Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#3518 minutes

On this episode of Broadband Conversations, listeners will get to meet Kathryn de Wit, Manager of the Broadband Research Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Kathryn and her team at Pew have done critical work understanding just who has connectivity and who does not—data that is fundamental for closing the digital divide. As the on-going pandemic has demonstrated, access to broadband is no longer just nice-to-have, it is a necessity for work, education, healthcare, and so much of modern life. Kathryn shares what states are doing to get more people connected and how their efforts could be models for the future.

Transcript: 

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello and welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission. And this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

Now during this pandemic, I don't think there has been a day where I haven't muttered the words broadband, homework app, or digital divide because like so many others during this crisis, I'm living life online. And this virus has shown us all how important connectivity is. But also, just how critical it is to discuss what this virus and this time means for the millions of Americans who are not connected.

And my guest today who someone, like me, spends a lot of her time talking about broadband. Kathryn de Wit is a manager of Broadband Research Initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which produces some of the best data we have about access to the world online. And in this role, she managers Pew's broadband research and its efforts to connect Americans to highspeed internet. She works to access what research needs to be done, and she works to understand our gaps nationwide when it comes to connectivity. So, Kathryn, thank you so much for being here today.

MS. DE WIT: Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here. Also thank you so much for describing Pew as the super nerds that we truly are.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love it, I love it. We already started with a reference to being nerds, so here we go. I hope you're doing well in this crisis.

MS. DE WIT: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And I also hope you can tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are today. And there may be some little more about what Pew does in your work there.

MS. DE WIT: Well thank you for asking. My family's healthy, I'm healthy, and I work for an organization that has seamlessly transitioned to working from home, so I feel very fortunate to be where I'm at right now. Also I have a strong enough internet connection to work from home, so it always comes back to the internet.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You bet.

MS. DE WIT: So I had kind of a weird route to getting into broadband. My family moved a lot growing up. My dad's in manufacturing. My mom has worked in real estate in pharma for her entire career.

And so from a very young age, I had this interest and awareness in the factors that attract jobs and people to communities and then keep them there. I spent my formative years and then started my career in Pittsburgh right around the time that the city turned the corner in its tech boom. So between that my upbringing, and a focus on regional development in grad school, like again cue the nerd here, love it, you know, I really started focusing on all those components that make communities thrive.

And I don't think I could have had a better education or seat to that than working in Pittsburgh at the time that I did. And digital economy wasn't a phrase that was really en vogue at that point, but that's really ultimately what we were talking about. So what are all the community, the factors and the partnerships and the skills that workers and communities need in order to be successful, particularly when you're trying to help your economy recover.

So I took a job in DC working for a major consulting firm and got staffed on a broadband project where I was told my background would be really relevant. And I said, "Thank you so much, but I don't really know how the internet works. And I'm not entirely sure how that specifically is related to economic development." And they kind of gave me a little pat on the head and said, "Oh, just you wait."

So my first role on that project was really talking to policy makers and figuring out how to help policy makers understand that broadband wasn't a luxury good. It's necessary for so many things that we care about like education, healthcare, and economic resilience. And part of that role was building by exposure to states, which is how I landed at Pew.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And tell us a little bit more about Pew for those who are not informed or familiar with it.

MS. DE WIT: So the Pew Charitable Trusts is a nonprofit nonpartisan research organization. We cover everything from broadband and state physical health to protecting marine life around the world. But really what it boils down to is that we do research and provide data to help policy makers make more informed decisions, particularly on complex policy issues, one of which is broadband.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now you also said something that I want to just build on. You said broadband shouldn't be thought of as a luxury good. And these days, you know, that internet connection is essential for so many people for work, for healthcare, for school, for staying in touch with our families when we can't see them physically.

And like I pointed out right at the beginning, and I'm sure you know, there are too many households and businesses in this country who don't have the access they need. And that's generally what we call the digital divide, the gap between those with and without a connection. And it's like this crisis has exposed just how vast that is.

And if you want to solve it, what you first have to do is develop data. And that's why I really wanted to talk to you. So tell me about the work Pew is doing to understand who is and is not online.

MS. DE WIT: Our colleagues at the Pew research center are absolutely crushing it right now. Their research in isolating just who is impacted by lack of access and how that breaks down alone factors of age, race, income, geographic location is really helpful in helping us understand the nuances of the digital divide, and that it's not just something that splits really neatly along urban and rural lines. You know, it's not something that, you know, it's not something that -- it affects everybody. It affects communities of all types, it affects people of all types.

And I think more importantly, it helps us understand kind of what broadband -- what role broadband plays in our lives whether we're talking about whether or not students have access to broadband in their homes or whether, you know, aging Americans have access to the internet connections they need to stay connected to their doctors.

But I think more important, this data because it gets so specific, allows policy makers to develop more responsive policy. And my team is looking at how states are using that information to tackle this challenge. And we talk a lot about federal and local responses to the digital divide, but states have largely been overlooked.

You know, I would not include you in this group because you work so closely with states like West Virginia. And, you know, talking about the importance of data, West Virginia is one of those states who has done such an excellent job of saying, You know, this data at the national level is not the most helpful for place based policy making.

But by and large, the state role in expanding access has largely been overlooked, and we found that they are critical to increasing access. They're one level closer to the issue, they have the relationships with federal partners, and they set policy that can have a dramatic impact on opportunities to expand connectivity.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. And also, you know, what we know in Washington doesn't always reflect the lived experience of people across this country. And we got to find a way to value that lived experience because without doing that, we're never going to solve these problems.

And, you know, to that end I've heard from cities, from states, from folks in DC trying to close this connectivity gap. And I do know that before the pandemic hit, Pew released a research report on what states were doing to connect more of their citizens. So I'd love it if you could share some of the findings from that report.

MS. DE WIT: Yeah, it really came at both a great and terrible time. A couple of things that we found about the important role of states. First, it reinforced the role that states are playing in bridging the digital divide. States are just slightly more nimble than the federal government, and broadband is complicated, which is the understatement of the year. And thankfully, more stakeholders are realizing that this isn't a wonky tech issue. But that also means that more people need to be at the table in order to bridge the digital divide.

So in ways, we found that state governments are slightly better positioned to facilitate that type of collaboration that's really necessary. But what we really learned is that for the last decade, states have been quietly rolling up their sleeves and doing the work.

There are five key activities that we find are critical to help states in bridging the digital divide. They are engaging a diverse group of stakeholders, establishing a policy framework, supporting planning and capacity building, providing funding for deployment and operations, and assessing their impact.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So that's kind of, like, the roadmap for how states can do these kinds of things. That's neat. So try to give me an example. Like, what are lessons we can then export from one state that maybe dealt with those five factors well, and how it can be used in another state. I don't know if you have examples or ways states can borrow from their experiences so that everyone sees more connectivity in their backyard.

MS. DE WIT: So I am going to be a researcher here and say there isn't just one model because all states are different. But we, you know, very deliberately took a step back when we did this research and wanted to frame it through those activities that I just outlined. Because states are all different, you know, sometimes people are saying, you know, I don't have anything that I can learn from California because that state is enormous and they have hundreds of millions of dollars to solve this challenge.

But actually, California, there are a lot of things that we can take away from California's work. So California has been thinking about digital equity and inclusion for more than two decades. Also, the state does some really incredibly impressive work in coordinating across state government. So if you want to learn how to do inner agency coordination, California is a great state to look to.

But in terms of states that are doing individual things really well, you know, I talked about West Virginia earlier. You know, you're incredibly familiar with all the work that they've done in data collection and elevating both the issues related to data quality, but also in talking about why that data matters. And that data matters for funding.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely.

MS. DE WIT: I mean, and that's --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You never get dollars flowing to the right places if you don't have data that's accurate. Which means without accurate data, we're not going to solve the digital divide.

MS. DE WIT: Exactly. And I think that that, just in terms of the conversation itself changing in this field. Even in the last three years I would say, making that connection of, like, we're not just talking about the map because we like talking about the map. We're talking about the map because it informs a lot of money every year.

And so I really credit you for drawing attention to that issue because I think that the -- we've certainly turned a corner there in terms of that conversation and people being like, "Why? Why are you complaining about this map?" We're like, "No, it actually matters. You need to pay attention to it."

So West Virginia is one of those states. But then you look at Minnesota and Tennessee, they're investing in scalable technology. They're providing funding for scalable technology to ensure that public dollars go further, and that they are supporting infrastructure that will have lasting value for the community that won't need to be --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So what do you mean by directly support infrastructure, or scalable, as you described it? I just want to unpack those phrases.

MS. DE WIT: Sure, sorry. Thank you for calling me out on the long -- So Minnesota and Tennessee, their grant programs, they fund projects that are investing in technology -- or that are providing technology that can meet future broadband speeds -- or, excuse me, oh god we're going to stop -- I'm going to stop and restate that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay.

MS. DE WIT: Minnesota and Tennessee both, their grant programs support projects that invest in technology that can meet today's needs. So today's speed minimums of 253, but they can also be expanding in scale to meet future needs. So Minnesota has a high speed goal of achieving 100 down, 20 up by 2026. They make sure that the projects that the state is providing funding for can actually help communities achieve those speed goals by 2026.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that makes sense.

MS. DE WIT: Uh-huh.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, you also mentioned up front, and I want to just ask some more about it, you said something that I think is really important. This is not just a rural problem, it's a rural and urban problem. And sometimes it's deployment, but sometimes it's also affordability.

And I think that's something we don't talk enough about in Washington because we are always talking about, What can we do a lay fiver and build out networks? But cost matters. If we really want to get 100% of our households online, and I would argue that that's what we need to do, then we're going to also have to talk about affordability.

And I know there was this survey by Pew a little while ago that found that while over half of Americans say the internet is essential during this crisis, they're concerned about continuing to afford broadband in their homes. So I'd love it if you could also share some of the data from that survey or talk about what you've learned about affordability.

MS. DE WIT: Wow, affordability is a big question. And we could have many conversations about capital expenditures and operating expenditures and why we need to pay attention to affordability. But we know that states are increasingly viewing this as an issue. Wisconsin is one of the few states that actually had a goal on the books for every Wisconsin-ite to have access to a affordable internet by 2025.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And they used the word affordable in the state legislation or --

MS. DE WIT: Yes, that is in state statute, which was when we found that we were like, Oh, this is news. So that's actually, it is state law. Affordable internet access. And last week, Governor Newsom signed an executive order that also --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: In California.

MS. DE WIT: In California, thank you. California's Newsom signed an executive order that also included a focus on affordability and making sure that state programs and state agencies were thinking about how to make sure that connections were not only available but affordable.

So we anticipate that this will -- that this is a trend that will continue in the coming years because there's no point in having that connection there if folks can't afford to actually get online.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's really good that you'll be following states and trying to identify if language like what was in that Wisconsin law appears elsewhere. Because I think we're going to have more discussions about this in Washington as we grapple with what we have to do to make sure everyone can get online.

MS. DE WIT: Yeah, I agree.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay. So I have just a few more final questions that I'd like to ask everyone before they go. So here you go, Kathryn. This is the way back machine one. So what was the very first thing you recall doing on the internet or online?

MS. DE WIT: Okay, I am showing my age here, but I actually don't remember. So I remember using AOL CDs but --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh those, like, yellow disks that, you know, right?

MS. DE WIT: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: They were, like, sending you multiple ones in the mail no matter where you were.

MS. DE WIT: We used to have those CD stackers that, you know, that's how you would store your CDs. And we'd just have them, the individual ones for the AOL disks because, like, what are you supposed to do with them, you know, when they were no longer useful?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Total admission on my part, I remember using them as drink coasters.

MS. DE WIT: Oh, there you go. It's recycling in a different way. Early years.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Early internet recycling, yeah.

MS. DE WIT: Yeah.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay. So let's then take it to the present. What's the very last thing you did on the internet before joining me here?

MS. DE WIT: I was searching for organizational supplies. The pandemic has really illustrated just how unorganized my cabinets are, so that was what I was looking for before.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I hear you.

MS. DE WIT: Yeah.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I understand that. And after all this time, I haven't been inspired to do the same. But, you know, we're working through the stack of old pads and pens, and such is life right now.

MS. DE WIT: Yeah.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay. So now let's go big picture. Given what you do at Pew and how much time you spend in your career studying broadband, what would you like the future of digital and internet life to look like?

MS. DE WIT: I don't want us to have to think about it. I want this to be like electricity, like running water, that you know it's not something that we have to ask real estate agents about when we're buying new homes or -- it just shouldn't even factor into the decision that everybody has access to affordable reliable broadband, and it's just there. That's a bad -- can I restate that, please?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Uh-huh. Sure.

MS. DE WIT: Thank you. Sorry.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like the sentiment though.

MS. DE WIT: Yeah. No, sentiment is there. Wording is not. For the future of digital and internet life, I don't want people to have to think about access. I want the assumption and the knowledge and the confidence that it will be as available as electricity, as running water. That it's not something that realtors will have to think about when they're selling homes, and that people will have to think about when they move into new communities.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hear, hear. That's spot on and I like it. Thank you for the work you do. And that wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. But before we go, where can folks follow you to keep up-to-date with what you're doing?

MS. DE WIT: So they can find all of our research at PewTrusts.org. And they can follow me in my very inconsistent tweeting at km_dewit.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well thank you for being here, Kathryn. Thank you for the work you do, and thank everyone for listening.

MS. DE WIT: Thank you.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Take care.