John founded the SHLB Coalition in 2009. He started his career as an attorney at the FCC before serving as president of the Association for Local Telecommunications Services.
During his time with the SHLB Coalition, John has authored several papers on broadband, and was named the Community Broadband Hero of the Year by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors in 2012.
He holds a bachelor's degree in history from Yale University and a J.D. from UCLA Law School.
Ben Kahn: And we're live. Hi, everybody. My name is Ben Kahn, and I'm a community ambassador with Broadband Money. I'm joined today for Ask Me Anything session with John Windhausen, who is the Founder and Executive Director of The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. And they work tirelessly to ensure that anchor institutions around the country are able to serve their communities. John, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Jonathan Windhausen: Well, it's a great pleasure to be here. Thank you, Ben.
Ben: John, I was wondering if... Starting out, if you could tell us a little bit more about the work that the SHLB Coalition does, and about your role there?
Jonathan: Well, sure. So, we are a nonprofit public interest group. We have about 320 members from around the United States, but we're not a trade association like most membership organizations are, we really have a public interest mission to promote open, affordable, high quality broadband for anchor institutions and their surrounding communities. So, what we noticed a few years ago, and the reason why we founded the SHLB Coalition is that oftentimes the traditional broadband providers divide the world between business and residential, and they don't recognize the needs for the anchor institutions, who we believe are a critical third leg of the stool for a healthy community. And so, we try to be their voice in broadband policy matters. So, we do a lot of work with the FCC, with Congress, with the White House and government agencies, and now increasingly going forward, we're trying to have more of a role with state broadband leaders as well. Ben, I think you're muted.
Ben: I am muted. [chuckle] Thanks. Would you mind just diving in a little bit to... You emphasized that SHLB is not a trade association. Can you tell me a little bit why that makes... Why they're... You as an organization are somewhat uniquely positioned to talk about these matters?
Jonathan: Well, I think it's because we have a mission and that's primary, that's our focus, and we come out with a road map of our policy, ideas, each year, at the beginning of each year, we identify these are the issues we're gonna work on, and they're all focused on how do we promote broadband for the anchor institutions and then use those as a way to get broadband to everybody. And our firm belief is everybody ought to have broadband, whether they're at the school or library or in the parking lot or at home, or whether they're at the church or the community center, wherever they may be. And anchor institutions can be an important way to get there, to get that broadband to the home, often to and through the anchor institutions. But the reason why that makes us different from a trade association is that sometimes our members disagree with where we're going, and that's okay because we're not trying to represent anybody who's a SHLB member. What we're really focused on is accomplishing our mission. And the reason why some of the organizations join us is that they do support the mission as well, but they also see that we're effective and we're having an impact on public policy, and so people wanna be part of the movement, if you will, to move things along and get everybody connected.
Ben: So, most of our audience, I would say, probably is pretty familiar with a lot of the terms that we're using, but if you wouldn't mind, I know you guys have a somewhat broader definition of what some people may consider to be an anchor institution, so could you kind of spell out for me how you guys define anchor institutions?
Jonathan: Absolutely. Well, obviously the schools and the health care providers and libraries that are in our name, those are kind of the foundational anchor institutions, if you will. But we're not just limited to those three types of organizations because as I mentioned, we consider higher education and community colleges to be anchor institutions. Community centers, public media, houses of worship. You could even say, jails and prisons are anchor institutions. Museums are anchor institutions. So basically, any organization that is gathering a lot of people together in a location to serve the public interest, we consider them to be an anchor institution that we try to be an advocate for their interests. And to be honest, a lot of these anchor institutions, they're underfunded, they're working incredibly hard to provide essential services to their constituencies, but they may not know a lot about broadband. They need it, but they may not have the technical expertise to participate in the policy proceedings at the FCC or at various government agencies, and so that's our role. We try to help lay the groundwork and develop the recommendations, so the policy-makers can adopt grant programs or change the rules to help facilitate better broadband connections for all of these types of anchor institutions.
Ben: I think you just kind of outlined a lot of sentiments that our viewers can sympathize or empathize with. They have a lot of experience with people who don't know that much about broadband, perhaps. They know they need it, they don't know how to get it and the mechanisms by which, or the mechanisms they can leverage to do that. One of these mechanisms, and I know SHLB has done a lot of work with or spoken a lot about, is the E-rate program. I was wondering if you could unpack that for our viewers, what that program is and how it works.
Jonathan: Sure. Well, the E-rate program is phenomenally successful. We adopted the E-rate program in the 1996 Telecom Act, which I say we, because I was on Capitol Hill working on that act, on the Senate Commerce Committee staff for nine years, and I helped to draft much of that act. And the E-rate program was designed from the get-go to say, Look, schools and libraries deserve their own program here to make sure that they're not bypassed by the traditional telecom providers. So, if you will, the E-rate program is kind of the first step in the right direction of connecting anchor institutions. It's obviously not all of them. But schools and libraries occupy such an essential component of everyday life that Congress felt that it was important to have a program that would make sure that they get the best connections possible. Now, admittedly, in 1996, when the E-rate program was created, it was largely focused on telephone services and data services, internet were just coming on to the marketplace, but we did have the foresight to say in the statutory language that it was not just telecom, but also advanced services, that we wanted schools and libraries to be able to access.
Jonathan: And that's what's allowed the E-rate program to fund broadband connectivity. Even after the '96 Act, the FCC took control of the program, and the FCC raises the money for it and then distributes that money every year back out to the schools and libraries. So in other words, schools and libraries submit applications each year for the amount of funding that they need to improve their broadband connectivity, and there is a matrix that shows a scale of different funding amounts based on whether the school is in a rural area or not or the level of its poverty, of the surrounding community, and that determines the amount of subsidy. But a lot of schools and libraries get, 90% or 95% of their broadband costs are covered by the E-rate program.
Jonathan: And without that funding, schools and libraries, a lot of them wouldn't be able to afford to have that broadband connectivity, which is essential now, especially after the pandemic, we learned how vitally important broadband is and getting online access to education is just fundamentally important. So, that's why the E-rate program really stands out as kind of a shining star of our broadband policy, and that was... SHLB can't claim success for creating that program, but we do have a lot to say about how to improve that program, and we've had some influence over the last decade in upgrading and modernizing the E-rate program so that it can help to facilitate these greater broadband connections. But ultimately our goal is that there should be an E-rate type program for all the anchor institutions, and that's in part of our mission at large.
Ben: So, I wanna remind our viewers who are viewing on YouTube or anywhere else this may be streaming to come to our webpage, because users can submit questions. And David Megarry submitted this question. He asked, "How is he E-rate different from the Lifeline program and other High Cost portions of the Universal Service Fund?" So, E-rate is specifically about anchor institution, so what are these other programs have to do with, John and how you view it?
Jonathan: Sure. Well, those are good questions. So the E-rate program is just for schools and libraries, and when I say schools, it's just K through 12 schools. Unfortunately, it doesn't include higher education at this time. But schools and libraries can apply for that funding. The Lifeline program is specifically geared for individual consumers, and they apply to receive discounts for their broadband or telecom services directly from the FCC. And then the High Cost program that was mentioned, that's another arm of the Universal Service Fund that goes, provides funding for rural and high-cost telecom providers. So, that money goes to the companies that are building, managing, deploying and running those networks in rural areas where the costs are much higher than normal. And then there's a fourth program of the Universal Service Fund, which is supporting telehealth. The FCC has a Rural Health Care Program, which provides, is sort of similar too, not exactly identical to the E-rate program, but it's parallel to E-rate but the Rural Health Care Program provides subsidies for telehealth providers to connect rural health care facility, so they get the same amount of subsidy that... And their costs are similar to what an urban health care provider would receive.
Jonathan: So just to back up, so there's one Universal Service Fund run by the FCC, and underneath that Universal Service Fund, there are four components, the E-rate Program, the Rural Health Care Program, a High Cost program, and the Lifeline program, serving four different sectors of needs within the Universal Service umbrella.
Ben: So David raised another question. And he asked, "What's your view on how the USF should be reformed?" So do you believe that the USF is in need of reform?
Jonathan: It is in need of reform in many ways. It needs to be modernized continually. We know that, for instance, the FCC reformed the E-rate program quite a bit in 2014 under Tom Wheeler's leadership when he was Chairman of the FCC, and those were great reforms, but there are even more reform still needed with the E-rate program. For instance, it ought to include cybersecurity. Increasingly we're seeing schools and library subject to cyber attacks, and yet the E-rate is kinda... It funds some cybersecurity, is kinda of the old fashioned cybersecurity, but not the more modern technologies, so that's kind of a gap in E-rate right now. The funding mechanism for Universal Service Fund also needs to be reformed. This is a, and a really important issue and problem, and if I could just state this briefly.
Jonathan: So I mentioned the FCC collects the money to fund the entire Universal Service Fund. The entire fund is about $9 billion per year. And that funding comes from a surcharge on people's telephone bills or telecommunications bills. And as soon as I say that, you could probably see the problem because most people are using broadband connections today, not telephone services. And yet it's only telephone services, interstate and international telecom services that are subject to the surcharge and they pay into the fund, but because the pot of telecom services is declining, the percentage fee keeps increasing and increasing and increasing. And it's now up to in the neighborhood of 30% of your telephone bill, people are now paying into the Universal Service Fund.
Jonathan: So that doesn't make sense. A lot of the lowest income people are the ones who are paying this fee, and higher income people that are purchasing broadband don't have to pay that fee, and even though the whole purpose of the program is to support broadband service availability, broadband services aren't paying. So, the SHLB Coalition, along with our friends at INCOMPAS and TCA have joined together to try to propose a solution that the FCC should reform that way of collecting the money, and it should assess the fee not just on telecom services, but also on broadband services, and if it were to do that, the fee would drop from 30% down to less than 4% in the economic analysis that we submitted to the FCC. But if we don't fix that contribution mechanism, there's a real danger that that fee can go, continue to spiral upwards, and then the entire Universal Service system could collapse. We hope it doesn't, these are important, vitally essential programs, but the contribution factor needs to be fixed in order to preserve the Universal Service for the long run.
Ben: When we think about making sure that anchor institutions, and really goes beyond that, any address getting access to broadband, there's two points that stick out to me, which is making sure that the infrastructure is deployed and available, and then actually ensuring that people are adopting. So, that it's kind of a two-pronged issue. And this kind of leads into a question that Drew Clark from Broadband Breakfast raised, which was, he's asking you to speak on the changes that the FCC has made to allow anchor institutions to more easily roll their own fiber, and he's asking have these developments been effective?
Jonathan: Well, let's see, let's step back and provide the background. So, in 2014, I mentioned Tom Wheeler reformed the E-rate program, and one of the things that he did, which was really helpful was to help the E-rate program facilitate fiber deployment to the schools and libraries. And a lot of schools and libraries didn't have fiber in 2014, and now they do, and largely because of the E-rate reform. So now the E-rate program has been fairly successful in getting fiber connections to broadband providers to build and deploy fiber to the school and library. And that's step one. The next step is to allow people and providers to extend that service from the school or library to the surrounding homes. And that step has not yet been taken, and that's unfortunate because you've got a great fiber asset now, and by the way, most fiber cables they don't just have one strand of fiber, they may have 48 strands of fiber, 96 strands, or even more. So a school that may have a big fiber cable running to that institution may have a lot of additional capacity in that fiber that could be tapped and it could be shared with the surrounding community, but the E-rate rules don't currently facilitate that.
Jonathan: And that's kind of a shame because it's a stranded asset or it's a wasted opportunity. Everybody needs connectivity, and yet you've got a big fiber cable sitting right there that can serve the school, which is great, but it could do so much more if you could interconnect with that fiber and provide wireless connectivity out to the home. So we, the SHLB Coalition and our partners at New America OTI, we jointly sponsored an economic study that we released in August of 2022, just a couple of months ago, and it was a great study by Dr. Raul Katz, who is one of the nation's experts on wireless economics, and he documented how there could be enormous savings if you allow the E-rate program or other programs to help facilitate the extension of networks from the school or library building to provide wireless connectivity to the home. If schools and libraries and other anchors were allowed to do that, the cost could be 1/5 the cost of buying service from a traditional wireless company. That tends to be the... The first stage is often people think, Oh, let's get a hotspot from one of the traditional providers, and the hotspots can be great, but you have to pay a monthly fee for that connection.
Jonathan: If you allow the anchor institution to deploy their own wireless network facilities, they can offer service for free and there's no ongoing monthly charge. So, that could be a tremendous economic benefit to that community, and you could get a lot more people connected to broadband that way, if you allow the anchor institution to help facilitate the deployment of these wireless services.
Ben: John, I wanna circle back quickly to... We've talked a lot about the reforms that you'd wanna see in the E-Rate program, you mentioned cybersecurity as a potential area. This is a bit of a two-part question. The first part of this is, would you say that on the whole, the E-Rate has been... It hasn't been proactive enough, do you think it's lagged and it's kind of being responsive to the changes that we're seeing in the telecom ecosystem? That's the first part. The second part is, in addition to the cybersecurity and some of the other practical changes that you mentioned, are there any other ways that you would want to see the E-Rate evolve to better match the way consumers interact with broadband?
Jonathan: Oh. Well, that's a great, big question.
Ben: Yeah. Take your time.
Jonathan: So the E-Rate program initially was focused on getting broadband into the school or library. And then the next phase was to allow E-Rate support for internal connections inside the school or library building, so by buying Wi-Fi routers and running wires. And those have been very key components. But the marketplace keeps changing.
Jonathan: And E-Rate needs to be updated as these technological changes come down the pike. So we talked about cybersecurity but there are other examples too. Wi-Fi on school buses can be a huge benefit, especially in more rural markets where the kids are on the bus for 45 minutes each way to school or sometimes longer. Giving them access to a Wi-Fi internet signal on the bus can help them do their homework. It also helps with... Prevent disruptions on the bus. Kids are more compliant, they don't get into as many tussles with each other and an interesting side point, we found that in those areas where they allow... Have deployed Wi-Fi on school buses, it's easier to attract bus drivers to do the job because they're not always having to supervise the kids and they can focus on driving the bus more safely. So there are a lot of benefits to allowing E-Rate to pay for Wi-Fi on school bus technology. Right now it's circulating at the FCC, we hope the FCC adopts that order here fairly soon. That could help to facilitate that technology. But another big component and big way that E-Rate could be modernized is as back to our two and through philosophy. If you can make that E-Rate network open to interconnection by waiving the cost allocation rule, that would facilitate or encourage more people to build off of that school or library network to serve the community.
Jonathan: I'll give you an example of why that's important. And this example is about 10 years old but it's still relevant. There was a foundation that wanted to connect a low-income housing project and the residents there really needed broadband, and there was a school right across the street. So the foundation said, "We'll pay for the wireless connectivity from the school to the public housing units," and they just needed the school to give them permission to tap their fiber and build off of that fiber. And the school said, "No." And they said, "It's not gonna cost you anything. We'll pay for all of the wireless extensions," but the school said, "If we allow you to do that, we're gonna have to cost allocate out a portion of our fiber capacity, we're gonna lose some of our E-Rate funding if we allow you to do this." And so it didn't happen and that's such a shame. So, I know cost allocation is such a, in the weeds, accounting issue but it can have a huge impact. Just waiving that cost allocation standard won't cost any additional funding but it could be a huge way of allowing the school or library or other anchor institution to be a jumping off point.
Jonathan: And then you can extend service much more affordably to the surrounding homes and businesses if you were to waive that cost allocation rule. So that's another way the E-Rate program could be modernized. And then the third thing I'd say is, and this is maybe going on off my standard talking points, but I did say this originally, there ought to be an E-Rate type program for all of the anchor institutions. So we really should be thinking about the E-Rate as a model for providing subsidies for community colleges, for museums, for public housing, all of these different anchor institutions should have their own E-Rate type of program.
Ben: So, John, it seems like over the past couple years, people have only really been... People outside of the telecom industry have only really just begun to appreciate just how much work and how much Americans depend on anchor institutions. As we begin to and continue to exit the pandemic, people are really seeing how much work those anchor institutions did. But this seems somewhat at odds with one of these revelations that the FCC has now said that anchor institutions on their fabric will be considered served by default and I'm wondering if you can give me some of your reaction to that and provide me some insight on why that's so meaningful, why that's so impactful on getting them served.
Jonathan: Well, you raised a really important issue because the broadband maps that the FCC is working on may not include the anchor institutions and this is a tragedy. SHLB filed comments with the FCC three or four years ago asking the FCC to map the anchor institutions into including anchor institutions on those maps and the FCC said, "No, we're just gonna look at residential consumers and business consumers." Well, this gets back to kinda the foundation or reason why SHLB was created in the first place. We're being left out, we're being ignored and thought we had sympathy and the FCC said, "No, we're not gonna do that." Now we're... That was under our prior administration, so then we were hopeful that the new FCC would look more kindly on this. But the fabric that just came out, that CostQuest has put out there under contract to the FCC, apparently the fabric identifies the locations of the anchor institutions but then it flags them as not a broadband service of a location, so...
Ben: Which is insane.
Jonathan: Which doesn't make sense, because anchor institutions need that broadband and I guess the argument is that, well, anchor institutions get specially designed circuits for themselves. Sometimes that is true, a lot of times, it's not true. A lot of times the school or library are buying the traditional broadband service just like a residential consumer would purchase service. And so just to leave the anchor institutions off the map altogether or to flag them as not broadband serviceable is just a tragedy. So we are hopeful that the FCC and CostQuest and NTIA too for that matter and the states, as they're putting their broadband maps together, we all make a better effort to include anchors. I will say I said states at the end, I really shouldn't have left them to the end. The state broadband maps could be much more granular and more accurate than the FCC's maps, and this is an ongoing work for us and for the country to make sure that the state maps include anchors but also are more accurate. So there's a lot of detailed mapping work involved, it's a lot of work, we appreciate that. But I think the states may have their eye on the ball and may be more sympathetic to including anchor institutions, we certainly are talking to them about doing that.
Ben: Were you at all surprised by this? Well, I could say... I will say I was very surprised when I came across this news that they're going to be... That anchor institutions are gonna be considered serve default due to the assumption of the off-the-rack offerings. And when I read that, the immediate response is, well, doesn't the NTIA... Weren't the NTIA's recommendations essentially opposite of what has come to path, and can I get your reaction on that?
Jonathan: Yeah. NTIA has recognized the value of anchor institutions right from the get-go. SHLB was formed actually back in 2009 when Congress passed the BTOP legislation, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. And that was funding of... About $4 billion in funding that went to NTIA and anchor institutions were a key part of the BTOP program. So NTIA has had this... Understood the needs of anchor institutions from the beginning and it's carried that view forward to the current time frame. So the NOFO that NTIA just issued a few months ago, that's the Notice of Funding Opportunity for the BEAD program, the $42.5 billion broadband deployment fund, that's a huge program and it's vitally important. And that's the primary... Not the only mechanism but it's primary mechanism for getting everybody connected.
Jonathan: The one wrinkle about the BEAD program that we're continuing to work on is that the legislation says... It does say anchor institutions 29 times in the IIJA, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act so SHLB, we were very pleased. That wouldn't have happened without SHLB's advocacy and that the IIJA also tells NTIA that any anchor institution is unserved if it does not have gigabit connectivity. So that's good. They recognize... Now, to be honest we were asking for gigabit connectivity 10 years ago, now we're asking for multi-gigabit technology for anchors. But leaving that aside, anchor institutions who don't have gigabit are considered unserved. So we think that's a hook that the states can use to say... To allocate funding to connect to those anchor institutions. The wrinkle is that the legislation also talks about the priority and it gives top priority to unserved areas, second priority to underserved areas and then third priority to anchor institutions and then fourth to everybody else.
Jonathan: We are hoping that... We don't wanna be in third place because all the money may be gone before you connect. Disconnecting the first group of unserved is the most expensive set of consumers, so we would rather that NTIA and the states think of anchor institutions as a group that can help them solve the first priority. In other words, if you build, again, to the school or library or healthcare provider, you can... That makes it easier to connect the households around them. And so you're more likely to get the job done of connecting the unserved if you also simultaneously connect the anchor institution. Anchor institutions can be part of the solution, not part of the problem and that's what we're encouraging states to take that view.
Ben: So Scott Woods who is formally with the NTIA, now serves as Vice President for Community Engagement with ready.net, he raised a couple of questions and I wanna just read some of these and get your reaction to them. So first one he says, "John, great to see you again. Thank you for joining us. The IIJA expands the definition of community anchor institutions for the purpose of executing the IIJA broadband programs. Is SHLB open to including broader members?
Jonathan: Absolutely, yes. We do have a very broad... If the question is about SHLB members, SHLB as an organization, we already have other anchor institutions that are part of our group and we would love to have more. So we don't just have... We have a lot of schools and libraries and healthcare providers but we also have some nontraditional anchor institutions and we would welcome them like public housing as I mentioned earlier and public media. Higher education is a big component of SHLB's membership. So if that's the question, yes, we would love to have more anchor institution members within SHLB. If the question from Scott is about the definition of anchor institutions for the NOFO and for all of the NTIA programs, we also agree that that should be broad as well. The BTOP definition of anchor institutions was actually pretty broad itself and we work with that old NTIA definition of anchor institutions so we've kind of embraced that within SHLB.
Ben: This... First part comes from Scott and I'm gonna add on to it. He says, "What do you advise the community anchor institutions should be doing now to get involved in the preparation for the planning process they are going on at the state broadband office levels?" And I'll tie in my second part to that is, What courses of action would you suggest that people at the state level do to better engage with their anchor institutions? So kind of both sides of that coin.
Jonathan: Both sides. Yes. Well, a key is to engage with the state broadband offices in each state. The State Broadband Leaders Network that NTIA has put together is a great list of those state officials who are working to develop the broadband plans. Now, to be honest, the legislation itself already directs the state broadband offices to work with the stakeholders in those states. But that's... We'll see how that works out because there are a lot of ways that you could say, okay, I checked... I touch base with all of these industry groups and those of the stakeholders. Well, no. That's not enough. We would say the stakeholders include the anchor institutions but oftentimes at the state level, the anchor institutions may not be organized as well. And so that is something that SHLB is looking at. To be honest, if we had more resources, we would like to set up state SHLB chapters...
Jonathan: So that we could help to facilitate that coordination and advocacy. But we're not at that stage, we don't have that enough funding to do that yet but we are strongly encouraging the libraries and schools and healthcare providers in each state to get together and collaborate and go in and talk to their state broadband officials as a group. And that's something the state broadband office is supposed to do anyway but it can be a little daunting for them to reach out to every single community and try to reach individual libraries and schools and anchors on one by one basis. So it really would make sense for the anchors in each state to band together and that way they'll have better influence over that state broadband plan.
Ben: Great, this is somewhat connected. This is another question from Scott and our work with Broadband Money, a lot of it has to do with getting communities that have historically struggled to be recognized or have historically struggled to get service, get them actually served, give them the tools they need to get served. So Scott's question kinda touches on that where he says, "How do we get more HBCUs, tribal schools and minority serving institutions involved with SHLB?
Jonathan: Well, our membership is open to all of those organizations, it's very easy. Our membership application is right on our website, so it's very easy to fill out an application and join. All you have to do is commit that you support our mission which is pretty easy to endorse because it's supporting anchor institutions and broadband for their communities. We have different policy groups within SHLB that focus on different policy areas. So we have an E-Rate group, we have a rural healthcare group and we have a higher education group specifically to talk about the needs of community colleges and HBCUs and other higher educational institutions to engage with us and we try to... Out of each of these policy groups including our higher ed group, we're developing policy recommendations that we are taking to Capitol Hill and to all the broadband policy leaders. So that's... We make it very easy for people that... Not just to join SHLB, but then as soon as you join, you can sign up for any one of these policy groups. If you permit me, a silly little statement. But joining SHLB is a bit like going to Disneyland, you pay your entrance fee, your dues and then you can go to any ride you want. You can join any policy group that you'd like to and you can participate in everything that SHLB has to offer.
Ben: So it seems a bit like this time, this point in time right now where we're exiting the pandemic, I find that I always say that, cross my fingers. We're exiting the pandemic, there's all this money coming into the ecosystem to fund more expansion of broadband, adoption of broadband and it really does seem like it should be anchor institutions' time in the sun and you guys have been doing this now, SHLB has been around for 12 years, I believe? Is it?
Jonathan: That's right.
Ben: And you guys had your first AnchorNets Conference in... Was it 2012 or is that when you guys had your first one?
Jonathan: Well, it depends how you count. We started having conferences in 2010, but they were pretty small at that stage, and we didn't call them AnchorNets.
Jonathan: It wasn't until about three or four years ago that we adopted the AnchorNets lingo to describe our annual conference, and then it's been cancelled the last two years, unfortunately, because of the COVID pandemic. So the last AnchorNets conference was in 2019, and then our next conference is next week...
Ben: Yeah, this is what's so great that we have you now, because you're heading into AnchorNets, so I really want you to talk to me about what are gonna be the big themes at AnchorNets this year, and why should some of these communities that we've already talked about that would probably have a great interest in joining SHLB, probably really benefit from joining SHLB, how could they benefit from attending AnchorNets and some of these sessions that are gonna be going on?
Jonathan: Well, if you care about spreading the benefits of broadband, or in other words, if you care about solving the digital divide, our AnchorNets conference is really the place to go. We've got programs on digital equity and digital literacy training. We've got a workshop on Wednesday for four hours just focused on digital equity showcase. We've got programs on broadband deployment such as the BEAD Program, the Middle Mile Program, the Connecting Minority Communities Program, the Tribal Broadband Program. All of those are being run by NTIA. We've got a program on the Capital Projects Fund, the $10 billion that was given to the US Treasury Department to facilitate broadband deployment.
Jonathan: We have sessions on wireless connectivity because the wireless field is just booming, and it's just amazing. You could do so much more with wireless now than you could four, five years ago. With the advent of CBRS and community WiFi networks, it's increasingly able for communities to build out their own broadband networks and take their destiny into their own hands. So we've got wireless opportunities to get up to speed and educated about how you can do this. We also have issues on pull attachments to try to improve broadband deployment on cyber security. Our keynotes are pretty interesting too. We have Crosby Kemper is the first key note on Thursday morning, and Crosby is the Director of IMLS, the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
Jonathan: And he's doing a great job of articulating the need for how libraries and museums can improve digital equity, and he's very entertaining, a guy, he also used to be the chair of the SHLB board. Before he became IMLS director, he was our board chairman, so we like to think that SHLB is a stepping stone for future career enhancements. So anyway, that's Crosby Kemper at Thursday morning. Thursday at lunch, we're gonna be sitting down with two of the FCC's premier legal advisors to chairwoman, FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel, and also to Commissioner Starks. They'll be appearing at Tuesday at lunch... I'm sorry, Thursday at lunch. Friday morning, we have Alan Davidson, the administrator of NTIA, who's obviously in charge of all of these different funding programs at NTIA, and we're gonna be sitting down to have a fire-side chat with him on Friday morning. And then Friday afternoon, we have a congressional panel to talk about the prospects for a more federal broadband legislation coming down the pike. So it's really quite a jam-packed agenda from Wednesday of next week through Friday till 1:30. To be really honest with you, we scheduled more speakers and more events at this year's AnchorNets conference than we ever have before, and we kind of over did it.
Jonathan: We've got so many people and so many speakers and so many programs running simultaneously, we've had a number of people say, "Oh my God, John, you've got so many different sessions that look so great and they're scheduled at the exact same time. Why couldn't you space these out?" Well, we tried, but because COVID is still out there, we wanted to make sure that we put a program together that was as attractive as possible. And now, to be honest, it's working. We just exceeded our stretch goal. Our short-term goal was getting 300 registrants, our stretch goal was 350, well as of today, we're up to 360. And then they grow a little bit further, so it's gonna be a really exciting conference full with lots of big issues and a lot of people.
Ben: Well, these are good problems to have. It's nice that it's just too jammed pack. So there's another area that I wanna rotate into, which has to do with the types of technology that are being used to serve various communities. Obviously, everybody loves fiber. Fiber, we always joke like everyone needs more fiber in their diet. But I'm curious what your perspective is on other types of services like LEOs, you touched on fixed wireless earlier. Would you mind going into that a little bit?
Jonathan: Well, sure, I don't mind at all. We're very technology-neutral, but we're not technology-blind. We do believe that there are... Every technology should have an opportunity to be eligible for this funding, but we also recognize that some areas are going to be more amenable to certain technologies over others. So fiber is the gold standard, everybody ought to have a fiber connection with multiple fiber strands. That would be ideal, and we promote that, we push that idea. But the truth is, it's not economic in a lot of cases, and wireless technologies can play a useful role in reaching some of these areas that maybe you can't get a fiber connection to be deployed out there. So fixed wireless, as I mentioned earlier, has really developed even more bandwidth in the last few years, and the technology is more off the shelf, so it's more readily available than it used to be. And that's gonna continue to be the case. The FCC authorized CBRS spectrum about four years ago on the hope that it would spawn an additional investment.
Jonathan: And that's working, and that's why these costs of deploying CBRS networks are so valuable, because you can put an antenna on the roof of the building, school or library building and you could beam out a signal two or three miles and cover a huge circle around the institution, or you could have extensive booster networks and put additional antennas around the city or the urban area in order to cover more people and get them more connected, using the anchor institutions as a base. So all these technologies are... You've got to evaluate each one. It depends on how many trees there are in the neighborhood, it depends on the moisture of the air and the rain. Depends on whether it's mountainous or hilly or flat. You really can't make a judgment ahead of time about which technology is going to work best for your community. So that's why we think that they really ought to be... The decisions on this ought to be made at the local level. It shouldn't be predetermined by the federal government telling you which technology you should use. Each community should issue their own RFP and look at the bids that they receive, and that way they'll be in a better position to judge which technology and which companies are gonna best serve their needs.
Ben: We have a couple of questions that were just submitted by viewers, and one of them comes from Lori Collins with SonicNet, and she's voicing her frustration about the bureaucracy involved with E-rate and the FCC. She says, my company, an ISP got the... She was referring to some of the inventive solutions that people were coming up with, where she says that they were not allowed to build a tower next to a building, tap into the local fiber connection and transmit it out wirelessly to the town. They wanted to but found that they couldn't because of E-rate. It was frustrating for everyone, I came in late as you were talking about it, so I hope there's no overlap, but do you see this changing? And I would just echo these inventive solutions where people are trying to leverage resources and assets that already exist, but then there's some bureaucracy with the existing programs that makes it challenging. And so I would just defer back to Lori's question. How do you see this changing? Do you see it changing?
Jonathan: Well, I certainly hope it changes, and SHLB wants it to change. We filed a petition with the FCC a year and a half ago, in January of 2021, where we proposed many E-rate changes to help facilitate exactly what Sonic is trying to do. And the FCC actually was... We kind of pre-cleared it with some of the FCC staff and they gave us the go-ahead to file the petition, so we were happy to do so. And we did so with a lot of other parties, including SEDA, SECA, and New America and others, because we realized that the E-rate program, really, we should be thinking more expansively about how that program can expand the level of connectivity for everybody. And so we asked, there's a certain amount of funding that the FCC has kept in reserve, E-rate funding that the FCC has kept in reserve, so we asked the FCC to release that funding to help to fund those broadband connections to the home, to make sure that students and library patrons, even at home, could get connected. And we also asked the FCC to wave that cost allocation rule that I talked about earlier. The FCC put it out for comment.
Jonathan: We got a huge amount of support in the comments that were filed, including from some of the traditional telcos, which was great to see, but then it... Congress passed the Emergency Connectivity Fund legislation and allocated that $7 billion for some of the same purposes that SHLB had requested in our petition, so that kind of... The FCC then put our petition on hold while it went forward and approved and implemented the ECF program, which we were happy about, don't get me wrong. Bt now that the ECF program is coming to an end in the next year or so when the funding runs out, we really think now is the time for the FCC to take another look at our petition and make some of these changes for the long term that could help these build-outs and extensions from the anchor institution to the community. It really has to be done. And I guess this is one other point that I'd like to make. In 2010, the FCC adopted a National Broadband Plan, and it was a great plan that Blair Levin and his team put together, but it called for a lot of things to be accomplished by the year 2020, and we didn't solve the problem.
Jonathan: That was supposed to solve the problem in 10 years and we didn't make it. And I think now is the time, if we really wanna solve the digit divide, we have got to make changes to our current policies. We can't just rest on the status quo, we can't just say, "Oh, our region doesn't have broadband, that means they don't want it." That's not the case. So we are gonna have to, all of us, re-evaluate our current broadband rules, and the E-rate rules are part of this. We've got to turn our mindset around to not just how can we work with E-rate as it is, but what could E-rate become? What could the Rural Health Care Program become? How could that be reformed? How can Congress step up to reform the entire Universal Service Fund, in order to make sure that... We ought to set this as a national goal that in five years everybody has connectivity. And that's reform still need to happen to get there.
Ben: So deployment and adoption are obviously... We've touched on that, those are two huge aspects of ensuring that communities get served, but both of those are almost a non-issue until we address mapping and measurement, and actually seeing who is served in this area. And we touched on that a little bit, but I do wanna raise this question that Garland McCoy of you are asked, and he said, "What are your thoughts about deploying network monitoring devices in SHLB facilities to get the true picture of the ISP's network service speeds and quality of service? Our work using the same Lanner and Dell network monitoring devices for major ISPs use and work with both mLab and Ookla apps and protocols." And I guess, is this something you'd be amenable to? Is this something that SHLB might be interested in?
Jonathan: In theory, yes. We're a small shop of four or five staff people, and we're not technologists, so I can't speak to the engineering of putting these devices, but in theory, I think that's a great idea. We'd love to have some authoritative way to measure the broadband capacity that's coming into the anchor institution, and then also what the actual use is. So those are two different measures, the capacity of what could happen and then the actual speeds that are being delivered are both very useful measures of the broadband quality of the broadband access. But it's a little difficult right now because we don't have those devices at the anchor institution to be able to separate out the capacity and the speeds. And so some people are making... Are extrapolating from speed tests to try to identify use speed tests of actual usage to estimate the broadband capacity. And it's an estimate, but it's not real strong, the strongest proof that you can have. So we like the idea of designing these technologies that would give you that more definitive data about what you have. Now, I would also say there's a lot of talk about how, yes, we need to map the area, so that way we'll know where broadband exists and where it doesn't exist.
Jonathan: The only caution I would have is that it's an ongoing marketplace, and so the difficulty is always you could gather the information today, but by the time you compile it and analyze it and come out with a report six months later, the situation on the ground may have changed in that time. And this is especially an issue right now, because there's so much broadband funding being dispersed. The FCC is awarding money for the RDOF awardees to build out broadband networks in covering unserved areas, and that's happening right now. So it might be that three months ago that an area doesn't have broadband, but in six months it will. And it can also be vice versa, where some... If you take providers at their word, they may have received funding to build out to an area and they're supposed to get it done in the next 18 months, but then it falls through and they're not able to carry forward and actually deploy it as they promised that they would.
Jonathan: So the maps inherently have a lag problem and overly ex-ped, so we're never gonna know exactly where all the broadband is and where it isn't. And I'd just hate for us to hold up and say, "No, we wanna get these maps absolutely right before we invest in broadband." Because the truth is, that's always going to be an estimate, and it's much better to get the networks built and build out, even if there might be some overlap in some areas, the bigger harm is if people don't get served. And we ought to make sure that we cover everybody. And if you deploy technology that has an open access facility then that promotes competition too with multiple retail service providers over that one wholesale connection. So that's another way to look at broadband mapping that could help to facilitate broadband connections for everybody.
Ben: We have a great question from Mike Smelter, who said, "Many years ago, in your big broadband white paper for EDUCAUSE, you estimated that it would cost $200 billion to connect every home, business and anchor institutions in the United States to fiber. Based on what has happened over the last 14 years, how close was your estimate to reality?"
Jonathan: Well, that's a good question, Mike. Thank you for reminding me of that EDUCAUSE study. I think it was this fairly close, and I say that because I think it was four years ago, the FCC released an economic study from Paul de Sa that estimated, at that time, it would cost about $80 billion to connect the remaining households. So I see that as consistent with my estimate of $200 billion from eight years before that, because over that eight year time, there's been some broadband build out and some of the broadband costs have come down, and so $80 billion was the estimate four or five years ago, and now we've got a BEAD Program of $42.5 million and we've got a Capital Projects Fund of another $10 billion, then we've got state Broadband Money coming at it, so gradually, we are increasing the deployment and reducing the cost of the remaining users. So I'd say we're on the right track. But it's also true that the unserved customers are... There's a reason they're unserved, those are the hardest ones to serve. And they could be in the outlying rural areas, but also a lot of inner city, they're in, surprisingly, inner city neighborhoods often don't have adequate broadband because it's not in the economic interests of the broadband companies to serve them. So there needs still to be investment both in the rural markets and in the inner city markets.
Ben: And I think that's part of what was... Broadband Money, we always emphasize rural is crucial to get served, but we can't forget about the people in the inner city. And that's something that I think, again, revelations that were made over the pandemic was, "Hey, even in these really developed areas in the inner city, there are a lot of people who are still lacking connectivity." And so I would put to you, over the course of the pandemic, you obviously had a lot of opportunities to look at some of the things that... Some of the solutions that anchor institutions, whether they were rural or in the city, some of the solutions that people were able to come up with, and I'm curious, are there any of those solutions that really stick out to you as particularly inventive or unique that you'd be interested in sharing?
Jonathan: There are a lot of examples. So there are some school districts, for instance, that have already started to put antennas on the roof of their building. I guess the one that I'll mention now, but there are others, is Boulder Valley, Colorado. The school district there entered into a contract with a private sector WISP. And so it's a public-private partnership agreement. Excuse me for a second.
Jonathan: And what the Boulder Valley School District did was to provide a Livewire, which was the name of the WISP. It provided that company with free access to the roof of the building with their antennas. And in return, the company offered to provide free wireless connectivity to low-income consumers who lived around that school. And Andrew Moore, who started that project, first started that, I believe, with four different school buildings, and then it turned out to be so successful that he went back to the board and got approval for the other 14 school buildings to do this region-wide, and that was a great win, win, win, so it was great for the school because they got more students connected at home. It was great for the private company because they were able to offer premium services, but they got free access to their rooftops and then generate some profit after that, and then it benefited the entire community because you had more people connected.
Jonathan: And so that's a great story. I use that as an essential talking point. But I mentioned earlier that we had worked with New America on an economic study, while at the same time that we released the economic study, we also released a set of 12 case studies of different school districts and communities deploying their own wireless solutions. And Fresno Unified School District in California is one of those that was interesting because they first looked at all the different varieties of wireless technologies, and at the end of the day, they went with CBRS as the main way and they heat mapped their whole region to identify those areas of Fresno that most needed the service, and they were able to direct their CBRS facilities to serve those consumers. But then you've got even small libraries like Pottsboro, Texas that has worked with a private sector company there to deploy their own wireless network, connecting more rural areas around the library. And so this kind of ingenuity is happening all over the place, and it's really growing an exciting trend. Within SHLB, we have formed what we call an anchor connectivity group, and is specifically to promote examples and case studies and people learning from each other so they can take this on and do this more on a more widespread basis. And we're gonna be talking about that at our conference next week as well.
Ben: Yeah, please. So John, I know that people tell us that we should have longer sessions and we could probably talk about this for another hour, but before we let you go, I wanna give you an opportunity to once more just talk about what's happening next week.
Jonathan: Well, our AnchorNets Conference is happening next week, Wednesday through Friday, October 12th through the 14th, that's at the Hilton Crystal City Hotel. And you can look at our full agenda at SHLBconference.org, S-H-L-B conference.org for registration information. We've got an exciting set of programs, we have workshops on digital equity, broadband mapping, rural healthcare and wireless connectivity. We've got a VIP track with Gigi Sohn and Blair Levin, Kathryn de Wit, and Joey Wender from the Treasury Department, they're coming for the VIP session. It's chuck full of great, exciting sessions, and we're very hopeful. And we have a special E-rate celebration. Oh, I should have mentioned, we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the E-rate program. We're having a special reception that SHLB is sponsoring in conjunction with SECA, the State E-rate Coordinators Association on Wednesday night. And that's free. You don't have to pay anything, just show up at the hotel from 5:30-7:30 PM and come join us in that celebration of that historic day.
Ben: Huh? I didn't know I shared a birthday with E-rate. That's pretty cool. That's...
Jonathan: Oh, very good.
Ben: I'm turning 25, same as... [chuckle]
Jonathan: Same as E-rate. Well, that's very cool.
Ben: Didn't know that. Cool fact for the day. So thank you, John, for joining us today. It was a great time. I just wanna remind our viewers that next week on October 14th, we'll be having the SVP of Tribal Communications, Joe Valandra here with us. And we'll be having a third AMA this month with Deborah Simpier, who is the co-founder and CEO of Althea Networks, and we're super excited to have them both on the show. Once again, John, just thank you so much for being a part of this. We really appreciate the insight and the work that SHLB does, so thank you on behalf of Broadband Money for joining us today.
Jonathan: Well, it's a great pleasure, Ben.