Carnegie Mellon University

Broadband University

Metro21 Attends Broadband University

Metro21 attended Broadband University on April 5, 2021 to hear presenters Kathryn de Wit of Pew Charitable Trusts and Andy Waple of Southwestern PA Commission discuss challenges and solutions for broadband access in our region.

Kathryn de Wit, Pew Charitable Trusts:
Known challenges to expansion:
  • Business case
  • Funding
  • Policy
  • Limited infrastructure
    • Cost to get all Americans to high speed – have to think not only last mile but middle mile connections
  • Inadequate data & misinformation
    • Related to FCC – tell us where broadband is and is not – do so with self-reported data from providers within a census block; the challenge is that it influences federal funding yearly. One house has a connection so the census block is not eligible for federal or state funding
    • Recent federal efforts:
      • CARES Act $150 billion Federal govt has invested a lot of money in the past year; used funding to help educational, healthcare, libraries; reposition themselves to provide remote support during pandemic
      • American Recovery Plan $7.2 billion to schools & libraries, $200B to state & local gov’t
      • American Jobs Plan: $100B to fund broadband infrastructure & address affordability issues; what is noteworthy is that It calls out the dual challenge of absence and affordability
  • State programs: what distinguishes state from federal is states invest smaller amts so they rely on a combo of activities to make meaningful progress; most ppl online for the lowest cost
  • 5 activities to make progress:
    • stakeholder outreach & engagement– helps people get energized around an issue and identify the primary goal – what do we need for our community and how do we get there.
    • policy framework – are there any barriers to deployment? Can we tweak policy to better incentivize or facilitate deployment?
    • planning & capacity building – statewide, regional and local; how are we identifying the goal? How will we get there? Regional and local planning is where you see external partners & organizations that can provide expertise and additional support and info that may limit community's confidence they can get the results they want
    • funding & operations – you need money to do this; states will use varying degrees in matching funds program eval & evolution-states are setting goals by x date to ensure every citizen/resident has connections at x speed to evaluate their own progress – able to do this by collecting data; states focus on accountability measures to assess their progress and to ensure those receiving public funds are doing their part.
  • What states are doing:
    • State programs are smaller than federal; they’re facing many political battles and they have to focus on results; in order to do, they use competitive grant processes. Use a scoring matrix for states to set their own priorities. 
    • Virginia, Minnesota Model (nationally recognized grant process with requirements)
    • W Virginia focuses on capacity building at local level; has a very bipartisan approach to broadband expansion; do not see path forward to economic success without these connections
  • External advocates: help supplement/ complement, elevate opportunities for policy change; the role for these groups is important to provide access within a state
  • Question: with so much $ allocated at federal level, how much of effort is aimed at municipal utility broadband at community level vs. big multinational providers?
  • With amount of money coming down, best thing for your communities is provide planning and capacity support wherever possible; develop feasibility studies to position themselves for federal funding
  • Local provider landscape – truly does vary by state; ISP (comcast & Verizon in PA)
  • If we know there are federal funding prioritized, invest money that’s available in planning to help communities make the case for where funding should be directed and targeted, especially working with larger funders because money will be needed to update existing vs. deploying new tech
    • 80% of Black & Latino families only have a smartphone to do homework PRIOR to pandemic
    • 5G is on cellphone; when we are talking about the reason most families are smartphone dependent it’s because they either don’t have connection because it’s unavailable or they cannot afford what is, or the connection is so bad it’s not worth spending finances on.
    • Fiber is important because of speeds now and in future but is a higher quality connection overall; don’t have to sacrifice upload/download speed either way; you can embrace the real time connection
    • Smartphone dependency: a lot of leaders would say doesn’t matter if you have a connection because if you have phone or go to library/community center – NO this is not a suitable substitute because of data caps, writing papers on phone, etc.
      • This is why we need better understanding of quality of connections available and available broadband within communities
    • Will be looking at how affordability is in the next few years – do not now have reliable understanding of costs, charges, what connection being charged for, quality of connection; also have to understand full cost of deployment – how costs are for consumers – we aren’t thinking about middle and last mile alone – have to think about operations costs as well
      • We need to look at more solutions for the affordability challenge
      • $7B will only last 6 months – we have to think about the financing of these networks and the impact on consumers
        • This should help address racial divides and equitable access
      • Have you compared PA to other states?
        • PA has a connectivity problem; it’s a neighborhood-by-neighborhood issue; best thing to do is have these convos, bring community leaders to table, understand residents; are there smaller regional providers to deploy networks? Are there stopgap measures to be employed while waiting for longer terms to be deployed?
        • Best thing to do is keep doing what we’re doing; support SPC
Andy Waple, Southwestern PA CommissionConnectivity implementation program:
  • To be competitive in SPC we have to look at unserved and underserved and address them equitably and systematically
    • Initiative is modeled by same program for transportation improvement
    • Where all state & fed funds go within region – our approach is longstanding and has been commended by USDOT
    • Have a lot of regional and metropolitan commissions watching
      • Phase 1: develop implementation plan for SWPA – data driven approach to address under& unserved areas in the region; we know #s from FCC are underestimated. We have to look at a true state of what’s on the ground in PA; get community buy-in; get additional data where there are gaps; recommend governance structure to see program into the future (whether SPC or new organization); lean on a broad coalition of stakeholders