Mike Romano, Senior VP of Industry Affairs and Business Development for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, discusses two distinctive broadband access problems and a five-step plan that could help solve the homework gap schools and students will likely face again this fall.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: And thank you for tuning into another episode of Rural Broadband Today. I’m your host, Stephen Smith. And I’m so excited to have as our guest today, Mike Romano. Mike is Senior VP of Industry Affairs and Business Development for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. And Mike, it’s great to have you on the show today.
Mike Romano: It’s wonderful to join you. Thanks for having me. I really look forward to the conversation.
Stephen Smith: Well, the impetus for this topic today came from a recent Twitter thread that you posted that I found a little different way of looking at the issue of the rural broadband divide that we often talk about. There’s so much conversation about the fact that we just do not have enough Internet access out there. There are still millions without access. And in your thread, you put a little different spin and caused us to step back and think about the term “access” a little bit differently when it comes particularly to the homework gap. And so that’s what we’re going to dive into it today. But before we do, tell us a little bit about how the whole learning from home and kids being at home for school has impacted you personally.
Mike Romano: Yeah. That’s just the thing I was going to say. It’s definitely the case that learning from home hits close to home. I’ve got three kids: one in high school, one entering high school, and one in elementary school. And they face all sorts of different challenges. I mean, we’ve got great Internet access at home. Fortunately, we’re blessed. We just happen to live in an area that has that. But I know there are challenges out there. And I know what I see with my kids even, some of the challenges they face. The schools having to adapt. The schools have a lot of things to juggle, and they have to juggle the safety of their teachers, their students. They have to juggle different platforms that they really necessarily weren’t built to handle quite yet or had done some of, but not certainly in the manner that they had to this past spring. So it’s been causing me to think a lot about, what does this look like this fall? I mean, even if we get schools back open, there’s a chance they could close again. We have to make that sort of contingency plan. And so what are we doing now? How are you using this time now to make sure that the systems are ready, the connections are ready? Everything’s a go to make sure that we don’t miss a beat because we can’t keep missing semester after semester of learning opportunity.
Stephen Smith: Right. That’s going to be an issue that we will continue to pay for down the road if we don’t address that for sure.
Mike Romano: Precisely, I mean, I think, this has long-term snowball ramifications in terms of the ability for kids who are going to be moving to the next level, from middle school to high school, high school to college and graduating college. When you look at those folks who are moving through that pipeline now, are they going to be prepared to make that jump to the next level? And how are those coming out of school going to be looked at by a workforce that’s determined whether they’ve got the skill sets they need based on the educational experience that they had certainly last spring and going through the next year or so?
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. You talk about the access, when we talk about a lack of Internet access, and that really being twofold. And if you could, unpack that for us a little bit in terms of the affordability, in the literal technological access.
Mike Romano: Yes, I feel like this is one of the most important questions in broadband policy. But for some reason, I think it’s just sometimes folks are moving fast and doing things in shorthand. Sometimes it’s probably a purposeful choice of an ambiguous word. But the word “access” is vexing. I mean, it can mean several different things. And that’s where — you call it a Twitter threat. I’ve felt like a little bit of a tweet storm one night as I sat there jotting down. But access can mean at least two things and perhaps more. But the two things I was thinking about in particular are it can mean you literally don’t have a connection to the premises. There’s no service being offered there today. If I wanted to go subscribe, there’s no one from whom I could subscribe to get broadband. So that’s one kind of access. That’s the sort of physical connection. Now it could be wired or wireless, but you just can’t get it at home. That’s one kind of access. It is about availability. The other kind of access is more about adoption. If you’ve got a connection at home, it might be a connection that’s not so great. You might have fiber to the premise. You might have a couple of fiber to the premise providers connecting you, but you’re not subscribing. And you know there could be a number of reasons you’re not adopting. But that’s an adoption problem. That often might be affordability. But at the bottom, we’ve got really two kinds of access that I think we have to, as you said, unpack and look at more closely: one being availability and one being adoption. And when we conflate the two, we’re at risk of solving for the wrong issue or solving for neither because we don’t really care for them the right way.
Stephen Smith: Well, certainly looking at the timeframe of going back to school this fall is coming up on us fast. And you laid out a few steps that you think would really allow the schools to take a leadership role in figuring out what the needs are in their district really to a per-student basis. So I thought we’d talk about those. The first step you laid out there was just having the schools start by figuring out which of those students have access at home, however, that’s defined.
Mike Romano: Right, I mean, so the first step really is figuring out what access means. You know, the school may look at it and say — maybe they do a poll of students, maybe they just know from what they’re able to do from last spring. Certainly, it was just harder last spring when people were trying to do this on the fly over the course of a week or two when schools were closing, but look at it and say, “which students do I know as a school are not accessing my online platforms right now?” And you develop that address. The issue is there, you don’t know what the access problem is. Again, it could be that the students have great connections at home and they can’t afford it, or for other reasons, they haven’t subscribed in the past. Or it could be their house is stranded. It’s abandoned. It’s a broadband desert. And so, you know, the first step is just figuring out in the school who does and doesn’t have access to you can then go the next level and try to discern the next step what access means. Have the schools go in and see if they can work with local providers to figure out which problems are presented.
Stephen Smith: And then you laid out that — which I think underlines the need for there to be a close working relationship, which we do see in a lot of communities, particularly those served by the members of NTCA. Those member companies do have a close working relationship with a lot of the anchor institutions. Your next step, really builds on that; it is having those schools and those local broadband providers get to work on seeing where access, the true availability, where it’s lacking in their service area.
Mike Romano: Right. I mean, I think what you can do is have the school take the address list, that is essentially, here are the addresses where the student resides, and they’re not using our online platform to participate in remote learning. Go to a local provider and say, here’s the address. Do you have service there or not? And the provider can look at and say, you know, 123 Main Street. Yeah, I’ve got fiber to the prem there. 456 Maple Lane, you know, I could do a fixed wireless there with 25 Mbps. You know, 8910 Mill Street, I’ve got nothing in the vicinity. But you could start to differentiate what that access problem is, and that is a conversation with the local provider. Now I’m deeply proud of what NTCA members have done. We’ve seen a great example up in North Dakota where the local providers, the statewide network, and the school districts up there worked together just as this played out. And they got to a point where I think 99.8% of the state of North Dakota — which is largely served by NTCA member companies and cooperatives — those students are now served as a result of this sort of a process.
Mike Romano: But I guess I’d say this, too, because I know policymakers are [going to] say, “well, we need something that works everywhere.” This can work everywhere. You know, I live in Arlington, Virginia, and I always get the population numbers wrong. But, you know, it’s a big county population-wise — it’s small, geographically — adjacent to Washington, D.C. You know, two big providers there, at least. A lot of competition, but the schools announced last week that they worked with Comcast and its Internet Essentials program to essentially solve the adoption problem by helping to make sure that essentially Comcast Internet Essentials will be available. I believe it’s for free to anybody who is not subscribing and needs service because Comcast has done this sort of process. So the point is whether you’re a big company in a large metropolitan area or you’re a small hometown provider serving a very rural area, this is doable if we approach it in the right way. You know, the problem is there are a lot of ideas floating around for attention and sometimes if dollars are behind it, it especially leads to a sort of a rat race of people doing different things, some which don’t perhaps work as well.
Stephen Smith: Well, your next step lays out an idea that I want us to explore a little bit about the funding and possibly putting a funding program together when you identify those who are not accessing the Internet because they cannot afford to do that. And then I know sort of connected to that is not only the affordability of the actual access itself, but then actually having a workable device in the home. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find a household, if you can’t afford broadband Internet access, to them not having a computer, tablet, or device to connect to the Internet to begin with. And so those are complicated issues. And I’m wondering if you have some ideas on how we bridge that gap, and if you have seen some creative and innovative ways, some of the NTCA members are addressing those issues out in the field.
Mike Romano: Yeah. So I think starting with the funding question, you know, the great thing about rural broadband these days, it’s a hot topic. People want to solve it or just broadband availability. Generally, they want to solve it. They realize it’s such an important lifeblood in the American economy and education, et cetera. And so that’s been great. But what we see is people throw out ideas for funding programs that may or may not actually solve the problem presented. And that’s a challenge to then focus ourselves in the right way. So, for example, in this case, you know, again, you go to a house. To the house that the consumer isn’t subscribing. They got a student at home who needs to get online for remote learning. What you do in that case is you give them some sort of a subsidy. And a number of programs are being proposed in Congress now to provide essentially — you know, it’s sort of like the Lifeline program. But I think done in a way that’s funded that provides more of a meaningful discount. It’s backed by congressional appropriations. So the funds are there. But that’s the kind of thing that the local provider works again with the school, identifies the student who isn’t subscribing because they’ve got a connection, but they just can’t afford it, for example. This sort of a subsidy program from Congress helps to give, let’s say, $50 a month so that the student can then, the house can then, come online. The student can learn. The provider agrees to basically, you know, use that program, leverage that program to make it available at no or low-cost to the consumer. That’s a winning proposition for everyone. You know, the problem comes when some of these programs just say, let’s give you five billion dollars to schools and let them build their own networks. Well, if you’re doing that, you’re not solving the problem for the person who actually has a network but just can’t afford to use it. So those are the sorts of things I think Congress is kicking around right now that I think, if they do it right, if they think about this as let the local providers and local community work together to figure out what the problem is and let’s give them funding that directs subsidies to where they’re needed. And then that works, which is a later step in my suggestion, to where they’re needed. That’s the kind of think alliance program that can work. But, you know, there are a lot of ideas floating around the marketplace right now. The question is whether they look to solve the right problem.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, that’s a great point in your step forward, the one thing, in particular, I wanted to get you to speak about, you indicate that where there’s no provider who can deliver that level of service, to set up some kind of funding program to get that network connection there ASAP. But you emphasize don’t duplicate. Talk about the importance of that, especially as we’re seeing different types of providers getting into the broadband business.
Mike Romano: Yes. So this goes back to the point I just making a little bit about the funding programs. I mean, it’s great that people want to put dollars towards this, but put them to the right places. Going back to where we started, which is what’s the access problem at a given location. So, you know, there are a number of programs out there, proposals out there, where people are saying, “let’s just open a program, give the schools money, and let them build or contract to build out networks basically everywhere throughout the community.” Well, you know, you don’t need to do that. Those communities may have a lot of good connections already going into a lot of the houses. But at the same time, you can’t just focus on the adoption problem, right? I mean, there are people out there, houses out there, locations that don’t have a connection at all. And to say that we should only focus on subsidizing the purchase of broadband, misses the fact that we’ve got to figure out how to solve — by this fall — the availability problem for those houses that are missing it. But the way to solve it this fall is not to build a community-wide network to every location in an area, even if they have already got fiber to the premise. Instead, it is to say, what can we do to post up a network as fast as we can, extend the network just to 123 Maple Street because that’s the house that’s missing broadband. Let’s not give mobile hotspots to everybody in a community, even though they’ve already got fiber at their house. Again, focus on where fiber is lacking, where another high-speed wireless, or whatever it is, focus on where those are lacking connections, and then put that funding only towards the unavailability problem for those locations. And that’s the “don’t duplicate” principle in step four.
Stephen Smith: I’m not sure we would’ve been having this conversation a year ago, but are you concerned at all, Mike, that all the focus on rural broadband now is going to be flooding so much money from state and federal governments into solving the issue that we’re going to end up spending money that we could have spent more wisely? That we’re going to end up duplicating, that we’re going to end up looking back a year from now and saying that we got in a big hurry right there, and we’ve thrown a lot of money at the problem, but maybe not have moved the solution along as quickly as we had hoped.
Mike Romano: Absolutely. And that was sort of the genesis of my Twitter feed or tweet-storm, was the thought that we’re watching money being proposed to be thrown at the issue now without defining the issue right. And so if you don’t define the issue granularly or properly, you’re going to potentially waste money. And, you know, we kind of see it even now, right? I mean, yeah. So the CARES Act gave funding to school districts and to states to help with whatever they needed. But one of the things I think the number of folks who are looking at using for is, rightly so, trying to make sure every student is online this fall. But the solution is not to say, what we’re talking about here, which is to figure out what the problem is and solve for it. The solution is, let’s just buy a bunch of mobile hotspots or whatever it is, throw them out there and get everybody online. The problem is you’re casting the net so widely that you end up overpaying for these sorts of things and giving those out where they’re not actually needed. When you could instead use those funds to subsidize the purchase of broadband by those who need it and have it, but just can’t afford it. So absolutely a concern. I think, you know, with some of this money needing to be spent that has already been distributed by the end of this year, that race is going to potentially be imprecise in where it has broadband landing. And it’s been a problem in the past. I mean, look, [there are] a lot of great broadband programs out there, but there are a lot of broadband programs out there. And sometimes one of the biggest challenges is making sure each program sort of stays in its lane, if you will, and compliments and coordinates with the other ones, rather than conflicting with them. So that’s a constant tension in this debate.
Stephen Smith: It’s a very nuanced subject, that’s for sure. And the pandemic and the economic shutdown and what it has done to the schools and everything has certainly complicated that beyond anything that I think we could have anticipated when we were ringing in the new year, that’s for sure.
Mike Romano: Well, that’s just right. And that’s why I sort of look at and say if we go back to this sort of five-step plan that I outlined, which is basically: (1) have the schools figure out where access is missing. (2) Work with the local providers to figure out what “access-lacking” really means. (3) Let the provider subsidize service over the existing provider’s network if service is already there. (4) If there’s no network there, give money for essentially the construction of a new network. (5) And then even after that, subsidize the purchases on those new networks if the customer still can’t afford it. So, you know, the reason I sort of threw that out there was I felt like there were a lot of people racing around, “I got money. I got thrown at this or that.” You know, to your point, it’s a new conversation. It’s one that I think we probably should have been having before, but there wasn’t an impetus for it in the same way. But if we take these five steps, I think we can do it really quickly, which is the important thing here, so that, in the next several months, we’ve got these issues solved rather than finding we didn’t solve one of them the way we should have.
Stephen Smith: Right. I think we’ve never had such a constricted window of time to make such tremendous headway as we look at the new school year starting. Mike, you’ve spent years of your career in rural broadband and dealing with those issues from a legislative standpoint, business development, and seeing what those providers are doing out there, what a wonderful job they’re doing in their communities. But as you look at this, what really can only be categorized as a watershed moment, as something we’ve never experienced as a nation and the attention that it is drawing to the rural broadband issue, and then also just the fact that it’s going to be different. Everything’s going to be different from this point moving forward. Stepping back, how would you characterize this moment in history and how do you think this is going to play out in the months and years ahead?
Mike Romano: Wow, that’s a big question. You know, there are any number of layers to answer in that. Thinking about it, keeping my broadband hat on here, I think one of the takeaways from this will be that connectivity is critical. That the ability for people to communicate and interact distantly is essential. If nothing else, from a broadband perspective, this pandemic really has shined a bright spotlight on the fact that if you can’t connect, you’re out of the game, and that’s so unfortunate. So I think it’s going to prompt a hard national look, hopefully in the right way in the long run — but obviously, we’ve got to get things racing around right now in an emergency — about what we want our broadband networks to be when they grow up and what we want people to have in terms of connectivity at home, at school, and at work. So I think from the broadband perspective, there is a real sort of national reckoning on how do we do this right, so we’re not back here again someday. Obviously, there are many broader implications to this in terms of societal impacts, economic impacts, changes in how people transact business, and the like. But I do think that this has sort of underscored the importance of a foundation of good connectivity across the country and for every household and enterprise.
Stephen Smith: Well, it will be interesting for you and I to come back on this podcast a year from now and sort of look back to this day and see what has been done and do an analysis and see where we’re sitting, not only in the rural broadband in general, but particularly in the homework gap. I like how you put that, so. We’ll come back and do an analysis a year from now. How’s that sound?
Mike Romano: That would be terrific. I hope what we’re talking about at that point is just an adoption problem, and that everybody is connected. But, of course, we know that that takes time, effort, energy, and funding. So stay tuned. But, yeah, I would love to do that.
Stephen Smith: Well, Mike, thank you so much for taking some time today. And again, my guest today is Mike Romano, Senior Vice President of Industry Affairs and Business Development for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. Mike, thanks for joining us.
Mike Romano: Thank you so much. I really appreciated the chance to get online.
Stephen Smith: Thanks for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues that are shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith. This podcast is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Be sure to like and share this podcast with your network as we spread the rural broadband story. Thanks for listening.