This is the transcript for Episode 436 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher talks with Maureen Neighbors, Energy Division Chief of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, about the state's one-of-a-kind hundred million dollar voucher program, designed and deployed for the current school year to help get and keep economically vulnerable students connected. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript.
Maureen Neighbors: Some of the feedback we get is, "We know we're supposed to use this for school, but this has been great for our household, for other reasons." So there are just so many benefits to providing broadband access, to as many people as possible.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to Episode 436 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This week, Christopher talks with Maureen Neighbors, Energy Division Chief of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs about the state's one-of-a-kind hundred million dollar voucher program, designed and deployed for the current school year to help get and keep economically vulnerable students connected. She tells Christopher how with the help of CTC Energy & Technology, they brought together more than three dozen Internet service providers, connected with school districts around the state, designed an online portal and mailed out tens of thousands of brochures to households with students on the free or reduced lunch program to help those families to start new service or pay their existing broadband bill. Maureen shares the challenges they met and the satisfaction in helping more than 120,000 students stay connected to school during the ongoing pandemic. Now here's Christopher talking with Maureen.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today. I'm excited to talk to someone who's running a one of a kind program. It's a very exciting effort to improve Internet access across the entire state of Alabama. Maureen Neighbors is the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Energy Division chief, and is in charge of this program that we're going to talk about. Welcome to the show Maureen.
Maureen Neighbors: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: So I would like to start by just getting a sense, I think of what you're looking to accomplish? Obviously we're in a pandemic and the State of Alabama, your governor was very bold in wanting to use a lot of CARES Act money in improving Internet access. And so can you tell us how you settled on this approach and describe to us what the approach is?
Maureen Neighbors: We had a pretty broad stakeholder involvement prior to settling on this. In the short amount of time we had, we had a surprising amount of input. So our goal was obviously to provide some kind of connectivity for our students who would be learning virtually either because they weren't going back to school or because there was a possibility that school might be closed again, some time after it started. And then of course, just the existing issue that was already there even pre-pandemic, and that is kind of that homework app that exists in some of those areas where kids just don't have access to Broadband.
Maureen Neighbors: We have a multilevel problem of course is accessibility because the broadband just isn't there in some of our parts of the state, but also we had a big, huge issue with affordability. We're a rural state, we have a high population of low income residents and sometimes getting into the broadband spear can be difficult for them with startup costs and equipment fees. So we were looking at ways to eliminate that obstacle, and we settled on, after looking at several data sets throughout the state, working with the department of education and their National School Lunch Program list and using those students as a marker for eligibility, we created a voucher program that would allow us to send vouchers to students who are a part of a National School Lunch Program throughout the state. And they could use those vouchers to redeem for new service if they didn't have service. And if they had service already, to use it as a credit on their account. So that was one component of it.
Maureen Neighbors: The other big component of it was we didn't want to overtax any single system within the state. So we were a little bit concerned if we just had one or two contractors, would they really be able to support a statewide initiative? And so we did a very quick turnaround with a request for information from providers. We direct solicited 40 providers and also had several other venues for advertising. And of those 40, we initially signed contracts with 37 of them. Most of those contractors are Alabama ISPs, they're local ISPs, but we also have the national players involved as well.
Maureen Neighbors: The other component of it was that most of the vouchers that people received had one or more providers listed on it, for those people who live in the areas that there just were no providers, we also had some backup contracts with some of our big national players that could provide hotspots. So our goal was to provide either hotspots or wired connections to all of our students who are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program throughout the entire state.
Christopher Mitchell: If I'm an ISP from one of those, I think you said 37, right? What's my responsibility, I guess? What am I looking at in the state of Alabama?
Maureen Neighbors: So that was really kind of exciting the way that all came together, our ISPs both national and local really stepped up, they gave us some great prices. What we asked them to do was give us a price that was an all-inclusive monthly price for service, any equipment or installation that might be necessary to get a household started, to go to a portal that was set up where they could then plug in the voucher number of the family that was calling them, and use that code to redeem it and then invoice us for those fees. So we asked them for a couple of things, the first thing was obviously to enter into a contract with us. The second thing was to set up some kind of customer service initiative that would allow people to call directly to them and not just get them run around, but that there were some specific people set aside to deal with this program.
Maureen Neighbors: The other issues that we had was, we asked, you can't cut them off for non-payment because we're the subscriber, not them. And so you're going to get paid based on what's in the grant agreement and not based on what your normal billing policies are, and you need to bill us by the end of November, because of course the cutoff is at the end of December, all of them have indicated an interest in going past December, if we are able to come up with some additional funding to carry the program through the end of the school year.
Maureen Neighbors: So that was what we asked of them. And so far the partnerships that we've developed with all of the ISPs, they have been very cooperative and very helpful. We did want a second request for proposals and we've added five more to that list. So now we're close to 42. Those contracts are in the process of being executed. Unfortunately they'll probably only be part of the program for a few weeks before we have to shut it down, but it reaches some areas that we weren't previously able to provide wired connections.
Christopher Mitchell: What if the federal government were to enact CARES Act 2, then you would be able to roll on with all those providers in?
Maureen Neighbors: Yes, we are keeping everything that can be crossed, crossed in the hopes that that happens soon.
Christopher Mitchell: So I have to ask, trying to wrangle 42 different ISPs. Some of these folks are quite independent, and across the nation, we've certainly seen independent Internet service providers, really trying to do their part. Do you feel like this program, in your interactions with them has it been easier than you thought, harder than you thought? Or how has that worked out, just trying to be on the same page and develop a contract they all liked?
Maureen Neighbors: A little bit of both. Most of our local smaller companies, they just got on board because they were of a size that minor changes in their operations didn't cause any big problems for them. Some of the bigger companies, not only do they already have existing programs like this, that they were trying to figure out how to fit their program into our program. And it just didn't work. They were too independent. So there was a little bit of back and forth with some of the bigger ones, but surprisingly, everybody got on board. There've been some little glitches with some billing, their billing cycle doesn't match our billing cycle and how you pre-bill for something without breaking federal law. Those are some of the things that we've had to work through. But I'll be honest with you, with the volume of invoices that we have and the volume of the contracts, we couldn't have done this without our outside consultant CTC. So they manage a good deal of the day-to-day billing and contracting and invoicing.
Maureen Neighbors: So it is a huge undertaking to deal with that. We got an invoice just today, the spreadsheet with the customers in a single invoice was over a million dollars, which at $50 a pop, you can imagine how many vouchers had to be reviewed with an order to make sure it was a valid invoice.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Now, if I'm the parent of a child in a school lunch program... And I will actually say that as I start this off, that your website does a very good job, I think of walking parents through what they would have to do if they're not a member already, they're not enrolled in that program. But if I am, what do I have to do in order to be eligible, to take advantage of this program?
Maureen Neighbors: We ask parents who are interested and have not already received a voucher, to go to their school and verify that they are registered for the National School Lunch Program and that their address and contact information is correct in that system. Once that's been done up until this point, we were waiting for the updates from the schools to go to the state department of education. And then the state department of education would update our data set. And then we would send out new vouchers.
Maureen Neighbors: Now that we're so close to the end, we're able to do some of that more quickly, where we just get a verification from the school directly, that they have made the correction. And by a series of emails, they're able to do the vouchers off the telephone. So I would really encourage parents to go ahead and call that toll free number and get the guidance from ABC for students, because we can expedite the process now.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. One of the things that my organization focuses on is trying to make sure we're having structural change. How do we make sure that in five years, if we have another pandemic, we've resolved the Internet crisis. And I'm curious of the tension in these programs between providing immediate relief versus a long-term structural solution. And so I think the first question along those lines is, as an ISP receiving the voucher, what can I use the voucher money for? How much is it and what are the eligible expenses?
Maureen Neighbors: So our ISPs can invoice us for the connection, the installation, the equipment. And so any infrastructure expenses that they incur, they are doing that on their own. And I will tell you, we have had some ISPs that were close to an area, and they got enough voucher requests that they went ahead and drop some fiber and they hooked up some households. So there was some infrastructural improvement, but it was private investment that wasn't part of this program.
Maureen Neighbors: We do have a state program, the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, that's been funded for two years in a row now, at $20 million, we're just getting ready to open that up as well. So we're hearing from some of those ISPs that they now know where their next focus needs to be. And there'll be applying to us for funds to go to that next level, so that they'll be ready to provide service down the road.
Christopher Mitchell: In my prep work for this, Joanne Hovis from CTC had said that she felt like this program is offering... Because of those initial connection fees that are able to be included for some folks where it might be a more than a simple expense. Some homes, obviously there's very small expense to connect and others, there might be a larger one, that this is making a structural difference in ways that you might not expect a voucher program to make.
Maureen Neighbors: I would agree a 100%. We are getting a lot of feedback from particularly our local ISPs saying that very thing, that they were able to, as the equipment and installation costs pay for things that those households could not have paid for on their own.
Christopher Mitchell: So I'm curious then, have you heard from the families or folks that have taken advantage of this? And actually, I think, remind me, you're well over a hundred thousand now, I believe, but how many folks and have you heard any really inspiring stories that make it easier to come into the office each day?
Maureen Neighbors: We are over 120,000 students that have received service through this program. So we are very excited about that. The calls that I get are primarily from the people who want to figure out how to get connected. I haven't benefited from any direct feedback from families, but I have heard anecdotally that there are many families out there who are just thrilled, that they're not in hot parking lots... Because it's still hot down here, it's 85 degrees yesterday. Trying to do homework in the school parking lot off of a cell phone, it's not conducive to good learning environment. And just a lot of grandparents and working parents who have struggled with trying to get their children to a place, supervised, to get things done either at night after hours or during the school day, when they're required to log on and be seen by a teacher somewhere, it's been so helpful to so many of those families to be able to participate in the education system in a meaningful way, and not just trying to piece something together to make it work, to just get the school year over with.
Maureen Neighbors: And I think a lot of families felt like the last part of the last school year was, we were just trying to get to the end and it didn't really count, and nobody learned much of anything. And I don't know if that's true or not, but that's how some of the families felt. And this year they feel like they're active participants in their classrooms because they have this connectivity.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I'd offer to do a heat exchange program. We have snow on the ground and actual ice.
Maureen Neighbors: I'm actually from Minnesota, Minneapolis. So I know exactly, I watch the weather up there all the time. Sorry about that.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh no, I would prefer ice on the ground to 85 degrees myself, so.
Maureen Neighbors: Personally, I agree,
Christopher Mitchell: But I think my listeners get tired of me talking about the weather, but I can't tell you how excited my family is to get out in the snow shoes and things like that. So regarding where the vouchers are going, do you have a sense? You said that there's a lot of participation from the local companies. It actually sounds like there's probably not very many local ISPs that are not a part of this program. Do you have a sense of where the vouchers are going in terms of rural, urban, local companies or out of state companies?
Maureen Neighbors: We haven't done a whole lot of analysis on that yet because we were just sending the letters out as quickly as we can get them updated. So the process of geo-coding, each of those addresses, so that we can find out where exactly they're being redeemed, that's probably going to be next month kind of project. As the redemption starts to slow down, we can start doing some analysis. But I will say that it is a statewide program and we have not created any kind of geographic preference to how we've sent them out or how we have issued contracts. We did try to make sure that we had good geographic distribution of ISPs, but we have large sections of the state, particularly in the area that's known as the Black Belt region, there's nothing there. And so there are certainly rural areas that we have had a hard time reaching. I know that we have taken some special steps to try and work with those schools and to give them additional support in terms of getting the word out that the program is available, making hotspots available in those areas and doing whatever we could to make those rural areas more connected.
Maureen Neighbors: Obviously some of our big national companies, they had a lot of existing customers who were low income. And so there was a lot of redemption of vouchers to pay us credits on existing accounts, and they are getting a large amount of the vouchers. But I think we knew that going into it, the contract amounts varied based on where they said they could provide service, based on the lists of students that we had. And so we knew going into it that the bigger companies were going to have more vouchers redeemed than the smaller companies.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, when you say about the negotiations over the voucher amounts, so you didn't set up a given, like everyone gets the same amount per family per month, you actually did an analysis based on... I guess, I'm curious on what?
Maureen Neighbors: So what we did was in addition to signing a contract, we also then had to enter into some non-disclosure agreements with the various ISPs, because they were going to tell us where they can serve, and they didn't want that to be out there. And we were going to tell them where these addresses were, and we didn't want that out there. And so we had these non-disclosure agreements. Once everybody agreed to look at the data and then forget what they saw, we were able to look at the addresses that we needed to reach and look at the service areas that they had and come up with a number of estimated vouchers that would be the maximum that any given ISP could reach. And then we set the contract based on what they had did in their RFP response and just did the math.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So one of the things that has been discussed at the federal level is kind of like a flat $50 a month. And I'm just curious if you seen the vouchers, would you say you're paying significantly less than that on average?
Maureen Neighbors: I would. We have some of these that, for instance with the hotspots, 99 cents is what they're charging us. And we couldn't get that without going through a negotiated contract. So we've gotten some really good prices. In fact, based on our initial conversation, we're almost 50% less than what we initially estimated, because the prices were so much better than the off the shelf prices.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. That's got to give you some faith that it's worth forging forward if you can find any additional funds.
Maureen Neighbors: Absolutely. We have been very impressed with the... I think the best way to frame it is this civic mindedness of the companies, both local and national companies that came in here and worked with us on not only dealing with the complexities of the program, but giving us some great prices and billing structures.
Christopher Mitchell: And I think that leads us right into lessons learned and things that you've improved in the program on the way, what are some things that you've adjusted as you've gone along that, may be different from how you expected it would work out?
Maureen Neighbors: Well, I think one of the things that we discovered early on is the dataset for the families who are eligible. It is so difficult to find a good set of information. We have refined that information over several mailing cycles of the vouchers. And even now we're finding that daily, we get dozens of calls, people who didn't get a voucher or can't really make because it's got the wrong address. And that's the biggest obstacle we've had. I'm not sure we fully solve that problem at this point. I think the only thing that we could have done differently in that area would have been to work directly with the schools, and part of what we didn't want to do was burden them, while they were trying to roll out these virtual learning programs also have them have to do all this kind of grant work.
Maureen Neighbors: And so for the purposes of the program, as it was intended for the pandemic, I think us doing it at a state level worked, but I think if it were the kind of thing that we're going to go on indefinitely, there would need to be some other way to verify eligibility for the program, because that was the biggest obstacle.
Christopher Mitchell: This is one of the things that as my child is getting ready to enter the school system, the school in our neighborhood, that he will almost certainly attend, it has... And this is the prosperous twin cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul are, I think most people would agree, assumed to be fairly prosperous. I certainly find it that way. And 30% of the kids in this neighborhood school in St. Paul experienced homelessness over the course of the year. And so you can only imagine that, of course your data set is changing significantly, have families that may be changing homes several times a month. And so I think that it's really an important note that when we're considering how to deal with that, it's also hard for the ISPs if they really want to try to connect these folks and they're moving around constantly.
Maureen Neighbors: And that was one of the things that we determined early on, even if we had a state that was covered up in fiber and everybody could connect, we do have that population. And so we did know early on that, no matter how we structured the program, there were going to be a number of students that we're going to have to be served with hotspots just because they don't have housing security. And so their residences do change throughout the school year. And even throughout a given month, they may live at multiple addresses. So that is certainly something that we identified early on. And there was some talk about developing a component of the program that would deal directly with the social workers and counselors at some of the schools to help us identify who those students were. And of course, with the timing of everything, everything we thought of, we weren't able to implement everything, but those are available to those students, even though we don't have a formal program for them.
Christopher Mitchell: And what were some of the other lessons that were learned?
Maureen Neighbors: Well, somebody gave out my personal phone number as the number to call if you had a questions. So that would be a lesson learned that I just don't give my number to anybody.
Christopher Mitchell: Did you get a few phone calls in?
Maureen Neighbors: I still daily get about 30 or 40 calls-
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, wow.
Maureen Neighbors: ... that's with this. So that certainly just having the manpower to deal with this kind of program, folks are intimidated by anything having to do with technology broadband. And even though as you mentioned, the website, it has a lot of great information on it, and it's very helpful. The brochure itself, the voucher itself has all of the information on it, but people just wanted to talk to somebody.
Maureen Neighbors: And so that's something we did know with into the program. And again, CTC, that was part of our contract with them was to provide that assistance. It's just getting them to call the right number to get that one-on-one. But that is something in this population. We noticed a lot of the folks that call me are grandparents of children. And they really wanted to just talk to someone just to walk them through the process, they were intimidated by it.
Maureen Neighbors: So I would say that's a lesson learned that, I think we had a simplified process and I think we had good contacts set up, but having been through it now, we might even make it a more simple process and have the toll free number even more accessible than we had it.
Christopher Mitchell: That's interesting because one of the things that I think about in relation to bringing people online is I think your typical person who is making these policies who probably has a grad school degree, or certainly an undergrad degree, I don't think we appreciate how commonly the people that we're trying to get connected have to deal with fraud. And I certainly, as a homeowner receive numerous things that look official throughout the course of the year, that suggest I need to pay some sort of fee. I get a phone call almost every day about my car warranty. And they're not aiming at people like me that have the ability and the time to sort of wrestle through this. So I'm not surprised to hear that, that people want to talk to someone to confirm that what they're seeing is real.
Maureen Neighbors: Yes. Yes. We did. We get a lot of that, that not only are they intimidated by the technology, but these are people who are looking out... And I'm glad that they are, looking out for potential scams. I will say that we have heard a lot of feedback from CTC as they have been trying to reach out directly to many of the families who have not redeemed their vouchers, just to find out, "Hey, can we help you redeem this?" How many of them are saying they haven't heard of the program? So I would say that's another big lesson learned that no matter how much you think you have gotten the word out, it's not enough. And I don't know if it's ever enough. There's always going to be someone who said, I didn't know, but we have such large numbers of people who said they haven't heard of the program, that I know that in certain parts of the state, for sure whatever we were doing, didn't work.
Maureen Neighbors: So that's something that we definitely want to do more outreach and work, again I think that's one of those things, if we had more time, we could have worked more with the schools. We gave them a lot of materials to put out there, but not all of them had an opportunity to get those materials out there. So that's something that I think a long-term program, will definitely require more outreach to the families so that they know about the program.
Christopher Mitchell: Now you've mailed them directly to them. Aside from that, what would you say is the most effective outreach that you've done that you would double down on?
Maureen Neighbors: So we've got a couple, certainly when we do the direct calling just to find out, "Hey, why didn't you redeem your voucher? Can we help you?" That certainly yields pretty high response rate. We have a pilot program that we worked on with Jefferson County schools, and they took some real initiative and reaching out directly to the families and doing some direct contact. So that the program information came from the school rather than from the state or some unknown entity, ABC for students. And that had some really good results.
Maureen Neighbors: So of course, that was labor intensive on the school districts part, but they had the capacity and the willingness to do it. So they did it, and we had good results with that. So in a longer term program where more of the schools could have that direct contact with their families, that's who the families trust is the school. And I think for us, I think that's what we felt like, the message needed to come from the schools.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. That's, I think very insightful. Do you have a sense of whether you'll be able to track how the families respond at the end of the year, if the program is not immediately renewed, if there's a gap or if the program is permanently ended?
Maureen Neighbors: I think they're going to be a lot of families who we were able to provide them some of that entry level, but the installation and the equipment costs that they're just going to pick up with the program. We have enough of these providers who also have their own programs, that they are going to work with some of these families to transition into a service after the end of the calendar year. Unfortunately, I think some of these families, they're not going to be able to afford to do the long-term. Hopefully they'll be able to afford it at least through the end of the school year. But we are looking to see if there are other ways that we can fund this.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure it's hard. I can tell from your facial expressions, like these families needed it and they have it. And I hope that Congress does its part to craft a better program. I think you've done a very good job. A lot of states have really struggled to figure out how to expend CARES Act money effectively of the rules around it. But I really hope we see an addition of that so that your program can continue.
Maureen Neighbors: I do it as well. And one of the spinoffs to all of this course, our focus was virtual learning for our students. But so many families now have the opportunity to use the telehealth. And in our rural communities where we don't have the hospitals and the doctor's offices, and even in our urban areas where people are afraid to go to those places, we've seen a real uptake in that need as well. And some of the feedback we get is, "We know we're supposed to use this for school, but this has been great for our household, for other reasons." So there are just so many benefits to providing broadband access, to as many people as possible, but I do hope that Congress and individual states all recognize that this affordability component is an important part of keeping everybody connected and that it's got so many benefits on so many levels.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you So much for your time today. It's exciting. I think I can't imagine in 10 years we don't have some kind of program that's helping low income families. And I think this program will really give a lot of lessons learned as we see more of them developed. So thank you.
Maureen Neighbors: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Maureen Neighbors. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets, follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from LSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, while you're there, please take a moment to donate, your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huse for this song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 436 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.