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Digital Inclusion: NASCIO President James Collins Weighs In

As part of the internationally recognized Digital Inclusion Week, we talked with Delaware CIO James Collins about how broadband-related ideas like return on investment and digital equity may collide or coexist.

No individual or entity knows the ultimate solution to the problem of inconsistent broadband coverage across the United States. Thus, it's critical that stakeholders engage in complicated, provocative, and speculative discussions about what the country must do to give all citizens access to high-speed Internet and related innovations. 

Weeks ago, Government Technology published a story titled "Broadband's Economic Impact Remains Unclear, Contested," which indicated that research on broadband isn't always able to link broadband coverage to the greater economic good. With these findings in mind, we posed a series of questions to NASCIO President and Delaware CIO James Collins. His comments from that conversation have been edited for clarity.

Let’s assume there is no guaranteed return on investment for expanding broadband. Does that affect the goal of expanding broadband coverage to unserved citizens? 

It really depends on your definition of return on investment. If it’s strictly financial ROI — based on a certain amount of capital and a certain amount of operating costs and we’re expecting a certain amount of profit — the answer is that broadband expansion doesn’t make sense under that strict definition.

But if you look at a broader definition of return on investment — quality of life, economic development, education, health care, small businesses — broadband expansion is absolutely worth the investment.  

When you say that, are you drawing on your experience in the state of Delaware? 

Yeah, I’m drawing on my experience in the state of Delaware. I’m drawing on my experience as a parent of a school-age child. I’m drawing on my experience as the president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, where expanding broadband has been No. 5 on our list of top 10 priorities for CIOs nationwide. 

I get calls regularly from legislators who have constituents that are trying to engage telehealth. They’re trying to do distance learning. They’re trying to get their kids connected for education. They’re trying to start a business. They’re trying to telecommute. 

This is real-world stuff. One of the things I always say is you wouldn’t buy a home today if it didn’t have electricity running to it. Broadband is right on par with that illustration. If you can’t get broadband in an area, it even impacts the value of property and whether or not people will build a home or start a business there. 

I’m drawing on all of that experience. 

Earlier, you said that if the definition of ROI is strictly economic, the goal of expanding broadband to unserved citizens doesn’t make as much sense. Is there a responsibility for the public sector to go toward digital equity no matter what?

I can talk about how we’ve approached it here in Delaware. This model could work in other places. 

I don’t know that you can squarely put all of the onus on the private sector. Private-sector companies have obligations to shareholders and investors. They’re in business to make a profit. To actually put them in a position where we say, “You have to go provide services here at a loss,” we get into another equity type issue there.  

I think the way we have to approach it is with a public-private partnership. From my perspective — and I’m specifically answering from a Delaware-based perspective, because I know each state has their own set of challenges — we didn’t think it was prudent to build a network in competition with the private sector to try to address this gap. We chose to take those funds that we would have used to invest in the network and essentially subsidized the private sector in a way where it could be a profitable venture for them. 

If you look at just about everybody who is struggling with broadband, it’s in rural areas. You don’t have problems in densely populated metropolitan areas because there’s plenty of subscribers there, so the market creates competition and brings services to all of those people. 

The way the math looks in a rural area is a private-sector company has to make a capital investment for the equipment. They’ve got to support it operationally, and they’ve got to do that in a way where they can have some margin or make a profit. 

In Delaware, we’ve said, “We will put in some public dollars to help with the capital investment,” then that allows the math to work for them. We think it’s important to let the private sector continue to deliver services in that area because they’re going to continually make investments and stay competitive to satisfy their clients.  

Back to your value question, if we don’t address this, we’re going to have individuals that are left behind. We’re going to have communities that are left behind. It impacts our overall competitiveness as a state. One of our largest industries in Delaware is agriculture. You would be blown away by the amount of technology and data analytics that’s leveraged to maximize efficiency and output in this industry. All of their machines are programmable and use GPS and other technologies to navigate, and they all need to be connected. It’s a big giant Internet of Things in the agriculture industry. If they can’t get connectivity for all of their equipment, it impacts their competitiveness. And that’s one example. 

Conversations about broadband expansion often center on broadband coverage. Have you thought much about the concept of broadband adoption versus broadband coverage?

I’ve thought about it from this perspective: There are two issues with broadband. One is access. There’s people who live in areas where they just don’t have access, so they’re going to public places to get access. The second issue, from our vantage point, is affordability. Some people just can’t afford it. So we’ve tried to approach broadband to address both of those points. In addition to providing coverage, competition can help control costs. We’ve also required providers to have low-income plans. 

I think beyond that, it’s a very, very small percentage of people who say, “I just don’t want to be connected.” 

These days, broadband is not just a matter of convenience. We live in a connected society. If you can’t access essential government services because you’re not connected, that’s going to pose a problem for you, even if you think about emergency services. In some instances, you need a connection, whether it be a wireless or wired connection, to engage with emergency services. We’re beyond the point where it’s a nicety, a convenience. It’s becoming an essential service — for life, safety, and the welfare of our citizens. 

Do you think there is any value in viewing broadband as a utility similar to how the country viewed electricity decades ago as something we have to get to people? 

I do think it’s something we have to get to people. Making that comparison is helpful for getting decision-makers and policymakers to understand how important it is. There’s been a lot of contention as of late around net neutrality rules and things like that. The previous presidential administration essentially tried to say, “Look, we’re going to put this in the same category of utilities because it’s that important.” But for a lot of providers, it caused them a lot of grave concern. When you think about electricity and landline phones, providers were incentivized to expand those services nationally. They were funded, they received subsidies to help accomplish that work. So the concern with making that comparison was that providers weren’t incentivized to expand broadband, but they were being held to that standard of landlines and electricity in the past. 

I definitely understand the comparison, I like the comparison, and I use it very frequently. But there is a distinction between how those utilities were subsidized in the past and how it’s being done today. However, in your research, you are going to generally find that broadband is being subsidized — just not at the federal level. It’s at the state or the local government level to bring those services to the underserved areas. 

That’s an astute point. One often hears about state or local entities considering subsidies for broadband. When you look at what’s happening on the federal level, it’s limited to programs from organizations such as the FCC and USDA. There really is no all-encompassing push. Do you think that sort of push should be there? Or are we doing fine with what we have? 

That’s a great question. When I step outside of my role as the CIO of Delaware and think more nationally, I definitely think it would be helpful for some of my colleagues to have that type of push where they would have access to some funding based on criteria that everyone can meet. And they get funding at whatever level they meet the criteria. That would be helpful. 

As far as the idea of an all-encompassing push is concerned, the closest thing is FirstNet. The federal government is emphasizing broadband as necessary for emergency services because of 9/11. It seems like outside of the emergency services part, the overall effort is a little more scattershot across the country. 

That is a great point. I hate this point about how government in general responds very well to a crisis. And to an earlier question, I think that we are approaching a point of crisis as it relates to, I’ll use your term, digital equity across our society. When you think about where FirstNet came from, it came out of 9/11 and first responders not being able to communicate and have interoperability. 

If you think about FirstNet, and then you couple that with the advent of 5G — which really has the potential to go a long way to resolve this issue — the challenge I see with that, and the reason I still feel an urgency to do this work now, is that 5G is probably going to be available in the same areas that don’t have a broadband issue. Who knows how long it’ll be before 5G is available in some of the underserved areas. 

So whatever we’re doing today is a bit of a stopgap. Here’s the reality, where the rubber meets the road: A kid could go through elementary school, middle school, and high school before we see 5G access in some of these rural areas. We’re focused on those “right-now” needs, those “right-now” business opportunities, those “right-now” educational opportunities, those “right-now” health opportunities to bring specialists into underserved communities. We’ll deal with the future when it gets here. Maybe it’ll augment some of what we’re doing today. 

You used the term scattershot, which I think is probably accurate. You got FirstNet, you got USDA, you got FCC, you got some local funding. Broadband is that important that, even in our state, we’re throwing everything we can at it. We’ve secured state funding. We’re working with local government partners to secure funding and support at their levels. We’re even looking at how we enter into contracts for connectivity of state buildings, and we’re strategically divvying up that work for vendors whom we want to send to underserved areas. They’re going to connect the schools, state buildings, or a library, but they weren’t previously delivering services in those areas.  

It’s a little bit of “If we built it, we hope they’ll come.” We’ll hope they’ll deliver additional services in those areas. So every lever available to us, we’re pulling for this important initiative. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t hear from a legislator or directly from a constituent about their lack of connectivity or unreliable connectivity in their areas. You got me going on that one. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.