Episode 27

Broadband Mapping for Rural America

November 19, 2021

Episode Summary

The path forward for efficient and effective development of broadband in rural America depends largely on the accuracy and completeness of maps that depict the unserved and underserved ares of the country.

Before becoming Vice President of Government Solutions at LightBox, Bill Price headed up Georgia’s ambitious mapping program. He joins “Rural Broadband Today” to discuss the future of that program and broadband availability, accessibility and affordability.

Show Notes

This episode was recorded on October 20, 2021.

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Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability. 

 

Mark Ohrenschall: Hi, I’m Mark Ohrenschall from NewsData. Our skilled journalists spend hundreds of hours each week researching, writing and editing content for our energy newsletters. For independent expert coverage of Western US electric and natural gas issues, visit NewsData.com for your free trial subscription.

Intro: Broadband. We need it for work and for school, for our health and our economy. What’s being done to bring broadband internet access within reach of every American? Let’s talk about it now on “Rural Broadband Today.” Here’s your host, Stephen Smith.

Stephen V. Smith: Hello. Thanks for tuning in. And our special guest on “Rural Broadband Today” is Bill Price. Bill is currently the VP of Government Solutions at Lightbox. But before that, Bill developed and managed the Digital Georgia Program. And in Georgia, they built what is considered one of the most granular state level broadband mapping programs in the country. And Bill’s here today to talk to us about that project in the state of broadband, particularly in rural America, and to  talk to us a little bit about his new role with Lightbox as well. So looking forward to sharing with you my interview with Bill Price. And thanks for tuning in today. Again, this is Stephen Smith, your host of “Rural Broadband Today,” and I am very excited to have Bill Price as my guest. Bill, welcome to the show.

Bill Price: Thank you very much, Stephen. Glad to be here.

Stephen V. Smith: Well, first of all, congratulations on your new position with LightBox. I believe that happened in July, and we’ll certainly get into that in a few moments. But we wanted to, I think, begin the conversation by diving into the work that you did in Georgia. You’ve got a lot of renown, I think, for what Georgia accomplished under your leadership there at the Authority. So let’s dig into that just a little bit to get started. Tell us about your role with the Authority in Georgia and kind of how you landed in that position.

Bill Price: Sure. Well, the Georgia Technology Authority, among many things, provides technical assistance and support to other agencies, the governor’s office and the legislature, when it comes to technical issues. And as you know, broadband is pretty technical at times, right? So the Authority was named in statute to assist the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Transportation, Department of Economic Development and others to put together a broadband plan for the state. The strategy, if you will, and plan of action to assist in setting up a broadband grant program and to develop a location level broadband map of availability and statewide in the state of Georgia. So I joined the Georgia Technology Authority back in 2012 and ran their Broadband Program Office. And we did a version of broadband mapping that was funded by NTIA back during the Obama administration during stimulus, when there were broadband grants to build out broadband infrastructure at the time. And I got to know the the landscape of broadband mapping pretty well through doing that from 2012 to 2015. I did it for the state of Florida for a couple of years prior to that. So that’s how I sort of dovetail in. And when the Legislature passed broad legislation in 2018 about the broadband goals of the state, GTA got called upon. And of course, I did too.

Stephen V. Smith: The state of Georgia is known for having developed under your leadership a very granular broadband map, and I’d like you to compare that to what the FCC has available in terms of mapping historically and the challenges of that and why the state of Georgia felt like we need to do a much better job.

Bill Price: Sure. You know, the FCC approach using the 477 forms historically has been if one location is served in a census block, they code the census block as a served block, whether it is or it isn’t. So that methodology, of course, leaves itself open to not being totally accurate, of course. And everybody knows that, you know, nationwide people are aware of it. But, you know, when that’s all you’ve got, that’s what you use, right? And so for the legislators and the governor, that wasn’t going to be good enough when we looked at, where do we invest Georgia’s state money in a grant program? So from an investor point of view, they want it to be more accurate than targeting their investment. So the approach was we would map all the locations residential and business, which turned out to be about 5.2 million of them, right? And then we would work with all the service providers, wound up being 44 of them, to determine which locations could be served if someone placed an order and which ones could not. Does that answer your question?

Stephen V. Smith: Yeah. Yeah, you raise you raise a good point there that to be looking that really from a stewardship standpoint of their limited dollars to invest in broadband deployment. And the information that you know, we historically have with the FCC maps, this doesn’t give us the information does it to really do a good job targeting those funds.

Bill Price: Well, it’s kind of, you know, I mean, if you look at the FCC data, right, and in Georgia, there were census blocks that were 100% unserved, right? So I mean, back in 2018, when we were looking at maybe 15 to 20 million in state funds, I mean, you could you could spend all of that and still have a lot of unserved locations. Now it’s a little different now, right? You’ve got the American Recovery Money and there’s hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars that are now available for targeting broadband expansion to where it’s not. So now that you have the opportunity to probably solve the problem once and for all that seems to me like you’d want to have the best data for better decisions, better targeting, less funding of overbuild, where service providers are already providing service, have already made an investment and, you know, less waste of government funds, right?

Stephen V. Smith: Absolutely. And one thing is your program focused on that I’d like to get you to explain a little bit is, it’s not really about expanding the availability of broadband, but it’s about increasing the adoption of broadband. And why was that an integral part of the program that you led?

Bill Price: Well, you know, the first order of business was to make it available, right? But the state, of course, recognized that the benefits, the ultimate benefits of people using getting online, getting on the internet, getting services, you know, running their business, being consumers and buying things. So, you know, access and availability is one thing, and then there’s affordability, right? People’s ability to pay based on their income. And so we spent a lot of time doing analysis on how to target existing federal programs to assist people to get on the internet who couldn’t afford it. And then there’s equipment and training. So at the end of the day, it’s kind of like a three-legged stool before the real benefits are realized. But the first step is access and availability, which we spent a lot of time on.

Stephen V. Smith: And how was the importance of that highlighted through the pandemic?

Bill Price: Well, you know, of course, where it hit home first was students, K-12 primarily, but that does include technical college students and university students. But students’ ability to do virtual learning, meaning having access first and foremost again, equipment, you know, and everything else that goes along with that. So the Department of Education reached out to us, and we looked at the served/unserved data, and we got all the student addresses K-12 in the state, and we determined which ones couldn’t get access to it. We launched an effort to work with other data providers, the mobile service providers, telecom providers to do an analysis on all the low-income housing properties in the state and looking at ways that the state, the governor, was going to fund access for students living in low-income housing. There were like 50,000 of those. So we did a lot of work with the DOE, and we wound up identifying for 216 school districts the 10 best spots, for example, to deploy WiFi hotspots on busses for student access during COVID virtual learning if they didn’t have it at home. We wound up working with T-Mobile, I think it was, DOE did, to pay for internet access via mobile hotspots for students living in low-income housing. So, yeah, you’re right. I mean, COVID really put a fine point on the need for online access, right?

Stephen V. Smith: Yeah, absolutely. Why do you think — talk to us a little bit about the importance of, let’s say it this way broadband deployment, broadband availability/ accessibility, and then the affordability and the adoption issues as well. It’s not a top down issue. It’s not that the government’s going to come in and do everything to fix this. That it really depends on, like you mentioned earlier, working with 44 for broadband service providers in the state of Georgia. It really is dependent on a public private partnership, and there’s a role to play for several entities throughout the community. Kind of unpack that for us.

Bill Price: Well, you know, I mean, the provider industry, the private sector provider industry has been making all the investments in communications infrastructure for 100 years, 100+ years, right? And so, you know, it’s those investments, if you want to maximize limited government funding to offset and encourage expansion, you want to leverage to the fullest extent possible where interests align. The people who have already been making all those investments, plus you’ve got, you know, somebody’s got to — even once you’ve built it — somebody’s got to maintain it, sustain it, provide customer service, provide the retail service offer. So it made sense to us to look for every way possible to work collaboratively and in partnership with the service providers. And so when we did the map, for example, it was a true partnership. We couldn’t have done the mapping without each company providing us with where they could serve data. Because first thing you do is you determine all the locations that you can serve, and what you net out is the locations that you can’t, right?

Bill Price: So, you know, and that even extends into adoption. You know, the government being aware and appreciative and understanding that if we’re both going to make an investment to expand broadband, then don’t we want to know who can’t afford it, where they are? Who has a higher likelihood to buy it if you build it, so you don’t want to build it, and maybe they’ll come. So, you know, if you look at it from a joint investment perspective, then interests get aligned pretty quick. Because you both want to be successful at the end of the day. And you don’t want to have occur, which has happened historically a lot, is wasted investments and wasted projects that don’t wind up providing service availability to really unserved people or anything, really. I mean, there have been there’s a long, storied history of government efforts to invest in broadband expansion projects that never see the light of day, and they don’t realize what the promise was, right? Pretty important.

Stephen V. Smith: Absolutely. Which brings us to, in July, it was announced that you were joining Lightbox as the Vice President of Government Solutions, and we’ll dive into your role there in a moment. But first, tell us about LightBox and explain to our listeners what a real estate information and technology platform is.

Bill Price: Sure, LightBox, historically, is a data services company and provides data services, technology, you know, capabilities and the data to power basically the insurance industry around real estate and appraisals and commercial real estate and commercial real estate transactions. It provides the data and the platforms, the technology, if you will, to power things like Zillow, Google and Apple’s applications that use location data. So at the end of the day, sometimes it’s called location intelligence. But at the end of the day, the inside of it is information, is data, about locations. So if you connect that to the broadband world, if you’re going to build a network to serve unserved people, you want to have as much information as you can about the unserved locations. Like you want to know the address, and you want to know the address that is correctly attached to the property information about simple things. Like, is it a residential property or is it a commercial property? Is there one structure, or are there more than one structure? How many structures are there? So you tie the address information to the property information, and if you can like LightBox, then you have building footprints. You know, the outlines of the building rooftops, if you will, and where those are. And then there’s this notion of a geo coordinate, which is a point on a map that you want to be in the center of the building rooftop if you can get it there, and tie all that together in one location record.

Bill Price: And then once you have all this data, then you know, on the service platform side, it’s making it easy for industries to use it in their day to day business. So is it online? Can I log in and access it? Can I connect it to my systems so that it automates the workflow? So Lightbox provides those sort of things and those sorts of services and that kind of information to a variety of industries, including state governments. When I was at Georgia, we evaluated commercial location data and a number of providers, and we sampled their data, and we checked it for accuracy and comprehensiveness. And we chose LightBox. And that’s how I got to know LightBox. They got to know me and the broadband program effort. And then they realized that there’s a lot of growing focus on broadband and broadband mapping and therefore the need for good data right to do accurate, comprehensive broadband maps. And they, you know, approached me with the idea of taking the methodology and the approach and the lessons learned from the Georgia mapping effort and then going to the federal government and the other states in the industry as a new offer, a new focus area for LightBox. So that sounded like a pretty cool opportunity. I really enjoyed doing the broadband map effort in Georgia. So that’s how we got here.

Stephen V. Smith: And what have you found, Bill, looking across other states, and well certainly federally, what sets that approach that you took in Georgia apart? And do you see some other states really struggling with the mapping? And are there others out there that that seem to be doing a better job than others? What are you seeing on the landscape?

Bill Price: Well, they’re all over the place, as you might imagine, right? And a few states are … There’s a couple of states that are going to try and do it themselves. And they’re going to use their own data, or they’re going to buy data from a company LightBox and combine that together. There’s two or three of those. There’s seven or eight states that are currently in the planning process to do either a broadband procurement that includes mapping or to do procurements to buy data or do procurements to pay for somebody to do mapping. Most of the states are not there yet. Because of the American recovery money is such a significant amount that every governor has gotten, and they have to choose if they’re going to allocate some of that to broadband, right? And potentially it’s so much more money. It really has caused the number of states to step back — governors and legislatures to step back — and say, “Okay, what have we been doing? How is that going? Do we need to change it up, since there’s so much more money?” Because everybody up until then was dealing with no money to very little money to invest. So hopefully, for those states who are going to invest a substantial amount of money in broadband expansion projects through grants, hopefully it’s not that hard for them to understand having better data to decide where to make those funds available is a good idea. Because the cost of doing it is less than probably 3-4% or less of the available funds to invest. So the return on investment to get the better data to make the better decisions is pretty good. Does that make sense?

Stephen V. Smith: Yes, yes it does. This next question is kind of a two parter, and it ties into to that. What do you think the prospects are that we’re going to see this infrastructure bill passed that’s floating around? And do you think the states and even down to the provider level, do you think we’re capable of deploying all those investments in the short term considering, you know, labor shortages and material backlogs? What kind of challenges that are going to … It sounds like great news. We get that passed. We’re going to have a ton of money flowing in to solve the the digital divide once and for all. But, you know, are we set up to handle that?

Bill Price: No. Everyone in the entire supply chain or the entire ecosystem realizes what you just said. And everybody’s going to have to deal with it on their own terms at the moment, right? You know, everybody is sort of assuming the infrastructure bill passes, right, and everybody knows it’s coming. And I know a bunch of states are looking at consulting contracts to bring in expertise to help them prepare. Put together, what’s our plan? And what do we need? What resources do we need, and what are we going to accomplish? So those questions are being asked. They’re being thought about. So that’s good, right? At some point, will there be a bottleneck in the supply chain? Of course it will, right? And at some point well, timelines, we don’t know what the timelines are associated with the infrastructure bill, right? So if every state is going to get a $100 million minimum, and then some are going to get more, we don’t know how much time will be allowed to run those projects, right? But I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day, if extensions are needed, you know, government has done that in the past. Government can do it in the future. I think the funds are probably going to be administered by NTIA as part of the Department of Commerce. And in the past, at least during stimulus with the BTOP program, extensions were granted. You’ve got to have a valid reason for it. But, you know, and if supply chain bottlenecks, workforce bottlenecks, equipment bottlenecks occur, the system is not so rigid that it will fail because of that.

Stephen V. Smith: Yeah. Good point. We’re going to scale back a little bit here and ask you a big picture question. You have been associated with internet service for a very long time from doing a metro ethernet with Sprint in 1989 to working with BellSouth and launching their early work in business and consumer internet. Looking back at those early days like, you know, 25 years ago or more to what we see today, of course you never could have envisioned that, what do you see as, how has the internet changed in terms of particularly, you know, as the focus of this show being in the rural areas, how has it changed in terms of, you know, being important to our everyday lives?

Bill Price: Well, it touches everything, right? And years ago, when I started with the state of Georgia back in 2012, it turned out I had a cousin who lived in a very rural area in southwest Georgia. And of course, his daughter, he was in the commercial insurance business and his daughter couldn’t do her homework online in that school. This was near Blakely, Georgia. You’re familiar with that part of Georgia, right? You know, just peanut fields, you know, small towns, rural America. So they got together and formed a group, and they applied for USDA BIP grants and you know, they were going to go … Like they do what Americans do when they got a problem. And, you know, they try and solve it themselves. They try and be innovative because of his daughter’s inability to do her schoolwork. So kids, of course, drive a lot of parent behavior. And then of course, you’ve got the phenomenon that everybody is trying to deal with as best they can in rural America, which is health care in rural areas and hospitals closing down. And, you know, the ability to get online and see a doctor or get some form of health care remotely. You know, that’s been going on for quite some time for at least a decade or more.

Bill Price: So there’s health care, you know, and there’s nothing in our lives that it appears to me that it’s not touched by being able to do things with the computer online, right? So whether it’s education or health care or something to do with financials, or you’re running a business and you want to make it available to a broader marketplace. You want to use Facebook to run your business and sell your product right? Or you want to access online services to buy things, Amazon, of course. You can’t do that if you can’t get online. Or you’re running a farm. I remember down there in Blakely, one of the big things was irrigation systems and irrigation management. And you’re the farmer, and you can monitor your irrigation system from the farmhouse, right, and see what’s working, what’s not and see the data that tells you need to put it over here. That’s important, too. So agriculture, you know, will transform over time with automation, just like everything else has. That’s pretty important in Georgia. I’m sure it is in Alabama, too.

Stephen V. Smith: Sure, he is. Yeah, all over rural America, that’s for sure. Well, Bill, it’s been a pleasure exploring some of these topics with you. And how could our listeners learn more about Lightbox and keep up with the work that you’re doing?

Bill Price: Sure. Well, you know, we do have a website and www.LightBoxRE.com And we’ve got, you know, we’re putting more and more information up there about national internet mapping, broadband mapping. We’re keeping that up to date. We’re going to do some webinars ourselves on better data for better decision making and broadband. So those sort of things.

Stephen V. Smith: All right. Sounds good. I guess you’re out there on LinkedIn and Twitter or wherever folks can find you.

Bill Price: I’m on LinkedIn. Yes, sir. I appreciate the opportunity to do the podcast.

Stephen V. Smith: Absolutely. Thanks. Thanks for coming on. And again, my guest today is Bill Price. He is Vice President of Government Solutions for LightBox. And thank you for tuning in to another episode of “Rural Broadband Today,” where we focus on the leaders and the topics and the people who are making a real difference in bringing broadband to rural America.

Outro: “Rural Broadband Today” is a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.

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