Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#1424 minutes

Minnesota Senator Tina Smith is a community organizer, entrepreneur, and a policymaker. In this episode of Broadband Conversations, listeners will hear her describe her path to the US Senate, which started as a community volunteer when she knocked on doors with her two children and a stroller in tow. She went on to serving in local government, including a stint as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, before her current role on Capitol Hill. As a US Senator, she's used her platform to fight for universal, affordable broadband coverage. As Senator Smith says in the episode, we should not take internet access for granted. She points out that when hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans do not have online access to jobs, education, and economic growth, families and communities are left behind.

Transcript: 

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. This is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation and media industries. And you get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. And today I am thrilled to be joined by United States Senator Tina Smith from the great state of Minnesota.

And I'm going to let Senator Smith tell her own story about how she got to where she is today, but let me just say she is a dynamo. She's been an entrepreneur, a business woman, and a policymaker. She's served as chief of staff to mayor and governor in the state of Minnesota, and she's also served as lieutenant governor of Minnesota herself, and now she's a United States Senator. So she's had a lot of titles, but I think she's a true boss. And I know so many of you listening, like me, will be inspired by her story, and also her commitment to public service.

So, Senator Smith, thank you for being here and welcome to our little podcast.

MS. SMITH: Well thank you so much, Commissioner, it's a true pleasure to be with you today talking about broadband, and technology, and how important it is in today's world, and, you know, what interesting challenges it presents us.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. So we're going to get to that in a moment, but I really want you to start with your back story. And so before we dive into the issues --

MS. SMITH: Sure.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: --tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are today.

MS. SMITH: Well, I grew up in New Mexico and Alaska, and went to, I finished my high school in northern California. And I grew up in a family where being involved in the community was very much kind of expected, and just what we did. My father was a local school board member, and my mom was a school teacher, and then became active in the League of Women Voters.

And so, when I moved to Minnesota with my brand new husband, Archie, in 1984, for my first job at General Mills after a year or two I tried to figure out, okay, how can I connect into this community and figure out what's happening. And I did it by showing up to volunteer at a local state senate race. I didn't know anybody, and there I was with my two kids in a stroller walking up and down the streets of St. Louis Park, Minnesota and knocking on doors and talking to people. And I just fell in love with it. It was the kind of grassroots organizing and local conversations that has been what has really driven me ever since then.

I can tell you when I was walking up and down those streets campaigning for that state legislator I had no idea that I was ever going to end up in the United States Senate. So for all of those out there who are wondering what your path is, and not exactly sure you can see all the twists and turns, just be forewarned. You never know what might happen.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, yes, you bet. I love what you're saying too, which is, you know, the most important thing is actually showing up, because things can follow from that.

MS. SMITH: That's exactly right, and I always tell young people who I have a chance to work with, you know, go where you see really well intentioned dedicated people doing work that matters and where they look like they're having a great time, because if you don't laugh everyday, I mean, life is too short not to.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's such good advice. So where did you go in public service after that?

MS. SMITH: Well I really was focused on being a volunteer and campaigning, and meanwhile I had my little business that I started, and it was doing well. I was the focus group moderator, which I often say is maybe some of the best training that anybody could have for politics, because it teaches you how to listen really carefully. I meanwhile just was volunteering on campaigns and getting involved.

And then in -- oh, I suppose it was the early 2000s, I pursued a love that I have had for a long time, which is women's healthcare, and women's, you know, women's healthcare, women's reproductive rights, which led me to be a volunteer and then an executive at Our Planned Parenthood in Minnesota, and North Dakota, and South Dakota. And I was doing that which was really interesting, and really hard work.

And then my friend, who is the mayor of Minneapolis, asked me if I would consider coming to be his chief of staff at the beginning of his second term. And I thought, well, that's a crazy idea. I've never worked in local government, and I've never run a city, but let's give it a shot, so I did. And it was a fantastic experience. R.T. Rybak was his name, fantastic mayor of Minneapolis, served three terms.

And then from there I ended up -- actually it's kind of a funny story. R.T. ran for governor, and I was campaigning and running his campaign for governor of Minnesota, and that campaign floundered early on, but low and behold the guy who beat us, Mark Dayton, asked me if I would come over and help him, which I did. And that's how I ended up being chief of staff to the governor.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow, that sounds like a lot of Minnesota nice right there. Working with your former enemies, but, you know, figuring out how to get things done, I like it, sounds good.

MS. SMITH: A team of rivals is a good idea, right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Team of rivals, yes, I heard of that before.

MS. SMITH: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And then you went on to serve as lieutenant governor.

MS. SMITH: I did. I became lieutenant governor for Mark Dayton's second term, and was -- gave some thought to running for governor, but decided it wasn't the right thing for me. So interesting that I made that decision, and never having any idea that I would be appointed to the United States Senate, which is what happened in January a year ago. And so I was appointed to the senate, and then immediately needed to turn around and run to keep that seat in a special election. And now I'm in a new campaign because of the way the calendar works for this particular senate seat I have what amounts to two elections in three years, and hopefully three swearings in.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. Well you're running, and I know you're doing a lot in the United States Senate when you're not home in Minnesota.

MS. SMITH: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And I --

MS. SMITH: I'm back and forth all the time.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I'm sure. But I also know you sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and there was this hearing a little while ago when you raised an issue that's near and dear to my heart, which is accurate broadband deployment maps and why they're so important. I'd love it if you could put it in your own words why you raised that issue in that hearing and why you think this issue matters.

MS. SMITH: When I was lieutenant governor I traveled all over this state to counties that are quite rural, and I really came to understand what an impact it has on the opportunities that people face in their lives if they don't have access to broadband, you know. And I think most people who live in the cities, or in the suburbs just take that broadband access for granted. They assume that one way or another they can get online, and they can do all the things that people do online, whether it's get, you know, send your homework in to your teacher, or apply for a job, or check your healthcare records, or make an appointment, or run your business.

It is, you know, broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century. And so when I discovered that there were, at that time, 250,000 households in Minnesota that didn't have access to that opportunity I just was -- I couldn't believe it. And so when I went to work as lieutenant governor to try to figure out how to expand access to broadband in the rural parts of the state, and that was really what led me, one way or another, to sitting at that agriculture committee hearing not so long ago. I talked to Minnesotans who say, you know, the maps may show that I have access to broadband, but actually I don't at all, or it shows that I have access, but the speed that I am able to tap into is so ridiculous, and the service is so spotty that it's better to – it's almost better to not have access at all. And I think that like anything you have to -- at first -- you have to first start with good data, right, before you can figure out exactly what you need to do to solve the problem and fill in the gaps.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. Like I like to say, you can't manage what you do not measure.

MS. SMITH: That's exactly right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And if we don't measure this accurately --

MS. SMITH: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- we're never going to be able to direct scarce resources to solving the problem.

MS. SMITH: Yes, that's exactly right. And that's what we do. We have scarce -- we do have scarce resources here. I would argue that we're not doing enough to fill in those gaps. I think of the analogy of what happened in the turn of the last century when we as a country made the commitment that every household in the United States would have electricity. And it was a big partnership between the public sector and the private sector to make that happen. And I think we need the same kind of partnership today for what is essentially -- as essential as electricity is.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, so much of that effort through the Rural Electrification Act was an effort to figure out how to build cooperatives and build infrastructure in rural America so that our farms and agricultural systems could be powered by this new technology. This is really perfectly analogous.

MS. SMITH: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. And I think that it is a good way of thinking about it, because it helps people to understand that broadband isn't just something that's nice to have, it's something that's necessary to have. If you -- you might think about, oh, it's nice to go online and check Facebook, but if you are a farmer in Minnesota and you don't have access to broadband, you don't have access to the precision agriculture technology and the data that you need to be as efficient as you can be, and to be competitive.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's right. People don't think of precision agriculture when you talk about broadband, they think about social media, --

MS. SMITH: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- but, in fact, it has enormous impact. And so as you go around the state, I'm sure you hear from constituents about these kind of things. And I'm just wondering if you've heard any special stories from folks in rural communities, or in the big cities in Minnesota that you'd love to share?

MS. SMITH: Well, two stories come to mind. The first story is about what a difference it can make when you have access to broadband. Small towns in Minnesota are experiencing a real resurgence, and there are micro-breweries, and new restaurants, and new businesses that are springing up, and it's very exciting. And what we're seeing is that families that are in their, you know, early to mid-thirties are wanting to move back to the communities where their families came from, because that's the way they want to live, and that's how they want to raise their children.

So here's a story about a young entrepreneurial family. The husband was a commodities trader, so he traded commodities on global markets. And he was doing that out of a warehouse in Downtown Minneapolis and had a great business, but his wife wanted to move back to the farmhouse that belonged to her grandmother outside of Safe River Falls. And so he described for me what a difference it made in his life. They were able to move back to that farmhouse because connected to that house down the road was high speed broadband access so he can run his business out of a bedroom in that farmhouse and then walk down the long driveway when his kids get off the school bus at 3:30 in the afternoon, and be there for him -- be there for them.

I think that that is a great example of what a difference it can make and how broadband allows him to live -- him and his family to live the kind of life that they want. And also think about the contribution that they can make to that now growing rural community because they are connected to the global economy.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. No, that's terrific. Now you said you had a second story, so I want to give you an opportunity.

MS. SMITH: Well, the second story is about how important it is to not only have access to broadband, but also to have -- how important it is to have net neutrality. And this is a story about a woman on business in Minneapolis that had the great idea of an online business that would sell, as they describe it, gently used kid's clothing. Gently used.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. No, as a mother myself, let me tell you, like, the idea that kids grow through their stuff so fast, and you're buying new stuff all the time, that's costly. That sounds like a business with potential.

MS. SMITH: Well, and think about it, you hardly ever wear out these baby clothes, because your kids grow so fast they don't even --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.

MS. SMITH: I mean, gosh, I remember clothes that I bought were so adorable that my boys never -- hardly even wore.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Me too. I know, I know, yes.

MS. SMITH: Yes, so great idea, right? You've got gently used baby clothing. You've got an ability to sell it online. Of course, that business idea only works if you can reach out to people wherever they live in the state or the country that have access to your website, and then you know that your access to those markets is not going to metered in one way or another, or -- because you're competing against some very, very big companies. So it's a -- again, it's an example of opportunity, and innovation, and entrepreneurship that happened because of those broadband connections.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, absolutely, because, you know, with and open Internet you can build that business as an entrepreneur without having to ask for permission.

MS. SMITH: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And I think that's how you take the, you know, genius that's out there in the country and make it available, not just to the people down the street, but across the country and around the world, and net neutrality can foster that.

MS. SMITH: That's exactly right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So another thing that I know that you thought about, which is a hard reality, which is that connecting every community in this country is going to be a little costly, because in rural areas you have sparse populations. And the expense of that infrastructure can only be divided over so many households and so many people. But in the end when you look at how powerful this technology is, I think it's fair to conclude that the benefits are going to outweigh the costs. But we're going to have to develop policies that somehow work with that reality. And I know you've been giving some thought to that kind of thing. So what more can you tell me about how we can make what is a costly proposition more cost effective.

MS. SMITH: I think it's a very important question, and also a very complicated question. We start though, don't we, with the question of what does the maps look like? What does the data tell us about where we have access and where we don't. I think that's the first thing.

I think the second thing to consider is how we can work together to expand access. And we have a model in Minnesota that has worked really extremely well. We call it the Governor=s Border to Border Broadband Program. And it is a public private partnership. This I think is so important.

There are some parts of the country, especially rural areas where it just will never be economic for private enterprises to build that last mile, and make that connection. The cost of that infrastructure is always going to cost more than the individual at the end of the line is going to be able to pay for that access.

So that's where I think you need a good public private partnership. And that's what we did with our border to border broadband grant program. It's been very successful. And it was really framed around having clear expectations about what the private sector and public sector partnership was going to look like, how many households was it going be -- were going to be included, what the cost was going to be, and how quickly it was all going to get done. With clear deadlines, and accountabilities on those areas, cost, and number of households, and speed of deployment. That I think is a good model for how we can do this kind of expansion that we need to do. And it is expensive, but that is expense that is leveraging private investment and public investment to get a very good return for our economy and for citizens.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Is there a way that our tax policy can figure into that going forward?

MS. SMITH: Well one thing we need to do is to make sure that our tax policy is aligned with those goals.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.

MS. SMITH: And here's a great example of that. In the big tax bill that passed the end of 2017, before I was in the senate, there was all sorts of thing that happened to that tax bill, but one of them was -- actually penalizes rural electric co-ops if they accept these broadband grants. This is a little wonky, but bear with me.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, go there, you're talking to me. It's totally fine.

MS. SMITH: (Laughter.) If you're a co-op, if you're a rural electric co-op, you're only allowed to get -- you have to get at least 85 percent of your revenues through your -- through your base business, you know, through the services to your members. And so these co-ops, if they are accepting a broadband grant, could be a FEMA grant for that matter, end up throwing out of kilter that 85 percent rule. And that's what happened with this in the tax bill, that was basically a mistake, that ended up meaning that co-ops couldn't accept broadband grants without jeopardizing their tax exempt status.

So I have a bill that will fix that, and this is a bi-partisan focus that I'm working on, actually, with Senator Rob Portman from Ohio. That's an example of how tax policy inadvertently can get in the way of us expanding broadband.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. I think over time we're going to have to figure out how regulatory policy of the state and local and federal levels all work better with tax policy, because this is expensive infrastructure and making sure our tax policies are maximized for deployment is a big challenge.

MS. SMITH: I completely agree with that, yes. And I also think that we need to – it's especially complicated because there is a sense, and a reality, that technology is changing really quickly. So one argument that you hear about broadband deployment is that we need to wait until the technology changes, or it's going to change, so we should give it another year or two. And I think that it's important that we are neutral on what is the best technology, but I also don't think that we can afford to wait until technology stops evolving --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: No.

MS. SMITH: -- because that would be a long wait.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I totally agree. And, listen, every day we wait that divide between those with access to this technology, and those without it grows larger and deeper. And there are bigger and broader consequences for civic and commercial life in those communities without, and we've got to start addressing them immediately. I don't think we can wait for some proverbial future out there where the technology is going to be perfected. We've got to do it now.

MS. SMITH: That's exactly right. And I don't know if you've found this, but in my experience the people at the local level are very, like, the best ideas and the best understanding about what's going to work for their community. So we have to figure out how to empower local decision makers and local organizations, both public sector and private sector, to step in and do what they know is going to work. And not have -- the federal government has a very important role being a good partner, but I almost always find that I trust the folks at the local level to have the best answers for their community.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, I think one of the most important things to recognize is that all ideas do not come from Washington. We've got to figure out how to take those good ones that are in every community, and find ways that Washington policy can help them succeed.

MS. SMITH: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you know, I like to end this by asking some people a few standard questions, and the first one is – I'm going to ask you to think back. Do you recall what's the first thing you ever did online with the Internet?

MS. SMITH: Well, you know, I can't recall the exact task that I was undertaking, but I do have vivid memories of sitting there with that modem, and the lights flashing, are they flashing green, or yellow, or red. And then the dial tone and that sort of high screechy sound that meant that I was online. And it was kind of miraculous to then be able to send a document to my business partners in another state, and to actually be able to get my work done. And I often remind people who don't have -- who live in communities with outstanding broadband access, I said remember there are still people in this country where that's what their technology looks like.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's right, that's right. And there are people who probably will never know that hiss and crackle because they've grown up --

MS. SMITH: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- in communities that are connected. We got to figure out how to make sure that's everyone over time.

MS. SMITH: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: One more question here. What was the last thing you did on the Internet, mundane or not?

MS. SMITH: Well, right before I got on the phone with you, I went online to check out my hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune to see what is – what's going on back home. And I think about how I do that-- I do that every morning, because I'm here in Washington D.C., first thing when I wake up.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that's sweet. Good to know. I think for everyone being able to check what's happening in your hometown if you move far away is an extraordinary benefit --

MS. SMITH: That's right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: --of the digital age, but especially for people who work in Washington, you know, (simultaneous speaking.)

MS. SMITH: Well, and I also checked my old hometown newspaper of the Santa Fe New Mexican, just to see what's going on where my dad is right now too.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Even better. So cross country. Now, let me get a little bit more future -- thinking about the future here, by asking you what do you think the future of the Internet and digital life should look like?

MS. SMITH: To me, the focus is about access and equity, and this amazing tool that is about creating opportunities, educational opportunities, healthcare opportunities, and job opportunities. That that is available, it's accessible to everyone, and that we address the disparities in access that end up creating disparities and opportunity, whether you live in a core city, or you live at the end of a long road in rural Minnesota.

I think also that a lot of us are thinking about the related issues of privacy, and the impact of this always accessible technology on our productivity, on our mental health, on our ability to connect with people. Not only virtually, but, actually. And I think that in the coming months and years all three of those issues are going to be very important. And it's going to be important for those of us who are policymakers to think about in a rapidly changing world, you know, what is our role to focus on those, you know, really complex and related issues. Privacy access, equity, and the, you know, the impact of broadband and social media access when it is there potentially 24 hours a day.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. No, these are big issues, and I do think they're going to dominate our conversation in the years ahead, and I think they should, because it is that important.

MS. SMITH: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, before we go, can you tell me where folks can follow you to keep up to date with what you're doing?

MS. SMITH: Sure. My official senate website is smith.senate.gov. You can find me on Facebook under U.S. Senator Tina Smith. And my Twitter handle is @sentinasmith.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, terrific. So thank you so much Senator Smith for everything you're doing, for your focus on digital technology and broadband. And thank you everyone for listening. Take care.

MS. SMITH: Thank you.