Infrastructure News

Transcript: America’s Infrastructure Investment – The Washington Post


MS. CALDWELL: Hello. Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Leigh Anne Caldwell, an anchor here at Washington Post Live and also coauthor of the Early 202 newsletter.

Today we are talking about America’s infrastructure needs, and we are speaking with Andy Berke, the Biden administration’s point person for broadband, who works with the Commerce Department. Andy, thanks so much for joining us.

And to all of our viewers, feel free to tweet at us if you have any questions for Andy regarding broadband and the country’s infrastructure.

Andy, I wanted to start first just very generally. What are America’s needs as far as broadband is concerned?

MR. BERKE: Well, we have a huge number of needs across the country, and it’s easy, especially when you’re in Washington, D.C., Leigh Ann, to think, oh, well, listen, everybody has access to this because many people who are watching this are obviously doing that through the Web.

So, for us, one of the biggest things to understand is how critical this is to modern life, and that much like roads and electricity and water, this is now everyday infrastructure.

We know that millions of Americans go without it, that there are infrastructure needs that have to be dealt with to make it a reality for people, and then, finally, the affordability piece is really important so that people can access it. And then they have the skills and the device to use it.

MS. CALDWELL: Who are the people who don’t have access and who needs this access either through government assistance or through just the lines being run to where they live and work?

MR. BERKE: Well, there’s some big categories of people. You have a number of people in rural America. I’ve been in 31 states in the last seven and a half months, so seen it firsthand. You’ve got people who live in the inner city. They’ve been‑‑their connections are often slow. The networks have not been invested in. And then you’ve got a number of people across the country who just can’t afford it because they don’t have the income. Of course, you have the Affordable Connectivity Program, which gives a $30 voucher to people so that they can access it. That’s been a huge piece of the administration’s policy so that we can make this dream of everybody having access a reality.

MS. CALDWELL: Just in the last couple months, the administration has announced big investments in broadband and infrastructure, a lot of it coming from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed Congress. You know, there’s $45 billion for high‑speed internet, $65 billion for overall broadband. Can you talk about the differences in these programs and what all this money specifically is going to be used for?

MR. BERKE: Yeah. So you have, actually, in the bipartisan infrastructure law, $65 billion for broadband. $14 billion of that goes to the Federal Communications Commission for the Affordable Connectivity Program. That’s that $30 voucher, and as you may remember a few months ago, the president and the vice president had all the different major service providers at the White House to announce that they would give a $30 product to people, and so that $30 voucher essentially makes internet free for that group of people who make 200 percent of poverty or less.

Then you have $2 billion that’s gone to the United States Department of Agriculture. That is really specifically for rural broadband, and $48 billion is at the Department of Commerce, where I am. 42.5 of that goes to the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program. That’s really mostly‑‑not all but mostly about connectivity, not just in rural America but across the country. There’s a billion dollars for Middle Mile that’s really the fiber that runs down the middle of highways or major arteries so that people can then build out to the last mile to the houses and businesses, $3 billion for tribal work. I’ve been in a number of different tribal lands over the course of the last few months. Talk about people who have really been left out, and the administration knows that and is doing something about it. And then $2.75 billion for digital equity, that’s really devices and affordability and skills all over the country.

And, if you think about this, it’s the connection, it’s the devices, it’s the skills, it’s the affordability. All these pieces are being tackled at once, again, to make this seem a lot more like infrastructure that everybody has real access to.

MS. CALDWELL: Are the broadband companies‑‑how cooperative are they, and are they being paid, given subsidies to do this, and are they doing it effectively? Because, ultimately, this is a business for them.

MR. BERKE: It is. It is a business for many of them. Now, there are all kinds of different players in this. You’ve got the major companies that people think of that you might get your internet services through. There are also cooperatives. There are municipal networks like we had in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There are mom‑and‑pops who run small internet service providers. So there’s an entire range, and especially, as you get out in rural America, you see all kinds of different options for people. Some of them might be really robust, and some of them might be small. And it’s also the fact that some of them are incredibly expensive.

So, in fact, what you’ll see is often the worse your service, the more money that you pay. So you could be in rural America. You could be getting basically dial‑up speed, and it’s really common for people to be paying $150, $200, $250 a month for what is essentially dial‑up speed.

So we know that this is a problem, and right now we’re at the point where states are planning how to use that $42.5 billion of funding to build out all across the country, and we got to make sure that we use that efficiently and effectively. And that’s something Secretary Raimondo is emphasizing to us every day.

MS. CALDWELL: The $30 voucher every month for people who make 200 percent of poverty or less, how many people have signed up for it, and how‑‑you know, is there‑‑how much of a percentage of people who are eligible for it still need to sign up and don’t know about it?

MR. BERKE: Yeah. Well, we had an event earlier this year with the president‑‑with the vice president where she announced a million new sign‑ups for that. This is something that the administration has really been pushing.

When I’m out on the road talking to mayors, one of the things I tell almost everybody is you need to have a sign‑up day across your community to get people to sign up because, yes, there are millions more who qualify, and we’ve got to get the word out so that people have access to this.

MS. CALDWELL: The Obama administration, this was also a huge goal of theirs: internet for everyone. Why didn’t that happen?

MR. BERKE: Well, the biggest change between now and then is, first of all, the president really has this on the front of his agenda, and the second piece is, amazingly in Washington, D.C., we’ve had a bipartisan infrastructure law that put $65 billion into this. You know, if you add up all the digital equity funds together over the last 20 years, that number would be zero. We have $2.75 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure law. So there’s been really a reckoning around this issue.

A big piece of that, of course, is the pandemic where people just kind of understood how fundamental this is to American life, and so we really need to understand that this is the moment for us to transform our country when it comes to infrastructure in the internet world.

MS. CALDWELL: Is this the last thing that the government needs to do? Do you think that after this tranche of money that 100 percent of people in this country who want to be connected will be connected?

MR. BERKE: This is not the last thing that we need to do. We’re certainly going to connect every person. That’s part of the work, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to have access, because we still have issues of skills and affordability and devices. And so this digital equity work, which is that‑‑those are the three pieces of digital equity‑‑that’s going to have to continue both at the state, federal, and local level.

MS. CALDWELL: And there’s also a racial divide here. You mentioned tribal lands, but also Black and Hispanics are also much less likely to be connected to the internet or have access. So are you prioritizing those communities?

MR. BERKE: Absolutely. So we have outreach that goes specifically to those communities. I’ve spent a fair amount of my time working in this area, and there’s a tendency to think this is a rural issue. It is an American issue that goes everywhere, and if you listen to the president, the vice president, we’re talking about it so soon. We’re going to be talking about connecting minority community grants. This comes from a previous appropriations bill. But we’re thinking about every American and having meaningful access.

For example, the speed that we’re looking at is 100 download speed, 20 upload speed. There are plenty of people in the middle of American cities who don’t have access to that kind of speed, and they have to be brought along as well.

MS. CALDWELL: Mm‑hmm. And, you know, you, as you mentioned, were mayor of Chattanooga. This was a big priority for yours when you were a mayor. Why?

MR. BERKE: The internet is really just a tool, but it’s a tool that leads to economic prosperity and to high quality of life.

So, if you think about today, the internet is how we get our jobs. The internet is how we connect to family member and people we love. The internet is how we get our entertainment. And without all those pieces together, your quality of life isn’t going to be the same.

And so, Chattanooga, we had the first fiber network that connected to every home and business for 600 square miles. We were the first Gig City, then the first 10 Gig City. Just a few weeks ago, Chattanooga announced it would be the first Gig–and for people who are not as internet savvy, you might get a 50 connection across your network today. One gig is 1,000, 10 gig is 10,000, and 25 gig is 25,000. So that’s the kind of speed you’re talking about that some Americans have access to, as other Americans might have access to 8 and 12.

And then it quickly became apparent that we also needed to have this affordability component, the skills component, and the devices component. And one of the last things I did when I was mayor that I’m incredibly proud of is that we became the first community in the country to have free high‑speed internet for every family with a child on free or reduced lunch.

MS. CALDWELL: Did that change quality of life in Chattanooga? Did it change, you know, prosperity there?

MR. BERKE: Well, in 2020, Forbes said we’d be the number one place for new jobs in America. Now, 2020 obviously didn’t turn out like any of us planned, but the point is that I’ve seen this firsthand. And Chattanooga also had one of the highest wage growths in the country while I was mayor, and so this is‑‑this is essential and part of the story. And President Biden has been clear that this is part of the American recovery, especially as we come back from covid.

MS. CALDWELL: Globally, looking globally, China has called for, quote, “a fair and equitable internet based on global competition.” So is the United States able to compete with China, and what do you make of that description of what they say they want around the world?

MR. BERKE: Well, I think that our goal is to ensure that we are at the head of the pack when it comes to global competition. This is something that the president has been talking about, especially as it relates to China. Obviously, there’s been a huge amount of work done to ensure that we continue to be a global leader, and every American having access to the internet is part of that.

This is not a quick project. It’s an infrastructure project, right? Those don’t happen overnight, but over the course of the next few years, what you’re going to see is the build‑out happening all over the country which helps these communities have greater economic development and prosperity.

MR. BERKE: Republicans have‑‑you know, they say that if they take back the House of Representatives, they are going to really investigate the Biden administration on issues of, quote, “big tech.” Censorship, they have a long list of complaints regarding big tech. So what is‑‑what is your response, and how does the Biden administration plan to address that?

MR. BERKE: Yeah. So, first of all, the most important thing is that goes beyond where I am and with the work that we’re doing.

What we’re really talking about is much more on the infrastructure side, on the skills side, and the big tech piece that you’re chatting about, which I think both parties are investigating right now trying to figure out what to do, that really is beyond my purview.

MS. CALDWELL: So inflation remains stubbornly high. Does that have any sort of impact on ensuring that this access to broadband internet continues?

MR. BERKE: Absolutely, inflation matters because we have $42.5 billion to build out the infrastructure. There are two things that are really important about that. Number one is we have to use this efficiently and effectively, and so as you build out more, obviously, we’re going to be worried about the pricing of things like fiber and, of course, of the workforce. So there are two things that‑‑two work streams that are part of what we’re doing.

And earlier last month, you saw Secretary Raimondo out talking about this and opening a new Corning plant in Arizona. That’s part of our work to make sure that the pricing is available, that things like fiber are built in America, because as you do more of this work, obviously, we’re worried about the prices both from inflation and from the amount of material that we need.

And the second is there’s a workforce issue. We know that we need 100,000 new workers in this area, that these jobs are going to be generated, and so we have another stream of work that’s all about ensuring that Americans are ready for this work, and that there’s going to be digging up of, you know, the roads. There’s going to be climbing towers. There’s going to be slicing fiber, all kinds of work. And we need to have the workforce that’s prepared for that.

MS. CALDWELL: And do you have the workforce, and how do you train them and recruit them?

MR. BERKE: Well, we’re working on it. So there are more‑‑there are more people needed. So we’re in constant contact with the state, with states around the country. Part of their plans has to be how do they build this workforce that they need because obviously‑‑I was in Louisiana a few weeks ago with Governor Bel Edwards. He’s saying not only do we want to be out in front in building, but we want Louisianans to build the networks that happen here. And so, you know, they need certifications. We need to be in community colleges across the country and vocational schools and ensuring that there are people who are prepared to build this.

MS. CALDWELL: Where do you see this in 10 years? Where will the country be on this issue? Where does it need to be?

MR. BERKE: We need to make sure that every American has access, meet the president’s goal, which is that every American has access. We need to make sure that we are, as we said earlier, regularly thinking about the work of affordability and skills and devices as not just side work but central to making sure that every American can prosper.

We need to ensure that we have a‑‑use these dollars to invest in a way that is as future‑proof as possible, so that as the amount of connectivity and speeds and reliability that people need grows, that the networks can grow with it. And so 10 years from now, we can’t be having this discussion anymore. We won’t be because of the work that we’re doing, and I think then using this work to build on the equity issues will really help our country grow.

MS. CALDWELL: Great. Andy, I’m about out of time, but one quick question. You were, of course, mayor of Chattanooga. You’re now in the Biden administration. How long do you plan to stay in this job, and where do you see yourself next?

MR. BERKE: Well, I’m enjoying the work that I’m doing, and to try to do some of this on a larger scale is nice.

Obviously being mayor is a good job. I enjoyed that, but it’s really satisfying to see and be part of an initiative that really harkens back to rural electrification and some of the biggest ideas that people have ever had in this country.

MS. CALDWELL: Andy Berke with the Commerce Department, thank you so much for joining us today. We are out of time.

And stay with us. Next, we will be joined by Michael Powell, the president and CEO of The Internet & Television Association.

MS. LABOTT: Hello. I’m Elise Labott from American University, and today we’re talking about the recent infrastructure bill, the digital divide, and the importance of geospatial technology and data.

Now, modernizing our infrastructure requires a real understanding of each project’s location and its relationship to its environmental and human‑made systems, and to discuss how we get that understanding and how technology, location, intelligence, and spatial data ensures infrastructure is developed with resiliency, sustainability, and equity, I’m joined by Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri.

MR. DANGERMOND: Thanks very much, Elise.

MS. LABOTT: So this infrastructure bill is set to address many challenges across industries. So, from your perspective, what are some of the highest priorities, and how do we use technology to make sure that that helps us understand it a little bit better and helps us advance?

MR. DANGERMOND: Yeah. My sense of this bill is it’s going to be enormously impacting. I mean, these thousands of projects are going to have little footprints on the planet that actually‑‑in our country specifically that actually impact the future, and we need to do this. We need to go all in with respect to investing on creating a carbon‑negative future. I mean, we have to pull carbon out of the atmosphere because right now it’s just‑‑you know, we’re going in the wrong direction. So these‑‑this effort means‑‑these little dots on a map as I think about them are going to be directed by environmental factors, by social factors, by economic factors, so that they can get the maximum value out of their‑‑out of the investments this country is making.

So geospatial is best thought of by normal people as maps. These maps are digital these days. They’re measuring virtually everything on our planet, and by combining them in various ways, we can understand where‑‑I mean, that’s the big question‑‑where the investments should be made, and more importantly, what is the impact of each of these investments?

I get excited about that because it really brings together geography. You know, geography is the science of our world. It brings it together in a way that’s very applicable. These computer maps can overlay information and let it be understandable to people. Where is my money going? Where should we not locate? What should we do? And the integration of those maps in kind of digital models of our world is very powerful.

So I’m excited about this, these investments, but I’m also excited by the fact that at all levels of government‑‑local government, state government, national government‑‑there’s kind of a new awareness to this kind of information guiding, guiding where our investments should be made and where they shouldn’t be made.

MS. LABOTT: Well, it’s really interesting because your recent User Conference, the theme of it was mapping common ground, and it seems to be that if you’re using all the best designs, science, critical thinking, and then laying over that spatial technology and intelligence, that really has a way of kind of finding some kind of common ground for how we approach these problems.

MR. DANGERMOND: Yeah. If you lay on top of maps, all the various interests for a common geography, what you find is there’s very little conflict, but people often argue about these little conflicts, such that you’d think everything is going bad. It’s not actually. Finding common grounds is very valuable to use the geospatial approach.

And this is being seen now by all levels of government. Last week our White House released a new climate portal, which brought all the scientific information from our federal government together and made it available through Web services to state and local governments so that they could pick the right locations, actually ask for grants for funding infrastructure in the best ways.

So I am so excited about that particular project because it means that we’re leveraging in a kind of all‑government approach to be able to create a better future.

MS. LABOTT: So the infrastructure bill singles out resilience, sustainability, and equity. Some of these areas can feel a little bit overwhelming, as critical criteria for action and funding, and one of the clear investment priorities was ensuring equitable access for broadband across the country in both urban and rural areas, narrowing that digital divide.

We saw this during the pandemic when school children were being forced to study at home, that issue of fairness really coming up. So talk to me about the role of mapping and spatial analytics in helping us understand and closing this digital divide.

MR. DANGERMOND: You know, we can map out communities, demographic communities‑‑income, ethnicity‑‑all kinds of characteristics about the people, and what they become are layers in assessments.

We can also map out accessibility, for example, to schools or to health clinics or to public transit. These all become geographic factors that can be screened and used to direct and make better intelligent decisions.

So geography is a kind of framework or a language to allow people to make holistic, both decisions and allocations but also evaluations. We can understand the impact of a particular decision or not, and certainly, broadband is one of the big ones that’s being funded, you know, breaking down the digital divide. But all these other factors also have to be considered. Some of our communities and users across the country are using this as a regular screening methodology or evaluation criteria for every decision that’s made in public, local governments that exist. A good example is the city of San Antonio in Texas, but there’s lots of others.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. Clearly, technology and intelligence on location and geography can help us identify areas of the greatest need for modern infrastructure but also create that common ground between government, business, and society, and our reliance on this technology and data is only going to grow.

Jack Dangermond, president and founder of Esri, thank you so much for joining us.

MR. DANGERMOND: Thank you very much, Elise.

MS. LABOTT: We’ll send it back now to The Washington Post.

MS. CALDWELL: Hello again. I’m Leigh Ann Caldwell, anchor at Washington Post and coauthor of the Early 202 newsletter.

Now we are continuing our conversation with Michael Powell. He is president and CEO of the NCTA, The Internet & Broadband Trade Association. Michael, thanks so much for joining us today.

MR. POWELL: It’s a real pleasure to be with you, Leigh Ann. Thank you for having me.

And, again, reminder to our viewers, if you have any questions, feel free to tweet at us at @PostLive.

Michael, I want to start. We just heard from Andy Berke in the Biden administration who talked about the Biden administration’s goals for connecting every single American to the internet. What challenges remain to be able to do that?

MR. POWELL: Yeah. Well, I’d start out by saying it’s a worthy goal. I would say we have a historical opportunity to reach that goal, and so we all should be focused on that.

I think it’s very important to emphasize that money alone is not the challenge. This is a country of 3.8 million square miles with desert, mountain, and forest alike. It’s a very, very challenging project, a complex one, and the execution risks are significant, not only in the macroeconomic environment that I heard described, inflation, risks of recessions, shortages in labor and chips, but just the complexity of the distribution of the money, ensuring that it’s invested where it’s needed most, and that we protect against the kind of waste, fraud, and abuse that large programs like this often attract. So we have a lot of work ahead of us as a community over the next five years.

MS. CALDWELL: Yeah. You laid it out like it’s a very, very big task. So is the amount of money that the Congress appropriated in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, that $65 billion, is that enough?

MR. POWELL: It’s hard to say. I think it’s enough. I think we should also be willing to ask ourselves occasionally is it too much.

It’s an enormous amount of money going through a wide range of different programs through a lot of different regulatory agencies and organs of government, and, you know, it’s plenty of money if it’s used efficiently, effectively for the stated purpose of getting those online who currently have no access.

What I have known in my career is that because the gap in rural America is largely because of economic infeasibility, there are always mighty efforts to shift the money to markets where there’s a better return, better return for whether it’s a city broadband project or a private one, and then a lot of times in the past, we end up spending a lot of money, it goes toward areas where there’s already broadband. And we’re overbuilding instead of investing in the economically challenged spaces that need the money most.

So I think if we’re disciplined, it’s the right amount of money. If we don’t execute properly, I think we would regret it.

MS. CALDWELL: And does the government and did they put in the guardrails to ensure that discipline, or is it up to the broadband companies to kind of do the right thing, which might cost them a little bit more money to ensure that there is connectivity in these more difficult areas that tend to be more rural, as you said?

MR. POWELL: To be clear, everybody has a significant responsibility, government and the private sector, but, you know, this is an unusual program. It’s an enormous amount of money in which the federal jurisdiction is setting the application process and the rules, but the distribution decisions are going to be made by 50 different states with varying levels of experience and sophistication, through various kinds of regulatory agencies with their own objectives and their own communities.

So, you know, it’s going to be a challenge where there’s going to have to be a permanently iterative conversation between companies on the ground trying to get the work done with both their state and local government partners as well as making sure the federal government as the overall overseer is well aware of where problems are cropping up and where they’re not and whether they can enforce the guardrails that Congress insisted on to be good stewards of the money.

As I mentioned earlier, one perfect example of that is making sure that money goes to the unserved communities first. In 2008, we did a surge of broadband funding as well, and later the GAO wrote critically about how much of the money ended up in places where broadband already existed. And we need to guarantee that that doesn’t happen again.

So we all have a lot of work to do. I think we’re working cooperatively. I think there’s a lot of reason for optimism.

MS. CALDWELL: Yeah. You know, can you go into a little bit more about that? In the first few months of this, are there good signs that this cooperation can extend deep into this program, and how long do you expect it to take?

MR. POWELL: Yeah, I think there are a lot of good signs for cooperation. You know, I can speak for my companies, and I think it would be equally true for most of the ISP community, including telephone companies, wireless companies. We’re all in, meaning everybody wants to participate. Everybody is going to make application for funds to try to build in these communities.

Almost every one of our companies have announced rural expansion plans. All of our companies have affordability programs for low‑income communities that will be combined with what the government is doing on affordability.

So, yeah, I think we have a lot of signs of optimism. We feel really good working with the FCC on the mapping project, which is the essential predicate to the distribution of the money, ultimately, in 2023. That map will be evergreen, meaning it will be continuously iterative and needing to be improved.

We’re working cooperatively with the FCC. I do not envy the task they have before them, but we’re being as effective as we can, helping them get the data they need, and helping find the errors in the mapping that will be essential to proper distribution.

You know, you asked how long will it take. I suppose that’s anyone’s guess, but I am willing to say this. I think we are always in danger of being overly optimistic about the time frames. You hear a lot of people say, “Oh, in three years, we’ll be here.” I really do think this is probably a decade‑long project.

You know, the money doesn’t even start‑‑the maps don’t even get formally done until the spring of 2023. This is a very complex undertaking in pretty remote areas, and I think it’s just going to be a long, stable, steady slog. I think we can do it, but if we start wringing our hands after two or three years that it’s failed, I think we can lose our nerve and our will to continue on that course and get the job done.

MS. CALDWELL: You’ve been in this industry a very long time. President Obama had the same goal is to connect everyone to the internet. What fell short there, and why will this time be different?

MR. POWELL: Yeah. Well, I heard your earlier guest. I think the biggest difference is President Obama didn’t have the benefit of a bipartisan Congress that came together to issue this kind of money. I mean, this is unprecedented by an order of magnitude. The money that President Obama had access to in the wake of the 2008 collapse was a pittance compared to what we have today. So, number one, just the order of magnitude of resources we have available are dramatically higher.

I think the second problem, which I mentioned in passing a minute ago, is those programs were not well disciplined. A lot of the money went to the wrong places. Again, there were lots of postmortems written about several of those programs and how an enormous amount of money went to areas that already had broadband, and when you do that, guess what? The areas that we must say were focused on serving ended up on the wrong end of the stick again.

So I do think there were errors in oversight and administration in those prior programs or a comfort level, which I believe there shouldn’t have been, with letting money go to more economically viable regions where the private market was already attracting building and investment. So that’s the mistake we can’t make a second time.

MS. CALDWELL: I want to turn a little bit to covid. The pandemic made us all realize how reliant we are on the internet. What lessons did the industry learn during that time?

MR. POWELL: Gosh, we learned‑‑we learned a lot. Number one, we learned expect the unexpected. You know, I don’t think anybody had in their use case two years before the pandemic that you would get a 60 percent surge in internet traffic as a consequence of a rapidly spreading virus that would force Americans to all go home and conduct their lives from the internet.

I think the beauty of broadband investments is that it is a massive tool of general applicability that can be called on by our society, by our citizens, and by our government as a tool in a toolkit to address both known and unknown challenges to the society.

So, number one, I think we learned that it’s essential, that it’s critical, that it’s an important tool for response to difficult times, and that we need to treat it with that level of seriousness and commitment to get as many Americans online as possible.

The second thing I think we learned, Leigh Ann, is that, boy, I don’t think we could have designed a greater pressure test for the network, and it passed with flying colors, for all practical purposes.

The network held up to a capacity surge that far exceeded the standard model. You know, this is a testament to industries who built in the capacity for that kind of spike, the engineering necessary to deal with those unanticipated loads and the rapid responses of crews on the ground to expanding capacity in response to the challenge. So, number one, I think as Americans, we should feel confident that we have a pretty robust and resilient infrastructure that could stand up to that kind of unanticipated change.

And then I think the last point I would make is you couldn’t have done that on the fly. The reason that came through so successfully was a decade or more, really 20 years of steady high investment in that infrastructure, to the tune in our industry of almost $30 billion annually, to make sure that we’re deploying the best we can deploy at any moment in time.

You know, just the year before, cable companies had completed the project to provide gig service to 80 percent of the country, over 90 percent of our footprint, and so a lot of Americans had that to rely on as a consequence of investment decisions that were really launched, you know, 10 years ago. So it always pays to be building for a future far in advance and continuing to incent investment now for a time and a problem that you can’t foresee.

MS. CALDWELL: So did the pandemic catapult any technological advances that you might not have seen or experienced except because of the pandemic?

MR. POWELL: Well, in some ways. It’s a good question. I would say more than unknown technologies, I think it accelerated a commitment to more advanced technologies.

So, in our industry, we made an announcement four years ago that we were driving toward delivering 10 gigabit‑per‑second service‑‑”10G,” we call it‑‑you know, by sometime in the 2025, 2026 timeframe, and we’re well on our path to delivering that kind of capacity for America. And I think the pandemic merely put a punctuation mark on those plans and caused us to recommit them‑‑recommit to them and accelerate our efforts in that regard.

I would compliment my fellow infrastructure builders in the wireless industry. We’ve heard a lot about 5G and advanced wireless networks that are also accelerating to delivery world‑class‑‑first, best in class, world‑class wireless and wired networks for the United States of America, and I think the pandemic was a good test but also a great challenge and a great illumination of the path forward that we’re all on and excited to be pursuing.

MS. CALDWELL: Is that’s what’s necessary? Should there be another pandemic or another major disruption in our lives, or what lessons were learned? Are there any plans happening now to prepare for the next possible thing?

MR. POWELL: Yeah. Without real clear specifics, all of our companies also had to learn a lot about operating under hardship, right, operating when your call centers aren’t able to be in the building and present. You know, there’s a lot of stories that are untold about us being able to change the business to bring call centers, hundreds and thousands of call center employees into their homes, change the technology to respond to problems, rapid‑response engineering teams that could go up and quickly add capacity to a pole or to split a node, major operation centers that were monitoring surges in demand and making adjustments. All that’s part of the life of broadband that I think when put under stress is important.

When I look at the world today, I see a lot of existential danger. You know, we still have the risk of disease. We have climate change risk. We have geopolitical risk with the Russians and the Chinese. We have a lot of tough problems that we’re staring at as a world and a country, and I’m pretty confident broadband is going to have to be one of the tools in our kit for addressing those challenges in ways we probably can’t clearly imagine now, but I’m 100 percent we’ll be the better for having world‑class capability to bring to bear on the problem.

MS. CALDWELL: On the flip side of that, if you think broadband is the answer, what about, you know, warfare these days could cut broadband service? How are the‑‑how is the industry dealing with those sorts of threats where there is‑‑people aren’t able to access it because of some rogue actors or natural disaster?

MR. POWELL: Absolutely. You know, I think if you were in a board meeting of our companies, you know, second only to this commitment to build to the unserved is the growing and never‑ending concerns about cybersecurity, cyberthreat, and network danger.

I serve on a number of boards, including, for example, the Mayo Clinic which has a massive medical infrastructure. We worry about this technologically every day.

I do think that we’ve been involved as partners with the government in hardening those networks and monitoring them for illicit activity and trying to be alert to the geopolitical threats as well as criminal threats that we encounter almost every minute of every hour of every day.

So, you know, we’re very proud of our record over the course of the last 10 or 20 years as a network to protecting consumers from attacks on the reliability of the network or cyberthreats that cause harm to consumers, but this is the kind of thing you have to be ever vigilant about. You can never rest, and I think those risks have only increased for our country.

When you say that infrastructure is critical, it means it’s critical, meaning the loss of it would also be pretty devastating, and we also need to remember broadband doesn’t work without electricity. If the underlying grid were to fail, the electrical systems were to be inoperable, then you’d have a big vertical stack problem of everything that depends on that.

Natural disasters, similarly, I think we have a good record. Our teams are generally well prepared to work with FEMA in the face of hurricanes and storms, to move into a community and get networks restored as quickly as possible, and those capabilities continue to develop.

MS. CALDWELL: So are we too reliant on broadband?

MR. POWELL: I don’t know. Are we too reliant on cars? Are we too reliant on any technology? No. But I think your question, not to‑‑I shouldn’t dismiss fliply because I think we should be‑‑we should be focused on redundancy too.

MR. POWELL: You know, I’m an old soldier. I come from a family of military people. You know, there’s never a Plan A. There’s Plan B and C, you know. I can say as a private citizen, I depend very heavily on my broadband, but do I have paper copies of my family’s affairs somewhere in a safe? Yes, I do. Do I every now and then think about what it would mean if I couldn’t access my bank online or renew some important rental agreement? Every now and then, I do think about that, and I think both citizens and I think industries need to be very thoughtful about how would they respond if suddenly they were faced with that. That’s a societal risk that technology always presents, but we seem to historically find our way through it.

MS. CALDWELL: Michael Powell, we are out of time. Thank you so much for this very honest and candid conversation. I really enjoyed it.

MS. CALDWELL: And thank you for watching, listening. To get more programs from Washington Post Live, you can go to WashingtonPostLive.com. You can also rewatch this program and find the transcripts. Thanks for joining us.



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