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Bridging the Digital Divide for an Inclusive Future

MIKE BERRY: Morning, everyone. My name is Mike Berry, and I'm a policy advisor at the Chicago Fed's Community Development and Policy Studies area. On behalf of the Chicago Fed, I'd like to welcome everyone to today's discussion of the digital divide and our latest Project Hometown event. Our Project Hometown series is part of a much broader effort on the part of the Reserve Bank and the Fed system to help bring about more inclusive economic recovery on the far side of the pandemic. We invite everyone to attend upcoming events and, if you wish, view some of our past events or related blog summaries at ChicagoFed.org.

While I'm really just providing brief opening comments, any opinions I express are my own, and not necessarily shared by the Chicago Fed or the Fed system, I'm obliged to say. We have a relatively large audience today. And at the risk of stating the obvious for some, I'd like to just level-set and share a couple of thoughts that are central to our discussion today.

What do we mean by the digital divide? Well, the broadband signal is critical, of course. There are three key components to being on the right side. First, a high-speed signal. And that in itself is a moving target, as the definition of high-speed is different depending on the context. Second, enabled devices, and third, digital literacy. Subscription costs also represent a big obstacle to many households, as does return on investment for firms in the private sector who provide cable and internet.

One of our panelists today represents the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, based nearby in Evanston, who recently issued a report on digital inclusion. I think this report provides an ambitious but well-conceived national policy prescription to help us bridge the divide and address many inequities. And I've drawn a few points from that report to introduce our topic today.

The pandemic has put into stark relief the ramifications of being on the wrong side of the digital divide. In the short time since taking office, the new administration is making the divide a priority, but we shouldn't think of it as a discrete topic, as it has ramifications for many parts of our economy. While I'm pretty sure our panel will touch on some related details, the early signals in staffing, positioning, and cross-sector strategy are encouraging. Separately, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who serves on the Finance Committee, has said broadband access and deployment should be in every recovery and infrastructure package.

Community and economic development experts have long noted that digital exclusion has broad implications [INAUDIBLE] economic policy for less-resourced communities, households and businesses in both urban and rural settings. Before the pandemic, many people were not focused on the well-being of vulnerable communities, and viewed broadband access and digital literacy as quality of life issues.

The pandemic has shown us that the economic futures of both urban and rural places depend on overcoming the digital divide. I think most of us are aware of the big reveals of the last 10 months, and among them the strains on our public education system since March may have impacts lasting a generation or more. For example, about 90% of the 51,000 students in the predominantly Black Detroit Public Schools Community District couldn't participate in online learning, at least initially, due to lack of internet and/or devices at home.

In addition to the remote learning-- excuse me-- across the educational spectrum, digital exclusion has impacted access to stimulus benefits, including unemployment insurance, small business lending programs, to efforts to rapidly scale telemedicine during a public health crisis, work from home, and even simple step tasks, such as banking, shopping online for food and other necessities, and connecting with family and friends during a time when we need to isolate ourselves to minimize the virus's spread.

Digital literacy is also a gateway and a path to living wage employment at any time. And given that a complete return to what we used to think of as normal is unlikely, the need for digital skills and familiarity with common technology platforms will be even more essential than in the past. Digital skills have become critical for the entire workforce. Jobs in manufacturing, transportation, logistics, and other fields that don't require a four-year degree, and in the past did not require tech skills, now do. With increased productivity and efficiency targets, jobs have been transformed by the adoption of digital tools and technology.

Before I turn it over the floor to our moderator, Dave Oppedahl, I'd like to share two quotes from the Benton report that I think underscore the importance of today's topic. One is from the late member of Congress John Lewis, which is access to the internet-- and I'm paraphrasing a bit here-- is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. I think we're all now aware that the lack of broadband adoption is greater among Black, Hispanic, and low-income households, and the implications of that deficit.

The other is from FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. "Our historic failure to close the digital divide has had a devastating effect on communities of color in both rural and urban America." While much important work was going on prior to the pandemic to bridge the digital divide, I think we can say unequivocally that the stakes are now higher, and that if a more equitable recovery is our goal, digital inclusion represents a key ingredient to success.

I look forward to hearing from our excellent panel today. I'd like to now turn over the floor to our moderator, Dave Oppedahl. Dave is a senior business economist in our Economic Research department, conducts research on the agricultural sector and rural development, and analyzes business conditions and the regional economy. I now turn it over to you, Dave.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Thanks, Mike. It's an honor to be here today with everyone on our distinguished panel. And I add my welcome to the audience. It's great to have you here. I'll introduce the panelists in order that they'll make their opening remarks. And that means that first we have Roberto Gallardo, who is the director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a Purdue extension community and regional economic specialist. And next, we'll have Gigi Sohn, who is the distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology, Law, and Policy. And she is also a senior fellow and public advocate at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Third, we'll have Matt Schmit, serving as the director of the Illinois Office of Broadband within the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the chair of the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council. And then in clean-up position, we have Joshua Edmonds, the city of Detroit's inaugural director of digital inclusion.

So that's our panel for today, and we look forward to hearing from all of them. And I just want to note that we had a lot of wonderful questions from the registration process, and so we'll be answering those, as many as time allows.

And first off, let's start with Roberto. And I just would like to kind of have this opening question to each of the panelists. What are each of your perspectives on the current state of the digital divide and its impact on people without high-speed broadband access? So what is the current situation, and what do you see as some of the ramifications, Roberto?

ROBERTO GALLARDO: Thank you, David. Thank you, Mike. Hello, fellow panelists. Nice to see you again, GiGi. We are-- I'm delighted to be here today. Thank you for the opportunity.

To answer your question, David, it depends. Broadband data and digital inclusion data is not uniform. It's not standardized. And so it depends who you ask, basically.

Let me share with you additional stats from what Mike shared from the Benton Institute to make my point here. As we all know, the FCC data published the 2020 progress report using 2018 data, and it found that about 94.4% of the population in the US had access to 25/3.

We all know the issues of the FCC data, that it tends to overestimate coverage. BroadbandNow calculated almost roughly twice that amount, and then Microsoft, with its Airband initiative, has an even higher number with actual speed calculated from server logs. So we see a very different story being told. And from the practitioner level, it's very confusing or could be very confusing.

But when we pivot towards census data, we also see kind of a different story coming up. Here at the Center, we developed a metric called digital distress, which looks at households that either rely only on cellular data or have no internet access, and also percent of households that rely only on a mobile device or do not have a computer device. As Mike was saying, devices is a key component of digital inclusion.

And we find that there's a lot of difference going on across the country in these two metrics. For example, overall in the country, about 1/4 of homes either relied only on cellular data or did not have household internet access. So they're in distress, 1/4 of these, David. That's a very high number, considering there's 120 million households.

The other digital distress metric arrived at about 1/5 that relied only on mobile devices only or have no computing devices. So that's a very, very big issue. If we want to have an inclusive future, we have got to address that.

When we break this by rural, urban, and rural, the numbers are even higher for rural, as we can expect, where about 35% of homes relied only on cellular data or have no internet access. But it's not only an urban-rural issue. For this, we look at income, and we look also at census data. And it shows, for example, around the US, 5.4% of households making $75,000 or more did not have internet access compared to almost 36% of homes making less than $35,000 did not have internet access. So this results, roughly, in the share of low-income households being six times higher than higher-income homes.

This is not sustainable, David. It's not sustainable. Urban, rural, low income, high income-- it doesn't matter how you look at it. It is an issue and depending on the data. My main message then is that it affects everybody, rural and urban, as well as low income and other sectors of our population.

And I know that inclusion may be seen by some as a social equity issue, and it is, but I think we also need to start framing it as a community and economic development issue, just like Mike was mentioning earlier about the remote work situation and e-learning and the skills. You look at the Brookings Institution, the report of the majority of jobs generated over the past decade will require middle to high digital skills. Almost none were created with low digital skills.

So it's really a community economic development issue. The bottom line, it's a quality-of-life issue, really. And so it depends on your audience and who you want to kind of work with. But I think it's beyond a social equity issue. It is that, obviously, but I've had some success framing it as a community and economic development initiative, which then, of course, trickles to a bunch of other stuff. So that's kind of my initial spiel, David. Thank you for the opportunity.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Well, thank you, Roberto. That was a very nice way to kind of summarize some of the issues that we're facing today. And let's move on to GiGi, and you can take it away.

GIGI SOHN: Well, thank you for asking me to speak, and it's great to be here. And thank you, again, and this is a great topic and extremely timely. Look, I'm not going to mince words. The digital divide is a national emergency. It's a crisis. If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it's that robust broadband internet access in the home is vital for full participation in our society, our economy, and our culture. It's necessary to learn at home, work at home, get health care at home, connect to friends and family, and safely socially distance. And this is a lot of the stuff that Mike said before, but I think it bears repeating.

I gave, actually, a speech yesterday that Roberto was at. And I talked about how on March 13, all of a sudden, I was getting deluged with press calls, people wanting to talk about broadband and how important it is. And I think people did not realize until about a year ago how critical broadband has been to actually full participation in society. It's quite remarkable. They had no idea of the depth and the breadth of the digital divide.

And I agree with Roberto 300%. The data on who doesn't have broadband and why is super poor. The government has done a terrible job, I think in order to make themselves look better, and I appreciate the work that he's doing.

I testified in front of a congressional committee January 29, almost exactly a year ago, and only about 30 people showed up to the hearing because nobody cared at the time. And I testified at the time that according to census data, about 141 million Americans did not have access to robust broadband. And again, the way the FCC measures broadband, at 25 megabits per second down and three up, that ain't robust. But even at that metric, we were talking about tens of millions, over 100 million American households and Americans.

So again, I don't think I need to repeat that many jobs can only be accessed to apply online, including jobs in the retail sector and at McDonald's and what have you. Now, if you want to get a vaccine, you have to sign up online, and that's causing all kinds of problems. Access to governmental services are increasingly online-- the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Postal Service, you name it. Again, it's become as essential as water, electricity, and really ought to be considered as such, in my opinion.

So I think it also bears repeating that the digital divide disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income Americans and that the primary reason that people don't have internet access is because they can't afford it. We have some of the highest prices for broadband access service in the world. According to the Open Technology Institute, which is a public interest organization I work with a lot the average cost of broadband a month is $70. When you take out promotional pricing, it goes up to $83. That's huge and, again, extraordinarily problematic.

Well, how did we get here? How do we get to this situation where broadband is so expensive? The National Broadband Plan came out over 10 years ago. And while a lot has gotten accomplished a lot has not.

Well, we got here for several reasons. Number one, lack of adequate public investment, and I would say even more importantly, lack of adequate oversight over that public investment. This is one of the things I talked about yesterday.

Just as an example, the Federal Communications Commission just gave out $9 billion for supposedly gigabit connectivity in underserved areas. And it was a reverse auction. You bid on certain places to provide broadband services. A lot of the companies will never provide gigabit broadband because their technologies are not capable, and they bid to serve places like golf courses and airports and across the street from million-dollar homes that do have gigabit service.

So that's because the SEC did not do its due diligence. Also, in years past, it's given out tens of billions of dollars. We have slow networks, and we still have 42 million, according to BroadbandNow, unserved Americans. And nobody's served any penalty for not actually building what they promised, what they use ratepayer dollars to do. So it's lack of adequate public investment and oversight, extreme consolidation, and just, I would say, lack of accountability for the broadband sector generally.

So I'm not going to get into the detail, because I think I'm almost at time, to talk specifically about what needs to be done to fix the problem because I don't like talking about problems without talking about how to fix them. I will say this-- and maybe Dave, we can do a follow-up question later-- it's going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to close the digital divide. We're going to need congressional big bets on infrastructure and affordability. We're going to need every federal agency.

So everybody looks at the Federal Communications Commission, where I worked for three years, as the key place, and maybe it is. But the Department of Agriculture also spends money on broadband. The Education Department has been a part of solving the digital divide, at least it was in the Obama administration, Department of Labor, HHS. So it's not just one federal agency. It's got to be a collaboration with everybody doing their part.

Also, of course, we have Matt on the call. States are increasingly getting involved and doing great work to connect citizens. Part of that is because the federal government, at least the last four years, really abandoned its responsibility to connect all America households.

So the states have stepped up. I'd like to see the states reinstate their authority to oversee the broadband market in addition to funding, in addition to doing digital inclusion work. Localities play a critical role, and I'm looking forward to hearing about Josh's work. I know of Josh's work, but I want to hear more about the updates.

The philanthropy sector needs to be involved, the consumer advocacy sector and digital inclusion advocates, and industry. I may be a consumer advocate, but I recognize the role that industry must play. And I will say, they've been much more constructive over the last 10 months. I think they've finally admitted that they're either not willing or not able to solve this problem itself.

So it took industry to say to Congress-- and I will say, I was an advocate for it too, so were my colleagues-- we need a $50 a month emergency broadband benefit to tide people over. And hopefully, we can make this permanent. So industry is stepping up and admitting the free market in broadband does not work and they need help. So I'll stop there, and I look forward to the questions.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: All right, thank you so much, GiGi, appreciate that. And now Matt, why don't you continue the thought about the state situation and what you see going forward.

MATT SCHMIT: Sure thing. Thank you, Dave, and thank you, Mike, for the introduction and the invitation to join you today. And Roberto, GiGi, I couldn't echo enough of what you just said. I share those thoughts.

So I'd like to just say a little bit about what Illinois is up to. I think that we're a state that is getting it right on the broadband front. And I have to tell you, a lot of this work preceded my arrival on the scene in Illinois. Back in 2019, Governor Pritzker and the General Assembly had the foresight to invest $420 million into broadband through the Connect Illinois broadband program. And what we've done is created the country's largest matching grant program ever with $400 million devoted to matching grants, working with the provider community, working with our cities, our communities around the state to direct an infusion of capital to connect all homes, businesses, community anchor institutions in Illinois by 2024.

And so our goal is broadband ubiquity, and this was before the pandemic. And so I have to tell you, the last 10 months, everybody's paying attention to what we're doing now, and that's great. Because as GiGi just mentioned, it's an all-hands-on-deck approach. This is a broadband moment that we need to seize, and we've got to align our energies, our resources, our investments to get the most out of it.

And so one thing that I like to emphasize here in Illinois is yes, we have this tremendous opportunity to invest our Connect Illinois funds into broadband infrastructure, but that's just the beginning of the conversation. You have to have a full, well-rounded view of digital equity and what it takes to address digital equity gaps. And so on the one hand, you have infrastructure and making sure access is not a limiting factor.

But you also have to take into account that a lot of households lack computers, and we need to do everything that we possibly can to get devices into the hands of households and our young learners and folks who are working from home and wanting to participate 21st century applications, like telehealth or remote learning or flex scheduling.

And then the third piece here-- we often overlook this, not us in Illinois but in policy conversations-- the need for digital skills building and programming. Not everybody is ready to take full advantage of the internet. And so looking at this problem from a well-rounded, holistic perspective. Access through infrastructure investments, targeting households with computers and devices so that that's not a barrier to adoption, and then third, making sure that we all have digital programming and skills around literacy and know-how to use the internet to the fullest. And so we're trying to develop our digital equity programming in Illinois around that basic tenet, a well-rounded approach to addressing the digital divide.

And so we have some related programming that we're really excited about. We partnered with the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society based in Evanston on our Illinois Connected Communities program, and we have an application window open right now for communities in Illinois that want to take advantage of this. You have up to 50 hours of expert consultative services and also best practice curriculum in understanding the access adoption utilization aspects of the broadband conversation and also going through a pretty intensive broadband 101 planning effort to build local broadband capacity, establish a broadband vision, and hopefully be in a position to do something to act on that vision.

And so we want to inspire that community visioning and in that engagement, both through our Connect Illinois infrastructure investment and also all the other things that we think are really important to addressing the digital divide. And so that's one program that we like to highlight, that Illinois Connected Communities program.

Taking a step back from the programming, we're really interested in mapping. And I think as GiGi and Roberto had mentioned and we all know, the mapping that is available to us through the federal government, through the FCC, we're thankful that we have it, but it is significantly flawed. It overstates service in so many parts of the state that so many states have taken it upon themselves to invest in their own mapping.

And that's certainly the case here in Illinois. We're going to have some more mapping online here within the next month or so that we hope sheds a more accurate light on where broadband is and where it is not, and we're hoping that we're able to use that to engage communities, whether it's education stakeholders, folks that are working from home, just trying to get through the pandemic, or looking ahead in how to connect in meaningful ways post-pandemic. And so that mapping is an important component of that, and we hope that we have more opportunities moving forward for getting better mapping so that we're able to target our resources accordingly.

And then one piece that I'd like to mention here too is the opportunity to partner at the regional level to get a deeper understanding about where we are on the broadband front, beyond access. And so understanding, where are we on the affordability front, on the adoption front, and also on the utilization front?

And so we've established our Broadband Ready program, regional engagement for adoption and digital equity. Roberto, we're thrilled to have you part of our team for launching that program. And we hope that that gives us a much deeper and more meaningful understanding on where we are on a number of broadband metrics here in Illinois.

Back in grad school, I had a professor who said, Matt, what gets measured gets done. If you're not serious about establishing baselines and measuring progress along the way, you're not serious about doing something about the problem. And so that's what we're trying to do here in Illinois is get a full handle on where we are today so that we can forge meaningful partnerships, target resources, and take on the digital divide in a holistic manner.

The last point I'd just like to mention, the General Assembly also had the foresight last year to ask our broadband advisory council to undertake an affordability study. And we engaged some expert researchers in the field to get a good handle on what it would cost in Illinois to provide free or reduced-cost affordable broadband statewide, region-wide to different subsets of the population, particularly those in need.

And a few things that the affordability study revealed that were available to us beforehand through the American Community Survey, 1.1 million Illinoisans lack access to a computer at home. And so not all those households necessarily want to have a computer, whether it's desktop or laptop, but that's a significant barrier. And so we want to do something about that. And so recently, in partnership with Governor Pritzker and his administration, we launched the Connect Illinois Computer Equity Network, designed to engage public and private sector stakeholders to put computers in the hands of folks in need.

And another piece that affordability study references, our homework gap, so to speak, the fact that we have a lot of households that don't have access to a computer when remote learning is the norm. And so at least 285,000 households in Illinois, at minimum, lack connectivity for remote learning. I suspect that number is actually much greater.

But the point is, when you look at the challenges ahead of us, it's on the access front, it's on the adoption front, largely through affordability. It's on the computer front and also on building digital skills. And so we feel really good about where we're at, but we've got a lot of work to do. And so I'll leave it right there. Thank you so much.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Well, thank you, Matt. That was a good summary of the situation in Illinois. And now let's move to Joshua and let us know about what's happening in Detroit over there on your side of the digital divide there.

JOSHUA EDMONDS: Yeah. Well, first and foremost, I want to say thank you for the opportunity to share some insight, as well as learn and follow up some very incredible and insightful leaders in this space. So for Detroit, I think from an anecdotal standpoint, I'll highlight some of the complexities and difficulties, at least how I see it on the ground in Detroit and how other municipalities are grappling with this, within an urban context.

So when I first started, the very first thing I did my first day on the job was I introduced myself to the mayor's cabinet. I said, hi, Joshua Edmonds, I'm a person, and this is what I want to do. And right after that meeting, they threw me in front of the news cameras. And then they said, all right, what's your plan for connecting Detroiters to internet and blah, blah, blah? And that was one of the most difficult and sweaty interviews I've ever done because there isn't a budget that we have for really eradicating this issue.

So if we're looking at municipalities as the aggregate of federal spending allocated from the state level, if there isn't something that's earmarked in the budget to support this work, what are we supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? So I felt bad because I got up there and said, no, we have a plan to empower as many Detroiters as possible. And to this day, I feel ashamed at how empty that interview was, only because I didn't want to say anything that I didn't necessarily know what the landscape was going to afford us.

Now, fast forward to two years later, we're coming off of a very nice 2020 where we raised over $30 million last year. And that's something where it's really a testament to the ecosystem approach that's needed at the local level but reinforced at every single level of governance.

So I am one and all of what Matt was sharing with what Illinois is doing. And I am prodding my state to really take this proactive angle because on the municipal front, we're figuring this out. And it's not pejorative, but I want to afford partners to be selfish when it comes to this work. And what I mean by that, General Motors is a great partner in what we're doing in Detroit. But General Motors is also investing in electric vehicles, so it's in their best interest to focus on this issue.

No different than that, we have the banks at the table because of online banking and financial literacy. It doesn't make any sense for them to be developing these financial tools only to shoot themselves in the foot by not taking a proactive stance here. When we look at Quicken Loans, they're also headquartered in Detroit, and their leadership has been phenomenal. They've actually committed to even hiring a full-time person to actually serve as a program manager for digital equity within their family of companies because they said, let's look at every opportunity we have at our disposal within our companies to then be able to leverage those strengths.

So some of you all might have seen a video I did last year with Aquaman, or Jason Momoa. We were really looking at trying to activate celebrities and get them involved in bridging the digital divide from an advocacy an awareness campaign. And so really, our focus was, all right, if we don't have the capital at the onset-- at least we don't believe we do-- to really eradicate this issue the way it needs to be, what are all of the various ways that we can activate our relationships to then bring those resources into fruition in a way that is actually rooted in community engagement?

So about two weeks ago, we just finished a community election. Our community election is built on a robust community governance structure, where residents are actually then going to be able to propose solutions as it relates to how they believe the digital divide needs to be bridged within their organizations or within their neighborhoods. Out of that, we've established a Connect 313 fund. Connect 313 is also the name of everything we're doing. But out of that fund, we're then able to support, hopefully in perpetuity, the recommendations that people are then proposing to change.

And the reason why we're going that route is because when it comes to this digital inclusion conversation, it's interesting. I think that in a large part, many people are afraid of nuance, certainly not of the people on this call. But when we begin talking to other stakeholders, the nuance of the digital divide is befuddling to them because it's like, well, I can just throw computers and internet, and that solves the digital divide, right?

I'm like, no, it solves it in the way that you think it exists. But there's so much more nuance that's needed to actually round out the edges that I'm not going to say I'm going to turn down computers. I'm thankful that we get them. I'm thankful that we have internet supporters. I'm thankful that we have resources that are allocated. But there's this other messy middle that people don't want to acknowledge.

People want to acknowledge the sentiment that people have when it comes to affordability, the sentiment that people have when it comes to the duopoly that most municipalities are in when it comes to only having two internet providers.

And so when you're looking at, on the ground, when a family that you've been trying to desperately help has already exhausted one internet provider option and they can't afford to go to re-enroll because the past-due bill is too high, they've already exhausted the other one, well, now this isn't even a question about internet access anymore. We have the access.

And even when there are affordable programs, and I use that loosely, but $10 a month, we have those at our disposal, and people still aren't taking to that. So I understand when people are looking at trying to provide as many resources as possible, but I also understand that the amount of nuance that's needed is actually not congruent with what we have as an offering on the table right now to actually bridge this digital divide.

So going back to the nucleus of the question describing the state of broadband in America, particularly as it relates to the pandemic and the digital divide, I would say that we're in a state of disarray. And I'm optimistic. I think that we have a lot of leaders.

I think that industry has stepped up, to GiGi's point, in a large way. I can't stress the how great Comcast has been as a supporter in Detroit. I can't stress it. They've been fantastic. Now, there's a long way they have to go, and they know that. But at the end of the day, they've been very receptive. Along with our corporate partners, along with our community, I think that we're mobilized to move this forward.

And I have a smiley personality, so people probably can't tell that I'm angry. But it's really infuriating when we're on the ground here and we see things that are proposed, and I think people are lauding them as successes when I'm like, that does nothing for us. And even if it does something, it's not even close to the scope of the issue.

Again, when we're looking at families who have been sent to credit collections and have just ruined their credit and then, at the same time, they go to try and purchase a vehicle and then they can't purchase the vehicle, so now they're just disheartened and we can't even engage them anymore, and now here we are saying, well, we have the money now to pay for your internet. At this point, they don't want to talk to any of us.

And so when you're looking at the 30% of Detroiters who are struggling with internet or the 46% of them who don't have high-speed internet and we'll laud another program, we'll try and push another subsidy, this doesn't really help us when, at the very root of this, these people are hurting and they really don't see a path forward. So unless we come to something that's holistic, that's really going to help them, we're just wasting our time.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Well, thank you, Joshua. That gives us a real understanding of some of the nitty-gritty there, where you're dealing at the root level. What are some of the things that you would suggest, in terms of trying to be more holistic in dealing with this? Is this trying to deal with jobs and education and medicine and all those kinds of things as well?

JOSHUA EDMONDS: Yeah. And I'm sorry for some background noise right now. But the holistic angle is really us focusing on the education front. I believe in the opening remarks, there was a mention of the program that we do with the school district where we raise $23 million to get every single public school student a computer, internet access, tech support. That was in the name of distance learning.

At the end of the year, we raised another $4 million from the state through CARES Act funding to do telehealth. And that was, again, us focusing on, how do we empower the 50+ crowd in Detroit with access to appropriate devices and also empowering their medical care professionals to be able to facilitate that care? At the same time, we're now looking at building out a citywide tech support network in the name of workforce development. So that way, as non-profit organizations and small businesses are looking to engage in the community, that tech support isn't going to be a persistent barrier.

And so when you break down the various silos or the various sectors, it is one where we are really looking to activate as many as possible but in a natural way. Because philanthropy, for example, I know that was brought up. We've done a heck of a job on fundraising. I know that.

But at the same time, philanthropy is ill-equipped to actually bridge the digital divide. They are equipped nicely to address it. They're equipped nicely to be able to provide capacity-building resources for us to do our job better. They're equipped, even, and a great way for us to be able to demonstrate proof of concept that hopefully the federal government can take notice of and then actually support.

And so that's something that even in the hearing that GiGi had mentioned, I was thankful to be next there on that one. And one of the things was brought up from the members was that we have still yet to see a model where the federal government, the private sector, the public sector, residents, academia, and the various sectors are all sitting together at the same table.

And they said, if you build that model, that will convey the appropriate investment confidence that we need to then justify future investment. And so what we built with Connect 313 is that model, and so I think that there's a really unique opportunity for us to then showcase that model in a community of practice, as we are seeing more directors of digital inclusion being onboarded at the municipal level in urban contexts across this country.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Well, thanks, Joshua. And how about the rest of you responding to that angle of that holistic kind of approach? Is that something that all of you see as vital, and how is it moving forward?

GIGI SOHN: Well, absolutely. I think that's the key. I don't want to get ahead of your last question, but you talked about what's the one thing you'd like to see. I'd actually like to see an office of broadband connectivity in the White House. I don't want to call it a broadband czar. I'm told no more czars. But there needs to be leadership.

I saw a question in the chat about, what about the new leadership? Well, the new acting leadership is great, but she can't do much because she has a two-two commission. There's something she can do at the Bureau level, may have to push the envelope on legal, but this really does need to be a priority.

I was heartened to hear not only what Senator Wyden said, and I've worked with him for years. He's fantastic. But Gina Raimondo had her confirmation hearing, I think, two days ago, and she said that broadband access, particularly to rural and tribal areas, was going to be one of her priorities. But I do think we need somebody in the White House that is going to bring together the states, the localities, the digital inclusion advocates, philanthropy.

And Josh, I think that I know, as a person who's worked with philanthropy for years, they can solve it by themselves. But there are a number of philanthropies and rich individuals now looking to work on connectivity issues, and they're being told, look, just throwing a bunch of computers at people is just not going to be enough. It's got to be more than that.

So I do think there needs to be leadership from the very, very highest levels to bring in all the federal agencies. So for the last four years, the FCC and the Rural Utility Service, as a part Agriculture, which makes grants to rural broadband companies and the National Telecommunications Information Administration, which is in the Department of Commerce, which if there is a big infrastructure bill, and there's been talk of between $20 billion and $80 billion for broadband infrastructure-- they'll give out that money-- they haven't been talking to each other.

They've actually been fighting with each other. And the NTIA hasn't had a permanent chief, I think, for three years. It's really been terrible. So those agencies need to come together and work towards common cause. Kind of what the president is doing with climate change, getting top people like Gina McCarthy and John Kerry, they need a top person in the White House who's going to do that kind of coordination.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: How about you, Roberto? What's your perspective on this holistic approach? How does that work, maybe in rural areas, since we've been focusing on urban areas so far?

ROBERTO GALLARDO: Oh yeah. Yes, it's a no-brainer. It will require all hands on deck. That's what I tell the communities and regions I work with. This is not an easy issue to solve. There's a lot of awareness that needs to take place, and there's a lot of different sectors that need to play together to make sure that the needle can be moved.

What I've encountered, David, is more on the abstract side of things, back in the day, when you told people about the digital divide, they would stare back at you like, what are you talking about? Now, COVID has helped in that big time, but I think there's still some awareness to be made, especially, again, regional economic development and regional community development. I think that that's important. But that holistic ecosystem approach, it's the only way to accomplish anything to truly make a region or a community digital inclusive.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: So I guess stepping back just one minute, we talked a little bit about how the digital divide has been a bigger issue and more prominent now, during the pandemic. What were some of the specific examples of things that you've observed that were hurt through the digital divide, whether it was education, in terms of jobs? Have there been some glaring examples of how the digital divide was made even worse, possibly, during this time?

GIGI SOHN: Well, gosh, I said that on March 13, I was bombarded with press calls. You know the stories about the two kids in Southern California having to do their school work at a Taco Bell. I was featured in a CBS Sunday Morning piece where a woman was, again, sitting outside a restaurant so she could telework, the stories about college kids having to drop out because they didn't have adequate connectivity, and kids not going to school not only because they didn't have adequate connectivity, but because they had to care for their siblings while their parents went to work.

The anecdotes are great. The problem is, and I know Roberto will agree with me, is the previous FCC collected no data on the impacts of COVID-19 and the digital divide on American households. So just to go back a bit, because the FCC had abdicated its role overseeing the broadband market, it really couldn't tell broadband providers, do not disconnect folks, do not have data caps, so on and so forth.

So what they did was they created something called the Keep America Connected Pledge. And the chairman got down on his hands and knees and begged broadband providers to, A, not disconnect anybody, not charge overage fees. If they had Wi-Fi hotspots, make them available. That was the pledge, which about 800 or so internet service providers pledged to until the end of June, and then they decided, well, we can't hack that anymore.

In addition, he asked, and this wasn't part of the pledge, companies to strengthen or start low-income programs, like Comcast Internet Essentials, cease data caps, and a few other minor things. Those were the big things. But again, he couldn't actually mandate that they did anything in that.

Well, did the Keep America Connected Pledge and those sort of side promises, did they move the needle at all? Do we have any idea how many more of the 12 million school kids without internet connectivity got connected at home? Do we have any idea who got disconnected and who didn't? No, because the FCC refused. They were more interested in the press release that said, look at all these companies we got to make promises, than actually collecting the data to show whether what they did worked.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Yeah. Are there any other comments?

JOSHUA EDMONDS: I just raise kind of an anecdote that I think exemplifies, one, such cases like the question, but also kind of the reality on the ground. So when we were deploying all this technology in Detroit-- again, you're talking over 50,000 devices last year-- we thought that we did a great thing, and it was. But the problem soon came up, and it's is small ones that you don't see.

People are like, oh yeah, we got the devices out, the internet, the tech support. Great. But it's so loud here because no one has earphones. And I'm like, goodness. But it's those type of things, where it's like the minute we think we figure this out, there's just another layer to it.

And so the thing that I'm imploring anybody, any partner or whoever wants to engage in this work, it's more so from the standpoint of endurance because it's almost like we're rushing to the starting line. I want people to realize that yes, we're getting people connected and bridging the digital divide, at least in the current instance of this digital divide, of the lack of technology or the lack of internet or lack of broadband, whatever.

Once we get there, there are multiple divides just behind that curtain that we need to have the endurance to be able to address. So it's almost like as people are buying their admission ticket to getting in the fight here, thank you, but please stay till the end of the show. Because if you leave early, you're going to miss something, and we need you to get all this information.

And so that anecdote is really just serving that on the ground, as we're doing this, it's like whack-a-mole. The minute we hit one thing, another thing pops up. And we just have to be ready with this total ecosystem and with the federally-aligned structure that needs to be built with that person in the White House that then has to trickle down. That chain of command has to be solid in order for us to advance the interests of our communities.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: I guess one other thing that came up in the headlines today, even, was the vaccination issue for elderly, in particular. We haven't talked much about senior citizens and that aspect of the digital divide. Is that something that is needing to have more focus? Is that something that is, additionally, a critical area going forward?

ROBERTO GALLARDO: I think it does, David. And to me, a digitally inclusive community should ensure that everybody can participate. I was also listening to the radio, how they were going, oh, go online and get an appointment to get your vaccine. And immediately, I'm like, yeah, what about those senior citizens that may have internet but the device is not conducive or vise versa? Whatever it may be, it immediately kicks in.

But yes, I think that you have to slice it out in pieces so you can slowly but surely move the needle and not get overwhelmed. But at the end of the day, you have got to keep that forest in mind and not only a particular tree.

GIGI SOHN: I mean, here's another community that folks should think about is the differently-abled community. They also have challenges. So yeah, you could really go down the line in underrepresented communities that have special particular needs that are not being served.

MATT SCHMIT: And David, I would just add to that a timely example. We're all so aware of how much stress is placed on parents with helping their kids get the most out of remote learning opportunities. But right now, with COVID-19 vaccine enrollments, how many adults are helping their senior parents enroll for vaccinations? And this is a matter of life and death.

And I think it just it speaks to an often overlooked element of the digital divide and a need for targeting and programming in the senior populations. And so I hope that that's one of the lessons from all of this is that hey, we really need a robust approach to digital literacy programming.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Well, thank you. That's great answers. I guess I would want to give it a little focus on some of the solutions that we've seen and maybe how these might give us some information about how to move forward. So are there some examples of where the digital divide has been eliminated successfully? Where, led by whom, and how are they paid for? Are there some shining lights out there and ways to think about this?

JOSHUA EDMONDS: Well, I'll say, one thing that we'd like to do more of in Illinois is stand up, again, a robust digital navigator network, where we're able to tap into organizations or local communities that are willing to provide a portion of an FTE or an employee's time to go through a training on digital equity opportunities, whether it's providers that are available in the area, low-cost subscription plans for internet service, opportunities such as computer refurbishing or digital literacy skills building, and have that local advocate and champion kind of trained in a train-the-trainer model so that you're able to build out this capacity around, truly, the state, which is our vision in Illinois, so that we're not simply relying upon the modern librarian, once we're on the other side of this pandemic, to provide those sorts of services for patrons who go to the library seeking to access the internet. But rather, we're building out this network intentionally to provide this capacity and this resource for our communities.

And so there's a number of organizations that do this kind of work. I know Illinois has been talking very closely with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, NDIA. There are others where I think the model is the same. You want to build that capacity and raise awareness and train the trainer, so to speak.

GIGI SOHN: I mean, I don't think any community has successfully, completely closed the digital divide. There are some communities that have done a better job. Chattanooga, Tennessee is one of them, and that's because they have a municipal system. They got in under the wire before the state of Tennessee banned communities from building their own broadband networks. They got under the wire and built one, and they have provided all their school kids in the city limits, in the limits of their service area with free connectivity if they can't afford it.

So that's a great example. Here's the problem. The Tennessee law, which was passed with the help of incumbent broadband providers, does not allow them to build out to areas that are not served. And that's what's so galling about it. 19 states have laws that prohibit communities from building their own broadband systems or expanding them, if they get under the wire like Chattanooga. And a lot of the areas, these municipal systems or community systems want to build-- and a lot of them are public-private partnerships, by the way, they're not just municipal-- don't have any connectivity at all.

So when I was at the FCC, the Chattanooga system EPB and then a system in Raulston in North Carolina petitioned us to preempt laws of those states that prohibited them from building out further to communities that needed it. And we did so, but we were overturned by the Sixth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. And the stories about what people had to do that were a half a mile from the end of their service area, they had to cobble together a satellite and digital subscriber line and cans and copper at the cost of hundreds of dollars a month.

So one of the things that I'd really like to see is Congress preempt all those state laws that prohibit communities from building their own broadband networks. And that doesn't mean that every single community is going to do so. But particularly for communities where there are areas where the big incumbents just don't want to build for economic reasons-- that's fine, that's their right-- communities should be able to reach those residents.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: How do we get some of those areas reached then? Is there a way to try to help companies see that areas are more profitable, or is there a way to try to incentivize reaching out to some of these? Roberto, do you have any thoughts on that?

ROBERTO GALLARDO: Well, obviously, rural broadband networks are expensive to build. I mean, there's no sugarcoating that. There has got to be some incentives of some sort. What tickles me to death, David, is that some states exclude you if you're already receiving federal dollars and vise versa. When in reality, we need all the funding we can get.

The providers may argue, well, there's an overbuilding concern. But I think, if well coordinated, you're not going to overbuild. And you can get a very updated network built, but it's expensive. So yes, I think incentives and any sort of help is needed. The way it's disbursed, that's beyond my pay grade. But I think that it's important.

What I have tried, at least here in Indiana, is to allow the communities a voice or a mechanism to challenge or counter-argue what the providers are saying. Because currently, they are entirely at the mercy of the providers. And they may have other data. They may have word of mouth. They know their communities better.

And so if it would be phenomenal if you could incorporate some sort of voice or mechanism for the communities to kind of say, well, wait a minute. I have this data. Can we reach a middle point?

DAVE OPPEDAHL: Well, very complex situations, and solutions, it sounds like, are going to be pretty complex, too. We're running short on time, but I want to give one just quick thought to the Community Reinvestment Act, in terms of credit for banks and financial institutions. Is that something that might be possible to leverage to help in some areas, at least, of the digital divide? Joshua, you talked some about some of the financial institutions that are in Detroit having a reason to get involved, and it sounds like there could be an additional focus on that going forward.

JOSHUA EDMONDS: I think on our side, the willingness is definitely there. And I hear it from the banks. I hear the words Community Reinvestment Act. I hear them walk through that. And obviously, the work of a Jordanna Barton has been incredible. I have yet to see something that is going to empower us.

From a standpoint of, again, I know the words that are being said, but I know conceptually what is being argued. And if, conceptually, that is true, then yes, it would be helpful. But again, I have not seen anything. We've been saying the same thing around the Community Reinvestment Act for, quite frankly, the past four years, or at least I have. There's other people who have been saying it longer than me. But it's just something where conceptually, yes, bu I just still haven't seen anything that gives me the confidence to say, 100%, that'll work, and I can take that to the mayor and take that to a resident of Detroit tomorrow.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: OK. Well, we're rapidly coming to the end of our time. I just wanted to give everybody a chance to talk. I'll let GiGi talk. If you can move one policy lever, what action would you take to tackle the digital divide? Roberto, can you answer that first?

ROBERTO GALLARDO: Sure. I think, obviously, better data, which is obviously a buzzword right now. But I think that empowering and building capacity at the local level is equally as important because, as Matt mentioned, broadband, at the end, is a local solution. It is a local issue.

And so I think that we may have overlooked in the past the ability to build capacity at the local level. Either go after grants or get task forces together or Matt's great program of getting regions together, I think that's sorely needed, from a policy perspective, some way of helping these communities build capacity and empower them.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: OK. GiGi, you get your second one, since you already gave one.

MATT SCHMIT: Yeah, that's great. So I'd love to see Congress pass the Accessible Affordable Internet for All Act. The House passed it last year as part of the big infrastructure bill called the Moving Forward Act. Among many things that are in there are the preemption of those state laws I talked about, a permanent $50 a month broadband benefit for low-income and recently-unemployed people, $80 billion for infrastructure builds in unserved and underserved communities. Hopefully this time, there would be very strong accountability. And in fact, they're working on refining the law in order to make sure that there's more accountability.

I would also allow e-rate funds. So that's the universal service fund the FCC manages that gives money to schools and libraries. Allow e-rate funds to be used for the connectivity to the home. I think the FCC could do that by itself, but I'm more than happy for Congress to do that.

There are other great things. To me, I've called it a candy store. It's just an advocate's dream. I'm not going to tick through everything else. There's other funding mechanisms as well for infrastructure, but it's a fantastic bill and this time, the Senate will take it up.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: All right, how about you, Matt?

MATT SCHMIT: Yeah, so I agree with so much of what's been shared here, so I won't reiterate that, but a lot of great ideas here today. But from my position-- and frankly, this is something I've felt for a long time-- I think states are much better positioned to do meaningful work on the broadband front than the federal government. And so I hope that in this moment, in this year ahead, we look at recalibrating that balance and strengthening the partnership and strengthening the state hands.

In the last decade, we've seen so many states invest in offices and broadband or task forces for their own grant programs. There's a capacity that's been developed at the state level, and we're doing really good work across the country. And so if I were to say something, I would say, we love the support from the federal government, but I'd rather have it be support and facilitation. Let's get mapping-- better mapping, more useful, more accurate mapping-- and let's get funding that's more targeted in partnership with our states, perhaps state block grants.

Right now, we're competing, in many regards, with federal funding, trying to make sense of where it's going and how to play off of it. We'd be in a much better position if that funding flowed right to the states.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: All right, thanks, Matt. And how about you, Joshua?

JOSHUA EDMONDS: You know, take what GiGi said and then yeah, that's kind of my point. And then take what Matt said, and then find and replace and insert local where he said state. But the only other thing I would add specifically, as we're looking at that e-rate expansion, I just want to hammer into that point even more. That's really what could make a big difference for a lot of our school districts across the country. All of the other ones, yes, and I'm definitely double-clicking on that one, too.

DAVE OPPEDAHL: All right, well, thanks to all our panelists for a stimulating discussion. I know we had to keep it kind of short, since this topic could take a lot longer to delve into many of the details. But we appreciate all the insights you've been able to share.

And even though the digital divide continues to be a challenge, it sounds like there are solutions in the works and more in the pipeline. Hopefully there will be a digital bridge to everyone. It would help with this inclusivity to get everyone involved with our digital life that is really key to the future, both for the economy and for our own quality of life, as individuals.

So thanks to everyone, and thanks to the audience for participating. And hopefully, there will be more opportunities in the future, as we continue to have additional Project Hometown meetings across the district and maybe in person in the future again. So thank you much to everyone.

Bridging the Digital Divide for an Inclusive Future

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