NEWS: Reporting on a very successful “Digital Divide” Forum

Posted December 2nd, 2020

Our Digital Divide Forum Rundown

There have been many questions about the Digital Divide and the role that Broadband technology will play regarding this technological advancement that will be the platform and backbone of the public and private sector. With technology evolving rapidly we needed to learn about it quickly, and then master it to maintain our ability to be competitive on the global stage. The COVID-19 pandemic made it a priority as we were forced to shift to working (tele-work), learning (tele-learning) and receiving healthcare (tele-medicine) remotely.

BizFed Institute convened a forum that brought broadband technology users together to speak about how they have adjusted how they deliver their services and products as organizations in the face of the challenges that COVID-19 presented. Their discussion allowed us to hear from their unique perspective how they were able to pivot and set the foundation for being able to sustain themselves and thrive.  

Keynote Speaker Jonathan Adelstein, President of the Wireless Infrastructure Association

Jonathan gave us his perspective on what he sees as what’s needed to leverage broadband wireless infrastructure in order to maintain our ability to thrive as a national, regional and local economy. He feels if we look at this issue through a national lens of wireless infrastructure, CA has been known to be the most difficult to work with when it comes to deployment and geographical coverage (horizontal markets). Because of the paradigm shift, CA is more attractive to investors with over $30 billion a year in wireless investments. Crown Castle has led the way and is a critical player in broadband infrastructure deployment. Because of this, it’s a good idea not to overtax those companies making the investment or else it will work against our economy. 

The good news is that we have smart local leadership that has emerged and they are in the process of changing that perception with BizFed and BizFed Institute being platforms to lead the way by discussing, educating, organizing and focusing on removing the inhibitors. It’s important to note that broadband deployment is a matter of life and death since 80% of 911 calls are from a wireless device.

Broadband connectivity is becoming a priority in CA as it has become clear that wireless infrastructure has become the backbone of  adapting to a new work style as a result of this pandemic. As a result of this we cannot take connectivity for granted and we need to make it streamline the permits process  and standardize these processes across cities and counties. 

The City of Long Beach is a shining example of how things should work and they have leveraged Public Private Partnerships to make it happen. Jobs have been created and costs in CA have been cut by a third with micro-trenching whenever possible. Although vetoed, AB 645 was a good model and we need to advocate for this kind of legislation in 2021.

Panel 1: We will be looking at tele-health, tele-learning and tele-work from both big and small company perspectives. 

Moderator: Sunne McPeak, President & CEO – California Emergency Technology Fund. 

Sunne did a great job setting the table as the moderator to make sure that we were able to have meaningful and impactful discussion. She gave her view of the underlying factors and negative effects of the digital divide and why it deserves this level of attention. Her expertise and vast experience in public policy served this panel as the panel members gave shared  experiences on the impact of the digital divide, how they are navigating through it and their recommendations for solving it.

Matthew Newman is the Founder of Virtual Co-working and immediately pointed out that the digital divide is really impacting underserved communities, small businesses and specifically people of color. He pointed out that as a result, these communities are missing out on an opportunity to gain equity since small businesses need access to the dollars to implement the evolution of the marketplace inside of their businesses. Many small businesses can only afford basic technology and don’t have the capital to sustain the evolving technology and the costs to maintain it. It’s going to take ISP providers sitting down with the right people in these respective micro-economies and working with them to come up with actionable solutions that will give their businesses access to a broader market. The ROI is a business customer that grows and stays in business for many years. Matthew is passionate about his desire to be the voice of small business and in particular the people of color in underserved communities who are impacted by the digital divide. The moderator, Sunne McPeak took him up on his offer and committed to putting his thought leadership to work in order to help address and fix this problem.

 John Keisler, Director – Long Beach Economic Development Department believes that the city, seaport & highways are interconnected with broadband access being a critical component of their continued efficient functioning that support economic development in Long Beach, CA. John believes in order to grow the economy and median income, all people, all students, all businesses, must be connected to the internet. He stated that Public/Private Partnerships have an opportunity to make a difference and partner in order to streamline the permitting process in terms of identifying and eliminating bottlenecks. We must be proactive with our plans and bring in resources like leveraging the Digital Inclusion Hotline and the Universal Business Internet. John was forward thinking and has success in the City of Long Beach that he could share and point to as a model on how to get things done. He has strong relationships with Veriiiiizon and Crown Castle and is an expert in public-private partnerships and how to coalition build to make them work. During the Forum itself, John was loading up the chat box with links to resources that can help anyone who decided to access them. He truly possesses the attitude necessary to close the digital divide!

John Baackes, CEO LA Care  states that the digital divide is a contributor to inequality when it comes to people of color having broadband or internet access. This also applies to healthcare providers who serve underserved communities that are small practitioners who also cannot sustain telemedicine. As a result of reduced patient load and therfor reduced revenue, many small practices are considering closing because they can’t afford to stay open, and once they’re closed, no one will come to replace them. It’s also important to point out that telemedicine can now be billed with the irony being that no-show rates are almost zero with telemedicine because the examination can take place in the home. Statistics show that inequality is a life and death matter! Lastly, it’s recommended that ISP partners need to help figure out how to give access in order to have people embrace it, and as a result it will then help grow their revenues and the economy. Many federal grants are the key to reduce costs and create that access portal.

Dr. Soraya Coley, President – California State Polytechnic University, Pomona – Dr. Coley highlighted the challenges posed by the digital divide, describing how 1 in 5 California students lack high-speed internet and that half of lower-income families and 42 percent of families of color lack the devices needed for distance learning. She referenced Cal Poly Pomona’s own experience moving to virtual instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — a massive effort that took 29,000 students and 5,000 courses online in the matter of one week — and how they’re using this experience as an opportunity to innovate. It was also an effort that required philanthropic support to ensure students had the necessary resources to succeed. She also referenced the potential of federal investment to shrink the digital divide, citing the proposed $1 billion Emergency Broadband Connections Act currently put before Congress. Thinking more broadly, she outlined the necessity of integrating educational and business interests as partners in a shared effort to foster the skills and experience necessary to prepare students for the “future of work”. She shared that the viability and opportunities for social mobility in our communities are at stake and our political, industry, and education leadership needs to bring people to the table to address and work on the challenges. Citing model collaborative efforts between Cal Poly Pomona, Pomona Unified School District, and the City of Pomona, Coley outlined the tremendous potential to close the digital divide through innovative programs that share services between municipal jurisdictions and educational institutions.

Community College Report: Dr. Francisco Rodriguez, the Chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District  gave a robust presentation on how his consortium of educational institutions of higher learning have faced and adapted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. He started off by saying that LACCD has a 100% acceptance rate with a high transfer rate to universities. This is evidenced by 75% of our first responders coming out of Community colleges. There is a close interdependence between education, the economy and equity and Community Colleges is the most egalitarian institution and engine for the economy. 

Dr. Rodriguez stated that workforce development is a key to socioeconomic mobility and is directly tied to higher education. LACCD has 226,000 students enrolled in which people of color are the majority and 70% being low income. When COVID-19 hit LACCD did a great job of pivoting (in 1 week) to the great majority of their courses going online, training their faculty, and managing to retain 92% of their student enrollment. The school distributed 25,000 digital devices and offered wifi in their parking lots along with $50 gift cards! This spring, all the classes will be completely online as the importance of connectivity and access is greater than ever. Dr. Rodriguez closed with  “Imagine a region where no one is left behind – where we close the wealth gap”.

Panel 2: Impactful and insightful discussion with broadband technology/ISP’s and Broadband Infrastructure Development Companies.

Moderator: Curt Hagman, Chairman, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors & Chair, Southern California Association of Governments Emerging Technologies Committee. Supervisor Curt Hagman did a great job moderating the ISP and Broadband Infrastructure Development Companies Discussion. Each company was pre-assigned categories and questions for their segment so as not to have redundancy and yet allow them to focus on their areas of interest. He did a great job managing through the process and as a result we got information that will allow us to understand this challenge from a business perspective in terms of their view of the problem and how we need to collectively solve it.  Supervisor Hagman feels that the concept of somehow grading jurisdictions regarding the efforts to embrace the public-private partnerships and make it attractive for the companies to invest in their respective communities is really important.

Since we feel it’s important to focus on fixing the digital divide and not the individual company’s capabilities, we want to present their report collectively, but will start by listing said ISP’s, broadband infrastructure developers and their representatives. If you’d like to learn more about the work each respective organization is doing to close the digital divide, we invite you to view the recording by clicking on the link below:

Verizon – Dan Feldman, Managing Director of Business Development & Network Partnerships

Crown Castle – John Toccolino, Vice President – Fiber, West Region

Charter/Spectrum – Keri Eskew-Bailey, Regional Vice President – West, Government Affairs 

Zayo – Brandon Reed, J.D., Vice President – Underlying Rights & Government Relations – North America  

Each company is committed to investing money and resources to fortify their broadband infrastructure. They are also shared that they are sensitive to and committed to digital inclusion and closing the digital divide. In order for this to happen, Public-Private partnerships must be formed between the ISP’s, broadband development companies, the communities they serve and the elected officials and public agencies that govern their communities.

We need to start with eliminating the obstacles and inhibitors that prevent the acceleration of broadband infrastructure development and services in communities where it doesn’t exist or where there is spotty coverage. There are hundreds of cities and many counties in the Southern California region and California as a whole. In order for things to roll out faster, cities and counties must make conditions favorable by standardizing permit pulling, eliminating exorbitant fee structures and allowing for geographical access in order for us to achieve the goal of closing the digital divide. Cities must make conditions attractive to get investment in quickly, and they in turn will quickly be able to benefit from

There needs to be a paradigm shift in thinking that requires all the companies to be willing to promote broadband through Southern CA. The mindset must be to embrace these companies as a partner and not an “applicant”, while offering no preferential treatment to any one or group of providers. The city and county officials need to collaborate, which will lead to communities that are open to change and innovation.

As a part of this process and to create peer pressure, it might make sense to implement a grading system to identify geographies who are willing to embrace the public-private partnerships and make it attractive for the companies to invest in their respective communities. The follow on would be mapping out the region so all can see who’s willing to get on board to help close the digital divide and those who are not. Some might view this as controversial, but aggressive measures are required as this is a very critical issue that must be addressed immediately. 

When this kind of change occurs, many companies would consider getting aggressive by implementing special programs to keep people connected. Many of these companies have already done this in the form of  forgiving past due balances due to COVID-19 and the layoffs that followed. They’re also willing to educational institutions and offer special assistance to lower income families with corporate philanthropy programs thereby making it a win-win for all.

We also must make sure that once we get things to change that we implement public policy that protects the gains. We can learn from examples of success that have occurred in different regions and states that many of these companies are willing to share and help implement. In order for this to happen we can’t work in silos, but must keep an open mind and be willing to operate in a way that protects the common good and the companies willing to invest. Again, streamlining and updating the permitting process and ordinance rule, working in tandem between local, state and federal level and leaning on willing industry resources for support is a smart approach.

CA State Legislative Report: CA State Assemblymember Miguel Santiago gave us a great presentation on how the state government views this pandemic’s impact on our economy and everyday life and what needs to be done to support the public and private sector in their efforts to adapt. To begin with, the internet is a focal point and Assemblymember Santiago will make looking at affordable connectivity as a priority. He believes that these solutions need to be implemented immediately and should be long term with a focus on underserved communities and small businesses where the tele-work/learning/medicine options are required but not readily available to all. 

Assemblymember Santiago also believes we need to identify the “friendly cities” as ones who should first embrace and benefit from public-private partnerships. He knows that the businesses and schools will benefit greatly since they’re in need of connectivity and are faced with factors such as no internet in the home situations, availability of devices, digital literacy, and low income to pay the high usage bills, etc. In fairness, he sees there is also an issue in rural areas, but the issues in urban areas are different and need immediate attention because of the population density. He stated that old paradigms are not going to work anymore and we need to be open to creative partnerships that focus on connectivity, funding and equity.

Summary

After listening closely to the highly qualified Keynote an Featured Speakers and our esteemed panelists, we think the following points merit consideration as the main takeaways:

> Accurately defined the Digital Divide and the overall state of broadband  infrastructure from the lens of the public and private sector customer/user and then the ISP’s and the broadband infrastructure development companies. It was amazing how close the perspectives were regarding the impact of the digital divide and how the approach to solving the problem.  

> Eliminate working in silos and work hard on creating public-private partnerships to collaborate on closing the digital divide. We can’t do this working independently, there has to be a common goal with coordinated efforts between the ISP’s, broadband development companies and the customer in order to solve this problem.  At all times remember collaboration is the key as we all must find common ground, gain consensus, define a plan and then execute.

> Recruit, educate and inform the elected officials, business leaders, educational institutions on the importance of this issue. These thought leaders will be the backbone of your of your coalition in terms of managing through the public policies that act as a “chokehold” which prevents the acceleration of deployment while containing prohibitive costs.

> Identify solutions that are an example of what’s working to close the digital divide and illuminate the inhibitors and the cities and counties that embrace them. Invest in the cities and counties that embrace what’s working and work on changing the mindset of those who want to continue to hold onto obstructive public policy.

> Much of the discussion also touched on how COVID-19 exposed disparities in the digital divide and how these disparities impacted underserved communities in urban and rural areas. In the urban areas, people of color are being disproportionately impacted because of lack of access and proper equipment. The effects on our educational systems from K-12, Community Colleges and Universities created challenges that in some cases have yet to be overcome. In other cases Community Colleges and Universities were able to pivot  and switch classes to online learning. In both cases, the need to fix the digital divide is a call to action in that the futures of many of our children are at stake. The impact on small, medium and large businesses was also discussed with examples of how the digital divide is negatively impacting them and crippling their ability to provide a contribution to their local economies. AS for the medium and large businesses, they were able to more easily pivot and examples were given that demonstrated how if we collaborate through public-private partnerships, we can get through this crisis. This experience has taught us that we will probably make many of these changes permanent because of the advantages that were discovered as a result that save money, time and identified more efficient processes. 

> Leverage BizFed Institute’s ability to engage, educate and equip the public and private sector with the knowledge, connections and resources necessary to build strong communities and be the platform for the genesis of thought leadership and consensus building. The Digital Divide Forum is proof that we can do this and is the 7th event of its kind (different topics) that has happened in 2020. Once BizFed Institute is engaged, we’ll invite our sister organization, BizFed (LA County Business Federation), who will step in and help to leverage it’s massive alliance of over 200 business associations that represent over 450,000 businesses that employ over 4 million people to help create change through coalition building and public policy advocacy across the Southern California region and beyond.

VIEW RECORDING

Until the next one, 

Kevin Harbour

President, BizFed Institute

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