STEM Alliance Retires CBRS and Embraces ACP - Building for Digital Equity Podcast Episode 1

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In our first episode of this new podcast series, we wanted to queue up an interview with Margaret - Meg - Kaufer, who is President of the STEM Alliance in Westchester County, New York. We had previously spoken with Meg, as well as Yonkers Commissioner of Information Technology Bob Cacase, in episode 500 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast where they discussed their joint efforts to deliver Internet access to low-income households. 

Meg updates us on those efforts on the heels of retiring the CBRS network earlier than expected. However, they have developed a replicable strategy for signing people up to the ACP and getting through the thoroughly unnecessary paperwork requirements. 

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

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 (00:06):

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 Gonsalves, 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 (01:07):

This is Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, doing another introduction right after I'm wrapping up this conversation with Meg Kaufer talking about, oh, a number of really interesting things that they are working on. This interview follows up on an episode, community Broadband Bits podcast of episode 500, where we talked about what they're doing in Yonkers because this STEM Alliance is from Westchester County. And so we do talk a bit about CBRS and it's helpful to note that CBRS is a really cool technology that provides access to spectrum in unique ways that I'm not gonna go into right here. But you might want to listen to that previous episode, episode 500 of the Community broadband bits. After we talk about CBRS a bit, we do talk about ACP enrollment and what they're doing that really works and, and digging into that a little bit. So this was an interview that I was really looking forward to for a long time. Meg is doing great work and I'm, I'm really excited to be able to share that with you right now.


This is Chris and I'm here with Meg Kaufer, the STEM Alliance President. Welcome to the show. Right.

Meg Kaufer (02:18):

Hi, Chris. It's great to be back. Thanks for your time today.

Christopher Mitchell (02:21):

It is really great because you're one of the interviews I was most looking forward to while we're here because I really enjoyed your podcast episode 500 of the Community Broadband Bits with, with the city council.

Meg Kaufer (02:35):

Bob Case from Yonkers, Bob Case, yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (02:36):

Yep. Yeah. From Yonkers, we had a really good conversation about what you're doing there and, and I think kind of the ins and outs, the inside scoop on the challenges of, of working with CBRS with all the work that goes into making sure people are ready for digital equity and able to take full advantage of, of all the tools that are out there. So for people that want to, you might wanna pause this and go, listen episode 500 and then come back.


Cause I think we wanna see where you are now after that.

Meg Kaufer (03:02):

Thanks so much. Our initiative.

Christopher Mitchell (03:03):

Sorry, but let me interrupt you. Yeah. Because I'm gonna ask you first to just tell people what the STEM Alliance is.

Meg Kaufer (03:07):

Yeah. Oh, that's a great way to start. So the STEM Alliance is a nonprofit that started 10 years ago in Westchester County, New York, just north of the city. And at our core, we're looking to bridge systemic gaps in science, technology entering and math education. And while our emphasis has been mostly on after school and summer enrichment at the height of the pandemic, we built an entire leg of our work around digital equity because it was obvious to us where the needs were. And we were happy to jump in and innovate in that area. Right now we provide wraparound solutions, so device access, free and low-cost broadband or Internet access, and the skills to use those digital tools in Westchester County.

Christopher Mitchell (03:46):

Now, just to check in 10 years ago, did you think you would say you were providing Internet access to people? Oh, absolutely not. <Laugh>, as a matter of fact, I think it's important for folks to know we started with a $10,000 grant to run a STEM festival, and now we're a $2.6 million nonprofit. And yes, I think what's I, I wouldn't have known that that's what we were gonna do, but I would tell you that at our core, we innovate and we respond because our obligation as a nonprofit is to the clients whom we serve. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and equity is an incredibly important aspect of what we do, whether that's STEM enrichment or this digital equity side. So would I have predicted it? No. Is it absolutely what we, the type of thing that we do to innovate and react to the needs on the ground? Yes.


So I would like to get a sense of what's going on. I'm gonna try and quickly recap the CBRS effort, and you're gonna tell me where I get it wrong, because I like to think I don't over prepare. Sometimes that means I'm not well prepared. <Laugh>. So we, we talked about, and I'm particularly interested because you're one of several places where we see a real hard, strong effort to use CBR s to get to people in buildings that are not necessarily receptive to that CBR s spectrum. And we talked about how you had delivered a service that people were using and felt was usable. It was not as fast as I think you had hoped, but it was still getting the job done for people. We talked about the costs, and I think the costs were a bit higher than than we'd hoped.


But you were able to, to keep it going on with a combination of philanthropic support and other grants that you've received. And, and I got the sense that it's this sort of thing that you were like, you were glad that you did it, but you weren't sure that this was a path that was the right path to keep going down. Is that right?

Meg Kaufer (05:29):

That is a perfect summary. We have sun-downed our CBS towers.

Christopher Mitchell (05:36):

Oh, wow. So that's early then.

Meg Kaufer (05:37):

And that was in, within the last month. And and really there are two factors to that. Number one, our, what we were funded to do was to kind of press the limits of CBR s and say, could it serve hundreds of people? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So we had two towers and we were hoping to connect, effectively connect 200 people to each tower.


And we ended up with about 275 CPE units or what you might consider to be a modem for people to connect to the network. But basically the usage was incredibly low. There were about 50 people who were using it. It was not the, the uptake was not what we had hoped for mm-hmm. <Affirmative>.

Christopher Mitchell (06:13):

And and these were, you didn't just throw modems at people. You, you worked with them and you, you followed best practices in terms of making sure they would be able to use this.

Meg Kaufer (06:21):

Yeah. In fact, a certain percentage of the people who received the modem also received education and a Chromebook for free. So that they were, as you said, kind of in the best position to be able to effectively use the technology. We did not hear complaints about setting the technology up. You know, literally is plug and play.


It was truly, and, and here's the funny thing. Well, not funny actually. It's not funny at all. Our communities that we're serving are over surveyed. So it was very hard for us to figure out why they weren't using it. Yeah. because we have to respect their space. Like they're sick of answering questions. Yep. You know?

Christopher Mitchell (06:58):

Yep. I can imagine.

Meg Kaufer (06:59):

So within reason, we had to make some assumptions, I will tell you that the usage was slightly higher for people who had received the Chromebook in education. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But again, it wasn't, there was not a measurable difference.

Christopher Mitchell (07:10):

Right. They weren't like outliers.

Meg Kaufer (07:11):

Correct. And so in terms of, so what are our assumptions, maybe those 50 people were using it at a time of day because it's a shared spectrum where they were getting usage rates that were appealing to them. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> you know, things like that.


Or maybe the other people really didn't even have enough skills to to use the Internet effectively. We really don't know. I would tell you from our speed test, we were disappointed with the speed. And so my biggest assumption is that it wasn't equitable. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Right. It wasn't providing what people needed. Now, I will tell you my favorite story, cuz we should smile in some of this. Was the one person who answered the survey and said, oh, this is great for me because my daughter can't watch movies, so she gets more homework done <laugh>. So it was a great homework only solution. Right. Right. And, and and that family was particularly happy that it was an unintentional filter of usage. But listen, equity of access means that people need to be able to do whatever it is that improves their quality of life.


And and we are very much defenders in that space of saying, you know, why is it that certain people of certain ethnicities and certain economic earnings can watch movies without any glitches? And and that's, and but nobody's asking them what they do with their Internet and kind of judging that. Yes. And so we don't ask what people want or need to do with their Internet. That is the quality of life that we are seeking is that everybody has access to do that which they desire and need. And our instinct with CBRS is it wasn't delivering.

Christopher Mitchell (08:44):

I want to note that you're in Yonkers where there's a lot of folks using a lot of spectrum. And so I don't want to, I don't want people to walk away and be like, CBRS isn't good.

Meg Kaufer (08:53):

That's a really good point. And in fact, there are other, there are other case solutions mm-hmm. <Affirmative>


And I, I I'm gonna go back and find Bill Callahan, but he had, when I asked him and said, you know, what's your thumbs up, thumbs down CV r s here at this conference at the net inclusion conference, 2023, you know, he basically said it's, it effectively, it's, it's the right solution for particular problems mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And we were asked to challenge to put it into a particular context and a large scale city. Large scale usage, I don't think is a CBRS I don't think CBRS is a solution.

Christopher Mitchell (09:24):

So I will say that Hoopa Valley is a, is a, it gives, there's two stories that comes out of Hoopa Valley that I think are useful. One is that there, where they're quite isolated, the CBRS is doing wonders for them. The second is, is that one of the things they found, which we've heard from other folks, and I'm curious how you respond to this, is people often don't share when something that they're getting that they feel good about is not working for them necessarily.


Cuz I wanna paraphrase a little bit, but I feel like when talking to Speygee who runs the network in Hoopa Valley I feel like he was talking to folks and he was saying, oh, how's the Internet working for you? And they were like, oh, well, it'd be great, but it's been down for a week. And he's like, A week, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell anyone? <Laugh>?

Meg Kaufer (10:03):

All right. So let's talk a little bit about data collection mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, because we did learn a few things. So number one is we all get a little obsessed with data. How about just sending out a text message that says, how's your Internet working for you today? Right. Everything okay or not. Okay. Yes. And we did not employ that strategy until later and we were like, wow, that was, you know, and we gained that mm-hmm. <Affirmative>


Because our project was funded by US Ignite and SF monies through US Ignite. And in one of the community calls, and it might have been Hooper Valley, they implemented that later in their game. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And I was like, wow, that's so smart. Yes. Because we get into these like, we need to ask all the right questions. We need to get the right data. Well, you know what point number one is just, is it working or not? Right.

Christopher Mitchell (10:46):

Give people a and it's a very easy response. Totally. You're not gonna sit down and compose it.

Meg Kaufer (10:50):

Yeah. And so that is one takeaway for us. The second takeaway is that in our current work, which we can talk a little bit what what we're doing now. Yes. In our current work, we are assuming that people are not going to answer surveys. Therefore, we have built in monies for focus groups, we need more storytelling and we need to speak to our funders about that mm-hmm. <Affirmative>


And say, we think this is gonna be the best modality for us to capture the impact of this work. Or the, or the, the failure of the work as well. I mean, hopefully it's impactful. But so that is actually another approach that we're taking is yes, we're attempting surveys. I'm not saying we're abandoning them, we're trimming them down, we're making them more you know, quick and fast. And then we're building in focus groups. And also we're really engaging our community partners in leading that work. So we have in Yonkers, the Yonkers partners in education, these are young people from high schools who are gonna be leading those focus groups in partnership with a research team from Fordham University.

Christopher Mitchell (11:52):

Excellent. How are you envisioning people being better connected in the, the apartment buildings, the low income public housing that's high density?


Yeah. What is the solution now that you've turned off the C B R S?

Meg Kaufer (12:05):

So we took a full dive on the digital navigator modality and meaning that the other thing that's happened since we started our NSF US Ignite project on cbrs, which we applied for in November, excuse me, December of 2020. So think about how the topography mm-hmm. <Affirmative> of funding and and thinking around digital equity has changed since then and is dramatic now. Exactly. So effectively we have moved towards supporting affordable connectivity program, acp mm-hmm. <Affirmative> adoption, enrollment and adoption. And so we took our team in Yonkers, we persisted with the Y zone name and branding and modality, but now we have a full digital navigator program where we are coming alongside folks in getting them registered for the ACP program. So what are the challenges there? New set of challenges?


Yeah. So really it's about outreach and understanding and and being in the places and spaces where folks will talk to us so that we can say, no, we are gonna literally sit next to you until this works. And still providing wraparound services in terms of education where they can earn a, a Chromebook. We also built out an entire tech ticket platform for our digital navigator program so that when we come in contact with an individual who needs help there are a couple things that our tech ticket does. Number one, they complete a very simple digital screener, and it has an algorithm that tells us do they need Internet help? Do they need device help? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, or do they need education or some combination.

Christopher Mitchell (13:43):

So you, you're kind of like, you're asking them questions that they may not, you don't need to know the differences between those things.


Correct. But that helps you figure out how to track them.

Meg Kaufer (13:51):

Right. And I'll give you a very simple answer or example. We look at something that we call the digital quotient, which is the number of people in the house and the number of devices. That's strict math. If you're not at one to one mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, then you have a device access problem. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, end of discussion. Sure. Because in the STEM Alliance, our belief mindset is one to one full ownership of devices for every household member. Yes. End of discussion.

Christopher Mitchell (14:12):

I'll say this, like my son is seven years old, so we're still figuring things out. I have one child and I had no sense of how little time I spend with that child. And I, and like, you know, he comes home from school, there's a little bit of time, there's dinner, there's a little bit of time, and he's off to bed.


And, and like the idea that like if there's not a device available for him in that window, if we had a couple of brothers and sisters for him you know, there's, there's not, like, it's not if you can schedule 'em out later. Right. Like there's not a lot of time after school where, where you're working with them.

Meg Kaufer (14:40):

Correct. That's exactly correct. And so that is the STEM Alliance stands on that principle unwaveringly mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And by the way, I do not want to disparage loanership programs, but it is not what we have committed to mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, we believe in one-to-one full device ownership. So going back to our Y zone work, we are, we've, we're figuring out the best community partners for this work. So yes, we're in the housing authority and yes, we are offering our classes or digital navigator events in the lobbies or the, the spaces there to talk to people.


But really one of the best partners we have is the Department of Social Services. So we now set up in their lobby. And what's really powerful about being in those buildings is if anybody knows anything about ACP enrollment, it's about having the right paper to get approved. Well, guess where all those papers are generated? Sure. Yeah. In DSS, in the Department of Social Services. And so literally, and by the way, a lot of those individuals have significant waiting time when they're in those buildings. So they're in the building already. They're anticipating being there for a couple of hours. So we can help them in their downtime between appointments, and then when they go into the appointment, we can say, listen, we need your Medicaid letter. Can you ask them to print it for you? And so they literally, within inside of an hour, we can identify what paperwork they don't have.


They can get the paperwork, we can, they can come back to us and we can get them going.

Christopher Mitchell (15:59):

So I'm just gonna ignore it for a second, how ridiculous it is, the level of paperwork that Fair enough for that. Fair enough. But it, it is super important which side of the glass you're on in that building. Right. As to how legitimate you are being in being inside. There's no question that, that you're providing a real service. Whereas outside, you know, you're, you're literally 10 feet away and people are like, I don't know if I could trust you.

Meg Kaufer (16:18):

Yeah. So let's, let's talk about some of the challenges with ACP. So the semi alliance has developed an incredibly thoughtful locally based, culturally responsive set of digital navigators.


It is also true that at the local supermarket, there are, shall we call it competing kind of pop-up ISPs. I don't know if they're officially an ISP who are handing out low quality Chromebook low quality tablets and signing people up for acp instantaneously they have access to the verifier. We don't have . Right. And they are grabbing people not only people's ACP benefit, but their lifeline benefit and they're paid on commission. It's just, it's it's an army of them.

Christopher Mitchell (17:03):

This is why when my staff talks about ACP, I always say ignore the device. Like, I, like there's a few places that are doing a good job with devices, but for the most part, like, I wish the devices weren't even a part of it because the incentives are wrong. You say a bad tablet, like, I'm not super happy with my Kindle fire.


Right. But like, it's a great tablet compared to what these people are handing out. Right?

Meg Kaufer (17:23):

A hundred percent. And, and so this is really challenging for us because we are literally competing with larger entities. And I don't wanna say they have bad intentions. Right. But I do wanna say that I believe it is a fair statement that they do not have the intentionality that we do. And they are not talking to people when somebody says, yeah, I'll take that. They're not saying, do you know that you could also get home-based higher speed? Because by the way, those, those packages 10 gigabyte max for the entire month mm-hmm. <Affirmative> Yeah. What, what type of fair and equitable Internet access is that?

Christopher Mitchell (18:02):

Yeah. No, I, I have more usage than most people, but still I'm pushing a terabyte a month and my home

Meg Kaufer (18:09):

Easily mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And so, you know, this is, and so they're not describing what they're not delivering, and that's what our digital navigators are doing.


And listen, if an individual says, no, no, no, I just want that phone from X provider and I'm fine to use my lifeline benefit and my ac, great. We're not gonna stand in the way of that, but we are gonna tell them what we think the pros and cons are of that decision. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> you know, in two seconds or less, I'm not gonna waste people's time, but I wanna make sure they understand. And by the way, a mobile solution is many times a better option for families, right. They, you know, they, they don't, they're not interested in what they can do in their home. They, for a variety of reasons need their, and one of them, for example, was an individual said, listen, I just want my child to be reachable them when they're outta the house. Yes. And they like to do homework in X, Y, or Z location.


Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, that's what I want.

Christopher Mitchell (19:00):

Right. No, you know, it always feels like, give me a gimme an inch, I'm gonna try and take a mile. I mean, ultimately we need to make sure that people that are in low income have the same options that you and I do on communications. Right. For a hundred years, that's been the United States policy is we should have, everyone should have adequate access to inter to, not to Internet <laugh>, but to, but to communications. And and that means now being able to have a device that works well inside the home and have a connection that works well inside the home as well as outside. And so $30 a month is great, but we ultimately need to make sure that whether it's the market, whether it's government, whether it's some combination of partnerships or whatever, people need to have it and be able to have access outside their home and inside their home that works for them.

Meg Kaufer (19:41):

Correct. And, and one of the things that I talk to people a lot about, and when we're training our digital navigators to, to talk to people and, and make sure that they're really understanding their, their range of options. You know, there was a Pew study a while back that said something like, I hope I get this quote right. 63% of low income individuals indicate that they can do everything they need on their cell phone. And that statistic I, I always look at with a bit of a wink of an eye, because you know what that statistic tells me, 63% of low income individuals don't know what they can do on a computer. Right. That's all that that statistic tells me. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And it is our job to give them an insight into it, because why would you ask for and crave something that you don't know how to use, have never used or never had?


How can you envision yourself into needing that? And so that's our job. That's our job.

Christopher Mitchell (20:30):

Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. It's great to catch up and I'm, I'm thrilled about the work that you do and looking forward to seeing what you do next.

Meg Kaufer (20:37):

I can't wait to talk to you again. Let's keep it going because it is, seeing the evolution of this work is critical. And I will wanna give a big shout out to folks like yourself and N D I A. The STEM Alliance would be nowhere in this work, were it not for the open source ongoing conversations and creative thinking of this entity and folks like you. Excellent. Meg Kaufer, thank you so much. Take care.

Sean Gonsalves (21:02):

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