It’s no secret that President Obama’s priority list contains the usual suspects: healthcare, the economy, education, and foreign policy. Lesser known is his commitment to an issue that literally connects all of us—broadband. Short for “broad bandwidth” connection, this technology allows a large amount of data to travel through a medium at the same time. Most people know broadband as “high-speed” Internet, in contrast to the antiquated approach of using dial-up service to connect to the Web.
Broadband requires expensive equipment to get connected. That’s one reason why rural communities with low population densities often cannot get access. But it is not the only reason. In fact, the biggest obstacle to getting broadband coverage in rural areas is not money or technology, but the lack of leadership. That’s according to Karen Jackson, deputy secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia and senior advisor to Governor Tim Kaine’s administration on matters related to broadband and telework. Jackson believes stepping up the leadership is even more important now that President Obama has committed more than $7 billion in federal stimulus funds to broadband via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) passed in April 2009.
At the Rural Philanthropy Conference in Little Rock, Jackson encouraged rural funders to apply for broadband funds. Here, in her own words, Jackson offers ideas and inspiration. Her advice is timely and her lessons learned relevant to all grantmakers
T>A>I: Tell us a bit about broadband in Virginia.
Jackson: I’ve been working on broadband issues in Virginia for 10 years making sure that the Commonwealth is not left behind as the world gets deeper into the information economy. The question we addressed is the need for bigger and faster infrastructure because the applications that people want to use—sending photos, x-rays, large files—we can’t do unless we make sure the infrastructure is in place.
Technology is pervasive; it cuts across all lines. However, in Virginia there are population divides, as well as technology and income divides. In 2007, Governor Kaine assembled a broadband roundtable to discuss two things: what we wanted to do with broadband, and how we were going to move it forward in the Commonwealth. We formed a 72-member roundtable, which included academics; regional, state, and local leaders; individual citizens; and telecommunication providers. We wanted to be very inclusive; we didn’t want to leave anybody out of this process. Keep in mind that we had two dynamic people leading this charge: former Governor Mark Warner and Aneesh Chopra (Jackson’s former boss and current chief technology officer for the United States).
T>A>I: What was the result of this exercise and what did you learn from this experience?
Jackson: We determined that the critical element for broadband in any locality or state is leadership. I cannot stress that enough: without leadership, nothing’s going to happen.
During the roundtable’s year-long tenure in Virginia, we traveled the Commonwealth and met with many people—all to answer these questions:
- What were the barriers to broadband deployment?
- What were the opportunities for installing broadband?
- What resources/support did leadership at the local level need in order to make “smart” broadband decisions?
We didn’t enter communities with a top-down “cookie cutter” approach telling people what they needed or how to get things done. Instead, we took a grassroots approach. We looked at what we could do to empower community leaders and their communities to be able to strike a deal with private providers and get the infrastructure they need.
The final outcome was our Online Community Toolkit. It’s a public resource available at www.wired.virginia.gov. The toolkit includes information about community leadership and the process communities should go through in order to form public-private partnerships with broadband service providers
T>A>I: Can you explain the part of the broadband process that you refer to as a “mapping exercise”?
Jackson: One basic question we kept hearing was: Where, within the Commonwealth, was broadband available? In order to know where deployments should occur, we needed to know where it was. So, we embarked on a mapping initiative with the help of CIT, a Virginia-based 501(c)(3) organization. We completed the exercise in the spring of 2009, and now, we are the first state in the nation to have a broadband map developed without spending additional taxpayer dollars. We can pinpoint, down to the county level, where broadband is and isn’t in Virginia.
T>A>I: With the toolkit and the map, how did you engage people in communities?
Jackson: Here’s what we wrestled with: Through our conversations, we learned that people don’t always talk to one another in their community. For example, first responders don’t regularly communicate with the leadership at the hospital. The hospital leaders don’t talk to the school leaders who, in turn, don’t communicate with the community IT staff. To get things done, you need to aggregate the assets you have at your disposal in your community,. and that means the first step is to get the right people around the table and start a dialogue.
What is the key to a successful broadband deployment program? It’s leadership. It’s not a complete lack of money or the inability to find the “right” technology. To assist rural communities, we put together a “buy-down” worksheet and asked local leaders to start a dialogue—to bring together these people they rarely coordinate with and find out what they are doing with broadband. We asked them to find out:
- “who” is doing “what”
- how they are currently connected
- what applications (telehealth, distance learning, etc.) they currently use or plan to use in the future
- if they are eligible to receive grants for any broadband related activities
T>A>I: What’s significant about the name “buy-down” and how did it work at the community level?
Jackson: Communities have access to broadband monies through federal programs and agencies, but too often when they start to negotiate a public private partnership, they look at a big price tag and automatically think they can’t afford it. Instead, they should think, “Let’s try to buy these costs down and find a way to make this work.”
A rural community in Franklin County, Virginia went through this exercise. Franklin County is mountainous and near Roanoke along the North Carolina border. An ISP provider came to this community and estimated that it would cost $500,000 to do a wireless deployment across 70 percent of the county. The community could not afford this, but they went through the toolkit and got ideas on how they could come up with the money. For example, they owned towers that they could let the provider use for free. The community also received an interoperability grant from the Department of Homeland Security. To make a long story short, the county ended up paying $83,000. So it worked! The biggest problem is: nobody takes the time to look.
T>A>I: How can funders secure ARRA funding?
Jackson: There’s a substantial amount of money available in ARRA funds (which may not labeled as broadband, but are still accessible and relevant.) Funders should speak to others in their community to identify needs, find out who’s applying for funds, figure out how to leverage those funds, and coordinate their efforts. Be creative; don’t miss the opportunity to get the infrastructure through one grant and the equipment through another grant.
T>A>I: What final advice would you give grantmakers on funding broadband?
Jackson: Information technology is no longer a “vertical” in a organization matrix—it’s horizontal. It cuts across every single element of every single part of everyday life.
In that same vein, we can’t treat infrastructure as a single entity. Everybody likes to say “We’ve got 100 percent connectivity.” That won’t matter if we don’t have the applications to run across it. The question you need to ask yourself is this: How do you deploy infrastructure to anchor institutions, such as hospitals and schools, as a means of providing sustainable revenue and leveragable assets that can lower the cost of reaching residences? It’s not just about getting connectivity to people; it’s about making sure that people have the means to use it in a way that will empower them. It’s about involvement, engagement, and coming up with a holistic solution. The point of the stimulus program is to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Jobs don’t automatically come from giving somebody a computer or a cut-rate broadband subscription. That is a short-term fix. The long-term goal is provide citizens with the training and connectivity they need to effectively leverage technology to create personal and community wealth.