Connected Nation

Inside the 2024 Broadband Communities Summit (Part Two)

May 08, 2024 Jessica Denson Season 5 Episode 15
Inside the 2024 Broadband Communities Summit (Part Two)
Connected Nation
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Connected Nation
Inside the 2024 Broadband Communities Summit (Part Two)
May 08, 2024 Season 5 Episode 15
Jessica Denson

Today, the Connected Nation podcast is back covering the 2024 Broadband Communities Summit in The Woodlands, Texas. The event serves as a hub of collaboration and innovation for some of the biggest names in broadband, all working towards a shared mission of closing the Digital Divide.

On today's episode, we talk with the head of the USDA's Rural Utilities Service, a small provider in Oklahoma who works with both tribal and state governments, and one of the nation's leading researchers in broadband.

Recommended Links:
Andrew Berke LinkedIn
USDA's Rural Utilities Service

Sachin Gupta LinkedIn
Central Rural Electric Cooperative

Dr. Christopher Ali LinkedIn
Farm Fresh Broadband

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Today, the Connected Nation podcast is back covering the 2024 Broadband Communities Summit in The Woodlands, Texas. The event serves as a hub of collaboration and innovation for some of the biggest names in broadband, all working towards a shared mission of closing the Digital Divide.

On today's episode, we talk with the head of the USDA's Rural Utilities Service, a small provider in Oklahoma who works with both tribal and state governments, and one of the nation's leading researchers in broadband.

Recommended Links:
Andrew Berke LinkedIn
USDA's Rural Utilities Service

Sachin Gupta LinkedIn
Central Rural Electric Cooperative

Dr. Christopher Ali LinkedIn
Farm Fresh Broadband

Jessica Denson (00:08):

This is Connected Nation, an award-winning podcast focused on all things broadband from closing the digital divide to improving your internet speeds with talk technology topics, and impact all of us, our families and our neighborhoods. 1500 attendees, 150 speakers, 100 exhibits. It's all part of the Broadband Community Summit taking place just outside of Houston, Texas in the Woodlands. In this special edition of the Connected Nation podcast, we continue our coverage from the summit. In this episode, we talk with the head of the USDA's Rural Utility Services, a small provider in Oklahoma who works with both tribal and state governments and one of the nation's leading researchers in broadband. I'm Jessica Denson and this is Connected Nation. Jessica Denson (00:55):

I'm at the Broadband Community Summit just outside of Houston, Texas in Andrew Burke with the Rural Utility Service. I probably have done that completely wrong. USDA, who is the administrator of the USDA Rural Utility Services. I got it right. You got it. I left my notes inside so we could talk. I just got to catch the end of your session and people around me were nodding their heads and agreeing with you with a lot with what you had to say. Talk about what's going on right now with Internet for All and just where things are. Andrew Burke (01:29):

We have really a whole of government approach because you're seeing funding go out through us with reconnect and some of our other initiatives. But then you also have through the American Rescue Plan dollars, through the states, through state broadband offices with broadband equity access and deployment. You've got the FCC, and so there's an amazing amount of work, but also greater coordination than ever before because the president has put this at the top of the agenda. We all understand that, know that, and that means that we both work on it every day and we try to work on it together. Jessica Denson (02:03):

I had the pleasure of speaking to you about two years ago when you first took this role and you led Chattanooga to really going to being one of the nation's top leaders in having a connected city. Correct. Talk a little bit about that and why that was important. Andrew Burke (02:18):

Chattanooga was the first gig city. We did it through our municipal electric utility. It really changed the course of our city. I don't think anybody thought in the day before we turned on the gig that we could be a tech hub or that we could have these kind of businesses. And the seat change that we saw after we started to get connected was just a tremendous boost. We had one of the largest wage growth in the country. Forbes said in 2020 we'd have most new jobs in America, although 2020 was not quite the year we thought it was going to be. But the point is that I've this firsthand, and I think right now what we're seeing is that if we want to ensure that our country continues to be as productive as possible, we need to ensure that everybody has access to this resource. Jessica Denson (03:11):

So you've really experienced firsthand and seen firsthand the impact that this can have on a smaller scale, but we'd really like to see it across the us. So let's talk about the president's comments during the State of the Union. He did mention that everybody should have internet access, and that was one of the goals. When do you think we could start to see some actual digging in the ground, that kind of thing? I'm sure people are wondering, we Andrew Burke (03:35):

Are seeing some digging in the ground, maybe not at the scale that people would notice today, but the rural utility service from the bipartisan infrastructure law did 2.5 billion worth of grants and loans. Some of those are projects are starting now. They have to go through a long process including environmental review, and then with the broadband equity access and Deployment Act bead, you're starting to see states getting to the grant making piece. You have from the American Rescue Plan, states are making capital project fund awards. So there's a lot of work happening. One of the problems that with any kind of infrastructure work is that it's hard to really see it affecting you because it takes time. Because it takes time. And also a lot of it happens in a place where you are, and if you're in the middle of Washington DC you're not going to see a big fiber build out. And so this is critical work. It is happening and it's affecting a lot of people. There's a lot going on, even if you don't always see it every day. Jessica Denson (04:47):

There was one point you made that I would just like to talk about before I let you go about the economic security, the importance of farms. Talk about why that is a security issue for the us. Andrew Burke (04:57):

Well, we want to produce our own food. I work at the USDA. I listen to the secretary talk about this all the time, and Secretary of Vilsack always says we need to give people an alternative to get big or get out. And one thing that we know is that 89% of farms need off-farm income to survive. So nine out of 10 farms need that, and the other 11% are frequently the biggest places. So if we want to continue to grow our own food so that we're not relying on other countries to make sure that we have the kinds of food that Americans want to do, all those things that USDA has been essential for more than a hundred years, we need to keep these farms in business. If not, we're going to be relying on other countries for literally what is essential for life. Jessica Denson (05:52):

Yeah. There's this misnomer that because you're in a rural area, you don't need technology, but these farms to have higher yields to get better prices, they need that. Correct? Andrew Burke (06:00):

Yeah. You don't have to spend long in rural America now to know that you need technology because precision ag is not thought of as something for the future. This is today. Now how far you go with it is a question. But a tractor, just like a car, does things today that we've never done well, these tractors cost huge amounts of money and they have to produce so that people can make their income work, make their profitability, and so yeah, precision ag, and it's not just for the farming piece, it's also for livestock, monitoring them, their health, everything. Now, just like in most businesses, technology is not a separate thing. It's part of everything that you do. Yeah. The Jessica Denson (06:51):

Good news. Oh, okay. The good news is this is a bipartisan issue, correct? Yeah. Andrew Burke (06:55):

It's passed through the bipartisan infrastructure law, and we see governors, democratic and Republican governors working on it. I think president's leadership has really been great, but as I said on the stage, you also see this really widely accepted across leadership of both parties, and that's because it's widely accepted across the electorate. Jessica Denson (07:17):

Okay. As you heard, it's time for you to go. So is there any final word that you'd want people to take away from this today? Andrew Burke (07:24):

The president has said every American that's going to have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet, we are seeing that happen. Jessica Denson (07:30):

Awesome. Thank you so much, Berg. Thank you. I am at the Broadband Community Summit and I am standing with Sancha Gupta, which I hope I have not butchered your name. He is with CentraNet and he is the director of government business and Economic Development. Hello. Sachin Gupta (07:45):

Hello, Jessica. How are you doing today? Good. Jessica Denson (07:47):

Did I get the name right? Sachin Gupta (07:48):

Everybody. Z. It's pronounced s Gupta, Jessica Denson (07:52):

Satin Gupta. I'm a Texan, so my accent probably gets in the way of any of it. Anyway, joking aside, tell me a little bit about CentraNet and what you guys do. Sachin Gupta (08:03):

CentraNet is a rural internet service provider. We are a part of Central Electric corporative providing services to about seven counties, roughly at about 10,000 subscribers right now. Expecting to grow a lot more than that. Jessica Denson (08:17):

And where are you located? Sachin Gupta (08:19):

We are headquartered in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Jessica Denson (08:22):

So Oklahoma. So you do a lot with tribal and regular? I want to say regular, but it's because tribal is a sovereign nation. So when I say regular, I mean just the US government or state government type groups. You deal with both or where are you with that? Sachin Gupta (08:39):

So every ISP in Oklahoma will end up dealing with tribes. Oklahoma has 39 tribes, close to 80% of the land. Mass of Oklahoma is tribal lands, so everybody has to work with tribes. We work with the state and the federal government as well. Obviously we recently applied four and one, some ARPA funds, s arpa, S-L-F-R-F funds from the state. The next round is coming up, which is for the capital projects fund. So yeah, we work with both tribes as well as with the state and with the federal government. Jessica Denson (09:11):

I know in Oklahoma there are some tribes that have their own ISPs that they stand up as well. How does that work with CentraNet and just how is the ecosystem when you deal with different countries? Because essentially a tribal nation is a sovereign nation. It's separate from the state or federal government, correct? Sachin Gupta (09:33):

That is correct. So it's true. A few tribes in Oklahoma have their own ISPs. So Osage Nation is building their own network. Chickasaw Nation is building their own network, which is called Trace Networks. Choctaw Nation is looking at doing some things, but there is always a spirit of collaboration between tribal networks and small rural networks. So every time we build, there is always a spirit of collaboration where we work with each other and we work on things in the spirit of getting the things done and getting connectivity to the rural people. Josh and I, who was the president of Trace Fiber at Chickasha, we are on the same subcommittee for mapping. Rob Griffin and I, who is the Choctaw Nation, we work together almost all the time on, are on the same committee at the Fiber Broadband Association. Jessica Denson (10:29):

Do you see that you have similar challenges because a lot of reservations are rural areas. Do you have some of the similar challenges and help with each other with those solutions type based things? Sachin Gupta (10:38):

Yeah, Oklahoma is always going to be challenging because there's a lot of rural area in Oklahoma, there's a lot of land in Oklahoma, and a lot of that that is not connected is not dense. It is very, very sparse. So along with that, even the topology affects it quite a bit. So there's always going to be challenges in Oklahoma. We all come together, including the state department, the state broadband department, as well as all of us rule ips. We will come together and we will solve this problem. Jessica Denson (11:13):

So you said you were the director of government business and economic development. Do you love technology? Have you always done something in the technology field? Sachin Gupta (11:22):

Yeah, I have always been a techie. I have three degrees, all of them in technical disciplines. But if you look at my LinkedIn profile, the tagline is technical problems are easy. People problem are interesting, which is absolutely true, right? True. I can solve technical problems very, very easily and if I can't solve them, I can find a smart guy who can solve them for me, people problem. On the other hand, you don't need to be smart. Really what you need is more empathy than being smart to be able to solve people. Jessica Denson (11:54):

Okay. Last question. What do you want to see come from all this development, all this money that's going into the states right now? What would you like to see five, 10 years down the road? Sachin Gupta (12:04):

There's one goal and one goal only. Connect every Oklahoman and every rural Oklahoman that does not have connectivity today. Not having internet connectivity results in an economic loss. It results in people not being able to do remote work, not being able to do distance learning. It is such a slippery slope that once you don't have connectivity, you end up not having a whole lot of other things because you don't have connectivity. So the goal is simple, connect all of rural Oklahoma no matter what. Jessica Denson (12:34):

Alright, thank you so Sachin Gupta (12:35):

Much. Thank you very much. Jessica Denson (12:42):

I am super excited because I'm standing here with Dr. Christopher Ali, who is the author of Farm Fresh Broadband. We've talked with you before. You've actually been one of the first people I talked with when I first started at Connect Nation. You kind of schooled me a little bit on broadband and now I feel like I know everything, but how are you doing? Dr. Christopher Ali (13:01):

I'm doing great. I love being at this event. I love the energy. I love the community focus, so I, I'm happy as a clam. Jessica Denson (13:09):

That's awesome. So since Farm Fresh Broadband, how's it been going in the world of research and broadband? Dr. Christopher Ali (13:18):

I mean, it's been busy and I think that just as providers and advocates, public interest folks, government are all busy, us in the research community have also been busy supporting the crucial work that y'all are doing. Most of my work is focused around the human dimension, and so making sure that community voices are being amplified and community stories are being told and connecting the dots between what is going on in communities in everyday life and what's going on in federal policy and state policy levels. So I mean, this is keeping me employed certainly, but also keeping me very busy, very passionately driven about getting our communities connected as we all are. Jessica Denson (13:58):

When I first met you, it was in Louisville, Kentucky, and you were on the road working on the book, and at the time there was not as much understanding as now. The pandemic really changed things, didn't it? Dr. Christopher Ali (14:07):

I mean, pandemic was a game changer. I think so many of us back in, this was what summer 2018 you and I met in Kentucky, and at that point we were still fighting people on whether or not broadband was just a luxury or not with, I mean of all the evil, the pandemic wrought in this world. One of the things that came out of it was that folks on every political spectrum, every walk of life started to realize broadband is a necessity. It is a must have, it is a need, it is a utility, it is a right. We finally at least won that battle, which has hopefully made the energy that much more and the impetus so much more important to get folks connected to affordable networks. Jessica Denson (14:48):

So with that big change and the big influx money that's out there right now, are you asking different questions? Are we asking the same kinds of things when it comes to research? Right now Dr. Christopher Ali (14:59):

It is a little bit of both, to be honest. Some of it is tell me about what's changed and really how the pandemic changed. Maybe ratcheted things up for y'all. But the other thing is there is so much pressure on these communities to get ready and to get ready. Not today, but yesterday. So I think a lot of communities are feeling catch up, which is how can you best be served by the resources that are out there? And sometimes connecting the dots for communities. I mean, there's a lot of energy, but there's also a lot of pressure to get this right and we need to make sure that our communities are empowered with the right knowledge, with the right resources, with the right partners to make the right digital choices for themselves, because this will probably be the end of a mass. This will be the last, I think, giant federal investment we're going to see. We heard today that a lot of states are saying it's not going to be enough, so we're going to have to stretch these resources and we need to make sure every community is ready to take advantage of it when it comes down the pipeline. Jessica Denson (15:55):

Yeah, a soundbite machine. I love it. I love it. I love it. You are working on a new book. Do we get any kind of sneak peek of what it's going to be? Dr. Christopher Ali (16:06):

Yeah, so it's a bit of, the book has kind of two origin stories. One is talking to folks in our community, and when I was talking about farm-fresh broadband, people would say like, Chris, well this is all really interesting, where's your data? And stories are data experiences are data. And also equally at the federal level in policy, I have a policy scholar. We are relying so much on this map. The map reduces everything to points to data points, connected, unconnected cost technology. It doesn't say anything about people. The book is about putting the public back in public policy. So how do we amplify community stories to drive meaningful, equitable public policy making? And that's the connection I want to make because it's not saying there's nothing wrong with mapping and GIS, people are wizards at what they do. I just want to make sure that we're also focusing on the human element of connectivity, because at the end of the day, broadband is about people more than it's about anything else Jessica Denson (17:06):

In the long run. What would you hope to see from all of this? Dr. Christopher Ali (17:10):

I mean, I guess what we all want to see a digitally inclusive and equitable country, and there are so many amazing people, much smarter than I am, thank goodness for that working towards this. And so that's what I want to see. But I also want to make sure that our communities have the options and choices available to them to empower their digital futures because I think as we both know, you've been to one community, you've been to one community, and so we need to make sure that we're reaching everybody with these programs. Jessica Denson (17:40):

Dr. Christopher Ali, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. I do want to say congratulations. You recently got married not too long ago, so you're still a newlywed. And so congratulations from all of us at Connected Nation to you, and thank you for joining us today. Dr. Christopher Ali (17:54):

Thank you so much. Being Connected Nation has been such a wonderful friend and supporter of my work, and I'm just so grateful for your friendship and your partnership. I'm just so appreciative. Oh, Jessica Denson (18:01):

All of us. Love you here. Thank you. Have a wonderful time at the Broadband Conference. Dr. Christopher Ali (18:06):

Thank you so much. Jessica Denson (18:15):

Again. We'll continue our special coverage for the Broadband Community Summit tomorrow. Until then, I'm Jessica Denson, and this is Connected Nation.

Andrew Berke joins
Sachin Gupta joins
Dr. Christopher Ali joins
Conclusion + Outro