Laura Breeden on the Start of NDIA and Some Digital Equity History - Building for Digital Equity Podcast

Building for Digital Equity

Laura Breeden, board member of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, joins us to talk about the beginning of NDIA - which happened in a bar among friends, along with most other good ideas. We also talk about what progress has been made on digital inclusion and reflect on some of the deeper history of the Internet and digital inclusion, going back to the early 1990's. 

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or see other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Joseph McDade for the music. The song is On the Verge and is used per his Free-Use terms.


Sean Gonsalves (00:05):

Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast, and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Gautier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Gonzales, talking to people at the events we are attending to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now, let's see who we have today.

Christopher Mitchell (01:06):

Oh, yeah. I'm here with Laura Breeden, a member of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance Board and Legend, I wanna say

Laura Breeden (01:16):

That's, that's a, a little overblown, but yeah, I, I am here. I didn't, and I have been involved for a long time.

Christopher Mitchell (01:24):

And, and I'll just say you quickly, I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and we just came from the introduction of the opening moments of net inclusion here in San Antonio. And you were there at the beginning.

Laura Breeden (01:40):

I was, I was there at the beginning of N D I A, which occurred appropriately in a bar at a conference in Washington, DC where Angela had been attending the conference along with several other people who are here today. this was in 2015. The Federal Communications Commission was anticipating changes in the Lifeline program, which subsidizes telephone service traditionally. and there was a question about whether Lifeline should be accessible for people who wanted broadband or as close as they could get to broadband. and so we were talking in the bar as we sipped our cocktails about how we could influence these proceedings at the Federal Communications Commission. And Angela wanted to collect a group, which is very Angela, and was exactly the right thing to do. And I said, and you know, these origin stories, you can't believe everything about it. It, because at the time you didn't know you were in an origin story.

Christopher Mitchell (02:55):

Right. And our, our mind plays tricks on us too. It does <laugh>,

Laura Breeden (03:00):

But I said, if we're going to all the trouble to build a coalition, let's not have it be a one shot deal. So the germ of the idea of N D I A was born then, and I don't think we could have anticipated at that time all of the steps that would lead us to where we were in 2021 when the, the Jobs Act passed. but all of a sudden it seemed very sudden there was a lot of money and a lot of attention, and a really serious national focus on digital equity and what it meant. And we had played a really important role in that.

Christopher Mitchell (03:42):

Let's talk for a second about how it went. Cuz I feel like when one is starting an organization like this, I feel like there's, there's probably more than this, but I immediately, I think if there's two paths. One is people think, let's get this organization started. Once we get all the resources lined up, we get some grants and we can go at it. And the other is, let's just do what we can as fast as we can. And when we get money, we'll spend it as wisely as we can, but we're gonna get good things happening today. And it seems like that's the path that you all took.

Laura Breeden (04:12):

That was the path. And that is completely due to the fact that Angela and Bill were willing to put sweat equity into the organization. And I, I was too, I was doing behind the scenes work to make sure that we had the appropriate infrastructure legally and financially so that if we ever did any money we would be able to use it wisely. So again, it was the volunteer effort at first on everyone's part. And we certainly had no idea that we were gonna end up as an organization with over a thousand affiliates and the kind of national presence that we have now.

Christopher Mitchell (04:59):

Now we were just in that room and they did the same thing I've seen them do before, which is super sharp. The opening plenary where everyone's together asked how many people were at their first event, and I was expecting two thirds or maybe three quarters of the people to raise their hands. To me it looked more like 85 or 90% of the people. And that's, that's remarkable.

Laura Breeden (05:23):

Yes. Well, when you drop money on a problem, it becomes a lot more visible. So when the Jobs Act passed, and it, I think Angela said it was $2.75 billion, this is outta 65 billion I think. So, you know, the 65 billion for broadband. And part of that was this digital inclusion funding. Right.

Christopher Mitchell (05:49):

This was, I think, effectively money from the Digital Equity Act. Right. Which, which NDIA was really instrumental in working with. Correct. people in Congress to, to get that moving. And then that got incorporated and adjusted a little bit into that bill,

Laura Breeden (06:02):

I think Exactly. Got, got wrapped into the big bill. And yes, we worked really closely with people in Patty Murray's office who were fantastic to work with. Absolutely wonderful. And Patty herself was, I should call her Senator Murray, Senator Murray was very committed and, and very engaged in all of this. So we had put quite a bit of effort. I mean, I remember trips to Capitol Hill and lots of paper because the Digital Equity Act was was pretty comprehensive. And basically it was passed into law as part of the, the I I J A, I can never remember what the first I is

Christopher Mitchell (06:46):

Infrastructure, investment and Jobs act. I think, I think it's infrastructure investment. Okay. We'll just go with that and yeah,

Laura Breeden (06:53):

We'll go with that. <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (06:55):

The what's important, the other

Laura Breeden (06:57):

Thing that happened, Chris, that I wanna mention is that before the pandemic, the problem of digital inclusion was an invisible problem. So like a lot of other things, food insecurity, it the people who, who make the news, the people who make the rules, the people who are most visible in the media often have no idea what it's like to live in poverty, to not have a reliable car, whatever a digital inclusion was in that category. And is the pandemic, well, the pandemic really blew the lid off all of a sudden.

Christopher Mitchell (07:39):

I really, I wanna, I I'm interrupting you. I want you to finish that. I wanna come back and, and I wanna push you a little bit on that and see if we've made as much progress as we'd like to think we have. Cause I worry that we haven't

Laura Breeden (07:50):

Well, okay. So relative to where we were five years ago, I mean, I remember when I was still working at N T I A, so this was before 2015, walking into a senator's office to help brief him on what we were doing at N T I A at that time. And we knew from data that I can't remember who collected it, but that 30% of the people in his state had no internet access, he didn't know that

Christopher Mitchell (08:27):

Okay. We

Laura Breeden (08:28):

Came in <laugh>. Yeah. And now that kind of information is really everywhere. agreed.

Christopher Mitchell (08:34):


Laura Breeden (08:35):


Christopher Mitchell (08:36):

So the, the reason I say that, and I push back a little bit, is I think if the, if we had a horrible stroke of luck once again, and the virus mutated such that it was more dangerous to young people and they closed down schools again, I think, I think estimates were right. We had like 12, 13 million kids that didn't have home internet access back in 2020. I

Laura Breeden (08:58):


Christopher Mitchell (08:58):

Yeah. I worry that, that we maybe have adjust fixed that for 20, 25% of those kids. I think most of those kids, if they were sent home tomorrow, don't go home to home Internet access.

Laura Breeden (09:09):

Well, it's interesting. The people that are most motivated to get internet access at home are parents of young children. Right. So I would imagine that those are the people who are seeking out the ACP program and who are looking for refurbished computers or low-cost devices because they're motivated to do it. They've made, they know the connection between education and having those digital literacy skills. And I do think the problem is that much more visible whether we've solved the problem. I mean, that's why 800 people are here, right. Figuring out how to spend two and a half billion dollars.

Christopher Mitchell (09:50):

Right. Which I still feel like, I mean, this is where, again, I feel like you could say there might be two paths. And I think you've definitely taken the path of, of let's focus on what's going well and what we can do better. Which is great. There is a, a path, I feel like, of despair, of frustration that this country has spent, you know, well over $100 billion, mostly ineffectively to expand rural internet access. Something that I'm sure you agree with me is crucial that we make sure everyone has high quality internet access, and there are a lot of people in poor and rural areas who are quite low income. But we know that there's like four times as many people in cities who have not gotten it. We finally have 2.5 billion. These people here are gonna be spending it wisely. I hope. Really, you know, making a big difference.


But it is a bit frustrating that we still don't get nearly enough resources to adjust. And that's what I'm saying is I don't want to, like, I don't have anything against what all these people are doing, and I think they're all doing really good work, but I'm just frustrated how under resourced they are because I've, I've spent 10 years listening to elected officials saying, we now understand this is so important, <laugh> and, and not seeing the budgets that line up to it. And so 2.5 billion Senator Patty Murray's leadership really got that through. But like, it's the tip of the iceberg for what I think is needed to actually resolve this issue, particularly in urban areas. And so I, I don't know if that resonates with you at all, or if you think I'm just being a Debbie Downer here. <laugh>. <laugh>.

Laura Breeden (11:15):

Oh, Chris. No, you're not a Debbie Downer. And I, I don't think despair is in order. I I, when I started working on this in the early nineties no one could really imagine what you could use the internet for, because it was also new and it was just at the point where the internet was becoming commercialized. And so providing examples and just showing people, I mean, I remember as a new employee at the Department of Commerce, and this is in 1994, going to the office where they managed the, the grants. It was like the, the <laugh> benevolent overlords. no, it was the CPAs and the people who had to look at whether, whether grant money was being spent effectively, they didn't have online access to the the accounting standards and the accounting standards change. And you have to know what they are. And they were online, but here's an office at the US Department of Commerce, a huge agency that had no online access. In the Inspector General's office. They had a network, but it was so they could use a printer.

Christopher Mitchell (12:36):


Laura Breeden (12:37):

They had no idea what what was out there. And this is, this is in the agency, the organization where I was working at the time. So the level of awareness has changed so profoundly, and the internet and online access have become such a, I mean, we take it for granted now that it's there and we can use it. And so I, I don't know. I I feel positive about it all because I think that there's been so much change and the level of commitment of people who are engaged, and I count you among those. People is extraordinary. It's really extraordinary. I mean, this is a calling for people. and so I'm very optimistic about where it's gonna go.

Christopher Mitchell (13:33):

Yeah. I, I don't think there's really any argument about that. I just wanted to lay out some <laugh>, some of the contrary. Would

Laura Breeden (13:39):

You like to talk more about your despair? <laugh>,

Christopher Mitchell (13:42):

It's so dark in here. Look <laugh>. It's so dark. Let me ask you one other thing, because we're trying to keep these interviews a little bit more brief than, than the ones I've done before. And there's a million things I can ask you about. But since you were there for the commercialization of the internet, I'm just curious if you can tell us a little bit about that, because I think some of the younger people look at that and they think that was a horrible mistake. And as someone who I spent 15 years worrying about too much corporate power, but I think the commercialization of the internet was really good, and I'm really glad that it happened kind of the way it did. At least in the early years. I wasn't there for it, though. I've only read about it. So, so how do you react to that if someone says, oh, they never should have commercialized the internet, which I think comes out of a bit of ignorance as to what that means, but you were there for it.

Laura Breeden (14:27):

Well, I think the, when I look back on that time, and this is the, the very early nineties it was becoming obvious that this thing that had been created in a university environment and mostly funded by the government was bigger than all of us. Sure. And when I say all of us, I mean the, you know, the computer science community and what I'd observed in the late eighties is that once you had a network that was open source and interoperable the, the network standards anybody could build for that network and with commercialization came a very rapid evolution for the most part in a positive direction. Now, we could have a long conversation about the way the Federal Communication Commission approaches the telephone companies or the other providers and, and the many failings, <laugh> of that system. Right. but I think in terms of applications and routers and network management software, all the things that came with commercialization that were positive it really moved the evolution along and made it possible then to develop all kinds of things on top of it. I also feel like it was in inevitable, it was given our history and culture as a country, it was, there was no other way.

Christopher Mitchell (16:06):

Right. And I, I think that Anar origin is important. The ability to let anyone build on it is important. And that's why I'm, I'm so excited about the way N D I A was developed. I think your stewardship, several other people many of whom we, we couldn't name, just cuz there's many people who have contributed the National Digital Inclusion Alliance could have gone a lot of different directions. I think this is like, I mean, to, to steal something from the, the show community. you know, we're, we're not in the darkest timeline. We are one of the brighter timelines because this is such a vibrant community that N D I A has, has built, has nurtured, is stewarding whatever you want to use it for. It's really exciting. There's so many great people here and they're focused on the right things. So it's a wonderful time to be working on this field, I feel like.

Laura Breeden (16:56):

Great. Well thank you for that. And I couldn't, I couldn't agree more.

Sean Gonsalves (17:02):

We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor. Please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing Finally, we'd like to thank joseph for the song on the Verge.