Ask Me Anything! with Joshua Hildebrandt, Director of Broadband Initiatives at Georgia Technology Authority

Ask Me Anything! with Joshua Hildebrandt, Director of Broadband Initiatives at Georgia Technology Authority Banner Image

Jun 16, 2023

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About Our Distinguished Guest

Josh Hildebrandt serves as the director of Broadband Initiatives at the Georgia Technology Authority, leading Georgia’s broadband deployment strategy, overseeing connectivity funding mechanisms, and supporting local communities and providers in their high-speed internet expansion efforts.

Before starting at GTA, Josh worked at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources where he oversaw the agency’s legislative and public policy efforts, communications, and external affairs. Prior to joining DNR, Josh served in Governor Brian Kemp’s administration as the Policy Advisor for rural initiatives including agriculture, natural resources and broadband and as the Coastal Region Manager for then Secretary of State Kemp.

A native of Chattanooga, TN, and graduate of Belmont University in Nashville, TN, he is happy to now call the Atlanta area home.

Event Transcript

Craig Corbin: And we're live. Hello, everyone and welcome to another edition of Ask Me Anything, the webinar series featuring leaders from all corners of the broadband industry and providing an interactive forum where our guests can share their insights, knowledge and perspectives with our broadband community. I'm Craig Corbin Director of Public Sector Partnerships with, and I have the honor of serving as your host this afternoon, for what will be an engaging and informative conversation. Our guest today leads a broadband deployment strategy for the State of Georgia, but we're seeing connectivity funding mechanisms and supporting local communities and providers in their high speed internet expansion efforts. It is a pleasure to welcome to the Ask Me Anything webinar, the Director of Broadband Initiatives at the Georgia Technology Authority, Mr. Josh Hildebrandt. Josh, welcome to Ask Me Anything.

Josh Hildebrandt: Thank you so much, Craig. It is a pleasure to be here with you all this afternoon. As of right now, it's a little sunny here in Georgia, which we have to be happy about, 'cause we've had some storms come in over the last couple of days, and nice to have a beautiful backdrop for hopefully a really nice conversation today.

Craig: Absolutely, and it is nice to be talking with a fellow Georgian about what is going on in such an incredible time in this industry, in fact, as we'll get to a little bit later on announcements today of grants being awarded and earlier this week, so much to talk about. Before we get into that, provide those in our audience that might not know the story of Josh Hildebrandt, how you wound up where you are.

Josh: Absolutely. Thank you, Craig, for that question. I'd like to sum all of this up by saying this is all about making sure that people have equal opportunity regardless of their zip code. For me, I have a hard go for rural parts of the state, but this also goes across the suburban, ex-urban and urban parks as well, and we now know coming out of the pandemic and also just this time that we're living in that a good connection is critically important to having a good job, having good health care opportunities, having a good quality of life, and making sure that communities do not feel that they were being left behind, and that they are not subject to barriers that others do not have to deal with. So for me, this is ultimately about making sure that people can have the job they wanna have, live where they wanna live, have the healthcare that they wanna have, live where they wanna live, and then have the education that they wish to have where they live at this current time.

Craig: Absolutely, that's so important for everyone. And you touched on it, it's not just a rural issue, not just the cities, but everyone across the state, across the nation finds himself in that situation. Let's talk a little bit about the formation of your organization driving broadband efforts in the State of Georgia. How long has it been around? What was the genesis for that? 

Josh: Yes, we were very fortunate in the State of Georgia that this has been a lead issue for public officials, as we say, like I say, under the gold dome, which is the state capital in Atlanta. Georgians, regardless of where they are, have been saying this is a major issue for a long period of time, and that kind of came to a head in Georgia back in 2018 when an initial founding legislation was passed by the assembly and signed by the governor to establish a broadband team and a broadband emphasis and responsibility by the state to overcome those challenges, identify those challenges and then create a plan about what to do. So in 2018, the office was established, it was a joint effort between the Georgia Technology authority that for those who do not know this agency, which are many and many in the State of Georgia, I have to say, we are the IT solutions and strategy arm of the executive branch in Georgia, working directly underneath Governor Kemp.

Josh: And so it was a joint effort between Georgia Technology Authority and the Department of Community Affairs, which is in charge of deploying community funding, overseeing councils of Government, and those like efforts, and so the team was created between those two agencies, and then it has been expanded upon over additional legislation that was passed in 2019, and the legislation that was passed this year in preparation for BEAD. So we've been around for just about five years in Georgia. Currently, the bulk majority of the team is housed at the Georgia Technology Authority. My colleagues are here, this is where I work, and we try to lead the effort for a really, really robust multi-agency effort to address this. We really have everybody at the table, we have public support, we have support from other agencies, which oftentimes can be a little bit of a headache if agencies become too siloed, but when it comes to broadband in Georgia, it's just the doors are wide open, and we're all charging head together.

Craig: Well, without question, a big part of getting the organization off the ground was the realization that something had to be done with respect to the mapping data that was available with which to work and so very quickly your organization turned to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Eric McCray, and the folks at the University of Georgia, and it really was ground breaking, quite honestly. You look back three years ago, that first map they viewed and really was the gold standard. Talk about that if you would.

Josh: Absolutely. So when the office was first established, the first thing we had to do was to identify the problem. I think everyone knows, going back over decades of time, that we arrived at this issue of communities that had high-speed internet access and those that did not. The have and have nots, I do not like to use that term, but when it comes to this, we truly do have that sort of situation. And everyone from ISPs to communities were we're all saying, we're doing something about this, we were better connecting Georgia, but without a map to truly see where the unserved locations were we could not create a strategy to really focus efforts and resources that were limited at best to really try to get a handle of this.

Josh: So the state stood up, the nation's first ever or one of the first ever location level maps, and this was at a time that people will remember 'cause it was not so long ago where the best mapping data available was by census block, and if one census... If one location, that census block had service, then it would count as a served census block. So through that model, the data in Georgia was not accurate, it overstated coverage, no doubt about that, and so we wanted to get to the bottom of that. And we did that in a way that I think as we further our conversation, you'll see that in Georgia, we don't really like forcing people to do a lot of things. That's just not really the Georgia way. We believe in relationships, we believe in establishing trust, and then building on that.

Josh: And so in those first iterations of the Georgia broadband map, even without a mandate to do so, we incorporated over 85% of the ISPs in the State of Georgia in that first year to publish and pull together and send to us their service availability and they did that in confidence to us, and we stood up the first map. I believe it was the summer of 2020. And so we, a little bit, had the pre-FCC map for the State of Georgia long before the FCC underwent that incredible undertaking of fully mapping the nation at a location level basis. And we believe that was the right way to do it then, we believe it's the right way to do it now, and we were happy to be the groundbreaker for that.

Craig: Well, and being a pioneer in those efforts, I know has been inspirational to many of your colleagues, many of your peers nationwide. While that will yield results years down the road, it already has yielded results, a number of projects across the Peach State that have been able to take hold because of that. Talk about that if you would.

Josh: Absolutely. Craig, for us, it has always been that data is king in Georgia. Before we looked to utilize substantial funding, we really felt that we needed to know, to the most accurate degree possible, where the unserved locations were in Georgia, and to plot those, map those, and then take those ultimately to the provider community to say, we're ready for you all to come and do your part and build out Georgia and close the digital divide with the help of the state.

Josh: When the American Rescue Plan Act was passed, as you all know, the legislation and treasury allowed for state fiscal recovery funds to be utilized for connectivity issues. And under the leadership of Governor Brian Kemp, who has rural broadband and broadband access as a major priority of his, he said, let's get to work. And he turned to the state broadband team and said, "I'm gonna give you all 400 million out of state fiscal recovery funds to do with as you want around broadband infrastructure expansion." We kicked off that program all the way back in the fall or the summer of 2021. That was the state's first ever grant program that we'd ever done around broadband expansion and we're able to so quickly stand that program up because of the data that we had. There was nobody saying from the provider community, "Hey, hold your horses, this is... You're overbuilding." Or, "You are not deploying this funding where it needs to go." Again, we had, because of that, we had considerable support from local elected officials and then also state elected officials where we did not have to deal with that sort of drama. We were all team Georgia when it came to deploying those funds because of the confidence that everyone had to do so.

Craig: Is it...

Josh: Go ahead, please.

Craig: To interject, isn't it nice to know what can be done when everyone has the information, the data that's necessary to make the right decision and be able to put that funding where it can do the most good? 

Josh: Exactly. And look, we do not believe that our data is perfect. We never will. We ultimately just have to say, we're gonna go with this, but because of that, we also know that it's not as simple as just simply putting out the state broadband map as was maybe the most up to date 6 months ago and say that that's still up to date today. So, what we did and again, looking forward to BEAD, we were doing this back a couple years ago which was running a challenge process and verification process before we deployed any funding. So, we started with really good data, and then we made it even better through a challenge process ahead of time and then deployed that funding. And that was the 1st announcements were made back, for that program back early part of last year by Governor Kemp impacted communities and impacted location, resembled about 125,000 unserved, verifiably unserved locations. Those are locations per the Georgia definition which is not able to receive 25/3 service via terrestrial technology, so that's excluding satellite and then upgrading even though the term underserved had not been sent out into the broadband ecosystem at that point yet. We upgraded basically an additional 50,000 underserved addresses through that investment.

Josh: But we said, we still have unserved in Georgia. We got to keep going. We got to keep the pedal to the metal. And so with Governor Kemp's leadership on this, he then turned and said, "What else can we do?" And we said, "Well, there's a capital projects fund under the ARPA Act," and he said, "Okay, well, take all of it. Let's expand. Let's keep going. Let's keep this momentum happening." And so that wound up being about $250 million that we ran one grant program back last fall, and then we ran a second round actually this spring, that we just announced the winners of this week. In between those, we were able to serve about 79,000 verified unserved addresses and some of the most un-served impoverished parts of Georgia, some of the hardest most rural areas. And we said, we don't wanna wait on BEAD, let's keep going, let's keep growing this in Georgia, and so together about 625, about $630 million in public funds sent out over the last 18 months through three grant programs, all together impacting over 200,000 unserved addresses and an additional 50,000 underserved addresses.

Craig: Truly transformative work that is going to be done, and you made mention of the announcement just this week on Monday, Governor Kemp announcing the 15 million additional dollars that will go toward projects in the City of Colquitt in Miller County, then projects in Calhoun, Echols and Webster counties. And to your point, those are counties that are in dire need of any opportunity at all to increase connectivity, to attract more commerce to their areas and also are in a part of the state that can benefit from how connectivity benefits the world of precision agriculture and that's something that I wanna talk about here a little bit, and I know that's near and dear to your heart.

Josh: Yes, it is. So at the beginning, when you asked about a little bit of the Josh story, what I did not mention was because I don't want it to seem that this is a purely rural issue, but this is a big issue, broadband connectivity is a big issue in rural parts of Georgia. And so when I first started with the administration back in, I guess it was 2018, I was a Policy Advisor for rural initiatives for the Governor, so I focused on what I thought was gonna be primarily agriculture, natural resources and land use issues, environmental issues, and the like. But as I discovered, as I toured around the state and spoke with communities, yes, those issues are important, but broadband was probably number one or number two. And so I came from a background where agriculture is very important to the State of Georgia. Not many people realize that Georgia is the number one forestry state in the nation, so we have a lot of trees in Georgia, and we have a lot of farmland as well, lot of blueberries, lot of peaches, lot of peanuts.

Josh: And when talking with those farmers what I would hear and what kind of that industry as a whole is experiencing right now is a need to expand yields while being more efficient, so more efficient with water, more efficient with land, while still needing to make sure that they're expanding yields in order that these family farms can stay in existence and not go belly-up, and so one of the ways to do that and accomplish that is through precision agriculture. That might be remote water monitoring, that could be the use of drones that go up over crops to identify sickness in the crops without a farmer having to walk through that field manually each day or each week, but you can only run those programs and you can only have that sort of opportunity through precision agriculture when you have a really, really good connection. And so farmers care about broadband just as much as they do about land use issues and agriculture issues.

Craig: By the way, a huge thanks to all members of the Broadband Community that have submitted questions, we ask you to continue doing so, we'll try to begin getting of those here momentarily, we do appreciate this, and obviously very much is an interactive process. First question from the audience for you, Josh, from Dave Top, Dave would love to see requirements for IPv6 deployment, latency measurement and SLAs on outages and joining or creating local ISPs. Any chance that we might see something along those lines in the State of Georgia.

Josh: Yes. I think one way to sum this up is our requirements on ISPs that receive funding. In the State of Georgia we have really kind of pushed the envelope for being as friendly to business as we are because we are not gonna fix this problem alone. It is not Georgia's way or our model that we are going to hold back hundreds of millions of dollars of BEAD so that the state can create its own network or its own program and get into the broadband business. We're only going to accomplish this and close the digital divide by ISPs, industries and communities wishing to do this work and make that investment. So, one... So hearing that one might say, "Oh, well, the state broadband office in Georgia is just in the back pockets of ISPs." And that is not the case. Georgia has asked a lot from applicants.

Josh: In our most recent capital projects fund program that we run, ran we did some pretty revolutionary things. The first one was that we created programs and project areas based upon the most unserved parts of the state. These were the areas that no ISPs had ever wanted to go to. And we said, not only can you only choose from these 33 project areas that we created, but you were only gonna receive funding for verified unserved addresses. We were so nervous going into that. We were just, we were thinking to ourselves we're just gonna be here left holding the bag because nobody is gonna want to apply for this. And you know what? We received the 99 applications.

Craig: Wow.

Josh: Applications in every single one of those counties. Oftentimes some counties had four or five applications, and it was quite competitive, even with that very un-ISP friendly sort of policy in place. We also requested that ISPs put forward a commitment of what sort of service they were gonna provide, what were the prices that they were gonna provide those services at, that there would be no large installation fees required of any of those locations that we funded. So there is no, "Gotcha, you get installation if you pay us $899." That was something that we made... Got a commitment from those ISPs who that we funded. And then we also took it one or two steps further. So getting to the crux of that question, latency, very important to us. Requiring them to speak to outages and what sort of service that they would provide long term 'cause those questions around outages, that's an operational question. That's not a build question. And so we also require them to speak to that. And when it comes to BEAD and setting up that program, I think we'll consider and include a lot of those factors as well into that.

Craig: You talk about BEAD, we are, as we talk right now, days away from the initial allocation coming from the NTIA projections have, the State of Georgia to ostensibly receive about a billion and a half which would be 10th most nationwide. Your thoughts about the tidal wave of activity that will begin just in days.

Josh: You know, it's a tidal wave that's already started in Georgia. By deploying 630 million approximately in 18 months, those programs and those projects are already being built. So when it comes to workforce, and it comes to materials and it comes to permitting and all of these things, this is something we're already going through and we're already seeing some of these issues, but that also means that we're having opportunity to overcome those issues long before we ever get to BEAD. So in the State of Georgia, we kind of view this as business as usual, just turned up to 11. And we welcome that a large investment for the State of Georgia and us having the ability to quickly establish that program, turn it on, because we already have so many of these models, so many of these structures in place from our past grants. This is not something that that we're gonna have to recreate the wheel sort of situation. Yes, there are different factors in BEAD, yes, it is substantially larger.

Josh: And honestly, I think it's not all sunshine and daisies down here by saying something like, we've already made this sizeable investment in Georgia and we have even more coming. It's not uncommon for someone to raise their hand and say, well, is that not just gonna exacerbate the problem in Georgia? And that's reasonable to say. So for us we have to think of ways, unique ways to frame our grant program to incentivize small providers that maybe have already won a past grant to take on that additional load of possibly winning in a BEAD project area, and making sure that they feel supported and have some degree of flexibility so that they can be vulnerable with the state when it comes to what sort of undertaking it's gonna require of them.

Craig: Something you just mentioned, Josh, I think is important. You talk about being agile, being able to very quickly respond and well, part of your last comment dealt with permitting, and obviously that is part and parcel of any project that goes on. What has been the observation of you and your team of what's happening across the state here in Georgia with respect to perhaps streamlining permitting? 

Josh: When I say that the state has focused on this issue for the last five years plus, that is honestly an understatement. This has really been a point of priority for the entire state, even agencies that we have no influence over or any sort of purview over and they're getting to work on this. So, two examples, and I know not all ISPs are fans, but some are, and I think that these are good policies for a state to look at. And one of them was around pole attachments and pole fees. The Public Service Commission in Georgia recently, I believe it was about a year and a half ago, completely overhauled their structure for pole attachments and pole fees for telecom particularly those poles owned and operated by EMCs or Electric Membership Cooperatives in the State of Georgia. In unserved areas they capped the pole rental fee or the pole fee at a dollar per pole in unserved areas of the state, greatly reducing that cost. That is something that we have seen great success around.

Josh: Another one, our Georgia Department of Transportation overhauled their permitting fees around telecom in the state's right of ways across the state. So instead of of making it a by footage or cost or fee assessment, instead it went down to a core singular permit fee regardless of distance in the state. And so that's another way to cut down on costs and to just show that the state is aware of these issues and that we're doing something about it.

Josh: And then lastly is honestly the position of the Georgia Broadband office, which is when we hear of a local community who is having issues with permitting and doing that effectively and efficiently, we can come in at their request or the request of the ISP who was awarded or was trying to build in that area and just create a conversation. In Georgia it is so much about getting people to the table to talk to each other and not talk past each other. I think this problem would've been addressed a long time ago if we were able to do that. And we have a reputation and we have made that a viable option for ISPs and communities to know that we can come in and kind of be a little bit of a intermediary for some of these issues. And then ultimately to provide any sort of technical assistance that we have, anything, any best practices we're aware of from our strategic plan or soon to be five-year action plan that we can incorporate and share with a community and then ultimately just bring in all of those necessary folks to try to make sure that permitting is not something that dramatically slows down a project.

Craig: Very good. Our next question from the audience, coming from Dr. Angela Evans, please, Josh, tell us about how Georgia is going to handle the cybersecurity and supply chain risk management requirements in BEAD. And specifically Dr. Evans asks, has the Georgia Technology Authority determined what requirements will need to be included in the attestation at the time of application versus what is required to be in place by the time awards are distributed? 

Josh: That is a great question. You know, at this point, as we work through our planning process around BEAD, I would be lying to you if I did not say that this is certainly something that we are looking at. We're trying to come to a good understanding of that while also having an awareness of what NTIA is going to allow us to do with some of these different requirements. Yes, you can read them different ways. When you see an attestation, like you said, is a self-attestation or is it one, a third-party has to be involved. At this point we do not have a clear way forward on that. We are working through it, but one good thing I can share is that a benefit of the broadband team being housed at the Georgia Technology Authority means that we work just down the hall from the state CISO and from the state cybersecurity arm. So when it comes to this, we do not even have to go outside of our own agency to ask them, are these requests and these factors reasonable? Do we feel that they meet the state's own cybersecurity standards? Or do we think that there is something here that might be a little bit over the top and we can go to them and we're currently talking with them about that as we speak and we go through all this planning effort.

Josh: One thing that I will also say is with these added components, maybe it's a letter of credit, maybe it's an environmental assessment that was not part of the ARPA programs. We're looking at all those and realize that we only have so much flexibility, but we want to make sure that we have a level playing field where we have robust applications submitted from ISPs and communities of all sizes. And if there is one of these factors that is going to kind of leave someone out, and be that difference maker of whether they apply or do not apply, or whether they apply for five areas or just one area, we're gonna take that into consideration. We want to see many applications from the entire spectrum of providers and anything that's gonna kind of step be, you know, step in the way of that, we're gonna see where we can try to have some flexibility to make sure that we're welcome to all different shops across the entire ecosystem.

Craig: You are watching Ask Me Anything. Our guest, Josh Hildebrandt, Director of Broadband Initiatives at the Georgia Technology Authority. And Josh, our next question comes from Adiyinka Oglun Lagan, who asks a question near to my heart with regard to MDUs, given the challenges with the National Broadband Map, and there are many, how does the Georgia Technology Authority plan to address MDU connectivity as part of BEAD planning? 

Josh: So, yes, really good question. I don't like to say that a narrative is an overly important part of a technology in broadband application. We care about the nuts and bolts. We care about timeline. We care about technology types. We care about how many serve, how you're gonna do that, and making sure that your financials or a company's financials are in order that they can be the sort of shop that can fully complete this project. But sometimes numbers don't say everything and don't tell you the entire story. This is one of those areas. So for us, what we like to see and what we have told people when it comes to our past grants are when you're picking up an MDU or you're picking up a known community anchor institution, make that abundantly clear in your application. Maybe it's a different color on your network map. Maybe it is in your narrative where you describe your project and who all is being impacted, but make that abundantly clear because that is important to us and that is a way to differentiate an application from another one.

Josh: If an application is just focused on single family homes and they're kind of cherry picking a little bit, then we want... Then we kind of we want to evaluate that with a little bit of a different lens than an application that is showing that not only is it picking up 4,000 addresses or locations, but because there are five or six MDUs in that application, they're picking up or impacting 9,000 individuals or 9,000 direct households. That is something that we have worked into our past grant programs. I think we'll do that again in the future. And so we're looking at the nuts and bolts of individual BSLs that are impacted. It might look the same, but if you are affecting or if one of those is a community anchor institution or an MDU, we want to know about that, and we're gonna look at that a little bit of a different way.

Craig: That's a perfect segue into an extremely important part of the conversation that being digital equity. And I know that there is a lot going on in that regard across the State of Georgia. Give us an overview of what's the latest.

Josh: I would say that 2023 is the year of Digital Equity or we like to call digital connectivity in Georgia. At the end of last year, we hired our first person to focus directly on that issue. Our digital connectivity manager for the State of Georgia who has over I think about a decade and a half of digital equity experience coming from the nonprofit sector. So we are so happy to have her on board and she is a great resource to us and a great resource to communities. So we started by hiring her, and then we made the choice when it came to our planning efforts across the state. Well, actually let me back up a little bit more because some states do this different ways. Digital connectivity or digital equity is housed with the Georgia Broadband team, along with the infrastructure side of things. Digital equity and BEAD are housed with our team.

Josh: So we look at this at all times through both lenses and when we were going out and doing our community engagement, of which that was over dozens of in-person meetings across the State of Georgia from far Southwest Georgia, Valdosta, all the way up to the mountains in far North Georgia, we were doing... Each one of those meetings was a joint BEAD presentation and Digital Equity presentation, along with opening up for comments from the audience and any questions looking at both of those. So Anisha Freeman, our digital connectivity manager and myself, were at each of those to be able to focus and answer and speak to any questions that we received. I think digital connectivity in Georgia is going to be a big issue. We understand, for the most part, which we're very fortunate to be able to say that, we understand the barriers and the hurdles to expanding broadband, especially fiber into very rural parts of the state. We know the costs associated with those. We know where those locations are. We know topographical barriers that exist.

Josh: And for the most part, we have ISPs that are used to working in all of those different sorts of scenarios. When we get to rural parts of Georgia that have never had broadband access, there are a couple counties in Georgia that have 0% access, so no location in that county has 25/3 terrestrial or had it six months ago. They might have something now through one of our investments and we're so excited about that. But when a community does not have any access, they are not going to have any sort of history of running digital connectivity programs. They're not gonna worry about devices, they're not gonna worry about affordability, they're not gonna worry about digital literacy if nobody has a way to connect. So we find, and we have found in rural parts of the state, in these unserved areas, there is gonna need to be a lot of work done.

Josh: Digital connectivity is something that is new to them. They don't have those anchor institutions, maybe beyond a school or a library that is really have, you know, has that experience or has a robust experience in running the program that would be eligible for Digital Equity capacity funding. And so we're gonna need to do a lot of work, and we are doing a lot of work currently with that. On top of that, one of the first steps that we took after hiring our digital connectivity manager was establishing a digital connectivity advisory committee made up of leaders for all the covered populations as identified by NTIA along with many other folks, schools, libraries, the State Librarian as a part of that committee. HBCUs have a presence on that committee.

Josh: We are very proud to say that we have a significant involvement from our Department of Corrections, which is probably one of the hardest cover populations to address and to figure out what to be done for their... For the people that are in the correctional system or have recently come out of the correctional system, we have them at the table at least once every month for these meetings. So I would say in a very short period of time, we have established a great foundation that we can build upon, because these communities are going to lean, rural communities are gonna lean primarily on the state to create and to identify those best practices that they can utilize to stand up programs for the first time ever in their areas.

Craig: And thank you for that answer. Next question from the audience, coming from Rick Usy, does your office, Josh, have an idea yet on what the threshold will be to determine what are considered high cost locations in the state? 

Josh: First we are not going to make any sort of decision on that or an evaluation of that, as I like to say, being a southerner colloquialisms are very, very important to that, and so we very much have the mentality that can be answered by the term, we do not count our eggs before they're hatched, and this is one of those. So we are definitely going to look to NTIA hopefully here at the end of the month to make known what they are going to fund the high cost locations at, and then also to give us a better understanding of how they're viewing that.

Josh: However, through all of these conversations with the dozens of ISPs in the State of Georgia, and many ISPs that I am happy to say that are looking at Georgia to do some expansion themselves into, we have talked about this a lot, and I think that that threshold is really going to be hung up on one important item, and that is going to be the 25% match. We do not get the digital divide closed in Georgia and BEAD funding deployed if we do not get good applications. And if we set that threshold too high beyond where a provider of any size is comfortable with putting forward their own capital to meet that 25% match, then we're not doing our job well. We also don't wanna set it too low where we eliminate some of those preferences that are in the NOFO around a future-proof technology.

Josh: Along the line of future-proof, for us in Georgia, we are looking at this moment as a generational moment to get this job done right this time. We do not want to create band-aid solutions for unserved in rural parts of the state, and then say we'll come back later and get the job done. We want to do this right this time and so that involves certain technologies. It might be a sole maybe fiber to the prem. If we're looking at locations where it's just not feasible or reasonable, we're looking at next-gen fixed wireless, but we're gonna be looking at the best of the best technologies to try to get this done right this time. And so that high cost threshold is something that we're looking at, but ultimately, we really look to and look at it through the lens of, we need to receive good applications. We wanna make sure that all ISPs, regardless of type or regardless of size, feel that they can be competitive, and with the hopeful outcome of many applications for the same area so that we can let the cream rise to the top and choose the best application to make sure that the Georgia broadband infrastructure is future-proof for years to come.

Craig: Excellent. And I love the fact that part of your last answer is the perfect segue into the question that was teed up from the audience. So this one's from Gabriel Moran. Where, Josh, do you see fixed wireless projects falling into the mix of future federal and state funding of broadband projects? 

Josh: When it comes to fixed wireless, I think it needs to be abundantly clear that from our perspective and I think from the industry's perspective, that not all fixed wireless is the exact same. It's the same way as not all wired solutions are the exact same. So before I get beat up by somebody by saying, "Quit picking on wireless," it's the same way as fiber is different from copper, or fiber is different from old school coax. When it comes to fixed wireless, we want to make sure that the technology that is available and is being proposed to be implemented can meet the speed thresholds. We do not want to see anything that says, "Well, we're gonna put forward an application for these 2,000 locations, and we feel that any one of them, if we build this project, could get our service." We have to look at this from the idea of, we're gonna fund a project so that every one of those locations can subscribe to that service and get that degree of speed tier, and that is gonna require some of this more up-to-date next-gen fixed wireless sort of service with license spectrum and the like.

Josh: And with that being said as kind of that foundation, we do see a role in the State of Georgia. In Georgia, we have... Because of our three programs we've already run and the robust mapping that we have, that has resulted in us having substantial cost modeling in-house. And so we have the ability and we've already identified many of those locations that if it was a fiber to the prem, it would cost tens and tens of thousands of dollars. And look, one, a billion to a billion and a half in funding from BEAD is a sizeable amount of funding, and that's not even taking into consideration matching funds from applicants. But if we're looking at this and saying, "Here's a $50,000 passing location for fiber, here's a 75,000 passing for fiber," and we just say, "Well, we're just gonna go with all of this regardless," we view ourselves as being a little bit of not good stewards of that funding because not a lot of people are thinking about if a state's fortunate enough to be able to reach all unserved, all underserved locations and even put funding towards CAIs, and there's funding left over, that fund can be used for very important parts of the broadband ecosystem to help make all of this a network that does not fall by the wayside years down the road.

Josh: We're not even talking about workforce. Workforce is a very important part of this. If we play our cards right, we can hopefully create a strong workforce program in the State of Georgia. We're not talking about operations and things like that, and so we're not looking, if we don't have to, to spend every single penny on a certain technology if we think that and believe that we can use a alternative technology that works better in those areas and can be something that's a little bit more affordable, where we can use that funding for other purposes.

Craig: Very well said. We are just more than three quarters the way through our visits, wanted to get to middle mile infrastructure before time completely gets away from us, because I know that that's a big part of the efforts of the GTA, and in fact, just today, awards going out from the NTIA, the Middle Mile awards and a Georgia provider, DoveTel Communications, doing businesses, SyncGlobal Telecom being awarded $12.2 million. And I believe that program is a project that will go through eight different Georgia counties. Talk about the importance of middle mile in what's going on across the state.

Josh: Yes, I think this all comes down to the volume of unserved locations in some Georgia counties and certain parts of the state. When you're looking at a county that is 95% unserved what is... And even the city centers, the town centers, the county seats do not have 25/3 terrestrial service. What does that mean? You put the microscope up to your eye and you look at it, and what will pop out is a complete lack of middle mile, that's the reason why those communities still remain or have remained unserved. So the state, through all the $625, $630 million we've already deployed, a lot of that funding, if you look at it the right way, are building some of the first middle mile networks into these counties in Georgia. And that's what makes these projects awfully expensive.

Josh: When it comes to the middle mile program and the awards that were made, which there's also a second one for just a small couple of counties in Georgia through that was ordered to [0:48:09.3] ____, we view this as something that is going to make our last mile projects that much cheaper. It's not uncommon for us to hear from ISPs that apply to us that if they had good middle mile in this county their proposal would be 70% cheaper. That is significant. That is a significant savings and show the significant need and significant lack of infrastructure in certain parts of the state. For West Georgia and Northwest Georgia, which is where DoveTel and SyncGlobal were award their project is an area that has had funding move towards it, but it is still quite lacking to some degree, and so we're very excited to see that it just reinforces the backbone and the middle mile in the state, going to Atlanta, which is one of the major data centers in the country, and we think that it's going to be a huge help.

Craig: Awesome. Niki Amadi asks, How does Georgia compare to other states or regions in terms of its approach to broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion? 

Josh: I would say when it comes to this, that a great question, you're hitting on the head something that terrifies a lot of people, a lot of ISPs, a lot of public leaders, which is if you push funding down to the states and you incentivize and require broadband offices to be stood up or to exist, we're gonna have 50 different or 50 plus including the territories, different mentalities, different policy, philosophies around this. I think working through with the great leadership of NTIA and their State Broadband Leaders Network, which is a fantastic resource, a lot of those differences are quite small, especially when you come into the Southeast, I think the Southeast is having its day in the sun right now with broadband. I'm sure I'm a little biased, but when looking at investments that have been made, the different broadband maps that have been stood up recently, a lot of that action is in the Southeast. And so I think you see a good amount of conformity between broadband directors and broadband offices because we lean on each other. There's only 50 broadband Directors in the country or in the state, 50 plus, and so that means that there's a lot of talking that happens. A great idea that happened in one state, if it's known to be a really good idea, don't be surprised when you see a similar idea maybe coming to the top in your state. And so there's a lot of data sharing, information sharing that happens.

Josh: But when it comes to unique things about Georgia, I think for us, it has been this emphasis on data, that is something I think that has differentiated us from the beginning. Other states, I think, are definitely putting that as a top priority of theirs, but that's always been something that differentiated ourselves that we never wanted to make an investment if we did not feel with utmost confidence that it was going to the right places and that was gonna actually make a difference. So it is that great emphasis on data, on mapping, on challenges, all of that comes very second nature to the Georgia team.

Josh: And then I think there is this... Something that's very, very different it is the size of our office in Georgia. I've talked about all these different things we've done in such short periods of time. We're a team of three in Georgia. That being said, there are not just three people working on this. We, because of the leadership from the governor and leadership from... And the buy-in from so many state agencies, we are able to run and hold back very low amounts of funding from these programs and these funds from Washington for administrative costs, and we can push it out to where it's really needed the most. And so with, you know, with three employees, we've got additional partners at multiple different other agencies. The Governor's Office of Planning Budget runs point on all of our grants management, so we do not have to hire those in ourselves. Because we're a state agency, we do not have to worry about payroll folks or finance or having a financial officer because that just works within the agency.

Josh: And you know, with all of that in mind, I think it is the fact that work... What works so well in Georgia is if you reach out to myself or to Anisha Freeman, our digital connectivity manager, you're immediately to the source. You don't get lost in bureaucracy. And I think that's something that has just been so, such a breath of fresh air for people that work around this issue that they can so easily access those of us at the broadband office. And that's something we take a lot of pride in and I think that we will continue to do that. That's not me saying that we won't hire on more people. I think it's very easy to see, you know, that we might get another one or another two, but I think that's gonna probably be about it.

Craig: A very powerful message in that last comment with regard not only to the strength of the organization you have in place, yourself, Jessica, Anisha, but also how the interaction between you and your colleagues across the nation. When something works and works well, it tends to work elsewhere just as well. And part of the unique approach that, I think, has been taken in Georgia is the ability to reach out to municipalities, to communities all across the state, making sure they are broadband ready. Talk about that outreach.

Josh: Yes. So I mentioned that broadband, I mean, the digital connectivity advisory board or advisory committee that we stood up this year. Or we have another... That's actually modeled on another advisory committee, which was established back when the office was first established to really bring industry and ISPs to the table, to bring fellow state agencies to the table, schools, libraries. And then, lastly to make sure that local communities had a place at that table. So we have a very close working relationship with our county association in Georgia and our municipal association in Georgia. It's very rare for us to have any sort of function where they are not present. They are literally attached to our hip and we're attached at their hip. And that is created for a very, great working relationship and an ability to get down to, and have access to some of these very rural communities and hear from them about the pain that they are experiencing, and then to also evaluate maybe certain practices that they have around permitting or something that might be problematic to an efficient build out, by an ISP, within their area.

Josh: And so to really bring that to a head, and to show just how important that is for the state, we created, the broadband ready designation, which is a designation that a community can apply for and be awarded if they follow certain steps and best practices, and confirm that those are something that those communities are willing to do and are doing. And those focus around primarily permitting. It is a community that commits to having a singular point of contact, for broadband permitting, that a commitment that they will respond within a set period of time. And then also that there will be a set fee structure for those permits that will not be changing for different ISPs or whatnot. And then lastly, that those communities commit to and add a broadband component to their comprehensive community plans that governs their planning for the next decade at each period of time. So if a community does that, we designate them as broadband ready. Broadband ready will create a situation where an application, at least for our past ramp... App programs, they will receive additional points, if they are working with a community that is designated as broadband ready.

Josh: And then there is just the overall benefit, which is, when a ISP reaches out to a community and they start talking, and we greatly incentivize that there would be community engagement, significant community engagement between an ISP who's applying for us and the communities within that project area, that if you, if you can get a community to already start working and becoming aware of these issues, that will make for that much more of an efficient and robust conversation between an ISP in that community where the community does not feel that they are being shut out or that they're being sold a bad, you know, a bad bag of goods. And then the ISP feels that they can go in and actually have a good, robust conversation because those community officials already have a general awareness.

Craig: Awesome. It's amazing how quickly an hour can come and go. This reminder, upcoming editions of Asked Me Anything, you can join Drew Clark on June 30th as he visits with Eric Frederick, Chief Connectivity Officer at the Michigan High Speed Internet Office, July 14th. He'll be visiting with Christine Hallquist, Executive Director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board. And on July 28th, Valerie Bullard, the Director of the New Jersey State Broadband Office. Also the next episode of Where's The Funding coming up on Wednesday, July 19th, 11:00 AM, Tapping the Municipal Markets, municipal bonds can offer a low cost way to bring grant funded broadband to life. Your host, Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association. Josh, it has been great to visit with you today. Can't thank you enough for what you, your team are doing here in Georgia, and thanks for being able to share that with our audience today.

Josh: My pleasure. Thank you, you so much, Craig, for hosting a great hour.

Craig: We look forward to circling back with you on down the line. On behalf of Josh and everyone here at community, I'm Craig Corbin. Thanks for joining us on this edition of Ask Me Anything. We'll see you next time.