This is the transcript for our special bonus episode of Community Broadband Bits series, Why NC Broadband Matters. In this episode, Christopher sits down with Roberto Gallardo to discuss about the complex issue of digital divide and how it impacts socio-economic development. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
Roberto Gallardo: The number one threat to community development today is digital exclusion. So, if you do not address that, it's going to be really hard for you to not only catch up, but just starting getting some traction in this digital age.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is a bonus episode, in our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, Why NC Broadband Matters. I'm Lisa Gonzalez, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina non-profit. Their mission is to attract, support, and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high capacity Internet access, necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses, and a local workforce, so each can compete in the global economy. The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. The Institute is working with NC Broadband matters, to produce this series focusing on issues affecting people in North Carolina, but also impact folks in other regions.
Lisa Gonzalez: This week, we have a bonus episode. Recently, Christopher traveled down to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend the Reconnect Farm, organized by the Institute for Emerging Issues, at North Carolina State University. We want to thank organizers for all their dedication in setting up an event that was so well put together, and offered a great opportunity for advocates, experts, and scholars to connect. While Christopher was there, he connected with Robert Gallardo, from Purdue University. Roberto is a digital inclusion expert, who has studied the intersections between infrastructure development and digital inclusion. He and Christopher discuss a range of topics, including how communities can use data to tailor digital inclusion plans specific to their needs. They talk about the importance of digital inclusion in making infrastructure development sustainable, and the need for champions to drive digital inclusion efforts.Now, here's Christopher with Roberto Gallardo.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, talking to you from North Carolina State University, NC State, where we're at the Institute for Emerging Issues. We are at an interesting forum, called the Reconnect Forum, where we're going to be talking about technology.
Christopher Mitchell: I happen to be here with Roberto Gallardo, Professor of Purdue University, wonderful big-time school. But, I first got to know you when you were at Mississippi. So, welcome to the show, Roberto.
Roberto Gallardo: Thank you, I appreciate the invite, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: So remind me, before you were at Purdue, what were you doing?
Roberto Gallardo: I was at Mississippi State University, I was part of the Extension Service, as a Community Development Specialist, working with primarily rural communities, helping them in community economic development efforts.
Christopher Mitchell: Now that you're at Purdue, what are you doing there? Same broad mission, it seems like in a lot of ways? Trying to help people understand the value of the Internet, and why they should be using it more.
Roberto Gallardo: Correct. Basically, what I was doing in Mississippi, I'm continuing to doing at Purdue, yes, through the Extension Service.
Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you to just tell me a little bit about what you're going to present on here, at the event? Then, we'll talk more generally about the work that you've been doing.
Roberto Gallardo: Sure.
Christopher Mitchell: What are you doing here, in North Carolina today?
Roberto Gallardo: I'm one of the first speakers, and I was asked to provide an overview of what broadband is, at the very basic level, to ensure that the audience, they're all on the same page with certain terms and technicalities of it. I've been asked to distinguish what access and adoption are. They've also asked me to crunch some numbers, and present, to set the stage for the other speakers coming later today, and the other breakout sessions.
Christopher Mitchell: You focus a lot on whether people are using the Internet or not. I'm curious, what do you see in North Carolina? Is it different than what you see in other states?
Roberto Gallardo: No. In fact, I did crunch the numbers. Compared to Virginia, and South Carolina, and in some metrics, North Carolina is doing better. Some metrics, I mean the percent of homes with no computer devices, no computing devices. Or, percent of homes that are not subscribing, or no Internet access. We also crunched numbers on the FCC data, which we all know, that we've got to really take it with a grain of salt.
Roberto Gallardo: North Carolina is doing very well. I am very impressed by the Office of Broadband here, in North Carolina from Minnesota. I think, from my perspective, Minnesota and North Carolina are two of the leading states, when it comes to state broadband offices, and all the innovative, cool stuff that they do.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. In Minnesota, I think we were one of the first states to develop the matching grant program. Here in North Carolina, I think they've been a little bit more aggressive on mapping issues, and trying to figure out what's going on, on the ground, in some ways.
Roberto Gallardo: Correct. They've developed a phenomenal toolkit for communities to start understanding the process. As you may agree, or may have seen, most rural communities specifically just go down the rabbit hole of infrastructure, and they overlook the other components of what a true digital inclusion strategy should be. But, that's understandable because their connectivity is not at the level that they want it to be.
Roberto Gallardo: On that front, the office here in North Carolina has been very, very progressive, in the sense of generating materials to help these local communities, empowering these local communities to understand the concept, and really keep other issues, as well as infrastructure, in mind.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I think probably a lot of people who listen to this show are more focused on the infrastructure build out, and those sorts of things. You tend to be more focused on whether or not people are using what's available to them. Just give me a quick argument of why that's important, at all? Why should we care about that?
Roberto Gallardo: Well, of course any broadband infrastructure investment will not be sustainable, if you do not couple it with true digital inclusion efforts. Meaning, do you have the devices to use it, do you have the knowledge, do you have motivation? Those three are critical. So, what I always tell communities, yes, take care of the infrastructure, but do not overlook these, because that investment will not be sustainable, or will not work out as you're hoping, if you do not address these other issues, as well. That is very, very important.
Roberto Gallardo: Through this work, is that I've been able to beat the drum constantly in the communities that I've had the honor to work with, is yes, go down the infrastructure. But as you know, ironically, unless they go through a full-blown, municipal broadband network, or county network, honestly, they do not control the infrastructure dance. They're not.
Roberto Gallardo: So, what I tell them is if you manage to mobilize folks, and get up and running the information, diversify your activities, because it may fizzle. And it may fizzle because you're not controlling that process, you're going to be waiting. Unfortunately, I've seen many communities, from a textbook perspective, they've checked all their boxes, Chris. They've done everything they've been asked to do, and they're still waiting.
Roberto Gallardo: What I tell them is, well, pivot a little bit. Look at devices, and look at digital skills. How can you incorporate these strategies into a larger community economic development effort? That will ensure your community transitions to a digital mindset. Otherwise, you're trying to drive your car through the rear view mirror, right? It's not possible.
Christopher Mitchell: What you're saying is, just to be clear, the communities where they may or may not have built their own network, they are needing to do extra work, aside from worrying about infrastructure. Many of the people who listen to this show, actually, are people who are in communities where they're probably not going to build their own network, or they're a private service provider, who's working with communities.
Christopher Mitchell: I guess, one of the questions I have then, is who is the best entity to be really developing a digital inclusion strategy? Because it's not always just the people that are best at build infrastructure, I'm guessing?
Roberto Gallardo: That exactly right, and that's a great question. It'll vary. I sound like a politician now, it depends.
Christopher Mitchell: Right? 25,000 different jurisdictions, so not all the same.
Roberto Gallardo: But I will tell you this, that's the common denominator, you need a local champion, and it's not rocket science. You need somebody that takes the lead, and that may be the local economic developer, that may be the local government, that may be a non-profit, that may be Extension. That maybe somebody ... I've seen it, across my work, that there is always a group of folks that understand, and are beating the drum. When that happens, it shows it selves will vary. But, the best practices, or lessons learned from this, is you don't know what you don't know.
Roberto Gallardo: If these local folks, that are a little bit more receptive to changing their mindset, are not aware that it's not all about infrastructure, then they're not going to beat the drum, right? In my experience, it's getting a group of folks, at the level of awareness they need to have, and then it'll take very different forms. NDIA, of course, you've got a lot of non-profits, local governments, big cities that have departments that do this.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance?
Roberto Gallardo: Correct. Then, I've seen rural communities ... I'm working with a community in Indiana right now, that they convened a Broadband Task Force. Their purpose was infrastructure, but then they worked towards a broader, and they just adopted a digital inclusion plan, a five year digital inclusion plan.
Roberto Gallardo: What is need is a core group of folks, that can beat the drum locally, that are trust, and that they can then take the necessary steps to get the community positioned to go down that road.
Christopher Mitchell: When you talk about digital inclusion, I think the image that pops into a lot of our heads is, maybe a family, maybe an older individual who is not very familiar with technology, may have a low income, may be on a fixed income, and it's an issue of literacy, and a device knowledge, and that sort of a thing. Is digital inclusion more than that?
Roberto Gallardo: Yes. I'm glad you asked that question. I consider the term digital inclusion ... I do know that, many times, it is seen as efforts to help those less fortunate, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm, almost charity. Although, I hate that because it's not about charity, it's actually about us all being stronger.
Roberto Gallardo: It's not. To me, digital inclusion is that, plus ensuring that your Moms-and-Pops can compete in the local digital economy. If you're not being digital inclusive, that means they do not have a basic knowledge of online presence. To me, means aside from the small businesses, and Moms-and-Pops, every worker, do they have the digital skills needed? I think you've seen the Brookings Report, that two thirds of jobs between 2010 and 2016 required medium to high digital skills.
Roberto Gallardo: Yes, it is the less fortunate, but to me, digital inclusion is broader than that, and it's more of a concept of becoming self-aware that you've got to be digital inclusive in all these fronts, not only the less fortunate, to ensure, then, that your community can transition and prosper in the digital age.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think you even extend it to small and local businesses, don't you?
Roberto Gallardo: Correct. Yeah, Moms-and-Pops, they're typically overlooked. That's another economic development rant I'm not going to go over right now. But yes, to me, that's that. Its local government. Are you engaging digitally with your citizens? Do you have that mindset, do you have the capability, are you at that comfort level?
Roberto Gallardo: I had a fantastic project in Nebraska, with three rural communities. We learned so much, Chris. To me, digital inclusion is just the entire ecosystem, and I'm trying to, from a conceptual point of view, embed digital inclusion into traditional community economic strategies.
Christopher Mitchell: So, in terms of how we should fund this, what are the economic benefits to a community, that may be needed to justify putting some money into these efforts?
Roberto Gallardo: The funding is very interesting. What I've learned, from my public policy area, you've got to frame it in a way that gets the policy makers' attention. The way that this has worked is through workforce development. That one was gained some traction, but it's a little bit narrow, it's like a laser focus on it. But still, it's something.
Roberto Gallardo: What I tell communities is the number one threat to community economic development today is digital exclusion. So, if you do not address that, it's going to be really hard for you to not only catch up, but just start getting some traction in this digital age. So, it is a hard sell, because many times the mindset, it's still from the last Century. It's a constant awareness education, to let them know.
Roberto Gallardo: Once they realize this, they do also realize that there's a lot of assets they didn't know they had. Right? They don't know that small businesses turn over devices every five years, four years. They have tech savvy volunteers that are itching to do this.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Roberto Gallardo: Either a Hackathon, or do this, or do ... But, they don't realize that, because they're not looking for that.
Christopher Mitchell: Is the best place to start maybe the library?
Roberto Gallardo: Libraries are a key, key player in this role, they are at the front lines. Yes, the library is a good organization to keep in mind. Churches are also big. If you spin it on the cyber bullying aspect of it, they will buy into it, and they have their own little network that they reach out to. Well, not little, many times it's everything in other communities. So, churches, local government, libraries are key. Community colleges, schools, all these moving pieces need to be digital inclusive aware. That way, they can address this issue in a coordinated way, and they're not peddling on their own little-
Christopher Mitchell: Their own little unicycle?
Roberto Gallardo: Yeah.
Roberto Gallardo: One last thing is, many communities, no matter how small they are, they do understand certain data, or certain scores. So, the data is not the best, I wish it were better.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. In terms of the data of where it's available, and what the costs are?
Roberto Gallardo: Correct. That, plus adoption. We do not know how they're using it. Is it productive use, it's not productive? We don't have a national survey that sets the benchmark. I know NTIA, the National Telecommunications Information Administration, they do have some data there, that shows. But, at the local level, we don't know, we're fumbling in the dark. So, that's a key issue because many policy makers do understand, if you show them that data they will go, "Oh, I didn't know we were in that shape."
Christopher Mitchell: So, this would be data that would show how important it is for all families to have this access, and be able to use it?
Roberto Gallardo: Correct. I mean, obviously it's starting to trickle down in a way, or trickle up, however you want to see it. The Homework Gap, that's a very, very critical issue. It's catchy, in the sense that people are, "Oh, now I see." From there, you can use that as entrance, and then broaden it. Say, "Well, it's not only students, right?" It's families, right? It's people, maybe older folks, that are missing out on some tele-health opportunities.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, that's what I was going to go to next, yeah.
Roberto Gallardo: Yeah. There's a lot. You just need to know the local context, and find a way to get in there. If you come in and just say, "You've got to be digital inclusive," it's going to be like, "What a minute. What are you talking about?" You've got to find ways, either through data, or case studies, or whatever, at the local level, to be able to say, "Look, see this is an issue, right?" Yeah. "Well, digital inclusion would address this."
Roberto Gallardo: Then, they go, "Oh. What else would it address?" Okay, well let me get started, and then you broaden it up.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, for people who want to know a little bit more about your work, you did a big report last year, right? We can encourage people to check that out. Do you remember what title of it was?
Roberto Gallardo: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, that one was a very interesting project. We took FCC data, and I always tell them, "This is not the best data, this actually is the best case scenario you're looking at. From this, it's really downhill."
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Roberto Gallardo: I always use the analogy, "I would not use this data to go to Mars." I would use it to start talking about going to Mars.
Roberto Gallardo: That's a big difference. If you can get these conversations started, that's a big thing. But, PCRD.Purdue.edu, you can go in there and check us out. Or, Purdue Extension Community Development, we have some very cool digital inclusion programs through Extension, that we've developed as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thank you so much for your time today.
Roberto Gallardo: No, thank you, man. I appreciate it.
Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for tuning in to this bonus episode of our Why Broadband Matters podcast series, and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. If you follow @NCHeartsGB on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers, of SilvermanSound.com for the series music, What's the Angle, licensed through Creative Commons, and we want to thank you for listening. Until next time.