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The Divide: Ready's Scott Woods on what NTIA got right and wrong with BEAD

The Divide: Ready's Scott Woods on what NTIA got right and wrong with BEAD Banner Image

Jun 23, 2022

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Nicole Ferraro: Hi, I'm Nicole Ferraro, and this is The Divide, a podcast from Light Reading, exploring the ongoing digital divide, why and where it still exists and what needs to be done to get people everywhere connected to reliable high speed internet. Today, I am joined by Scott Woods, who is the current Vice President of Community Engagement at Ready, and the former director of the Office of Minority broadband initiatives at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration or the NTIA. Scott spent over a decade working on broadband in the federal government and has now brought that expertise to Ready, which provides software to help ISPs manage their networks, apply for broadband grants and more. We talk about the NTIAs recent funding rules for roughly 45 billion in fraud band grounds on what it got right and what it didn't, and how Ready is helping service providers prepare for new funding opportunities. Scott, thank you so much for joining me. Welcome to the podcast.

Scott Woods: Thank you, my pleasure to be here with you and the audience today.

Nicole: Well, it's a real honor to get to talk to you today, I'm excited for the opportunity to start out, we have a few things to talk about, but I'd love to just start out to hearing a little bit about your background working in the federal government, you had worked on broadband for quite a while there, and a bit about your recent role as the Director of the Office of Minority broadband initiatives at NTIA.

Scott: Absolutely. So again, first of all, thank you for having me on the show today. I initially came to the Federal government after a stint in private practice as a telecommunications attorney, but I joined the initial Obama administration to administer the BTOP program at the time, which was the broadband technology opportunities program. At the time, it was one of a kind for a billion dollar grant program designed to build out a minimal infrastructure and computer centers across the country under the American investment and Recovery Act programs. And so that was my initial entry into the federal government space, I had previously served in the federal government as a grad student, when I was pursuing my public policy degree, I worked a stint in the Department of Justice at the time, which was IMS, as a program analyst, but this was all before, before law school and before broadband just became the exploding issue and topic that it is now.

Nicole: And most recently... You were at NTIA, right?

Scott: Correct. Most recently was the NTIA was at NTIA for 12 years, like I said, I started in the Obama administration under be top and then transcended all the way through programs like the broadband USA strategic initiative, the Technical Assistance Program, which I led. And then most recently, the connecting minority communities pilot program and the implementation of the IIJA programs, the B digital Equity Act programs.

Nicole: Great. So let's talk a little bit about those programs. They are the hot topic of the moment, the NTIA put out there notice of funding opportunities for B... For the middle mile program and for the digital Equity Act. So from your purview working within the federal government and from all of your work on broadband, what do you think are some of the most essential rules and stipulations within the NOFOs, and what feedback are you getting from some of the communities you've worked with and are currently working with...

Scott: Yeah, those are great questions and really timely, I think last week or a week and a half ago, I actually did a webinar on this with an entity called tele competitor, where I broke down key provisions of the B-nofo, we focused on the B, and one of my initial observations, administration and NTIA is very clear that the B and digital equity NOFOS are connected. So the planning activities, the emphasis on equity and infrastructure expansion, that's one of the greatest lessons learned, I think from NTIA from our administration of the BTOP program, is that it's not separate, these are not tangential, these are companion strategies that absolutely have to be lock and step to ensure that communities have access not only the infrastructure and that it's affordable, but also the training and the devices and the utilization of all that comes with having robust high-speed broadband infrastructure. So that was one of the first observations as there is a keen tie and connection between the B-planning and the digital equity equity Act planning. Also talked about some concerns, number one is the letter of credit and the match requirement, 25%, which is a flaw...

Scott: I'm concerned about that, particularly the impact on smaller providers, impact on minority-led people of color led isps, that's gonna be a problem, the match along with the letter of credit requirement, I think NTI missed the boat on that, but I think NTIA also hit the mark on the local coordination piece, to ensure that whatever plans move forward have to be again, lock-in-step with the needs of the community, so there are number of provisions, I think The NTIA could have improved. But also I think it hit the mark again on the local coordination piece, and again, the coordination of Bid and digital equity to ensure that there is a comprehensive approach to address the lack of broadband and making sure that such as affordable... As we move forward with these projects in the future...

Nicole: So I wanna back up a little bit because it's such an important point that you make about some of these stipulations being harder for black led isps, for example, which quite frankly, I don't come across nearly enough of them in my work, so what... First of all, is there a way for NTIA to address that despite the fact that the rules have been written, especially given the fact that the Biden administration's whole point of view is that digital equity and inclusion should be at the center of everything, and of course, that's somewhat taken care of on the consumer end with the digital Equity Act in some of these rules, but as you point out on the provider, and it may be actually cutting out some of the minority led, black-led Isps and other service provider vendors in this...

Scott: Yeah. I think it missed the mark. Somewhat, I think it encourages... When you look at the Bid nofo and the digital equity, no foe, in the plans that the state submit to NTIH for consideration, they have to lay out the processes by which they encourage diverse participation, not only on the service providers, but in the provision of goods and services that will be funded under the NOFO, I think encouraged. I think they probably should have taken a stronger track and had it a requirement and really outline what states had to do, but instead they took a softer approach and left it up to states to interpret what that means to encourage Minority Participation in women-owned businesses. They stayed away from... They highlighted women owned, they stayed away from minority-owned black-owned isps, and I get it right, they didn't wanna cause too much controversy, but I think they missed the mark on being able to utilize this 50 billion dollar package incentive, if you will, to really... Will, say mandate, but really outline the requirements to ensure diverse participation, not just on the ISP side in the provision of broadband, but also in the provision of the goods and services that lead up to the build out of infrastructure and the providing...

Scott: In the provision of service, so again, I thought it missed the mark as the one who was internal that provided recommendations, and not all of my recommendations where in the Billnofo. Again, I think it missed the mark, but again, flipping on the other side, again looking at the local coordination component, looking at there is equity language in the nofo, there is encouragement that states outline a process to include women and minority owned businesses and the provision of goods or services. So it's not that it's lack of... That is absent or void. It's just its not as strong. I think that the language could have been and probably should have been, to ensure that their participation were leading too much to the states to interpret it, and as you know, State's gonna do different states are gonna interpret it differently, unfortunately, depending on their politics, which is the reality of it.

Nicole: Yes, indeed. Okay, well, that's interesting and disappointing, but let me shift gears a little bit because you are no longer working within the federal government, which allows you to speak a little more freely about things like Nofo...

Nicole: Absolutely do you too. Tell me how you feel Skye.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah, I don't... I really... I do not feel like someone who is talking from the NTIA right now or has an NTIA.gov email address, you currently have a role at Ready or Ready.net. So maybe you can tell us a bit about what that is, how it intersects with the broadband industry and what your role is there.

Scott: Thank you I appreciate it. Before I do that, let me do say I enjoyed my time at NTIA, there are some great professionals there, the folks that are working on and have worked on the Bid and digital equity NOFOS and the CMC program, my team that I left behind are absolutely great at what they do. And so the fact that I've highlighted had been critical of components does not take away from the great work that's done over at NTIA, and that has been done historically even before my time there, so I wanted to make that clear for the record... The record is clear.

Nicole: The record is clear. Alan Davidstein still loves you Amanda loves you.

Scott: Really good person... I like those folks over there a lot, but recently joined, Ready as vice president of Community Engagement and strategic partnerships, and it really is a ground-breaking time and so much enthusiasm in the industry right now, not just because of the 50 to 65 billion dollars. It's just coming out of covid, there is a demonstrable need to address inequality in the provision of broadband, just based off of what we went through in the heart of the pandemic, and so I saw this as an opportunity to utilize my expertise, both from NTIA in the legal and the business side, to join a company like Ready that has three pillars, number one, it's develop a software as a service product that will allow service providers primarily isps, to conduct detailed into in management of their networks and customers on a proprietary basis, utilizing the latest technology and map and information.

Nicole: It's a really cool software product, I'm not giving it justice enough of how I just described it, and then the second component is the broadband, that money digital platform, that is a component of the Ready.net software, but it's a digital community right now that's growing, we're giving a lot of stakeholders a platform to come together to talk about, to discuss provisions that are going on in the state grants and federal grants and things that are going on, and locally, I get a platform to highlight what's going on in the community, really highlighting un-served and underserved areas, and making sure that these grant funds, both state and federal, and the private equity money are really geared towards...

Scott: And we'll go to achieve the results that we all want, which is to significantly address inequality in the provision of affordable broadband services in this country, and then the final sort of platform or division that we have is Ready impact capital, where we have a team that will invest money to support isps to ensure that these projects will be implemented and constructed and finished. So we talked about the issue with the Marks, we talked about the issue of the letter of credit, already impact arm will partner with jurisdictions with service providers to ensure they have the capital that they need to be successful, and it's done so under the guise of what we call patient capital, so it's not a traditional high rate of return, double digit yield in two or three years, and it's really more of we want to ensure these projects are successful, and we'll provide capital and financial assistance at reasonable returns, a reasonable basis to ensure these projects can be successful, so I'm excited about all three of the platforms that we offer here at Ready.

Nicole: Yeah, really interesting Would you say it falls under a consultancy or a technology vendor.

Scott: Probably technology I think the company is... The base company is a software company, it's a tech company, but again, it's flexible and modular enough to see that their needs and there are spaces that we can play, but the essence, the core, the company is the software, and it's probably some of the most smartest computer engineers software engineers, data scientists in the world that are working at this company and on this product, and they truly have a hard to ensure that the isps are successful, the grant funds are successful, and so it's my pleasure to be able to join them on this journey.

Nicole: Yeah, so yeah, so essentially it feels like Ready kind of has a product for each step in the process of getting the funding and building these networks and connecting different stakeholders together, are my understanding that... Right.

Scott: Absolutely. It's more than that. I'm sure I would encourage folks to go to Ready.net or broadband.money to get more information, we're scheduling demos of the tool and the product. To join broadband money is free, it's a digital community. We have a lot of resources of a media team that they're doing stories that are highlighting achievements of communities, highlighting stakeholders, both good and the challenges, right. So I think we give a holistic 360-degree view of what's going on in the guise of sharing information, but I think the... The flavor, the tenor of the company is a tech company, it's a software company, and that means... We don't take no for an answer. That's one of the few things that I've learned here is, no, is not an answer. It's always... We never thought about that. Let's think about that and see what we can do to address that. So that's refreshing, 'cause coming from the federal government. The answer generally is no. Generally, the answer... We can't do that. We've never done that before. That's not... We don't have such constraints at Ready and broadband.money.

Nicole: So what have you guys been hearing from service providers at Ready and at broadband money since the nofos were released, and how are you seeing them using the platform? I'm just curious to see, now that these opportunities are open, are they coming to the broadband.money platform and saying, Hey, I need resources on X, Y, Z, or Hey, I'd like to connect with a vendor who does this, or, Hey, how do I get to know my state broadband offices. Are those the kind of connection you guys can help facilitate?

Scott: Absolutely, just going back at my time before Ready and my time with Ready, the number one question I've always received, whether it was from an ISP, whether it was from a state and local government representative, a community member is, where do I get started? What do I do? And if you look at the NOFOS, you look at the B, the digital equity, the middle mile, they're heavily data intensive you have to know data, you have to know what's in your community. You have to know where broadband is, where broadband is not, you have to have a basis to challenge the FCC maps that are coming in any of those household determinations that will be in that mapping platform. And so I believe we have a product that addresses all of that data down to the individual household level, as well as a community that you can figure out where do I get started, what resources do I need...

Nicole: Who can I connect with to assist, and then again, as well as the ultimately the financial arm to help communities get jump started and effectuate and implement the project. So I'm excited about it, but again, I think if you look at the data, if you look at the data components of the nofo, it is heavily, heavily data-intensive, community state broadband offices have to put so much into these plans and they have to understand and know where broadband is, where it is not, where they're underserved and under-served communities are how they're gonna target strategies to address digital equity in all aspects of the community, digital telemedicine Enterprise Community.

Scott: They have to understand all of that. So where do you get started, and that's the number one key, if you just sit down and took a deep breath and say, Okay, how do I begin to fashion a strategy to develop this... The number one question that I've received is, we don't know where to start, and I believe that's the reason... Part of the reason why I jumped over to Ready is because I believe we have a product and a platform that can assist and will help communities and stakeholders and isps address that initial question of how to get started, and then have a product that enable the assist them moving forward throughout the entire life cycle of a project and program.

Nicole: Awesome, and just to close us out then, you started working in the federal government when we started caring about the digital divide under President Obama, and you were working there under President Biden when we really committed to it, and seemed to understand it better. I think than we did 15 years ago or whenever that was. I don't really know what time is anymore, so I just love to know from you any key lesson that you've learned about whether it's policy or the technology itself, or anything about the digital divide that's guiding your work now that maybe you didn't understand when you came into it under President Obama, however many years ago that was.

Scott: Yeah, I think that the number one and number two things I'll do number one first is that these are tangential strategies that absolutely have to go together, digital equity and broadband infrastructure. Affordable broadband infrastructure. So when we started, it was the notion of digital inclusion and adoption, which at the time was just the provision of devices.

Nicole: And then building infrastructure as a catalyst for last mile deployment and things of that nature, but I think we've learned over the years, and unfortunately the pandemic it was a huge eye-opener. Is it can't just be infrastructure, it's not just providing un-served or underserved communities with devices, there's a whole utilization, there's a whole training, there's economic development and workforce development. That comes along with that there's the Hotel of medicine and telehealth piece spurt, or partly by the pandemic, but it was a phenomenon before then... Of how all of this works together. And then it has to be affordable, so I can spend billions of dollars building infrastructure and devices and training, but if the services aren't affordable, and if I don't have plans to train and include under-served communities, vulnerable communities, our senior citizens, then we're just...

Nicole: It's wasted money, and in fact, we have a bigger inequity that exists is not a divide, it's a chasm, and we wanna make sure that we make a significant impact to lower that, I don't know if we can solve it... Totally 100%. I know that's this administration's goal its an aspirational goal. But I know that these funds, these programs will have a significant impact on the digital chasm... The digital divide that exists. If I had to compare and contrast both administrations, just people who care about the mission of the agency, they understand greatly the issues and are working extremely hard to put policies and programs in place to address it from the industry standpoint, what's significantly different than the BTOP days is this all hands on board.

Nicole: There's collaborations between service providers and public and private entities, the philanthropic community, the local community community champions, this is indeed an all-hands-on board effort, where in the early part of the BTOP days of the service providers were probably a little more reluctant to jump in and be a partner, and I'm not seeing that reluctance or opposition this time around, like we did, like we saw like we witnessed in the BTOP day, so that's refreshing it, and in fact, we will need an all hands, everybody in collaborative approach to solve this issue so it's refreshing, it's an energy that's in the industry right now that has not been in it for a while, at least from my perspective, and we're excited that we get to play a part in it and ultimately help communities move forward to be more competitive as an American society as a whole.

Nicole: So I know that was a lot. I can talk about this all day.

Scott: That was fantastic.

Nicole: I can ramble about This all day, but no, it's really a great time to be in this space and working with all of the stakeholders that we get to work with.

Scott: Well, I could talk to you all day as well, but you have far more important work to do than to sit here and talk to me, so I am gonna let you go, but thank you so much for your time and I'm just excited to keep up with your work, I think the industry is lucky to have you in the spot that you're in now, 'cause they're gonna really need your expertise. So thank you for sharing your expertise with us. I really appreciate it.

Nicole: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here with you today.

Scott: Thank you again, Scott Woods for joining me. Thank you as well to our producer, Pierre Leandro for making this episode. Be sure to subscribe to The Light Reading Podcast for more episodes of the divide, as well as interviews and insights from the Light Reading Team. Thank you for listening. We'll see you next time.