Experts on Camera

Dr. Christopher Ali: Rural broadband

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The federal government is spending $65 billion to bring affordable, reliable high-speed internet service to the millions of rural Americans who currently cannot access it.

On March 22, 2024, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Christopher Ali, a professor of telecommunications at Penn State University. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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Introduction

[0:00:19]

CHRISTOPHER ALI: My name is Dr. Christopher Ali. I am the Pioneers Chair in telecommunications. I’m also a professor of telecommunications in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University. All of my work focuses on broadband digital equity and digital inclusion, particularly for rural and remote areas. So, what does that mean? It means that I am invested in understanding the policies and the subsidies and the programs that contribute to bringing high speed connectivity—which is also called broadband—to our rural and remote communities. I’m also really interested in programs that are making sure that broadband is affordable for everyone in the United States, and that everyone has the skills and the hardware necessary to take advantage of the digital opportunities that so many of us take for granted in our everyday lives.

 

Interview with SciLine


What is broadband internet?


[0:01:13]

CHRISTOPHER ALI: Broadband internet, or often just called broadband, is kind of the technical term for high-speed internet connectivity. It’s often what many of us take for granted. And there’s a couple of ways to think about defining broadband. If we’re looking at the Federal Communications Commission—which is in charge of setting an official definition for broadband in the country—broadband is defined as an always-on internet connection of 100 megabits per second download 20 megabits per second upload. And I said that the FCC just changed that definition last week. So, it was the first time I ever got to say that. But for those of us on the call, what high-speed internet fundamentally means is: do we have the connectivity necessary to go about our digital lives? Can we stream Netflix? Can we go on Zoom? Can we file our taxes? Can we do our homework? Can we do our jobs? Right? Can we game? All of this contributes to high-speed internet connectivity. And so, while broadband has an official definition, it’s really about having the high-speed, affordable connectivity necessary to run our digital lives.


What can you tell us about disparities in broadband access?


[0:02:25]

CHRISTOPHER ALI: One of the really frustrating things is, despite millions—in fact, 10s of millions—of dollars spent on broadband mapping, we are still unsure who was un and under connected throughout the country. Now it is getting a lot better. But the last really good estimate—and this was during the pandemic—found that 42 million people living in the United States do not have access to a broadband network. Oftentimes, these are found in rural, remote, and indigenous areas. That number gets even bigger when we talk about folks who can’t afford access to the internet. Here in the United States, we pay the most for internet access monthly than almost any other country in the developed world. We pay a tremendous amount of money. What we do know is that there is a program called the Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes broadband for low-income families, and 50 million families across the country are eligible for that program. So, we know that, for instance, maybe 42 million don’t have access to the internet. 50 million families can’t afford access to the internet. And then we’re still even more unsure about who lacks the skills necessary to take advantage of these digital opportunities. So, there’s a lot we don’t know, but we are getting better at measuring these deficits.


What benefits does broadband access provide?


[0:03:44]

CHRISTOPHER ALI: What broadband can do to a community—I like to think about it in terms of pillars. It can aid with economic development. It can be a game changer when it comes to telehealth, especially for rural, remote, and indigenous communities, which lack doctors and nurses, which means that you can suddenly connect with a health care professional. It aids in education. Some studies have found that access to broadband can raise grades and especially SAT scores. And just think about the opportunities that it can give our young people, including just being able to apply to college. So far, I’ve said I’ve said education, I’ve said telehealth, I said economic development. It also contributes to civic engagement. Those who have access to a high-speed broadband connection at home are more likely to contact a local official online. It also impacts public safety, both in terms of our own safety as members of the public but also the safety of our first responders. Think about things like being able to make a 911 call, which can often be impacted by the internet, especially as a lot of companies are taking away their landline phones. It helps sometimes with cultural enrichment, and we see this a lot with indigenous communities who are working towards what they often call network sovereignty and data sovereignty. And last but not least, it helps with quality of life. I mean, everyone needs to be able to binge the latest Netflix show, do the gaming that they want to do, FaceTime with family and friends, go shopping online, right? These are things that so many of us take for granted that add to our quality of life. And certainly, were essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. So again, these are all of the different pillars that contribute to the importance of broadband for our communities throughout the country.


The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program allocates $42 billion in federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure. How can communities maximize its impact?


[0:05:35]

CHRISTOPHER ALI: Now, the important thing to understand with the BEAD Program is that the money is actually going to be managed by the states and not by the federal government. So, the federal government had a formula by which each state would receive a chunk of money depending on the number of people who are unconnected. So, for instance, Texas got 3.3—or will get $3.3 billion—the most out of any state. Here in Pennsylvania, we’re looking at about $1.2 billion. So it’s all depending on who’s unconnected. So, the ways that communities can take advantage of this money is to make sure they’re in close engagement with the state broadband office, and also that they know the communication needs of their communities, because as soon as these offices start rolling out their grant programs, we’re going to need communities to partner with internet service providers to apply for this money. So, knowing your communities—knowing the connectivity needs of your communities—where are your blank spots? Where are your under-connected areas? How are your anchor institutions, like your health-care centers, your libraries, your community centers, your churches. How are they well connected? It’s all going to play a factor in this. And the other thing that’s going to be really important is knowing who your broadband partners are going to be. Who are the ISPs, internet service providers, in your community who might be willing to partner with you, or your region, or your county to be able to apply for some of this money, and really roll out a robust, affordable fiber-optic based broadband network. So, it’s really about a community empowering. We need to make sure that our communities are empowered to make the right connectivity choices for themselves.


What states have done a particularly good job expanding broadband access?


[0:07:19]

CHRISTOPHER ALI: The states that I often champion that have done an amazing job with broadband are those that I kind of look to, that got into this game before the pandemic, right? Before this kind of panic around connectivity began and the state I have to highlight here is Minnesota. Minnesota has done some amazing work over the last decade. In fact, it is celebrating its 10th year of its broadband program called Border-to-Border. And through that, they’ve been able to raise the level of connectivity, but they’ve also been able to raise the stakes of connectivity. So, you know, 10 years ago, they might have been wanting providers to build out to what’s called 25/3—25 megabits per second download, 3 megabits per second upload. Today, they’re making sure that ISPs who gets state money are building out 100/100, even faster networks for the residents of Minnesota. So, I just love the way Minnesota has thought about this and has been thinking about this for a while. Another state to really shout out here is Virginia. Virginia might have been a little bit behind the ball before the pandemic, but really got a wake-up call during the pandemic, and it’s been able to mobilize a lot of the federal money that came down the pipes from the CARES Act, from ARPA, to empower counties, to empower cooperatives, to empower local ISPs to do a lot of really great connecting. And now, as we’re preparing for the BEAD Program, the broadband equity access and deployment program—$42 billion from the federal government—Virginia is poised to use this money to connect 100% of its unconnected residents.

So, again, I think Minnesota is doing a great job. I think Virginia is doing a great job. The other state that I think is doing a great job is Vermont. Vermont has done something called communication union districts. And by that they’ve allowed for communities to come together to pool resources, and to be able to use public funding to deploy broadband networks. So, it’s a really unique way of thinking about broadband deployment and public networks are going to be a game changer, have already been a game changer when it comes to deployment. So, either municipally funded networks, or cooperatives, or some sort of public-private partnerships. I mean, particularly for those areas where the market, the private market, hasn’t exactly been successful, because while they haven’t invested there, we’ve seen some amazing public and cooperative work being done, and I got a shout out to Vermont for being a great example through these communication union districts.