Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
A Layered Approach to Universal Access in Virginia - Episode 530 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Tamarah Holmes, Director at the Office of Broadband at Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Virginia is ahead of the game compared to a lot of the states in terms of its planning and proactive work with providers to achieve universal access in historically unserved and underserved areas. Tamarah talks with Christopher about how the state has done this, from working directly with providers on regional approaches, to layering grants to address high-cost areas, to mapmaking and database design.
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Tamarah Holmes (00:07):
We wanna leave communities in a better place than we found them. And I'm not going in just with broadband blinders on. I'm going in, looking at communities holistically.
Christopher Mitchell (00:16):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. And today I'm speaking with Tamara Holmes, who is the director at the Office of Broadband at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Welcome to the show.
Tamarah Holmes (00:36):
Thank you for having me this morning, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell (00:38):
Well, I'm, I'm so excited to, to talk with you. I think I, we, we met maybe once or twice. I talked to you a little bit in, in August at the Fiber Connect Show, and I really wanted to interview you, so I'm glad we were able to connect finally. Yes. so the first thing I just have to say is is you have a PhD and I've been, I was hostile to PhDs until I, I hired Ry in my office. And then we have a couple now, and, and I have to say that I, I felt like PhDs sometimes were too educated and didn't really know how to like, interact with the real world. But you've absolutely proved me wrong on that as other people have also <laugh>. but just give us a sense, what's your background before you came into into working on broadband for the state of Virginia?
Tamarah Holmes (01:21):
Sure. So I actually have been at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development back in April of 2014. And so my background is actually in community and economic development and, and housing. And so when I came on to D H T D back in 2014, I actually came in as a policy director. Okay. And so in that role, it was in our community development division. And so it was in that role that I worked on federal and state programs around different things like infrastructure and projects around water and sewer and affordable housing development and housing rehab. And so really ensuring cause we're a housing community development agency and making sure that we do a good job in leveraging our resources internally as an agency with helping communities address their community development and housing priorities. But also being able to I identify outsource resources from other state agencies cuz it takes a lot of different folks to be at the table to address community concerns and issues.
And so how I ended up in the broadband space is actually back in 2016 there was a program before the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative Program, which is our last mile deployment program. It was vii and so we make up acronyms for everything in government mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so VII was the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative Planning Grant program. And so we received a small allocation from the General assembly to help communities develop broadband plans. And so that was my first foray into broadband. And so at that time, we actually got our first allocation from the general assembly, it was a million dollars. So right after we got the planning funding, the next funding cycle from the general assembly, we've received a million dollars to start what is now our, a very large last mile program that has gone from a million dollars to 750 million since 2017. And so broadband is actually one of the pillars of community and economic development. And so I incubated the body program starting back in 2017. And then in 2019 I was asked to consider becoming the director of the, this new office of broadband at D H C D. And so I moved over from my policy role and took on doing broadband full-time.
Christopher Mitchell (03:33):
Right. And you described it as a large program. It certainly is one of the largest, but even more importantly, it's been described as one of the most successful just really remarkable in terms of what it's doing to the point at which my frequent collaborator on some shows Doug Dawson, he told me that he thinks you might actually solve a lot of your problem before the bead dollars are even available <laugh>. So it's pretty high. Praise <laugh>.
Tamarah Holmes (03:57):
Thank you. Thank you, thank you. But I, I, I don't do it by myself. I have a great team at D H C D that helps me get the job done.
Christopher Mitchell (04:04):
Oh. And I saw them in action too as I was, you know, I I I kind of tried to do this interview with some different folks and it didn't fit with the way they wanted to do it, and they were very gentle in nudging me in the path of, of of talking with you solo. So <laugh>, so speaking, speaking of that success, I just, I, I'd like you to walk us through like what's the, what's one of the grants or one of the, the interventions that you've been involved with that you would highlight as as a model example.
Tamarah Holmes (04:28):
Sure. So I first wanna share how the body program is implemented in the Commonwealth of Virginia because each state may do something different. And so in Virginia we require a public-private partnership. And so if you talk to other states, most other states provide grants directly to the private sector to build out broadband. And so when vadi was created, we were directed by the general assembly to supplement construction costs for the private sector. And so of course I'm at a housing and community development agency. And so we as an agency have a great history of working with our community partners. So it was important that we pull in not only the private sector, but also pull in our units of local government. And so in our program units of local government, which can be a county, a city, a town, a planning district commission, a broadband authority, a school district, are eligible to apply with a internet service provider.
And so there's also a caveat where we have public broadband authorities in Virginia. We do have the ability as of I think it was the 2021 round to actually fund directly to broadband public broadband authorities. And so that is one of the unique ways I think that body has been successful. If you're familiar with broadband, you know, it's primarily been driven by the private sector, and we have great private sector partners in the Commonwealth. And so when we started building the program, it was important that we pull all our stakeholders together. And we do that actually every year. There's not a point in time where VIDI does not evolve. it is not the same program it was in 2017, even through 2022. And so I wanted to share a, a story that I share often, and it, it's, it's, it's a community called Roanoke County. And so Roanoke County actually had done some local broadband planning. And so they had buy-in from both their leadership, which included their border supervisors, their county leaders, and so Roanoke County, I called them the little engine that could, and so Ron
Christopher Mitchell (06:17):
Is Frank, the little engine
Tamarah Holmes (06:19):
<laugh>. And so you're talking about Frank Smith with the broadband authority? That's right. Yeah. And so we actually work directly with Franklin County. We have, I have not had a project with the broadband authority at this point in time. And so they actually have a IT director that works for the city. His name is Bill. And so Bill's actually been my primary point of contact with Roanoke County. And so Roanoke County had come in for body several rounds and they actually have been unsuccessful. And in Virginia we focus on what is called universal broadband access. And so that means that a locality is to identify all their unserved locations. And so in Virginia, as of the most recent round of body that's anything below a hundred, over 20. And so Roanoke County in the year that they came in, which was last year, it was actually anything below 25, over three, we just recently updated our definition of unserved.
governor Youngin is really committed to affordable, reliable, high speed internet. And as a result we've gone from anything being unserved below 125 over three to below a hundred over 20, which in, if you look at the federal rules, they typically call that underserved. And so we don't use the word underserved in the Commonwealth. Anything under hundred. Oh, anything under a hundred over 20 is unserved to us in Sooke County came in several rounds of body and warrant unsuccessful. And this last round they came in with, with a univer with the Universal projects. They came in with four different applications, with four different providers, with three different technology types. And so they were successful to get an award. And so they came in with Cox Communications, which is a cable provider. They came in with Chantel, which who is also a cable provider.
And so you've got hybrid coax cable, you've got fiber with Shentel. They came in with, Craig Botetourt electric cooperatives. So our electric cooperatives in Virginia, we have several of them, I think five or six that are actually doing, have broadband subsidiaries. So Craig Botetourt Electric Cooperative came in as a partner as well. And B two X is a small wireless project. So in Virginia, we're technology neutral. We invest in all technologies. And so the county put together a universal project with four different providers, three different technologies. The electric carpets doing fiber to get to almost 98% of their unserved locations. And so I always used them as a success because one, they, they were the little engine that could, they, they applied several times and hadn't kind of hit the mark in terms of the criteria. And then this last round, they hit the ball out of the park. I mean, I always use them as a how a community can do planning and look at their community comprehensively and identify multiple solutions to get to their unserved locations. And Roanoke, like most of our communities in that region, there's mountains, valleys, and hills. And so if you look at the different technologies, they're adapting technologies that will best serve their residents based on the terrain. It's a great example of a success story in the Commonwealth.
Christopher Mitchell (09:09):
And I think this gets at something that Virginia does differently than other places that you do, which is this focus on universal access. because I, I, I've always worried that in areas where the state, and for instance in Minnesota where it largely takes proposals from whether it's a private entity or a public entity or a partnership, in all cases, as I understand it, they put together a map of where they want to go and it might leave some people behind that are high cost areas. You proactively work to try to say, no, no, no, don't leave those areas behind. We want a solution that gets everyone, how does that work? Exactly.
Tamarah Holmes (09:46):
And so, you know, one of the things we've talked about and, and that's why the FCC has developed maps. And so we actually have a state broadband availability map that we launched in may of this year. And so one of the things that we've all talked about o over the last few years is there's no truly a great data source of where folks have access and where folks lack access. And part of that is because the federal communications has primarily been the only resource around data, right? Because that's where the, the internet service providers provide service territory data. And we'll see, you know, with the new mapping collection requirements, if we'll get some better data. And so in Virginia, we actually were directed last March to develop a statewide broadband UNA availability map. And so for years prior to that map being available, so the applications that came in in August, these were the first applications that were able to actually utilize some data.
And so in our map, providers are required to give us their service territory data correctly. And so if you have, if you ever just wanna have a snooze, take a chance and read the legislation cuz it's written in code. And so we actually were tied to the Federal Broadband data Act. And so we were at, I jokingly say we were building the fccs map before the FCC started building their own map. And so prior to us having a map, we instituted something called a challenge process. So basically a county will submit their entire county, let's say Roanoke submitted an application and to the best of their ability, they tried to determine what areas were unserved in their county. And so they submit a full application. We have a challenge process where if there's an incumbent provider or a provider that may have some federal money through the FCC or other resources, they can challenge the application by providing us a laundry list of documents.
and so we basically say, okay, throw the baby <laugh> with the bathwater and we'll pull out the locations where an incumbent provider or maybe someone that might have gotten a CALF two award where they demonstrate they actually provide service. And so it helps us determine what's truly unserved in the locality. So that's kind of what we've done really since, I wouldn't say since the beginning, but those, that was a lesson learned that we needed a challenge process to really narrow down the areas that were unserved. Cuz we're not in the bus business of overbuilding where folks actually have service to the level of what we define as served. That definition of course now is a hundred over 20. And so that, that has really one broad communities together, it's brought the private sector to localities. We do a notice of intent. And so communities will send us a letter and say, Hey, we wanna apply for body, we post it publicly.
Anyone has access to that. And so even if you've got a small company that's in a locality who's not really engaged in our program, they can challenge and go, we do provide service here. And they provide supporting documentation. Now there is an opportunity for an applicant to rebut a challenge mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so we kind of go and so that's what we've kind of done and it's worked very well for us. One, it finally allows. And so we also have this thing called foya. And so I, everyone always asks me early on, what was the, like if you had one thing that was a game changer for your program, being able to, to protect the proprietary information from providers, whether they're applying for body or they're challenging an application has helped us because everything on the, everything I've learned in broadband spaces is proprietary to companies. And so that's actually helped us to have conversations around where their services and where service is not in a locality.
Christopher Mitchell (13:14):
Right. And some of us, I think would be frustrated and are frustrated at the level of which companies would say some information is proprietary. And I might say, I don't think it's that proprietary. I think you're just being overly protective. You're caught in the middle and you're like, look, I'm just trying to get something done here and I need these companies to trust. They can gimme information that's accurate. Right. That's kind of where, where you end up. but let me ask you, so I, I think there's a different kind of question that I'm really curious about, which is if a, if you have an area and, and you say, let's just say a half of the county is unserved and you have an application that comes forward and says, okay, we can do like 80% of that area, my understanding is is that you kind of push back and you're like, look, what about the other 20%? What are we gonna do there? You know, like and you work with them to try to make sure that they're not carving out areas unnecessarily. Is that, is that understanding right?
Tamarah Holmes (14:02):
Yeah. So we do have broadband planning staffing. So our office has actually been looked at as a model for how you staff a broadband office. And so originally when we were staffing the office, you know, we got pushback from the private sector, you're the government, you don't know what you're doing. And so my first hire was actually an engineer that came from the telecommunications industry. So that was the first thing. The second thing was broadband planners. And so these are folks that are gis, subject matter experts. And so when you start pulling localized data, you know, you start pulling point and polygon files of households and communities and businesses. And so we really take a map of a county, identify every single rooftop in a locality. And to your point, we want to know exactly, like if you could use the example you said a community submits an application or even during the planning process they identify 80% and we'll ask what are the solutions for the other 20%?
And sometimes, you know, an application may have to come in for body, sometimes we may have to pull in an incumbent provider and say, cable company X, you seem to be the provider in these other 20% of the county. Where do you actually provide service? So we can help the county actually identify all their unserved locations. Now we don't come in as a state and go, you have to have x percentage amount of all your unserved locations in an application. We, that is, that is determined locally. The communities, the county administrators, the city managers know their communities best and they know their neighbors. And one thing I've learned a lot about working in rural communities in Virginia, word of mouth is a true thing. We really take a community look at it on a map, and like you said, if we see that they're looking at only 80%, we try to always jokingly say we wanna color in account.
And so we go, okay, what are your solutions for the other parts of your community? And actually we incentivize that. So if a community comes in with 80%, they have to show us that the other 20% has service or that they've got a plan for it. And some of it really boils down to them having the ability to have additional financing. And so, you know, with ARPA funding, we had state money, some communities got local fiscal recovery money and so they utilize that as match. And so, you know, with broadband it takes so many different sources of funds. And so it may be that a solution, it might be a company that came in and promoted, promoted a fiber solution and maybe the other 20% is maybe the more harsh terrain and maybe there needs to be a different solution. And so we've really worked with communities going back to just even the concept of the word broadbanding, work all the way with them through getting to come in for a body project.
Christopher Mitchell (16:37):
Great. So now we're gonna, we're gonna turn into a little bit of a, a speed round of Okay. of the, I don't think just because you have a limited time and I wanna make sure we get through a couple of, of gig of questions I've lined up here. in terms of trying to get at how you run the office you know, some local, some states and federal officials are nervous about grant layering. the idea that like if you're already getting money from, from the fcc, like should you get money from the state of Virginia, you take a pretty pro position on that. Right?
Tamarah Holmes (17:07):
First thing is we don't allow a duplication of of a beneficiary. So if someone has a, so we, we require on leveraging. So if and of course, you know, we don't pick who the providers are that partner on these projects, that's completely up to the applicant, the unit of local government. And so there are some instances where there might be a provider and a lot of our communities put out a request for proposal. So there might be some cases Chris, where a county has selected a provider who also may have some federal money. And so a great example of of a project that was built out in Virginia that we're actually really close to closing out is in King, king and Clean County. There was a provider that had some calf two funding. And so calf two is the Connect America funding from the fcc. And that was an auction, I think it was back in 26, 16 or 2017
Christopher Mitchell (17:53):
Ancient history. I remember it was,
Tamarah Holmes (17:54):
Yes. And so that company actually came in with the county on a p on a body application to fill in the swift cheese holes cuz you know, the federal monies, the auctions have also left swift cheese holes. And so again, we talked about coloring it in a locality. And so King and Queen County was a county and we're talking about way before anyone had an infusion of money. King and Queen County partnered with that provider who had calf two, we knew where the other unserved locations were in the county. And so they came in for Vadi King and Queen County is one of our counties where they're actually, I wanna say where they've actually leveraged federal money to build out full universal access within their com, their county. And so that's kind of what, so we take the pro approaches, we want you to leverage it.
And so if someone has calf two money and we've got body money in it, no, you can't count a ar you can't count a calf passing as a body passing and vice versa. And, and, and some of these federal auctions that be really transparent with you, we've had situations where half of the road was in a federal funded area but the adjacent side was not. And you've got half the community on one side getting service through a federal ward and then no one on the other side is getting service. And so we're filling in those gaps with body. And so we've seen it happen with calf too. It's been successful in King, queen County art Off, we're still building that plan as we're flying it cuz you know, we still got providers that are finalizing their art off awards. And so it seems to have worked with us. We're not overlapping art off, we're not overlapping calf. We're leveraging the federal resources and coloring in the areas that are unserved still after the federal resources have been made available.
Christopher Mitchell (19:31):
Great. Now let's talk about areas where there's a lack of access, but they haven't maybe been successful federal auctions or federal programs. what kind of outreach do you do to areas that that you see that are still lacking access if they're not, you know, already banging down your door?
Tamarah Holmes (19:48):
I talked a little bit about our broadband planners earlier, and so every year we take the entire list. There's over a hundred plus localities in the Commonwealth and we're talking about cities and counties. And so they do proactive outreach. They're contacting every single county administrator at the beginning of each year and contacting them and say, Hey, do you have a staff person that's a con point of contact around broadband? And then we do like a, it's like four or five questions we ask them. And so this was, and now I wanna say we started this, you know, really the pandemic put a huge spotlight on the need for broadband. And so we proactively would reach out to every single county and city in, in the state and identify if they even thought about broadband expansion. And so we do something called a triage. And so we kind of color code them like red, green and, and yellow.
We find out, okay, well who is in their communities? Who are the providers that are doing expansion? Is it mostly driven by the private sector? Because as we know in some counties we may never hear from them because maybe the private sector has, has figured out the rate of return. And so they may be solely investing their own dollars to expand service in those communities. in other cases we will say, are you aware of the body program? Here's our program, let's talk about it. Do you know who currently providing your community? Oh, you don't know. And so we joke, we joke and say that we did a lot of eHarmony connections early on in the program where I would go, and this is before covid, we'd be in a room doing a how to apply webinar. And I'll go, who doesn't have a, a broadband provider in the county, first of all raise their hand and I go, providers who doesn't have a, who are you located in that county? And literally physically matching them. And so we do a lot of connections and of course there's a disclaimer, I'm not endorsing a provider, I'm just saying here's a provider who may be interested in working with your locality and go forth and have a conversation and how can we be a resource around data. And so that's kind of how it's been working to make the projects work within the commonwealth.
Christopher Mitchell (21:44):
so how many staff do you have working on broadband for the state of Virginia? And
Tamarah Holmes (21:48):
So I think we're officially at 12 or 13. We with the bead plan. So we, we did, we did submit the letter of intent for both the bead and the digital equity funding, which is the forthcoming money from the federal government. And so we will be bringing on a staffer to help around developing the state's commonwealth digital opportunity plan. And so I think with that position will be about 14 positions officially in my office. That's wonderful. Everyone has a different role and responsibility as it relates to the office,
Christopher Mitchell (22:17):
But it, it's a sign that Virginia takes this seriously in ways that other states have not. you, it's one of the largest offices I've heard and also one of the most effective
Tamarah Holmes (22:25):
And, and honestly to, to kind of to our own horn, that was investments from our general assembly. Our general assembly made sure that they provided administrative dollars way before I even had, you know, the American Rescue Plan or Capital Projects fund. We had those positions. I've only hired two people since we've received the American rescue and capital Projects Funds.
Christopher Mitchell (22:45):
Yeah, I'd love to see that, that local self-reliance someone should start an organization to support that. last question is what, what lessons have you learned along the way? and like what should, what should other states, if a state's gonna draw one or two lessons from your office, like what should they be taken away?
Tamarah Holmes (23:00):
Well, I always talk about foia, if there's a way that your state could, allows you to offer some protection of proprietary information. It gives the private sector a little reassurance about what you can and cannot share publicly. So I would say that that definitely between not having it and having it completely changed the landscape though of broadband expansion in the state. So FOIA and then also really, I know a lot of states are thinking about staffing up and so when we hired those broadband planners, I had no idea that I would potentially be challenging an FCC map, right? Or the location layer and then eventually the service territory data. And so my goal was to make sure we had planners cuz not a lot of our communities have GI s capabilities. And so it was important for me to be able to share that skillset.
And so I would say broadband planners as a priority policy staff is really important. I did not go into this job running a federal program. I have 20 plus years of running federal programs. And so I jokingly say, Lord, I went into this running a state program and now I'm doing a federal program and so I'm putting back on my federal, federal policy hat. And so being able to, if you don't bring on a staff person, at least being able to have subject matter experts around the federal rules that are those cross-cutting rules, things like Baby Davis bacon and rules around procurement and Tuesday FFR 200. So my three things, I know you said two, it would be the foia it would be broadband planners and folks that are experts around GI s and then really having folks that could help around the policy. We do have engineers in-house. I know some states are, don't have the ability to always hire someone. And so if they're able to have folks provide technical expertise around the buildouts and proposed projects around the network design, that's a as important as well.
Christopher Mitchell (24:46):
And, and I think it's also, I would say really important that you come from a background yourself of someone who doesn't think of this as a technical thing, right? Like I feel like your background in housing and economic development, you understand this isn't like a question of just how do we build networks, but like how do we get people to work, right? Like in some ways
Tamarah Holmes (25:05):
Yeah, I mean the, the bit, the blessing of being at a housing and community development agency, we look at a community holistically. Broadband is one priority for communities. Water and sewers a priority, affordable housing, economic development. And so broadband influences all those things within the community. You can't educate your workforce without broadband cause they need workforce development opportunities. You can't bring a prospect in for jobs if you don't have trained workforce and even robust internet for the companies to operate. And so I always jokingly say, I'm like, this couldn't have been a better marriage between our agency and being the agency that was designated for broadband going back to 2017 even before we had an office. Because we look at a community holistically, brother, I'm coming in from broadband. I mean, my staff jokingly says they give me five minutes, we're on a call with a county because we talk about broadband. And I may have known there might have been some flooding or they might have had another issue come up and I go, Hey, have you thought about, look, talking to someone in our community development and housing division about flooding, we have money to help you address, you know, rebuilding or long-term recovery with flooding. And so my staff jokingly says, every time we're on a call, I'm going, have you thought about our other programs at BH c d <laugh>?
Christopher Mitchell (26:18):
So you're a salesperson on top of everything else.
Tamarah Holmes (26:20):
I I am. We wanna we wanna leave communities in a better place than we found them. And I'm not going in just with broadband blinders on. I'm going in looking at communities holistically.
Christopher Mitchell (26:29):
Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today and thanks for your work leading Virginia on broadband.
Tamarah Holmes (26:34):
Thank you for having me.
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