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Beer and Broadband | Closing the digital divide through partnerships

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Jun 17, 2022

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Event Transcript

Nick Dinsmoor: Alrighty, good morning everybody, live from Mountain Connect in Keystone, Colorado. We are here with Beer and Broadband, we've got an amazing panel today, lots of smart people, much smarter than me, we're gonna have a really good conversation. So, as everybody knows that's listened to us before, this is about education, inspiration and of course, entertainment. So, we don't take ourselves too seriously. It is the morning, so we will not have the beer, which is very unique for us, but we figure it is early, so we're gonna stick to the coffee and broadband, I think right now. Alright, so let's kick it off and we'll do some introductions before we start this. I will start with the lady to my left. Do you want to introduce yourself?

Megan Beresford: Yes, my name is Megan Beresford. I am the Director of Broadband Programs with a company called Learn Design Apply. We are a grant consulting company and it's a very exciting time right now in the grants world. 

Nick: You don't ever hear those words, grant and exciting at the same time though really, you know?

Megan: Not often, no.

Scott Woods: It's the billions that come with it.

Nick: That's exciting.

Megan: Once there's a B, then we're excited.

Scott: Once there's a B, we're excited, exactly.

Nick: Alright, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, so I'm Scott Woods. I am right now currently the Director of the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at NTIA, but we just announced this morning, I'm leaving NTIA and will be the new Vice President for Community Engagement and Strategic Partnerships with Ready.net, so it's my pleasure to be here this morning...

Nick: Well, cheers. Yeah, congratulations to the new opportunity. That's awesome.

Scott: Thank you.

Justin Roller: And I'm Justin Roller, Executive Vice President for Strategy and Tech at Bonfire and I work on the grants program. So I'm very excited to be with you guys this morning.

Nick: Alright, well like I said, a bunch of smart people here today. Let's start it off with... I guess I'll do the easy question, you guys are all here at Mountain Connect, what are you looking most forward to?

Megan: I'll go first.

Nick: Go.

Megan: I would say beyond meeting all the people...

Nick: In person versus over Zoom right? Look I can...

Megan: In person. In person, face-to-face, I know, right?  Would be getting more info on BEAD, obviously from our grants perspective, that's kind of pressing issue. What do we need to know? What's new? What can we take away to make sure we can have the most compelling applications and make sure that we are doing the work correctly. Yeah.

Nick: Yeah, that's good.

Scott: I think from my perspective outside the snow, it's getting the snows, totally unexpected.

Megan: There's like a foot of snow.

Scott: Totally unexpected to be 40 degrees and snowing. It's really to get the pulse of the community. And that community is the... It contains the service providers, state broadband leaders, state and local government leaders. This is an unprecedented time of historic broadband funding. This is the first event post the announcement of the NOFOs that NTIA released and so, it's an opportunity to really gauge where people are. How excited... I know there's a lot of excitement, but the amount of work that has...

Nick: You said billions, that's where the excitement came from. [chuckle]

Scott: But the amount of work that has to be done, and the amount of coordination that we have to do. And it's really between the service providers, the communities, the state and local government leaders, the community leaders, the faith community, everyone has to come together if we're gonna make this work and address the issues and challenges that we have. I just didn't expect to have to do it with snow shoes.  But Mountain Connect, I guess, I should have probably planned for it...

Nick: It's in the name, right?

Scott: It's in the name, it's in the name.

Nick: Awesome. Justin, what about you?

Justin: No, I think that's right, I think it's an opportunity to see the community and how everybody's reacting to this because it will... I think you said it really well, it's gonna take that... It's gonna take a community. Obviously look at BEAD, that's gonna come to the states and then states are gonna figure out how to deploy with the communities and the counties, and so how is that all gonna trickle down and finally get implemented across the different states and hopefully serving the whole country. So, I think it's great to see what people are thinking and what are those conversations, what are those key issues? It's a cool opportunity. And to do it in person, I think, yeah, for sure.

Nick: So, let's... To that point, what are people underestimating about all this? You said we've gotta bring together the communities, the providers, the technology, what do you think people are really underestimating now that... It is the money is unprecedented, it truly is. So, are people like, "Hey, now it's here." Are we stuck? Are we paralyzed? What are they not thinking about to be able to move things forward?

Scott: I can... That's a great question. I think it's, how do you do it? How do you start? Where do we begin? I think that's the mounting issue. In the past, it's always been about funding. You never had enough money. Now really, depending on who you talk to, there's enough money. There's some perspective that it's not enough...

Nick: Do some people think there's not enough? Really?

Megan: Yeah.

Scott: They do. Some people think it's not enough to connect every single home and business to high speed broadband, but this is historic. I think we have to at least acknowledge that. And I think the more that we collaborate and collectively come together, we can... There's more that we can achieve. And I think for the first time from my perspective, now we have both the service provider community, we have state and local government, we have really much all of the stakeholders on board and ready to engage, and so I'm excited about being able to move forward.

Megan: I would kind of echo a little bit what you said at the beginning, I think figuring out these channels of communication, there's a big emphasis for this on public-private partnership and all people need to be involved to get the work done, but from things I've been hearing, it's initial of, "Who do I talk to? What can my role be? What can I do?" So I think kind of next step is explaining and opening those channels of communication and getting everyone involved. I think we're excited, it's now just bringing them together to the table.

Justin: I think the bringing together is gonna be another part of the challenge though, because you've got a lot of opinions and a lot of different ways that people would like to see this done, a lot of... Just defining what served means, what underserved is, what unserved is. And how are you gonna apply standards fairly across all communities is... Those things just, they sound easy on the surface, but just those simple definitions are gonna be challenging to get to something that the majority think is fair.

Nick: So how do you move forward? How do people move forward? And at the end of the day, we're trying to give insight to people like, "Hey, let's take this step." What are some tips that we can provide to them? Just say, "Hey, I'm a community leader. I could be a faith leader. I could be a technology leader." What's the advice that we should say to tactically or strategically move the ball forward? Because I think you're right. I think... But people get stuck 'cause these are complicated questions that they're nuanced, how do we move them forward?

Scott: So this has been my area of specialty.

Nick: I know, right? So...

Megan: I immediately deferred.

Nick: I know, right?

Scott: No, Immediately...

Nick: The manner you know. 

Scott: At least with the BEAD and digital equity. And then there's also state money and private equity money that's out there. We've got to get involved, and what does that mean? I mean, we've gotta be at the table. So with... Like we are now, very nice table. But we have to... Community leaders, we have to engage, particularly with the Digital Equity Act and the BEAD money, you have to engage with the state broadband office that exists right now. We have to be at the table when these pre-planning and planning discussions are happening. To his point, talking about where are unserved and underserved areas? And what does it actually mean for us to develop a plan of action to address their needs? And it's not just the physical infrastructure, that's... To me, that's easy, that's easier than the digital inclusion component, because that's the human capital component about what communities need and obviously what our children need to be successful as we move forward. So I think at a baseline matter, let's get involved and then figure out from there, I think the framework that NTIA has outlined and the NOFOs give you a roadmap that I can plug my new company just a little bit.

Nick: Sure, go ahead, go ahead.

Scott: I think there's an opportunity for people to engage on the digital community and broadband money as well as the tool that we just released this morning that will help ask the question... Answer the question, excuse me, of where do we get started? And I think as a baseline, understanding the data in your community, where are the unserved and underserved communities actually? Where are your community anchor institutions that lack gigabit connectivity? The only way you're gonna do that is to have conversations around that proverbial table with the stakeholders who can provide answers to those questions.

Megan: Yeah, I would add to that, that and this is something I actually saw in the NTIA webinar last week, I think. But actually getting out into the community, I think it will be an important component that sometimes comes to mind later on. But, when you're even just talking about digital equity, we wanna reach the people who might not know about this program. Those are the people you really wanna help, and that does mean often getting on the streets, going into these neighborhoods, going out to meet people where they are and language translators, making sure that you're reaching people who, English isn't their first language. So I think there's gonna be a lot of groundwork and not just... I think everyone will need to be involved in that.

Scott: I think that's ironic, if you don't mind me jumping in, I think it's ironic. We're talking about technology, but to reach the communities that we're talking about reaching, it's gonna be interpersonal communication. It's gonna be on on-the-ground, as you said, engaging with them directly with the goal, hopefully, of being able to reach them through technology and other technological platforms.

Justin: No, I think that's right, because I was just at a stakeholder meeting for the state of Colorado had in the southwest part of Colorado, which is one of the more underserved parts of the state of Colorado, and came down, the broadband office came down from Denver to meet people in person and hear what they had to say, 'cause a lot of it's like, "Look, I've seen the maps and it says we're covered, but I live here and I'm telling you, we're not." So, what do we do? What do we do to challenge that or overturn that or tell our story? Because I think there are... Everybody's putting a lot of hard works into the maps and the data, but the data is always gonna be a little bit imperfect, and so you need those stories that the people can tell you, they deal with it on the ground. They're like, "I don't have connection in my house. So even though it says I'm covered, let's talk about what's reality for me." And I think that's really important to get that out. Like you said, those are the people you have to reach in person. You can't... They need a chance to have a voice, and I think some of the states are doing a good job of trying to get out there and talk to those people directly so they can be heard.

Nick: It's interesting, even if you look around at the... And if you'd go down the exhibitor hall, everything is about technology into... All three of your points, it does seem maybe we're overlooking that piece of the true feet on the street, the engagement in the community, how do you actually get them involved in this process? Because you're right, I think we've solved the technology problem. I think we can all agree that we understand how to deliver broadband, whether it be fiber optics, whether it be fixed wireless, whether... There's all lots of ways to deliver it, but that community piece, it seems like we definitely need to put additional focus on.

Megan: Well, and I think there's already a good start. This is one thing that I think we saw with the CMC program, is that there are a lot of people already doing this work. A lot of the applicants say, "I'm in my community, we have a program like this already where we go and we tell people about how they can get cell phone coverage." There's people out there doing this work already, so I think utilizing those folks who have the experience, who know how to do this kind of on-the-ground community engagement. It's not reinventing the wheel, there's people out there doing it. It's making sure we get them involved. They're experts in...

Scott: Widening the approach, having more people at the table and...

Nick: So how do you get to the... How do you get people to the table though?

Nick: You gotta use all hands on deck. So you have to podcast like this, or webcast, we have to do community meetings, you have to engage local leaders, you have to go to the faith community, we've gotta get the word out beyond just posting something on a website or putting something through the fallacy wants, right?

Nick: It's not filled with dreams, just build and they will come, it's not... 

Scott: Yeah, just build and they will come. We've gotta... And that's why I think this comprehensive approach of having all of the stakeholders involved will, I will say, filter down. I don't like that trickle down, filter down. We want the information to go down to the community who can then act accordingly.

Megan: Trickle is too slow. 

Scott: And trickle is too slow...

Nick: You need a fire hose? You want a fire hose down?

Scott: Because if you look at a lot of communities, and she referenced the connecting minority communities pilot program, which I have the honor of being able to stand up in NTIA, we engaged a lot with the institutions of higher education, particularly HBCUs, TCUs, MSIs, they already have a presence in the community, they are the life blood in many instances, the economic and social hubs of the communities in which they sit and serve, so filtering information through them that then gets out into the community is fairly easy. The hard part is, many of these communities do not have relationships at the state level, and some don't even have at the local level, and so what we can do through this process using service providers and entities like Learn Design and Apply, we can really bring all of the principal stakeholders to the table to really address a fundamental issue that I think we should be embarrassed quite frankly in this country, that we have such an equity when it comes to the provision of broadband and technology. If you just look at the pandemic, and it uncovered how much of a challenge it is for communities that don't have robust broadband access, and it's time that we do something about it.

Nick: So let's... Right now, between the three of you guys, we have people that are involved in helping acquire money, obviously in your former role, like policy and community engagement obviously in your new role, more of an enablement, I would say. And then Justin, from a Bonfire perspective, obviously the design of a network, future planning, how do you create something that is gonna last generations, not just a flash in the pan and it's done, we're gonna move on. To your point of partnership, maybe how does it all work together? You guys kinda start at the beginning all the way through, what's the best way you can create partnerships like that, and are there other partnerships that the states or the local should be working on that we can help push?

Justin: I would say it's... I wish there was an easy answer to that 'cause everybody likes to say, "Oh, public-private partnership it's how we're gonna solve this." But then it's like, "Well, how are you gonna form that?" And it's...

Nick: I deliberately didn't say those words because... 

Justin: I think it's really hard 'cause on the private side, it's like, well, who do we engage with on the public side, and how do we do this in a way that isn't gonna take forever because there's gonna be so many stakeholders and so many decision-makers, and it's gonna be, it's gonna take time, and I think on the public side, you look at it coming from where I was previously, you look at it and you go, "How do I know this maybe service provider isn't taking advantage of us?" How do we have enough knowledge to know that like, "Are we getting a fair deal?" That this is gonna be equitable for us because, I used to work for a tribe and the tribe going, "Well, we're gonna get this money, so how much of this is ours versus a service provider?" But if you don't have a broadband background, how do you know that you're... How do you know what's fair? And I think... So I think there has to be a lot of conversation. Unfortunately, it's a lot of conversation, it's not gonna be easy, it's gonna be a lot of conversation to find the right partners and people that are looking for true equitable solutions and not just trying to take advantage of, "Oh, I'm gonna get some free money to build some free network."

Scott: And those conversations have to be transparent. And I think oftentimes in this sector, people are reluctant to say they don't know, and I think we have enough smart...

Nick: I think that's beyond the sector.

Justin: That's the whole country.

Scott: That's the whole country, right? But I think in a certain matter as he was saying, you engage in transparent communications, and then when you get to an impasse or something where you just don't know, say, "I don't know." But then don't stop there. Let's put together smart people to figure it out, but I think you gotta have that level of trust and communications to be able to address that, 'cause there are a lot of smart people addressing this issue from the service providers, from the grant community, from the community community, local community, there are people if we collectively come together, we can solve the issue, but I think we have to put egos aside.

Nick: Have a little humility.

Scott: A lot of humility. Recognize that some of this stuff, if I can say it...

Nick: You can say whatever you wanna say.

Scott: 'Cause some of this stuff is gonna be hard to do, but that doesn't mean we stop because it's difficult. We would not have gotten to where we are in this country just because stuff is hard. So we should embrace that it's difficult to do, but still do it.

Nick: I was having a flash back to JFK's speech about the Moonshot, we do things because they're hard not because they're easy, right?

Megan: Yeah.

Nick: What do you think?

Megan: I would say definitely to a big point, putting aside these egos and I think accepting... I don't wanna say accepting losses, but knowing that sometimes you're not gonna be the solution.

Scott: Concessions maybe?

Megan: Concess... Yeah, something that... Knowing that you're... Whatever we wanna call it, accepting that maybe...

Nick: You're not gonna get the whole pie?

Megan: You're not gonna get the whole pie.

Nick: You're not gonna get the whole pint.

Megan: But remembering that it's...

Nick: You're gonna get half a pint.

Megan: Not necessarily about you.

Scott: Exactly.

Megan: And that being able to get past that, I think it's how it's really gonna work, which is a personal thing that maybe a lot of people will have to work on, but...

Scott: I think that's where I think the transparent communications come into play. I think the community... And we worked a lot in the community. I think the community understands that they want their local service providers to be profitable. They just don't wanna be taken advantage of. We want you to make money and make revenue and be able to build and scale and do all the things we need you to do in the community. We just don't wanna feel like we're being taken advantage of or not getting a certain technology deployed to us because of factors beyond our control. But, absolutely, I think we can talk about it and people have to put their egos to the side. And maybe you won't make all the money, but if you can still be profitable and make some money, maybe it's on you to then develop a business plan for you to be profitable. I don't know, but it starts somewhere. You gotta start somewhere. I think transparent communications is a good way to go.

Megan: And I think a part of that, and I think of... I say this to my nephew, to put on your listening ears, right. [chuckle] You need to listen to what the community is saying. They know what their issues are. They know what needs to be done. So being open and not coming in with an immediate solution to problem-solve, I think will be important, listening ears. 

Nick: Maybe we should all behave. Take the hints from children, right?

Nick: Brutal honesty, listening, and all those things, the attributes of...

Megan: Maybe not all the brutal honesty.

Megan: Sometimes kids are ruthless.

Scott: It's not how you say it.

Scott: It's not what you say. It's how you say it, right?

Nick: Well, guys, I wanna be respectful of time. I know there's a busy schedule. But I'd like to... And we always do parting thoughts on the podcast. I'd like to, maybe what advice or parting thoughts would you give? Let's go around the room to different constituents. So what would you tell a service provider and what would you tell a community about what they really... Based on what we've just talked about, about being transparent and humility, What tangible advice would you say, your parting thought from each of your perspectives, we'll do the service providers first and then we'll go back around for the communities lets start with you.

Megan: Are we sure we don't wanna start with Justin?

Megan: I feel like I keep going first.

Justin: All right. I could, sure, I think for the service providers, I think it's more of what Scott said. It's looking at how can I be a part of the solution here? And not just how can I make the most money? I think the service providers have a great opportunity to make money out of this, but not necessarily a get rich, quick scheme. But it's how can I be a part of building my own community up? 'Cause you are a member of that community. So it's doing some of that reach out being available, being transparent, maybe doing some education for people I think is an opportunity service providers have a lot of knowledge that the people in the community just don't have about some of the realities of building a network operating a network signing people up, there's a lot more to it, and they can be a part of that education process to help build a true partnership, instead of just a relationship where they're gathering money.

Nick: Clearly I think people don't... I think we can all agree that the complexity of doing this is not understood. 

Scott: Yeah, no, I would follow up on that build on that, I would challenge them to think beyond traditional ROI models. Think about investing in the community to build future customers, and future opportunities to grow your business. That's kind of odd, right?

Scott: I don't wanna come off Like, you know... But again, if we look at the targeted, communities the unserved and underserved, these are unpacked potential, in terms of customer bases in terms of opportunities to grow different sectors and technology. So if we get that information, if we get the infrastructure in there, if we have the right digital equity focus, these are the next boom areas for growth potential.

Nick: And they're gonna probably use more applications and technology than we ever have.

Scott: Right? 'Cause they have a lot of catching up to do. Partly if we're honest. But then also, we have to really think about that ROI model a little differently, maybe a longer lifecycle for projects to realize those return on investments, and then just be good stewards in the community. Because our work has shown us people want great broadband, they want companies in their communities to be successful. So this is not like, we want you to come in and build something. And then we don't want you to reap the benefits of it. It's not that, they just don't want to be taken advantage of, or cherry-picked, or just flat out left alone, because it doesn't make economic sense, or the community's not the right color, or what have you. So if we approach it that way, I think... And there is things that... We'll talk about this as well, there are things that the community has to do, the state and local governments will have to do as well. But from the service provider standpoint, just look at your business arrangement a little differently. 'Cause there's enough money out here as the government is subsidizing the capital build of these projects, you can be a little bit more flexible in your business model approach.

Nick: Again when it starts with a B...

Scott: When it starts with a B, that changes things.

Nick: Alright what would your advice be?

Megan: I would maybe tie in with what Justin was saying about education. Personally reflected and bought in, when I first started doing this work. I remember setting up a call with a few different people, one of them, Bonfire, and saying, "I don't know what any of these terms mean, please explain it to me," right. And I came in with questions from Wikipedia about technology from like, 1996 that I thought were relevant. And I think there's a lot of people like me when I first started, and I think it is upon service providers to make sure that the community that they're trying to serve is knowledgeable about what they're trying to do. And especially if it is a community that doesn't have access, they can't google these things like I often do. 

Nick: That's a paradox.

Megan: And so I think education will be a big factor and something that certainly should be coming from that source as you work through things.

Nick: That's good advice for them all. Alright. Well, let's close out with just the feedback to the community, we all live in communities. I think sometimes we forget that, especially the last two years, when we've been holed up in our homes and on Zoom calls, we forget, we're a community. And we only live and thrive if we act like a community. So we'll go back to you.

Justin: Yeah, I think for the communities, I think you've gotta try to get engaged in this process. And that means I think a lot relies on those people that are at the city level and the county level. 'Cause I'm thinking of particularly like if you're clear cut unserved, like art off and these other programs are gonna come and help you. But like smaller towns like 10, 15, 20,000, people, they're kind of hard to figure out where they fit. And you need to be talking to the people in your community, and then the people at your state to explain, to help the state understand how they can structure their program to benefit your communities. So I think I think most of the states, what is it thirty-something states now have signed up and are working on this. So if you're in one of those states figuring out how do you work within that program at your state level, so that however, they're gonna set up their NOFO works for your community. And then if your state doesn't have a program, figuring out how to get that going. So you've got to reach... I think that the cities and the counties can be reaching down to the people to understand what they want and then reaching up and they have... It's a lot on their shoulders cause they have a full-time job, but I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You hear a lot of people saying that, but I don't think this is an actual... This isn't hyperbole in this case. I think it's real. It's once in a lifetime.

Scott: Yeah, can I flip that a little bit?

Nick: Sure, yeah.

Scott: And I would love to give advice to... Particularly in Washington, we throw a lot of acronyms and billions of dollars at the problem right? And policy wonks and we get real deep into it, but at the end of the day, we're talking about people. And I think we've gotta humanize the issue, and it's somewhat controversial because when you're talking about un-served and underserved issues, we tend to lump all of poor people or economically distressed or racially impacted communities together, but we're talking about people who care about their community and their institutions and their children, and they wanna be able to grow and thrive and have economic opportunities, and have their kids to be able to go to school in a pandemic. Right? And I think if we humanize that, and not so much of a policy wonky, we're gonna do $35 billion in this program, and we're un-served and underserved, that is great, right? But to reach people in the community, they need much more interpersonal communication, and I think we have to understand, again, going back to my point, that these are actually real people.

Nick: They're not numbers.

Scott: And these are real communities, and they're not numbers, and they're not baselines, and they're not these other monikers that we throw out in Washington DC, and in state and local governments as well. And service providers.

Nick: And in businesses.

Scott: And in businesses, you gotta talk about that ROI model, why you gotta have so many homes per mile, but these are actual people, right? Farms, communities, rural, urban.

Nick: People that didn't choose to not be served.

Scott: Absolutely right. They were, in some instances, intentionally not served and we've gotta address that too. I hope we don't wanna reward someone who intentionally bypassed the community just because there's these billion dollar options, you should be rewarded for being a good steward in the community and a good company. I know that's controversial. I'm not saying... I'm not gonna call names out, but we know that they're... Historically, there are companies, there are state governments that don't allocate funding to the communities that...

Nick: No, there's the monopolies that are doing it.

Scott: There we go.

Megan: I feel like mine, probably like Scott's is a bit of a two-way street thing. I think everyone here at this conference is passionate about un-served and underserved people and doing it the right way. And I think a lot of those communities often have been discouraged with even communicating, right? So many times being ignored, "Whatever I'm saying, it doesn't matter, or who's listening anyway?" So I think it'll be a two-way street of establishing that we do wanna hear it from you, and we do care, and we're taking what you say seriously and acting on it. And then on the community's part that... Yeah, you may have in the past had some terrible experiences with just everything you say being ignored, but take a chance that this isn't gonna be those past situations 'cause these are people who really do want to help, at least we do. 

Nick: At least we do.

Megan: The four of us do. 

Nick: Absolutely.

Megan: Yeah.

Nick: Well guys, I really appreciate it. To Justin, Scott, Megan, thank you so much for taking the time, I know it's a busy schedule, busy conference. Cheers, I don't have the beer, but cheers to all of you for your commitment to your passion and your drive to supporting people to get broadband. So thank you again for being on. For further episodes, you can tune into Spotify, Apple Podcast, or go to our website. Thanks again, and we'll see you on the next episode hopefully.

Justin: Thank you.

Megan: Thanks.

Nick: Cheers.