Kathryn got her start at the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2018 as a manager of their broadband research initiative, which provides research to help state and federal leaders and their partners close gaps in connectivity. In 2021, Kathryn was made project director of the initiative, and has served in this role since then.
Prior to joining the Pew Charitable Trusts, Kathryn worked with Booze Allen, providing consulting services to clients in telecommunications, economic development, and cyber security.
Kathryn earned a bachelor’s degrees in communications and sociology from Penn State University in addition to a master’s in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh.
Scott D Woods: Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to Friday, February 3 for our installation of “Ask Me Anything” with the legendary Kathryn de Wit, and I mean that: “legendary.”
Let’s get started! We’re just going to jump right in everyone! I am joined by — I call her “Kathryn the Great,” Kathryn de Wit, Project Director for the broadband access initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts. So Kathryn, welcome to “Ask Me Anything.”
Kathryn de Wit: Thank you for having me! If you guys could just follow me around and just be my hype people at all times, that would be fantastic! I don't think I felt better about myself in the past week with all these promos, so thank you!
I'm thrilled to be here with you, because Scott, as I'm sure we'll get into, I've learned so much from you over the years and have really enjoyed working with you both in your former role and in your current role and also with the team in general. So I'm just excited to be here.
Scott D Woods: Welcome. You are as we say, a bonafide Rockstar and we hopefully will be learning from each other. So for those of you who are on the platform, welcome.
You can check out Kathryn de Witt’s profile that Drew Clark wrote on her in the community. You can check out all about her background before she joined Pew at various stops before Pew and her background, not in broadband, but in community development and economic development.
But we're gonna jump right into the topics of the day. Cool. So I'm going to ask you right off the bat, Kathryn: What is Pew, and why does it care about broadband and digital equity?
Kathryn de Wit: That's a great question. And for those of you who maybe aren't like my parents and familiar with the Pew Charitable Trusts because of NPR, we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.
So what does that mean? It means that me and my colleagues, we look at really complex policy challenges. What are some of the most complex challenges facing policymakers and every level of government all across the world today?
We look at issues ranging from protecting the environment and water quality to broadband state fiscal health and criminal justice reform. And we do the research, we figure out answers to hard questions and then we work with lawmakers to implement our findings, if they're relevant. And we started working on broadband in about 2018.
And we started looking at this question of what states were doing on broadband. Because what we had found was that even with the significant investments, particularly with the Recovery Act, as well as continued lawmaking in Congress, states were still not only putting money towards broadband, they were passing a lot of laws related to infrastructure, deployment and even digital equity.
So that raised a few questions for us internally at Pew, one of which being: “Why?”
You know, that still suggests that there was a problem, a digital divide that significant federal investments over a decade had not solved, to then the question was: “Okay, was what the states’ doing working?” And that's what the team looked into for just over two years. And then we entered our second phase of work to implement those findings, and that's where we are now.
Scott D Woods: And so how many states are you and your team working with actively with the broadband access initiative?
Kathryn de Wit: We're working with over 30 states right now. My team does a range of things, and one of which is of course, still continuing to do research. That's what we do. So really, how can we get to that goal of universal availability, the same availability that we have electricity and water across the country, so about 98%?
So how do we get to 98% availability of high speed affordable internet that's also reliable? So we're doing research on the supply and demand signals around that.
How can we work in policy work with incentives and really tweak federal and state programs to improve their outcomes?
We also focus on technical assistance. So this is what Scott was referring to.
We're working with more than 30 right now to help them implement existing federal funding streams, particularly related to the capital projects funds, and begin their work on BEAD and DEA. So that's all free support, training and guidance from my team of people.
If you think I'm great, you need to meet the rest of them. They're phenomenal. They put me to shame every day in the best way possible. And then we also advocate we work on policy change. At the end of the day, we are non-partisan.
However, non-partisan doesn't mean that we don't advocate for better outcomes and policies. So we lobby in Congress and we lobby in some cases in states as needed. But it really is about you know, how are we going to implement evidence and database solutions to closing the digital divide?
Scott D Woods: Absolutely. You have a great team and they follow your lead. You're doing some absolutely bang out work with the states, but you talked about the policies and working with states. I want to jump right into a difficult question that I think is the politics of states and state broadband offices As you know, there are a number of cities within states that are concerned that politics will govern the distribution of the BEAD Program and Digital Equity Act in terms of where those dollars will flow. How are you dealing with it?
Do you have any thoughts on how you are navigating or advising your state broadband offices to deal with the reality of politics?
Kathryn de Wit: I mean, how much time do we have to unpack state politics and state local politics? Like that's for four other podcasts at least so that we'd be happy to participate in just so we're clear.
No, Scott? It's a great question. And I think that that it's top of mind for state broadband offices and state officials as well, including elected officials.
And I think first and foremost, when it comes to the state offices, our advice to them, which is advice that the majority of them are following, which is: Bring everybody to the table and remember that we are at the hardest part of closing the digital divide.
And what our research found was that in order to close the digital divide, in order to connect these communities that have been deemed unprofitable, not a good business case, not worth the investment, we need every tool that we have in the toolbox: So let's not limit the way that we bring solutions to the table. That includes policy restrictions. That includes your programmatic structure as well.
And that's something that a lot of state programs, so state civil servants who are running the programs themselves, as well as elected officials, have really taken very seriously. And what's been interesting is, you know, there are some political dynamics at play with like the location of the broadband office. For example, we found over time, it was better for maybe a governor stood up a broadband office at one point, but eventually it migrated in and became permanent within a department of commerce or economic development.
That was good because it gave momentum from the governor standing it up and legitimized it in a way and then the relocation separated it.
But what's been interesting is, there has been more bipartisanship at the state level in advancing policies that will meaningfully close the digital divide, then, I think we typically see at the federal level, and that's because these lawmakers are that much closer to it every single day. Now, to your point earlier in your question earlier about the state and local tensions and the concerns from local leaders, legitimate and I hear you.
Some of that is also just rooted in traditional state program administration. But I think in you and I will come back to this a lot today.
It's really important for local leaders to understand what they have been afforded in the NOFO in the funding guidance and in law through me and NDA. So the law is very clear about where local leaders need to be consulted and where they need to be informing these processes. So it is not only incumbent on the state robbing offices and their legislators to understand what the requirements are. It's also really important for the local leaders to know how can they get involved and where can they hold their state officials accountable? The saying no, no, we have a right to participate in this process. We have a right to weigh in.
Scott D Woods: Absolutely. And you all can see, just off the bat, how on top of it, Kathryn is in her team over at the Pew Charitable Trust. So that leads me into a segue, Kathryn, just with your work, sort of best practices of state broadband office and really want to focus in on the importance of local coordination that you touched upon. As you all know, it is a fundamental requirement in both BEAD and DEA. And so what should states do, how should they go about conducting it and what are some best practices that can expand beyond, you know, just our typical understanding of broadband infrastructure expansion and digital equity?
Kathryn de Wit: Great question. And I think so, first, it's been helpful to hear from states, as we've been advising them on this question specifically, kind of what issues they're running into. So maybe it's a matter of the timing of the meeting. How do they think through putting timings of meetings at a time when they can ensure attendance that isn't going to conflict with something like childcare? So or the location of the meeting and how can they ensure that it's not only accessible for participants, but it's actually just accessible people can get there even if they don't have a car. So you know, we're hearing conversations like that, and that I think has been interesting about, quite frankly, a bit of a sea change in the field. For folks trying to be responsive to feedback from advocates saying, here's how you need to bring this message to the people and here's how you can be more transparent in your process. But I think with local coordination, it's important to factor in a couple of things. One over communication, being you know, when are meetings happening, why are they happening? What are you trying to accomplish with those meetings and how can folks participate or sign up to is sharing a lot of information, to the extent possible posting information online, getting it out through other community partners and other trusted resources so folks know that they just know what's going on and there they can also have access to the documents. Sometimes that's not always within a state's control. And that's something that we would also really like NTIA to do, as well, is to be transparent in this document, and its document sharing.
But I think listening is the most important part, which probably seems like a trite answer.
Scott D Woods: And it's true, it's true, right? You also have to know the characteristics of the communities that you're traveling into, right? So when you're describing, you can't do the same thing in every community, right? You have to be able to be flexible in the approach and make sure I think, just from my opinion, in my experience, you got to know the community in which you're visiting. That's very important because every community is going to be different. And if you can tailor your approach to the characteristics of the communities that you're visiting, you're likely to get a better, better documentable results.
Kathryn de Wit: And I think one thing that has been interesting and we'll see more of this kind of coming together over the next few months as states write their five year action plans, but we've seen several states employ a couple of different, a couple different models for getting to that local coordination piece. You know, one of which is revisiting these sort of certifications like broadband ready communities, which are, you know, processes that localities can kind of go through to say okay, do we have a point person who's in charge of broadband? Have we looked at things like permitting? Do we have a grants process in place? It's kind of like, administrative make ready.
Scott D Woods: Administrative make-ready …
Kathryn de Wit: I mean, if anybody's gonna laugh at it, make ready joke it's going to be these people, OK? Or at least you, so just you know.
But I think the other thing that's been interesting is seeing how states are working with like Regional Planning Commissions, for example, or economic development authorities.
So they're relying on existing structures that are not only known and trusted, and they have experts on hand who do things like plan and work with communities on a daily basis. They're experts in that practice, but they also have their own data collection methodologies. They have things that the state broadband office can pull on, in order to inform all of the planning and data collection and writing that they're doing. So they don't have to reinvent the wheel. And this is a very long and inelegant way of saying that one of the things that we've been really pleased to see are that states are really looking to existing resources and structures that are trusted voices in the community that are trusted mechanisms for completing some of this community engagement work that one, the state offices may not have the capacity to do in the way that they want to do it. But two, it just ensures that it's also not reinventing the wheel and folks are tired. You know, they don't want to be asked the same question five times over about, do you have broadband access? Do you not like Why or why not? What's your willingness to pay like all of these folks who've been surveyed a lot, so states are really focusing, are trying to identify, you know, where are these existing planning entities? Where are these existing trusted community partners that they can turn to for that local coordination and to start building those lines of communication.
Scott D Woods: God I'm asking you a tough question here. What your your opinion, so it's just state broadband offices required threshold broadband thresholds beyond the 100 over 20 requirement in in the BEAD NOFO similar to the capital project funds 100 over 100 symmetrical requirement?
Kathryn de Wit: I mean, should or shouldn't, you know, is a separate thing. We would encourage states to set higher standards for their investments. I think one to your point, The Capital Projects Fund, set things at a higher level and there's already enough inconsistency across federal broadband programs as it is. So you know, let's make things equal. I think more importantly though, and this also kind of gets back to the “why” of why Pew got involved in broadband in the first place. You set that higher that higher threshold for your speed minimum for your investment, you're likely going to invest in that means that you'll be investing in a technology like fiber that is going to give you better lifespan, you know, really just a better return on the investment for the public. Now, that's not true in all cases, but we know that we need a lot of fiber in the ground even for new advanced technologies to work.
And when we're thinking about the 5,10,15 year ROI for digital equity work in general, yes, there is the fundamental element that you know, broadband should be available across the country full stop. But we got into this work not only because we were curious about why states were doing things in broadband, but because we need broadband, we need digital equity for everything that we do today. And connectivity. Broadband is a democratizer, and an equalizer in ways that nothing else has been. So if states are investing in fiber, if they are investing in that higher threshold, they are already saying to their communities, we are making that investment in you and in the future and the economic and social benefits that this can we know that this connection can provide for your community?
Scott D Woods: Yeah, let me push that a little bit. So you brought up the why of why Pew Charitable Trusts and the broadband access initiatives gotten involved in this, but why’s the “why” of broadband access and digital equity generally, for the country important?
We hear a lot of people talking about how we're going to govern these programs, but I have yet to see a comprehensive discussion on the economic impacts, the social impacts, right? The mobility impacts. So, from your perspective as the director of this great, you know, Access Initiative over a Pew, what's the why that we're doing all of this work?
Kathryn de Wit: Yeah, it's funny. You think that I'd have a slick answer for that and something ready, and I think that the why is really why we're doing the work.
And first and foremost, you want to know why we're doing this, turn off your laptop and give me your cell phone. Try doing anything in today's world without those connections to begin with. But I think more importantly, digital transformation is not slowing down.
Scott D Woods: Ramping up, right, right, anything right.
Kathryn de Wit: It's ramping up and we see that the healthcare industry is increasingly pivoting to greater reliance on digital tools. We know though that one in three workers don't have the basic foundational skills that they need to apply for a job today. That's a problem. And when workers don't have those skills, what does that mean for their employment opportunities? Moreover, what does that mean for employment opportunities that can offer the type of upward economic mobility that middle income jobs once offered, and in order to get those middle class jobs and higher, you need to have digital skills and you need to have those basic connections.
So that I think is fundamentally the “why” there is an economic argument to it, but there's also a social argument to it, because at this point, if you were low income in America, you're less likely to have connection to the Internet or home. And that's not just about the choice to adopt, to be clear. It is availability.
So yes, sometimes it is about price, because cost is very important. We can talk about that and the role that cost plays and you know, a households decision to factor that into their monthly budget. But if you are low income in America, you are less likely to have access to a quality and reliable internet connection. So where there is the digital divide, you're also going to see other patterns of inequality,
Scott D Woods: Digital redlining, you name it, right? Historical redlining. That leads me to my next line of questioning to you and I want to pivot to the confusion around the FCC. Mapping the fabric and NTIA’s initial allocation decision.
And as we saw last week, there's key Democratic Congress folks, Jim Clyburn, Angus King as independent caucuses with the Democrats and Amy Klobuchar sent a letter to both NTIA and and the FCC and asked them not to halt BEAD funding, the deployment of the BEAD program in favor of better FCC maps, that unserved and underserved communities need this money to your point right need this infusion of capital and projects to address broadband and digital equity in their communities? What are your thoughts on basing all of this on faulty maps and in part and in part on all of the confusion around this mapping process and when NTIA is going to make its initial allocation decision, and which version of the crappy map it’s going to use for those decisions? I told you we're gonna jump right into this!
Kathryn de Wit: There's a lot, a lot, of sarcastic responses like right there. No, I'm kidding. I think the mapping discussion in general has always been an interesting one.
It always really comes back to the question of what are we really trying to accomplish by having a national broadband map? And one that goes to something as granular as the address level, are we ever really going to be able to create a dataset, let alone maintain it at a pace?
That will help us. Make informed decisions about funding again at the national level, the state and local level, it's a different ball game.
But when it comes to the relationship between the map and BEAD allocations, I think it's first important for us to distinguish: What is the FCC’s responsibility? And then what is NTIA’s responsibility?
And where we have federal agencies who don't traditionally work together. Now they have been trying to work together, but we have a group of federal agencies and not just the FCC and NTIA. We also have the team at Treasury. We've got USDA, the Department of Education. We have a lot of agencies that are trying to work together right now on a compressed timeline, under a lot of pressure to contribute to a data set in this decision making process, but specifically with BEAD and, and the national broadband availability map.
It was the first time around for a new map, a new data collection methodology, a new fabric. Providers weren't accustomed to using that. Community stakeholders were not accustomed to using that. States were also not accustomed to using that.
We are all in favor of a challenged process because we need a challenge process. That's a best practice that we should do more of. And it's actually, it’s surprising to me that this was the first time that we've done a public challenge process on the national broadband dataset.
But that's good progress.
However, there are always going to be hiccups with new datasets with new tools. So it's important for NTIA and the FCC to keep working together and working with states and other stakeholders to improve that tool, to improve that data set in those inputs. We really can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And there are also other provisions within BEAD specifically within the five-year action plans, the initial proposals and the final proposals, where states are able to bring more data to the table to help to provide a more robust picture of what connectivity looks like. Not just availability, quality, speed, reliability in some cases cost. That to me is an important way for us to get at some of this data that's currently missing from the broadband map. And hopefully it will just continue to spring additional conversations about the quality of the data transparency of the process and how we can improve both moving forward.
Scott D. Woods: I’m going to stick on that topic just for a second, because I have an opinion. Broadband.money, Ready.net, we've partnered with the Broadband Mapping Coalition. We tried to provide guidance to the FCC on a more probably fair and methodological sound process. I'll tell you my own personal opinion.
I'll get personal. Like any map that doesn't take into account community, anchor institutions, and secondary addresses of MDUs, and that don't account for demographics and affordability. Like stats that we already have access to – income and education. It's faulty. That's just my view and people have scurried, me and others for being such skeptics, but I know we can do better because there's better data that's available.
And it just seems as though in my opinion and others who share this approach cheapens that. There's actually there about an ISP lying to the FCC in an effort to thwart competition. We know for a fact. You know, at least the first couple of iterations of fabric, it was overstating availability coverage, right? It was understating broadband serviceable locations. So I think what we were doing here – and particularly with my audience – we're transitioning to beyond fabric, beyond the challenges. It's very important that we all continue to participate. But to your earlier point, we've got to move to advocacy and action, because the onus now shift to the states and state broadband offices, but particularly the state broadband offices, can develop and utilize their own maps. They have to be reliable. I'm going to call it “the crappy map” that's coming out of the FCC. I, and I say that tongue in cheek. Kathryn. Cause I know a lot of work has gone into it. This is the first time something like this has been done. It was really not ‘cause we did something like this before it at the NTIA seven years before. But anyway, we're not going to go to that.
Kathryn de Wit: I know. I love that map. No, but Scott though, I do think that there … so two things: One don't let this die. Let's be clear about that. Yeah. If there are issues where we know that there are. Please don't take this as me saying oh, let's just roll over and move on. That's not it. Okay.
But we need to distinguish between what is a call to the FCC and what does is a call to the NTIA? And when it comes to the FCC, there are questions around transparency, quality. What are, what is going to happen?
All of that. Any of those addressed yet? I not that I'm aware of. Accessibility in the data putting things in other languages. I think that there are a lot of. There are a lot of legitimate questions that we can and should continue to ask until we get resolutions, because that was the charge under the DATA Act, which was to improve the overall quality and accessibility of this broadband data. So I think that it's important for those of us who have the luxury of being able to do both. To folk to continue that press on transparency and accountability with the FCC, because that is the FCC’s job. And I want to be very clear about that to your audience. That is their job. Their job is to oversee the broadband industry. And this is part of it. But when it comes to NTIA, yes, I'm with you. Let's go. Let's go and get that data in from the states. And let's work with the states to incorporate that data into their planning and decision-making processes when it comes to funding, as states have been doing for over a decade. So it can be done and it can be done very well with good results.
You look at states like Maine, Colorado. Those are two of the ones that are immediately coming to mind, but there are more. Pivot and let's go.
Scott D. Woods: All right. Let's pivot. I want to start getting to the questions from the members of the audience. I want to focus our first set of questions on state broadband offices.
Oh, cause you're working. Pew was working with over 30. This comes from Shannon Williams-Mitchem, our Director of Community Outreach, says: “For the states that are more experienced in standing up broadband grant programs. What do you think are the factors that are most successful and most detrimental to effective execution of a state broadband grant program?
Kathryn de Wit: Ooh. If you'd asked me this question a year ago, my answer may be slightly different. But my answer a year ago may have been a little bit different. But I think that what I'll lead with now is: Effective state programs, all state programs, right now are balancing in some cases, their own state programs with their own statutory requirements and streams of funding. They have the Capital Projects Funds, and then they're also working on other sources of federal funding that are coming into the state. And then BEAD and DEA.
So when you talk to the state offices that are doing this well, I think one, they're all keeping their heads above water and some days more than not. That seems like an incredible accomplishment. But I think what they are really doing is looking at all of those streams of funding and all of these programmatic opportunities and taking that step back and saying: How does this fit into our bigger picture and bigger vision for the state and what we're trying to accomplish? You talk to state broadband offices like New York, Louisiana, Texas – those are the types of conversations that they're having. How do they manage these multiple sources of funding. How can they all work together to achieve different priorities – or maybe the same priorities – over different timelines? We're all gonna push on unserved first and then go to underserved. Maybe you're using funds differently. But all those states are taking that step back and saying: How are we going to combine these funds? How are we going to think smart and strategically about combining these sources of funding in order to meet the needs and the goals and the vision of our state and why digital equity matters to us.
So that's the biggest, best thing that states are doing right now.
Scott D. Woods: Let’s go through some lightning rounds. We have a little over 20 minutes left, so I want to keep going here. The next question comes from Jara Dorsey-Lash, a community member. She asked: As you think about funding initiatives to support equitable broadband access, what do you think are missing gaps in research and policy? What kind of research are you looking for to best help health policy makers in this effort? So yes, I know. This is your wheelhouse.
Kathryn de Wit: When it comes to gaps in research, this is a big one. How do we measure the impact, the social and economic impacts of broadband and digital equity? You have people like Roberto Gallardo and Brian Whitaker, who've been doing this for a long time and have put phenomenal research out into the field and econometrics to help us shape our understanding of that.
And I think what has been most important in our most important contribution. Same with people like Karen Mossberger and Johannes Bauer is that they're really encouraging folks to think about what they are trying to measure: Why, and at what level? Because it's going to be really tough for us to say that broadband connectivity added some percentage to the GDP. Like, how can you even measure that?
Scott D. Woods: And what does that mean for real people?
Kathryn de Wit: Not one works, but if you get down to a more local level, even at the state level, the state says we're going to try and increase jobs in this region by focusing on deployment, doing this with digital skills, they have that plan. They can measure that change over time.
You can even do it on a neighborhood level. Maybe it's about increasing connectivity among and usage within an aging population of a certain neighborhood or a community. It is about we need to be doing more research in this field and to better understand those drivers: What's really pushing people to try to get online? And how can we measure the impact of those connections when they're available, but we need more folks who can get it, who can get at the local level and really talk about the “So what?” of this in order to measure that effectively. We also just need more researchers.
And from a cross-disciplinary representation. No knock to my economist friends in the room and those who specialize in telecommunications policy, but we, because we need those perspectives, but we need folks from housing. We need more folks from economic development from healthcare, from education, all these different walks of life and who specialize in those policy areas, planning to come in and bring their perspective and bring their lens and expertise to this digital equity question. And that's going to help us just improve the research and data collection overall.
Scott D. Woods: And that's included in the BEAD NOFO too. We can use those funds to set up the requirements for research and evaluation. And so we encourage state broadband offices to, to in fact, do that. Look at the research and work of Dr. Gallardo with Purdue University and Johannes is with Michigan State University. These are resources that are available publicly. They publish and produce all of this great work. And obviously the work that you do at Pew, the larger work that Pew has done on research as well. I encourage people to check that out. All right. Let's keep going. Kathryn. We got to get through a lot of questions. They're coming to us.
Drew Clark asked: Many states were ahead of the curve and preparing for the current broadband infrastructure funding movement. For those that were not, what have they been doing to catch up and what should they be doing to catch up?
Kathryn de Wit: I think. A lot of states are playing catch up. All states, it feels like some days are playing catch up, to be honest with you, just basically the amount of money that's flowing to states right now, and the shift in role in policy.
But to answer your question. Your specific question, Drew. States have been doing a couple of things first. I think. It's important for folks to know that in 2020, just about half of states had active broadband offices, meaning that they were authorized in legislation. Not all of them had staff. Not all of them were funded. Now, all 50 do, which is incredible. And so enormous progress that quite frankly, it was gaining momentum even before the pandemic started because states were just pushing more money to broadband.
But for those who got started really around the rollout of the American Rescue Plan Act and the beginning of the Capital Project Funds, they've been focusing on a couple of things. The first is hiring because there is a talent shortage in the field. There's a shortage of capacity and expertise in general. That's why we need more folks who are doing research and work in this area, I'd also flag.
If somebody with several liberal arts degrees can learn broadband, so too, can you. If you're new to this issue, don't let it intimidate you.
Scott D. Woods: Always, including someone who went to Penn State.
Kathryn de Wit: That's right. Why? You really want to do this?
Scott D. Woods: I'm just saying! If you can do it at Penn State, can do it anywhere, right?
Kathryn de Wit: How dare you? I graduated from the school of communications where our own dear Chris Ali is now a professor. So let's go state. Thank you very much.
Scott D. Woods: We are.
Kathryn de Wit: We are. So as I was saying, the states have been focusing on hiring. That's been the biggest thing they've also been focused on and getting their strategies in place. How are they planning on spending the funds? How are they getting ready for the CPS and meeting all of those deadlines related to the capital project funds?
Then ramping up for mapping and the challenge process. And now the five-year action plan. In the meantime they've been working with organizations like mine. Who have been training these new folks? Who maybe come from different areas of government. They may be grants, administrators, compliance specialists.
They may be engineers from the water department. We have been training them on one, the basics of broadband programs. What do you need to know about state broadband programs and what's been successful so far and then to the basics of broadband policy and helping them understand the technology as well. And the underpinnings of how we got to where we are today.
And really ensuring that there is a … helping them create sort of a baseline understanding and a shared knowledge and lexicon across the field because there isn't a professional association for broadband officers. It's not the worst idea.
Scott D. Woods: Yeah. Okay. Very interesting. I'm going to jump in here. And I want to remind folks too – Kathryn has a wealth of knowledge not just for BEAD, because we go way back to the program and I encourage you to look at the profile Drew Clark did, but she was principally involved with the development and implementation of the then largest four point almost $5 billion program BTOP and now here. So she has a wealth of information. And knowledge to draw from and perspectives.
I'm going to pivot to a question from community member, Mike Dunne. And this is a interesting question. I'm interested in your opinion on this. So his question is: “What is the primary driver that is pushing states to spend their money mostly on large national ISPs? It seems like there's a real trend across the country to ignore local providers completely in most cases. But not completely, excuse me, not completely – in most cases. But to give the lion's share of any available funding to larger ISPs. And we know that these big players have bypassed rural America.
And urban America too, for years and play. And fancy free with the broadband reporting group. So why trust them now with all of this money? Why should then, why shouldn't the states look at local providers to solve this issue? The local broadband connectivity and equity issues. Yeah. I know that's a loaded question Kathryn, but …
Kathryn de Wit: Yeah, no it's not loaded. It's just it's … I think it speaks to the hard part of does this say where this person is from, by any chance?
Scott D. Woods: It does not. Okay. We can ask you to put it in the chat, Mike. That's where you're from?
Kathryn de Wit: Yeah, Mike, where are you from? I'm always curious to hear when folks ask questions like this.
Because. A couple of things. One. The provider footprint varies in every state. So while cooperatives are very active in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, they’re not going to be as active in states that don't have a tradition of cooperative engagement, like in Texas.
So that's always one thing to consider, but I think more to the point about the awarding of funds this is where things like scoring guidelines are very important. And when you are talking to states about: “Why broadband,” you know why this matters to the community, and also more specifically, what are the challenges that stand between your community and digital equity? We are now digging into states –like what can they do within their scoring guidelines and metrics in order to account for some of this? Because we are rapidly transitioning out of a phase where at the federal level in particular, there was an overwhelming stance and preference towards lowest cost for deployment. And that was king above all else. Not factoring in, Scott, any of the things that you pointed out earlier about the socio-demo, socioeconomic characteristics of communities that have a very real impact, specifically income, have a very real impact on the business case for deployment. Let alone things like density, stuff like that. So we are moving away from this idea that it has to be the lowest and cheapest option possible that meets the minimum. That means those minimum policy requirements for speed.
And shifting into what's going to be the best solution for the community. In some cases that may be the large incumbent. That, that it may be. And that may be for a couple of reasons. And, but in some cases it may be a local provider. And it's just now about working with the communities and the states to talk about how are those scoring guidelines going to be structured so that way those considerations can be factored in.
Scott D. Woods: And wouldn't', it also require the providers, the ISPs to re-imagine their ROI models in all of this?
Kathryn de Wit: Absolutely.
Scott D. Woods: I think if we start there, and stop trying to get these exorbitant rates of return and business model cases that oftentimes ignore unserved and underserved areas, people of color communities, rural communities, because they don't have the population density.
By looking at everything just from a statistical perspective, not from a qualitative or impact perspective. I think we have to do something with that ROI. Cause I've heard that a lot. And it's the same. And I think though, it's Scott, to your point, like if a company is, measuring ROI over five years
Kathryn de Wit: That's going to be a tough case, and a lot of these communities that are unserved right. But for things like co-op for organizations like cooperatives still, making a profit. But they're measuring that return over a much longer timeframe. So in some ways they are better positioned. One because they're already in some of these communities.
But two, they just have a different business mindset.
Scott D. Woods: It’s a more reasoned approach.
Kathryn de Wit: It's a more reasoned to approach. And it's also thinking too, about: How can we structure these funding agreements so we can get to that? So we can get to that longer term ROI. Does the match require, does the match need to be lower? How are states looking at the high cost usage?
This is why it's really important to read the law, and read the NOFO. And that's how we get that shift in mindset. And then also communicating other factors. Cause it's not just the cost, it's also your participation and availability of affordability programs. So, participation in ACP: What's your long-term plan for that? What's your plan for sustainability? This is something that states are talking a lot about.
And I say that because I just got off a phone call with them at one o'clock. So you know this, how are you really thinking about the sustainability of this network? 10, 15 years into the future? How are you demonstrating that? So that's a re read the NOFO. Yeah. Read the law.
Scott D. Woods: Let me pivot because you brought this up and Sarah Stirland asked this question. She asks:
“Many providers worry about the financial requirements of B such as the matching funds. And the letter of credit requirement. Do you have any words of comfort for small providers who want to support their local communities and also compete against larger national providers?”
Kathryn de Wit: Yes. I think one – and I should've made this clear at the outset on the last question – but we're not going to close the digital divide without the private sector.
It's just, we need every provider who’s willing to be a good partner to the community to show up and to pitch in. That is where it's important for those local ISPs. Share your concerns with the state, find the federal program officer in your state. And I think that was just public.
So find your federal program officer. Share your concerns with them too, and get specific about what you are worried about. I'm not saying open up your books, but I'm saying is what is it about the match requirement? What is it about the cost, the capital cost and the risk that you're worried about taking on, walk them through that.
Similarly, call people like Scott. Find other advocates to share your story with, because there are other partners in the field who want to see smaller ISPs be successful in the same way that we also want larger ISPs to be successful. Why? Because we want the digital divide [to close] – it’s never going to close, but because you want to make a significant impact.
Scott D. Woods: That's a great segue for the next question from Bryce Keithly. It says: “From your perspective, How can local governments or community organizations best partner with private companies to expand broadband access and adoption in their community? So again about this collaboration of partnership that we'll need.
Kathryn de Wit: Starting with an honest conversation about what folks can and can't do, and what they are willing to offer. When you're thinking about a public-private partnership what does that mean to the local government? Is that an actual public private-partnership? Are you making financial contributions? Are they non financial contributions? What are you willing to negotiate on: Monetary non-monetary.
I think more importantly, it's being very clear about what your community needs and what it wants and why. And being able to work with an ISP to figure out what that business case can be. Which I hope doesn't seem like a non-answer. But there are some resources too, Scott that I can send over to you that maybe we can publish our, we can link out to after that. We have some recommendations around this. But I think – it's always go in with good faith. And also understand that y'all have your own rights and authority, and position of authority to negotiate from. And they have their own interests to protect as well. So, as long as everybody's clear about that.
But you can go in saying: “This is what our community has identified as a need. This is why. If you can do some projections and work on that business case before you go into that meeting so you have some numbers to offer. That's always helpful too.
Scott D. Woods: Yeah, I think go in prepared and educated and ready to negotiate. All right. We're going to continue to lightning round. We've got about 10 minutes left. This next question, and we're talking about collaboration and partnerships.
This is an interesting question. I haven't seen this question before. It comes from Sharon Lichtenberg and she says: “The funding – or ask– the funding for broadband is going to the broadband authorities in the state rather than the experts at the state public utility commissions. Do you see these two organizations working together to ensure that the service actually meets the needs of end users?
Kathryn de Wit: Sharon Lichtenberg. I see you. We’re big fans of Sherry and all of her research. If you weren't, if you were not familiar with her, and you want to learn all about the role of PSEs and PUCS, please check her out. I have learned a lot from her over the years. So this is a great thing to bring up. And I am speaking from what I have learned from Sherry, one of which is that PSEs have really lost a lot of their authority in many states over the last few decades.
The legislature is taking power and authority away from the PSEs and the PUC. And also that broadband is not regulated like a utility. Therefore the power structure.
With respect to oversight of the internet itself, shifts, what I think is wonderful is where you see the the combination of the intellectual capital that a PSC can bring and pairing it with the expertise that a broadband office can bring. Programmatically then you get the enforcement, you get the rigor that can come from a PSC from that. Exactly what Sherry was saying around again, enforcement, ensuring that folks are meeting the standards and then you have the programmatic strategy that's paired on top of it. Wisconsin is the best example of this. And it's been incredibly effective at pairing those efforts together, California is another one that often gets touted.
Because of the heavy role of the CPUC plays in the state broadband strategy. But there are other examples. So I think in the absence of a strong PSE or PUC, instead look to the same things that they will. What's in federal law that are requirements and that the state is authorized to enforce. And then what is within state law?
And make sure that all parties are very clear about that. And that they're clear about that at the outset. And that expectations on funding requirements and engagement requirements are clear and that you have folks who can enforce them. And I think that people to enforce is a really important component of that.
Scott D. Woods: Let me push this a little bit with you. We're providing the money to the states, the best approach. At BTOP, communities, non-profits, ISPs had to apply directly to NTIA to get the funding. Was that the most efficient and effective approach – taking the politics out of it – to provide this money for the states for a program like this on such a scale as the broadband grant program?
Kathryn de Wit: I think politics aside, but if I don't even know if that would've made this easier or harder to pass I think the question is really like with federal programs, it was about getting it done. And there was really not much willingness to change the way the federal programs were being administered.
And there were no requirements around community engagement, no requirement like the speed minimums, the technology requirements, lack of enforcement. You can look at programs across federal agencies and point to these examples of non-compliance and companies were repeat award winners.
And given the scale of the challenge and also what we know is true, which is that this is a local issue that is shaped by state policy. Arguably in some ways it has shaped. I'm actually, I'm not going to say that, but it is heavily influenced by state policy in a way. That folks. Underestimate. And when I say it, the digital divide and.
Because so many states were already active in having a broadband office. They were investing money. And they were active on the ground. Why add another layer and confusion to a federal process, particularly given the rollout of RDOF. And how many states responded and said, this is inefficient and it's effective.
There needed to be more coordination. And the states had proven that they could be more effective at getting the dollars where they needed to go. Then. The federal programs had, and that wasn't just because of point to point connection. It was also about how they were working with communities and local providers, whether they were major incumbents or whether they were local ISP.
And overwhelmingly what we heard from providers who participated in the state programs was that they would rather participate in those state programs because they were so much easier to participate in not like the standards were lower, but the states were very. About what they asked, how they asked it and what they required of them versus the federal programs. If we'll see all of that carry through to the two B, we don't know.
But I think that the, this is an enormous task and the folks at NTIA, I commend them for the job that they're doing. But now is the time people that get to know your friends in the states. A lot of us don't work. A lot of folks don't work at the state level. This is the time to start engaging and go be an asset because there's only so much that NTIA can do quite frankly.
Scott D. Woods: All right. Super lightning round. I want to get to some important questions about digital equity. Jason asked: “At-risk communities have a lot of competing priorities. What public resources are available to help service providers communicate and advocate for the importance of broadband and digital equity as priorities?
Public resources available, obviously. NDIA is one organization that produces a lot of educational materials. Pew. You have a lot of research that you all put out to help educate folks on the importance of broadband. Are there other others that we should be utilizing and championing in this process?
Kathryn de Wit: The FCC has some has some resources as well. The Digital Divide Index team at Purdue also produces stuff. The California Emerging Technology Fund has some very impressive resources based on their two plus decades of running their programs. And I think just keep your eyes peeled for a Digital Equity Act grants. Because I think there will be a lot of resources coming out in support of those efforts, moving forward.
Scott D. Woods: Absolutely. Another question on digital equity. This is around some of the Pew Research. What strategies have been effective in increasing access to broadband among older adults and seniors.
Kathryn de Wit: Oh first, I would say call our friends at AARP, the foremost experts in all of this. And speaking of folks who are doing some work in the states, AARP is also a great organization and partner to work with and they've been championed device access, which is one of the important things.
When you're thinking about increasing adoption among aging Americans, meet people where they are. That's always what adoption is about. But let's just be clear about that. But with aging Americans one thing that's come from the research is really thinking about what devices are going to be most useful for them. So it may not be a laptop. It may be a tablet.
So it's important to really understand the cost considerations and cost burden. It's not just the monthly subscription. It's also the device. Two, it's the skill levels and the aging Americans demographic is like a 30 to 40 year group. So you've got folks who are very digitally literate and digital citizens and those who are not. So again, meet people where they are with those skillsets. And then think too about meeting people where they are when it comes to the devices that you're offering as well.
Scott D. Woods: Thank you. Kathryn, you are a total badass. You are. And we can't get to every question, every one. And we're going to invite Kathryn back. I wanted to save the last question from Jase Wilson. He states: “You work closely with many top state broadband directors and have long advocated for finding the solutions and working past problems. So what is the one thing every state broadband director should be thinking about up to the run-up of finalizing and developing their five-year action plans?”
Kathryn de Wit: What is the goal? A plan is actually a plan. It is a thing. It should be a living document. But that five-year action plan is really about helping the state itself and all the stakeholders within it, aligned around a common vision for why they are closing the digital divide.
And so the clearer that they can be about that and how they want to accomplish that – what are the target populations they want to focus on – the better.
Scott D. Woods: And I think half of you would agree with me that the call to action, if you will, is get involved, advocate on every level with your state broadband office, but also in the community. Also in the resources that are available, both the NTIA, the FCC, the state broadband office and a ton of community-based organizations that are out there doing the work. Kathryn has been fun. It's been an hour already.
Yeah. As everyone can see, again, she is on it. She is the director, right? The project director for the Broadband Access Initiatives at Pew Charitable Trust. Kathryn, we thank you for your time and attention today. It's been fun as a friend of yours, it’s an honor to be able to share this platform with you, hopefully to engage and enlighten our audience.
If anyone has any additional questions, put them in the chat. We'll try to get Kathryn back again and yeah, you will see us here in the future on our next AMA, which is coming up here in just a, another week or so on behalf of Kathryn de Wit, Kathryn, the Great.
Kathryn de Wit: Thank you so much for having me and thanks everybody for joining and participating. I'm sorry we didn't get to all the questions, but as Scott said, I'll be back. So have a great weekend.
Scott D. Woods: I’ll be back. I love that. All right. Thank you, Kathryn. Thank you everyone. And enjoy the rest of your weekend. Until we meet again.