How Funding Champions Digital Literacy

Posted: January 5, 2023

Episode Description

Taylre Beaty, Tennessee’s Broadband Director, discusses how the state can effectively use broadband grant funding to make the biggest impact in both infrastructure and adoption across the state.


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. Taylre Beaty, our state broadband director with Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, is my guest on this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio. In September, you probably heard or maybe you saw that the department announced it would invest almost $447 million in grants to expand broadband across the state of Tennessee. Some 213 million of that was awarded to the Tennessee Broadband Association’s member companies so that they could reach several unserved and underserved counties. It is exciting news indeed for many Tennesseans that have been here waiting for broadband or better broadband. And these funds come from the American Recovery Plan, the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund and the 112th General Assembly approved Governor Lee’s $500 million budget for broadband infrastructure and adoption. And we talk a lot on this podcast, and mainly in all of our conversations about building the network and the capital investment it takes to build it and maintain it. But on this episode, we’re switching gears just a little bit. Taylre is here to talk about another important piece of that broadband funding, and that’s digital literacy and adoption. So welcome, Taylre. I know you’re a busy lady, and I really appreciate your time.

Taylre Beaty: Thanks Carrie. Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, you recently passed your one year mark as the state broadband director. And before this, you worked for USDA in the RUS program. And you also have government affairs and legislative experience in D.C. on your resume. Tell us what you learned in those past experiences or anything else that helped you do what you do every day.

Taylre Beaty: Yeah, great question. I think, you know, I’ll first say it’s great to be home and back in Tennessee and get the chance to serve the communities that built me and my family. And then across the state, of course, and just to be able to give back and work on this important issue here in my home state. You know, I spent some time in D.C. and got some different experiences up there. And I think the big thing that I learned that is really helpful now, especially with just the amount of federal funding that’s headed to states, and we’re working to tease out how we’re going to spend that money and how we want to be the best stewards of it, is just learning and understanding what that process looks like. What decisions go into large federal funding packages like the bipartisan infrastructure law, and how do we learn, as implementers of that funding, how to make sure it goes to the right place? And so I think that perspective of kind of the big picture executive side or the legislative side, what decisions are going into those conversations, how do you get that funding out into communities, or in my past kind of out into states, you know, that perspective has been really interesting, especially here on the ground, to help us have that perspective and understand how do we take what I know about where this funding, quite frankly, comes from, and then how do we get it out and deploy it into our communities? I think that has been something that really has been helpful for me, especially as we’re gearing up for the large amounts of federal funding that we’re going to be continuing to get in the next year or so. Just to understand that federal process and what that looks like.

Carrie Huckeby: I can see where that past experience will be very helpful in what’s coming down the path. So we’re building networks to underserved and unserved areas is, of course, only part of the solution, as we said. And digital equity is a vital part of broadband expansion, and this does cover digital literacy and adoption. Tell us how having a broadband connection and knowing how to use it, how does that impact people in areas of education, safety, agriculture and economic opportunity?

Taylre Beaty: I mean, that is really such a huge part of the puzzle. I know I’ve said this a while since I first kind of arrived on the block here in Tennessee about a year and some change ago and learned that we would have a significant amount of funding for broadband adoption. My background is infrastructure policy, specifically broadband infrastructure policy. And so I have been learning a lot about the digital literacy and opportunity side and what that looks like. And it does hold a special place in my heart of just understanding how do we make sure that folks have what they need to actually access that technology once the infrastructure is there. So again, that’s a great, great point, that the infrastructure is a large piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. And so how does that impact a household or a community when they have what they need to be able to access the technology? And I think it makes a huge impact. It’s the difference between the infrastructure or the technology being there and that technology and infrastructure being used. It’s something that, you know, we a lot of times, and I grew up in more of a suburban area, but I have lots of family in rural parts of the state that did not have access to Internet growing up. And I kind of took for granted the connectivity I had until I really got into this space and started thinking a lot about how family and friends back home didn’t have access to Internet.

Taylre Beaty: And so understanding that the impact that adopting to that Internet is be it this is how we can pay our bills and check our email and do schoolwork online. Be it this is how I can do a telehealth or doctor’s visit online safely and securely and not have to drive two or 3 hours away to access that kind of specialist or health care visit. But it’s even more than that. I think it’s understanding the value that this adds to somebody’s life and really just that piece of the puzzle of the infrastructure’s there. What are some of those barriers? Is it affordability? And a lot of times it is affordability. So how do we address those issues? Because we want our folks in our Tennessee communities to be able to access that. And so that touches all of those pieces that you talked about. It’s the workforce development and digital skills training. How do we actually use the technology, how do we afford the technology, how do we adopt to the technology and use this long term? And I think on the infrastructure side, that certainly also impacts to providers subscribership and take rates and really helps again build that case for why providers should come to these rural and remote areas, because that interest is there, that demand is there. And so I think it’s a complex conversation about broadband adoption. But really like I said, I think it makes the difference. It’s the difference between the infrastructure just being there and actually being used and adopted to.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, I think last week we celebrated National Rural Health Day. That was either last Thursday or Friday. And it brings just to our attention just a small piece of that adoption and infrastructure with telehealth. And, you know, the pandemic taught us a whole lot about education and how important it is to have that connectivity. But it also taught us that we can do those visits with that telehealth, with our doctor’s office and, you know, save us those trips into the bigger cities, or if it’s just a blood pressure check, or it’s a diabetes check, or something like that, we can do it from the home, instead of making that trip into a doctor’s office. Especially during flu season, no one wants to be in the doctor’s office in flu season. So there’s just so many pieces of that adoption and quality of life once the infrastructure is there and how to use it. Last year, the Pew Research reported that 72% of rural communities are connected, and that number, I think, was around 77 to 79% in the more populated urban areas, as you mentioned. But that leaves about 20 to 30% of the state that aren’t connected. And if I remember correctly, there’s about $50 million allocated in our state plan for adoption programs. And then the BEAD Program is following that up with, I think they’re setting aside $2.5 to 3 billion for similar efforts. The intent is for everyone to have broadband if they want to subscribe to broadband. But what are some of the reasons you and your team have found that consumers and businesses don’t connect to broadband? Of course, you mentioned affordability, and that’s that’s a big piece. But how will these funds help overcome that, you think, and reduce that 20-30%?

Taylre Beaty: I think, yeah, affordability is probably the largest challenge that we’re hearing. Of course, we’re in kind of the pre-planning process for the BEAD and Digital Equity funding. And so we’re kind of having those introductory conversations about, hey, what are the things that are barriers to folks adopting to Internet really on a community level? Because that looks different from urban to rural or just folks from different backgrounds across the state. And what are those barriers, and how do we work towards solutions? Because we can’t work towards solutions if we don’t know what those barriers are. And so I think the other piece so, like I said, affordability being probably the biggest thing that we hear, I think even as you get into more rural areas in our state that you see a lot of questions around digital skills training and just understanding the value that the Internet can bring to a household. You know, for a lot of our communities especially, and I had this conversation actually with my grandparents not too long ago, that for a lot of our aging populations in the state, and again, like I said, I had this conversation with my grandparents, and they were like, “Well, you know, we’ve gone this long without the Internet. Why should we do this now?” And so I’m like, “Well, there’s so much more.” You know, there’s so much opportunity there. It’s not necessarily about accessing social media or things like that, although that is something that they can do.

Taylre Beaty: It’s also an opportunity, like you said, to be able to go to the doctor and not have to sit in the waiting room during flu season or, you know, just have access to the things that you may not have right there in front of you. And I think also on the agriculture side, I grew up in the 4-H world, and precision agriculture I know, is really important and dependent on broadband. And so how we make sure that we’re communicating at the state level and the community level, how important it is to make sure that that connection is there. And then also, I think it’s a matter of actually leveraging those folks in the community to talk about and teach and demonstrate why it’s important, because I think from place to place you have folks that don’t understand exactly why it’s important in 2022 as everything is moving to online. I mean, it’s hard sometimes to pay your bills in-person these days or to do a job application. It’s pretty much all online. And so I think as we’re moving to that, understanding how we make sure that folks in our communities know the value of Internet and also have what they need to be able to get to that point where they can use it and adopt to it.

Carrie Huckeby: You mentioned affordability, and as we said, it’s a challenge for many. And the FCC put the affordable connectivity plan into effect back there in the pandemic to assist anyone that needed help paying for broadband. And I think it was a discount up to about $50 per month for those who qualified. There’s also a $100 discount on the purchase of a new laptop device, a tablet, a desktop computer. But beyond the affordability challenge, and you mentioned this about learning how to use devices, some people may not be comfortable purchasing, or using a particular device like a tablet or even a smartphone. Do you think that being uncomfortable with the technology slows down broadband adoption? How big of a factor do you think that is, and is that age specific, or do you think it’s across all age groups?

Taylre Beaty: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. You know, I am really intrigued about that conversation of the actual device piece because things have changed so much in terms of technology. And I was talking to a teacher the other day. She’s an elementary age teacher, and we were talking about like when we did typing classes in school. And, you know, I’m millennial, so I definitely went through the typing classes, but she was telling me, she was like, “You know, our school doesn’t do that anymore because our kids use Chromebooks or iPads, and they like tap on it, like a touchscreen.” And that was really interesting to me because we were talking about how, you know, how important like typing classes are because you can’t do like a resume or something like that on your smartphone. Like, that’s just hard. And so we were talking about how like there’s an interesting correlation between the fact that a lot of our aging populations also struggle with that. But then also some of our younger populations are like typing, like we don’t type like that anymore. And so like having those kinds of conversations. But I think the issue of having appropriate devices is definitely a challenge when it comes to how to adopt to an Internet subscription, because I think there’s a common misconception, and I think we probably talked about this, Carrie, but like if you have a have a smartphone and a cellular connection that you’ve got all you need and that gets it done.

Taylre Beaty: But like I said, I mean, doing things like do applying for a job or submitting a homework assignment, those are hard things to do on a smartphone. So making sure that folks have what they need. I’m not saying that every household has to have a desktop computer and all the things, but I think, you know, leveraging what we’re doing in communities to make sure that those gaps are filled. You mentioned ACP, there’s definitely some opportunity there on devices, and then that $30 off subscription. I know a lot of our Tennessee providers, most of our Tennessee providers, are participating there. So if you’re an eligible household, you can access some of those benefits, and that’s a great tool. That’s something that we have realized in the last couple of months as we’ve rolled from the Emergency Broadband Benefit to ACP, or as the FCC has rolled rather, that that’s not being utilized as much as we would like to see. We know there are a lot of households in Tennessee that are eligible for that.

Taylre Beaty: So we want to make sure we’re pushing that out because not only does that help fill in some of the gaps on the Internet subscription, but it also helps on making sure that we’re connecting folks to, if there’s a device piece that’s missing. And then I also say that the state is looking for with our $50 million that you mentioned earlier, that we’re going to have available for affordability and adoption programs. We want to see how we can fill in those gaps, both in, you know, digital skills training and understanding how to use that technology and that equipment, but also working with some nonprofits and folks in the community to, you know, find some of those approaches that aren’t a one size fits all and making sure that they have what they need to help people get devices and affordable connections and things like that. So I think there’s some exciting things to that vein that are in the pipeline. But you’re right on. I think access to a device that gets done what you need to do on it, I think is also a big part of whether or not folks are going to adopt to the Internet.

Carrie Huckeby: There’s a big learning curve with the cloud. You know, everything’s going to the cloud, how to use the cloud or, you know, are you storing everything on your laptop, or on your hard drive, or does it go to the cloud? And where do you find it after that? So there’s a lot to what kind of device you want to buy and use every day. I spoke to Dr. Daniel Collins from The University of Tennessee a couple of months ago. And he’s a 4-H lifer, and I think you are, too. And he talked about the 4-H Tech Changemakers and the grant that they received, where 4-H students in our counties will be teaching older residents how to use the Internet. I mean, some of these very things that we talked about with telehealth or checking your bank statement or paying your bills. They’ll be training them to use the Internet and connected devices. Do you think it’s programs like this one that will help increase broadband adoption across the state?

Taylre Beaty: 1,000%.

Carrie Huckeby: I thought you would agree.

Taylre Beaty: I think that, and you’re right on. I am definitely a 4-H lifer. I grew up and did all the things from canning to livestock to, you know, the technology stuff. It was great, and I loved every minute of it. But I think that is so important. I cannot stress that enough. I think what’s interesting about this, and I mentioned this earlier, that we’ve got a lot of challenges in broadband and adoption, particularly, and affordability, in rural communities and in urban communities. Sometimes those challenges look really similar. The solutions, a lot of times are different. And there’s things like, you know, in a rural community, you don’t have – and some do, but most probably don’t in Tennessee – but you don’t have public transportation. You don’t have a good way of getting everybody in one room to do things like digital literacy training the way that you might in an urban community or parts of an urban community where something is in walking distance or public transportation is available. And sometimes you just don’t have the resources or the space available in one or the other. And so they’re different solutions. And so I think primarily for your listeners that are mostly working in those rural areas, I think definitely leveraging 4-H, leveraging youth partnerships to have those kinds of conversations and trainings, it’s going to take, especially in our rural areas, more of a grassroots approach, I think, to address this issue.

Taylre Beaty: We have 95 counties across the state, 95 different challenges with broadband and 95 different solutions. Some things might work in some counties twice and that is great, or five times or maybe 93 times. But it’s going to take sitting down in that community and finding out what works for the folks there. And I think that leveraging youth to be able to help bridge some of those gaps is going to be awesome. I have said that a lot recently that, you know, making sure that we’re not reinventing the wheel. You know, you have a lot of high school and middle school kids in the 4-H programs that are like, we want to serve in our community. So what better way than to pair them with some folks that need that help and honestly, that encouragement and would love to sit down with some of them and learn from them. And I think that’s awesome. And I think you’ll also find that those kids also learn from those folks that they’re working with and teaching. And so I think that’s just a really cool thing. And I think I’m wholeheartedly supportive of those kinds of solutions statewide. And just kind of teasing out, what is the best thing for our community? How do we do things that are going to be impactful? I know in some areas, it might be particularly thinking about like ACP and promotion of that, like back to school pushes or back to semester pushes. Finding ways that you can partner with the providers in the area to just make sure that folks have the information that they need to know what’s out there, to know what the packages are for their Internet subscriptions, to know where broadband is in the community, to make sure they know how to access or get questions answered when they have those.

Taylre Beaty: Like how do they do that? Who do they reach out to? I’ve recently – I’ll also mention one more thing on the 4-H and Extension side. I recently spoke at some of the digital literacy trainings that you UT Extension had actually last week. And was able to talk to some of the Extension staff just about, “Hey, how can we be better partners so that if you’re working with the adult AG or the adult FCS or the youth in the school systems, when you undoubtedly get that person or that family that says, ‘Hey, I need Internet, or I can’t afford Internet,’ or whatever the challenge is, you know where to go to, you know who to contact.” And I think that there’s a really good opportunity for us there to leverage that partnership and figure out ways that we can work together to solve this issue in our community.

Carrie Huckeby: Definitely. And that is something I talked to Dr. Collins about, because when the Tennessee Broadband Marketing Committee visited the UT, we talked about digital literacy and adoption, and he told us about this program. We told him, please keep us involved because, as you know, many of the members serve all these counties in Tennessee. So that partnership would be very important, where we’re helping the students know, we’re helping everyone know, where we serve, where broadband is available, what packages are there, all of that. So I do think it takes collaboration and partnership to make all of this work. So very happy to hear you say that and touch on that. Is there anything else that you would like to add or you’re looking for from anyone in the state to help with this?

Taylre Beaty: Yeah, I think the biggest thing right now, and I know your members are really good about doing this, but I think the biggest thing right now is having those conversations at the community and the county level about where the problem areas are, what the pain points are. Is it a challenge of access? Is it a challenge of affordability or adoption? Is it both? Because I think there’s so much value in just sitting down with community leaders and trying to make sure everyone’s on the same page. I think as we are moving into deploying a lot of this federal funding in the next couple of years, we’re going to be making sure on the state level, our job is to make sure that we finish this, that we make sure every Tennessee household and business has the opportunity to access broadband infrastructure. But that also means we have to make sure that every Tennessee household and business has the resources they need to adopt to it. And so with that, I think even starting just on the local level, be it talking to the county, to political subdivisions and localities and just sitting down and saying, “Hey, look, there are these big pockets that don’t have access.” Or “There are big pockets from the provider side of, you know, who is and isn’t adopting, what partnerships or existing efforts can we partner on to make sure that we’re getting these folks in our community what they need to be able to access it?” And I think that’s just a huge part of it. I know I’ve met with a couple of counties in recent months where they’re pretty well built out, and so they’re sitting here saying, “Hey, most of our folks have access to Internet, but we still get questions or concerns about Internet.” And that’s coming from that adoption side. That the infrastructure is there, but they’re not sure how to be where they can be to actually adopt to it, be that affordability or just understanding what it looks like to subscribe to an Internet package or being able to get a device that makes sense for them to be able to use the Internet.

Taylre Beaty: There’s a lot of those things. And so I think starting from having those conversations and just sitting down and saying, “Hey, where are the pain points, and how can we sit down and figure out ways to partner there?” We’re also going to be in the process of doing some regional and community-based listening sessions in the coming next three months or so as we’re planning through how we’re going to use the BEAD and Digital Equity funding from the federal government. We’ll have to be writing a five year action plan and a digital opportunity plan. And so that’s something that we want to hear, that feedback. And so I think as soon as folks can start having those conversations and bubbling those pain points up to us so we can make sure that’s captured, we really want to make sure that we’re using this money to solve the issue here in Tennessee. And it’s going to take everyone listening to this podcast to make that happen. And so we’re excited about it. But we are just really anxious to get started and would love to hear from our communities and our providers about what ways we can better partner moving forward.

Carrie Huckeby: Sounds good. And we definitely look forward to working with you and your department and helping find what the challenges are and pinpointing those, for sure. And then finding solutions for them and being able to bring those down into each one of our serving areas in our counties. So we are definitely here to support you and to collaborate and partner to ensure that the adoption numbers get where we want them to be and where everyone has access to good, reliable broadband. So is there anything else you want to add before we close?

Taylre Beaty: I don’t think so. I just I think the big thing is we’re really excited about this. I mean, we get the chance to do something that is going to transform our Tennessee communities. And we’re so excited about that. We’re so excited about this process and what it’s going to look like. And I said this, but our goal is literally to finish the job, to make sure that every Tennessee household and business has access to broadband, but also has what they need to adopt to it. And so we’re excited. We’re looking forward to what’s coming down the pipeline and how we can work together to finish the job.

Carrie Huckeby: Great. It’s a good goal to have. My guest has been Taylre Beaty, Tennessee State Broadband Director with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. And 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.

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