Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission, because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host Lynda Woolard. On this episode, I have the honor of speaking with Andy Berke, former mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and current senior Biden administration official advising the president on Telecommunications and Information. We talked about his recent visit to attend the inaugural Louisiana Internet for All Summit and bring word from the White House on big digital infrastructure investments being sent to our state to go towards broadband equity. We discuss how high speed internet is now a part of critical infrastructure and why the Biden-Harris administration believes providing affordable, reliable and equitable broadband for everyone in the United States is - to paraphrase Joe Biden - a BFD.
I remember well in 2010, when then-Vice President Biden traveled to New Orleans to announce the Obama-Biden administration's loan forgiveness for local Gulf Coast governments following the double punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Folks who've followed this podcast from the start will know that it was Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans that enlightened me to our need to have such an ally in the White House, and inspired me to get involved in politics. While Louisiana Lefty promotes the importance of state and local elections, underscoring that folks should focus on them as much as national elections, I always make the point that Louisiana's vulnerabilities mean federal protections and investments are particularly important to us. So we should continue to find ways to play whatever role we can to help keep allies for our state in Washington, DC.
These infrastructure dollars heading our way will offer substantial opportunities for a lot of Louisianans, including the community groups we speak with so often on the podcast. So we want to make sure we're sharing valuable information and keeping you up to speed on how to plug in.
Mayor Andy Berke, welcome to Louisiana Lefty!
It's great to be with you. I've spent some time in Louisiana lately, and since I'm a southern person, it's always great to have that camaraderie.
Right. Well, you and I are just meeting for the first time today, specifically because you have been down to our state lately. You are currently a senior Biden administration official at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration - that's a mouthful...
Rolls off the tongue doesn't it? Just so easy.
... or the NTIA for short. And your proper title is the US Special Representative for Broadband. I can't imagine anyone better suited for this administration's mission of Internet access and equity.
Thanks so much. It's been something that I've spent a lot of time on over the last decade plus, and it feels like this is a transformative moment for all of us. So I'm really happy to be here.
Well, before we get into your mission today, can you just tell me a little bit more about you? What sparked your interest in politics? What was that moment where you thought, "This is what I want to do?"
Well, you know, when I was growing up, my dad was a lawyer. And he wasn't a lawyer that represented like big corporations, he represented individuals almost exclusively. And I remember when I was a kid, we were at a restaurant salad bar - people today don't really go to restaurants that often with salad bars - but I just remember this man, coming up to my dad and said, "I don't know if you remember me, but I had this problem, and you helped me work it out. I just wanted to let you know that I'm doing a lot better these days and I want to thank you for helping me." And as a little kid, you know, you see those things and you're like, "Wait, that's a fantastic moment, and I want to be part of that same process." And so as I got older, and I became a lawyer myself and worked with my dad doing that same kind of practice of law, I thought to myself, "I don't want to just help one person at a time. There's got to be a way to do this at scale for more people and to take that same idea that we can impact people's lives on a very real basis and make that happen for more people." And I have always loved politics. I always loved elections. Nobody in my family had ever been involved in politics or thought that even people should go into politics. And so I just figured, "Well, let's give this a try and see where it takes me."
And so from that to the role you have today, give me a couple of your career highlights of some of the things that you've done along the way.
Yeah, I ran for office the first time as a state senator, and won election there. Then got reelected, decided that for various reasons that there was an incredible opportunity at the local level and ran for mayor of my hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Won election there, got reelected. It's a two term limit so as I was getting out of office, you know, started working in a couple of different places, and this opportunity came along.
And I definitely have some interest in your broadband equity work as Chattanooga mayor. I just want to say when we talk about hacks and wonks, I'm one of those hacks that helps get people elected. But it's the wonks like you that are the reason I do what I do. Right?
Wait, wait, wait, wait, no, you're not calling yourself a hack and me a wonk! I feel like we might have to edit this out of the podcast, because that can't be accurate.
I mean, I do work to get people like you elected is what I'm trying to say. Because you were really able to do some transformative things, I think, and from the things that I've read that you've done just sort of make my heart sing. But you've taken that work to a national stage. And that's why you've ended up in Louisiana recently. So let's get to the big announcement you came here to make regarding Louisiana and broadband. You just visited Alexandria, Louisiana for the inaugural broadband Summit: Louisiana Internet for All. What message were you here to deliver from the NTIA?
President Biden has made a pledge that every American will have access to affordable, reliable high speed internet, and the most important thing to get out today's podcast, is that we take that pledge incredibly seriously, and every word of it. So every American, not just more Americans, not just a lot of Americans, but every American, including every person in Louisiana. And that's where we spend our time working, and that access piece is really important as well, not just the connection but how do we think about the skills, the affordability and the devices that go alongside the connection? And there is $65 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to do this work, which we've never seen that kind of investment before. I'm happy to talk a little bit about my background in Chattanooga, and why I've seen this is so important. But this is a time where we're going to stop thinking about internet as a luxury that some people have and some people don't, and start thinking about it more like roads, and water and electricity, that this is the baseline for everybody to succeed. And so when I came to Louisiana last week, I was down there to give out the very first planning grants under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Louisiana, about $3 million to do planning for the dollars that are coming for building out the connection and also these plans for devices and affordability and skills.
I was stunned by the amount of funding heading to Louisiana for high speed internet, literally hundreds of millions of dollars as the Alexandria Town Talk reported. There were so many grants and sources of funding, including state and private matching money. I couldn't even keep track of it all. There were the GUMBO awards: Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities.
Definitely the best name of any state broadband work.
And that's funded through the American Rescue Plan. Right?
Yeah. So I want to thank Governor John Bel Edwards, because he was there when when we did these announcements, and the governor has been one of the biggest leaders. Of course, he's working hard on all kinds of issues, but he also sees how critical this is for Louisianans. So he took a portion of the American Rescue Plan dollars - those were dollars that Congress passed back near the beginning of President Biden's term that were designated to go to states and cities and were flexible in use so the governor or the mayor could prioritize what he or she thought was the best use of those dollars - and Governor Edwards decided that broadband was one of the biggest issues. So the state has been using its flexible dollars for this. On top of that, we are now coming in with dollars that are specifically designated to accomplish that purpose. And Louisiana got the first planning grant dollars, because it's a little ahead of the curve, because all the work he's already been doing.
And as you said, that's part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. And then there's a national Affordable Connectivity Program, which the governor just talked about the other day through the FCC, which is also, I believe, the entity mapping the entire country to see who has internet and who doesn't, do I have that correct?
You do. I feel a little bit like we're in the Wizard of Oz, and you're trying to peek behind the curtain and see who's doing everything. It's easy for people to get lost in the acronyms and who's doing what and all the initials, but the important thing to remember is there's a bunch of different places in the federal government that the President is leveraging to try to get to all the different pieces of the problem. So we at the Department of Commerce, at NTIA, have $48 billion to do this work. But out of that $65 billion, $14.2 billion went to the Federal Communications Commission, and their share is, they basically have a voucher type product that says if you make 200% of poverty or less, you get a $30 a month voucher to buy your internet. And that's terrific. But one of the additional pieces that has happened since then, is that the President and Vice President brought a number of different carriers, most all of the big ones, to the White House. And they agreed to offer a $30 product to all the people who qualified, which essentially means if you have a $30 product and a $30 voucher, then it's free to you. And so if you make 200% of poverty or less, you can apply for the to the Affordable Connectivity Program, get that $30 voucher, if you have one of the major carriers, and certainly tons of other people do this as well, you can use that voucher to get internet for free.
Well, I guess what occurred to me by seeing all these different entities involved in this is just how important this is to the Biden administration, just how significant they think this is. Can you just kind of sum up why this is such a big deal to Biden's administration?
The President understands that in 2022, this is essential to our strength and viability as a country. Because if a family wants to, to achieve their potential, they need the internet as a possibility. And that's potential in all kinds of different ways. So when I was in Houma, last week, I talked to some people in the shrimping business. And when it rained, their internet went down and business stopped. Right? That means that they're losing out on dollars. Those are ways that they can employ more people there. There are all kinds of problems.
When I was in Oklahoma, there was a man named Jimmy. He didn't have connectivity and when the pandemic hit, he had gone back to college, but he couldn't take his exams that March or April right after the pandemic hit. And it cost him a year of college because when he couldn't take his exams, he had to re-enroll the next year and go back. Think about what that does for Jimmy and his family.
And I remember, as many families have had this experience, when I was with the Choctaws at a school in Mississippi, I drove up and I parked for a grant to give to them, and there was a sign and it said: This is the area to park in to get internet for the school. Okay, so you think about families who had to drive over there and do that and get their kids access to the internet. And these are families where the parent might have two jobs and really doesn't have time to do that. And it might be people who, you know, have other kids at the house and don't want to leave them alone. In 2022, the President understands that this is an essential component for people to be able to live their lives and for us to be powerful as a country. And that's why it's such a high priority for him.
And you heard from folks in both urban and rural Louisiana areas that they had issues with access to the internet, right?
Of course. I hope that people understand that while we know this is a rural issue, it is not only a rural issue. In fact, there are huge problems in the middle of inner cities. We know that people of color traditionally have been left out of this world. And so as we talk about all the different pieces that we have to put together, we know we have to include everybody in Louisiana - again, that goes back to that every American pledge - and understand that there are communities that have been under invested in, and they need help on the connection side, as well as on the skills, devices and affordability piece. And so that is essential to the work that we do. So while I was in New Orleans, we had a round table at a coffee shop, a bunch of people from the area came by and chatted with me. And I heard different versions of the same story, particularly about how some pockets of New Orleans, some different wards had places where they said that the connectivity was fast, but in reality, it was extremely slow. And we've got to make sure that we take those locations into account as well.
And then, of course, our concerns in Louisiana include the impact of weather on our digital infrastructure, climate change, our power grid vulnerabilities. How is that being addressed by this push to get internet for all?
Well, as you know, the work of the Biden administration has put climate change at the forefront of the agenda, as well. So we're really talking about a place where those two issues meet, particularly in Louisiana. And, you know, when I go down and people ask me about climate change in Louisiana, I feel a little bit like I'm a, you know, an amateur basketball player at a rec gym and I'm talking to, you know, LeBron James, to the pros, because you down there in Louisiana know climate issues much better than anybody else does. So part of what we have to use these dollars for is to make sure that when it rains really hard, when the wind blows, that people still have access to the internet, because that is also a lifeline to business, to school, to quality of life in those difficult climate moments.
In Chattanooga, where I'm from, we were the first Gig City. We built out a fiber network to every single home and business in the entire 600 square miles. One of the things that we saw was that it allowed people to continue to function, even when we had horrible storms, and they couldn't necessarily leave their driveway or their neighborhood because there were trees down. And that's where we have to get to. So part our dollars are meant to be used in a way that. You know, when you dig underground, when you put up the poles, whatever it is you're doing, you have climate in mind so that it works 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
You just mentioned your work on this issue in Chattanooga. So let's talk about that for a second. You got national recognition for your work there. Tell me about the two programs in particular: Tech Goes Home and the Netbridge program. Can you talk about both those?
Yes, so as I said, we were the first Gig City and built a network to every single home in business. And we were the first place to have one gig to every home. For people who are listening and don't necessarily know what a gig means, if you have an internet connection that maybe is a little bit old, you might get 25 download speed or something like that 25, 30, 40 download speed. One gig is 1000 download speed. You might get 3 upload that's like you're sending a picture to a friend. In Chattanooga, you're getting 1000 upload speed, you might be getting 3, 4, 5, 15 with a regular connection. And then Chattanooga became the first city to have 10 gig. So that's 10,000. And actually, while I was in Louisiana, Chattanooga announced that it would be the first city to have 25 gig. So 25,000. And again, think about people are still working on that 10, 15, 20 download speed. So we then use that to say, "Okay, we can't just have the speed, we also have to make sure that we work on the skills and the affordability."
So Tech Goes Home was our initiative to partner with churches and rec centers and community organizations to teach people basic skills: How do I turn on a computer? How do I get an email address? So we use this initiative to teach people how to turn on a computer, get an email, address, pay their bills online, and then to you know, how to do a spreadsheet, all those different skills that people need. And the last piece that we worked on was affordability, starting with Netbridge. One of the last things I did while I was mayor was to make internet free for every family with a child on free or reduced lunch. So you got that fiber network for free, absolutely free, if you had a child on free or reduced lunch. And that essentially made it free for 28,000 kids and their families.
So is that a model that can be replicated? Is that part of what you're trying to do? Or are you going to other cities and sharing this information and saying this is something you can do here?
Well, we had advantages that not every place has, like the city owned the utility, and so it had a public purpose. And that made it much easier for us to do that work. But what can be replicated is that cities and states have a digital equity plan, which is how we're going to make this more affordable for people in our area. And again, with the Affordable Connectivity Program, and that $30 voucher, all of a sudden, you can start putting together different pieces that make it better for families. And our funding, when people build out a new connection using that some of that $48 billion dollars, there has to be an affordable component to the state's plan and the work that it's doing. And so I think by putting affordability front and center as part of the agenda, that's also changing the equation for families around the country.
You talked about using churches. Is that part of what you're doing with your community outreach and organizing for the work you're doing now? Is that how you're getting your trusted messengers to get folks to buy into this?
Part of what we know has to happen is that the a lot of this funding is coming through the states, but we need people at the local level to be involved. And that means churches, but that also means local civic groups, that means affinity groups, we need everybody to be involved so that the plan reflects Louisiana, and not just the work of a few people in a back room. Because when the funding comes down, then the funding will make that plan happen. And again, Louisiana, for example, has an obligation to make sure every single person has a connection but if they don't know who needs one, then it's hard for them to do it. There are these maps that you talked about earlier that are going to come. But those need to be informed by reality on the ground. It can't just be, well, the the internet provider says that you have internet, it also has to be you saying no, that's not accurate. And we have to get all that information in, which means that the local level is critical in what we're doing.
And what will the jobs impact of these specific investments be in Louisiana?
That's another component that we need the local institutions working on. It's slated to create about 100,000 new jobs. Just think about trenching and digging to put down the fiber or splicing the new fiber or climbing the poles. It's 100,000 new jobs. We want those jobs to go to people in the area, not just crews driving around the United States doing this work. And by the way, it'll get done quicker and cheaper for the taxpayer if we have everybody involved, it's better all around. And so we're working with states to make sure they have a workforce plan, as well.
And I think the other side of that is, it's hard anymore to get a job if you don't have internet. So the two things are sort of connected that way.
We can think about this as a way for people to create careers, not just have jobs, but to have a full career. And one way to start that is to do some of the infrastructure work itself. But also knowing that some of our funding goes towards helping people who don't necessarily know how to get online and fill out a job application, our funding can be used to do that work as well.
So the training...
And it's not just jobs, it's healthcare, it's education. It's getting information out about disasters, prevention and recovery, pandemics. I mean, all of that stuff comes with internet that we're denying to folks when they don't have it.
That is absolutely true. And so it really is a way for me to think about this as how much it It permeates all of our lives. So 100 years ago or so, places in Tennessee and in Louisiana had very little access to electricity. And President Roosevelt came along and said, "You know, we're going to work on rural electrification." And now, if you just think about it, every piece of your life is electrified in some way, uses some kind of power source. And if we didn't have that, it's not that the power itself is something that we care about, but we care about all the things that the power brings us, right? It brings us our TV, it brings us the computers, it brings us the lights, cooking, whatever it might be. And so internet is rapidly becoming the same thing. It's the source of our entertainment and education and health care and jobs and fun and connecting to our family, and you know, during the pandemic, your religious observation, whatever that might be, every single piece of life. So we need to understand that nobody can be left out of that. Nobody can be left out when it permeates so much of our lives. And that's why this work is truly transformative.
You mentioned devices, is that something that the grants will also cover?
Yes. So we have $2.75 billion in digital equity. And that $2.75 billion is slated for devices and affordability and skills. And Louisiana is going to need to come up with a plan that says what they're going to do on this subject. And that's another reason why we need local input is to make sure that people are saying what's the most important thing, because obviously, there's so much need in this space. So we really have to prioritize, and every state's needs might be a little different.
I know you need to leave soon so I want to ask you the last three questions we ask a version of every episode. What's the biggest obstacle to progress with broadband equity?
I think the biggest obstacle is for us to have any kind of disharmony or not to have alignment of purpose. One of the great things that happened last week when I was in Louisiana, was that I heard Governor Edwards praise Senator Cassidy, who voted for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. And I heard Senator Cassidy praise the governor because of the excellent work that he was doing on broadband. And that kind of putting aside the politics and doing the work puts all of us in a better position to get this done. And that's why I think the President always touted this as a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, because that will help us get things done and we'll make sure that we include everybody. So this is the second part of that same thing is, we have to include people of color, you have to make sure that people in the rural areas are involved, not just in getting the eventual products, you know, the connections, the devices, but are actually involved in the plan, as well. Because that will make it a better plan that that delivers to all Louisianans.
And I'm going to phrase this a little differently. What's the biggest opportunity from broadband equity?
The biggest opportunity is for people to have power and control over their lives. And I think that that's really important. For so many of us we feel like somebody else is always in control. You know, it's our employer because they're setting our hours against our desires or we owe money to the credit card companies or whatever it might be where people are struggling to have control of their own lives. And when you have access to the internet, and you can kind of watch the entertainment that you may want, you can apply for the job that you need, you can go to school across the country based on a tele student type program, you just have more ability, you have options, you can do all kinds of different things in your lives, and that will provide people a better quality of life.
And last question, Mayor Berke, who's your favorite superhero?
Spider-Man! People on this podcast may not remember but when I was a little kid, there was Sesame Street and there was also Electric Company and I always preferred Electric Company, because every once in awhile they had a Spider-Man episode on. As a little kid, my parents were trying to get me to watch Sesame Street, probably because it was a little bit more educational, but I was like, "I just want to watch Electric Company because Spider-Man might come on.
Very cool. That's a great answer. Thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty and thank you for coming down to Louisiana to share the information and the good news you brought to us.
Thank you for getting the word out. We really appreciate it.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thank you to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jen Pack of Black Cat Studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.