SEVILLE, Ohio – June 23, 2022 –After completing an extensive evaluation and testing process, Lit Communities has selected Vitruvi’s construction management software to accelerate the ongoing construction of Medina Fiber’s expanding broadband internet network across Medina County.
Vitruvi is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and is a leading provider of solutions that integrate the complicated workflow, documentation, and data – including critical GIS information – involved in creating new wireless and wire-based networks.
Lit Communities is in the midst of building out Medina Fiber’s broadband services in phased deployments that will result in fast, reliable internet access to 45,000 homes and businesses across the county just west of Akron in Northeast Ohio.
“Our rapid progress depends on having best in class tools to manage construction and deployment accurately and efficiently. Vitruvi’s experience and the robust capabilities of its scheduling platform and GIS-enabled tools will prove invaluable as we move forward,” said Brian Snider, CEO of Lit Communities in Birmingham, Alabama.
“We’re excited to join Lit Communities in its work to expand Medina Fiber’s broadband internet capabilities across the ISP’s entire service area. Our built-for-purpose telecom construction software will help these innovative organizations meet their ambitious buildout and deployment goals, and the community will be the ultimate winner here with the availability of the best that digital infrastructure has to offer for learning, business, education, entertainment, and time-critical communications of all types,” said Justin Reid, Vice President/Sales for Vitruvi.
Developed by a team that has “lived the problem of deploying complex network projects.” Vitruvi is an innovative end-to-end telecom construction software platform that greatly improves project efficiencies. Vitruvi re-defines the precision of infrastructure wireless and wireline construction project management (CM) by seamlessly converting GIS designs into a web and mobile app-based construction management solution. Vitruvi aggregates designs, documents, timelines, and construction data to form a single source of truth that all project stakeholders can refer to. Being fully GIS-enabled with an emphasis on user experience, users can access real-time construction management of timelines, schedule of values, labor, and materials. Vitruvi is available on desktop and on mobile Android and iOS devices. Discover more at www.vitruvisoftware.com
About Lit Communities
Lit Communities is both a forward-thinking builder and operator of next-generation network infrastructure and a consultancy that guides communities across the country through the complicated process of deploying their own open application fiber optic utilities. Lit Communities believes that by separating the network infrastructure from the services provided on it, a more resilient and consumer-friendly environment is created. This approach makes otherwise prohibitively expensive networks feasible to build in communities of all sizes. Learn more about Lit Communities.
The Honorable Will Metcalf P.O. Box 12068 Capitol Station Austin, TX 78711
RE: Public Statement on House Interim Charges (88th Legislative Session)
Greetings Chairman Metcalf:
Thank you for the opportunity to provide a written statement regarding the House Interim Charges related to HB 5 before the House State Affairs Committee today, April 26, 2022. At this time, our company would like to provide the following public comments regarding the interim charges before the committee.
We are thankful that the 87th State Legislature approved HB 5 and are excited to see the implementation of the Broadband Development Office (BDO). With parallel passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and active policy developments at the federal and state levels, we look forward to future public meetings and opportunities for engagement to learn more about the BDO, its operations and major updates including availability of the State’s initial Broadband Plan, Broadband Map, upcoming solicitation for U.S. Treasury Capital Project Fund proposals, implementation of NTIA block grant funding and 5-year planning for the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.
The BDO’s current Broadband Listening Tour has been a great opportunity for Lit Communities to share its perspectives on exploring broadband solutions through our Community Assessment process as well as a private partner for Fiber to the Premise deployment. We hope that the Listening Tour has provided validation that challenges exist in unserved and underserved areas in both rural and urban communities throughout the State. Regarding the development of the State’s Broadband Development Map, we are excited to see how the map will illustrate and designate eligible areas and how it will be used in conjunction with the upcoming release of the FCC’s Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric mapping data. We hope that the combination of these resources will create a streamlined approach for not only identifying eligible unserved and underserved areas with greater accuracy and confidence but also minimize unnecessary challenges from incumbent providers which would inadvertently result in a burden to the State and delay the deployment of funding. In terms of leveraging data from the State’s Broadband Map, we believe it will be very helpful for avoiding duplication of funding from the Economic Development Administration, US Department of Agriculture and Federal Communications Commission (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund). We are also encouraged to learn that the BDO is supportive of adopting a higher broadband speed threshold of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical. In terms of closing the Digital Divide, 100/100 is a great minimum threshold to support deployment in unserved and underserved communities and should be scalable for gigabit speeds for higher thresholds as technology advances.
With respect to the State’s initial Broadband Plan, we are excited to see the report, findings, and recommendations regarding broadband development throughout the State. Given the BEAD funding’s long-range planning requirements, we are optimistic that the initial plan will serve as an excellent baseline for data that we have today as well as additional information that we will have in the coming months from the FCC. We are also looking forward to learning what the State Broadband Plan will include with respect to state and regional approaches to broadband development, such as the Middle Mile deployment efforts being undertaken by the Lower Colorado River Authority. We believe that regional and multi-county approaches can serve as best practices and provide significant cost- effectiveness and allow for greater flexibility in the broadband solutions included and funded by the State. Lastly, given the long-term need to address workforce development and supply chain challenges, we hope that the BDO includes an overview of baseline needs and potential actions to address these issues. There is no doubt that the deployment of funding for broadband infrastructure will create a lasting impact on our State, however we cannot lose sight of the tremendous opportunity we have as a State to create jobs and build capacity to support these assets and investments.
In conclusion, we are thankful for the Texas Legislature, Comptroller of Public Accounts and State Broadband Development Office’s coordinated work to implement the HB 5 legislation, which will be an essential element of the State’s ability and capacity to implement the future BEAD funding and strategically curtail the digital divide. We appreciate the Committee’s consideration of these suggestions and are available to answer any questions you may have.
Sincerely, Rene Gonzalez
Chief Strategy Officer Lit Communities Broadband, Inc.
Over the past 24 months, billions in federal funding for broadband have been provided to states and communities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including CARES Act, 2021 Congressional Appropriations Act, American Rescue Plan Act (State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds and Capital Projects Fund), and related state broadband grant programs. Through all of the planning, execution, and implementation of these funded projects, there have been essential lessons learned regarding successful innovative approaches, partnerships, and impacts in unserved and underserved areas throughout the United States. While these trailblazing projects and communities are leading by example, the response from states has had its fair share of successes and challenges.
Some states were well ahead of the curve and had Broadband Offices and Authorities established well ahead of the pandemic and served as early examples of best practices for other states needing the same core elements of a dedicated entity, statewide plan, and funding mechanism to address the respective gaps. For many states that did not have a dedicated or formal Broadband Office or Authority, the last two years have been incredibly challenging for legislators and government officials across state and federal levels. Compared to planning and solving infrastructure issues with transportation, water, or electricity, broadband was new to the game and there needed to be not only legislative solutions, but also funding and capacity building to respond to the urgency of the pandemic.
As each state begins preparing for implementation of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, there are opportunities to identify shortcomings and lessons learned from recent grant cycles to make improvements and create efficiencies before $42.45 billion in funding hits the street. While the following is not an exhaustive list, we would like to highlight three aspects for states to consider when looking in the rearview mirror:
Unserved/Underserved Data Clearinghouse
Leveraging local, regional, and national broadband data sources can bring valuable insights into all respects of broadband grant programs and proposals, however we need assistance from states to identify valid sources and methodologies for identifying and estimating unserved and underserved locations. For example, if speed test data is obtained at a high level of statistical validity in a given area, an applicant should be able to demonstrate how its data can be utilized to establish a baseline estimate for unserved or underserved households. In one recent experience with the state of Ohio, an application submitted by Lit’s subsidiary, Medina Fiber in partnership with Medina County, OH, received a score of zero points for one major criteria despite evidence of need from a variety of sources including NTIA’s Indicators of Broadband Need and the state of Ohio’s newly released broadband mapping data which confirmed unserved and underserved households in the respective township. In order to provide a fair and equal playing field for all applicants, states should take utmost responsibility in validating sources and methodologies for applicants to ensure that areas who experience chronic effects of the digital divide do not remain in that status due to oversights that could have been corrected. Lastly, the validity of the data will be helpful for states to confirm that proposals are non-duplicative and also during challenges or protests lodged by incumbent providers.
Equitable Distribution of Funding
It is not a shock to see both state and federal broadband grant programs with demand that pales in comparison to the amount of funding available. NTIA’s recent Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) was nearly 10 times oversubscribed and ultimately only 13 awards were made in 12 states. In fact, 7 applications comprised nearly 77% of the total available funding. Looking at the award list a bit closer, it is apparent that NTIA would like to see more regional, multi-county and state-level partnerships in the mix.
Unfortunately, proposals from Pennsylvania, Texas and other states were left at a disadvantage because they didn’t have a Broadband Office or Authority in existence at the time of the BIP grant cycle and no insight to stack proposals together to compete against individual community applications. If the least connected city with a population over 100,000, Brownsville, TX can’t obtain grant funding to close these gaps, then where are they expected to find it? On a positive note, these collaborations are essential to solving the digital divide and closing critical infrastructure gaps, especially in economically distressed, rural and high-cost areas. However, these proposals shouldn’t be competing directly with applications from individual communities.
To learn from this, states should determine how much funding to direct to communities where smaller, local or regional providers can close the unserved and underserved gaps and determine the maximum amount of funding to be awarded for an individual project as well as a larger regional project. This approach will also assist applicants to right size their proposals and allow the state to make the greatest number of awards with its BEAD allocation. Additionally, in order to leverage the capitalization grants to the greatest extent possible, grant matching should not be optional for ISP providers. There has to be some “skin” put into the game and contributing to the capital stack should not be an option, it should be an expectation to promote the sustainability of the funding program.
Incentivizing Best Practices and Approaches
Knowing that funding from the BEAD is finite, it is critical that states identify and exemplify best practices from local and regional broadband infrastructure projects. By learning from successful methodologies and approaches, other communities can utilize those examples for their own projects and networks. Additionally, states should identify incentives and consideration of additional points for projects which:
leverage existing infrastructure, such as poles, right-of-way, underground utilities, etc.
have established partnerships with public entities such as cities, counties and rural electric cooperatives
promote a competitive broadband environment with networks that are open access
include digital inclusion partnerships that reinforce the project and compliment the other “legs of the stool”, and
integrate opportunities to train, certify and hire personnel to fill workforce development gaps.
In conclusion, no one is perfect and we can always improve and learn from our mistakes. The time to think critically and strategically is more important now than ever before. We can’t predict the next time that $42.45 billion dollars in funding will be provided to all states again, so let’s do our best and get America LIT!
Lit Communities, in partnership with Ice Miller Whiteboard and DLZ, has helped provide Monongalia County with a strategic plan to guide the rollout of critical broadband connectivity to residents, businesses, and other organizations in the historic community of about 100,000 residents along the Monongahela River in West Virginia.
The 168-page strategic plan was presented to County Commissioners on Feb. 19, completing a project that began in May 2021 with the goal of both identifying areas that show the most need for improved internet service, and laying out a path for providing that critical new infrastructure across the county that includes rural areas as well as metro Morgantown and the University of West Virginia.
The project included a series of meetings and a survey that found overwhelming support for improved internet service and culminated with the following recommendations:
The county should use federal infrastructure funds and other federal and state grants to invest in a middle-mile fiber backbone network.
Private providers can use the network to expand wired and wireless last-mile connectivity. The county can do the same in certain locations, primarily in the western sections of the county.
The county can leverage the high level of collaboration already demonstrated by local energy companies and utility providers to take advantage of existing rights-of-way and easements to enhance the rollout’s efficiency and effectiveness.
Lit Communities provided expertise on network design, financial modeling, consumer demand, and grant processes to help determine the specific next steps that Monongalia County leaders can take to achieve their fiber broadband goals. The full report can be viewed here.
“The level of interest and commitment we found among multiple stakeholders in Monongalia County gives us confidence that this plan, if followed, would result in a project that could be used as a national template on how to bring top-tier fiber broadband connectivity to similar communities across the country.” – Brian Snider, CEO of Lit Communities
“This strategic plan has been a huge project for our county, staff, and consultants,” said Sean Sikora, Monongalia County Commissioner. “We need robust internet connectivity to grow and thrive, and now we’re one step closer to providing better broadband service to more of our residents.”
About Lit CommunitiesLit Communities is both a forward-thinking builder and operator of next-generation network infrastructure and a consultancy that guides communities across the country through the complicated process of deploying their own open application fiber optic utilities. Lit Communities believes that by separating the network infrastructure from the services provided on it, a more resilient and consumer-friendly environment is created. This approach makes otherwise prohibitively expensive networks feasible to build in communities of all sizes. Learn more about Lit Communities.
On Monday, January 10, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) posted a request for comments in the Federal Register inviting the public to submit comments regarding the implementation of broadband programs created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The following responses are a condensed summary of the comments submitted by Lit Communities Broadband, Inc.:
Regarding the goal to bring reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband to all Americans:
We recommend that NTIA define “access”, “adoption”, “digital equity” and “digital inclusion” uniformly so that all states can integrate those definitions into their 5-year plans, initial and final proposals. Current baseline data can be identified to determine which indicators best capture adoption, affordability, digital equity, and digital inclusion and NTIA should require these metrics be included in their respective letters of intent, 5-year plans, initial and final proposals. Subrecipients who apply to the States should be rated, ranked, and funded based on meeting these goals to ensure that all projects and programs are consistent with the Act and make incremental progress towards these outcomes.
To ensure that all voices and perspectives are incorporated into the rulemaking and implementation process, States should be required to undergo a public comment process, similar to those utilized in transportation, water, sanitary sewer, etc. and include documentation on how input was gathered, responded to, and incorporated into the respective plans (as applicable). Similar to the EPA’s State Revolving Fund Programs and requirements for public comment prior to approval of Intended Use Plans, States should be required to solicit feedback from eligible entities (public and private) and incorporate these aspects into their finalized plans.
To demonstrate the IIJA’s funding and investment impacts in broadband, grant recipients should be required to collect a range of data regarding project expenditures and completion, locations served (Census Block level), geospatial data, pricing and speed tiers offered, and any data requested to demonstrate alignment and progress towards meeting the goals established. NTIA should also work diligently to States to ensure that duplication of funding is avoided prior to all grant awards. Applications for all state and federal funding should include a question regarding any pending applications submitted, funding amount requested, high-level scope and project location(s). NTIA should also encourage the formation of State-level interagency workgroups composed of the varying funders (both State and Federal) where they can meet and discuss pending applications and on-going projects to ensure coordination and non-duplication of efforts.
In terms of NTIA’s role in supporting States, Territories, and subgrantees to achieve the respective goals:
Technical assistance provided to the States should be focused on programmatic administration and overall portfolio management of NTIA funded investments. States that are failing to meet the goals established by NTIA should be offered Technical assistance to identify deficiencies, develop solutions to address areas of weakness and assist with implementation of those efforts. Technical assistance provided to localities, prospective sub-grantees, and others should be focused on identifying eligible project areas, utilization of existing GIS data to corroborate data/findings, assistance identifying unserved and underserved areas (Census Blocks and Census Tracts), and for entities who lack the Financial, Managerial, and Technical competencies, provide assistance with application preparation and project development (cost estimates, feasibility studies, etc.).
Prior to the State’s award of subgrants, NTIA should be given an opportunity to review each State’s methodology for preparing fundable projects lists, ensure that public comments were solicited and incorporated into 5-year, initial and final proposals, and evaluation of overall project readiness to avoid unliquidated funding obligations. Specifically, NTIA should consider the following criteria when evaluating a state or territory’s process:
Adequate timeline for solicitation of project proposals (60-90 days)
Adequate timeline of public review, comment, and incorporation into the respective plan
Review of methodology utilized to determine an applicants readiness to proceed (i.e. shovel ready status)
Timeline for the release of funds upon closing and documentation of outlays/expenses
Review of the program and subawards alignment with the IIJA and NTIA’s goals and objectives
Demonstration that subaward compliance with all applicable federal crosscutters and state rules and regulations
Description of how each State conducted its challenge process as part of State mapping and/or identification of unserved/underserved areas, and broadband access.
For subrecipients who are economically disadvantaged or distressed, NTIA should consider additional subsidization to assist with the grant match (i.e. reducing the match based on demonstration of economic or financial circumstances). When considering the circumstances to waive matching requirements, NTIA should consider rurality (homes passed per mile), lower than average median household income, and high unemployment demographic data. Additionally, NTIA should consider whether the applicant has exhausted its funding capacity in terms of general fund balance, debt capacity, and ability to provide the match without causing undue hardship on the applicant.
When evaluating strategies to ensure the future of America is made in America by all of America’s workers:
NTIA must acknowledge that the lack of a workforce to implement projects funded by the IIJA can have a significant impact on the ability of a subrecipient to complete their project on a timely basis, ultimately delaying the provisioning of broadband services to unserved/underserved residents, businesses and community anchor institutions. Workforce and supply-chain constraints will not be restricted to just outlier areas. Rather, these challenges exist across the entire country and might possibly be even more severe in rural or economically distressed areas who are likely already dealing with population decline, reduced labor workforce, and/or lack of trained and skilled personnel. Irregardless of location, providers of all sizes will be faced with these challenges, especially those with existing operations below capacity.
To mitigate the impact of workforce or supply chain limitations, NTIA should consider requiring States to include workforce training/skill development and supply chain considerations and analysis in their 5-year, initial and final proposals. State-level plans and proposals should clearly identify known gaps in the network development and deployment process and provide goals for increasing the respective capacities, i.e. prioritizing installation technicians, and also be provided with the ability to allocate a portion of their funding toward increasing workforce development training and skills development. Rather than a good faith effort to provide equitable access to jobs tied to network deployment, grant funding and/or incentives should be made to providers and public entities to increase workforce development capacity and availability of skilled personnel.
Regarding the use of American-made network components, NTIA should work with the Department of Labor and other broadband funders to forecast areas where shortages exist and provide tax incentives for American manufacturers to fill those gaps in the supply chain and analyze any potential impacts on increased deployment cost. Nationally sourced materials and components are a great idea, however we should be considerate that potentially inflated costs will result in less projects funded through the IIJA. Buy American requirements have a great purpose and impact on our economy, but they should be balanced with national supply chain shortages. The last scenario we want to experience is even longer delays or significantly increased costs simply to meet this requirement.
With respect to ensuring Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funded networks are sustainable and scalable:
We recommend that NTIA require applications to include financial modeling and projections to demonstrate a network’s fiscal sustainability, with and without federal or state grant funding. State’s should avoid awarding funding to projects that fail to demonstrate how they will financially be supported through revenue derived from the network’s subscribers. Applicants should be prepared to identify the number of unserved and underserved households, businesses and anchor institutions and demonstrate how the proposed project solution will reach those locations. States should incentivize applicants (through additional points or funding) who propose projects in the communities that are the least connected and review American Community Survey, FCC Form 477 data, Speed Tests, etc. to determine which areas face accessibility or affordability barriers.
Regarding the allocation and use of BEAD funds to achieve universal, reliable, affordable,
Prior buildout commitments should be incorporated into the new FCC and state-level broadband maps to avoid unnecessary duplication of funding efforts. Applicants proposing projects in areas with prior or existing buildout commitments should be prepared to describe how their solution does not duplicate efforts. NTIA could coordinate with other federal and state broadband agencies to maintain an up-to-date list of current projects under construction through data from progress reports and increased project oversight. Upon completion of these existing buildout commitments, NTIA should request data from the funded entity to verify that the network was built to the standards it committed to, i.e. prove that access is universally available in the respective location.
NTIA should strongly consider designating the use of BEAD funding to support the development of accredited workforce training and certification programs as a mechanism to address the current labor shortage in the broadband industry. Another consideration could include a funding option for planning and design of eligible networks that are not ready to proceed to construction or who lack the funding to support pre-construction activities to assist entities who can not undertake project development until financial assistance is provided. Once an eligible project has been designed and planned, the entity can approach NTIA, State, or other funding agencies for the construction phase.
Regarding the establishment of strong partnerships between State, local and tribal governments:
Through a transparent public comment process, States should require all pertinent stakeholders and state agencies to review and comment on 5-year, initial and final proposals to understand how the funding and respective projects could potentially complement their efforts and determine if there are opportunities to collaborate and/or leverage existing assets and infrastructure. State agencies that should be involved with the development of State plans include: Education, Transportation, Emergency Management, Health Services, Parks and Wildlife, State Library Agencies/Commissions, Water, Workforce Development, Public Utility Commission, Environmental Quality, and Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Regarding the inclusion of tribal governments, NTIA could clarify which recognized tribal entities should participate in the planning development process, i.e. recognized tribes as defined under existing federal law. Once tribal entities have been identified, States should make a diligent effort to coordinate with representatives from each group and encourage them to participate in the broadband planning process, specifically identifying unserved and underserved locations within their respective boundaries. Lastly, States should document how they facilitated the coordination described above and confirm if those needs were captured into their plans and funding list.
With respect to low-cost broadband service options and aspects of affordability:
For ease during implementation, we recommend that the eligible subscriber definition be consistent with programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and Lifeline programs. Ideally, BEAD funding recipients should be required to participate in the ACP or Lifeline as a condition for funding and recommend that the existing factors that qualify an individual or household under the Lifeline or Affordable Connectivity Program mirror the eventual definition of an eligible subscriber under NTIA’s rulemaking and program implementation.
Rather than each State independently defining an eligible subscriber and developing its own low-cost option, NTIA should encourage states to require participation in existing subsidy programs. If the States are seeking to allocate a portion of their BEAD funding for additional low-cost subsidy funding capacity, we recommend that they mirror the existing definitions, eligibility and programs to avoid situations where a household might qualify under the ACP program, but not under a different State definition. Defining a baseline standard definition for both an eligible subscriber and low-cost broadband service option provides a great benefit to States and providers, creates a uniform approach for implementing the requirement, and complements existing subsidy programs such as Lifeline, High Cost, and Affordable Connectivity Program.
Millions of residents and businesses only have a single option for broadband service which artificially creates an environment where affordability is not a concern for the incumbent provider. Additionally, offering affordable broadband options should not translate into the lowest possible speed tier being made available to qualified individuals that is inherently below the necessary speed threshold.
Regarding the implementation of the MIddle Mile Broadband Infrastructure grant program:
Open Access Networks could create a more balanced playing field in terms of access and reasonable cost and should be targeted where no middle mile exists currently. For areas where middle mile facilities exist, but are more expensive to the provider, consider a subsidy that can offset the economic challenge. Utilizing Middle Mile grant funding could be effective in reducing a portion of the CapEx that would otherwise be paid for by the providers.
When prioritizing middle mile grant applications, leveraging existing rights-of-way, assets, and infrastructure to minimize financial, regulatory, and permitting challenges should be given greater weight to prioritize applications that will create the biggest impact for the least amount of funding requested. Connection of community anchor institutions are important and considerable weight should be given to projects that directly connect unserved/underserved schools, libraries, hospitals, and essential community facilities. With respect to technical assistance or guidance provided, NTIA should consider providing recurring webinars regarding the Indicators of Broadband Need mapping data aggregated and how to identify eligible project areas. NTIA should also consider steering technical assistance towards applicants who lack the financial, managerial, and technical competencies to identify eligible projects, develop project opportunities and implement projects funded through the program.
One example of a successful deployment by a non-traditional provider is Medina Fiber and its partnership with the Medina County Economic Development Corporation and Medina County Fiber Network to deploy FTTH in rural areas of Medina County, Ohio. Medina County is also leveraging $11 million in ARPA funding to expand network infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas. Another example is the Rail Trail project in York County, Pennsylvania, funded with CARES Act funding and utilized a recreational trail to deploy Middle Mile infrastructure. York County is leveraging $25 million in ARPA funding to construct an open access, middle mile network with seven rings which can be utilized by multiple ISPs to provide fiber Internet service to residents and businesses.
Greater consideration should be given to fiber networks built using the latest Gigabit PON technologies to support last mile residential and commercial speeds of 1 Gbps, 10 Gbps, and even higher as needed. NTIA should also require multiple-ring architecture that provides exceptional reliability and redundancy to “self-heal” and route data traffic around the other side of the fiber ring. NTIA should require the placement of extra fiber capacity into networks to support growth of residential and business customers but also future technologies such as IoT, wireless, and Smart City applications for transportation, public utilities, environmental, public safety/emergency response and smart agriculture.
When I graduated from high school in the year 2000, it was apparent to me that not every one of my classmates who started kindergarten with me in 1987 were walking across the stage to collect their diplomas, let alone continue on to college. The only fiber we had at the household came from our diets and those nostalgic decorative glass boxes. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, students across the country were consistently made aware of the effects of dropping out of school and the impacts that it could make in your life. At the same time, technology was coming into our homes in the form of America Online (AOL) and other gateways to the World Wide Web. I remember when our household had a separate phone line installed so we can utilize a 56k dial-up internet service and how it felt like the cutting edge. With this vital connection, I was able to research universities, complete my homework assignments, learn about different careers, complete my FAFSA and connect with my friends across the country. Even if the speed was putridly slow, it was the connection to the technology that changed the course of my life forever.
I was fortunate that my hard-working mother had the means to provide me this connection to the internet and a personal computer. Shamefully, at that age it wasn’t apparent to me that many of my peers living in the same city lacked the same access that was afforded to me. In the 1990’s, PCs and dial-up access were expensive and I was oblivious to the fact that there were many households in my own hometown that were left without the same technology that enriched my life. All these sentiments came full circle 20 years later when I learned that the 2016 American Community Survey found that the City of Brownsville, my hometown, was the least connected city with over 50,000 households in the entire United States. Little did I know that the Digital Divide was very much present and vehement in my very own backyard! As a co-founder of a company that aims to strike at the heart of this epidemic, I am now able to do something about it and reverse the effects that this problem has caused for decades.
The first step to fixing most problems involves understanding and acknowledging the root of the problem itself. The Digital Divide is not something to take lightly or believe that it doesn’t affect you or your community. In short, the Merriam-Webster defines the Digital Divide as the “economic, educational and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not.” By ignoring this problem, we are doing a disservice to our communities and that long-lasting effects it could have on our resiliency, innovation and sustainable growth. To further understand the impacts of the Digital Divide, we must review the data and statistics to analyze how big the problem is. As was covered recently in the Associated Press and national news cycles and on popular programs such as Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, nearly 3 million students across the United States lack an internet connection in their homes, representing a staggering 18% of their age demographic. Not only do these same students lack an internet connection, they also lack the devices and equipment necessary to connect to the network as well. In other respects, entire swaths of major cities such as my current hometown of San Antonio, Texas are without adequate and affordable internet connection, as was illustrated by the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio (add link). The effects of the Digital Divide have also reached older individuals who are retired and on fixed incomes, lacking the means to connect to their families and friends through popular applications such as FaceTime, Facebook and Google Hangouts. Concurrently, the lack of proper internet is also affecting connectivity of businesses operating across all types including home-based businesses to those along the Main Streets, rural Farm-to-Market roads, and pockets of areas in densely populated areas. The compounding of these effects across the entire cross-section of our communities paints a very frightening picture of the impacts if ignored.
What can we do as a community to utilize partnerships, best practices and financial resources to foster strategies to reduce the effects of these impacts? There are organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, hundreds of dedicated non-profits and local organizations such as the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio who are tackling the problem from all angles and respects. Establishing partnerships and identifying resources to neutralize the effects of the Digital Divide are imperative to solving the problem in each of our communities. Staying informed and engaged with proposed legislation at the state and federal level to achieve the greatest impacts from policies that shape the environment is also critical to framing our respective solutions. For example, it is well-known that the Federal Communication Commission’s Form 477 has major flaws regarding the collection of data from incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which reflects the availability of fixed broadband service at the U.S. Census block level. Due to the U.S. government’s utilization of Form 477 data to determine service availability and eligibility for most federally subsidized broadband grant programs, a major opportunity exists for members of the community, universities, industry experts, stakeholders and digital equity advocates to collaborate and develop innovative solutions that provide greater accuracy of broadband service availability and additional aspects such as affordability and local or state digital inclusion planning efforts. By exploring these strategies as a unified voice, we are able to leverage innovative technology, deployment approaches, and financial resources to ensure the integration of initiatives from local, state and federal non-profit organizations.
Despite the seriousness of the problem we are facing across the nation, we are on the precipice of network deployment solutions that can diverge from what has been done decade after decade in the U.S., which is to be the arbiter of communities and individuals’ fate through the denial of access to technology and connectivity. We have the choice to let business as usual continue, with others choosing our fate for us, or we can regain control of our direction and address the needs of the community. In an age where zip codes, demographics, age, and ethnicity can predict our health, education and livelihood, we must recognize how access to affordable and innovative technology can turn those assumptions upside down due to the opportunities that will be unlocked for students, businesses, government and the elderly. To ensure the strategic alignment of the network with community anchor institutions, school, non-profits, business districts and residents, Lit Communities has integrated community and stakeholder’s needs into our overall assessment process called the Community Assessment and Network Deployment workflow. Through our hard work and determination, communities across the country will begin to realize the impacts of this integrated approach and the evolved conversation regarding Digital Equity, in our own backyards.
Chief Strategy Officer
Rene Gonzalez is the Chief Strategy Officer at Lit Communities, which provides a full, turnkey solution for building broadband infrastructure for communities of all sizes, enabling them to create digital equity for the residents and businesses. Rene has over 15 years of experience in project management, strategic planning, project development and federal and state grant consulting for public works and infrastructure projects. He has worked in both the private and governmental sectors, which provides a unique ability to strategically align the needs of clients with opportunities to leverage financial assistance from the federal and state government. Over the course of his career he has assisted various municipalities and government entities on obtaining more than $38 million in grant funding for critical infrastructure projects.