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Remarks of Deputy Assistant Secretary Simpson at the NTCA 2016 Legislative and Policy Conference

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April 18, 2016

Remarks of Angela Simpson
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
NTCA 2016 Legislative and Policy Conference
Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill
April 18, 2016
–As Prepared for Delivery –

Thank you, Shirley, for having me.  I’m happy to be here to chat with you all today regarding what NTIA is up to.  As you might be aware, a presidential election is happening this fall.  And no matter who wins, my time will be up at NTIA in January.  Looking back, I feel that our paths maybe did not cross as often as they could or should, but that we have significant interests in common, some that many of you might be surprised to learn about.  But most important and most obvious probably is that NTCA and NTIA share the common goal of ensuring that communities across America have access to broadband networks.

But before I dive into broadband, let me take a step back first and give you a sense of the many aspects of NTIA that potentially relate to NTCA member interests.  It is really a grab bag of very different things, but I want to flag them for you so you’ll know to check out our website – NTIA.doc.gov – or reach out if you have an interest in any of these work streams.  My primary message is:  Let’s make our paths cross more often!

For instance, we are working with other federal agencies and the FCC to make 500 additional megahertz of spectrum available for commercial broadband use.  We’re currently at 245 megahertz, with a lot more in the pipeline.  We are also running multistakeholder processes related to privacy, transparency, and accountability regarding commercial and private use of unmanned aircraft systems (or more colloquially referred to as “drones” that your companies might actually be using to inspect your facilities), cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the context of how companies and hackers work together, and privacy considerations in the use of facial recognition technologies.   These processes pull all interested folks together to address issues in areas where there is no regulator or no legislation – in the hopes of developing codes of conduct or best practices that can encourage development, adoption, and innovation.

You may have also noticed that we have been pretty active lately on the FCC-centric policy front in some proceedings you might have an interest in.  For instance, we filed comments on behalf of the Administration recently regarding Lifeline, where we also flagged the issue of minimum standards that NTCA has been talking about.  We also just last week filed in the Set-Top-Box competition proceeding, advocating for more competition but flagging some issues that MVPDs and other stakeholders will need to work through to make it truly succeed this time around.

As part of the broader Department of Commerce, we play a key role along with sister agencies like NIST, the Economic Development Administration, and the International Trade Administration in advancing the digital economy and working on ways to help companies like yours thrive in the digital economy.   Much of the work of Commerce’s Digital Economy Leadership Team is within NTIA.  Most recently, we announced a process to figure out how the Department of Commerce can best be helpful in the context of the “Internet of Things.”  We do not underestimate the importance of, and the opportunities abounding from, the digital economy in rural areas.  If you’re interested in more information about any of these things, please let us know.

But to get to the heart of our synergies, and the primary purpose of this conference, we at NTIA promote broadband deployment to ensure that all citizens have the access, tools, and skills needed to participate in today’s digital society.  Probably this work on broadband access and adoption has been the hallmark of my time at NTIA these past seven years – it has been the brunt of my work and the cause of many late nights and lost weekends, but also honestly the most gratifying and “warm and fuzzy”-inducing work as well.

As you know from your own experiences, today broadband is a basic infrastructure – as vital as roads, sewer systems, and electrical lines.  At the community level, broadband is critical for driving growth, attracting new businesses, creating jobs, and remaining competitive in the digital economy.  And for individuals, access to broadband – and the know-how to use it – opens the door to employment opportunities, educational resources, healthcare services, government benefits, and social networks.  These days, it can be practically impossible to apply for a job or even complete a seventh-grade homework assignment without broadband.  So closing the gaps that still exist is a basic equity issue.

From first-hand experience, you all also know the many challenges involved in delivering broadband to the far reaches of our country.  I’m here today to talk to you about what NTIA is doing to help. And I’m offering NTIA as a partner and resource to you and the communities you serve.

The cornerstone of our effort is our BroadbandUSA program.  We launched this program last year to build on the lessons learned, best practices, and collective wisdom from across our broadband grant portfolio.

Why is NTIA well-positioned to help?  First off, we are passionate about ensuring that every American has access to broadband.  We have some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve ever seen in our broadband office.  Over the past seven years, we have seen, through our $4 billion grant programs, how broadband can stimulate economic growth and empower people.  Funded through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we financed about 230 projects across the country that built critical network infrastructure, opened or upgraded public computer centers, and established broadband adoption and digital inclusion programs. And 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.

NTIA awarded 19 broadband infrastructure grants to rural telecommunications providers or to consortia of rural broadband providers, including some NTCA members such as Ronan Telephone Company and Silver Star Telephone Company.   These projects represent nearly $460 million in federal funds dedicated to deploying new or upgraded broadband facilities in underserved rural communities.  NTIA also awarded a $2.1 million sustainable broadband adoption grant to NTCA member, Toledo Telephone Company, to promote broadband adoption in its rural service area in Washington State.

Overall, our broadband grantees built or upgraded more than 116,000 miles of fiber or fixed wireless connections to establish critical “middle-mile” network infrastructure to link rural communities to the Internet backbone.  That’s enough to circumnavigate the globe four and a half times. They supplied high-capacity connections to nearly 26,000 schools, libraries, hospitals and other community anchor institutions that need robust bandwidth. They opened or upgraded 3,000 computer centers in recreation centers and housing projects to provide free Internet access for those who don’t have it at home. And they generated more than 671,000 new broadband subscriptions by supporting digital inclusion programs.  These programs taught computer literacy skills to those who are new to the Internet, helped small businesses get online, and subsidized computer equipment and broadband service for those who couldn’t afford it. Even though we achieved our goals for the programs, our job is not done.

According to the latest numbers, 34 million Americans still lack access to wired broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. That’s 10 percent of the U.S. population. More than 23 million of those live in rural communities.  As you know, the economics of building out high-speed telecommunications infrastructure in these rural areas can be especially challenging.  And 1.6 million of them live on Tribal lands, which include some of the most remote pockets of the country.

At the same time, NTIA’s most recent Digital Nation survey found that a quarter of American households still did not subscribe to broadband. Why? Nearly half of those households said they don’t need the Internet or are not interested. Nearly 30 percent said it was too expensive.

Still, the survey results showed signs of good progress. Demographic groups that have historically lagged in using the Internet -- such as senior citizens, minorities, and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment -- made gains in the last two years. Internet use among those aged 65 or older increased five percentage points between 2013 and 2015. In that same time period, growth in Internet use among Hispanics and among American Indians and Alaska Natives outpaced the U.S. population as well.  I encourage you to take a deeper look at this data on our website. Last October, we launched Data Central, an easy-to-use source for locating statistics and charting trends on computer and Internet use over the past 20 years.

So the work to close the digital divide continues. And we continue to lead the charge for the Administration. Through BroadbandUSA, we are offering technical assistance, guidance, and resources to communities across the country seeking to expand local broadband deployment and adoption.  As part of this effort, we are convening a series of regional workshops that are bringing together local, state, and federal officials, industry representatives, community activists, and other stakeholders to study the broadband challenges they face and explore potential solutions.  

So far, NTIA has hosted regional broadband workshops in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Jackson, Mississippi; Portland, Maine; Sunnyvale, California; and Seattle, Washington. We are also looking at additional workshops later this year.  We want to continue to hear from rural telcos, including NTCA members, at these workshops.  Your perspective and participation are critical.

A centerpiece of BroadbandUSA is our technical assistance team, which is providing free hands-on, one-to-one support to local government officials and other key stakeholders on a range of broadband projects nationwide. We understand that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach.  We are working to educate communities about different paths for achieving their broadband goals, including public-private partnerships.  Indeed, we’ve put together a number of publications to assist communities, including our “Introduction to Effective Public Private Partnerships.”  

In rural America, we are working with small towns and remote communities in places such as Minnesota and Maine. For instance, in the coastal communities and islands of Maine, we are advising a local non-profit that is studying financing strategies to support broadband planning and infrastructure projects. 

Beyond our BroadbandUSA efforts, we continue to be a lead agency supporting President Obama as he emphasizes the importance of broadband. 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 five years. The President followed that with the launch last year of ConnectHome, an initiative aimed at expanding high speed broadband to more families across the country. Through the program, Internet service providers, nonprofits, 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 key cabinet departments and agencies.  Its purpose was 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. The Council was co-chaired by the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture.  My boss, Larry Strickling, was designated by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to co-chair the Council. Last September, 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 barriers and promote broadband investment and adoption.

Once implemented, we believe that the recommendations will make a meaningful difference to communities seeking to expand and enhance their broadband capacity. For example, agencies are expanding or clarifying that federal programs worth a total of $10 billion will now support broadband among other projects.  Local governments will also have new tools and resources at their fingertips to bring broadband to their communities.

Agencies have already issued guidance that will promote greater availability of funds for broadband purposes. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued guidance about using Community Development Block Grant funds for broadband. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued guidance specifying that cities can deploy conduit while EPA-funded water and sewer projects are underway and trenches are already being dug. And the Department of Interior is working to make more towers located on federal lands available for broadband deployment.

Last month, President Obama took another important step forward by announcing ConnectALL, an initiative to help Americans at every income level get online and have the tools to take full advantage of the Internet. The President set the bold goal of connecting 20 million more Americans to broadband by 2020. As part of the ConnectALL effort,  I mentioned earlier that NTIA filed comments with the FCC on behalf of the Administration recommending that it expand its Lifeline program to include broadband services. We appreciate NTCA’s engagement on this issue.

NTIA also provided an update on our Community Connectivity Initiative, which we proposed as a Broadband Opportunity Council commitment last fall.  The Initiative will support communities across the country with tools to support and accelerate local broadband planning and deployment efforts.  NTIA, in close collaboration with our partners, will create a comprehensive online assessment tool to help community leaders identify critical broadband needs and connect them with expertise and resources.

The tool will provide a framework of benchmarks and indicators on access, adoption, policy, and use for communities. I’m excited to say that NTCA, along with a number of other organizations and communities, is partnering with us in this effort.  We greatly appreciate your participation. We hope to leverage the best practices you developed as part of your Smart Rural Communities program.  

Last month, we began the conversation with ToledoTel directly as part of the workshop in Seattle. In addition, I know that NTCA is hosting a webinar in early May with us to engage a broader set of your members as we begin to develop the indicators and measures for the tool.  We appreciate your assistance in making this tool useful and practical for your communities. 

I wanted to quickly shift gears by briefly mentioning another important program within NTIA that is likely of interest to you all – the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet.  As you may know, FirstNet is part of NTIA and is working tirelessly to deploy a nationwide wireless public safety broadband network.  When complete, the network will enable first responders across the country to communicate with one another seamlessly, speeding response times and saving lives.  FirstNet issued its Request for Proposals on January 13, 2016, and anticipates awarding a contract to help it deploy the network later this year. 

Serving rural areas will be a critical component of this network.  We want to ensure that firefighters battling blazes in the mountains of California, or police tracking a skier lost in an avalanche in Colorado have the best communications tools available to do their jobs and save lives and property.

Mike Poth, the head of FirstNet, will be speaking with you later today so I won’t say much more, but I will mention that we are also about to launch a $115 million NG911 grant program.  We just got funding from the FCC auction proceeds, and will be working with NHTSA at the Department of Transportation on the details over the next few months.  We are very happy that bolstering NG911 capabilities that will complement FirstNet got funded so soon.

Thanks for having me today, and I look forward to our continued collaboration and partnership in serving rural America.