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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at Digital Northwest Broadband Summit

March 21, 2016

Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Digital Northwest Summit
Seattle, Washington
March 21, 2016

--As prepared for delivery--

I hope you enjoyed the morning session at NTIA’s sixth regional broadband workshop. We are joined in this effort by our partner, Next Century Cities, led by Deb Socia. Together we have assembled experts from cities, states and the federal government and industry to give you the information you need to meet the many challenges of expanding broadband access and adoption in this region.

Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle asked this morning for a stronger federal partner to help communities in their broadband efforts. I am here today to offer NTIA as your partner and to urge you to take advantage of our expertise on these issues. Key to this effort is our new BroadbandUSA program, which offers technical assistance, guidance and resources to communities across the country seeking to expand local broadband deployment and adoption.

We launched this program last year to build on the lessons learned, best practices and collective wisdom from across our broadband grant portfolio, and to leverage the federal investments that we have already made through our broadband programs. Today’s Digital Northwest Summit is an important part of this new initiative as we travel the country to convene local, state and federal officials, industry representatives, community activists and other stakeholders to study the broadband challenges they face and explore potential solutions. As part of this initiative, our technical assistance team is here to provide free, one-to-one support to you today and tomorrow. If you want to get some time with our team during our “office hours” tomorrow, please sign up at the registration table.

Why is NTIA well-positioned to help you? First off, we are passionate about ensuring that every American has access to broadband. Over the past seven years, we have seen firsthand through our $4 billion grant programs how broadband can stimulate economic growth and empower our people. Funded from money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we financed roughly 230 projects across the country that have built critical network infrastructure, opened or upgraded public computer centers and established broadband adoption and digital inclusion programs. And our State Broadband Initiative Program invested another $300 million to help states collect broadband data for the National Broadband Map and expand their statewide broadband capacity.

When we developed this program seven years ago, we made a promise to communities across the country: The Obama Administration’s investment in broadband would create jobs, stimulate investment and economic development, and open up new opportunities in employment, education and healthcare. Most important, it would improve lives. I am proud to say we delivered on those pledges. 

Our broadband grantees deployed more than 116,700 miles of new or upgraded network miles, connected nearly 26,000 community anchor institutions such as schools and hospitals and installed or upgraded more than 47,000 personal computers in public access centers. And our grantees enrolled hundreds of thousands of people as subscribers to broadband services.

With our infrastructure projects, one of our major goals was to prime the pump for private-sector investment by supplying critical middle-mile infrastructure that local providers can use to deliver affordable broadband to more homes and businesses. That is why all networks built with Recovery Act dollars are subject to open-access rules that let all other carriers interconnect with these networks on fair and non-discriminatory terms. We also encouraged our grantees to connect directly to the key anchor institutions in these communities due to the higher bandwidth needs of schools, libraries and other institutions. 

It is still early to gauge the full economic impact of these investments but we have some results. We commissioned an independent study from ASR Analytics looking at the social and economic impact of our broadband grant program and released that report last year. In only two years, communities that received our broadband grant funds experienced an average estimated 2 percent greater growth in broadband availability than non-grant communities. The report also concluded that the additional broadband infrastructure built by our grantees could be expected to create more than 22,000 long-term jobs and generate more than $1 billion in additional household income each year. The report also documented that community anchor institutions, like schools and libraries, served by our grantees benefited from significantly increased speeds and lower costs. As an example, the median price paid by libraries in the study was $233 per megabit per month before the grant program, at a median speed of 3 mbps.  As a result of the grant program, the median price dropped to $15 per megabit per month and median speed increased to 20 mbps.

Here in Washington, the Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) is a great example of a successful project. NoaNet used $138.8 million in Recovery Act funds to add more than 1,200 miles of fiber to its network, allowing it to reach some of the more remote regions of the state. It connected more than 300 community anchor institutions, including 66 K-12 schools, 71 libraries, 49 medical and healthcare providers, 52 government facilities, six community colleges and others. NoaNet signed broadband wholesale agreements to provide new access to 16 last-mile providers and improved access to 34 existing providers, enabling these providers to offer faster and more affordable broadband to their customers. 

For example, we heard yesterday from the director of the Stevens County‎ Information Services Department, who said this project has helped improve the health and safety of the county’s residents and has boosted economic development in the rural county. The county’s Public Utility District has provided wholesale Internet service to local Internet service providers, which has enabled two local manufacturing companies in the County to expand their businesses and hire additional personnel. At the same time, the NoaNet network has allowed the county to provide mental health services to patients in the region through telemedicine.   

Another example is the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District project in the northeastern section of the state. Using its $27.2 million grant, Pend Oreille built 585 miles of fiber, enabling three Internet Service Providers to offer service to 5,000 residential homes. It also provided improved broadband access to 14 community anchor institutions, most of which were medical and healthcare providers. Community Health Associates of Spokane partnered with Pend Oreille to improve healthcare delivery in the region. The network allowed patients to use broadband video and voice to communicate with a pharmacist and receive the appropriate prescription drug from a vending machine at a clinic in northern Pend Oreille County -- more than an hour’s drive from the nearest brick and mortar pharmacy.

In addition to infrastructure projects, NTIA also funded $250 million of sustainable adoption grants. As we consider what’s needed for broadband today, we cannot lose sight of the importance of adoption. Once the facilities are built, we need people to subscribe to use the service. We’ve made great progress on this front over the past seven years, but there is still more work to be done. 

Through our adoption programs, we have learned important lessons about what works and what doesn’t. An important takeaway is that digital literacy is fundamental to sustainable broadband adoption. Our grantees around the country have demonstrated that successful digital literacy training must be tailored to the specific needs of the community and the individual. Based on our grants, we now have developed a portfolio of innovative approaches to offering this training. Both sustainable broadband adoption projects and public computer center projects are reaching people who may never have even turned on a computer -- a group that includes a disproportionate number of lower-income Americans, senior citizens, and members of minority groups -- and teaching them how to navigate the Internet, set up an email account, write a resume and even apply for jobs over the Internet. 

On the broadband adoption side, I want to highlight a $4.1 million grant to EdLab, here in Washington, which used some of that funding to work with Seattle to bring resources to the city’s public technology centers. Seattle was able to utilize its partnership with EdLab to expand services in Housing Authority sites, recreation sites, and community centers to serve Seattle’s at-risk, immigrant, and refugee communities. Multilingual training and digital literacy classes were held to reach further into the Vietnamese, Chinese, Ethiopian and the city’s other immigrant communities. The Chinese Information and Services Center began a Mandarin-language program that coupled computer technology with financial literacy training. Overall, EdLab opened or upgraded 22 public computer centers throughout the state and provided more than 150,000 hours of training to more than 26,000 people.

As we move beyond these projects, we recognize that more work needs to be done to ensure that no one is left behind in this digital revolution. And the target keeps changing.  When we launched the Recovery Act grants program in 2009, the federal Communications Commission (FCC) still defined broadband at a speed of less than 1 Mbps. Today the FCC recommends download speeds of 25 Mbps. At that rate, nearly 51 million Americans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection.  And we can expect the need for speed to continue to increase.

But we are making measurable progress. Today, NTIA released new 2015 data from our Computer and Internet Use Supplement to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. This survey samples 53,000 households. Our new data show that 75 percent of Americans are using the Internet from any location, up from 71 percent in 2013. Demographic groups that have historically lagged in using the Internet -- such as senior citizens, minorities and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment also made gains in the last two years. Internet use among those aged 65 or older increased 5 percentage points between 2013 and 2015. In that same time period, growth in Internet use among Hispanics and among American Indians and Alaska Natives outpaced the U.S. population as well. Internet use among Hispanics grew 5 percentage points while use among American Indians and Alaska Natives grew 9 percentage points. I encourage you to take a deeper look at this data on our website. Last October we launched Data Central, an easy-to-use source for locating statistics and charting trends on computer and Internet use over the past 20 years.

Even though the Recovery Act grant program is complete, we continue to be a lead agency supporting President Obama as he continues to emphasize the importance of broadband. In 2013, the President launched ConnectEd, a public private partnership to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet through high-speed broadband within five years. The President followed that with the launch last year of ConnectHome, an initiative aimed at expanding high speed broadband to more families across the country. Through the program, Internet service providers, nonprofits and the private sector will offer broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units.  

Last March, the President created the Broadband Opportunity Council, made up of key cabinet departments and agencies, to determine what actions the federal government could take to eliminate regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and to encourage investment in broadband networks and services. Last September, the White House released the Council’s report, which describes concrete steps that 25 federal agencies will take over the next 18 months to eliminate barriers and promote broadband investment and adoption.

Four key themes framed the recommendations and action items.

  • Modernize federal programs to expand program support for broadband investments.
  • Empower communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use.
  • Promote increased broadband deployment and competition through expanded access to federal assets.
  • Improve data collection, analysis and research on broadband.

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

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

NTIA also provided an update on our Community Connectivity Initiative (Initiative), which we proposed as a Broadband Opportunity Council recommendation last fall. The Initiative will empower communities across the country by giving them the tools they need to support and accelerate local broadband planning and deployment efforts. NTIA, in close collaboration with our partners, will create a comprehensive online assessment tool to help community leaders identify critical broadband needs and connect them with expertise and resources. The tool will provide a framework of benchmarks and indicators on access, adoption, policy, and use for communities. I’m excited to say that our partners include many of you in this room and from the region, including Next Century Cities, New America’s Open Technology Institute and the city of Seattle, as well as the towns of Kenmore, Oak Harbor and SeaTac, Washington.

Since the announcement two weeks ago, many more communities and partners have indicated their support and interest in participating. In addition to influential partners like the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and other partners announced two weeks ago, today I would like to announce our collaboration with:

  • Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums
  • Fiber–to-the-Home Council
  • Lummi Indian Business Council
  • National Association of Regional Councils
  • National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development
  • Quinault Indian Nation
  • Spokane Tribe
  • The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI)
  • Urban Libraries Council
  • Warm Springs Telecom
  • Washington OneNet
  • Washington State University

Starting tomorrow here in Seattle, NTIA will hold workshops and webinars to solicit further feedback, bring more stakeholders into the process and work to develop the online assessment tool.

NTIA’s BroadbandUSA staff has been working with communities across the country, and we have heard time and again the challenges facing these communities to identify sources of funding for broadband, and to know where to turn to within the federal government for answers to their questions. One key action of the BOC, which NTIA will spearhead, will be to create a portal for information on federal broadband funding and loan programs to help communities easily identify resources as they seek to expand access to broadband. This will help communities find broadband-related policy guidance, key agency points-of-contact and best practices.

In closing, my message to all of you here is -- NTIA is here to help. Our BroadbandUSA team wants to work closely with communities seeking to expand their broadband capacity. We have learned a lot over the past seven years overseeing this broad portfolio of broadband infrastructure and adoption grants. We have learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works. Every community has unique needs and challenges. Through our BroadbandUSA initiative, we are now leveraging that knowledge and expertise to help communities in their broadband expansion efforts.

Do you need to sift through the labyrinth of government rules and grant programs? We can help. Be sure to take a copy of our guide to federal funding, which is available here today.

Do you need to learn the best way to design and deliver an adoption program in your community? We can help with our Broadband Adoption Toolkit. Get your copy here today.

Do you need advice on how to plan for and attract broadband investment in your community? We can help. Our technical assistance ranges from workshops and webinars to more personalized one-on-one community assistance. In the next few weeks, we will be issuing our planning guide to communities to improve broadband access and adoption. But you do not need to wait for the guide. Sign up to meet with our team tomorrow.

Best of all, we are free. So let us know what sort of help your community needs. Our team will help you accomplish your goals.

Thank you all for being here today. I look forward to our ongoing discussion today and to working with you to expand broadband access and adoption and support greater economic development for all citizens in the Pacific Northwest.

Thank you for listening.