Ask Me Anything! with Valarry Bullard, Director of the New Jersey State Broadband Office

Ask Me Anything! with Valarry Bullard, Director of the New Jersey State Broadband Office Banner Image

Jul 28, 2023


About Our Distinguished Guest

Valarry has served the state of New Jersey in various roles for over a decade.

Since February of 2023, Valarry has served as the state broadband director, but before she took on that role, she served the Garden State as a transparency officer in the disaster recovery office, a senior IT project manager for the department of community affairs, a software development specialist at the office of low-income energy conservation, and a program assistant at the state's weatherization program. 

Valarry also holds a bachelor's degree in international business from the University of Bridgeport, and a master of arts in international political and economic development from the same. 

Event Transcript

Drew Clark: Welcome to the Ask Me Anything on July 28th, 2023. Welcome. Thanks for joining us for the Ask Me Anything in the Broadband Community on July 28th, 2023. I am so happy to welcome our guest for today's Ask Me Anything. She is Valarry Bullard, and she is the Director of the New Jersey State Broadband Office. Welcome Valarry, and thanks for being with us.

Valarry Bullard: Thank you so much, Drew, for inviting me.

Drew: Well, we're so excited that you're willing to come and speak with us in the middle of the summer, right? I mean, we've had a number of other state broadband officers on these Ask Me Anything discussions at least every other Friday, sometimes more frequently. And we're really excited to talk with you about New Jersey, and some of the things people may not know about New Jersey and Broadband. Before we dig into it, I thought I would also just tee up the fact that we have some very exciting Ask Me Anythings happening here in the month of August. We'll be in a session with Offir Schwartz, the Founder and CEO of Capcon Networks on August 11th. And then four weeks from today, we will have an Ask Me Anything with BJ Tanksley, who's the Missouri Broadband Office Director.

Drew: And in the middle of all this, there's Mountain Connect, August 7th through 9th in person. Don't miss all of the exciting things, including ice cream tacos that you'll have a chance to partake of if you're out in Denver for Mountain Connect. I should say, I'm Drew Clark with Broadband Breakfast. So excited that you could join us, Valarry. And I wanted to just open it up to you. Tell us a little bit about your experience in Broadband. I know it's perhaps a more recent phase. I think you became director just in February of this year. Is that correct, Valarry? 

Valarry: That is correct. I would say that I definitely stumbled into the Broadband space and even though it was definitely not planned, it's something that's been really exciting. So just to kind of give you that background, I got involved with Broadband probably 2022. And this was really us working on the Capital Projects Fund. And so it was great to be able to support that application. And I think that once we started going through that, we realized that there was far more than just a grant that we're managing. This is before we even thought of like BEAD funding. And so once we got to that point, it was just kind of all hands on deck and it just became a topic that, I don't wanna say it's like the hot topic, but it was appropriate for the time. And so the more I started learning about it, I was just like, "Why aren't we talking about this sooner?" So very exciting.

Drew: So let's actually talk a little bit about that, Valarry, because the Capital Projects Fund was supported by the American Rescue Plan Act passed in 2021. And it's quite interesting to see how these pieces fit together because for the last two years of the Biden administration, there have been announcements from the Treasury Department and other agencies about funding for Broadband through the Capital Projects Fund and yet we've all been kind of very anxious, very eager to hear about the BEAD process. Announcements of awards were made just a month ago on June 26th, we'll talk about that just now. But let's talk a bit more about ARPA and the way those funds were used. So talk more about that and what you and New Jersey have done with Capital Projects Funds from ARPA.

Valarry: Absolutely. So what we're using our pot of funding for is it's gonna serve as like a pilot program for us. The more we started learning about BEAD in the infrastructure piece, this is a newer conversation. And rather than using that as our first go around, we noticed that with CPF, there's a bit more flexibility. There's a, while it's a smaller pot of funding, it allows us to take just a sample of the state and get some ideas as to what works in our most rural areas. And the more we looked into this, we learned that we had some counties that have already been doing asset mapping and their needs assessment. And so I think that once we really understood that a lot of states are taking the funding and putting it towards capital projects, Broadband specifically, we are able to kinda have that diversity with this.

Valarry: So it won't just be infrastructure, we're gonna make sure we weave into there the digital equity pieces of this as well, workforce development and kind of touching high level on some of those points and deliverables for the BEAD grant. That's definitely going to feed its way right and through. But like to think of that as more of our lessons learned. And we are probably one of the newer states that received our funding. So we are just getting that ramped up. I know a few states have already successfully executed programs, and so we're looking to catch up, but it's gonna be a great project.

Drew: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about your journey and how you got into the Broadband world. As we noted in the short profile of you, you've worked in other areas. You've worked in the Governor's... You worked as a Transparency Officer.

Valarry: Sure. Yes.

Drew: And a Broadband advisor in the Governor's Disaster Recovery Office. What is a Transparency Officer and talk a bit more about disaster recovery too? 

Valarry: Absolutely. So coming in as a Transparency Officer, this was really a Murphy's call. He wanted to make...

Drew: Governor Murphy? 

Valarry: Governor Murphy, yes. So New Jersey's Governor Murphy decided, which we completely thought, like, why didn't we think of this sooner, that it was important for us to have a transparency website. This was an opportunity for the COVID funding when it came to CARES Act and ARPA to display what these funds were being used for and what agencies had them, what their purposes are and where they are along that process fiscally. So I got the exciting piece to come in and work with our consultants at the time to design this site, making sure that it was interactive, making sure that it was up to date, which is always something interesting, chasing after people to make sure that they get their reporting done. But I think that it was probably a big move for us because once we started realizing that we have all this data out here and we wanted to make sure it was user friendly and easy to read, that really carry into what we're doing with Broadband and our messaging, so.

Drew: Okay. So that's transparency. What about disaster recovery? 

Valarry: So it's the Governor's Disaster Recovery Office, and I came in as the Transparency Officer.

Drew: Okay.

Valarry: I was typically only hired to be a Transparency Officer. And that's when we got into the CPF, which falls in line with COVID funding and insert Broadband. So the Board of Public Utilities, their OCT Director at the time, the Office of Cable Television, he was really working on making sure that we had the connections, we already worked with the service provider. So he was really leading that effort for us. And it was kind of a moment we all started learning about this conversation has been happening just in a different shape, and now we have an opportunity to have federal funding to truly dedicate to Broadband. And that's when everyone just got really excited. And so I remember getting a call saying, "Hey, we're doing this application and you have the technology background. Do you think you'd be interested in Broadband?" And it went from that space where I was just able to meet more state directors and learn more about what they were doing. And I was meeting them as a Transparency Officer.

Drew: Got it.

Valarry: So, funny enough, I went to one of the conferences that Pew Trust had in Denver. And I remember introducing myself as a Transparency Officer, and everyone had the same response. Like, "I'm sorry, what does that mean? How does that tie to Broadband?" So I called back home to our office and said, "Guys, this isn't resonating with people. How can I be more relatable?" And they, "Well, we're here for advice. So Broadband advisor, that sounds good." And we just kind of carried that on from there.

Drew: Yeah. Well, Broadband obviously, it's one of these disciplines that crosscuts so many other areas, right? I mean, I often consider it like it's the thing that makes other things work. A kind of a force multiplier in that respect. And certainly disaster recovery and environmental resilience, these are also areas that Broadband can have an impact on. Have you spent much time thinking about the role of Broadband in disaster recovery, environmental resilience? 

Valarry: Absolutely. Short answer, yes. I feel like for myself, it's come full circle. So starting with the state, it was using at the time the ARRA funds, so the American Recovery Reinvestment Act, we're talking 2012. And so that was my introduction to the state. I came on to reconcile actual grants for there. And so from that space, I started learning about these larger pots of funding. And so this was kind of like an ARPA 2.0 when we got the BEAD announcement, but as we closed out the ARPA funding, I started learning more about our energy conservation programs at community affairs. So they have the low income heating and emergency program or energy program rather and they have their weatherization program. So I got the opportunity to really manage and continue developing what was, at the time, their case management system and kind of moved into inspection. But it gave me the full blown knowledge of what a grant process looked like, as well as what it was... What it took to connect with the actual communities 'cause these were grant funds from Department of Energy.

Valarry: And what they did is it went out to different agencies throughout the state. And so with different regions, the state had the chance to get into the community and find where these community action agencies were and assist them with getting out there and getting people to get new windows and have just different energy measures installed in their home. But when you go through that process, you realize that there's a disconnect there as well. So you have an application that's online, and you'd have people that had to come in person because they couldn't get on it online. And so insert a paper application. So when we fast forward to the Broadband aspect of this, it was almost as if this was a program that was not just targeting the same audience, but addressing a need that, while it was something we knew about back then, we didn't necessarily have the resources to make as much of an impact as we do now.

Valarry: So when you start looking at energy conservation and you start looking at disaster recovery, we look at Sandy, we look at the times where like we just completely lost connection as a state. And so while we can focus on healthcare and education, there's also that public safety factor there that people don't consider, right? I get, like say an Amber Alert on my phone or a Silver Alert on my phone, but if someone doesn't have that connection, they won't have that option for notification. I get my weather advisories on my phone as well. And I think for us, it's something we just take for granted. But looking at some of these really vulnerable communities and realizing that there are essentials that they just do not have access to even before COVID.

Drew: Right, right. We'll come back to this, but we're getting some good questions in here. We wanna really encourage your questions via chat or back on the event page. This one came from Adam Bender of Communications Daily. He asks, "With the BEAD allocations... " Okay, so now we've talked about ARPA, we talked about disaster recovery. Let's talk about BEAD. And Adam's asking, "With the BEAD allocation that you receive, does New Jersey have enough money to fully connect New Jersey? Can it all be done with fiber or does the amount of money available mean that the state will need to use a mix of technologies?" And obviously New Jersey received $263,689,554 that was announced a month ago. Is that going to be enough, Valarry, to get everyone high capacity broadband in the state of New Jersey? 

Valarry: I think that when it comes to that piece of it, this is always going to grow. Like, we're always going to need the resources financially here. And so we mentioned like mixed technology and how we're building up infrastructure. People make the assumption that New Jersey is super connected and therefore we don't have the needs. But when we did the mapping challenge, we actually gained about 38,000 different broadband serviceable locations. And so that just goes to show that with us being able to look into our own state, what was considered the average based off FCC's mapping was not as accurate. I mean, we know that map is not gonna be 100% accurate. We know that we're always gonna catch spaces where it's not accounted for and that's going to be a challenge. But when you take infrastructure aside and look into like the digital equity piece of this as well, we're gonna make a significant dent with that funding. But we will definitely continue having these conversations with other state agencies and see how we can leverage the funds. And I think there's no shortage of funds in the state, it's just shortage of conversations at times for people.

Drew: Right. Let's just back up a second, okay? So the way the BEAD, so BEAD is of course part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed the end of 2021, ARPA passed early in 2021, and so the money came through sooner. And then BEAD established this really elaborate process where there's gotta be a map, the FCC's gonna do a map, it's gonna count it, then there's gonna be opportunities to challenge that map. And then the end of the day, there's gonna be a numerator, the number of unserved people by the crazy old FCC definition of 25 megabits per second down, three megabits per second up. Which by the way, FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel now says needs to be changed. So we've just done this map based on this 25/3 allocation. And anyway, so the numbers have been out and just a month ago, four weeks ago and change, you got your number, this 263 million, which is among the smaller numbers out there. And of course you referred to the challenges that have already taken place. So talk a little bit about that. So how did you all challenge locations as, were you saying these don't have service? Just talk through a little bit of that process and then how that leads into what comes next.

Valarry: Absolutely. So first, this was a completely new process. We've spoken with other states who are more familiar with how they were doing their needs assessment in their areas. And we were fortunate enough to have our consultant who had started this work well in advance. And once that began, we did a blend. So we realized that while we can't hit every state, every area of the state and walk someone through how to go on the BDC and challenge their own addresses, we wanted people to be aware that they at least had that capability and be, make ourselves available. So we had our consultants, we connected with our counties, who in some of their cases you have an app, the whole federal registration number. We were able to help them get through that process once we got through it. So being that level of support through the process, I think it brought this level of transparency by default, it brought this level of transparency because people now understood New Jersey is working to make sure that as much of the state as possible could get covered. And the way we have to do that is making sure that we identify where our needs are.

Valarry: So a lot of people got super engaged with that process and getting over 38,000 locations and we also gained about 27,000 unserved locations, that was a huge deal for us. So while yes, our number is not the largest, being that we're such a connected state, our portfolio's a little different. People think of connection and their focus on infrastructure in those rural areas, which we have, we definitely do, but we are in a space where we also know that the affordability and accessibility is going to play a larger role in our state that it may not play in others, right? So focusing on the unserved areas. And then we get to our underserved and once we get into that space of digital equity, we'll see the changes there. But it's also the education piece. And I'm so excited that they're actually, we're acknowledging that this needs to change and that hopefully that we can get a chance to align with CPF. Because for them it's obviously there's the sliding scale, the 100/20. And so being that we're using CPF as our pilot program, that's also what we're keeping in mind when it comes to being the... We want to try to get the best connections as possible, but understanding that we are very aware that 25/3 just doesn't suffice.

Drew: You've raised this fascinating question about kind of the overlapping federal programs and Capital Projects Fund to its credit doesn't have this sort of 25/3 crazy standard. And in fairness, the BEAD Program does say not just the unserved of 25/3, but the underserved of 100 down by 20 up need to be considered after the unserved or are considered. So now Capital Projects Fund dollars. And by the way, how much did New Jersey receive in broadband funds through the Capital Project Funds? Do you have that number? 

Valarry: Yeah, we received 50 million.

Drew: So almost a quarter of what you are receiving from BEAD, and what's the status of those funds? What have they gone for? How much have kind of been distributed yet, Valarry? 

Valarry: We are still setting up what that program looks like. So we've done our analysis when it comes to our different counties and on the backend, we're still working with them to see not just what they have happening currently, but what they have in the works. So I can tell you like Salem, Cumberland for example, those two counties are phenomenal when it comes to the concept of even regionalization. Because they came together when they did their analysis and they've got the $24 million in the Middle Mile grant. And so being able to have those conversations with them and understanding that they are in a sense a pilot when it comes to how we've been able to plan out for these funds. And so we always wanna set the expectations. 2023 for us New Jersey is a year of planning. While there won't be a shovel into the ground, we wanna make sure that we're having this open dialogue so that people understand what is in the works. And also they feel as though they have a voice because now they know who we are. We are the new kids on the block.

Drew: We have a great question from Johannes Zweig, if I've got that right, forgive me if I don't. "What processes have you in New Jersey set up or are setting up to help you allocate the BEAD funding optimally?"

Valarry: Where do we begin? Outreach. Outreach has been a huge thing for us right now, because we're not just connecting with communities, we're connecting with different organizations to understand what they're currently doing. And our sister agencies as well. And so in terms of our process at this point, it's really looking at what processes in different industries throughout our state have worked. And being able to make sure that we've identified those, see what the lessons learned were, and how that's gonna look in New Jersey. Deployment of broadband, it's not a one size fits all. So we're not gonna have this one model that's going to fit the entire state.

Valarry: We have our Northern area where even there, we have the most rural places, but then we have some very densely populated places. And so understanding what those different aspects are, and what programs they have that are successful is really the process that we're in right now. So it's kind of that battle. I think that NTIA has left this fluid enough for us, that while we know what the deliverables are, they're giving us that right of way to say, you have the flexibility 'cause who's going to know your state like you? And so that's been a huge help for us, is that we have that flexibility to figure out how many processes are gonna work.

Drew: Well, it is a very interestingly designed program. It's both a mix of the states have that flexibility with this guidance and program, the NTIA has set up model processes, like a model challenge process. And let's actually come back to that too, because you talked about how you were able to get 38,000 addresses I think added in to the broadband serviceable location map. So now that we got those in, that went into this number that you've received, what's the challenge process look like in the state? Do you have any thoughts about that? Where are you in terms of rolling out your process of coordinating the challenge efforts? 

Valarry: We're actually working with our FPO right now to have that discussion. One of the things that we understand is that as the FCC rolled out the whole process, while it wasn't perfect, it was the best that they could do at the time. But we also know what some of the strains were on our resources, we know the effort that went into that process and some of the smallest things as making sure our files were formatted and accepted correctly on the portal. Those little details are what we are making note of. So once we get to that point, we're definitely in a space where we know that with the process that FCC has, what NTIA is recommending for us, we can see how much of that we would need to tailor on our end. And so, and it's also kinda given us a chance to see what other states have in mind.

Valarry: Because as a newer state, oftentimes we're looking at our neighboring states to understand how they're rolling things out and what are some of those challenges that they're running into. One of the things that we've reached out to probably most recently was South Carolina. Jim and his team have been working when it comes to gathering the data and just processing different folders for the data that was released for the second version of the map. And so, being a newer state, we know what we were able to accomplish to challenge the map, but in terms of the process moving forward, we think we know what's best, of course, but knowing okay, some of these other states have really been champions in those spaces, it's just a matter of learning what else they have going on.

Drew: Right. We have a question here from Mike Valoon. He says, "According to BroadbandNow, New Jersey is the second most connected state in the country. Given that ranking, do you think that the 264 million you're receiving in BEAD will be able to connect all the... " And I'm gonna add in underserved in New Jersey. Will the funds get to everyone who's not getting 100 by 20 megabit per second broadband right now? 

Valarry: We wanna say yes. But that's going to change. We're gonna continue evolving. So there's going to be locations that are popping up. We've got construction everywhere here that may not pop up on the FCC's map. Fast forward five years, we can get through this funding and realize that you have a huge piece when it comes to the affordability part of this. So while 264 is a pretty healthy number for us, the efforts aren't gonna stop when that money's up, which is kind of what has been really driving our needs assessment. So it's shifting the mindset, not in terms of where's this money going and how we're going to function with it, because I think oftentimes people think, what are you going to accomplish with $264,000,000? 

Valarry: Taking it into a different approach and saying, okay, let's find out what is our need in New Jersey? Money aside, BEAD, different acronyms aside, what is the need? What does that need cost? And then what dent will $264,000,000 make in that? So changing that approach, I think, for us has been... While it hasn't committed us to say we need $265,000,000, it gives us the confidence to know that we've identified what our need is, and working with our other agencies and just other funding sources, we have something to stand on. We don't wanna stay on the hill and say we need $500 million without being able to quantify that. But knowing that we can show what that need looks like in New Jersey and what $264,000,000 will do, that's a conversation that will show that there will always be a need for more, but at least we can justify it.

Drew: We've got a number of questions here about kind of engagement with the community, and I know you had some great points about that when we had a chance to chat earlier in the week. This question is from Scott Woods. He asks, "Director Bullard, what does community engagement look like in practice in New Jersey?" Let's talk about that. What is community engagement when you're focusing on broadband or Internet connectivity? 

Valarry: Meeting people where they're at. We have some beautiful college campuses who will let us use their most amazing conference rooms to host events, and we can invite people for days there, and you're bringing them to hear about broadband and people can still walk away and be confused. But being able to go into those communities and not just talk about broadband, but be in a space of comfort for them, making it relatable for them, is key. And I think that the first thing we learned when it came to community engagement was that we really needed to be intentional with our messaging. Broadband, we use that word in this space amongst people in our industry but when you get in the community, it's just a challenge in itself to have to explain what these grant funds are, what they're for, unserved, underserved.

Valarry: But you can't even do that until you explain what broadband is to people. I've seen people in the different fields, in tech, throughout the agencies who in their head is, we understand connection, but they don't even get it. So it's one of those terms that while we understand technically what it covers, you have to be careful with your messaging. And the White House did a great job with that, honestly, we really saw the change there because, again, we talk about broadband, but when you look at Biden's advertisement, it's Internet for all. So it's pretty straightforward in that regard.

Drew: It's a great point, and we perhaps don't think about it too much because we are in that sort of broadband bubble but what do you think that word change does to kind of open up people's minds? And how does this relate to kind of community engagement? What are you trying to do in going out to these communities, Valarry? 

Valarry: The focus really is on building that trust. Coming in as a state and throwing around millions of dollars and different numbers can be confusing. So when you start hearing terms that are relatable, it kind of helps you break down that barrier of trust, working with the different leaders. So last week, for example, we did a listening tour throughout New Jersey, and one of our last stops was at a school in Atlantic City, and the teachers were there, and there was one parent there. So we had service providers, we had teachers, we had one parent there. And she explained that it was a challenge when it came to understanding just the basic options for her child, like uniforms. But she points to the principal and one of the teachers, and explained, "Well, they gave us access to this information, and this was a great resource," and immediately I just thought of like, if we brought those resources to you, how receptive would you be? But you went to a trusted resource, and since this person you trust was able to give you this messaging, it was something that really resonated with you.

Valarry: So being able to come into your communities and say, "Okay, well, this is what you have going on in the healthcare space. This is what we know to be true, but help us learn what else is there and what has gained your trust." We had another event at a senior home, and at that event, the topic was really telehealth. And so as we started speaking about the Affordable Connectivity Program, we had a gentleman, a young man, stand up and say, "I've called in and they told me once I gave them my age that I wasn't qualified." "Sir, how old are you, if you don't mind us asking?" And he said, "Well, I'm 103." I said, "Okay, well, unfortunately, you have to be over 18, so this isn't gonna work." But it was being able to be in that space and understand what that frustration was for him, and rather than taking him out of his comfort zone, being within his comfort zone and finding that solution.

Drew: Yeah. Another variation or addition to this is, this is from Craig Corbin. "As you and your team touch base with communities statewide, have there been any interactions with New Jersey citizens that have made a lasting impression on you?"

Valarry: Absolutely. I would say the senior community, while we have spoken to the parents, we've spoken to low income households, the senior community seems to be considered the most forgotten when you speak to them. So we worked with a young lady who works for Leading Age and understanding that there are so many topics that we overlook and don't realize that seniors are impacted by. And so when we talk about telehealth, that's pretty straightforward. When you start talking about education, you think of education, you think of children. Or you think of maybe some adults, adult education, but there's a learning curve when it comes to seniors. We've met seniors who are the primary caretaker of students.

Valarry: And so the report cards are online, the teacher conferences online, but no one's there to teach them how to use this information. Even when it comes to the workforce, we talk about applications and I had this one woman reach out and she said, "Look, I'm retired, but I wanna do something." And so when we get into these different spaces, we immediately think of a low income. We immediately think of when English is a secondary language or different disabilities, but we don't look at the senior community as its own area that needs its own set of needs and love. So I'd say of all of the populations we've dealt with so far, it's the senior community that's really touched home for us.

Drew: Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. We're getting more and more questions. This is awesome. And we're really getting a good room here, a good group of people here. Here's a question that came in months ago. This is from James Renard, and I'd love your thoughts on this. "Do you favor an approach where the broadband offices selects specific areas for proposal submissions, or one where applicants self-select those areas they believe are unserved noting that both will need to have some challenge process?" So what is your thoughts on James's question there? 

Valarry: I wouldn't say that the broadband office would select these specific areas. That's where we emphasize the importance of planning, because we get to open up that conversation with different potential applicants. With that in mind though, we wouldn't want to have 5,000 applicants and they all apply for one area. We wanna make sure that this is a just model and it has that interaction to explain that there needs to be that level of diversity. So working in these different silos is we wanna eliminate that in any industry. We wanna show that flexibility, we wanna show that collaboration. And so the hope is that we would be able to have a model that's more standardized and something that expands beyond a city block or a specific municipality.

Valarry: And so when I've gone to other conferences and off topic, but on topic, we've spoken about the difference in outreach based off of what the communities look like. How do I get in touch with the most rural areas? And some of our states, while they're predominantly rural, they do have some metropolitan areas. However, for them, they may not be as significant as Jersey. And so I've heard directors really wanna understand, "Okay, how do we connect with that community?" In New Jersey because we have such a variation, we wanna make sure that people are understanding not just what's happening for them, but what's happening on the opposite side of the fence? So if we can get that conversation going and have a Salem Cumberland or an Essex, Middlesex, you get these actual counties coming together with just cause. We're not just throwing them together because it sounds good...

Drew: And for those of us who don't live in New Jersey, what are the difference between those two? 

Valarry: So we have 21 counties. And Salem, Cumberland are some of our rural areas, but you get to Essex County, which is a little further North, you get to Hudson County further North, you don't have as much rural space, if any. And so we could sit here and really work in that specific population because this is all we know but we don't want that approach to be so. We wanna make sure that there is that understanding of how we are as a state, because we need to know it on our end and people should be aware that there's so much more than just their one area. So I think that'll be a huge change for us, is making sure that while people wanna go for their own specific areas, that we wanna make sure that they consider everywhere in New Jersey.

Drew: Well, and I think there's a perception and I like to call it a misperception that BEAD is really only for rural areas, right? 

Valarry: Yes.

Drew: And so let's talk a little bit about that, about why communities where there's denser populations because of lack of access, or lack of affordable access, or lack of the accessibility and the knowledge to use it. Just talk a little bit about that and how that relates to what the BEAD program is all about.

Valarry: I completely agree with you when it comes to that assessment because I've seen it as well. People think it's just infrastructure related. They think that we're just going to be getting houses to connected and nothing else can happen with that funding. And so New Jersey doesn't need it because that's what people think is to be so. But understanding that you have your equity, you have your access piece of this, and I could give you all the lines in the world, but if you don't have the education or the tools to use that, what good does it do you? And BEAD encompasses that. And so we have our digital equity grants. And this year, all of our planning grants are due.

Valarry: We have our BEAD five year action plan that's due at the end of August and we have our digital equity plan that's due the end of October. Now, the BEAD, while it's a larger pot of funding, there has to be digital equity graded into our BEAD applications. And so part of this is truly the education piece of this is what's allowable. Now, how that pie is split up by state, it's gonna be different. But it's not just infrastructure when it comes to this. And so, again, when it comes to messaging, when we're in these spaces, we speak of these grants and what their purposes are. But when we say internet for all, what does that look like? 

Drew: Right. And I think it's probably important to highlight that even though we've gone through this elaborate methodology of the unserved as defined by that 25/3 standard, you've got your allocation, your, $264, I believe, million. You don't... You're not bound to only give to funds in those unserved locations, right? I mean, talk a little bit more about the planning process that you're in the midst of right now, as well as the digital equity plan process that you're in the midst of. How will those relate to locations besides the particular ones that the FCC's map found as unserved? 

Valarry: FCC mapping part of it is definitely more of a challenge because we know that if it's not on their map, we cannot serve that area. But with the priority being unserved, we know that it'll go towards that tier. And so using this BEAD funding and analyzing what areas in our cities have absolutely no connection, what resources we have to support those and what role digital equity play to complement that is really what our process is right now, is again, getting a holistic view of what our needs are and how we'll be able to implement the BEADS deliverables in those respective areas. So even if the infrastructure's built out in one area, doesn't mean that that's just no other need that's there. We still know that there's going to be a constant need to some degree, but we won't know how we're going to best implement spending these funds without having that full knowledge of what those needs are.

Drew: I mean, perhaps I previewed Kimberly Stadler's question here, but let me ask her question in the way she did, which is, "How will the funding be allocated to underserved and low income households?" Talk just a bit about the underserved numbers.

Valarry: Well, we hope that by the end of our 2023 planning, with input from everyone on this call and then some, we can determine what works in those areas. We understand that they need to be served, we know what the standard terms and technologies are, but what that looks like in terms of servicing those areas, we're still building on that knowledge. We're still understanding what that truly looks like. So that's an area where we're always looking for that feedback. And I think that we've made so many opportunities for people to share what information they do have beyond just expressing their thoughts, but really become a part of this conversation, make it constructive. That's how we're gonna help shape that.

Drew: Yeah. John Sarkis asks another important question. "How has New Jersey been ensuring that community anchor institutions are represented correctly on Broadband maps and are involved in the challenge process?"

Valarry: I feel the majority of our outreach has really been centered around community anchor institutions. When it comes to our libraries, when it comes to our senior centers, we're going into these communities, into these areas that we know have been a place of refuge for this population. And so on top of what we do know, on our state website we actually have our asset mapping tool. So this is a space where we were really pushing out this link and we're gonna do a shameless plug for that.

Drew: Please do, please do.

Valarry: For people to come on here and give us not just what their contacts are, what regions they actually serve, and what communities they serve. So if you are a child that's looking for a STEM program and you're in a low income household and you are in Southern New Jersey, the hopes is that we have programs that have been identified that are listed there. And it is a multiplier because we have seen so many times where we've connected with one organization and that organization has led us to three and four different organizations, and that just continues to branch out, which is ultimately the goal. 'Cause we know that we know more than one person and so if I know more than one person, you know more than one person, we're gonna continue building out that need for the actual directory, if you will, of the resources to address those needs.

Drew: Let's come back to a point that was underscored in this profile of you. New Jersey's primary objective is to enhance economic development through improving accessibility, education, telehealth, and workforce development. Could you just talk a little bit about those goals, accessibility, education, telehealth, and workforce development? How is New Jersey doing right now and what do you hope that the work you're doing in the state Broadband Office will contribute to improvement in those areas? 

Valarry: Absolutely. One of the things we're realizing and we come back to is that we aren't in a position where we're going to say that we know everything, right? 'Cause if we knew all of our needs off the bat and we had the resources, we all wouldn't have these conversations. So that being said, we're learning about different programs that exist. We're learning about different programs that are of interest for people. So when you talk about accessibility, for us New Jersey it's not just being accessible to devices, right? You wanna make sure that we have the accessibility to healthcare, and that can be by way of a digital navigator. So all of these compliment each other when we talk about accessibility. And you look at economic development. Well, during COVID, where we did, we take some hits, we took hits in workforce development, we took hits when it came to the education part of this.

Valarry: And all of that feeds into ultimately how New Jersey's going to advance as a whole. And so even before BEAD, before digital equity, we've really focused on the different working groups and understanding the different programs that our states currently offer, our state agencies offer now, and seeing how we can continue to build on those. So as it relates to how we're focusing on that as a state office, we are still gathering and learning how many initiatives have been fulfilled and how many programs that are out there right now so we can figure out how we can all work together. So there's no complete solution right now that we've completely gotten a full understanding of what accessibility or lack thereof looks like in every pocket of New Jersey and what that accessibility impacts the most. But gaining that information for us is really gonna be a driving force for when we can get out there with some funding and resources.

Drew: One thing we chatted about earlier in this broadcast was the role of other state broadband entities and the NTIA has a state broadband leaders network of each of the state broadband officers in the 50 states, five territories, District of Columbia. What would you say are things that you've already learned from other colleagues there and what do you most want to still learn from others as you continue this nearly six month journey so far as the head of the New Jersey State Broadband office? 

Valarry: Been six months, now we're a pro. No, I think the first thing I learned with connecting with the state broadband leaders is that this is not just a single goal to just have digital equity accomplished throughout our state. This is a journey and over time, that's going to evolve in different ways that we're not familiar with. So at one point it was being able to get a phone line, fast forward, now it's internet. So with technology that's always gonna build out with our economy that's always gonna grow, you have to have that agility to understand how you're going to service the next need and the next need. And so when I look at states like Louisiana, who huge part of it is also disaster recovery for them, you do have to understand how to pivot. When I look at different states like Virginia, one of the first things that I spoke with their director and she mentioned that they're working with community block grants, and it's just one of those things, it's a light bulb.

Valarry: And it's not to say New Jersey doesn't have community block grants, but it was one factor that we hadn't considered at that time. So I think that we've been playing the new kid on the card block for quite some time. I don't know how long, or how much longer I have that. [laughter] But it gives me the opportunity to come into the room and just fearlessly say, "Hey, we don't know about this area," or, "This is what we know, and we are sure there's more to it." And there's not that competitive nature. I think that's the exciting part of this is oftentimes you look at programs and it's like, who's gonna be the best and who's gonna have the different resources? And everyone has just been beyond supportive. I know Christine, meeting with her and her knowing that Jersey did not have a broadband office, and here's this transparency officer who didn't even have a title, she looked at me and first thing she said, she's like, "I don't envy you at all."

Valarry: Because she knew that there was just so much to it but equally it was her sharing what has worked in Vermont and her background is beyond diverse in this field, so when it comes to the leaders, I would say that they're really the reason why we've learned so much when it comes to this but in terms of what I want to, I'd say, I'd wanna just continue learning about their successes, right? So when we talk about different programs that develop or different programs that we're considering, right? We talk about ACP, well, how do we leverage funding to expand on that area? How many states are currently looking at different subsidies, working with other grant funds? Learning what is working for them, it's been what's started off this process and that's gonna continue.

Drew: Right. Let's talk a little about you and your background. You're born and raised in New Jersey, as I understand, Valarry, and you've worked for the state for more than 10 years, almost 11 years. Everything from New Jersey, weatherization assistance, low income energy conservation, to the things we spoke about, transparency officer, community affairs. What's it like to be a New Jersey girl? Okay? And secondly, what are... What is it like to work in the state, the bureaucracy, right? How do you navigate all of the issues associated with doing something that's new and innovative, but also has to be accountable, has to be part of the state process? 

Valarry: I feel like I got off really easy in the last 10 years. And what I mean by that is starting with weatherization, no one's going to argue that my grandma who has a heating tank that doesn't work doesn't deserve a heating tank and she doesn't deserve financial assistance, right? So weatherization wasn't a controversial topic, providing income subsidies for people who couldn't afford their energy bills. You can't afford your energy bill, let's find assistance. And then we have the education part of it as well, it wasn't too controversial. And that's kind of led into a lot of the spaces I've been in, including broadband, where I feel like at this point, it's come full circle for me learning about the different programs throughout the state, different federal grants that we've received, how we've leveraged those funds in New Jersey and how many opportunities there are.

Valarry: I feel like, again, I've not only been in a position where I've been very fortunate to have these opportunities, but I feel it's almost like being spoiled because being able to hop around, it's got me in a space where I'm seeing different connections based off of my experiences, and I get to connect with others who work in respective fields. So I would never have thought of community affairs as the first thing when we talk about broadband, right? But then you start looking at, well, there's an affordability component to this, there's an education component to this, and this is an agency that has that information. You think of workforce development and first thing we think of is the roads and the pavements and EDA comes in and there are people who are becoming entrepreneurs. There are people who want to expand their business from brick and mortar to have an e-presence and there are programs out there that's for that.

Valarry: So I've come from a space where I've learned so much about public assistant programs and I've seen how people have flourished. That change in the narrative in New Jersey and going from a space of like, we're not just in a space where we're surviving and we're just giving these grants out, we wanna make sure that people are thriving, right? And it sounds like super cheesy to say that and I think that it's one of those moments of I've always been able to be in a position where I learned so much from others, and it's always meant to serve and help someone else. So that's really been the commonality.

Drew: Absolutely. There's a book by Jim and Deborah Fallows called Our Towns. And it's about the role of libraries, right? Or one part of it is about the role. And it is emotional. It's emotional because when you're in an institution that can make a difference in people's lives and you see the results of that, it can be a great reward, right? And I wanna get into... We got a few more minutes. A couple more questions have come in. And this is a great one from Sean Manchard. Thank you Sean for asking this. He asks, "What can members of this forum here in the Broadband Community do to make you and the state of New Jersey successful?"

Valarry: Oh, I love that question. [chuckle] I love that question 'cause when we do have meetings with the public, it's always ends with the call to action. So with transparency comes accountability. You're in a space now we spent about 50 plus minutes learning about, this is where New Jersey is right now, this is what the opportunities are and this is where we're looking to grow. Everyone on this call has a different experience. And it may not be Jersey related, but it might be in their respective industries. Bring that. Say that five times fast. [laughter] That's the email address. It's one of those, don't shy away from that feedback and don't think about offending, right? So I give you a prime example.

Valarry: We have our asset mapping tool and we sent it out to different agencies. "If you know someone, share this information." And immediately everyone's like, "This is really confusing." They're looking at it and we're thinking we're just doing a copy simple paste, and we're not an echo chamber, right? So we know we want this information, so we're gonna ask you this question in this way. And working with other people outside who are just like, "We have no clue what this is." We got the feedback of, "Okay, you need to change the wording there 'cause that doesn't really resonate." And so it continues that whole idea of having that communication and being intentional with our words. So to circle back, I'd say get in contact with us.

Drew: Yeah.

Valarry: We love hearing from different... Not even just different organizations, different states and seeing what those successes are. And sometimes it's just bouncing ideas because we don't know it all. So yes, I would say the call to action here is, well, shamelessly plug my contact information for our office. And if there's 50 people on here, there should be 50 emails, right? 

Drew: Yeah.

Valarry: And those 50 emails should include another contact that you know that's for a different industry that may be for a different part of the state. We all... I don't put it past anyone. We all know somebody. And oftentimes we may know a specific population or an area where people may not feel like they can articulate what those needs are or articulate what it is they can offer. And so it can be discouraging, but knowing that and seeing people, we do have those neighborhood champions who can come in and speak to that. And so you're here, you're hearing what New Jersey has going on, and you're here because you wanna not just learn about it, but you clearly want to invest as well. So let's connect.

Drew: So, let's, maybe final topic here before we get to our last question. What is the process for challenging? Shannan Williams-Mitchem asks, "What are your thoughts about the state challenge process, NTIA's recent guidance on the initial proposals, and how do you feel about your office's approach to facilitating the challenge process given your success at challenging these 38,000 addresses?" So talk a little bit about what's next on the challenge process.

Valarry: I think in that process we're kind of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And it comes from a space of, it just matters so much for us for people to have a voice. Oftentimes it's kind of, it came off a little scary when we first learned about that. It's kind of the hands coming back. So as a state, you had an opportunity to speak up and say what it is that needs to be said and what the spaces were. And now you're bringing that down to a local level where someone can have the same conversation with you as a state. And so, in many cases you're hoping that you caught all of that in the first round of mapping challenges so that you don't have as much in your neighborhoods. But if we were able to find that as a State, and we're a very small group. I've got maybe a dozen of us, half of them I've adopted to really put this together, 9 million people are going to really know which too.

Valarry: And so with that plan, looks like right now we are fully aware of NTIA's plan and I can't say that we've poked any holes in it just yet. But again, it's one of those areas where we're the new kids on the block, we wanna see what other states are doing as we're going through this process. And we also look at the other engagement that we've had for different topics, like Broadband aside, when we're looking for comments to come back, GIS, handles very large files, like ome of the technical pieces of this, some of the social pieces. And so it's looking at that plan, looking at how that has worked throughout our State in different industries and hoping people reach out. As much as you don't want a million addresses 'cause you're hoping you caught them, to let a million people know that they have the opportunity to still have a voice, why not? 

Drew: Right.

Valarry: And while FCC is not going to move forward if it's not on their map, there's nothing like seeing your state map and going, "Okay, I had a voice, I was heard. I was seen, I was heard." And so that's...

Drew: Alright. Our last question is a three parter but they all fit together. What's the best part of your job? What's the worst part of your job? And if we come back and do another one of these in one year, what will have made it a great year for you, Valarry? 

Valarry: It's a good closing note. Best part of my job is the learning process. Being able to say you don't know something is very scary for many people. And I think that that puts a stop on many areas of progress. So knowing that I'm in a space where if I truly don't know something, I have that space to say, "I don't know this, but I know someone does. Let's find out." That's probably been the best part of this. I think that people have been so supportive because of that. You're not walking in like, "Okay, I've been with the state for 10 years, so I know this." It's, "This is the information I have and this is how I've been able to leverage it." And that's statewide. Even as we hire for the state, I don't expect someone to come in as a grant manager to know the ins and outs and intricacies of Broadband, right? But if you understand grant management, whether you manage grants to sell shoes, whether you manage grants to build houses, you get the infrastructure of that, how do we learn that topic? 

Valarry: Now, what has not been the most exciting part about this are the reports. [chuckle] I can tell you right now, we had our listening tour all of last week. And so that took us out of the field and now coming back and you have the emails of, "Okay, well, where is your semi-annual report that's due in two hours?" Or, "What does that 425 look like right now for you?" That part hasn't been the most fun. But if you come back in a year, my hope is that we could speak to, okay, these were the challenges we had and because I didn't know how to handle a 425, we have this support for that. And being able to show just the overall growth of our program, I think that's the hugest part. We wanna be able to show that we've grown as a state, that there's a better understanding of what needs are, and we have a better understanding of how the Internet access can help with that.

Drew: And next year in New Jersey, what are we gonna talk about then? 

Valarry: Oh, next year we are gonna talk about... You put my feet to the fire and this is being recorded. We're gonna talk about smart cities. I think that that's probably the one that is most intriguing. And so I'm excited to say, I don't know as much as I want to and I'm excited to also say someone on this call does and we're gonna connect so that next year we can have a whole conversation about smart cities.

Drew: Well, that will have to be our last word. On behalf of everyone in the Broadband Community, we're so grateful for Valarry Bullard spending this hour with us. Two weeks from today, we're gonna hear from Offir Schwartz, Founder and CEO of Capcon Networks. And four weeks from today we're gonna hear from BJ Tanksley, the Director of Broadband Development in Missouri. Thanks everyone. We'll see you later. Take care.

Valarry: Thank you, Drew.