By Summer Seligmann, C2ST Intern, Loyola University
Broadband transmits large amounts of data very quickly and makes things like remote learning, telemedicine, and other important online services possible. However, broadband access is not equal, and many communities suffer from not having high-speed internet access. Over the last decade, Roberto Gallardo, PhD., has researched how the availability of broadband can impact economic and community growth.
Gallardo is the Director of Purdue’s Center for Regional Development (PCRD). At PCRD, Gallardo works with public, private, and non-profit organizations to provide planning and technical assistance and promote regional growth. Additionally, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs recently announced that Gallardo will be the acting director for the Next Level Connections Broadband Programs. In this role, Gallardo will be assisting in the implementation of broadband programs across the state of Indiana.
Summer: To get us started, can you explain what exactly broadband is and why it’s important for people, businesses, and communities?
Gallardo: Broadband is a very hot topic right now, but it consists of a two way street, download and upload. And the way it’s defined is by your speed threshold, meaning how much data you can push on the download and the upload side. Currently, the [FCC] defines it as 25 megabits per second down, 3 up, or 25/3 in short. Broadband allows anybody to connect to the internet, which is a kind of decentralized repository of applications and information and so forth. So, broadband is a vehicle to connect to that kind of wider World Wide Web, like in the good old days. Broadband refers to the capacity to carry data. So it’s broad, like a thick or wide band, to do that.
Can you talk about your research on state broadband policy?
My research has been mostly around the economic and community development implications of broadband, not only having access to it. One research piece was a study with my colleague at Oklahoma State University using Pew Research Center data. [Pew Research] has been compiling data at the state level on who has a broadband office, grant programs, municipal network limitations, etc. We found that state offices do make a difference in the availability of broadband, particularly in rural areas. There are states that do not let municipalities build their own broadband networks; they want the private sector to take care of it. What we were trying to understand is rural broadband availability using this data set. What we found is that state offices do make a difference for rural areas to have higher levels of internet access.
Why do we mainly see private internet service providers rather than municipalities providing internet service?
The issue is twofold. The first one is that the internet started not as a vital utility, like sewer and water. So, it grew within that expectation that it was just a service, not a utility which led to [the internet] not being regulated like a utility. When you’re not regulated as a utility, you’re not expected to build it for everybody and you’re not expected to disclose certain information like costs, for example. That’s part of the issue. The internet started as a service, but then it started to take off and everybody [thought that the internet] was actually a utility. Now there’s a lot of interest, entrenched in the non-regulated side of things [and people] are going to fight to not let the technology be regulated as a utility. That’s problem number one. Number two is there’s private providers that are benefiting from having a network that’s obsolete, honestly. And they have no incentive to build a better network, but yet they’re charging for that use for those subscriptions. It’s called a captive market. Whenever a municipality comes in and says we want to offer [internet service], private providers say no, it’s not the same rules, it’s not the same playing field, and that government needs to stay [out of it]. It’s a variety of different things and how they play out in each state.
How does your work at Purdue and your work with the state of Indiana relate?
At the Purdue Center for Regional Development, we work with regional planning organizations, economic development organizations, chambers, [etc]. We do a lot of analyses, provide technical assistance, and planning assistance. Broadband, what I call digital inclusion rather than broadband, is really an area that has been on our radar before COVID. That’s where I started in my career focusing on adoption and utilization, not the connectivity side, because that’s more on the internet service providers. Because of my research I’ve had the honor of working with a lot of rural communities across the state and in Canada, Mexico, and Colombia. I was in China right before COVID working on this issue of how we can help rural communities not only get connectivity, but change their mindset and to truly leverage the digital age. And even though connectivity is not my area, I do learn a lot from seeing communities and internet service providers interact. So because of my work, I was asked by the state, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, if I could help them manage. That’s where both worlds kind of merge on my academic side and on the practitioner side over here working with the state of Indiana.
In the recently passed infrastructure bill, $65 billion is provided for broadband access. How will this impact the work you do, and how will it benefit society as a whole?
A lot. What I like about this new idea is that they do allow for co-ops and municipalities to be participants because in the past, it was mostly private providers. Now they’re leaving it up to the states to figure it out. Before, [the government] would bring this federal program and say, this is the eligibility, off you go. But now with this [money], they’re really asking the states to come up with a plan. That is a move in the right direction. Now that digital equity is part of the infrastructure bill, it can truly focus on digital inclusion. Training, planning, making sure that everybody can use it, that’s the area that we’ve been involved in for the past 10 years. So that’ll benefit tremendously, I hope.
What are you excited to see as broadband related provisions are implemented from the infrastructure bill?
I’m very interested to see how states design the programs around this funding. That’s going to be interesting to see [how] that’ll play out in the next two years or so. There’s a lot of work to be done. COVID, I think on the awareness side, accelerated the trend by five, even ten years, of why broadband is important. I don’t know how [it will] play out at the federal level, but this is a unique time. I’m excited and hopefully we’ll make the best out of it.