Reynolds asks "Is there a plan for regional distribution in the state and is there a plan to post that?" In other words, how do you make decisions like the Feds have decided they're gonna fund IIJA through giving it to the states. Are the states gonna do anything similar kind of parcelling it down, or are you gonna keep decision making at the state level? 

Earnie: Sure, and I think I could have done a better job answering the previous question. Maybe this piggybacks off of that a little bit. So the Indiana program does fund the ISR ISP partners directly. We sure do give a strong preference to public-private partnerships. So I think that we'll be looking to continue that methodology in Indiana with the BEAD funding in that the monies go to the providers. But we need, and we really expect our ISP partners to be working hand in hand with local stakeholders to flush out those project areas. In the past we've really have had more of dartboard approach of send us your applications as documented on the unfunded areas, and go and do your build out. But we know that we're not going to magically put our entire state map together and connect all of those dots or project areas without a little bit more strategic approach through BEAD.

Drew: Okay. And we've really got some good in-the-weeds questions. This one's from Steve Starkovich. He asks, according to the Next Level Connections frequently asked questions, before a grant winner can receive a release of funds letter and a claim voucher, grant services must review the various terms and conditions including subcontractor label, civil rights funds. Can you provide, Steve, asks more details about this review process and how it relates to the release of funds and voucher? 

Earnie: Sure. Through our Next Level Connections rounds one and two with state funds, we already had a program in place for quarterly calls, updates of construction progress, documentation of delays and reasons why, and then a reimbursement program where the funds that were expended by the ISP the previous three months could then be reimbursed. So we really feel like we had a jump on the program when we started round three of Next Level Connections and using those capital projects monies. One thing that I think Indiana may have been ahead of the game compared to some other states is that we used the capital project's money to almost backfill our round three of Next Level Connections that we had announced, that we had scored in the summer.

Earnie: And then we didn't receive the acknowledgement of the approval of the usage of the funds until the fall. So we were very fortunate to then be able to hit the ground running with grant agreements. But we did have some hesitation from some of our smaller ISP partners across the state in that once they saw that federal language, some of it relative to environmental, some of it relative to our labour standards that they decided to walk away from those grants that they were awarded because of the cumbersomeness of the reporting or, at least, the lack of notice that we were able to give on the rules and requirements that were gonna be tied to those federal funds.

Drew: Another question here from Austin Lejoy. Thanks so much for your time. Curious to hear your thoughts on the affordability question, especially with the status of the Affordable Connectivity program in question, meaning obviously, there's funds, but the funds may run out next year. Digital literacy can be addressed in the short run, but the greatest long-term threat to adoption, in Austin's, view is making sure folks can actually afford broadband into perpetuity. So here's what I want to focus in on. How do we nudge providers to provide cheaper service or offerings? What role can you play in that process? 

Earnie: Well, I think that's one of the beauties of the NOFO for digital equity and for BEAD is that they're expected to talk to each other in the line. So we had a digital equity task force call on Wednesday and we were going over survey data and results and we found that in seven of the eight covered populations in the digital equity NOFO that affordability was their number one issue or concern, both affordability of service and affordability of devices, the laptops or the connection piece. So we know how important affordability is across the country. We see the uptake of ACP getting better and better across the country. I think I saw a post today that it's up to 33% maybe of eligible applicants. But we know that it's gonna run out and with each additional applicant, it's gonna run out sooner and sooner.

Earnie: So we sure are encouraging some of the coalitions that we're involved with. We've been a three-year member now of schools Health and Library Association and the work that they're doing. So we wanna support any efforts like their efforts, Pew's efforts, Next Century Cities, EducationSuperHighway, and some of those coalitions that are really pushing for the need of someone at the federal level to take up that refilling and to have a permanent allocation method for the Affordable Connectivity program. But back to our state plan itself, that's going to need to be called out. We understand that these systems that are built on the backs of our taxpayers need to be affordable for those that are using that. So we had that piece in our Next Level Connections round three already. We expect to probably build up the language even more for our round four as we expend the remainder of the capital project's money to really highlight the importance of that affordability piece moving forward.

Drew: Well, Eric Z asks, how are you approaching connecting apartment buildings under BEAD, especially considering this difference between the unserved. If you don't have 25 by 3 megabits, you are unserved. If you don't have a 100 by 20, you are underserved. So considering that distinction, how are you approaching connecting apartment buildings under BEAD and particularly in those designations that are not provided at the unit level in the FCC's broadband maps? 

Earnie: Sure. I think that ties back to the need for a quality mapping resource for sure. That we've been trading emails and phone calls back and forth all week with our consultant on how we tackle our local engagement. So, Indianapolis sits in Marion County. They basically mirror each other that Indianapolis is Marion County and there's not much of either on either side. So we're looking at the possibility of holding a local engagement session specific to Marion County, knowing that we have 92 counties and we're not going to be able to do that with every single county. But we can flesh out some best practices and some gaps and some areas of concern relative to Multi-Dwelling units and understand what's happening in our largest city and then make some of those assumptions to carry over into our second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth largest cities to come up with a solution for those multi-dwelling units, knowing that the older that unit is, the more likely that there's poor connectivity and the more difficult it is to come up with a solution. So, I think that, again, that's a situation where we're going to be searching for a solution as the planes moving through the skies.

Drew: It occurs to me, Earnie, of course, I was a state broadband officer in the neighboring state of Illinois in V1 of this process. And our job was slightly different. Very similar, but there were three core functions. There was the mapping and data function that we had to do. At that time, of course, the mapping was done differently. It was done by the states which fed to the FCC. Here it's going in reverse, the FCC is doing this, and you and the states are gonna be challenging and cross-checking. I think that's probably a better way. But be that as it may, we definitely have a mapping responsibility. We also had a digital literacy responsibility, and we worked with providers on educating folks on the uses of broadband. And we also had this oversight responsibility by virtue of the, of course, BTOP was the name of the Broadband Technology Opportunity program. Those were grants by NTIA. The huge, huge difference is that you all, in Indiana, are gonna be responsible for allocating the funds that you get. And what is your window of expectations right now, Earnie? What is the kind of numbers that are being bandied around for what Indiana's IIJA BEAD allocation will be? 

Earnie: Well, I'll tell you, the numbers that I like the best are the first number that I ever saw for Indiana, and the most recent number. The first number I saw was 1.1 billion. And that was a study by NYU very, very early in this process. And then I was just reviewing, for this call, the Cartesian ACA study recently that also says 1.1 billion. I've heard a lot of numbers in between so and stakeholder meetings. I've been saying approximately 700 million, but we'd sure like for that first and most recent estimate to be the accurate one for our state.

Drew: Well, obviously, these are different orders of magnitude, these numbers. And more importantly, you as the state broadband officer will have a key role in that process. So just talk us through, let's spend a few minutes talking about how you anticipate first the initial determinations of where you're going to spend that. Let's just say it's 711, 700 to 1.1 billion, somewhere in that range. How will you make initial determinations? How are you gonna refine them? Let's talk a little more about that whole the challenge process that you're expecting. And what tools, most importantly, what tools you need to get to these good decisions? 

Earnie: Sure. Well I think number one, we need partnerships and help with our Next Level Connections three, we had our providers come to the table with a little bit more than 50% of the funding. So we used about 180 million capital projects, money as I mentioned previously, but our total funding was over 400 million, when you looked at the contribution from ISPs and then from the local units of governments and foundations, economic development offices. So we really need for that to continue into BEAD. However, we know realistically, as we get... As we have more and more of our areas served, the high cost areas are going to remain. So how do we make efficient use of the BEAD funding to set a quality, extreme high cost area to know where we flip that switch from the fibre build to alternate technologies? So there again, partnerships, communication and access to resources and data is gonna be extremely important for us.

Drew: What do you... How do you plan to wrestle with the underserved? This is a question I've put in the the Q&A early on. Are you able to use your ARPA and capital projects funds to provide funding for areas that don't meet the unserved threshold, but do meet the underserved threshold? 

Earnie: Sure. So right now, we are in a state biennial budget session. We have a part time legislature here where every two years we have a long session. And in the year in between we have a short session. There were a lot of bills that were passed relative to broadband last year in our short session. This year, we've not really seen any activity which we supported in the office as a good thing in that it was going to be very difficult to legislate something this April that wouldn't take effect until next January, and then being able to understand what our state plan and our initial proposal was going to look like. So we have maintained, there were those discussions to move to a 100 over 20 cutoff for served and unserved in Indiana.

Earnie: We made the decision to stick with the 25-3, knowing that this next round of funding of $80 million is gonna be oversubscribed anyway, that we still needed to tackle those areas that were without 25-3 before we started moving into those underserved areas and upgrading the technology to up over 100 over 20. Now I will have to say, through public private partnerships, not involving the state or federal or the state funds, that we have seen some real progress across Indiana with ISP partners working with county commissioners and economic development offices to tackle some of those underserved areas as they were also tackling unserved areas with projects at the county level.

Drew: What's the matching levels that you are expecting or going to require? Obviously you got this 25% floor in the program, but how is Indiana gonna tweak that and modify it, adjust it, if at all? 

Earnie: I think it would be unrealistic to think that we can distribute 700 million or a billion dollars in one round of funding. So knowing that we'll have multiple rounds of BEAD funding, I think that will probably change from BEAD round one to two to three, however many we do. Logically I think that the next batch of applications that come in are going to be the next least costly to build to. So I think our expectations for the match that comes to the table will change over time. Like I mentioned previously, providers were just over 50% on their match for last round.

Drew: Just over what? Just over what? 

Earnie: Just over 50%.

Drew: Oh. That's incredible. That's incredible.

Earnie: Yeah, we had 400 million in total funding and about 180 was the capital project's monies. So, I would expect that to maintain, given that we have 80... Isn't it funny to say that we only have $80 million to spend in our round four but, but we know, we fund up to $5 million for a project, so we know we're gonna likely fund less than 20 applications this round, and we received over a hundred last round. So knowing that, I think we can maintain that up around 50% local match much amount and then move into BEAD and start understanding maybe where that delta is gonna be with the 50% that we've been getting and the 25% that's expected from the BEAD NOFO.

Drew: Jason Hardback asked asks a great question. Next Level Connections grants require ISPs to have been serving Indiana subscribers for, at least, three years to be eligible. Do you expect this to be a requirement for BEAD? 

Earnie: Jason is gonna try to get me in trouble here. So that language is some dated language, a hundred customers for three years or a rural electric company. And we have been very fortunate that we have 38 REMCs in the state, 26 now have broadband projects started or are on the horizon. So we're very happy about that. But, but we do know that we've had some entrance into the state recently that are doing some good things. So how... I think, I mentioned previously how we take some of the great things that have been called out in our Next Level Connections program and then peel off some that may be hindrances or obstacles as we move into the BEAD funding. And in my mind that would be one of those because we do know that there's some players in the game that weren't there when that language was written years ago and it was written pre-COVID. So, hopefully we're in different times now and we can expand that definition of a eligible applicant in Indiana moving forward.

Drew: Michael Reynolds asks and you've used this term, REMC, I know what an REC, a Rural Electric Cooperative, what is an REMC? 

Earnie: It's the same thing.

Drew: Well, what does the M stand for? 

Earnie: Oh that's a great question. I'm staring at their map here and, and I don't have a...

Drew: Someone who knows, please put it in the chat. But anyway, Michael asked, what is there an effort to create a grant matching funding for Rural Electric Co-ops to share in the cost and thus increase likelihood of not creating donut holes? Okay. We've heard about donut holes where you get areas around that are served and not in or vice versa. What, any effort to avoid donut holes by creating a grant matching program and waiting for funding for a hundred percent government monies? 

Earnie: I think some of that will be tackled with the high cost areas that NTIA grants us some funds for where we can eliminate that 25% match requirement. But there again, I think that's something that I'll better be able to answer after round one or round two of our BEAD funding when we put 200, 300, 400 million into the system and see what gaps remain. But we do acknowledge that we have to be more strategic and do, become almost project developers with the ISPs and in our local stakeholders to fill in those gaps with the BEAD funds as opposed to a scatter-shot approach.

Drew: Amanda hopefully points out that it's Rural Electric Membership Corporation. So thank you for giving us the details there. We've gotten some questions here about workforce development issues. Is Indiana doing anything? Are the Hoosiers in Indiana doing anything to address workforce development issues? And also kind of in the same vein, a question was asked about workforce partnerships, what's going on this front? 

Earnie: Sure. We all know that the BEAD NOFO calls out the expectation that states have a workforce development plan. We've been communicating with our ISP partners on where their gaps are. We know that if we're gonna put state resources towards this, for the betterment of all of us that the training that we assist in providing will go to churn out employees that will be useful to our ISP partners. So we have a member of our Department of Workforce Development on our Digital Equity task force. I'm in communication often with our DWD Commissioner David...

Drew: DWD? 

Earnie: Department of Workforce Development Commissioner, David Adams. So we'll work hand-in-hand. We're also very fortunate to have a Ivy Tech Community College system in place with multiple campuses across the state. That we have some of our local ISP partners that are working hand in hand with those Ivy Tech campuses to create programming. We try to highlight resources that already exist like the workforce development information that's been put out by the Fibre Broadband Association. So we're trying to tackle it on numerous fronts on how we have a quality workforce. We know that the solution is upscaling our current residents. It's not going to make sense any more than... To think that we're gonna pull from other states. The net, it's a net zero there. So we need to internally recruit and hire and upscale our current labour base.

Drew: Others in the chat I see now have also put the word member. Thank you, Steve, Rick, Craig, as well as Amanda. Eric Zan asks a question, what are the three data sources you mentioned that give you confidence that you know 100% of the coverage status? 

Earnie: Sure. So the first is the new FCC map that we know is ever evolving, it's getting better and better, far from perfect. You've had many ask me any things in Broadband Breakfast discussions on that piece. But it is for the first time ever, a dot on a map that a homeowner or resident or a business owner can go and look and actually have their voice heard. How that's adjudicated, I think, we're all in the grey on that, but at least that piece exists down to that green or red dot on the map. So we are excited about that in Indiana, while we did work through the challenge process. But that's our first piece. Our second piece is the Indiana Farm Bureau speed test. Simply Google Indiana Farm Bureau speed test. It'll pop right up. 48 or 49,000 dots on that map. We know speed test data is not perfect, but we also know that the more dots on a map you have, the better you can make assumptions based on that data. And then third is the procurement of the platform of ready.net's platform. And we're very excited to soon be onboarding that platform and using that as an additional data set to help us make informed decisions through the BEAD and DE process.

Drew: Wonderful. Tell us a little bit about procurement issues. This is a question that came through from Benjamin Kahn. How do you navigate the constraints put on you by the state when it comes to procurements and building out a team to support your efforts? What advice would you have for state and city broadband directors who may be fresh to the table? 

Earnie: I think proactivity and while we didn't lead the way here, we were very insightful, I think, in our office on knowing the need for a consultant for the BEAD program. So we went through the state procurement process on that, well ahead of the fact of our BEAD plan being approved. So we only lost about four weeks of that nine month period for the BEAD plan because we already had our state procurement in place. We had scored, we had made the offer, and we were at contractual negotiations by the time that our 270 day shot clock started. I think we could have done a better job of that with our mapping platform. But I think those two too are lessons learned about trying to be more and more proactive. So what's the next need that's going to come up and how do we navigate the state's procurement process whether it's a competitive process or a single source or whatever that may look like, knowing and understanding the process and the timelines involved and having that vision of what's the next one and how soon do we need to start working on that.

Drew: We have a question from Catherine Harrell of CHR Solutions, and she says she looks forward to hearing some updates, as she lives in Indianapolis and wants CHR to support the home state efforts with OSP engineering services. What advice would you give to consultants and others who want to be involved to have knowledge, expertise or just want to help their state to get higher capacity service? 

Earnie: Well, please contact me. Please sign up for our Indiana Broadband Office social media and our newsletter and review our website and as well as OCRA's. We're glad to have engagement with consultants, but please know and understand that our office as the same as all the other state broadband offices probably are bombarded quite often. I do try to make myself readily available at conferences and events to spend time with stakeholders of all levels, including consultants. And I think, knowing and understanding the assistance that's out there in our state, always look to use Indiana Labour for Indiana projects when possible. So I think there's an open dialogue there, but also an expectation and a level setting that as a small office we can really only accommodate a certain number of requests in a given period of time, from the professional services across the state here or the country.

Drew: Let's talk a little bit about Digital Equity and how you address that in Indiana. What does that mean to you? And maybe we could piggyback on two questions here, one from Carmen Dawson, the NTIA guidelines speak about inclusiveness in mapping planning, design, implementing, and Digital Equity. How did, or is Indiana engaging diverse communities? Do you have an onboarding program for diverse businesses and community facing entities? 

Earnie: Sure. So through our Digital Equity planning grant efforts with Dr. Guyardo and the Purdue Centre for Regional Development, we also partnered with Indiana University in a survey and we oversampled the required populations. We have representation from each of those covered populations on our Digital Equity task force. We did a survey asking for resources in the communities, asking the libraries in the community centres questions like "Do you have an area for digital literacy training? Do you have an area for online medical visits, do you have hotspots or devices that you rent out?" So gathering that information to inform our digital equity plan, we're going to write the basics of the digital equity plan as a broadband task force, and then go out in the summer and vet that bare bones plan and build off of that through our public engagement. So data collecting, surveys, and then documenting those, putting those into the plan as a broadband task force, digital equity task force, and then the community engagement to really understand those gaps, so we can write a solution to then pull those capacity grant funding dollars to implement our Digital Equity plan.

Drew: Where are you from in Indiana, Ernie? 

Earnie: I live in on the north side of Indianapolis, but I'm a higher state Buckeye at heart. I've now spent a little more time in Indiana than Ohio, so I guess dual residencies. But yeah, I'm just on the north side and an easy commute into the statehouse each day.

Drew: What's Indiana's claim to fame besides parks and recreation? What do you think Indiana is known for or can be known for with this program that we're all working on? 

Earnie: Sure. Well, we have a great partnership with Indiana Destination Development Association. They run and handle our state parks along with Department of Natural Resources. We're very proud of our state park system. Indy 500 right here in Indianapolis, can't forget that. We feel like we have one of the best small to mid size convention centres in the state or in the country. The NCAA chose to be housed here, and we've hosted Final Fours and we hosted a Super Bowl. So our downtown walkability is something that we're very proud of and the assets that we have are NRA, National Rifle Association is in town this week, and that's going to draw some very popular political figures.

Earnie: So we have a lot of great things going on in Indiana, but we know that without the connectivity piece that some of our resources will be underutilized. So while maybe you do want to go to a state park and get away for the weekend and not be subservient to your cell phone, at the same time, there's some peace of mind in knowing that quality connectivity is there. So we need to be talking to our Department of Agriculture and Tourism and all of our state partners to know and understand where the gaps are across the state because quality of life, quality of place goes back to communication and the need for our connectivity.

Drew: Before I get to two final questions I want to ask you, let's do a clean up one from Jerry Knight. Should US based fibre manufacturers deal directly with local cooperatives and ISPs once bid funds are distributed? And let's kind of use this to talk just about the whole kind of Buy America issue that is of less concern as more fibre companies are producing fibre product in the US but there's still a big, big concern about electronic equipment that goes to power fibre. What's your thoughts on this kind of dealing with US production issues? 

Earnie: Sure. So, I guess, this is one that does not keep me up at night. I think we all know and understand that something's going to have to be done at the programmatic level or this could grind to a screeching halt in 2024. So I'm putting my hope and faith in the powers that be to figure out some of these pieces of the Buy American, Made American. I think we all know and understand the value of using American workers to create American products. But I think at the same time, time is also of the essence. And if some of these components in the system do not exist or there's no capacity to create those at the US level now, that something's going to have to be done in the name of waivers.

Earnie: So I'm going to put my faith in the powers that be for those decisions coming down the road and hope that we have a good solution for that going into 2024. As I really do with the Affordable Connectivity Program, that we know that it has to be funded and how will it be funded? As far as the viewers question about fibre specific, and we as a state do not really touch any of the supply chain pieces in that we fund the providers. They source their own fibre cables and electronics individually. So we're kind of a hands off approach to that. But I think logistically, it makes sense for that direct communication to occur before between the supplier and the buyer.

Drew: Ernie, I really appreciate your direct and concise answers. You're definitely the plain spoken Hoosier and you're giving it straight to us here. So I want to get you to talk a little bit about yourself and about history and about the future. And these two questions, one from Jim Mercanti, who says, I am very interested in how the Indiana broadband office was established in 2018, two years before COVID. What was the tipping point and what was your involvement? Because as I understand it, Ernie, you've been kind of here from the beginning. So tell us a little bit about that origin story. And then let's also close pair that with Jace's question about how do we scale you, Ernie? How do we ramp up the state broadband people who know what they're doing? And you're a data driven broadband director, how do we get more of you? So the history and the future.

Earnie: Sure. Sure. So Lieutenant Governor Crouch created the Indiana broadband office in 2018. A gentleman named Scott Rudd came on board. He had done some great things in rural Indiana on providing some connectivity to his small county. I was at OCRA at the time as a community liaison, one of those individuals that traveled to the 15 or 18 counties every month to engage with local elected officials and stakeholders. Two years into Scott's employment, I moved over to the Indiana Broadband Office as the second employee there to work with Scott. And then I've been kind of holding down the ship since then. I joined Scott Wright before COVID started, so we hardly had any face time for our first eight months together. And then shortly after COVID, he moved to the private sector, and I tried to maintain things the best I could. We had our first State Infrastructure Coordinator come on board right at the time of IIJA. And that was Jodi Golden, who had previously been in the Office of Community Rural Affairs, and was at the time working for Lieutenant Governor Crouch as her Chief of Staff. And Jodi and I were a tag team for a couple months, and then she moved on to a private practice. And then just last week, we brought on our former head of Homeland Security, Steve Cox.

Drew: Drum roll, newsflash here.

Earnie: Employee number two. We're back into... We doubled our labour overnight. So Steve Cox has come on board as our State Infrastructure Coordinator, but the majority of his time is gonna be spent with the Indiana Broadband Office. And I can work directly with him and figure out how we're gonna implement all these over the coming years. So the scalability of me and now Steve and Earnie but we know we can't stop there. So how do we figure things out going into that initial proposal on do we use a more consultant labour for some of this, or do we try to scale up with double digit employees of the Indiana Broadband office and with OCRA? And how we manage that hiring and training compared to outsourcing. So I think that's the next step that we need to tackle as we're looking at our state processes going into the initial proposal.

Drew: Well, Earnie, the hour has flown by. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. Don't miss the next, Ask Me Anything! Which will take place two weeks from today on April 28th. And now my brain has left me. Ben, who do we have next up in April? Is that... [laughter]

Earnie: We have Veneeth from Louisiana.

Drew: Of course. Of course. Yes. We're gonna have... [chuckle] Thank you for being on top of this here, Earnie, Veneeth from the gumbo most unique Broadband office's name for a Broadband program. No, and we've got many others, as we said at the top of the program. We've heard from folks in nearby states like Kansas and Mississippi, Arkansas. We're gonna be hearing from Veneeth in Louisiana. And then we have Jim Strenger from South Carolina coming up soon, plus many others as well as other individuals in the space. Earnie, it's been a great pleasure to be with you. Any final thoughts for us before we close? 

Earnie: No, I appreciate the time today. Hopefully it was informative to the listeners. I appreciate all the efforts going on at broadband.money and happy to be a part of it today.

Drew: Well, we'll see you all next two weeks from now. Take care, everybody.

Earnie: All right, thanks, Trip.

Drew: Hey, take care.

Earnie: All right, see you bye