By Louis Fox, President and CEO, CENIC

Please join us for the first in our webinar series, A National Inflection Point: The Intersection of Research & Education Networks and Sustainable Digital Equity Initiatives. This initial case study will focus on California, the world’s fifth largest economy.

Learn more here – Connecting California:  From Community Perspectives to Funded Projects

COVID and The Great Broadband Awakening:

Beginning in March of 2020 with the COVID pandemic, access to broadband became a social determinant of health, education, work, and economic security. Our homes became our schools, our workplaces, and our clinics via remote education, work, and telehealth. Individuals and families without access were disenfranchised, marginalized, many cut off from their friends and families.

In this context, it became painfully obvious to policy makers that broadband Internet was a utility as essential as electricity and potable water. To address these critical inequities, the federal government, along with state legislatures, have made and are making historic investments in broadband. With money going directly to states, territories, and indigenous Tribes, there are now over 60 states and territories and 574 Tribal Nations, each organizing their own efforts individual experiments running in how to plan and implement broadband access and adoption in unique cultural, geographic, and demographic areas.

Research and Education Networks (RENs) are playing critical roles as partners and leaders with state broadband offices to efficiently utilize the federal funding opportunity to expand infrastructure for affordable Internet access to unserved and underserved locations across each state.  RENs provide backbone connections for public and private universities; community colleges; K-12 schools and school districts; public libraries; museums, scientific, and cultural organizations; hospitals, clinics and specialized medical facilities; biomedical, science, space and environmental research organizations; and Tribal Nations; and, ideally, rural health clinics that need the bandwidth to work with the major hospitals in their states.

This upcoming series of Marconi Society workshops will examine the particular approaches of specific states at different stages of development, to share (early in the national process) directions taken, lessons learned, and innovations that might scale beyond state border, beginning with California’s “Internet for All” legislation and the role that the State’s R&E Network, CENIC, plays in this initiative.

R&E Infrastructure at a Crossroads

The Research and Education (R&E) infrastructure is a critical component of a national broadband plan. It complements the focus on universal access by providing a foundation for inclusion, innovation, discovery, and national competitiveness. Our national story is incomplete when diverse human potential is untapped, and competitive threats unmet. Federal investments in R&E infrastructure are a national imperative. Connecting every community college, every minority serving institution, and every college and university, including all urban, rural, and tribal institutions, empowering untapped potential, and rising to competitive challenges is possible by funding a national program of coherent, comprehensive, and highly integrated initiatives.

R&E infrastructure is more than just broadband networks. It also includes software, tools, and security resources. It provides access to computational capabilities and data, along with the necessary human expertise to integrate and use these resources for innovation, discovery, and national competitiveness.

Thirty years after the Internet emerged at research institutions and transformed the world of research and innovation, the preponderance of community colleges, minority serving institutions, and colleges and universities still lack high quality R&E connectivity, security, and collaboration tools that would allow them to participate equitably in the digital universe. We must not find ourselves in the position that the technology leader and Tribal broadband accessibility advocate, Matt Rantanen, poses: “What if the mind we need is the last mind connected?”

We know that there is talent, imagination, and the capacity for innovation in every community. What is missing in far too many communities – urban, rural, and tribal – is opportunity. Access to research and education infrastructure is now a stepping stone on a path towards a future of quality education and prosperity for all. To ensure inclusion, drive innovation, enhance competitiveness, and equalize opportunity we must:

  • Connect every community college, minority serving institution, college, and university, in urban, rural, and tribal areas to a world-class and secure R&E infrastructure, with particular attention to institutions that have been chronically underserved;
  • Engage and empower every student and researcher everywhere with the opportunity to join collaborative environments of the future, because we cannot know where the next Edison, Carver, Curie, Marconi, McClintock, Einstein, or Katherine Johnson will come from; and
  • Ensure American competitiveness and leadership by investing holistically in national R&E infrastructure as a sustainable system.

The Way Forward

The pandemic unveiled persistent inequities in broadband access and affordability. The remote work, learning, and telehealth options that enabled some households to weather the pandemic well were not an option for those with inadequate or absent connectivity. By combining a robust universal access initiative with an equally pervasive R&E infrastructure, states may finally realize the inclusion, innovation, and competitiveness that they have sought for everyone.

In California, we have been fortunate to have forwarding-looking leaders in our research, education, library, and medical institutions. Twenty million Californians (roughly one-half of the state’s residents) have access to the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), one of the most robust broadband research and education networks on the planet, from their schools, libraries, colleges, universities, health care institutions, and Tribes. But not all CENIC members have necessary multi-gigabit access and many of those who do are in communities where no one has broadband access: not from their homes and business, or from hospitals and clinics, or from their schools and libraries, or from their Reservations and Rancherias.

CENIC long ago recognized that joining in partnership with communities, with business and government leaders, and with our private sector telecommunications partners, was the only way to ensure that broadband access would be the rising tide that lifts all boats. As we continue our efforts to enhance broadband to our community anchor institutions and Tribal Nations, we have also joined in partnership with the State of California to ensure, similarly, that all Californians have robust broadband in their homes and workplaces. We believe that a focus on broadband equity, which is our mission, now includes ensuring that Californians have access wherever they are – at home, at work, and at school.