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Digital Inclusion Saves Lives During a Pandemic - Community Broadband Bits Episode 405
Our lives have mostly moved online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the millions of Americans who don't have access to home broadband have been left behind. Whether it's unavailable or just unaffordable, these families must risk their health to access essential services, like healthcare and education.
This week for the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), about the many ways that the pandemic has highlighted digital divides in our country. Angela shares how NDIA is helping address urgent connectivity needs by supporting digital inclusion practitioners on the ground and by raising public awareness during the crisis.
One of NDIA's efforts is their list of Free and Low-Cost Internet Plans from national broadband providers. Christopher and Angela review some of the providers' offers and discuss the problems that NDIA has found with the plans. (Spoiler: Comcast is doing, well, pretty good actually. Charter Spectrum on the other hand . . . ) Angela explains why it's important that these plans serve more than just students if we want to keep people safe at home.
The pair also talk about creative efforts to temporarily deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots as well as longer term plans to improve broadband access and availability. However, Angela reminds us that removing the cost barrier is still the quickest way to get people connected today.
This show is 31 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Angela Siefer: The affordability problem is one that we can solve like right now, and so the the idea that people don't have broadband in their homes because they can't afford it and we know of all the terrible stuff that's going along with not having broadband in your home right now, that situation is completely unacceptable.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 405 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. Today, Christopher talks with Angela Siefer, Executive Director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Christopher and Angela talk about the new work organization is doing to meet the needs of our public health crisis, including creating a list of resources to help those who can support people who may need assistance with connectivity during the pandemic. They discussed some of the efforts of larger ISP to bring connectivity to low income folks and why such efforts need to include a range of demographics, not just homes with school aged children. Angela explains why some of those programs are more popular than others in the short term, and she and Christopher discuss possible longterm solutions as well. Now, here's Christopher talking with Angela Siefer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in my den in St. Paul talking to one of my favorite people who's doing a lot of really great work around the nation. Angela Siefer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome back to the show, Angela.
Angela Siefer: Hi Chris. Thanks for having me again. I'm coming to you from my home office/college age daughter's bedroom, which we now share.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, if she's reading in the corner, she's doing it extremely quietly.
Angela Siefer: Excellent.
Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to start off by just asking you, is this just a lovely relaxing time for you to be home with the family?
Angela Siefer: The last two days, my college aged son has made dinner and brought it up to me because I was still working while they were all eating dinner, so I wouldn't say it's relaxing.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. A few days ago you told me you'd resolve to take it a little bit easier after working 20 hour days or so. I'm assuming.
Angela Siefer: That didn't really work out. It was good intentions though, right? And we all appreciate good intentions.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, this is where I think it's a good place to start because as someone who's been aware of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which if people want to check it out, digitalinclusion.org, the list is off the hook. I feel like you put together a network of the people who are on the front lines of figuring out how to make sure people can conduct their lives in the period of this pandemic. That wasn't the intention of what you put it for, but just just give me a sense, what's NDIA doing now that it didn't have to do two months ago?
Angela Siefer: I think the work itself still falls in the same buckets that it did before, which is that we help the digital inclusion practitioners on the ground and talk to each other and learn from each other. We write up some of that turn it into guide books, but then also we do the policy work where we're learning from those on the ground. And so that kind of work is the same. The difference now is that the work is much more urgent because people who don't have Internet in their homes or a device or the digital skills to use it, it's now life and death. So, this is why taking breaks doesn't seem appropriate. I know I need to do it for my personal health and don't anybody send me nasty emails on that.
Angela Siefer: But at the same time, the work really is life and death because we need folks to stay in their homes. If they don't have broadband device and digital skills, if they don't have one of those, they are going to leave their homes. I really encourage anyone to think if you didn't, would you stay in your home? Would you shelter in place?
Christopher Mitchell: Not just that. Well, you're being told that your children need to go and do this work digitally in some cases. So they're literally receiving conflicting messages.
Angela Siefer: They are and the stories of those who don't have it, people are really being told to go sit in the parking lot, hopefully have a car in order to sit in the parking lot. If you don't have a car to sit in the parking lot. Well, is there really an answer to that? And even sitting in a car to do the parking lot, I can't imagine. I have a nine year old, "All right honey, get in the car. We're going to go to the parking lot to do your homework." We can barely get her to do it now sitting in our bedroom. And then there are some stories of cities and others turning off the wifi in parks because we're not social distancing. I mean that's complicated, right? Yes, we don't want them to social distance but maybe one of those folks, they were just trying to apply for unemployment. So, now they can't feed their kids. Oh my heart just breaks in thinking about those situations.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I just want to make sure, I mean this discussion about how things have changed, you are well aware that people have been doing this, in rural areas in particular for a long time, so if anyone's thinking that you're not aware of that, you are very aware of it. You're just talking about what's, it's a much larger scale now. I was talking to someone from Cambridge, Massachusetts recently and I was like, well a lot of the solutions we're looking at don't apply to you because people drive everywhere and they have parking lots everywhere and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you really don't have that. So I don't know what to tell you. I'm sorry.
Angela Siefer: Yeah. So hopefully the weather's okay so that you can sit outside in a parking lot because you don't have a car. Another terrible story, I saw a tweet of a principal in Phoenix came in in the morning to the school building when it was supposed to be shut down and there were kids under a blanket up against the school building, so they can get access to the wifi. And it gets cold at night in Phoenix, it's a hot day, but it's cold at night. So, those stories are out there and it's heartbreaking. So, we have to figure this out now. I curse more than I have ever cursed. Like I just did it right there but I stopped myself. So I'm pretty proud of that.
Christopher Mitchell: NDIA has assembled a really great and essential collection of resources for families that aren't all that aware of what their opportunities are. And I think even more importantly for all the people who are on the front lines who themselves just need something that point people at when they get questions or to put on sheets. And so I'm curious, did anything as you were compiling that list of resources, what's included on it and then we'll talk a little bit about if it's sufficient.
Angela Siefer: The list that we have is a list of free and low cost Internet plans specific to the Covid crisis and beyond the Covid crisis. The list that we have is intended for practitioners, individuals who are supporting those who would be eligible, it is not intended for consumers because this stuff is confusing.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Even for the people who are working for the companies that are supplying it.
Angela Siefer: That's exactly right. One of the confusing parts and this may seem kind of silly to some of your listeners is that individuals who have never really had to think about broadband before now have to think about it in terms of those that they are serving, making sure that they have access, whether it be education, healthcare, employers and because they don't understand it some unfortunate promotion of free offers have gone out in areas where those providers don't actually provide service.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's a problem.
Angela Siefer: Right. So we very much encourage those who are interacting with and supporting particularly low income consumers, family members, households to look at the list and then take out the pieces that are relevant for your area. Don't just hand over the whole list cause that's confusing. You know which providers are available in your area. If you don't figure it out. Do the copy paste of just the providers in your area.
Angela Siefer: Create the flyers, create you know the information that can spread the word. Because that's how we're going to reach folks. NDIA right now is working on a model that we're calling digital navigator. And to be clear, when I say NDIA, I don't just mean the staff, I mean the whole community, this has really been a community discussion and now we are doing the more detailed work of writing it up. But this idea of a digital navigator is someone who has a different job within the community, maybe their local healthcare workers going into home or used to go into homes. Maybe it is folks who are providing housing assistance, but it's individuals and organizations who do other work with at risk populations. Training them on how to provide guidance to someone on what's the Internet available in that area? What are the options for getting a free or low cost device in that area?
Angela Siefer: And then helping that person really with some basic digital skills in order to do the very basic thing they need to do right now. If they just need to apply for unemployment right now, that's the urgent thing in their lives. Help them get to that point. And then help them get to the point where they're comfortable enough to take some online digital literacy classes. So, this is a model that's probably been needed in the past, but the urgency of the current situation is you can't just tell people to go a library anymore. We have to figure out how to help people via phone and we have to get at home broadband in a way that the urgency of it today is completely different than before. We always knew that the digital divide was a significant issue. It has now become a life and death if showroom
Christopher Mitchell: And you brought someone on board to help with that.
Angela Siefer: We did. We have a project going with LISC actually, which we're super excited about and that has allowed us to bring on Sabrina Roach who can help pull this together us. NDIA is a small team, so having a little bit of support during this time is just really incredible.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, especially from Sabrina, who I think of as being one of the most capable people I've ever had the pleasure of working with.
Angela Siefer: Yeah, that's exactly right. We totally got lucky is what happened in being able to hire her. And I think it's important to note that this digital navigator idea as we build it and define it, we're doing so very publicly. We just finished up creating what we're defining as the concept and then we're pushing that out today actually.
Christopher Mitchell: You mean last week?
Angela Siefer: Yes, I meant we've pushed that out last week, so the details of how it all works, we are very aware. And so are all the folks that we're working with around the country who are trying to figure this out at the same time that we have to just keep sharing with each other what it is that we've figured out and what it is we don't figured out in order for us all to make mistakes as quickly as we can and share out those mistakes so that others can have can have greater impact.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's wonderful. I'm looking forward to the results that I think that's something that well maybe take for granted in five or 10 years in a lot of places. What do you think about the response from the big providers? So, you've collected a list and we know that hundreds of providers have responded. A lot of the media attention went to the big ones because they have customers everywhere and especially in the big media markets. So what do you make of, if we just generally say the biggest cable and telephone companies, how are they doing in responding to the pandemic specifically to connect low income folks?
Angela Siefer: It is a scale, I'm not sure what the right word is.
Christopher Mitchell: A big continuum.
Angela Siefer: A continuum of broadband providers who are doing super job, those who are doing really not so super job. The ones in the middle, the, "Eh, it's okay." The super job I would put at Comcast, if everybody could level up to Comcast, we could really have a lot more folks connected to the Internet. I put Charter at the other end of the spectrum. Golly.
Christopher Mitchell: Let me just pause you for a second and say that what you've just described as almost every inside conversation I've had with people about the management of the two companies, and this is something I've tried to make clear, is I have plenty of things that I'm frustrated with Comcast about, but fundamentally they are a well run company in the system, Charter is not, its employees spend most of their days trying to figure out how to find another job from what I can tell.
Angela Siefer: The issues with Charter are multiple. I think one of the biggest ones is that they didn't connect the free two months to their existing $18 a month discount offer. That just doesn't make any sense at all. After your free two months either your service stops depending on upon who the person was that you reached at the call center or you are now being charged for rate. Some people are being told they will be charged for rate, which means that call center person took it as a promotional offer, not a crisis offer. Kind of want it makes me scream.
Christopher Mitchell: I bet it actually has made you scream.
Angela Siefer: It has, actually. There's a lot of curse words in that one too. When we were first figuring out the problems with Charter, I really had it make myself tone it down because I was not speaking professionally to the media and I should be very careful about that. I think one of the issues is that at Comcast there are people whose job it is and their only job is Internet essentials. That low cost offer, which is now free for two months. At Charter, I can't get anybody to tell me who's in charge over there. And I've asked lots of people. I've asked other people to ask people. I've asked FCC commissioners if they can figure it out. Nobody seems to know who's in charge of the free offer and or the the $18 a month offer. Where does the responsibility lie? Nobody wants to take responsibility. That is not good.
Angela Siefer: The company's in the middle of that spectrum are AT&T, Verizon and the offers are okay. They're not great. Verizon's is troubling because it leaves out all of their folks that have DSL. So if you don't have enough to get upgraded a Fios, you're also not lucky enough to get their ... and you're low income, you're also not lucky enough to get it for $20 which those who have Fios can do. That seems particularly wrong. AT&T it's really slow. It has been really slow, their low cost offer. So now you can get the really slow for free for two months. Eh. You know, it is what it is.
Christopher Mitchell: So, as we look at the hundreds of smaller companies that have taken the FCC pledge, I'm presuming that some of them have gone further to also create some of these free programs for 60 days, I mean in one case I think it's actually 180 days or 120 days or something like that. So there's some variety out there. But what do you broadly take away from it?
Angela Siefer: I take away that the smaller companies are more connected to the communities. That they certainly know who's in charge of the low cost programs. And the folks locally can probably figure out who that person is. If there's something going on and not working correctly. So the idea that the smaller the company might have more of a financial challenge providing that free offer, but they probably experience a bit more pressure to provide it because they live in those communities and they're seeing it firsthand.
Christopher Mitchell: Also, I assume they have thinner margins and so it can be much more difficult for them to make those commitments, which is why we've seen Senator Klobuchar among others and a bipartisan group pushing for $2 billion. A few months ago we would have said is a large amount, when now we would say it's a small amount to try to make sure they're able to keep doing that.
Angela Siefer: I was talking to a reporter at the New York Times and I said, there is concern about the smaller companies not being able to afford to do this and being in danger of their own stability. And he said, "Are you sure? I don't know. Is that true?" I said, "Well, ILSR thinks it's true and I trust them." His response was, "I do too."
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's great. We're going to isolate that and replay it over and over again. Something that NDIA has done a great job of is talking about how these programs can't just be for households that have kids. It's not just about school, it's about the family being connected and just tell me what you're seeing on that front.
Angela Siefer: The most attention around the issue of the digital divide during this crisis has been on school kids and the homework app. Completely understaNDIAble. I think we need to be super careful not to limit any solutions just to that population. In particular, seniors are at greatest risk of dying because they're leaving their homes.
Christopher Mitchell: Right? Elderly seniors, not seniors in high school.
Angela Siefer: Not seniors in high school, that's a very good clarification. Let's call them older adults. Older adults are most at risk of dying when they leave their homes, so we cannot just focus on any of our solutions on the kids, which they definitely need solutions. We have to look at everyone, all of the folks who are particularly at risk, all of those who are asymptomatic and out there sharing the virus unintentionally for all the reasons that we all know, everybody needs to shelter in place as much as they can, and so that means the solutions have to address everyone.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's a good time for a PSA. I hate masks, I really, really hate them and when I go out in public to hit the grocery store, take out at a local restaurant or something like that, I put on one of the stupid baNDIAnas that hurts my ears with the rubber bands like ... strongly encourage people to do it because I'm frankly ... I can't remember the last time I got sick. It happens once every six or seven years. I'm one of those very lucky people, it comes from my mom. I don't want to accidentally pick it up and spread it around and and so that's why I wear it.
Angela Siefer: That's exactly right. My husband also has a beard as you do Chris and he actually shaved it off because it was so uncomfortable under the mask.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. So, I want to ask you about what we can do we in the short term. what are the kinds of things that you're encouraging to resolve this over the next ... let's just say particularly over the summer, but over 2020. Things that don't involve architecting new broadband networks.
Angela Siefer: The free and low cost offers from the Internet service providers are valuable. The one thing that we can be doing right now that's not costing the rest of us money but is really essential is to get out information about those. They are not the full answer. They are baNDIAids and we really need a broadband subsidy, an emergency broadband subsidy, to be identified and funded by Congress as soon as possible. Get it out through existing mechanisms because we don't have time to stand up a new program and make sure that everybody can afford broadband.
Angela Siefer: Broadband infrastructure is a problem that takes longer to solve. The affordability problem is one that we can solve right now. And so, the idea that people don't have broadband in their homes because they can't afford it. And we know of all the terrible stuff that's going along with not having broadband in your home right now, that situation is completely unacceptable.
Christopher Mitchell: And this is primarily an urban and suburban situation in which this is where the advantage of the Comcast and Charters and even AT&T's because they have equipment on the home and for them it's a matter of likely flicking a switch in software to turn it on. One of the things that you're saying about a subsidy I want to say is important ... I don't want to get lost in the fact that there's tons of people who just don't know about the offers we discussed earlier. So making them aware is really important, but the subsidy is important beyond that, is what you're saying.
Angela Siefer: Yes. And I would also clarify that there are rural areas where infrastructure does exist and people are not subscribing. So, it's not just an urban issue to provide a broadband subsidy or to get them to sign up for free and low cost offers. It is wherever there is existing service, we should help folks sign up for that. There's been a lot of excitement and promotion over using hotspot devices, loaning them out, so there's different kinds of hotspots. We should be careful about that because it often gets, they get thrown together at the same time.
Christopher Mitchell: It's the English language, it's brutal.
Angela Siefer: It is the English language. Hot spots that are personal devices that would handle a few other devices in your household versus hotspot area. I'm not even sure the right word-
Christopher Mitchell: Right, they go wifi, public access point.
Angela Siefer: Yes, right. The hotspot devices that get loaned out by libraries, that sometimes individual families will have, those are a valuable resource where the service is available. And if the actual hotspot device can be purchased, which right now there's a supply problem with those, we very much need all the solutions to be on the table. This gets at that issue of very well meaning people not knowing what all those solutions on the table are, so they focus their efforts at hotspots when they could be focusing their efforts at those free and low cost offers where that infrastructure is already available.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. The challenge I feel like with the hotspots is that it's a decent solution for schools that just need to finish the term and perhaps the very beginning of the next term, let's hope not, but it seems likely for at least some schools, but over time it ends up being super costly. I'm guessing.
Angela Siefer: It is very costly and the more reasonable the service is in terms of costs, the more spotty it is also. It is mostly a really valuable solution for housing insecure folks and homeless folks where having a wire line doesn't make sense. There is no place to put a wireline or they move often, so keeping continually installing a new wireline is not going to happen. That's where it's a solution. The issue with getting folks signed up for the free and low cost is that it's a bit more time consuming. It's a lot faster. If you could just hand out hotspots and you press the button and it works whereas getting them signed up and making sure it's actually working, the installation and then is it functioning? It's a longer process to be fair.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. One of the other solutions then also is to have the public wifi hotspots in parking lots that we're seeing rushed out in a number of places and memorably a fiber to a school bus, which is not the first, but it won't be the last in the Ozarks of Arkansas. So, that's also a solution that you see a lot of merit in for the short term.
Angela Siefer: Oh yes. There's a lot of creative solutions going on out there. Internet through bookmobiles, spreading the signal that way. Internet through the school buses, parking them in particular low income neighborhoods, pushing out the signal from the schools so it's stronger and maybe reaches even beyond the parking lot to some homes. All of those are really appreciated. And those along with the low cost offers and along with hospital devices, it's all a series of baNDIAids. So you know what happens when you only use a series of baNDIAids, there's a bunch of gaps. There are people who aren't covered by any of those solutions.
Christopher Mitchell: So, what's a longer term solution that we should be looking at?
Angela Siefer: The longer term solution is that broadband subsidy that goes beyond the emergency.
Christopher Mitchell: What does that look like? We have lifeline. It's a $9,25, I believe, an entire family gets to choose if they would like to have a telephone or Internet service. So, we have the start of something. I don't want to put that as purely as straw man, but what does your subsidy do differently?
Angela Siefer: It is a start and I think we have to take advantage of the fact that we already have the lifeline structure there. There are certainly aspects of that structure. Lots of us would want to change, both who lean right and who lean left there are things that any of those individuals would want to have it fixed, but it is a structure that already exist and we should figure out if we want to continue using it.
Angela Siefer: The broadband subsidy right now is this tiny little 3Gb added onto your mobile phone because that's what most folks use lifeline for, those who do use lifeline as a communication subsidy use it from a mobile phone for the most part. So it would need to be a completely separate benefit. We can't have people choosing that totally doesn't make any sense. There needs to be both a phone subsidy and a broadband subsidy. And I know this makes some folks super nervous. I get it.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm one of them.
Angela Siefer: I totally get it and I think now is the time to be having those discussions to determine, "Okay, what about it makes us nervous and how can we get to some sort of agreement?"
Christopher Mitchell: The part that makes me nervous is, first of all, it doesn't make me oppose it. I'm supportive of it. I think it's necessary for all the reasons that you've laid out both here and in other conversations. I am nervous about subsidizing a broken market. And that's the part that makes me nervous and I think that is shared by people in the left and the right, as you said earlier.
Angela Siefer: Absolutely. The tricky part is going to be us trying to increase competition at the same time that we're providing the subsidy. Theoretically the subsidy would then be able to go down if we were able to raise competition and improve prices. Wouldn't that be lovely?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's a very good point in that one of the reasons it's not perhaps the predominant reason, but one of the reasons we do lack competition is because the cost of trying to provide an additional network in an area in which you do not have a lot of people taking up service, if you suddenly have more people that are willing to take service with a subsidized coupon, then you could see new network build out. I do feel like, and knowing you I know you would support additional ways to increase competition as well, so yeah ... I think that makes sense as a holistic sort of approach. I just get nervous about programs that start off well intentioned and then five years later you're like, "Whoa, we're spending so much money. We haven't structurally resolved very much."
Angela Siefer: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I get the impression of is that you're not the kind of person to waste a lot of time on things that can't happen. I think you take strong goals, things that are hard to make happen, but you are seeing support now for that that you had not seen six months ago. We've talked for awhile about the need for a better broadband subsidy, but we haven't made it a public campaign. Now you are, the facts on the ground have changed is what you're seeing.
Angela Siefer: They have completely changed. The awareness is now totally different. There are still a couple people out there who think everybody already has broadband, but number of people are fewer. I'm now having conversations with even Internet service providers about a broadband subsidy and they weren't really talking to me about broadband subsidies before.
Angela Siefer: And I'm seeing conversation amongst organizations who haven't always worked together who are now working together to try to figure this out, so I have high hopes. I am also realistic that it may not, the emergency part of this may not happen. And I'll just keep cursing a lot, but if it doesn't happen, we will be closer to figuring out the longterm solution because we will have had some of those hard conversations during the crisis that we hadn't had before.
Christopher Mitchell: That's great. Well, I think that's a good note to leave on unless there's anything else that you want to shoehorn in.
Angela Siefer: This is perfect. Thank you, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much, Angela. I appreciate your time and I really love the work that you're doing, the network you've put together, seeing the collaboration that's happening on that lists are wonderful, it makes me feel a lot worse about the work I've done.
Angela Siefer: Well, I love your work, so I'll have to send you some more kudos to make sure you understand. Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Angela Siefer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show.
Jess Del Fiacco: Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetwork.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting For Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support at any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 405 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.