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Ask Me Anything! With Tamarah Holmes, PhD, Director of the Office of Broadband at the Virginia Dept. of Housing and Community Development

Ask Me Anything! With Tamarah Holmes, PhD, Director of the Office of Broadband at the Virginia Dept. of Housing and Community Development Banner Image

Feb 17, 2023

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About Our Distinguished Guest

Dr. Holmes is a state broadband office leader whom peers look to for direction. She has served the Commonwealth of Virginia for nearly nine years as a program manager for the Virginia Appalachian Regional Commission and then starting in 2019 as the director of the Office of Broadband.

She has a storied background in civic service, having previously served as a coordinator for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program for Newark, NJ, an administrative project analyst for Richmond, VA, and a community development block grant coordinator Chesterfield County, VA.

Dr. Holmes holds a bachelor's of arts in political science from Drew University, a master's of science in urban policy and analysis from the New School, and a doctorate of philosophy in public policy and administration from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Check out Broadband.money's Innovator Spotlight profile of Dr. Holmes and Virginia DHCD's Office of Broadband.

Event Transcript

Sarah Lai Stirland: Hi everyone. Welcome to our latest Ask me Anything session with Virginia's Dr. Holmes and the broadband community. Dr. Holmes is, and I'm going to pause because it's a bit of a tongue twister. Dr. T. Holmes is the director of the Office of Broadband Development at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. She's also a pioneer, and as she likes to say, her office was working with broadband before broadband was called back in 2017. So it's not a surprise that many other state leaders have looked to her office for guidance when developing their own broadband development programs. I'm very excited to have you here today, Dr. Holmes. You are a pioneer. And also, last time we spoke last year, I started an article by saying that you are someone who communicates in exclamation points, and it manifests itself through all of your work, through all your office's communications. And that's even... That's pretty amazing given the amount of work that snowballed for you over the past few years. You started off since in 2017. Do you wanna give us an update of how your office has kind of exploded since then? 

Tamarah Holmes: Can you all hear? 

Sarah: Yes, we can.

Tamarah: Okay. Alright. And I know my camera's going in and out. Can you all see me? Okay, there we go. Alright. And you all can still hear me? 

Sarah: Yes.

Tamarah: Okay. Sorry. Technological, I run a broadband expansion program, but I'm not good with technology.

Tamarah: And so yes, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative is our last mile deployment program in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And the program actually predates what is considered the Office of Broadband here at the Department of Housing and Community Development. And so we had a program before we had an actual office. And so I actually was one of the Chief Architects of the VATI program, which is the acronym for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative. And since then, we've gone from a million dollar last mile program, primarily funded with state general fund dollars to a $750 million program funded both with American Rescue plan funds, capital project funds, as well as state general fund dollars. And so in the short five years that we've been in existence as a program, we have made investments to get broadband access to over 424,000 homes, businesses, and community anchors throughout the state, investing approximately $798 million, from the coalfields of Southwest Virginia all the way to the eastern shore of Virginia.

Tamarah: And so in that time, in the last round where we awarded about $722 million in December of '21, we've actually leveraged about $1.2 billion in local and private investments in our largest funding round in the history of the program. And I'd like to give credit to some key partners in the commonwealth with the way we've been able to ramp up broadband expansion. One, our investor-owned utilities, Dominion, Virginia Power, Appalachian Power are key players. They provide middle mile as they're upgrading their grid transformation as they're going through grid transformation, they actually have the ability through, some regulation within the commonwealth, to seek permission to leverage their middle mile expansion, which is for their electric needs. But they can actually lease some of that excess capacity, through permission from our state corporation commission, to internet service providers. And so we also have electric cooperatives that are also working with that space, and both those post those organizations have been key to getting to where we are now.

Tamarah: And so the other thing we've done is we've also established a line customer... A line extension customer assistance program, LECAP. We can't take credit. For the first time, we borrowed from Vermont. And so Vermont actually started a LECAP program back in... When the CARES Act funding was provided. And so since we've started the program last summer, we've had about over 200 applications and we've actually approved about 80 families and we're currently building out and completing projects for about 40 plus families. And so that program is designated to support line extensions. And so if you all are familiar with the broadband space, some folks particularly in certain communities in Virginia, homes are set back away from the road. And so those folks have to pay additional costs, which are considered special construction costs. And so we cover 100% of that cost for low to moderate income Virginians, what you'd define as anyone below $130,599. So while we've primarily been running the VATI program, we have started implementing new broadband deployment programs such as LECAP since 2017.

Sarah: Wow. That's quite a beginning. [chuckle] Thank you Dr. Holmes. Well, can we go back a little bit. And since you've been doing this for a relatively long time compared to other people, how did you ramp up over time? Like what are some of the key steps? 

Tamarah: And so we jokingly... I just realized, and actually I wanna say Kathryn de Wit from Pew actually said you've actually worked through several governors. And so I've actually... So when the program started, we were under two previous administrations ago. And so Governor Youngkin is committed to affordable, reliable, high speed internet. And so one of the things that we've kind of started to focus on is the affordability piece around broadband. And actually our investments through VATI has actually... Is moving Virginia from one, I think it's the 5th highest... 5th most expensive state per megabit per second, it's going to move us to the third least expensive state. So our Virginia Investments through VATI program has actually made broadband more affordable as we're building out those projects.

Tamarah: And then the other thing we're doing is... As you all may know, with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there's some planning funds through BEAD and digital equity. And so last General Assembly session, we actually were charged with developing a broadband affordability and cost effectiveness plan. And so it allows us to start collecting some localized data around the utilization of the Affordable Connectivity program and applying for resources through the FCC to not only continue to address the lack of access around infrastructure, but also begin to have conversations around the lack of access around affordability. And with broadband, you don't wanna build it and they will come. You wanna build it and make sure that folks actually utilize the service and that the service is affordable. And so we are looking into what we consider the two legs. It's a three-legged stool into the other two legs around affordability and adoption.

Sarah: How did... Was that something that you started off with from the beginning? 

Tamarah: No. Primarily, the program back in 2017, the goal was to get access to every unserved location in the commonwealth. And so since Governor Youngkin took office last year, we've actually changed the definition of broadband. And so prior to last year, anything that was 25 over three and above was considered broadband. And so we've since changed that definition to anything a 100 over 20 is considered broadband. So that that opens up a whole new group of locations that lack access. And so, no, this last session we were directed by the General Assembly to look at broadband affordability and cost effectiveness. We primarily through VATI have focused on access around infrastructure, which is something we steadily work on every single day because that is an area where broadband expansion needs to happen first, 'cause you can't have affordability and adoption if you actually don't have access to.

Sarah: Sure.

Tamarah: And so we're starting to peep a little bit into the other two lanes.

Sarah: That's a really important issue, affordability. And I want to get to that, but I just wanted to wrap up a loose end. When you say the state changed the definition of Broadband to a 100 over 20 megabits per second, how does that affect the BEAD money, coming in and how you're gonna deploy it? 

S1: So the BEAD money, very similar to the ARPA funding. They talk about a 100 over 20 and that being scalable to 100 symmetrical. And so most of our investments even... We've actually made through the American Rescue Plan funding, through our state general fund dollars and through the capital project fund, actually are primarily building out up to a gig. And so we feel confident that we'll continue to support deployment. We do know wireline may not be the solution for every location that's unserved within the commonwealth. We do have, in some parts of Virginia, very challenging terrain. And so, we are technology agnostic. We've been technologically agnostic. We are still that way till this day. And so we invest in, fixed wireless. We invest in wireline, whether it's hybrid coax cable or whether it's fiber. And so also having a state allocation still allows us to have that flexibility. And there are some opportunities through BEAD to look at different technology solutions as well.

Sarah: Okay. But the definition of unserved in BEAD funding is your own definition.

Tamarah: Well, the way BEAD has set it up is that's the priority. And we still prioritize anyone that's below 25 over three in our scoring process. And so, we don't have two buckets in Virginia. Anyone below 100 over 20 is unserved and we prioritize the areas that are below 25 over three as unserved. And so we still focus on those areas.

Sarah: Okay. Well so do you want to... I just wanna get back to setting up an office. So I guess the first step would be hiring the proper staff and getting a budget. Right? Getting the right... How many staff do you have? How many members of staff do you have? 

Tamarah: I currently have 13 staff that are currently working in my office.

Sarah: And what do they... Can you break up the functionality? 

Tamarah: Sure. So we have a group of folks that are actually folks that have typically worked in broadband, whether it's telecommunications or broadband technology. We have a couple of folks that come from a engineering background. And so those are folks that serve as our project managers as we fund projects. We also have staff that... Probably the best hire... Although all my staff are great, we did hire early on some GIS technicians, folks that have GIS tech subject matter expertise. I mean, I had no idea that when the FCC was gonna start building their new map that I was... We would utilize our GIS folks to start looking at what was going on with the new FCC map. And so they primarily were working on developing local broadband plans in partnership with communities.

Tamarah: And so GIS was very important. Policy folks, folks that can actually work with stakeholders that are interested in not just our state resources, but the federal government resources have grown significantly since our pro... Since we started this back in 2017. And so having someone that's knowledgeable about the federal tribal programs and providing support to communities that are interested in seeking those funds as well as a lot of different organizations apply for the NCIA Middle Mile program. We work with them. We were one of the first states to actually utilize Appalachian Regional Commission funding and community development block grant funding to do broadband expansion related to economic development in some residential. And so we still utilize, utilize...

Sarah: So you look to outside sources as well as what outside sources you can make use of in addition to your own staff.

Tamarah: Yes. So it's like braiding together multiple resources to help a community think about how to get their location served universally.

Sarah: Okay. And one of the things I wanted to ask you is, I think I sent this question beforehand, but you we had Kathryn de Wit from Pew on a couple weeks ago and she said that she was helping a lot of offices fit together their different pots of funding, federal funding. How were you dealing with that? 

Tamarah: I think because DHCD as an agency, a lot of folks ask why is broadband at the Department of Housing and Community Development? And for me it makes sense. I'm a community development practitioner, I come from a background of community and economic development. And so broadband is one of those priorities that communities look at. I mean, it impacts people's access to education opportunities, job opportunities. And so, for me, we were, as I said earlier, we're one of the first states to utilize HUD funding and Appalachian Regional Commission funding for developing broadband plans.

Tamarah: For implementing broadband plans. And we're an agency where we... Outside of the money we have for broadband, we have over $100,000,000 in other federal and state resources that can be braided together to address broadband expansion. That's not the primary function of those resources, but those are eligible uses of those resources.

Sarah: Okay. I understand that the goal is to get 100% coverage by 2024. Right? 

Tamarah: So we have not, we don't set the barometer for what we consider universal.

Sarah: Okay.

Tamarah: What we do is each, we say the goal is to achieve universal coverage, each of the local governments, units of local government. And so in our program, unlike other states, we don't give our money directly to the internet service providers. We actually provide units, whether units to local government, a locality, a county, a city, a planning district commission, a public broadband authority. And they partner often with a private internet service provider. They define what is universal to them. And so what we've often... We don't set the baseline for that. That's their decision, how they wanna set it. And so the reason we stay technology agnostic is because we do have communities where fiber cable and fixed wireless gets them to 98% coverage. And again, they define that definition based on their needs for their communities. We don't do a top-down approach. We do a bottom approach. And so we really lean on our local partners to help determine what is universal for their communities.

Sarah: Okay. Well, speaking of relying on local providers, what were the findings for your affordability study and what are the implications for your grant making programs? 

Tamarah: And so for our broadband affordability and cost effectiveness plan, there was one primary recommendation that came out of that. And one was the underutilization of the Affordable Connectivity program by the eligible populations. We have several internet per service providers in the commonwealth that participate in the ACP program. However, the eligible populations are not necessarily taken advantage. And so that was one of our primary recommendations, was the analysis showed that Virginia's not getting their fair share of ACP based on the eligible household. And then that for... And the recommendation was for us to apply for the FCCs Affordable Connectivity Outreach grant. So we've submitted that grant application and knock on wood, hopefully we'll find out pretty soon on whether we will receive funding or not. And so we've developed a strategy to do some direct outreach and campaigns to the eligible households for the ACP program.

Sarah: Okay. You were telling me before that there's an electric co-op out there with a really cool and interesting program that's targeted towards digital inclusion. Can you tell our audience a little bit about that? 

Tamarah: Yes. And so we have a co-op... And so this really is a model that electric cooperatives have actually done going back to the electrification of rural communities. And so the way it's been explained to me, and I'll give Casey Logan, who is the president of Ruralband and also Prince George Electric Cooperative. And so they actually... We have several electric cooperatives that also now have broadband subsidiaries. And so the way Casey explains to me, I'm gonna borrow directly from Casey, is that during the electrification of the country, in rural communities, not everyone was an early adopter. They knew that electricity could turn on the lights, but other utilization efforts of the technology around cooking and refrigeration. And so they developed something called a cooperative kitchen. And so they actually had a makeshift kitchen where they brought folks in to explain to them around, to provide some literacy around how to utilize electricity. And so, Ruralband and their Virginia telecommunication grant that they actually... The first one they did was Surry County, Virginia, which by the way, is the first rural county to get to universal coverage.

Sarah: I'm sorry, which county was this? 

Tamarah: Surry County, Virginia. And so there's always been this competition about who got there first. And so Surry County actually got there first. And so Ruralband put a cooperative living room. And so it's the same pretense as a cooperative kitchen, except it's a living room where they have smart TVs, Alexa, how you plug your electronics into outlets and you can cut them off and cut them on. And so they have a makeshift living room that they built in Surry County. They also built one in Dinwiddie County, where they have a current VATI grant, and they're looking to bring one to Sussex County. And so they've done a couple of different VATI projects. And so they built this cooperative living room where folks can actually go and experience, one, they learn about the project that's being built in their community, the progress of the project, where the project is going. But also they have spaces where folks can actually learn how to use a laptop, search the internet, utilize the smart TV to stream videos or look for jobs. And so they have these placed at community centers throughout the locality where they're building out the projects.

Sarah: It's really cool.

Tamarah: I come from a, like I said, a community development background. And so outreach and awareness and education is always important. And so to me, that's a great example of a digital literacy effort that's happening within the state.

Sarah: Yeah, that's really great. I did an interview with the older adults technology services and had in... A couple weeks ago. And they have this kind of thing for older adults in cities. So that's really cool. I have to ask this question in the chat, but I'm not entirely sure what it means. Dan, from Dan Smith. Dan, if you could... Do you think you could give a few more details about your question. Get into a bit more detail. It says something about specs for devices. Are you there, Dan? Well, maybe he'll type some more detail into the chat. So, I was watching a prior interview with you, Dr. Holmes, and you were talking about how the market structure in Virginia helps to bring affordable access to individuals because local ISPs can actually partner with other businesses. Can you tell our audience a little bit more about that? 

Tamarah: Sure. So I jokingly say, so my PhD actually, I study social network analysis, and I always say to everyone, every day I get to work my dissertation. So I did not write this dissertation, and it's stuck on a shelf in a library.

Sarah: Okay.

Tamarah: And so coordination is very important in building collaborative partnerships within communities. I can tell you that there are projects where there are at least five or six different entities working together. For those who work in the broadband space, we know that internet knows no boundaries and so we don't stop projects at a boundary. I have a project that's in Central Virginia that's 13 different counties together partnering with a electric cooperative that has a broadband subsidiary and they've got partnerships with our investor on utilities. The cooperative has partnerships with other cooperatives that are building out middle mile for their own needs.

Tamarah: They're partnering with other providers throughout the project area. And so this work is not done in isolation. There's always partnerships between different entities that are in the space, whether it's starting from actual infrastructure being built out, whether it's around education, once the access is there to increase subscriptions and adoption rates, but then also how to utilize. And so those are things that we actually built within our application. We have several Federally-recognized tribes in Virginia now that was not something that occurred within the last five years that we've had VATI. It might be a little longer 'cause I don't remember the exact year some of them got recognition. And so we've been actually, through the VATI program, been able to connect some tribal lands. And then some of them have put some resources there. So we incentivize unique partnerships in our application process, we incentivize providers that offer low cost service plans. We incentivize digital literacy and broadband adoption efforts within communities and regions. And so, I can tell you there's no one in Virginia that's working on broadband that's doing it in isolation.

Sarah: Okay. So part of that is can you tell us a little bit about how you are using your planning funds from the IIJA's the Infrastructure Act BEAD program? 

Tamarah: Sure. And so we received each... I think each state got about $5 million or so. I don't know if the territories received the same amount of planning funds. And so we are utilizing our BEAD planning funds. One, we are actually in-house developing our five-year strategy. We've been doing VATI for about five years. I've got 13 staff. And so we are internally developing our five-year strategy, and we're actually gonna be doing our kickoff soon too, for our stakeholder engagement process for that strategy. The other piece is because VATI, and so the investment of ARPA funds and CPF funds, which was the [0:23:05.3] ____ surprise of us in the middle of a grant round, we've primarily been a state-funded program. And so BEAD has some regulatory requirements that NTIA has set forth in their notice of funding opportunities.

Tamarah: And so we actually are utilizing a consultant to help us take the VATI program and make sure that it's compliant with the BEAD rules and regulations so that we can... My goal is to get our initial proposal in as quickly as possible once the allocations come out so that we can continue the momentum that we've had in the state. We've had great momentum for the last five years. We wanna keep the train on the track, continue to address our unserved locations in the commonwealth and get them access. And so that's kind of our strategy for the BEAD program. And so probably within the next less than 30 days, folks will be... If you're in the Commonwealth of Virginia, if you're not on their mailing list, I can share our email address, but we'll be actually having a lot of stakeholder engagement conversations, not with just our traditional stakeholders because the other thing that BEAD allows us to do, and we talked a little bit about it early, Sarah, is that, it allows us to... What we believe under this administration is commit all the funding we need to close the digital divide from an infrastructure standpoint.

Sarah: Right.

Tamarah: And be able to start looking at what is considered by NTIA non-deployment efforts. And so being able to identify what's next, how do we impact broadband adoption through utilizing the BEAD funding. There are great folks doing great work in the commonwealth, providing resources at the community level, community action agencies. And so there's an opportunity for us to take what we collected through the broadband affordability and cost effectiveness plan by the General Assembly and being able to look at what do community groups and organizations wanna see us do next around broadband.

Sarah: So you're going to use that General Assembly money to address community outreach and bring them devices or digital inclusion efforts or planning or...

Tamarah: We don't know yet. And so we'd actually... The BEAD money is actually through NTIA, we don't have general fund dollars for planning. All the $5 million we received is through BEAD.

Sarah: Right.

Tamarah: And so again, we're a bottoms-up approach and so we wanna get out in the communities and find out what the communities wanna see us do.

Sarah: Oh, great.

Tamarah: We also have to think about sustainability. And so if communities want a device program and we hear that from our stakeholders, and of course everything needs to be blessed by the administration and both the General Assembly about next steps. But we'll collect as much data as possible on what's next for us in the broadband space and closing the digital divide. And we'll continue to both address access around infrastructure and identify opportunities for next steps.

Sarah: So you are using... Sorry, to interrupt.

Tamarah: Go ahead.

Sarah: So you're using the BEAD money to do stakeholder outreach and go out to local communities to find out what they want.

Tamarah: Part of that, along with the consultant to make sure that the VATI program, which is the primary goal. Remember under BEAD, the first priority under BEAD is to get to the unserved and underserved locations. And then identify what's next for your communities.

Sarah: Okay. So you've been talking... You once told me that your office is like the eHarmony of broadband, right? 

Tamarah: Yes.

Sarah: You're saying ISPs to meet local communities and things like that. So what does your community engagement look like now? How are you setting that up? 

Tamarah: So, we're still doing the eHarmony match.com relationships between internet service providers. There are several that aren't based in Virginia, but maybe wanna work within Virginia. And so as part of the BEAD requirements, there has to be some competitive process. And so it was very similar to the VATI program where some communities would put out requests for proposals or requests for interest. And so we still kind of do the, Hey, did you know this small ISP is in your community? They may wanna partner on a VATI project. And so we still kinda do that. And so we still help with that coordination, but as far as the next steps, we're still... And Courtney Dozier, I know is at NTIA and I don't know if she's on, she's my old boss. I blame her that that's the reason I'm in this job. She used to say we're building the plane as we're flying it, and I kind of feel like we're in the same space, looking at non-deployment, next steps for us. And so, we still do a lot of connections. There's not a day where someone is reaching out and I'm not sending an email to a local partner saying, Hey, this company reached out, or... And so the biggest thing we're doing right now is actually trying to build a network of who's working around the digital opportunity space, around literacy and digital literacy resources. And so we're trying to build a network around that.

Sarah: Okay. I have some questions from the audience.

Tamarah: Okay.

Sarah: Austin Lajoie says, Dr. Holmes, what is your sense of the current state of adoption in Virginia? It sounds like on the infrastructure side, significant progress has already been made. How do you feel about actual adoption of broadband in Virginia? 

Tamarah: So we actually have a higher take rate than the national average. We're about 60% for our Virginia telecommunication investments. And so if someone were to ask me how does that happen? I think part of it is, one, that 60% actually goes back to prior... To the pandemic, when we made early investments through VATI. And we've continued on that same trajectory with at least 60% of folks who now have access, actually subscribing to service. One, as you heard me say earlier, is becoming more affordable. Two, a lot of our larger national companies that are in multiple states have these low cost plans. You've got the Affordable Connectivity Program, which I think increases the number of folks that are taking service. The pandemic, if folks weren't convinced we needed to have broadband in every community before the pandemic, I'm pretty sure most folks are convinced now. And so in Virginia, we have on average a 60% take rate for our projects that we've built out. And I hope that answers your question, Austin.

Sarah: Okay. If it doesn't, Austin, please feel free to follow up. There's a general comment from Jace Wilson, our CEO. Well, he says it's a serious question for Dr. Holmes. Is it exhausting being this amazing? 

Tamarah: So I know you have some personal questions for me later, and I think my answers to my personal questions may help you all.

Sarah: Okay.

Tamarah: I Understand where the energy comes from around this.

Sarah: Okay.

Tamarah: I am a community development practitioner, and so I've spent over 20 years being thankful and blessed and grateful to work in an environment where I actually see the fruits of my labor every day in communities. I mean, through our Line Extension Program, to Jace, to your point, we got a family access to broadband that had been trying to get access for 23 years. They just could not afford to pay for a line extension from the nearest facility to their home. And so to have someone say to me, I can now connect with the outside world through the internet after 23 years of trying, we get to help people every single day.

Sarah: Well, that is really exciting. So do you... I don't know if all Line Extension Programs work the same or how does your... Virginia's one work? 

Tamarah: So we cover 100% of the cost for eligible households. And so eligible households are anyone that earns under $133,599. And part of that, I know folks are like, Well, how is that low-mod income? Part of that was because, we wanted to capture... If you've looked at some Federal reserve data on middle class families, while some middle class families have some, what consider is disposable income. I mean, if they have $20,000 and it costs $10,000 to give to their incumbent provider to get access to the home, folks may not wanna... They wanna have that safety net. And so we're able to cover those 100% of the costs out... For the service to get to the home outside of the public right of way. And so there are parts of Virginia, particularly South Side Virginia, where homes are just set back further from the road, and it takes more money to get up the driveway to connect that physical location to broadband.

Tamarah: And so we've really thought about that and I will say the General Assembly through whether it's VATI, the Line Extension Program, the Broadband Affordability and Cost Effectiveness Planning, they've provided great guidance and a great foundation and they've given us latitude as an agency to really listen to our stakeholders to implement programs that fit their needs as opposed to, again, a top-down approach to broadband expansion, whether it's through VATI. Whether it's through the Line Extension Customer Assistance Program, they've given us flexibility to really take our stakeholders' input and implement programs that work best for our communities.

Sarah: Okay. I've got a question from Nikki Ahmadi in our community. She's a product manager at our company. Dr. Holmes, as a Director of Office of Broadband in Virginia, what do you think are some of the most significant challenges facing states as they work to expand broadband access? And how do you approach addressing these challenges in your work? She's got several questions, but let's just go with that one first.

Tamarah: It's okay. Okay, so, Nikki, you've probably heard across the board from broadband directors. We have states and territories, through the BEAD funding, gonna be moving at the same rate. Through our General Assembly and our previous administration investing ARPA and capital project funds, we were able to get out in front of what our folks are considering constraints, labor, labor shortage issues, supply chain issues. And so through our most recent investments, we were able to get out in front of it. We had to make some changes to our program. Things like, to give you an example, I typically would not allow anyone to spend local or match funds prior to getting under contract with us because we knew where we were at the front of several states investing ARPA and CPF funds. I said, okay, go ahead, buy your equipment, buy your fiber, go ahead and issue your contracts.

Tamarah: Because I didn't want... One of the things I heard from the industry folks was a lot of them had some maybe some Federal funding, whether it's ReConnect money, CAF II funding, there's RDOF being built out. They had crews already on the ground in Virginia. And so what we didn't wanna do is lose those crews to other projects. And so we made some concessions within our VATI programs to allow work to continue. And so we, at least through the last round that we funded, felt like we got out in front of it. Now, I'm not too sure, and that if you ask me what keeps me up at night, it's how do all of us moving at the same pace through the BEAD program all have the same exact needs? One of the things that we actually came against, I wouldn't say a significant challenge, pole attachments. If you talk to anyone that's on either utility side or the ISP side, what I like to say is we have these resources, whether it's our electric cooperatives or our investor-owned utilities where you're stringing aerial fiber and they've gone from maybe processing 40 permits to 400, 4000. And so that's one thing we've seen as a challenge in trying to catch up with that. [laughter]

Sarah: I just wanna, I'm sorry to interrupt again, but how do they cope with this increase? And this actually brings me to the really good, a question for your office, I'm sure once the funds come to you, there's gonna be an explosion of applications. How are you planning to deal with this? How do you, how does anyone deal with going from 40 to 4,000 pole attachment agreements? Processing all of that and how... That's question number one. And question number two is, how are you planning for the explosion in grant applications? 

Tamarah: And so what we're doing is we have conversations about... So one of the things we look at is, we have conversations with our utility folks in rooms and conversations going, okay, what is... How do you process permits or applications? How are you able to process them within a certain period? What are some efficiencies that can happen across the board? 'cause what we've learned is not every utility processes applications the same way. And so we have conversations amongst the industry folks. I have great relationships with our Cable Television Association folks, our Electric Cooperative Association, our... They're now the Virginia Broadband Industry Association. That's our old telecom folks, from the telephone side. And so we have our conversations in Virginia with all of our industry representatives about this constraint on existing resources and what can we do to help address that. For example, one thing I would've never thought about is when you're doing varying fiber, someone needs to go mark existing utilities. Well, you need a... You need employees to do that, you need to be trained [0:36:56.9] ____ in credentials. And so we are having conversations with our community colleges and our workforce investment boards around getting folks trained up to work to support the broadband expansion through construction.

Sarah: Okay.

Tamarah: And so we're doing what we can realistically to address those constraints.

Sarah: So you basically try to remind all your... All the people in the ecosystem to... You're trying to remind them of all the things that they have to do and get them prepared.

Tamarah: And we worked through issues together. That's why VATI has been so successful. When we started this program, we sat down with industry folks, we sat down with community leaders and county administrators and city managers and homeowners associations. And we figured out what worked for us best than the commonwealth. And so I think, we will continue to do that. But again, the only thing that really keeps me up at night, Nikki, is... With all the states moving in the same. So at least with ARPA and CPF, we were one of the first ones out the gate. With BEAD, we're all gonna be moving, submitting initial proposals and final proposals, and we'll all be doing construction within the same window. And so, but I feel like in Virginia, we've built a good ecosystem. We're still building the plane as we're flying it. And so, I'm confident that we will get the job done.

Sarah: Do you have anything other than that for preparing for your staff, apart from your staff not going to sleep processing versus all those applications? 

Tamarah: Well, on average, we've got about 50-60 applications a year for a VATI. Remember, we... So we don't do caps on grant awards. One of our largest grant awards was $95 million out of our last batch of funding. And so we don't cap awards, so we don't typically end up with as many applications maybe as some of our counterparts, 'cause we don't have a cap on how much money you can apply for. The other thing is I also work without boundaries. Remember, I said I have a project in Central Virginia that's 13 counties with one provider who also has some federal resources. And so, we allow flexibility within our program that allows us not to have the constraints that you may see in another program.

Sarah: Why don't you... This might sound obvious, but why don't you cap applications? 

Tamarah: Because, I mean... Each community is so different. And the way you address the need for Broadband is not a one-size-fits-all. And so we have very mountainous communities, folks that live in valleys and hollers folks that live on the... Near the Chesapeake Bay. And so each solution will be different. And so we... Again, remember I'm a community... I'm at a community development and housing agency. And so infrastructure is infrastructure. And so to me, it made sense to find out what the true cost is and provide that funding for it. We do have a metric within our evaluation process that's looks at cost efficiency. And so we look at cost efficiency by technology. And that kind of is one of our primary measures. There are several others that include our scoring rubric. But...

Sarah: That's interesting.

Tamarah: I mean, what's the point of... And you gotta remember, historically, and even when we were a smaller $1 million program, you are identifying the areas that typically are still the most densely populated areas. That doesn't happen through VATI because I mean, the reason we're in this place is because the most densely populated areas were cherry-picked. And so what's left is the most expensive that still need access. And so we build that into our program.

Sarah: I got it. So Nikki's other one was, what do you see as the most important role that state broadband offices can play in addressing the digital divide and how can these offices work most effectively with local communities to achieve this goal? I mean, we kind of... You did talk about that a little bit.

Tamarah: I sat on a panel, Sarah, with NACo on Monday at... And so one of the things I said... 'cause our money goes through a unit of local government. And so one of the things I said to the folks in the room at NACo was, and to Nikki's question, make sure...

Sarah: Sorry Dr. Holmes, do you want to explain to the audience what NACo is? 

Tamarah: Oh, it's the National Association of Counties. And so it was a chance to talk to local folks from all over the country. And so what I said to the folks there, because remember each state is implementing... May implement their broadband expansion program differently, if you're in a state where your state directly gives the money to the private sector, make sure that in their evaluation process for projects that they include incentives for community engagement with the local folks, that they've actually talked to county leaders, talk to community stakeholders about their proposed project. Because again, these folks know their communities best. And so that, Nikki, was one of the things that I said to folks at NACo, was make sure that community engagement is something that's key in the evaluation of your state programs. And so to my counterparts in other states, I would say even if your program design is to work directly with the private sector, do make sure that they do engage with local communities. And it's worked for us in Virginia, a-nd I know it can work for other states as well.

Sarah: So provide incentives to local ISPs.

Tamarah: For local community engagement in the application.

Sarah: For local community engagement. Okay. I am looking down my list of questions. So I was gonna ask about weaving digital equity into your BEAD application. But you've basically said that you are going to... You are talking to local communities to find out what they need? 

Tamarah: Right. And so we are... With our digital equity, we do have a digital equity planning grant. We are gonna do... 'cause there's this weaving of equity both in digital equity planning funds we got from [0:43:02.0] ____ the BEAD funding. And so we are actually working... We're gonna be working with some community action agencies. They work a lot with what is considered the covered population through the Digital Equity Act. And so we will be funding regional plans, and then on our BEAD funding, we are going to be funding over a hundred local plans to be developed. And so if you're from Virginia and you're in a unit local government, there will be funding forthcoming for you to develop localized plans for your community. So now you have access, what's next? And so we'll be giving out some grant money to develop local plans.

Sarah: Can you... That sounds really interesting. Can you tell us a bit more about that? I mean, if I were a mayor or on a county board of supervisors, and I wanted to apply for one of these grants, what exactly would I... For digital equity, what exactly would I be applying for to do? I guess it's up to them, but could you give me an example of the kind of thing that they would be applying for? 

Tamarah: So right now, and we're... Again, we are building the plane as we're flying it, Sarah. So, right now, we've set aside about $3.2 million of our $5 million in planning funds from NTIA to pass through localities to... Remember my General Assembly said, go develop a broadband affordability and cost effectiveness plan. But the plan that we developed at the state level, localities should also develop their localized plans. And so we're funding communities to come in on a rolling basis to get funding to develop their own plan.

Tamarah: And so to give you an example, if we have a locality that through the VATI program is gonna get to 98% of their locations with access, that county can say, okay, now I need to figure out how to get folks to take the service. And also what resources do we need to have in place to not only increase adoption, but also make sure that digital literacy resources are available. And so it may be... They may set up a program with their local library and there's some educational training opportunities for folks, or virtual training as folks get access. And so it looks different for every single community. And again, remember I said there's no one-size-fits-all, whether it's infrastructure deployment or whether it's looking at addressing digital literacy or addressing digital inclusion needs.

Sarah: Okay. I'm going to... Thank you very much. So I'm going to mush together two questions about technology. This is the last one from Nikki and another one from Austin Lajoie. From Austin Lajoie, another question was how has your thinking for infrastructure subsidization build up evolved with... How has your thinking evolved with respect to the recent development of fixed wireless technologies/providers, particularly for rural areas? What's your take on the role fixed wireless, I think it's FWA, can play, if any, in improving rural access to broadband as opposed to traditional infrastructure? 

Tamarah: So we're... Remember, I said earlier, we're technology agnostic in Virginia.

Sarah: Yeah.

Tamarah: That's something that's gone through multiple administrations. Governor Youngkin still wants us to stay technology agnostic. And so we do have communities where we invest in both hybrid coax cable fiber and/or small wireless projects. And so we've invested in wireless projects through state funding, the ARPA and the CPF funding. They had some of the guidance really... 'cause they had to deploy 100 over 20. And in some cases fixed wireless can't deploy a 100 over 20, and so I still have state money that allows me to be flexible with investing in technologies that may not meet the metrics required through the federal funding. And so, we've been technology agnostic since 2017, and that's my belief. We still will be technology agnostic. I do know through BEAD, there's some opportunities for waivers around addressing, maybe there is a need for fixed wireless technology in some communities where wireline is not... Is cost-prohibitive. And so there's some flexibility. I think folks tend to gloss over the flexibility of BEAD. Again, it is my belief and based on conversations I've heard from NTIA, the reason they're block granting the money to us is because we know best about deployment in our respective states. And so we still invest in fixed wireless. And if that person would like to contact me, I can actually share some projects we've invested in.

Sarah: What's your email? 

Tamarah: I'm gonna, it's the V-A-T-I @D-H-C-D.virginia.gov. Do you want me to put that in the chat, Sarah, before we log off? 

Sarah: Yeah. Or maybe...

Tamarah: I don't know if I can chat and...

Sarah: Oh, wait, hold on. Sorry. I can do that. Can you say that again? 

Tamarah: V-A-T-I? 

Sarah: Yep.

Tamarah: @ dog, house, cat, dog D-H-C-D.

Sarah: Right.

Tamarah: Dot Virginia. Spelled out, the state. Dot gov. G-O-V.

Sarah: Okay. Thank you very much. And so I wanted to... Well, I don't wanna forget Nikki's last question, which is kind of related. It's about emerging technologies. Have you seen some... Have you seen any really cool emerging technologies that you think would be really helpful in getting people broadband? 

Tamarah: I personally have not. Remember the way we primarily work in Virginia is the units of local government select their partner. So, so far, we've seen fixed wireless, we've seen fiber, we've seen cable, hybrid coax. I haven't seen anyone submit an innovative project. We're having some conversations at the state level. In case anyone does not know, our economy is heavily based in AG. [chuckle] And so one of the things we've been having conversations with our Secretary of Agriculture and our Secretary of Commerce and Trade, and so we're under commerce and trade, is looking at precision AG. And so I'm pretty sure that moving forward we'll be able to look at some, potential emerging technologies as we look at the uses of broadband. And so stay tuned for more information as we start delving into things like Smart AG and Precision AG.

Sarah: That's interesting. Okay. So I want to rip a page off my favorite radio program, which is the BBC's Desert Island Discs. It's basically this program they ask people what they will bring with them to a desert island if they get stranded on the desert island. So if you had to be stuck with some songs on this desert island, what would you listen to? 

Tamarah: So I kinda looked at that question, and so a Desert Island, I'd probably say Happy by Pharrell, 'cause if I'm on a desert island, it means that I have time for myself, which doesn't happen very often. And so I would say I'd probably be dancing around really happy dancing to Pharrell's Happy song.

Sarah: Right. And of course you'd have a broadband connection.

Tamarah: Yes.

Sarah: So you probably wouldn't be stuck with just one song. So Happy by Pharrell would be the one that you would pick out of everything? 

Tamarah: Yes. For the Desert Island.

Sarah: Okay. What book would you take with you? 

Tamarah: Right now my favorite author seems to be Glennon Doyle. I just finished her book, Untamed. And so that book has been really eye-opening. And so to me, that would be the... I'd probably read that a couple more times.

Sarah: I apologize. I didn't know that book. What's the... Can you tell me, give me a...

Tamarah: So the book is about a woman, and I don't wanna like misspeak on the book, but what I get out of the book is about, you know, as a woman, as a mom., sometimes we get caught up in like, everyone else's lives. And so the book kinda speaks to like finding yourself and remembering that you're a person too. And so I think that book provides some great tips and guidance on how to become untamed again.

Sarah: Oh, I'll have to check it out. Yes, definitely. So, let's see. Who else do we have questions from? Oh, Jason Lota. Dr. Holmes, can you talk a bit about how your office sees the role of broadband and job creation and economic development in general? 

Tamarah: So we do know that there is a... We need a workforce to help build out the Broadband projects. And so we're working through conversations a lot. We've invested $722 million in December, of '21. And so every single provider that's building out needs a workforce. And so we are having conversations with... Some of them are partnering with the Virginia Employment Commission, have job fairs, so they're scaling up construction workers. There's also not just the temporary workforce around construction. There's the operation and maintenance once the infrastructure is there. And so the construction jobs are temporary, but there are some permanent job opportunities through the investments we're making through VATI. I jokingly say... I have an 18-year-old that just graduated last May, and I'm like, he can go work for a cooperative, doing visual inspections of polls for poll attachments. And so there's a lot of job opportunities where folks can quickly get credentials to work not just in broadband construction, but even on the industries that support broadband. And we're having conversations about that every day both internally with our stakeholders within the state, at the agency level, our community colleges, our workforce investment boards. And so, as again, we're building the plane as we're flying it. I never knew that when we invested all that money in December, 2021, that there'd be this huge constraint on things like labor shortages and supply.

Sarah: Yeah. How have... What kind of response have you had to your outreach efforts? Can you send...

Tamarah: Really, really positive. I mean, through the state, we have an infrastructure coordinator that's primarily over the IIJA funding for the state. And so I know the Virginia Community College system is looking at setting up an infrastructure academy. And so it's not just about broadband projects too, there's roads projects, there's water projects. And so we as a state are thinking about these things broadly, not just reacting to what's currently happening. And so we do have conversations at the state level as to what resources we need, to, one, get folks gainfully employed, but also to stay in the employment too.

Sarah: Yeah. But flipping the question around, I was wondering whether you've seen, once Virginia's made these investments in these communities all around, have you... Is Broadband an effective force in sort of reversing or stalling economic decline in an area? 

Tamarah: I mean, my early years, remember I come from a community development background. I can't speak to about the future. But I will tell you that my first project was a project in our Appalachian region where they had a prospect that was gonna bring 100s of jobs and they needed water, sewer, and Broadband to the site. And so our Virginia Economic Development Partnership recently published the Governor's Economic Development Strategy and broadband is highly mentioned in that document. And so we do have joint conversations with our economic development folks at the state level. And we just provided data to them on where there's currently, the data we collect on our state map. We have shared the shape files that are public information with them. So that as they're assessing site readiness, which is a new initiative under Governor Youngkin, they're also assessing what resources are at those sites.

Sarah: Oh, that's really interesting. Okay. So, Jason also asked Dr. Holmes, as states work to ensure everyone has access to quality affordable broadband, can you share some insights-devising strategies that fairly distribute investment across rural and more densely populated areas? 

Tamarah: So when VATI was created, literally in the budget language, it says to provide, to supplement construction calls for the private sector in unserved areas. And so all of my projects have been in rural communities. If I've done a project in a urban community, it's because they might have had a pocket. One example is the city of Chesapeake, which is in the Hampton Roads area, they've had small pockets of subdivisions that weren't connected. And so we partner... Well, the city has partnered with their local internet provider to expand service to those pockets that were unserved. And so VATI is primarily a rural program.

Sarah: Oh, okay. All right. Okay. This is a good one from Margarine versus Butter. [laughter] But it's actually kind of a serious question.

Tamarah: I like butter.

Sarah: Do you? So do I. I think it's actually better for you. Do you think the broadband nutrition facts label will have a lasting positive impact? If not, what is it missing? 

Tamarah: I am not familiar with that. What is that called? The broadband...

Sarah: The broadband nutrition facts label. It's the FCC requirement that ISPs display what they're actually, what consumers will be actually getting for price versus their megabits per second and performance.

Tamarah: You, so I'll say, I'm not versed in that. I have staff that I've, over my career, learned to delegate responsibilities to. So I have to look into that 'cause I know they pay more attention to the data that's gone into the FCC. We do have a statewide availability map in which we collect data from providers, and so... We have not produced a broadband nutrition label. I'm sorry, I have to go learn more about that, but thanks for letting me know about it.

Sarah: Yeah. Okay. We've got one minute. From Adam Puckett. The sheer amount of funding dollars compounded by the layers of data that go into maximizing the effectiveness of funding allocation is a massively complex nut to unravel. How do you think about staffing, FTE skills, etcetera, budget and resources, software and allies for your role to be most effective? What force multipliers, meaning resources, tools, or relationships that provide an outsized return have you found for your office's effectiveness? 

Tamarah: So our office was created in September of 2019. And so, remember, I had a program before I actually had staff. And so my prior boss basically said "Dr. Holmes we want you to start this office of broadband and you write a concept paper." And this was literally during the time where we were doing it before it was cool. Not only were we doing a program but now building an office. And there are some states that have had offices previously. And so honestly, what I did was I sat back, remember I'm in a community development housing agency background. As a practitioner, the work we do and the staff, we have outside of the engineers I've hired on in who have the industry and the construction acknowledge and the technology experience my office is made up of folks that are... Could take these skills and transfer them to any community development priority or community. GIS serving as broadband planners. Those folks can go develop business revitalization plans housing studies, housing assessments.

Tamarah: And so we... Again, I think... I like to say that because we have the uniqueness of being where we're placed at in state government, we've built out an office that mimics where our skills... We pulled in folks who may not have... Outside of my engineers, who... Folks who have typically worked in community economic development and policy and taught them broadband. And so what I would say is that I've taught... I too learned broadband literally flying by the seat of my pants 'cause we have invested in using federal money. But broadband is a pillar within community economic development. And so the skills are transferable, whether it's coming in my office or leaving my office, which I've now had some staff leave and go do other things. And so, for me, I had the time to write a paper get buy-in from leadership at the agency, hired the folks I thought was best. We are referenced as a model by Pew of a model broadband office. Everyone asked me what's the one thing that I think I did that was the best thing since sliced bread. It was hiring GIS folks. Not because they just provided local support to communities around broadband planning but also who knew that in 2022 and 2023, I'd have to you know work through the FCCs Fabric Challenge and the FCCs service first service claim challenge. And so to me, they're worth their weight in gold. [laughter] Every single person in my office contributes to every single success that we've had as an agency.

Sarah: Do you want to say anything about how you dealt with challenges to the FCC map or not? 

Tamarah: Well, I can share what we've shared publicly. We did submit 1.9 million service claims. We did challenge that many service claims, and we're in conversations with every single ISP that contacts us wanting to know why we challenged. And we are, in a lot of instances, reconciling those challenges. And so a lot of that I would like to say is based on our relationship with them through VATI. There are some providers that we haven't had relationships with that we did question their service claims. And remember, I have a state map, and so that allows me at least a baseline to determine what service data was being collected. Our data is actually more up to date than the FCC data we collected in December. They collected in June. And so we have, we collect... We challenged based on three basis. One, if they did not report to our state map, which they're required to by code, we challenged. If they may be in an area where there's a long maybe a long drop which is not defined as served, we challenged some of those. And then we also challenged some providers who did not provide data, who are doing fixed wireless services as well but did not report to our state map. And so that information is public. And Sarah, we can share a link to that information.

Sarah: Okay. I can put it in the chat afterwards. I mean in the questions. So I've been told that we're out of time. Thank you so much, Dr. Holmes, for spending this hour with us. To wrap up, your advice to people, you had a couple of things about... An answer to Adam's question about how you scale is having an overall plan and a vision, hiring GIS folks, and being in a good strategic place which is, in your case, the housing and development section of the state government and hiring staff with multiple skillsets that may come from another industry and are fast learners basically.

Tamarah: Yes.

Sarah: Okay. Great. Thank you so much once again for your time.

Tamarah: Thank you.

Sarah: And I think we're gonna just hang up, I guess. Thank you. Bye. Take care.