Implementing BEAD & Digital Equity Programs in Tennessee
Paige Shapiro, Tennessee’s federal program officer for the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment and Digital Equity Program, discusses how these programs aim to ensure all people and communities have the skills, technology and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of the digital economy.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Intro: The following program is brought to you by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Lead Tennessee Radio, conversations with the leaders moving our state forward. We look at the issues shaping Tennessee’s future: rural development, public policy, broadband, health care and other topics impacting our communities.
Carrie Huckeby: Hello, I’m Carrie Huckeby, the executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association. In this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio, we’re talking to Paige Shapiro, Tennessee’s federal program officer for BEAD, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program and Digital Equity. BEAD, as you may know, will provide over $42 billion to expand high speed Internet access by funding the planning, the infrastructure deployment and adoption of programs in all 50 states. The Digital Equity Act provides almost $3 billion to establish some grant programs that will promote digital equity and inclusion. The aim here is really to ensure that all people and communities have the skills, the technology and the capacity to reap the full benefits of our digital economy. Paige, in her role as the FPO, will serve as the main federal point of contact for these programs here in our state, so she’s got a big job ahead of her. So welcome, Paige.
Paige Shapiro: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, before we jump in and talk about BEAD, start off by telling us a little bit about your background and how you found yourself in this position with NTIA, the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Paige Shapiro: I’d love to. So I am a true Tennessean. I was born and raised in East Tennessee. I graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Go Vols, and my first job out of college was in Nashville. So I’ve always been here trying to serve those in our state. I actually my first job out of college was working with Governor Haslam and his administration in a two year fellowship program. I studied business in college, and I had a bit of a mid-life crisis and decided that I would go see how I could help make government a better place and make Tennessee a better place to live, work and raise a family. Through that fellowship program, I got placed in the Department of Education and really found a passion there. I worked in early literacy for several years, where I specialized in early literacy program design, implementation and adoption. I just happened to be looking for a new challenge when I heard about this role, and I felt like my skill sets and my knowledge and just the great relationships I had already across Tennessee would be really valuable in helping connect all of our citizens to high speed, reliable, affordable Internet. And I just think this is such a great goal, so I interviewed with NTIA. I am very lucky that they thought I would be a good fit, and here I am today.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, we’re glad to have you. You bring an extensive background in Nashville and, of course, born and raised here in our great state of Tennessee. So that’s a great thing, an advantage all on its own. I think you’re a little young for a midlife crisis, though, right?
Paige Shapiro: Maybe a little. I looked at changing my business degree, and it was just going to cost way too much time and money. So I was like, okay, I will get my business degree and then go work for a business-minded governor and see where that takes me.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, as things are ramping up for BEAD, you know, I know there’s a lot of details that are still being worked through and federal program officers are being assigned. Tell us what the responsibilities are of a federal program officer.
Paige Shapiro: Yes. So this is what I think is a really exciting job. First and foremost, I’m here and all of the federal program officers are here to partner with state broadband offices to be a resource and a means of communication to relay important information to and from NTIA. So that’s really the most glaring thing on my job description. But we are also here to be a spokesperson and an advocate for our NTIA programs and more importantly, the stakeholder communities that surround them. So we absolutely know that building relationships with stakeholders is the only way we can successfully deploy this program. So it is a huge responsibility of mine and partnership with the Department of Economic and Community Development to listen and ensure that what our citizens say is correctly reflected in our state’s final plans and proposals. And then there’s some grant administration things: helping ensure plans are ready, being a trusted expert, especially by your members, and then knowing about how other Internet related programs coincide with ours as well.
Carrie Huckeby: And I don’t remember before if an NTIA employee actually worked in the state of Tennessee. Is this the first time there’s been an official role in Tennessee for NTIA?
Paige Shapiro: Yes. We laugh. We compare ourselves to a startup quite a bit because before the BEAD program and the Digital Equity Programs came to be, NTIA was a very small team. And so now they are hiring, I think, they’ve tripled or quadrupled the size of the NTIA team. So first time that NTIA has had a Tennessean in Tennessee working with their programs.
Carrie Huckeby: Which makes those conversations you’re having with everyone and that educational piece of what you do and all that, just that much more important.
Paige Shapiro: Absolutely.
Carrie Huckeby: And I said that there’s an FPO assigned to each state, but that was an assumption on my part. Is there any state or any reason a state would not get an FPO?
Paige Shapiro: Yeah. So generally speaking, most states will or have already been assigned their own FPO. We’re in the final stretch of hiring. That said, depending on some states size and their proximity, they may be covered one FPO for two states. But I’m lucky that I get to focus on serving us right here in Tennessee.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, we appreciate that, having your full attention.
Paige Shapiro: Yes, absolutely.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, you recently attended and participated on a panel at KTA/TNBA Fall Conference in Bowling Green. And we really appreciated you coming and doing that. And I know you’ve been meeting with some of our other member companies and having those visits. So how are those conversations helping you prepare for what’s coming with the BEAD program, or what are you taking away from those visits?
Paige Shapiro: Thank you for having me at the conference. It was such a fun time and very informative for me as well. And there are so many takeaways that I’ve had from the visits that I’ve had so far, and I’m looking forward to the ones that I’m currently in the process of scheduling. But probably my largest takeaway so far is that Tennessee has been doing such incredible work to connect our communities to high speed, reliable and affordable Internet for years. And the collaboration among industry partners is just so very strong. And that’s particularly exciting for both me and Tennessee, because I just so clearly see that we are a state that is poised to be successful and deploying these programs and connecting everyone because there is just such a desire, a deep seated desire and willingness to do so. So that’s probably my, you know, my three biggest takeaways. My fourth would probably be I learned that splicing fiber is an incredibly technical skill, and we should all be very thankful that that is not my part of this program, because I would not be good at it.
Carrie Huckeby: Oh, I bet you would.
Paige Shapiro: I was just so impressed.
Carrie Huckeby: It is. It’s a very technical job. So, you know, those folks spend a lot of time in those fiber trailers day in and day out. And also down in, you know, the holes and doing that in all kinds of situations. So great respect, like you, for those people that do that.
Paige Shapiro: Yes, I am. I am in awe of what they do. And the more that I learn, the more that I’m just so impressed with the knowledge and commitment in this industry.
Carrie Huckeby: And I’m happy, very happy to hear you say that, because as the director of the association, I know our members work really hard and, you know, strategically planning and all the things that it takes to connect Tennessee. And they’ve been doing it a long time and still want to continue that effort until every Tennesseean is connecting. And so I’m glad that comes across in those conversations that you have with them.
Paige Shapiro: Oh, absolutely.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, the possibilities and the opportunity of receiving BEAD funding, you know, of course, is exciting to our members, and certainly for those residents and businesses that don’t have broadband access today or don’t have a reliable connection today, in Tennessee and the other 49 states. With all this funding being made available down the road, what challenges do you think NTIA will have in administering the funds? What’s going to be their greatest challenge with that?
Paige Shapiro: That’s a great question. I would say that probably the largest challenge that we have is that this is just such a tall order. Connecting everyone in America to quality Internet services has obviously never been accomplished, and if it were easy, it would have already been finished. So, you know, I think that just the fact that the scope of this project is going to be a little bit difficult. I also think we’re asking states and their partners to dig deep, sometimes literally digging deep to make this happen. And we’re just going to have to be nimble to address the unforeseen challenges that we don’t know are coming in a way that we probably haven’t been used to, especially as government, while still ensuring that we’re taking all of the right steps along the way to do this, the right way to make it last. So I think those are those are probably the biggest challenges.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, like any big project, you don’t know what you’re going to have a problem with until it starts, and you’re in the middle of it. So, you know, then it’ll become finding a solution that works for everyone and finding a quick solution, I guess.
Paige Shapiro: Right.
Carrie Huckeby: From the broadband provider’s perspective, what challenges do you think they will see applying for the funding, and how will NTIA assist them with that application process? How will they help in moving it along?
Paige Shapiro: Yes, So I do want to point out just for your listeners that it is really important to remember that Tennessee has to develop a comprehensive local coordination approach that will begin in the development of all the way from the Five-Year Action Plan, which is that strategic plan that we talked about at the conference that we’ll do first and can continue all the way through awarding and implementation. And so our Internet service providers really need to be sure that they’re a part of that process to help limit the challenges that they may face. Because no one knows the challenges that are going to come up in this process better than those that have been doing it, and especially in your organization when they have been doing it for such a long time. So please be involved so we can help avoid as many as possible. And then we also need you all at the table to advocate for actions that will facilitate faster broadband deployment, cheaper broadband deployment, and just more easily accessible broadband to those that are unserved and underserved. So just wanted to highlight that. That didn’t answer your question. So I will answer your question in the way that one of the largest concerns that we’ve heard so far is just about workforce availability when the grants are awarded. You may know, and if you haven’t seen it yet, our technical assistance team has already begun providing some great resources, including a Workforce Planning Guide that are available for that. They’re on the Internet For All web page. And a really exciting thing about this particular challenge is now is the time for our providers to assess their workforce needs and work with us to make sure that the right training and resources are available and in place to help mitigate this risk later on. We are so excited that this is a huge job creation opportunity for Tennessee and that we have time to plan. So we know that that challenge is coming, and we’re going to work with all of you all to help mitigate that along the way.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, that workforce conversation happens in every meeting and every conference and almost every face-to-face conversation right now because there is such a shortage. And also, you know, our challenge is getting out there to educate the high schools or the technical schools and talk about the jobs that are available in our industry. And I know I have one vendor that has been looking for AutoCAD employees, and it’s just difficult to find them. So that’s definitely a challenge. So I’m glad that we will be able to work with your group and your organization to try to solve that.
Paige Shapiro: Well, and I think that what is so exciting about the BEAD and DE program specifically, is we do have a large opportunity to make these high quality and desirable jobs, but it is just making sure that we go and talk to members like you all and bring high school and career and technical education and our TCATs and just bringing everyone to the table to really help highlight this future need. Not that you all haven’t been doing that, but now that we know there’s money coming, how can we help streamline all of those incredible efforts that are going on already?
Carrie Huckeby: Right. Right. Funding certainly helps push things through.
Paige Shapiro: It does.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah. And get things going faster. The TNBA member companies have had a good working relationship with our state broadband director, Taylre Beaty, over at the Tennessee ECD. And you mentioned earlier about your role would be working with that office. So how do you see your job or your role and others in the same job working with each state’s broadband director? How does that look?
Paige Shapiro: We’ll continue to be a resource and a means of communication with Taylre and the Broadband Office. From, again, that five year action plan, which is step one all the way through implementation, we will have traditional grants management roles when it comes to working with Taylre and her team. So that will just be making sure that the plans are prepped, that all of the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed in terms of getting those plans approved through NTIA. And then we’ll also be working with then, and again, I already mentioned this, but just really making sure that that stakeholder engagement piece is woven throughout the process. So in the beginning it might be listening sessions, but as we get through to post award, it might look like visiting construction sites and talking with providers to find out what’s going well and what challenges there are. And so it’ll really just be that constant communication because Taylre is going to hear things from stakeholders that I won’t and vice versa. So it’s really just making sure that there are two people devoted to – two people and then everyone else – but two people that are waking up every day and thinking about it, that this is going smoothly for everyone from providers to community members.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, we will look forward to working with you and Taylre both. It sounds like you’ll be a very strong team working together on this program. So it’s, you know, that’s only advantage, another advantage for here in our home state of Tennessee. So look forward to that. We’re going to switch gears just a little bit. We’ve been talking about the money, you know, the BEAD funding and infrastructure. But let’s talk a little bit about that digital equity, because that’s a big part too. Getting the Tennesseans, not only the access, but also educating them to learn how to take advantage of it and what the benefits of it are. So what are some of the things that NTIA is evaluating to ensure that Tennesseans can connect to broadband service after it’s built?
Paige Shapiro: So just want to reiterate that the digital equity piece of this program is so incredibly important. We have a saying, and it stuck with me, so I want to share it with everyone. That “BEAD without Equity is just BAD.”
Carrie Huckeby: Oh, I like that.
Paige Shapiro: Right. Easy. It’s catchy to remember.
Carrie Huckeby: Yes.
Paige Shapiro: So even though NTIA has two separate programs for BEAD, and DE, we really don’t see them as separate. We do have a guide. It’s the Five-Year Action Plan and Digital Equity Guide on our again, Internet for All web page that can really help our service providers understand the overlap of the two plans. So if they are interested in learning more, I would point them to that resource. I believe one of the best things about NTIA and its approach to the digital equity piece and BEAD for that matter, is that the understanding and acknowledgment that states have different issues and challenges. And that they really want states to do what’s best. They do not have a one-size fits all approach. You know, NTIA has asked all states to ensure that they actively seek input and engagement from eight covered populations. And these covered populations are essentially groups and communities that historically have been disproportionately impacted by digital inequity.
Paige Shapiro: So this includes groups like our veterans, our people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, those that live in rural areas. I just listed four. You can go look at all of them in our Notice of Public Funding if you’re interested. But NTIA wants us to go to these eight groups. And then they’re asking states to complete a framework that essentially reflects the feedback, the challenges and the solutions proposed from these people that they’re hearing from, from these covered populations to ensure that when everything is said and done and access is built out everywhere, that people are connected. A really short way to say what I just said is that Tennesseans ultimately will be the key stakeholders who will evaluate what we need to measure to ensure digital inclusion. And then we’ll create the measures of success to know that we’ve done a good job. So NTIA is saying, Hey, here are these eight groups that you need to make sure that you talk to. It doesn’t just have to be these eight groups, but it definitely needs to include these eight groups. And then from there, the information is flowing from everyone that we talk to.
Carrie Huckeby: I think that’s definitely a positive that NTIA is going into it where, as you said, one size does not fit all.
Paige Shapiro: Right.
Carrie Huckeby: And we talk about the landscapes of 50 states that you can always find something beautiful in every state to see. So the same thing can be said about every state has its challenges, it successes and what’s working and what needs to be worked on. So I think it’s a really positive way to look at this program and say, tell us what you need versus us telling you what we think you need.
Paige Shapiro: Exactly.
Carrie Huckeby: Is there anything else, Paige, that we haven’t talked about that you would like to add as we wrap up?
Paige Shapiro: Yeah, the only thing that I will add is that we’ve been told time and time again that this truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And so I would just encourage everyone to get involved because what we are doing matters, and it’s important for the health and wellbeing of Tennessee long term. And so please, just if you want to find out how you can get more involved, reach out. I would be more than happy to help point you in the right direction or be a resource for you. We are definitely partners in this, and I’m really looking forward to working with all of you.
Carrie Huckeby: Is there an email or a website that you would like to direct people to to get information from you?
Paige Shapiro: Yes. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that’s email@example.com. If you are listening in your car, just email Carrie. She’ll send it to you.
Carrie Huckeby: That’s exactly right.
Paige Shapiro: And if you are interested in any of the resources that I talked about, you can just Google “Internet For All,” and it’ll pop right up.
Carrie Huckeby: Yes, that’s a great website. I went to it other day, and it’s got a lot of good information on there.
Paige Shapiro: Great.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah. Well, thank you, Paige. I appreciate you taking some time out of your schedule to talk to me today.
Paige Shapiro: Happy to do it. And I would be happy to come back any time.
Carrie Huckeby: My guest has been Paige Shapiro, Tennessee’s federal program officer with the US Department of Commerce, NTIA. You’ve been listening to Lead Tennessee Radio, produced by Tennessee Broadband Association. Cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.