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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at Digital New England Summit

October 01, 2015

Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Digital New England Summit
Portland, Maine
September 28, 2015

—As Prepared for Delivery—

I am happy to see so many of you here from Maine and the surrounding New England states for our third regional broadband workshop put on by NTIA’s BroadbandUSA team.  I would like to thank Next Century Cities and Deb Socia for partnering with us today to assemble all of you community leaders, state and federal officials, broadband experts, as well as Senator King and his staff to talk about how we can collectively overcome the many challenges of expanding broadband access and adoption in this region. 

This week marks an important milestone at NTIA as our $4 billion broadband programs officially end.  Funded from money from the 2009 Recovery Act, we financed roughly 230 projects across the country that have built critical network infrastructure, opened or upgraded public computer centers and established broadband adoption and digital inclusion programs.  Our State Broadband Initiative Program invested another $300 million to help states collect broadband data for the National Broadband Map and expand their statewide broadband capacity.

Six years ago when this program began, we made a promise to communities across the country that would benefit from this funding: The Obama Administration’s investment in broadband would create jobs, stimulate economic development, spur private-sector investment, and open up new opportunities in employment, education and healthcare.  Most important, it would improve lives.  Today I am proud to say we delivered on those pledges. 

Our broadband grantees deployed more than 114,000 miles of new or upgraded network miles, connected nearly 26,000 community anchor institutions such as schools and hospitals and installed or upgraded more than 47,000 personal computers in public access centers.  In addition, our grantees enrolled hundreds of thousands of people as subscribers to broadband services.

These projects have already had a significant impact on economic development.  We commissioned an independent study from ASR Analytics to assess the social and economic impact of our broadband grant program and released that report earlier this year.  The report showed that on average, in only two years, communities that received our broadband grant funds experienced an estimated 2 percent greater growth in broadband availability than non-grant communities.  The report also concluded that the additional broadband infrastructure built by our grantees could be expected to create more than 22,000 long-term jobs and generate more than $1 billion in additional household income each year.  The report showed that community anchor institutions served by our broadband infrastructure grantees, like schools and libraries, experienced significantly increased speeds and lower costs.  As an example, the median price paid by libraries in the sample was $233 per megabit per month before the grant program, at a median speed of 3 mbps.  As a result of the grant program, the median price dropped to $15 per megabit per month and median speed increased to 20 mbps.

With our infrastructure projects, one of our major goals was to prime the pump for private-sector investment by supplying critical middle-mile infrastructure that local providers could use to deliver affordable broadband to more homes and businesses.  That is why all networks built with Recovery Act dollars are subject to open-access rules that let all other carriers interconnect with these networks on fair and non-discriminatory terms.  We also encouraged our grantees to connect directly to the key anchor institutions in these communities due to the higher bandwidth needs of schools, libraries and other institutions. 

Here in Maine, the Three Ring Binder project is a great example of how this worked.  The project, an example of a public-private partnership, is supported by the Maine state government, the state university system, and a group of small telecom carriers.  It used $25.4 million in Recovery Act funds to build a 1,100-mile dark-fiber network across the state consisting of three interconnected fiber rings.  Thirteen local carriers are now leasing that fiber to bring broadband to rural communities that, in many cases, previously only had dial-up service.  Just today, the City of Sanford, Maine announced plans to build a 32-mile municipal broadband network that will utilize the Three Ring Binder network.

The Three Ring Binder project is also connecting community anchor institutions across the state through Network Maine.  It is now delivering 10-gigabit connections to ten campuses of the state’s public universities to support big data-driven research and collaboration with other major academic institutions around the nation.  The project also turned on a 10-gigabit connection to the Jackson Lab, a genetics lab, so that it can exchange extremely large gene sequencing datasets with a new facility in Farmington, Connecticut.  And it has connected about 100 schools and libraries across the state.

Nearby in the state of Massachusetts, there is another great example of a public-private partnership laying the foundation for broadband expansion throughout the state.  The $45.5 million grant to the Massachusetts Technology Park (MassTech) is delivering affordable, high-speed Internet to 133 communities in rural western Massachusetts.  The project built 949 miles of new fiber and connected 1,233 community anchor institutions before its completion in January 2014.  For this project and the Open Cape project, the State of Massachusetts provided the project matching funds.  In building on the success of the Recovery Act projects, the state is making funding available to 45 communities to support their community broadband projects, including the Town of Leverett, which created LeverettNet, and built a community network to serve homes and businesses in town.

In addition to the goal of economic development, NTIA also focused on inclusions issues—how to make broadband available to all Americans.  We cannot lose sight of the importance of adoption.  Once the facilities are built, we need people to subscribe to use the service.  Accordingly, NTIA funded $250 million of sustainable adoption grants.  Today, only 74 percent of Americans overall subscribe to broadband service.  Maine beats the national average at 78 percent but nationally, adoption rates lag in rural areas and among poorer communities.

Through our adoption programs, we have learned important lessons about what works and what doesn’t.  An important takeaway is that digital literacy is fundamental to sustainable broadband adoption.  Our grantees around the country have demonstrated that successful digital literacy training must be tailored to the specific needs of the community and the individual.  Based on our grants, we now have developed a portfolio of innovative approaches to offering this training.  Our sustainable broadband adoption projects, as well as our public computer center grants, are reaching people who may never have even turned on a computer – a group that includes a disproportionate number of lower income Americans, senior citizens, and members of minority groups – and teaching them how to navigate the Internet, set up an email account, write a resume, and even apply for jobs over the Internet. 

On the broadband adoption side, one Maine project I want to highlight is how Axiom Technologies used a $1.4 million broadband adoption grant in very innovative ways in Washington County, Maine, serving blueberry farmers, fishermen, and nurses.  It is transforming Down East Community Hospital – a 25-bed critical-care hospital in Machias, connected by the Three Ring Binder project – into a teaching facility for nursing students.  The grant paid for video-conferencing equipment that allows nursing students to take necessary classes through a nursing college nearly 200 miles away in Lewiston.  The grant also paid for a state-of-the-art teaching mannequin used to train the nursing students in Machias that can be controlled by instructors in Lewiston. 

As we move beyond these projects, we recognize that more work needs to be done to ensure that no one is left behind in this digital revolution.  Moreover, the target keeps changing.  When we started the Recovery Act grant program in 2009, the FCC still defined broadband at a speed less than 1 Mbps.  Today the FCC recommends download speeds of 25 Mbps.  At that speed, nearly 51 million Americans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection.  Moreover, we can expect the need for speed to continue to increase.

Even though the Recovery Act grant program is complete, President Obama has continued to emphasize the importance of broadband.  Over the past several months, he has outlined a series of initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide and fostering investment in our nation’s broadband infrastructure. 

In 2013, the President launched ConnectEd, a public private partnership to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet through high-speed broadband within 5 years.  Since the President’s announcement, the public and private sectors have committed more than $10 billion of total funding and in-kind commitments as part of this five-year effort.

Earlier this year, the President announced ConnectHome, a new initiative with communities, the private sector, and federal government to expand high speed broadband to more families across the country.  The pilot program is launching in 27 cities and one tribal nation and will initially reach over 275,000 low-income households.  Through the program, Internet service providers, non-profits and the private sector will offer broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units.  

Last March, the President created the Broadband Opportunity Council, made up of over twenty federal agencies and directed it to determine what actions the federal government could take to eliminate regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and to encourage investment in broadband networks and services.  I was privileged to co-chair the Council on behalf of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.  Last Monday, the White House released the Council’s report, which describes concrete steps that 25 federal agencies will take over the next 18 months to eliminate regulatory barriers and promote broadband investment and adoption.

Many of the agencies involved had never before considered broadband to be part of their core mission.  Therefore, an initial part of the task was for each agency to look internally at policies and programs to explore whether there was flexibility to do more.

The Council also solicited stakeholder input on ways that the federal government can incentivize broadband investment, drive competition and remove regulatory and policy barriers at the community level.  We heard from more than 200 parties – even some of you in this room.  The feedback was important to shaping the report, and we appreciate the contributions of everyone who filed comments.

Four key themes framed the recommendations and action items:

  1. Modernize Federal programs to expand program support for broadband investments.
  2. Empower communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use.
  3. Promote increased broadband deployment and competition through expanded access to federal assets.
  4. Improve data collection, analysis and research on broadband.

Once implemented, we believe that the recommendations will make a meaningful difference to communities seeking to expand and enhance their broadband capacity.  More funds will be available to support broadband projects, and local governments will have new tools and resources at their fingertips to bring broadband to their communities.

Let me outline some of the specifics in the report.  In the first bucket, the recommendations look to modernize federal programs to expand program support for broadband investments.  

Not all federal programs fully reflect the changing conditions that reflect the need for broadband.  In some cases, programs that can support broadband deployment and adoption lack specific guidelines to promote its use.  We asked agencies to clarify whether their programs supported broadband investment.  As a result, agencies have committed to 13 actions that clarify or open up additional options for federal funding for broadband in programs totaling $10 billion.  Examples include the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant and the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Assistance Programs.

The second set of recommendations relate to empowering communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use.  While federal leadership is essential, many decisions about broadband investment are local.  They are made by local governments in partnership with industry and guided by state law.  To address the gaps, the Council recognized the need for federal agencies to provide communities with targeted, easily accessible resources that share best practices from their peers around the country.

NTIA’s BroadbandUSA effort has been working with communities across the country and we have heard time and again the challenges facing these communities to identify sources of funding for broadband, and to know where to turn to within the federal government for answers to their questions.  One key action, which NTIA will spearhead, will be to create a portal for information on federal broadband funding and loan programs to help communities easily identify resources as they seek to expand access to broadband.  This will help communities find broadband-related policy guidance, key agency points-of-contact and best practices.  Today, I am pleased to announce a first step in that regard with our release of a Broadband Funding Guide, which provides a roadmap on how to access federal funding to support broadband planning, public access, digital literacy, adoption, and deployment.

We will also work collaboratively with stakeholders such as you to launch a Connectivity Index, which is envisioned as a public-private partnership effort to help communities benchmark their connectivity.  This will require working with interested parties to design and implement the program and we welcome your input on this effort as planning takes shape in the months to come.

The third set of Council recommendations relate to expanding access to federal assets.  Specific actions here include a commitment from the Department of Transportation to issue policy guidance to leverage highway rights of way for broadband.  The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Economic Council will also lead the creation of an online open data inventory of federal assets that can help support faster and more economical broadband deployments to remote areas of the country.

The fourth set of recommendations aims to improve data collection, analysis, and research on broadband.  Research on broadband deployment, competition and adoption has not kept pace with the massive digital changes that permeate our economy and society.  To address this issue, the Council, led by the National Science Foundation and NTIA, will develop a comprehensive broadband research and data collection agenda.  This will allow federal and private funders to coordinate and prioritize future research plans to support American competitiveness.

The recommendations of the Broadband Opportunity Council represent an important next step in the Administration’s ongoing campaign to expand broadband access and adoption, but what matters now is that agencies implement the recommendations and continue to identify additional steps that can be taken and barriers that can be tackled.  We welcome continued dialogue with all stakeholders in this effort.

At NTIA, we will play an ongoing role in ensuring that the Council’s important work is carried out.  NTIA’s BroadbandUSA initiative will continue to work closely with communities seeking to expand their broadband capacity.  Through the Council’s report, BroadbandUSA also committed to create a portal to serve as the main access point for federal broadband resources.  It will also provide links to agency resources, policies and grant guidance.

My message to all of you here is – we are here to help.  We have learned a lot over the past six years overseeing this broad portfolio of broadband infrastructure and adoption grants.  We have learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works.  Every community has unique needs and challenges.  Through our BroadbandUSA initiative, we are now leveraging that knowledge and expertise to help communities in their broadband expansion efforts.  

Do you need to sift through the labyrinth of government rules and grant programs?  We can help. 

Do you need to learn the best way to design and deliver an adoption program in your community?  We can help with our Broadband Adoption Toolkit. 

Do you need advice on how to plan for and attract broadband investment in your community?  Again, we can help.  Our technical assistance ranges from workshops and webinars to more personalized one-on-one community assistance. 

Best of all, we are free.  So let us know what sort of help your community needs.  Our team will help you accomplish your goals.

Thank you all for being here today.  I look forward to our ongoing discussion today and to working with you to expand broadband access and adoption and support greater economic development for all citizens in New England. 

Thank you for listening.