Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Bonus Episode 14

This is the transcript for episode 14 of our bonus series, “Why NC Broadband Matters.” We’re joined by Amy Huffman, Policy Director at National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and Christa Vinson, Program Officer of Rural Broadband and Infrastructure at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), to talk about the state of digital inclusion across the country. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below. 

Amy Huffman: When people are confident in their own skill development, they can then take that and learn on their own. They become self sustained learners moving forward. In this day and age, that's what we need to equip people to be.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to a bonus episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts, I'm Christopher Mitchell. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota and today we're back with another, in our series of bonus episodes with North Carolina, Broadband matters talking about how to make sure we get high quality Internet access out to everyone. We're very excited for this continuing partnership to focus on North Carolina. This is something that we're going to set the stage today with national context around digital inclusion, building digital skills, and what's going on. Then we're going to zoom into what North Carolina's doing about it in the next show. Today we have two people who have been on before, people that many listeners are undoubtedly familiar with. We have Amy Huffman who is a policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which is NDIA. Welcome to the show.

Amy Huffman: Thanks for having me, Chris. It's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. We also have Christa Vinson, who is a program officer at the Rural Program in the Local Initiative Support Corporation. which most people know in the nonprofit world as LISC, which is super popular and has a great reputation. Welcome back to the show Christa.

Christa Vinson: Thank you Chris. Glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to start with you Christa. I'll just ask you briefly, I think it's maybe been a year, maybe nine months. I don't know, since we talked about Digital Navigators and how you were working together with NDIA and [PALO 00:01:52], I believe at the time to flesh that out. How's it going?

Christa Vinson: It's really exciting to see how much this community of practice has grown. I think many, any of us who are involved in this space are starting to think of Digital Navigator as a role in a community capital D, capital N. A set of skills that an individual can cross train to support their community with, or even assume the role of Digital Navigator in a community. That's really exciting progress because digital inclusion and digital equity are increasingly recognized as part of the equation. The third leg of the stool along with broadband access and affordability would be those skills that a Digital Navigator can support. In the nine months since we last spoke, the Local Initiative Support Corporation's rural program, rural LISC's Digital Navigator strategy has grown to include 32 communities in 20 states. Where individuals have cross trained as Digital Navigators to offer this digital inclusion support to community members.


Christopher Mitchell: That is impressive.

Christa Vinson: Thank you. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there any, is there a story that pops into your head as to how this has been valuable? I'm curious.

Christa Vinson: There are so many stories and unique to the place where Digital Navigators are offering this solution and this access, and this support. In rural Appalachia, our cross trained Digital Navigators who were working with folks who were sidelined from work, due to the pandemic and were trying to build those skills to get back into the labor force. A digital navigator was able to offer that individual access to a laptop, build skills to use a computer, to build a resume, to promote their job readiness. While at the same time, having that laptop available in that household for children who were trying to participate in a remote school. We heard a wonderful story of this father who was able to help his children do their homework in a warm place instead of a parking lot, while he pursued reentry into the labor market.

Christa Vinson: The Digital Navigator was able to recognize that there were multiple tech access needs in that household and make a difference. So many exciting anecdotes of folks for whom digital inclusion was ultimately really supportive. We have program partner in the Appalachia region in Kentucky. That was working with returning citizens and were defining digital inclusion to mean access to a cell phone so that they could stay close to their network of support as they reemerge and resolidified relationships with family, with the workforce et cetera. I can go on. Seniors who use tablets for telehealth, just many important examples. Obviously we all know the urgency of connectivity that was magnified by the pandemic and to hear from Digital Navigators when they're able to provide that one to one support and recognize need and connect that need to opportunity, is one of the most remarkable things that we've seen in the past nine months, in the past year, as we emerge from the pandemic.


Christopher Mitchell: That is wonderful. Amy, I want to bring you in. You've been with National Digital Inclusion Alliance approaching a year now, is that right?

Amy Huffman: About six months.

Christopher Mitchell: Six months, okay. So really it's been three years then because these six months are not normal months. You came from North Carolina, how much do you regret your decision at this point?

Amy Huffman: Oh, Chris. Come on.

Christopher Mitchell: We've had many people on from National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Angela is one of my favorite people ever. I feel like I can tease.

Amy Huffman: I do not regret it, but it's different. I absolutely loved my job at the state. I worked in the broadband infrastructure office and absolutely loved it, adored it, definitely miss it. But being with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance is super exciting, getting to do what I did, what we did at this state level on a national scale is so exciting. While you're right, not only does six months feel like three years in pandemic times, but it's also in the midst of the biggest potential investment of broadband from the federal government in history and definitely my lifetime. Working on the Hill during that time has definitely been incredible and exciting. I'm really optimistic about the future of our country, if Congress gets it right and passes the Infrastructure Bill.

Christopher Mitchell: That's one of the things I wanted to talk with both of you about is exactly just that. It seems like we've crossed into a time period when not only local governments, state governments and the federal government are now taking this seriously. We still have a hangover in which people think about broadband in terms of just whether or not infrastructure's available, but that's really changing. We're actually seeing money set aside for digital skills building and affordability and things like that. Amy, if you just want to start, why don't you pick one of the signs of these changes and then maybe we can go back and forth a little bit with other ones.


Amy Huffman: Yeah, actually I'll start with something that I've been reading through today. One of the major funds that the federal government has made available, that's available now was made through the American Rescue Plan Act. It's a $10 billion fund for capital quote, unquote capital projects. We've been waiting for the guidance to come out on that for six, eight months now, something like that. The guidance just came out yesterday and as I've been sifting through it and reading through it, I'm seeing things I've never seen in federal policy before. I've never seen on paper... For instance, it's giving the eligible applicants will be states and territories and tribal governments. It's giving those applicants the flexibility to figure out what unserved areas are, alike in their states, which is nearly unheard of. It's also saying that those unserved areas are areas that are unserved by at least a 100 down 20 up, which is also unheard of.

Amy Huffman: It's really just baking digital inclusion into the eligible funds. In the deployment, if you apply for funding for a deployment project, it's baking in that project the end service needs to be made eligible for the emergency broadband benefit or whatever that continued program is. It needs to have a low cost offer for low income consumers. They need to address affordability as they are building out this project and making sure that they work with the community to do that. I've never seen that type of language in these types of bills before. That's just the broadband deployment section. There's a whole section for potential digital inclusion projects, including equipment like computers and tablets and et cetera, and public Wi-Fi, which could be used for things like gap networks and communities where access is available, but not affordable. I think that's just an emblem of the times and it makes me hopeful for our future and where we're going.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I would add to that is that what this means in practicality and for instance, in North Carolina is that we know that there are areas that undoubtedly have no access where maybe even satellite doesn't work the Western part of the state for instance. We also know that parts of the Eastern part of the state in particular entire towns have service, which looks like it's gigabit, but it doesn't work well. It's unreliable, it'll break for days or weeks at a time and the price keeps going up. And so now both of those areas could be considered unserved depending on the definitions and anything that's built has to be designed for the future.


Christopher Mitchell: It has to have affordability and then on top of it, you have other areas that, you might be able to say that in Durham there's neighborhoods, maybe where just nobody can afford the access that's there. Even if it's reliable, if you have $70 or $80 a month, you can still say, "Well, this is not meeting the needs of this particular neighborhood." I don't think you can build, a wealthy suburb with this money. I don't know that we should be focused on that right now with federal dollars but, this is quite flexible and exciting.

Amy Huffman: Yeah. I think that's what excites me about it because, we know that the digital divide, it doesn't discriminate based on rural versus urban. There are specific solutions to be applied based on what the specific challenge is facing that community. This provides the flexibility for the state or grantee to tailor those solutions so they fit the actual needs of the community. I think that's really exciting.

Christopher Mitchell: Christa, what's a different example of something that you're seeing that shows that this is being taken seriously now?

Christa Vinson: LISC and rural LISC work with a network of community based partners, including oftentimes organizations, community action agencies that support LISC's financial opportunity center program. To see language in the community service block grant program that would provide for Digital Navigator training, or to imagine the possibility that the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act reauthorization would include digital skilling as a workforce skill building opportunity or requirement. I think really demonstrates the progress and the recognition that technology access and confident use of technology underlies every industry sector in the economy.


Christa Vinson: We are particularly energized at LISC to think that a Digital Navigator program like the one that we support, would have follow on funding from some of these federal funding streams to continue to be able to provide this resource to the community. LISC has cross trained Digital Navigators at community action agencies at multifamily affordable housing developments, health providers, financial opportunity centers, as I said, and other community based organizations. The thought that any deeply anchored community organization can be an ally in increasing productive, digital participation from all. To see these various federal funding streams, or recognize the role of digital inclusion, and then be able to resource that community based organization and provisioning these services, is a sea change and something that I think we're all energized by and looking forward to carrying forward.

Christopher Mitchell: Because I'm an amazing actor, you didn't see how surprised I was. But I had no idea, Amy's talking about things I was aware of like bill's about broadband or now talking about adoption and things like that. You're talking about things that have nothing to do on their surface with broadband, in which there's a recognition now, that the workforce generally needs these kinds of skill else.

Christa Vinson: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: It's wonderful.

Christa Vinson: Absolutely. We talk about 21st century economy and economic competitiveness coming from, labor force with the requisite skills that are going to build this economy of the future. Undergirding, all that is digital skills. We have to ensure the access to technology, the confident use of technology in order for folks that you are still of prime working age to participate in the labor market with the requisite skills. Programs like the Community Services Block Grant, and [WIOA 00:14:13] speak to that, but we're also seeing a remarkable growth in telehealth. Telehealth users are not necessarily in the labor force, we may be talking about a senior population and the importance of creating that access to technology and that confidence use of technology in order to take up telehealth, is an important evolution. I am not an expert in the health sector, so to be able to point to some examples of where funding is coming from, I may have to save for a later show. What we're really seeing every industry recognize how embedded technology access and technology skills are.


Christopher Mitchell: There were some policy changes that enabled more telehealth, and I think a number of hospitals and people that follow this more closely than we do are very worried that those could be reversed. We need to keep encouraging telehealth from what I've seen. There's something you said several times now, that I love confident use of technology. Amy, have you heard that before? It was new to me as a phrasing.

Amy Huffman: Yeah. We've heard it. I think that's exactly what we're looking for. We are looking forward to put people on a progressive pathway of skill development so that they become confident in their technology use, because digital skills is something that we're always going to need to be learning. Five years ago, I didn't know how to use Zoom and now I use it every day. When people are confident in their own skill development, they can then take that and learn on their own. They become self sustained learners moving forward and that in this day and age. That's what we need to equip people to be.

Christopher Mitchell: I love that.

Christa Vinson: Or a favorite phrasing that I've heard is the idea of digital resiliency. That the skill isn't necessarily technical knowledge. It's grit, solve a problem.

Christopher Mitchell: I like that. I would just say something that we've been noodling over and I've talked with a few people about it and who have been doing some of this work, is when we're trying to develop people that are going to be working in policy. I'll often say we want to humble confidence because part of the problem we face is frankly arrogant. Usually men, who use their knowledge like a weapon and can scare people from getting into this. I always feel like I want people to feel confident that they know enough to participate in meetings and also to be humble because I don't know about y'all, but I'm approaching 15 years and I'm learning stuff every day. There's stuff that my team asks me and I'm like, "I don't know how to answer that question. I don't know."

Christopher Mitchell: There's this humility that we all need in this space, which is very complicated, but definitely knowable to figure out what you need and then working together to fill in our knowledge gap. Confidence is great and I think we just need to keep focused on that. One of the things we wanted to cover was what North Carolina has contributed to this. We're going to come back and talk more about what North Carolina's doing right now, with some guests that are doing it in, North Carolina. What has North Carolina contributed to this national conversation to get us to this point?


Amy Huffman: So I'll start and I'm sure Christa can jump in. I should say, I'm still based in North Carolina. Go Tar Heels.

Christopher Mitchell: North Carolina is wonderful [crosstalk 00:17:44]

Amy Huffman: It's a beautiful state. It's got to be the most beautiful state.

Christopher Mitchell: I complain about things like the state law against municipal broadband, because it's such a great state otherwise. There's so many great parts of it, so there's no argument there.

Amy Huffman: I think North Carolina has set a lot of wonderful precedence for the country. As I was thinking through this I think really, it goes back to that humble confidence, Chris. It's actually less of a tangible thing and more of a community. NDIA we've started working on this term called... It's really this ecosystem. Digital inclusion is more than just an individual over here, an individual over there, working in their silos and the healthcare, education. Getting computer people or skills over here but it's really the places where we see the most progress. Where communities are really advancing in their skill development and adoption of broadband or those where there's a strong digital inclusion ecosystem. North Carolina, while there's arguments that can be made that maybe a state can't can be a whole ecosystem.

Amy Huffman: In North Carolina there really is a strong ecosystem of organizations that work collaboratively, in a very supportive way. What I love about your humbled confidence is when I was working for the state, I felt that very much that, I will forever be learning in this field. I think that's one of the reasons I love it so much, but I could go to anyone in the community in Charlotte or Durham, or in rural Western North Carolina and ask questions and learn from them about what they're doing.

Amy Huffman: We could talk about, "Hey, that might work over here in Robinson County." So, how can we take what each other are doing and scale it? That was a lot of what has happened to date and historically in North Carolina. I think that other states and communities are catching onto that, and that's a beautiful thing to see and I hope that continues. But if anything, my hope is that, that is what becomes the model, that collaboration, that community. That sense of sharing, that sense of we're all in this together to create a digital equity ecosystem, a digital inclusion ecosystem. We're really all in this together to advance the people within our specific communities.


Christopher Mitchell: Excellent.

Christa Vinson: Definitely share that Tar Heel pride. We can go way back in North Carolina and discover early leadership, early national leadership on this topic of digital opportunity. We now think of it as digital equity, that broadband access plus those skills and to use the technology and to afford the technology. NC broadband matters counts among its leaders, Jane Smith Patterson. Who helped define the idea of tech led economic development and the role public, private partner relationships in deploying broadband infrastructure. They continue to inspire states around the country. Amy worked for the NC [Robby 00:20:49] and Infrastructure Office.

Christa Vinson: There are some states that are just now setting up Robby and Infrastructure Offices, just hearing from Ohio yesterday. Their grant program is less than a year old, but North Carolina has a track record and continues to build on that. I absolutely agree with Amy's insight about how essential cross collaboration and learning is and certainly for digital inclusion but digital inclusion as economic and community development as something that I think North Carolina is well practiced in. Programs like the BAND-NC Digital Inclusion Grant program was the first of its kind in the nation and coming out of the Institute for Emerging Issues and the other collaborators. The North Carolina electric membership cooperatives, I believe were an early investor in the ideas there comes from a history of cross community collaboration.

Christa Vinson: The Institute for Emerging Issues was really formed to do that shared learning across the state. I think it's a real point of Tar Heel pride to collaborate. As LISC and NDIA build communities of practice nationally, what underlie about is that the idea of collaboration and we can learn from each other and we can extend one another's reach. Get further, faster.


Christopher Mitchell: I think that's really important. I can't stress enough how much collaboration has allowed us to succeed at the Institute for Local Self Reliance on our team. Everything that we do has been learning with people who are willing to share information often going above and beyond. I went to the Institute for Emerging Technology Issue, the form that they had at NC state, where they're housed and people from all across the state were there. People from church groups, groups of faith, all kinds of different walks of life, and they all were interested. It was a wonderful event that they put together.

Christopher Mitchell: This is changing gears a little bit but, when we're doing this work out in the field that is now being taken seriously. What are the modern methods of identifying who needs help and how to get it to them, and that sort of a thing? It seems like we're a long way from what E2D was doing back four or five years ago, when they were making sure that everyone had a device in the school and things like that. What's the modern approach?

Christa Vinson: If I can go first because I have to put in a little commercial for E2D. I think they just brought in their largest inventory ever. I think $7 million worth of equipment, that they're going to turn around refurbish and redistribute into communities. Another fantastic part about their model, is it's a job training program so folks are building skills that they can use in their future careers by refurbishing those machines.

Christopher Mitchell: People should dig into the archives to hear the interview with one of the co founders. Christa what's the 30 second version of what they do?

Christa Vinson: Yes. They refurbish equipment. One of their biggest accomplishments, I was reminded of recently was the state legislature in North Carolina allowing for state surplus. So equipment computers and other real related equipment that is surplus by the state could go to these nonprofit refurbishers to be refurbished and then redistributed. E2D and the Kramden Institute are our two marque refurbishers in North Carolina that, taken this equipment from public and private sources, have an embedded job training program to develop the skills of folks that can to refurbish to that equipment. Then distribute to community based organizations that have that frontline access to folks that maybe don't have computer access, are working on the skills that they need to use a computer confidently. Both E2D and the Kramden Institute include in their portfolio that skill building and resource to the organizations, that take the equipment and pass it on to community members that need it. The skill support to provide for really productive use of this machine.


Christa Vinson: It's a beautiful closed loop system that I think really helps our communities move forward. I was just talking to Michael, one of the founders of the [After 00:25:33] network and a former employee at the Kramden Institute. He reminded me that the After network, this network of computer refurbishers technology equipment. Refurbishers nationwide, which I think numbers over a 100 now is only five years old. See how fast this movement is growing. That the after network, which has experienced unprecedented demand for their inventory as COVID has really required that folks have this tech access is only five years old as an institution.

Christopher Mitchell: That's remarkable. I derailed you from the actual question, which is so what's being done nowadays to identify people and get them the help that they may want?

Christa Vinson: I'd Love to take a moment to go back to LISC's model of Digital Navigator, which I must say was informed deeply by National Digital Inclusion Alliances work in this space. We're forever indebted to them, but this idea that a Digital Navigator is someone you might encounter at a public library or a community information officer in a municipal government is suddenly a role that can be defined across any number of occupations. LISC for example, has cross trained Digital Navigators at cultural resource centers, at fire stations, at libraries, at financial opportunity centers. I love the idea of digital inclusion as an embedded skills in the context of other skills that someone might be forming digital access as it relates to financial literacy. At our financial opportunity center example, a cross trained Digital Navigator is also a financial coach.

Christa Vinson: They're an employment coach and ensuring that tech access really carries forward someone's progress in their job development or their personal finance. Building wealth and assets as a result of having access to technology. I think what has really evolved is certainly the essential role of that community anchor institution, like a library being able to answer someone's question in somewhat of a transactional fashion, maybe you won't learn each other's name. To a Digital Navigator that's embedded in a community, that has a long term relationship with someone and tech is enabling, their journey. I think that's a really important evolution in this field.


Christopher Mitchell: Especially to establish confidence because confidence doesn't come from a one hour training or an eight hour training. It comes from repeated efforts.

Christa Vinson: Or how do I connect to the Wi-Fi?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Amy, any additional thoughts of how we identify and make sure that we're able to get the digital skills building out where it needs to go?

Amy Huffman: Yeah. I think the Digital Navigator model is pivotal and essential in that. Unfortunately we don't have enough of them across the country and so I think growing that is going to be really important to continue to identify folks who need support.

Christopher Mitchell: We should probably put hundreds of millions of dollars into it in the near future.

Amy Huffman: We should. You know what else we should do, is we should make sure that there's funding for outreach for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, to community based organizations. We should really do that.

Christopher Mitchell: Someone should have pointed out that creating that program without any funding for outreach might result in it being dramatically underutilized to the point at, which it could have run out of money by now. If it was heavily utilized, but it's only at 10% expenditure, I think something like that. Lessons learned.

Amy Huffman: My hope is in a couple weeks, there is actually legislation that's proposed to do just that. My hope is that there will be funding dedicated to help community based organizations hire more Digital Navigators and or folks that can help get people to that program. I think that's actually where we need to grow, Chris in this field. One solution is Digital Navigators. I think the digital inclusion ecosystem is another solution. If you have a community say, a small community and the folks in the library and the fire station, the schools and the not local nonprofits are all working on digital inclusion, but coordinating. Then they can then, through their existing networks of people that they work with on the ground say, "Well, hey. You need a computer too, don't you? Okay. So you can go over here." Then if you go to computer and then it's like, "Well, do you want some training? Hey, our friends over at the library do training."


Amy Huffman: If we get to a place where we can equip communities to create these ecosystems, then that will better serve folks in conjunction with making sure there's Digital Navigators. Then also making sure that the federal state and local funding that goes to consumers and households aligns, and is easy to access and specifically the Emergency Broadband Benefit or any state program that supports folks in subscribing affordably online. Any future programs that states or local governments create using [APA 00:30:36] funds, making sure that new members know about them and it's easy to access and that sort of thing. I think it's actually area of growth for us. We're seeing promising models, but I don't think it's universal yet.

Christopher Mitchell: I think the upshot is that we're on the right path and we sure could be going down the path more quickly, but we're heading the right way. There's reasons for optimism.

Christa Vinson: But don't lose momentum, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Absolutely not.

Amy Huffman: Right. One thing we keep saying is that... Fingers cross the time this airs Infrastructure Bill has passed, we're not talking about if it's more, when. Reconciliation has gone through and the additional funds that we're seeing in the reconciliation package that could go to broadband or past as well. My hope is that will happen, but we believe that, that's actually just a down payment on this issue. Digital divide is so wide and broad and vast, and there are so many facets to it that we can't make one federal allocation and then move on.

Amy Huffman: Congress needs to continue to invest in the states, need to continue to focus on this. Local governments, local communities need to continue to organize around this. I will say after Congress passes the Infrastructure Bill, that do see a lot of the work moving to the state and local governments and to communities as a whole. A lot of this work is going to go to them. A lot of the funding will go to them. That's where the great solutions are anyways so I love that, that's the model, but just to be prepared for that. To be prepared to jump into the fray and coordinate and collaborate and work together and then carry out the work. This is a marathon, not a sprint and we need to continue to invest in it and focus on it.


Christa Vinson: I'd Love to add to that by emphasizing how important it will be for local communities, Mayors and their constituency to lift up to states. So states have more historic levels of resources to support broadband deployment, that localities are lifting up their recognition, that planning for broadband is also planning for digital inclusion and together we get digital equity. That adoption strategy is something that local communities can start to do that local networking, can recognize how one plus one is equal three in that community and sort of lift it up at the same time that those broadband infrastructure dollars are being applied for and projects are being deployed. I think that's a very important message for local communities to really articulate in this moment.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on and not just providing a lot of good information. It's exciting and positive and it gives us something to be happy about. Thank you for that.

Christa Vinson: Absolutely. It was a pleasure, Chris.

Amy Huffman: Good to see you both.