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Empowering Municipalities in New York - Episode 510 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast Christopher is joined by Scott Rasmussen, Acting Director of the New York State ConnectALL Office. During the show, the two dive into how New York will spend its broadband funds to support municipal networks and partnerships, the challenges of public-public partnerships between local governments working together on deployments, and what we can expect success to look like in the near future.
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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.
Scott Rasmussen (00:07):
I think we're gonna be really proud about the decisions we made right now to be able to set local communities up to be successful for the next 10, 15, 20, or 30 years.
Christopher Mitchell (00:18):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Encore edition <laugh>. This is Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And you, you all will have missed the wonderful introduction that Scott just gave before. I realize I wasn't recording and this is why I should have a proper engineer over my shoulder at all times. But Scott is is someone that I've known for many years doing really great work. both you know, at at indigenous connectivity summits where we met and with the state of New York Scott Rasmussen is the acting director of the New York State Connect All Office, and I'm really excited to have you here, Scott. Thank you for, for joining us.
Scott Rasmussen (01:02):
I'm really excited to be here.
Christopher Mitchell (01:04):
So Scott the, the State of New York has been a real pioneer in, in broadband service and is I think it now a double pioneer with the latest programs from governor Hoel. So why don't you give us a quick lesson as to what the first pioneering effort, effort is, and then we'll probably spend most of our time talking about the, the Connect All office and, and what is coming out of that?
Scott Rasmussen (01:29):
I love the idea of a double pioneer. We, we are always trying to chart new waters in New York state and try to stay ahead of the curve, especially on tech and broadband issues. So that's glad, I'm glad that that's the impression that we're giving. absolutely. You know, just to take a step back, as you mentioned, kind of our, our, our initial work in the broadband sphere really took hold in 2015 when New York State appropriated $500 million for rural broadband deployment across the state. at the time it was by an order of magnitude the largest state program in the country. as mentioned, you know, we, we read the writing on the wall. We recognized that this was gonna be an essential service for everyone no matter where you lived, and that we needed to put our money where our mouth is and, and invest in infrastructure and real deployments.
So beginning in 2015, we founded the new New York Broadband program. We did three phases of funding again, $500 million in deployed broadband to 256,000 homes, businesses, and anchor institutions. we put in more than 21,000 miles of new fiber in New York State for the first time. Really upstate communities were wired more than ever. Obviously, FCC data has its issues, but I think it, it tells a good story here. 65% of Upstate New Yorkers did not have wireline broadband in in 2015. Now we're looking at well above 95%. so it's a traumatic change and we're really, really excited about the work that we've done and excited about the work that we have ahead and the connect all initiatives. and so to outline a little bit about, you know, how we got, how we got here and what we're doing ahead, we recognized over the last number of years of work and broadband that we need to be approaching the issue comprehensively.
We need to think about access in a truly holistic way. And that doesn't just mean having a, a wire available in front of your house. It has to be affordable. We need to be thinking about issues like digital literacy, digital inclusion we have to make sure that you have a device at home, the kind of range of issues that impact, impact New Yorkers, and they prevent them from being able to get online. We need to be addressing. And so we took all of that, the knowledge that we learned in the new New York broadband program. We wrapped it together in a new connect all initiative that really is, I think, the most comprehensive approach to broadband in the nation, thinking about it as an essential service in the 21st century economy, in making sure that we're committed to meeting everyone where they're at, understanding what their needs are, and trying to figure out a path forward to be able to get them online.
Christopher Mitchell (04:23):
Yeah, I feel like in New York, you've all been through what other states were just starting to go through and, and I hope that other states will five years down the road, <laugh> end up with as good of a program as as what we're about to talk about here. The one of the things I just wanted to add is that when you when the state of New York did the 500 million broadband program a lot of local companies were able to use that to expand. And, and that's something that's usually important to my audience's, important to my organization. So you know, I think
Scott Rasmussen (04:55):
That's absolutely, sorry to cut you off, but yeah, we had 32 participants. I mean, we're talking family run ISPs across the state. I think we're really proud that it wasn't, you know, doing these mega projects only with mega companies. You know, we wanted to be inclusive of everybody, make sure that everybody had an opportunity, and we had a, a number of small ISPs that may have had, you know, aging infrastructure, aging coax plant out there, and we were able to get them support to be able to upgrade that to fiber, to be able to really kind of set them on a trajectory of success for the years to come. So it really, I think, added so much to having a, a diverse and competitive broadband ecosystem in the state.
Christopher Mitchell (05:39):
And so now we, we find ourselves in 2022, where I think you have two challenges in front of you and, and you might categorize 'em differently, but I broadly think one of them is still those areas that don't yet have that high quality wire line, ideally connection or at least a very high quality connection that is, is gonna be very reliable for them and, and is affordable. The second piece also deals with affordability, and that's more dealing with all of the people. And this is the, where the majority of the people would fall of the two groups where there is a, a, a network nearby, but it might not be one that's actually meeting their needs. So how, how are you thinking about, or how is the office planning on addressing that?
Scott Rasmussen (06:20):
You know, we take as a guiding principle that local communities are best suited to take on and solve local problems. and so a lot of our focus and connect all is thinking deeply about how can we empower municipalities? How can we empower local communities to be able to actualize the broadband future that they want? you know, I don't have to tell you or your listeners that we have truly once in a generation opportunity for broadband right now, and I try to tell every community that I can, every chance that I can imagine the broadband future you want in 20 or 30 years, a lot of that infrastructure is being built right now, or will be in the years ahead. So, you know, we wanna empower those communities to be a meaningful stakeholder in this process. Not just kind of telling folks, this is what you get, here's how it looks, but really saying, what resources do you need to be able to envision this future?
And then what resources do you need to be able to make it happen? And that's really, you know, our approach in thinking about these. So you mentioned, right, there's, there's still a rural deployment issue. There are still thousands of households across New York that don't have broadband access. we've been working on a broadband availability map at the address level. So we really have good data to be able to guide those investments moving forward. But again, we want to, in that process, that world deployment process, be working hand in hand with local communities about you know, what kind of partners do you want in this area? what's a good system? Should we make an award to a private company? Does a county or municipal government wanna be able to take this on? so a lot of our work in the rural space is gonna be continuing.
I think a lot of the successes of the new New York broadband program and making sure that there's a meaningful space for, for local communities to chime in and be meaningful stakeholders and what that process looks like. I am very confident that in the years ahead, I'm not gonna say every New Yorker, but very close to every New Yorker is gonna have wireline broadband available where they live. And then the other side of the coin, right, is the millions of New Yorkers who can't afford service or are unsatisfied with their current service or any other host of issues. And we need to be thinking about, you know, what's, what's their future like, what, what can we do to support them to get online? You know, we really believe in their being a robust and competitive broadband ecosystem, as I mentioned. And we're gonna put our money where our mouth is to make that happen.
So we are standing up what will be one of the largest municipal broadband programs in the country. Again, the goal here, empowering local communities. So those municipalities, those areas that want to take on this work that are excited about broadband, that think that they can, that they can build out open access networks, municipal projects, things of that nature. We wanna be a helping hand give them the support on technical assistance, walk them through the process, get to the point where they have a, a real engineering plan, you know, real feasibility studies in place, and then have the money on hand to be able to make it happen, to be able to fund it and start those build outs. So we're kind of taking that multifaceted approach, right? There's the, the rural communities building out to them, but at the same time, not turning our back on, on the millions of New Yorkers who live in suburban and urban communities as well, and making sure that they have a bite at the apple and a real opportunity to envision the broadband future they won.
Christopher Mitchell (09:58):
That's where, I mean, I, I, I salute that. I think that's really important to think on, on both of those tracks. But I feel like what's really amazing and what I wanna get a sense of is how, how New York's gonna be spending some of these funds to help support the municipal networks. But you know, I guess I would frame that in a sense that like, I feel like it's less than a year since governor Hoel, you know, advanced. This is probably closer to six months. the, the legislature passed it just a few months ago and, and already we're seeing results. And so let's talk about the statewide transmission and how that's already leading to potential investment this summer. I mean, this is a remarkable timeline.
Scott Rasmussen (10:37):
It is a remarkable timeline. You know, part of what prompted it is talk about fiber shortages. I know it's an issue you've talked about on this show. You know, some of this was even prompted by folks saying, Hey, we have an opportunity to buy equipment now let's start moving money fast so we can make this happen, you know, in the short term. And we really tried to pick that up and run with it. as just context in this recent budget, we were able to secure authority for the New York Power Authority which owns transmission lines electric transmission lines across the state, but also has because of investments in in green infrastructure and smart grid technology also has a lot of fiber back haul across that transmission line. And, you know, a kind of central tenant of what we've been up to and connect all is learning and figuring out how to better le leverage what we have.
You know, there's the side of putting money out there trying to do RFPs and build infrastructure. The other side of it is, what do we already have on hand that we can make work for New Yorkers better? And so NPA had this extensive transmission network, this fiber back haul. We, for the first time, were able to secure authority for NPA to be able to lease out access to that network, really building a, a, a middle mile accessible middle mile network across New York State. And it just so happens that NPA has a lot of municipal electric co-op customers, right? That's a lot of their bread and butter work is power arrangements with municipal electric co-ops. Well, it just seems like common sense that we would support those municipal electric co-ops to be able to build out fiber networks for them, the benefit being Smart Grid, you know, a lot of, a lot of benefits on the electrical side, but hey, they also get the opportunity to provide broadband to all of their residents, to the households across their surface area. It seemed like a win-win and something that we could, you know, again, leverage a New York State asset that we've had on hand that we spent more than, I believe, 600 million in building out this fiber network. Let's open it up to people. Let's use it to be able to make sure that we're advancing broadband access all across the states. We announced four projects just two weeks ago and Oh, is that all a $10 million,
Christopher Mitchell (12:57):
Sorry, <laugh> said, oh, is that all <laugh>?
Scott Rasmussen (12:59):
That's it. <laugh> and the $10 million pilot project along with it to start building out some of these projects and seeing what kind of potential we can, we can have for this.
Christopher Mitchell (13:10):
Yeah, I, I just, I, that's what I'm saying is that I feel like, you know, we did a story about Sherburne. They have a municipal electric facility. That's right. Yeah. And they're gonna start hooking people up and you know, it's, I I just think that's, it's a remarkable timeline in a time where mostly we're talking about weather projects will take two or four years to get going. So so kudos on
Scott Rasmussen (13:29):
That. We're choosing for the end of the year in Sherburne. They are committed, they are passionate folks, they got a plan and you know, we're just here to try, try to help facilitate it like we wanna do with any community in New York state.
Christopher Mitchell (13:41):
Now, New York State doesn't have a lot of experience with municipal broadband. I, I think there's been a lot of interest in it. and probably there's a lot of people there who have actually been involved in these projects, cuz y'all have people from everywhere. But how, how is the, how is your office, the, the Connect all office gonna help cities take advantage of this opportunity?
Scott Rasmussen (14:01):
Our kind of step one we're trying to create on-ramps, on-ramps for communities to decide what they think is best and then empowering them to be able to take that on. That's really our approach again. And so we're trying to create on-ramps to being able to do that. so our kind of first step in this process is setting up kind of planning programs, grants to, to communities to be able to perform feasibility studies and things of that nature. I'm really a believer in let a thousand flowers bloom. You know, the more people that are thinking about broadband and connectivity in New York State, in my opinion, the better. Right? You know, there's never kind of too much thinking about broadband and connectivity. I think it's such a massive scale of a problem and an issue. we need to be inviting more to be a part of the solution.
So our, our first step is setting up grants so that municipalities of any size all across the state has resourcing and capacity to start analyzing what their local needs are. And, and that'll look dramatically different in Queens than it will in Rochester, than it will in Shenango County, as it will in the north country all across New York, right? These communities will hopefully be getting grants, being able to do these feasibility studies and recognize, you know what, maybe everybody in this community has broadband available to them, but affordability is the issue, or competition is the issue. We need approach, maybe it's a matter of people, students not having a device at home to be able to learn with kind of identifying what those local problems are is kind of step one in this process. Then we want to come in with additional support for communities that say, okay, we've identified the problem, we have a vision statement about how we believe we wanna solve it, or where we want to get to what the goals are.
then coming in with real technical assistance. And I, I I will say we have modeled some of what we're, we're working on around other states that I think have been real leaders in this. I know, I know you know, Maine well. There's a bunch of other states who have great models for, for kind of these local planning development processes. And then once you get a feasibility study together, once, once you get that technical assistance in with engineers and others, then having the capital on hand to be able to make it happen. And so that's kind of the pathway towards success that we see. And it's gonna look a little bit different in every community. And that's, that's great. That's good. Right. You know, that's how, that's how democracy works. That's what we should be striving for.
Christopher Mitchell (16:33):
I'm, I'm curious in particular the, the lower population areas, the lower density areas, you know, in some of the states in New England we've seen these union districts that states have formed to make it easy for cities and in communities to work together. And I know there's, there's some history of that in New York with some of the counties and like Southern Tier eight is doing this you know, but are there, are there any other mechanisms that are needed or do you think that this is something that will work its way out?
Scott Rasmussen (17:00):
I am hopeful it'll work its way out. We kind of created authority and the budget this year to kind of allow for nonprofit municipal based entities to arise to exist. So we tried to create a framework in our municipal law that allows folks to come together on broadband issues and, and try to try to advance deployments. we are certainly encouraging smaller communities to try to enter this planning process in partnership with others. You mentioned Southern Tier eight. We are blessed in New York that we have some really great thinkers and minds on this in the southern tier development authority of the North Country Bank up north that are already doing a lot of this work. And so our goal is to really just try to facilitate that and, and help folks to move forward and work together.
Christopher Mitchell (17:50):
Excellent. I, I have to ask, so for people who aren't aware this is likely the last interview you're ever gonna do as the acting director <laugh> because long before this interview airs, you're gonna be running out the door. And I'm curious as you, as you just sort of think about the legacy that, you know, you and and others in the office have had, you know, what, what will cause you to look back in three or five years and say, that was such a success. You know, like, like we really, we did exactly what we set out to do.
Scott Rasmussen (18:21):
Yeah. For your listeners, it is it is, I don't know if you're supposed to say the time on a podcast cause I don't know when people are listening, but it is 4:30 on Friday and I am leaving the office at 5:00 PM This is truly my last, my last effort as a, as acting director here in the program. which is, which is exciting. I'd rather spend it no place but with you, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell (18:45):
Oh, that's lovely. Thank you. But
Scott Rasmussen (18:46):
Looking, looking back, I think throughout our budget process and throughout thinking about broadband, I actually, I think it was maybe you that even gave this advice, the biggest chance for failure is not going big enough. And I really believe that. I think if we're not investing enough, if you're kind of short changing projects, if you're, if you're, if you're thinking too small that that's your biggest chance for failure. And I am incredibly proud that our office and under the leadership of, of Governor Hoel and, and others was able to think really big about broadband and, and to go big and ultimately secure 300 million in additional state funding. We have capital projects funding coming in. We have the new bead funding coming in. I really think that we have, you know, an incredible moment and the flexibility to do it right with state dollars at play, where we can really invest them strategically and our beholden to a nofo from, or a notice of funding opportunity from N T I A or others at the feds that, that we can really change the game in the state and think about broadband in some incredibly new ways that I think we're gonna be looking back in 30 years to the investments and decisions that we're making right now and saying, gosh, that really set us on a new path forward for ubiquitous universal connectivity in New York state.
And we're gonna be reaping the benefits of that for generations. Broadband is in many ways, right, the ports and the, and the roads and the other types of infrastructure investments that, that drove economic success and the, and the 20th century and broadband infrastructure in many ways is going to be that for the connected economy in the 21st century. And I think we're gonna be really proud about the decisions we made right now to be able to set local communities up to be successful for the next 10, 15, 20, or 30 years.
Christopher Mitchell (20:49):
I think that's worth highlighting something for anyone who is a resident of, of New York. you know, this is this is an opportunity to really do something. You've created this opportunity and I feel like every town has people on the bar stools who have all the great ideas in the world but they don't have the opportunity, you know, or they, they say they don't have the opportunity. Well towns have the opportunity now, and what we really need is to make sure that they take advantage of it. And to do that they need the kind of people who are listening to this show have to take action and take advantage of those tools. I think you're
Scott Rasmussen (21:21):
Absolutely right. I mean, my, my message is consistently just that this is the opportunity to envision the broadband future we wanna live with in 20 or 30 years. It is the time to think creatively and out of the box and try to do things differently if, if, if that's what you wanna do. but I think that every community should be thinking deeply right now about where they wanna be in 30 years and, and starting to implement that today.
Christopher Mitchell (21:50):
So my last question to you is you know, I, when you know, the, when you and I chatted from time to time about this program I was, I was very excited and I have to say that like having four towns step up right away, and, and this is, this is exciting. It's, it's really exciting and I'm just curious if, you know, I don't know if there's other things that are happening that you're aware of that you can share, but you know, are you excited about the results that you're seeing as of now?
Scott Rasmussen (22:15):
Absolutely. I think, you know, I've, I'm really excited about that we are able to get this pilot stood up so quickly and that folks are really running with it already. you know, my understanding is there are lots more folks calling saying, what about us? When are we next <laugh>? How do we participate? And that's what it's all about. It, it is, it is so much work as you know, Chris, to get the ball rolling. And once there's a model out there and people see that it can be successful and see their neighbors doing amazing things, they step forward and say, I want that too. That looks great. How do I participate? And I think that we've turned that corner here in New York State. I think we're gonna have some really excellent models for how to do broadband and we do in the new New York broadband program too, right? We have tons of small providers that we're incredibly successful in our setup for, for, for the next, you know, 10, 15, 20 years with their networks. And, you know, I think we're really proud of that and it's exciting to kind of see that start rolling and unfolding. And if anything, it just makes for more excitement about broadband, more people wanting to get involved, more people seeing the future that they could have and, and the possibilities that they have available and, and stepping up to try to make them happen.
Christopher Mitchell (23:34):
Wonderful. Well, Scott, I really appreciate the interview. I'm really glad we got it in under the wire. I certainly want to wish success on the Empire State Development folks, or I, I'm, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to call it the New York State Connect All Office, but I know there's a search to find the person and so I wish you luck personally and I wish the office luck in finding another person to guide it.
Scott Rasmussen (23:55):
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me, Chris. Really appreciate your podcast and, and all you have done for broadband across the
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