Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 489

This is the transcript for episode 489 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode, Christopher Mitchell is joined by Matt Schmit, Director of the Illinois Office of Broadband and Chair of Illinois Broadband Advisory Council. They talk about Illinois' approach to funding statewide broadband initiatives. Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.

 

Matt Schmit:: It's beyond a simple question of access, but you really delve into the questions of affordability and adoption and bringing other data sets into the conversation. I truly believe that that is an approach that that's really catching fire.

Christopher Mitchell:: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm

Christopher Mitchell: at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm bringing back a really fun guest we've had on a few times at this point. Mr. Matt Schmidt, who is currently the director of the Illinois Office of Broadband and chair of the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council. Welcome back,

Matt Schmit:: Christopher. Great to join you.

Christopher Mitchell:: It's really great to have you back. People can start their watches in 20 minutes. Minnesota Gophers, start playing and I, I'll put that on the background and just start ignoring you so the questions will be less relevant.

Matt Schmit:: , you're gonna do the same thing. We're gonna be in trouble.

Christopher Mitchell:: . So we met at the University of Minnesota and even though you're in Evanston now I'm curious, are you turning into more of a Northwestern fan sticking with the Big 10? Are you staying with the Minnesota roots?

Matt Schmit:: Well, I have to tell you, it's been a joy seeing all these Big 10 teams, pastor town and I've been able to remain a golfer fan from afar. And so I did on a very cold day in the fall of 2019, I watched the golfer football team beat up on the Wildcat, but I'm a golfer through and through.

Christopher Mitchell:: Excellent. And the other thing I'll say is, just so people know, we're recording this on a Sunday and I think it's hilarious cuz I view this is a great opportunity for me and you felt bad that we're talking on a weekend and I'm like, I'm just glad to get a piece of your schedule. So I think it's also worth noting that you're a pretty nice guy, so

Matt Schmit:: Well there's a lot going on in BroadB these days. So I think you and I are staying busier than perhaps we were a year or two ago.

Christopher Mitchell:: Yes. So what's happening in Illinois, I feel like you guys may be more prepared than almost any other state because Illinois made one of the largest, and I mean you could argue, but possibly the largest commitment of its own dollars to broadband before all this federal money came out and you were the only one really prepared to spend big bucks in some ways.

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, turned back the clock to 2019 and in Governor Pritzker in the General Assembly, they invested 420 million in broadband as part of their historic 45 billion rebuild Illinois package. And so I just really give credit to leaders in the state of Illinois for anticipating, I think the wisdom of the investment in broadband of putting the magnitude of funding behind the broadband vision that was needed and connect Illinois has really taken off since. And so I think that the state of Illinois is very well prepared to receive truly historic dollars, whether it's the infrastructure bill or arpa and apply those to broadband. And so you look at the Connect Illinois broadband grant program we're ready to apply those federal dollars straight to that program and double down on an investment that we all know is gonna be very wise and stay the test of time

Christopher Mitchell:: When you combine this with the unprecedented federal in investments through the rescue plan, the infrastructure investment and Jobs Act, slowly going. You

Matt Schmit:: Got it

Christopher Mitchell:: and a few other things. I kind of wonder if you have a murder board in your office that has all these strings between these different things, like to try and figure out how to tell the difference between these different pots of money. Is that a challenge?

Matt Schmit:: Well, I think what's been good to see so far is the close alignment between the state approach in Illinois and what treasury rule for the capital projects fund included. And so you see a thread that that's historic that goes from treasury to Illinois to Minnesota and a lot of the best practices that have been stood up over the past decade. And I think that consistency is really helpful for a state like Illinois. The state doesn't need to really change anything. I think when you look at the values that are applied to its Connect Illinois grant program what's been articulated in treasury's rule, I think there's just a lot of similarity there and I'm hoping that we're gonna see that with N T I A and their bead program that's gonna help states like Illinois and many others that have really built upon the best practices that have been established over the last decade. And so hopefully that's what we see in the year ahead.

4:24

Christopher Mitchell:: Now I feel like the changes to the treasury programs, rescue plan dollar rules, the final rule came out just recently and made it significantly less complicated for local governments to choose to invest in areas where there may already be service and one might do this because areas may have a level of service that is not actually meeting local needs because of affordability or bureaucratic barriers or whatever. And so I think I wanna spend a little bit of time here talking about urban and rural and I mean it might get a little bit messy as we go through this, I think cuz there's so many different things to reference. So as we're kinda heading into the section of the interview, , let me ask you to start by thinking about what have you done in Illinois on urban versus rural? Are they kind of different approaches? How do you tease those apart?

Matt Schmit:: First and foremost, I just think it's important to establish that this is not a rural broadband challenge. It is a statewide broadband challenge. And with that comes the opportunity in the funding to address shortcomings in broadband, whether it's access or adoption or use holistically around the state. And so from day one in Illinois, the message has been to engage folks at the local level, the regional level in all corners of the state, that if we're gonna take advantage of the historic state commitment to broadband, which has now become an historic federal commitment to broadband, that you really have to have an all hands on deck approach that folks in all communities around the state that see shortcomings with the broadband status quo have a path forward. And so almost from day one, we stood up programming that supported that kind of conversation at the local level the Illinois Connected Communities program, which really has been instrumental in engaging local communities, whether they're neighborhoods in Chicago or counties spread out around rural parts of the state or really anything in between. We wanted to give those communities an opportunity to engage with experts with facilitation best practice curriculum to think through where they are currently on the broadband spectrum and where they want to be with their broadband vision years ahead and how to take specific steps whether it's an access adoption or utilization to making that vision a reality. And so just hats off to the Benton Institute and local philanthropy, the University of Illinois Extension Services. We're partnering with the Illinois Office of Broadband to stand up this program and we're in the midst of the second cohort. So now over 20 communities have engaged with us in making this program a success and we hope to launch the third round of the Illinois Connected Communities program in the months ahead. I should also add Christopher though there's a wrinkle to this. With the federal funding that came down, we recognize that a lot of communities are in a position to invest ARPA dollars available to them specifically. And so we recently launched our Accelerate Illinois program, a 14 week crash course in really empowering local governments to think through how they can use those ARPA dollars come after the state for connect Illinois infrastructure dollars, perhaps partner on reconnect applications to have a large community role in broadband access. And so I think that those two programs we're really proud of again, strengthening that hand of the local community and the community voice.

Christopher Mitchell:: Well, I hope our mutual friend, Bill Coleman hasn't slowed anyone down too much

Matt Schmit:: . Yeah, Bill's been hard at work in Illinois for sure.

Christopher Mitchell:: I just say that cause I'm sure that he'll listen to this interview with you and I in it. And Bill does great work. He's done a lot of work for many years with the Blandon Foundation and I was thrilled to see he's getting active helping Illinois communities and just really great to help people understand what their options are and get into this industry without a bunch of jargon confusing him.

Matt Schmit:: Well, let me say this folks from Minnesota have been in high demand around the country over the last couple of years and that's certainly true with the federal investment that we've seen. So we're glad that we've got that capacity to share with the rest of the country.

Christopher Mitchell:: Okay, so I asked you to look at a thread that Larry Irving kind of got kicked up and Catherine dewitt Scott Rasmussen and Peggy Schaeffer, all of whom I think are leading voices on this broadband challenge across the country going back and forth. And I wanna pin you down a little bit more on what's going on in Illinois in urban areas because I think Larry asked a really good question, which is basically, does anyone care? And is anyone doing anything at the state level on urban broadband challenges? Because it's so often we just hear about it within, with regard to the rural and the Biden rules from the treasury originally created unnecessary roadblocks for urban areas that have now been removed to their credit. And the question is, I think Will states, and I think it's pretty clear to me that I'll let you off the hook a little bit. I do wanna know what Illinois's done, but I think Illinois, New York and California have shown some leadership on this. And the question is, are there 10 other states that will be showing leadership on urban broadband challenges? But let me start by asking what have you done in urban areas specifically in Illinois?

9:33

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, well first of all, as I mentioned before, I mean just establishing that they're part of the conversation with Connect Illinois, the vision for utilizing state resources to improve broadband connectivity, adoption and utilization. And so we've had regular conversations with folks at the city with Chicago public schools with Cook County and others throughout urban areas in Illinois just to make clear that the s broadband is here to support their vision in partner with them to take next steps. And so I know that there's a lot of energy at the city in Cook County in the city of Chicago, Chicago public schools. I serve on the Council for Digital Equity that is run by Cook County and President PR Winkle. And that's I think an opportunity for the state office of broadband to hear from local leaders and think through again their vision and try to align state federal resources with that on the ground, I guess challenge and opportunity that we think is instrumental into making these dollars turn into wise investments. And so what we're doing, I think just establishing that they're part of the solution that we take seriously, their challenges and that we wanna find a path forward to make their visions a reality. And so I'll just tell you this round one of Connect Illinois included a project in Cook County expanding institutional fiber network to hard to reach areas connecting some of their facilities. And the hope is that we'll see more of that both in Chicago and Cook County and around the state.

Christopher Mitchell:: When you talk with other state leaders do you view it as your goal is to make sure that that is being part of the conversation? Because I do think, and this is something that I think you and I should talk about the politics around this is not just that there's bad people who refuse to recognize the challenge of urban areas where we have low income neighborhoods that are not well connected to the Internet often because of affordability gaps but although there's a tremendous amount of digital inclusion work that needs to be done as well the simple fact is that right now it seems really challenging to make that point. When you meet, talk with other people from other states, do you have a sense that they are also focused on urban challenges or you kind of nudge 'em in that direction?

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, I have to tell you, I don't know where every state is on this question of balance between rural and urban broadband investment and programming. My view is that the conversation nationally has changed significantly in the last two years. And that simply looking at a broadband access map based upon FCC 4, 4 77 data or hopefully something that's more accurate, timely in granular, the point is it, it's beyond a simple question of access, but you really delve into the questions of affordability and adoption and bringing other data sets into the conversation. I truly believe that that is an approach that that's really catching fire and that you're seeing throughout the country a whole more holistic approach to thinking about where broadband is and isn't and the different inputs to that very question. I think states are feeling their way forward on this one. I mean, I think that you look at federal rule, you look at historic definitions of unserved and underserved, you have to reconcile that with, I think like we just said, recognition that affordability and adoption data is just as important. And so when you look at the digital divide, we're trying to address it holistically. Access is one part of that. A lack of computers is another digital equity skills and literacy is another piece of that. But that there may be maps that'll show that access is sufficient in urban areas, but whether it's digital redlining or other insufficiencies, those maps just really don't tell the whole story. And I think that's the hard work that really has to be done. And so right now we're starting to really lean into conversations with the University of Chicago, City of Chicago, Chicago public schools in having a better understanding of where broadband is and isn't and other barriers to adoption. Because if folks aren't using what's out there, well there's a problem. We really want to do what we can to inspire full use and put our communities in position to get the most out of not only the assets that are currently in the ground, but also those that are gonna be invested in through this, again, historic state federal funding.

13:54

Christopher Mitchell:: Now you represent as we kind of continue, but we're almost done with the urban rural, from my outline of where we wanna cover you represented a rather red part of Minnesota now in the Minnesota legislature as a Democrat. And so I know that you are not a super partisan person. You're a person who looks for solutions and I just wanna get that out there because what I'm about to say is that I find it frustrating that when I talk to people, I get this sense that they think of, Oh, the Republicans are out there trying to solve the problem in rural areas and Democrats are trying to solve the problem in urban areas. And that's kind of the problem. Whereas I look at it and I say, we had four years of the Trump administration and they put into place a pretty decent reconnect program that I'm pretty happy with. I mean there's a lot of paperwork, but I think it's a give them credit for that. They put more money into that, but they didn't really do anything. The Democrats came in and they put a historic amount of money out there for both urban and even more for rural. And so I look at it and I just feel like there's a political issue that I don't really see anyone, I shouldn't say anyone. I see far too few people championing the challenges we have in urban areas and everyone talking, although Democrats talking about rural challenges and then republicans often just not doing very much on broadband from my perspective. And so I'm just curious, as someone who's followed politics, been inside of it how do you view the challenge of politics right now for getting money to solve the broadband challenge in the right areas to where it's needed?

Matt Schmit:: The world has changed over the last couple years, and that's an understatement. I think we all used to rally around the notion that broadband is an area of investment and that would garner support from both sides of the aisle, that there was not a rural urban split on. And that really, there was broad consensus that this was a good investment. I think when you really start to look at this though, I mean I think some of the differences that you may see in the parties as role of government and whether or not big public investments should be made into this. I think the pandemic has pretty much settled that question. I mean, it's not gonna get done if there's not strong public private partnership in significant public funding to build out networks and to make this investment. So it's great to see what the year 2021 produced on the broadband front in terms of the magnitude of investment it's sorely needed. And so that's good. I think getting into the question about where the energy and the support for this has come from. I know in my time in the Minnesota legislature, I mean we certainly faced obstacles and weren't just from the suspects

Christopher Mitchell:: And multiple parties tell

Matt Schmit:: That I, I think a lot of that folks might have bought into the notion that what was out there was good enough and that public investment wasn't needed. And okay, the pandemic is really established. That just isn't true, that you need that public investment on the broadband space. I think moving forward because of how partisan things are and the fact that if you look at a broadband access map, it really does show that a lot of the areas are rural that need infrastructure investment. I do think it's important for this conversation politically to take on a balanced approach where you are striking the share of resources to infrastructure into adoption, into use, and also questioning whether or not historic assumptions of what is sufficient infrastructure really past the test of time. And so that's why one of the reasons that we've very intentional about making this a statewide effort of showing that there are investments to be made in urban and rural areas. And I think that that's gonna be really important for us collectively to get the most out of this moment. Okay, the investment's been made, but the work is just beginning now. And so I think it's gonna be important for local leaders, for state leaders, for folks at the national level to recognize that we all benefit if we do this and that these investments well, many of them will flow to rural areas. That's not the only area that's gonna be invested in that. There are urban areas that are gonna be much better off because of the broadband investment through the infrastructure bill through ARPA and others. We absolutely need this investment to put our urban areas and our rural areas in a position to compete. And so yeah, I think we're gonna feel our way forward on what that balance looks like and it may look like different kinds of investments in different parts of the state, but I think that we all have something very concrete to benefit from if then, Right. Sorry, I go on and on here, Christopher, but I think it's a good question

18:33

Christopher Mitchell:: On the subject of these political issues. I do have to say, I feel like earlier you said that Minnesota people are in high demand. I kind of wonder if everyone who cares about broadband at the political level has left Minnesota because I see people that are trying to do good work here and there. I mean Angie Dickinson and the state office I think is doing good work, but I don't see a legislative leader on this raising it up. It seems to me like if there's a bipartisan agreement in Minnesota that broadband is boring and they're not interested in it. And the governor's office, frankly, I can't tell what he's thinking. I just don't see any leadership on this historic money that's coming to Minnesota. And I just find it so frustrating.

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, I mean, think Minnesota's lost its momentum for sure. And I think that that's getting out nationally. I think the state still has a grant program and office, a general approach that I think has served as a model. I mean, you look at what treasury did with their rules, what Illinois's done with other states. I mean that thread that began or certainly was stood up in Minnesota is around the country. I mean, you see it in statute across the state or across the country but you gotta invest and you can't just sit back and I think expect that momentum's gonna carry forward. I think the infusion of federal dollars is an opportunity for the state to hit reboot, get that 2.0 version moving. But I would agree with you watching from afar, I think that if the state's gonna be a leader in broadband, we need a fresh set of leaders who are coming in and gonna elevate the issue. And it's not simply about meeting very basic goals about 25 by three around the state, but rather positioning the state to compete in the 21st century putting the state in a position to be at the forefront of innovative approaches to broadband investment adoption and use. I just see a complete dearth of energy, as you say, and it's not calling out anyone in particular, but I think from the top on down, I think that you just really need to prioritize broadband. I remember the campaign trail in 2018, there was some doc 300 million for broadband from the state. Well, I never saw that materialized and I don't even think I've seen it materialized with the federal dollars that have been devoted.

Christopher Mitchell:: And you're probably aware that, I mean, and other people may not be aware who are listening, but I mean people talk about how states don't have printing presences of cash. What we do right now, , we have insane, just crazy levels of surpluses that will result in a lot of good spending potential while also potentially allowing to give taxpayers back some money. And so this isn't a time where we're like, Oh, we gotta cut the schools in order to fund broadband

Matt Schmit:: . Well, it's interesting. So you bring this up, it actually reminds me back in, I think it was 2014 when we had stood up the S of broadband the year before. And we were going into that session with a historic budget surplus in Minnesota. And I think there was a young legislator who went around the state talking about broadband and brought some ideas back into the session that year. And I think the point was it was the perfect use of one time funds because broadband connectivity is a challenge that can be solved and it can be solved through one time funds. There are no tails on these dollars, so to speak. You put the funding in programming and investments that can achieve their results achieve universal connectivity and access around the state and then you can move on to the next big challenge. And so I look at Minnesota, I think it's in a great position right now if they wanted to double down on broadband and whether it's through their current border to border broadband grant program or something that's a little bit more fresh and innovative, I think that that brings more of the state into view recognizing that, again, 25 by three the federal basic broadband benchmark. I mean it allows one person at home to do remote learning or work from home. Not two, not three, but one. I think taking a second look at those goals and taking a second look at the pace of investment, I think would really serve leaders in Minnesota well. But that's an opportunity that they have 7 billion opportunity, it sounds like.

22:44

Christopher Mitchell:: Yeah, I mean, I'll be curious. I've been assuming that there would be very little opposition to a new broadband standard that's 100 by 20. I think some of us will be pushing for it to be still more aggressive because we're concerned about the fact that it may not move again, if for instance we have a new FCC with a new administration and in the actual presidential elections we may be picking a broadband definition for six or seven or 10 years. , you never know, right? But anyway, so that's a good point. But I wanna move to a different question, which is the actual challenges of running a state broadband office. So what have you learned along the way in of vetting ISPs? Because this is really a big problem with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program at the FCC that many of us think they didn't do a good enough job vetting. And so you have companies that have significant likely challenges to meeting the obligations they're trying to take on. So in Illinois, let's just say for a second that I form Mitchell's Artist Broadband llc, , and I come and I start trying to get some watch out , what are doing to make sure that I'm not what my name says I am.

Matt Schmit:: And this is a great question, and I think as states that are standing up broadband grant programs for the first time right now, they're gonna have to really deal with this in how they get savvy in short order and can separate the wheat from the CHF and focus their investments accordingly. For our part, we're very meticulous in terms of our merit review process. And I think you see that in states that have stood up grant programs over the last decade very specific goals in terms of scalability. So we wanna be able to get to a hundred symmetrical service also in terms of the financials that an ISP or broadband provider would be or an applicant would be bringing to the table. We wanna see that they've done this before and not just trust that they're good ideas and in the resumes they share with us are enough. And also you look at, hey, you get on their website, you see how they talk about things, you see what they've done. We have fuel validation crews that can get out and actually see what kind of services being provided in the areas that they serve. And so there are ways in which you're able to really apply close scrutiny to their financials to the work that they've done, the level of service that they are providing. That's all part of what really needs to happen in due diligence before you award a grant. And so that's I think, a lesson for all states as you set up an office of broadband, the idea that you're gonna move this level of federal funding with two people or three people, it's just foolish. You absolutely have to have the expertise, whether it's in house or through consultants to vet good projects, to vet broadband providers. Our goal has been in Illinois and you see it elsewhere, don't make one mistake. You don't want to have one project blow up where you've funded a provider to do work and they didn't do the job. I think that's a high standard, but it's one that I think is really important for Office of Broadband to set for themselves. And so putting that team together, that's a key point. Now you gotta have that technical expertise. You've gotta have folks from the grants management accountability standpoint that they can work closely with your grantee and make sure they're doing what they're required to do and then following it on the backend. And whether you've got a mapping vendor or you've got others that you've got a part of your team, they can go out and do that field validation work to again confirm that the work that was paid for through your grant agreement is the resulting product that's part of the operation. And so again, it's not a tour or three person undertaking. You've really gotta build out a team, especially when you look at the dollars. I mean states are gonna be moving a hundred million dollars by the end of the year, $200 million at some point next year, 500 million, a billion dollars within the next five years. You've gotta have that capacity to not just move the dollars, but to do it wisely.

Christopher Mitchell:: And do you do most of that work on staff then for Illinois? Yeah,

27:00

Matt Schmit:: So I'll just speak to the Illinois model. It's been a very lean operation and I hope the state's able to build out in the year ahead. But you have a director or grants manager, a couple of consultants who help with the merit review process, who can read through a hundred page application and know what's being proposed in terms of technology spot red flags look at the financials and make sense of strengths and weaknesses of a broadband provider's financial footing. And then in the case of Illinois, there is mapping vendor that not only collects data from providers, but also is under contract to go out and validate that the work is done to and also validate the broadband access data that's provided to us. And so I think that you look at the team, you've got a focus on policy, you've gotta focus on grants management, you've gotta focus on technical expertise in grants review. So looking at the applications that they come in. And then on the back end, we also have the capacity for validating that the work's getting done and that well, again, on the data front that the mapping is as accurate as possible. So the piece I haven't focused on here is the importance of having that community outreach and engagement. And this kinda circles back to a point that you brought up previously, Clarity that communities can use their ARPA dollars for broadband. Any state should be encouraging those communities to do just that. And not only encouraging them to do it, but assisting them and through community engagement and local planning, capacity building programming, I think that is what's gonna turn a historic funding opportunity through ARPA and the infrastructure Investment Jobs Act into transformative investment that's gonna solve this broadband connectivity challenge for a generation. And so that's the point that we've really been stressing is we wanna see local leaders lean into this broadband question. We wanna see them invest their ARPA dollars infrastructure dollars in broadband and we also wanna support them in doing so. And so we talked about that Connected communities program, we talked about the accelerate program, Those sorts of things are really important. And I guess I would just speak to this in setting up your ideal office of broadband around the country. This is something that you can invest in or not, but if you've got folks who can engage with communities in house, I think it's gonna improve your output and in what you're seeing from your local communities. And so that's why I think you look at the ideal office of broadband, you know, could have four or five people doing the work that I spoke of previously. But if you're actually gonna be serious about that community engagement and helping local governments and communities seize this opportunity, you probably need the same amount of people doing that kind of work. And so you get to 8, 10, 12 people just like that. That's what an ideal office of broadband looks like in the year 2022, if you're gonna take advantage of all the federal funding that's coming down the pike and put our communities, not just our broadband providers, which I appreciate, but our communities in a position to be active in this investment.

Christopher Mitchell:: It's interesting cuz I feel like you have the capability potentially to release an official Illinois map. I don't think you've done that, but what you're saying is that you have the capacity to make sure that you know what you need to know on a mapping front.

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, we actually do have in Illinois, we stood up the Illinois lab. It's a collaboration with University of Illinois. We have University of Chicago the Benton Institute, and our mapping vendor connected nation. And so we're all working together on data collection and mapping. And so the mapping vendor has their specific contract to execute in terms of broadband access, data collection and field validation. But we're very interested in making sure that we're bringing other data sets into the equation. And so whether it's American community survey data, it's other data around adoption and utilization just getting as holistic a view of what the broadband situation is in terms of, again, access adoption use. That's what we're striving for right now. And so we do have an Illinois map it's both on our website and also on the Illinois lab website. And I would just say this, I think currently the iteration is in line with a historic way of looking at broadband. I think over time we really look to include more information on adoption, on pricing on other elements that contribute to the digital divide. And so again, I think that the mapping is great, but it's also gotta evolve with the times.

Christopher Mitchell:: Right. I asked you a little bit of a warning, I was gonna ask you a couple of little bit, I don't know what I call 'em speed round, cuz I'm terrible at enforcing speed round questions. I'm

Matt Schmit:: Terrible with doing a speed round, but let's go

Christopher Mitchell:: . What are some ideas that you've picked up from other states where you're like, Oh man, that state's doing this, thing's such a good idea, I want, I wanna do that.

32:01

Matt Schmit:: We just spoke about mapping. And so I think the mapping piece, you've seen some states get really innovative on mapping, bring in different data sets engage whether it's higher education or communities or other organizations on getting mapping that is most useful for communities. I think that's really important. Always has been. But I think when you look at the dollars that are available to local governments, a mapping resource that is actionable for a local community or government, I think that's really important. And there are some states out there that I think are doing really good work. On the mapping front I think the community engagement and capacity building front is really important as we spoke to. That's something that, you know, look at what an officer broadband did a decade ago. That's not what they're doing now. And so I think more and more you see that kind of work, but

Christopher Mitchell:: You seem like you're a leader on that. Are you picking up ideas on how other states are doing that?

Matt Schmit:: Well, I don't wanna say that, that Illinois is doing it best. It's something that we've been very intentional about doing. And I gotta tell you, Christopher, my view of what other states are doing and innovating on right now in the midst of all this, you're

Christopher Mitchell:: Not doing a 50 states study. You're traveling to every state,

Matt Schmit:: The thing. I mean, we try to stay in touch in identify and apply best practices where we can. I would just say those are the sorts of things that I think are really important right now. I think getting to the question that you mentioned earlier though too, that balance between investment and what would be traditionally viewed as an area of need for broadband infrastructure investment versus the communities and urban areas telling us that their broadband is insufficient. I think states really leaning into that challenge and figuring out, hey, you know what? There's work that's gotta be done on this front. We don't necessarily have the ideal model from any other state, but we wanna lead on that. I think that's a really important part of this conversation. And so do I have states to say this state or that state's doing it best? I don't know about that. I really respect a lot of the innovation I've seen in the last two years. It seems like many leaders at the state and community level had been waiting for this moment. It's here and now it's here folks, and we're going a hundred miles an hour. And so I think keeping up with what folks are doing is gonna be part of the challenge because I think we all wanna be on the cutting edge. We all wanna be doing what is considered best practice or leading to a best practice. And I think that that's gonna be the challenge for folks at the state level here in the next few years. You want to innovate, you wanna lead, but also taking the time to stay in touch with your peers around the country and support some great ideas that are popping up at the community level because there's not a one size fits all approach to this. And I think there's a whole world of innovation that's gonna sprout up at that state and community level that's really been boxed in for the last decade. Well, thanks to this federal funding, I think the floodgates are opening, and this is gonna be a very exciting time to see that kinda innovation at the state and local level.

Christopher Mitchell:: Vermont is doing some interesting stuff with community service districts, which I'm sorry, communications union districts. And in Illinois, I think, you know, don't have the same sort of challenges that Vermont does. You have a lot of local independent providers, you have a lot of folks that are trying to take advantage of the money that's available. But with Vermont, I thought one of the things I thought was interesting in their circumstances, they bought a bunch of fiber. And I can imagine there's a few things, there's a lot of pieces that ISPs want to customize and get for themselves, but there's some things like conduit and whatnot where it might be interesting for the state to just buy a bunch of it during periods of the supply chain issue and then hand that out. Have you considered that at all?

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, it's one of those thoughts about a year, year and a half ago. You know, think what's the best way of facilitating investment in broadband at the state level? And you thought, should there be a fiber bank or should there be some sort of state investment in some of the inputs to the broadband network expansion that could help speed up the investment that's gonna follow through the grant program. And so I think what you see at state like Vermont doing it really makes a lot of sense. And I think the point about the broadband districts, I mean hearkens back, we're talking about the Minnesota days, but I think creating that level of regional or community engagement where you've got funding instruments that communities can identify and lean into for establishing whether it's local momentum or a non-state match, I think that's really important. It's probably less important now because you have the ARPA dollars that are available directly to local governments. You've got the infrastructure funding that's coming down the pike in an era where the funding was really the challenge and held up communities and community visions from becoming reality. I think that sort of innovative local regional finance model was really important. I still think it's really important. It's too bad that we've had to wait so long to see this kind of innovation, but you pair that sort of approach local regional visioning financing with the federal dollars that are available to local communities. The emphasis on the regional layer when it comes to broadband access and network planning as well as digital equity and inclusion. I mean, the next couple years are just gonna be fascinating when you look at how all these pieces fit together. And I think one thing that I, others will agree that the shift from federal driven broadband solutions to more state and local driven broadband solutions, I think is gonna be welcome for many. And I think, again, it's gonna unlock a lot of innovation. And so those sorts of financing tools that you speak of and those sorts of planning models, I think are, Wait, this is their time to shine?

37:39

Christopher Mitchell:: I think so too. And I'm just so thrilled at the federal level that leaders there have recognized this and pushed money down to be distributed by the states. But you mentioned a fiber bank, I'm guessing you decided against it. What complicates makes it not a great investment for the state?

Matt Schmit:: Well, I'm not saying it's a bad investment. I think it's a unique undertaking. And so I think if you're gonna go down the road, you've gotta get it right. But I think when you look at, I heard 72 week delays for fiber in some cases, provider's got a little bit different situation. But the point is, if you're having to wait upwards of a year or more to get fiber or other key inputs into necessary deployments, perhaps states should be thinking about ways of getting ahead of that bottleneck or just speeding up the the collection of inputs. And so that's something that I kick the tires on and take next steps with it. Believe me, we have our hands full with our Connect Illinois grant program. But nonetheless, I think that those are sorts of approaches that states could certainly consider and are considering in terms of speeding up the supply chain and heading off some of these pinch points. And so I don't wanna say that we've dismissed the idea outright. It's something that you certainly could see again here in 2022. But for the time being, I think well, I hope other states really lean on that. Cause I think that there's an opportunity.

Christopher Mitchell:: And then the other question I wanted to ask, I'm guessing you're gonna dodge this, whether it's the Benton headlines, which are great or the Keller and Heckman Digest, which anyone who's listening to the show, if you're not on both of those lists for getting your news in the morning, is there anything you could share with us where you just read a story and you're just shaking your head like, Oh man, come on people, come on.

Matt Schmit:: Oh man. I think the thing that I would just really push back against right now, and this theme has come up a little bit already in our time together today, the notion that local governments shouldn't be part of this conversation. And sorry, this is, again, I'm kind of hit beating the drum ,

Christopher Mitchell:: But Oh, I'm totally gonna disagree with you,

Matt Schmit:: You, right, exactly right. Yeah, I'm talking to that right audience here. But I just think that that's something that you continue to see pressure and pushback and rhetoric, whether it's applied at state leadership level or local communities, the idea that local governments just don't have a role in the conversation about their broadband futures. And this is something that's just been ingrained in me for the past decade, is that if you're gonna get it right, you absolutely have to have the local communities participation. And that can look differently from one community to the next. It doesn't have to be about a specific plan. It doesn't have to be about a local community raising a bond or applying ARPA dollars in this case or applying for a grant. But I think the point is they've gotta be part of that conversation. And I know that you get that, and been at the forefront of advocating for a stronger local role for a decade plus. But I think the point is we're definitely gonna see pressure against that local role in the year ahead, . And I think that that is a linchpin in making this historic opportunity when to remember a decade from now and when we look back and say, It was great, but it could have been better. And so is there any one article? No. But you just see that kind of pressure, You see that tension that's out there. And I think that with the capacities that we're standing up at the state level across the country with communities that are just chomping at the bit to be part of this conversation, I'm really optimistic that we're gonna have a new approach to state, local, federal partnership among those three levels of government with our broadband provider community. And we get this right. It doesn't mean it's gonna be the same sort of model in every community, but I think those are the elemental parts of a solution that can stand the test of time. And so I don't know, I'm hopeful that we're gonna see more of that, not less of it in the years ahead.

Christopher Mitchell:: Well, I think almost every listener to the show probably agrees with that. There's something that I don't know how all the listeners would agree with that, I'll say that I think makes me think, which is the opposite of that, which is that I feel like a lot of people assume that you and I, people in this work hate the cable and telephone companies. And there's certain things that they've done that I do hate, but I absolutely get annoyed at people that assume that my goal is to run Comcast outta business or at and t outta business. There's a line that I read that I, Carol Feld said, maybe I don't 18 years ago or something like that, which was my job, to run these guys outta business, to make 'em work for a living. And I'm just like, I, And we see problems and we want to try to fix them, and we don't believe the fix is bankruptcy for those companies. We think the fix is some solutions that those bank companies don't prefer, maybe. But it doesn't mean that we don't see a future for them in the broadband world. And sometimes I think people that are really supportive of the work that we're doing, people who are out there doing work that we're allied with, some of them I think might want to try to kill these companies off. That might be kind of a long term goal. And it's just not, for me, it's not a motivation for me. And I just feel like it's weird even just admitting this .

42:49

Matt Schmit:: Yeah, well look how cathartic this is. To speak freely here on a podcast, , I think look mean. It's gonna take all of our contributions, public and private, local, state, federal to get this right. And so I think that those challenges and frustrations in certain communities are justified in many cases not. I just know in my experience in Illinois was entirely positive working with the provider community. That wasn't necessarily true in Minnesota far from it , but in Illinois it's been entirely positive. And as I have worked in other states and will continue to work in other states, I think that I hope we see more of that kind of positive, constructive partnership model between the private sector and the public sector. I am optimistic because look, we've had executive leadership and I think that's what really sets the table in Illinois. Governor Pritzker putting broadband connectivity top his agenda. I think that certainly set the table for constructive conversations between the public and private sectors on broadband. I think nationally, I think with broadband having the position it has had in ARPA and in the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act, it makes me optimistic that there's constructive conversations to be had around the country. But again, you can't take that for granted. You can't assume it's just gonna materialize. I think that we've been around the block long enough to know that this is gonna take continual attention and nurturing, and we're not naive here, but I think in order to make the most of the investment, we've gotta keep an open mind to partnerships, to leveraging private investment to the fullest, to giving that community voice a path forward. And so, I'm gonna say it again, man, It's all hands on deck and I'll keep pushing that approach until well, until I come up dry.

Christopher Mitchell:: Yes, and I agree, and that's what it come comes down to for me. Sometimes we forget it. There's 330 million fellow Americans, we're in this together, and it's a heck of a lot of different solutions that we can embrace and still all get the job done. So

Matt Schmit:: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell:: Matt, I really appreciate your time. As always, I appreciate your public service too. Thank you so much for that.

Matt Schmit:: Thanks for all you're doing. Great to join you today.

Christopher Mitchell:: Sky Yuma,

Matt Schmit:: Sky Yuma.

45:03 Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available@muninetworks.org slash broadband bits. Email us@podcastmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at Community Nets, follow muni networks.org. Stories on Twitter that handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from I 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@ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Hughes. Be for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, Licensed through creative comments. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.

Tags: