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Render Connect Q&A: Steve Ross, Editor-at-large, Broadband Communities

Jul 9, 2020

Steve Ross is well known as the founding editor and now Editor-at-Large at Broadband Communities magazine. Steve has worked in 85 countries, including time with the UN. He speaks globally on topics ranging from broadband feasibility, international relations, analytic journalism and for more than 20 years on the chronic refugee and poverty issues facing humanitarian aid organizations.

Before Broadband Communities, Steve taught full-time at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he taught science, business and computer-assisted reporting - or ‘data journalism’ as it’s commonly called today.

Steve’s articles on the relationship between broadband access and job growth, particularly about rural and disadvantaged communities, have won multiple editorial awards and delivered unbiased data outcomes that played a central role in justifying $2.35 billion in new federal funding for rural broadband.

Render's CEO, Sam Pratt, recently sat down with Steve to talk about how data is moving the broadband industry forward. 

Welcome Steve, thank you for taking the time to share with our listeners some of the learnings from your illustrious career. Eighty-five countries, can you save us some time and share any we should potentially avoid? 

SR: I must say I've enjoyed every one. I would say that Scott Air Force Base in Antarctica was really wicked cold. And there was nothing but bright white snow and silver aeroplanes, but mainly bright white. I was there as part of a huge project called the Montreal Protocol, helping with the UV atmospheric photospectrometry that ultimately led to the banning of certain refrigerants eating away at the ozone level. 

One question we're asking all of our Render Connect guests is - what does connection mean to you?

I think of connection more generally. I see it as the ability to do all the things that need doing. It's your job, educational opportunities, healthcare and more. Connectivity has never been more critical, and what people don't recognize is how much connectivity brings the world in, while broadening your view. 

Your transition from journalism to academia, lecturing at Columbia and Harvard, and more recently, your advocacy role for under-served communities and policy change is truly remarkable. Could you please give us an overview of the path you’ve taken?

SR: I was editing an environmental newsletter at McGraw-Hill, and both industry and the environmental community were noticing us. Ken Goldstein, a former professor at Columbia, was creating the world's first environmental reporting course. And here I was an environmental reporter. Ken shared his vision, and from that, we created the world's first environmental reporting course. 

The transition from environmental journalism to fiber started with Scott DeGarmo, the late former President and CEO of Broadband Communities, a wonderful man. He and I had worked together on various publications, and at the time he was Publisher of Broadband Properties, a magazine aimed at private cable operators. He approached me and said "we're going to make this industry stronger by reporting the right way", and that was incredibly enticing. 

Using data and statistics to demonstrate challenges has been a consistent theme, can you point to a recent past that has highlighted the power of data to change or influence policy?

SR: The most significant breakthrough was the spotlight on rural funding in 2018. There were two major bills passed for rural development. One was a general budget bill that held an investment in the trillions, of which, a small slice formed the Broadband ReConnect Program in March 2018. Government funding was modest; politicians like to cut ribbons on large new buildings and bridges and highways however, broadband is less visible. 

We started to share data about rural broadband trends, and politicians and their staff approached us. We received several calls and emails throughout 2018. They were feeling us out, and mainly feeling me out. They were asking, "who's behind you - a group or foundation?". I said, "We're a magazine, a business magazine'. We were bullish about sharing the information and alerting our readers to the business opportunity because 95% of our readers represented small carriers, public officials, or companies that needed better broadband, not mass carriers. 

Have you seen other areas where the data is there, but the industry is yet to embrace change? Where do you think that the next wave of focus needs to be?

SR: We've modeled the industry and believe that in lower-density areas where a third of the nation's population lives, smaller operators - particularly in rural areas - should coordinate and combine resources.

'The data tells us that in order to solve our connectivity challenges, collaboration is key. What do I mean by that? Some operators will be separate companies cooperating - an electric cooperative, a municipal utility, and a few small local carriers, some will be tiny local monopolies owned by one dynamic company.'

That means we will see a motivation to set up regional operators, with a region ranging from small to maybe the size of a small state. Collaboration of this nature would improve the probability of receiving federal grants as they are going to save a lot of money. National carriers would be early renters, so they'd be anchor tenants if you wanted them and enable smaller municipalities to enter markets they couldn't otherwise access. But so far, this has not been recognized by the broad industry.

You have commissioned several studies, one of which identified the critical link between broadband access for rural population survival. The data insights have successfully influenced significant USDA & FCC funding for rural broadband. What were the key findings?

SR: We showed, in four major studies and a few smaller ones, that at least a quarter of all rural job loss since 2010 has been due to lack of broadband access. It may be half of all rural job loss, however, the county-by-county data has been deliberately blurred by the FCC. The FCC is finally trying to cure that, so is the NTIA. 

The first study showed a correlation. The second compared states that were restricting public broadband systems. They had three times the loss rate as the 30 states that have few or no restrictions, even though the "restriction" states were faster growing overall - this proved causality. In 2017, the third study disaggregated the data; some rural counties rely mainly on farming, others on retirement homes or tourism or mineral extraction. 

The fourth study, in 2018, showed that the rising economy reduced the rural loss rate but did not end it. We have been working with all US counties, all 3144 of them, of which about 2000 are rural with 95% of the nation's land area but less than 15% of the population. 

Your financial models are amongst the world's most widely accessed resources for network operators and builders investing in networks. Could you share your top considerations around building a case for receiving a share of federal funding?

SR: The greatest hurdle with federal funding is being eligible for it in the first place. If you want to go after the Broadband ReConnect Program, you need to make sure there is minimal service in the area you are targeting - no more than 10% with 10x1 or better - otherwise you are simply not eligible. This is just another reason why communities should get together. 

Smaller communities have the data in front of them - they see population loss, stranded assets and lower quality of life. The trick is to figure out what to build, understand what that will cost and what percentage they can fund and try to bridge the gap with regional, state or federal funds. 

Carriers also have to do the calculation. Are they better off, for instance, renting facilities from a municipality or small local carrier and getting 25% of a large market, or 60% of the smaller market they cannot reach with their network? 

5G promises the unprecedented potential to build digital ecosystems. Can you share your perspective on the criticality of fiber infrastructure in creating this path for innovation? 

SR: Fiber is the gold standard with wireless to bridge, at least temporarily, the inevitable gaps along the way. Fiber deployments have been reasonably fast from a historical perspective - fiber now passes about 40% of USA premises. But data needs have been growing faster, with volume increasing annually at around 50%. You can't have 5G microcells without fiber backhaul, or at least very good short mm-wave backhaul to a fiber point of presence.

Looking towards 2025, where should the broadband sector embrace change and take more intelligent risks?

SR: The elephant in the room is Huawei. Until this year, all equipment vendors were standardizing their offerings - no custom chips, all the same chipsets. Huawei has been forced to start its chip ecosystem. Most network intelligence should be regionalized and moving toward the edge, away from the core. We'd like to see the industry embrace open source software written by multiple independent vendors here. Equipment vendors have been expecting that software will provide the bulk of their revenue down the road which needs resolving. 

Thank you, Steve, not just for joining us today but for the advocacy work and awareness of the importance of critical infrastructure for communities across the country. It has been such a pleasure chatting with you and learning from you.
We look forward to seeing you and many of our friends and listeners at the Broadband Communities 2020 Summit in sunny Houston, Texas next year. 

SR: Thank you for having me and, more importantly, thank you for existing. The impact you and your partners are having is significant; in fact, today's industry could not work without you.

Listen to the full episode with Sam Pratt & Steve Ross below: 

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