May 24, 2021
Kamala Harris Digital Divide, Internet Access Roundtable Briefing Transcript
Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a roundtable on the digital divide and high-speed internet access on May 24, 2021. Read the transcript of the event here.
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And to hear about how internet access is affecting Americans across the country in their daily lives, education and work. We’re here today because the Vice President wanted to speak directly with, but more importantly, hear directly from you who have personally experienced the challenges and opportunities around this important issue, and who are dedicated to elevating this important conversation through community education, research and advocacy. So with that, I’m pleased to introduce to you the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris.
Kamala Harris: (00:37)
Thank you. Thank you, Vincent. Hi, everyone. I’m looking at you on a screen, but I’ll look at you here. But I’m really looking forward to our conversation and I want to thank you all for taking time out of your busy lives to join us for this conversation. It is truly an honor to welcome all of you. As students and parents, tribal leaders and farmers from urban and rural areas, each of you can speak to the need for affordable and accessible high-speed internet. And I want to begin by talking about another era. Seemingly a lifetime ago, and well before the internet, and it was the dawn of electricity. Now, I think most of us were not born at that time, but let’s just think about what dark days they were, when many Americans were left out. They were literally left in the dark because they didn’t have access to electricity, which of course is so essential as we all now know to almost everything we must do to be productive.
Kamala Harris: (01:46)
So understanding that in 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification administration, and the following year, he signed the Rural Electrification Act into law. And so what happened was that we decided, and he decided, at the federal level where we have the best capacity to do work that requires scale across our country, what he did and what they then did was to send crews to rural communities, helping to wire farms and homes with electricity. So literally, government lit up America. Today, I believe we must act again and act in that way, understanding our capacity and our responsibility to connect America and to allow all Americans to have access to those basic needs that allow them to raise their families, allow them to educate their families, to do their work. And in the 21st century, broadband is critical to all of that and broadband is critical infrastructure therefore.
Kamala Harris: (03:06)
Because just think about the pandemic, how families attended to their needs, attending school online, running their businesses online, going to the doctor online, working from home online, and also think about how many could not do any of that and missed out on these critical lifelines because they didn’t have access to high-speed internet. And think about it in the context of as we move forward, where telemedicine, and we’re going to talk about that today, will continue to allow Americans who live far away from a doctor or a mental health provider to receive high quality care. Think about it in terms of the remote work that we now know can happen and will continue to allow companies in the United States to find talent outside of urban centers. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural America. One of the things that especially the grandparents will talk about are how their children have to leave because there’s no work where they live in rural parts of America.
Kamala Harris: (04:12)
And so they have to leave the place they grew up, the place where they want their children to know their grandparents, because they’re trying to find work. Well tele-work is one of the solutions to that. Let’s think about small businesses and how they rely, and we have learned in the pandemic, will rely on access to high-speed internet to be able to talk to their customers, to move their products and to tap into new markets online. So for every American to share in that opportunity, we have got to remove the barriers. And in particular, I think there are three. But we have to remove these barriers so we can take high-speed internet nationwide. So first, let’s talk about what we need to do to remove the barriers to access. 42 million Americans live in areas without reliable broadband. One in three Americans who live in rural areas and tribal lands do not have access to broadband. And we know that these Americans are not alone.
Kamala Harris: (05:20)
As we will hear today, families and cities also lack access to high-speed internet. Second, one of the barriers we need to address is the issue of affordability. Over 65 million Americans live in areas with only one high-speed internet provider. So that means what? No competition. More than 200 million live in areas with only one or two providers. This lack of competition drives up prices because if the provider doesn’t have to compete with somebody else, right, they’ve got basically a corner on the market. We need to deal with that competition. The third barrier is equity and the disparities are clear. Fewer black and brown Americans use home broadband than white Americans. And those Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year are less likely to have high-speed internet at home. So we’re talking about racial disparities. We’re talking about income disparities. And why does that matter?
Kamala Harris: (06:27)
Well because it leads to other disparities, because when people are cut off from high-speed internet, they are also being cut off from opportunity. So the President and I have a plan, and it is called the American Jobs Plan, that would expand affordable and accessible, these two things go hand in hand, affordability and accessibility, and we would expand both for high-speed internet to every American household. Our plan would build broadband infrastructure like laying fiber optic cables to reach 100% of our population. We would increase competition to reduce costs, and we would ensure that every American, no matter where they live, no matter how much they have in terms of income and therefore how much they can afford to pay, would be able to access high-speed internet at home. And as we connect America, we will create both good jobs and economic opportunity. We will help our students succeed, we will help our small businesses succeed, and we will help our nation compete.
Kamala Harris: (07:42)
And I’m just going to end with one quick story. So last month, I was in New Hampshire and I visited the New Hampshire Electric Co-op. So it’s a rural electric co-op. And it was started by farmers back in connection with that… Right? In the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Act. And it brought electricity to the rural areas in that state. So I went to visit with them because, of course, they’re very proud about what they did way back in the day to make sure all of rural America in that region had access to electricity. And guess what they’re doing now? Fast forward 90 years, and that same co-op in the midst of COVID laid 100 miles of broadband lines in just 100 days. So they’re almost literally using the foundation that they built on electrification to create access to high-speed internet. And I believe we can do this kind of work across our country.
Kamala Harris: (08:49)
I know we can get it done. And we’re going to hear stories from each of you about your ingenuity and how you’ve been innovative in times of stress, in times of need, and how we can be inspired by your work to see what we are capable of at a nationwide scale. And I’m very proud to lead our administration’s effort to get this done. And I look forward to hearing from all of you today. So again, thank you for your time and let’s start our discussion. And Vincent, I’m going to turn it back over to you.
Thank you, Madam Vice President. And with that, we will begin our discussion. I’m very pleased to introduce our very first guest, Reverend Joan Ross. Reverend Ross is the Operating Director of the North End Woodward Community Coalition in Detroit, Michigan. Reverend Ross.
Rev Joan Ross: (09:39)
Thank you. Good afternoon, Vice President Harris, and thank you for inviting me to this conversation today.
Kamala Harris: (09:46)
Rev Joan Ross: (09:47)
North End Woodward Community Coalition is a Detroit-based social justice community development organization, working to build power by focusing on equitable systems change. We establish opportunities that improve the quality of life for our community and which create workforce development opportunities, with a goal of community retaining ownership of the projects in North End, Highland Park and Hamtramck, Michigan. We serve as an anchor organization in the Equitable Internet Initiative, which began in 2016 as a collaborative partnership between the Detroit Community Technology Project and three anchor organizations in the community, BLVD Harambee, Grace in Action, and us. Our goal is to increase internet access in the three underserved neighborhoods of Detroit. As you know, Detroit is historically underserved in high-speed internet. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that as many as 40% of Detroiters had no access to broadband. And for many, the only access that they did have was limited cell phone package access.
Kamala Harris: (11:08)
Rev Joan Ross: (11:09)
We saw this in our own community during the pandemic. In our service area of Highland [ark, Michigan in the early months of the pandemic, only 100 children were able to access online learning due to lack of access for internet or equipment. We’ve been working to get families connected through our fixed wireless network, providing what we call internet and a box service. Currently, in the three communities in Detroit, our network now serves 300 households and eight nonprofit organizations, and we’ve erected seven solar powered wifi charging stations. It’s been very impactful to see how this has affected families. And if I may, I’d like to share two stories with you. One is we have a grandma who has custody of her sixth grader, who before the pandemic hit, grandma had only a limited data package on her cell phone. And when that ran out, the only option that she had was to sit on a nearby parking lot of a restaurant and access their wifi hotspot.
Kamala Harris: (12:23)
Rev Joan Ross: (12:24)
In September, we knocked on the door and offered them our internet in a box. Our other story is about a 94 year oldster who is legally blind, but before the pandemic, she was very active, able to write and supply stories for a local newsletter. But when the pandemic hit, she was isolated at home.
Kamala Harris: (12:48)
Rev Joan Ross: (12:48)
We provided her our internet in a box service and spent several hours setting her up and finding apps that could be voice command so that she would have connection. We went beyond that and in her local church, we were able to connect them to the internet. And for the first time, they were able to broadcast their service. So she got connected again to her church. We also worked to increase internet adoption through a digital steward training program, which prepares residents in our neighborhoods to operate, manage and own their own internet. All of our 18 employees come from the communities they serve and are trained in community organizing and the technology necessary to maintain a network. Thank you.
Kamala Harris: (13:41)
Thank you. Thank you, Reverend Ross. Thank you.
I know the Vice President may have some questions for you, Reverend Ross.
Rev Joan Ross: (13:49)
Kamala Harris: (13:51)
So the way I think of what you’ve done and the term I used to think of it is basically a community internet model. And it reminds me of the co-op, it reminds me of basically, like you said, it’s the community retaining ownership. It’s not a for-profit, it’s literally from the community of the community and for the community. And so one of the things that I think is a very important aspect of that is what you have done to hire from the community and create jobs in the community and train members of the community. So I know you employ 18 people, I believe, from the community. And you have provided to a larger group of the community devices and classes. Can you talk a little bit about that part of the work that you are doing, which is in addition to getting people access and making it affordable, what you’re doing in terms of workforce, what you’re doing in terms of the devices piece and then teaching people computer literacy?
Rev Joan Ross: (14:57)
Okay. So the first thing we did in the early months of the pandemic is collect as many donated pieces of equipment as we could find, old computers.
Kamala Harris: (15:06)
Rev Joan Ross: (15:08)
And then brought in… And taught them how to refurbish the computers so that we could pack our internet in the box. The internet in a box color codes everything, everything you need for internet is contained in the box, a mouse, a mouse pad, every cable, every connection, and they’re all color coded. So we could set a box on your porch, and then you could install the inside while our guys installed the outside. So the first thing to get access, we had to have equipment and we tried to use what’s already on the planet versus a lot of new stuff. So that took a couple of months to just collect equipment that we could refurbish. As far as the Digital Stewards Program, we do employ 18 people from the community and we do pay a living wage.
Rev Joan Ross: (16:03)
[inaudible 00:16:00] people from the community, and we do pay a living wage. We put them through an eight retraining program. We like them living in the community that they serve, because then it becomes very personal to them, that their neighbor is without internet, that the grandma that they saw in the grocery store doesn’t have an app on her phone. And we get called for more than just computers. Of course, they call us for every app that there is. So the idea is this connection of community taking care of each other.
Rev Joan Ross: (16:36)
When we talk about the stories that are shared, those are stories that have a personal relation to us, that an ISP, a big company wouldn’t care whether she had apps on her computer for a legally blind person. Once they provided the service, they would think their job is over. But the Digital Steward Program, because that’s our families, that’s our community, they build a stronger care and concern into maintaining and keeping our network. And we do have 24 hour maintenance. So for 24 hours, they’re up watching our network to make sure it doesn’t go down.
Kamala Harris: (17:15)
Wow. Okay, we need to scale up what you’re doing. That is so impressive. And you’re right, what a beautiful model of having community take care of each other in a way that satisfies all of those needs. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Rev Joan Ross: (17:37)
Thank you, Madam Vice President.
Kamala Harris: (17:38)
Thank you Reverend Ross. I want to now introduce a Amanda Schermerhorn. Amanda is a Federal Legislative Advocacy Fellow with LeadMN. She is a recent graduate of Minnesota State Community and Technical College, and she is a mother of four. Amanda, why don’t you tell us your story?
Amanda Schermerhorn: (17:58)
Hello. Thank you Madam Vice President for having us all today. It’s really an honor. Thank you. My name is Amanda Schermerhorn. I majored in political science at M State in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and I am attending Minnesota State University Moorhead this fall to further my education. I’m a wife and mother four, our oldest two are twins, Ella and Travis, they’re 14. Silas is 11, little Richard is seven. He has level three autism, and is for the most part non-verbal. So in 2019, nearly 15 years after my last semester of high school, I felt the time had come for me to pursue my dreams of becoming a civil rights attorney. I’ve always wanting to follow in the footsteps of RBG. I have always wanted to use my voice to speak up for those who may not have the privilege to speak for themselves. So I enrolled in an online paralegal course at our local community college, and I really enjoyed my first semester back.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (18:53)
I switched to political science, shortly after the pandemic began with all the classrooms moving to being virtual, that was something that I was able to do, and I figured it was a good choice to better educate myself on the legislative process before going off to law school. With everything being virtual, as I said, I was able to join our campus student government. I served as vice president of our campus. Through my SGA I was introduced to LeadMN, a student-led organization representing 180,000 plus two year college students in Minnesota.
Kamala Harris: (19:27)
Amanda Schermerhorn: (19:27)
Yeah. There’s a lot of us. I had the honor of being a legislative advocacy intern with LeadMN since November. I helped schedule hundreds and hundreds of meetings with our state lawmakers, and we worked really hard to elevate the voices of our students at our state advocacy data event. The people I work with are impressive, diverse, and inspirational to say the least. Through LeadMN, I was able to become a student fellow with the National College Attainment Network. We had a really successful double [inaudible 00:19:56] campaign that we did. Being able to share our stories with people on the Hill wasn’t an amazing experience for myself, and for our fellow students, of course. However, none of this would have been possible without technology. So LeadMN’s office is actually located in St. Paul. So that’s over four ours south from my home, and that’s on a good traffic day. They have graciously offered to allow me to continue working virtually, despite our restrictions being lifted. I have accepted a fellowship to take our state advocacy work to a federal level. So this would’ve never happened had it not been for technology.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (20:35)
Of course, being a student parent with school-aged children, it’s delicate balancing act. Before the pandemic, I found myself staying up until midnight to meet deadlines. Over the past year, it was not uncommon to wake up before 4:00 AM to ensure I have my classwork done before I would have to wake up my children to help them with theirs. Not only was I their tutor, I was a physical therapist, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist as well. Many of those services, my youngest receives at school, so of course those were cut off at the time. I found myself hiding in my car on my mobile hotspot often, trying to do my work while my kids were on their Zoom classes, or even in the parking lot of my closed college campus. We extended wifi to the parking lot for those that may not have had internet at home at the time.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (21:21)
And the CARES Act grant allowed me to receive a new laptop. My last one was over four years old, so it was getting a little slow. So K through 12 students at that time, didn’t have the options, and I know some classes already shared devices at our schools. Our rural location means we don’t have access to bandwidth. We don’t have fiber optic cables running through our home. They run under the road near our home, but that’s nearly two football fields away. It would cost us thousands and we’re renters, so it’s just not something that we can do. However, our family persisted. We have two children going into high school. Our daughter made the honor roll.
Kamala Harris: (21:57)
Amanda Schermerhorn: (21:58)
Yeah. Another is going to middle school and our youngest moves on to second grade. I graduated with high honors this year, and it was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa. And here I am, speaking to the Vice President. I mentioned before we got on, this was actually the first half to what is my biggest goal. I said, I wanted to meet the Vice President and the President, so imagine my shock when I got the call on Thursday. So again, thank you so much for having us.
Kamala Harris: (22:24)
Oh wow. What an incredible story. And I’m so inspired by you. Congratulations on everything that you have worked to achieve, and that your family has worked to achieve. Where do I start? There’s so much to say about everything that you’ve mentioned, but I’m going to focus on the high-speed internet piece of it. Because to your point, everything that you have shared with us, almost all of it required access, and affordable access, and you have a family of six people, and all of those people required access, and I think about it in the context of you having to go to your car, or go to a parking lot to actually have access. So, let’s talk a little bit about that, and what that meant in terms of what you wanted for your family during that period of time that you just couldn’t do, because you didn’t have the access that you needed.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (23:32)
Of course, I wanted to be there for them as much as I could be, and be as much of a support to them in their classwork, as I’m sure… I was already online, so it wasn’t as difficult as a transition for myself, but helping all my children to adjust to that was difficult. So I think that not being able to be here for some of it with the older kids was really stressful. But then also I did not want to quit, because I wanted my kids to see that when we have struggles… I always say, “No pressure. Don’t [inaudible 00:24:07]. We just got to keep going.”
Kamala Harris: (24:09)
Good for you. And so during that period of time, did everyone take turns in terms of when they were online, or how did that work? I’m assuming everyone who needed to be online, couldn’t be online at the same time?
Amanda Schermerhorn: (24:25)
Yeah. At first the twins were sharing a device, so they would take turns. Fortunately at that point in time, it wasn’t as structured. It was more of, being they were in middle school, they could sign on and do their work as needed. But then with the younger kids that got to be a little more difficult. And then also, my youngest Richard, with his autism, he needs a lot of therapy, and speech, and stuff like that. So being able to help him with that, while helping the other children with their classwork was difficult.
Kamala Harris: (24:55)
I’m going to tell the president that I talked to you today, and how inspiring your story is. And thank you for that, and all that you are doing, and just keep at it. Keep at it. And thank you.
Thank you, Amanda. I’m now very pleased to introduce Dr. Aaron Payment. Dr. Payment is the Chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan. Mr. Chairman, please?
Chairperson Aaron Payment: (25:26)
[inaudible 00:25:26] Vice President Harris. I’m so grateful to be invited to advocate Indian Country’s broadband needs. I appreciate travel engagement as a matter of equity to redress the impact of federally new policy on outcomes as demonstrated in the US Commission on Civil Rights, Broken Promises Report, but also as a reminder of the treating and trust obligation for health, education, and social welfare, which tribes prepaid with over 500 million acres of land. As a result, tribes have checkerboard reservations across rural internet deserts. In my tribe’s service area, nearly 40% have no access to broadband, with some counties with less than 2%. reliability is a continuing issue, especially during peak times, which leaves tribes behind in terms of health, education, social welfare, and economic development.
Chairperson Aaron Payment: (26:12)
According to the 2019 FCC report, those on tribal lands are nearly four and a half times as likely to lack broadband here and internet access. [inaudible 00:26:22] we addressed the need for telemedicine and telebehavioral health, as they depend on reliable broadband access. For example, we had a critical need for enhanced telemedicine to support biometric checks for diabetics during the shutdown of our health center. While the pandemic forged new pathways for using technology and providing real-time biofeedback, optimization requires reliable broadband infrastructure. Regarding behavioral health, the need for virtual therapeutic connections became obvious during the pandemic, especially with an enduring opiate crisis. My niece, for example, is flying under the radar with her opiate addiction. Reliable therapeutic access is dependent on reliable internet access.
Chairperson Aaron Payment: (27:02)
As a high school dropout who went on to earn a doctorate in education, I have to comment regarding education equity. With the digital divide, whole populations of students are disadvantaged. Our First Americans continue to have the worst educational outcomes. The pandemic has left to all schools with the challenge of still having to meet assessment benchmarks, remedial diagnostics and response to intervention are needed. High-speed internet or supplemental instruction is essential to catch up. Please include these in any infrastructure package, discussions or negotiations. And so again, thank you Vice President for the honor of presenting to you today, and I hope they have an exciting question.
Kamala Harris: (27:40)
Well, thank you, Chairperson, it’s good to see you again. And I cannot reiterate enough the importance of our government-to-government relationship. You talked about the patchwork, and can you just talk a little bit more, I thought what you said about basically, “If we don’t have reliable access, we can’t have reliable services,” is essentially what I hear you saying, right? In terms of having access, making sure that it is consistent so that people can get the basic needs, like the needs of your niece, in terms of telemedicine that may be about substance, it may be about mental health, diabetes. Can you talk a little bit about how it has been working for you, in terms of the patchwork, and what has not happened as a result of that? What do we need to fix?
Chairperson Aaron Payment: (28:37)
Absolutely. So my tribe has an MOU with the VA to be able to also reach out to our veterans. Native people have served at the highest rate in our armed services of any racial, ethnic population. And so, we were already moving in the direction of bringing healthcare to people, rather than waiting to have them come to us. So we were already making those strides for telemedicine, and the new area was telebehavioral health, especially with the opiate crisis. And unfortunately, with the pandemic, we weren’t able to see people on a face-to-face basis, and there was a lag in getting this new level of service, this new approach to bringing services to people. And then, we’re a very rural community, all of the upper peninsula of Michigan, and this much of the lower peninsula is one congressional district. So we’re very rural, and access to internet is very limited. And so, for us to continue to move in that direction, to bring services to people, to meet them where their needs are, rather than having them have to come to us, we have to really build that infrastructure for broadband, and also not be so dependent. I loved what you said about the competitiveness, so that we don’t have a monopoly, and that we actually put, so let’s state that competitiveness that will drive prices down, so.
Kamala Harris: (30:01)
That’s right. Also, there’s work that we need to do also around, as we were saying, actually with Reverend Ross earlier, about not only access and affordability, but the digital literacy piece of it; teaching people how to use the internet in a way that is helpful to them. When she was talking about having the elders, getting them access to apps that help them live with a higher quality of life. Do you have thoughts about that as it relates to Indian Country?
Chairperson Aaron Payment: (30:40)
I do, because I will tell you, and I’m not even going to just say the elders, but before the pandemic, I’d never done a Zoom call, and remembering to get off of mute is a [crosstalk 00:30:50]. And so yes, I think that the pandemic has enhanced our reliance on technology, and so now we have to be able to depend on that technology. And I think that I don’t want to go backwards. We can reach people like never before, so when we are able to come face-to-face, and back to our powwows, and our get togethers, and our travel summit that we’re looking forward to with you guys in December, I don’t want to go backwards. And it does necessitate us to do that remediation to be able to say, “It’s not that scary. It’s really easy to use, and we can connect like never before. And we’re excited about that.” And also, I just want to say we are so proud of you. I haven’t seen you since the election, and Indian country is 100% behind you.
Kamala Harris: (31:37)
Chairperson Aaron Payment: (31:37)
Kamala Harris: (31:38)
Thank you for all your work. Thank you.
Let’s turn now to Dr. William Gonzalez, he’s a primary care physician and an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, in the great state of Florida. Dr. Gonzalez?
Dr. William Gonzalez: (31:57)
Sorry. Now I need to unmute, of course. Madam Vice President-
Rev Joan Ross: (32:03)
Madam Vice President, it’s such an honor to be able to share my experience with you, thank you very much.
Kamala Harris: (32:08)
Rev Joan Ross: (32:10)
There’s so much I want to say, last year, it was tremendous. But I want to start by saying that as our country’s healthcare services go virtual via tele medicine, those individuals in those communities that lack access to adequate broadband infrastructure and adequate internet connection will continue to suffer discrimination because of the digital divide as we saw last year. I’m a husband, I’m a father of three children, and I know how important it is to be able to take care of the family, of my family, especially when it comes to a healthcare issues. Professionally, I’m a board certified family medicine physician, and I practice primary care via telemedicine, which is the delivery of healthcare services remotely via information and communication technologies.
Rev Joan Ross: (33:08)
Very telling, the COVID-19 public health emergency last year demonstrated the importance of telemedicine and telehealth to our healthcare system. In the Journal of Health Affairs, an article showed that up to 30.1% of all healthcare visits last year, especially during January to June, 30.1% of all visits were completed via tele-medicine. The CDC says that this was a 154% increase in all telehealth and telemedicine visits as compared to the same period in 2019. That’s significant, it worked and people needed it. Sick Americans were able to access healthcare because of telemedicine.
Rev Joan Ross: (33:59)
And telehealth and telemedicine is important because it increases access to healthcare services, especially to rural and underserved regions of this country that really need it. For the same reasons that you mentioned, physician maldistribution. Most physicians, including myself, practice in urban centers. So rural areas, underserved communities, lack local healthcare providers, so telemedicine helps to bring virtually these professionals.
Rev Joan Ross: (34:34)
However, there are many barriers to the success of telehealth and telemedicine, including interstate medical licensing, that’s a big problem, reimbursement for telehealth services. And last but not least, and I think most importantly, is the issue at hand, is access to broadband infrastructure and access to high-speed internet. If we don’t have a good internet connection, we can’t have good healthcare services via telehealth.
Rev Joan Ross: (35:09)
Let me tell you, I live in Orlando, Florida, but you might be surprised, all of my patients, all of my clients live in Missouri. I’ve been practicing tele-health since 2016, exclusively via telehealth and helping seeing patients in different states, such as Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida, obviously, and now Missouri. And it’s no secret that lack of broadband infrastructure and lack of access to high-speed internet is a problem in the state of Missouri. Some telling statistics, that in the state of Missouri, 20% of all Missourians lack access to high-speed internet. And when you look at rural Missouri, that number goes to two thirds, a little bit over two thirds of the population in rural Missouri lack access to a high-speed internet. And this tremendously limits my ability to expand my expertise to these areas. Mainly I work in the Bootheel region of Missouri, which there’s a lot of need for healthcare services.
Rev Joan Ross: (36:27)
So let me tell you some stories that I ran into last year just to give you an example of the challenges. A mother, actually a family with a two year old child are cooking and the child dropped a heavy kind of [inaudible 00:36:44] onto his right foot, and so the mom wanted to connect to talk to me about it. I could hear them very well, but because their internet connection was poor I couldn’t see. So the mom wanted me to tell her whether the foot was okay, the right big toe was all swollen and red she said, but I couldn’t see it. So unfortunately I had to send her to the hospital, which is exactly what she wanted to avoid, but I didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t provide the quality care that she deserved.
Rev Joan Ross: (37:23)
Another example was a young adolescent woman that was with her father sitting in their car next to a restaurant, because they didn’t have access to internet at home. She wanted to talk to me about acne care and how to treat her acne. That is so unfair, that is so unfair that she has to talk to me about her healthcare seating in a car next to a restaurant. There’s no need for that. Madam Vice President, the lack of broadband infrastructure and the lack of access to high-speed internet is important for the realization and for the delivery of quality health care via telemedicine. And addressing this issue is an important issue for all Americans. Thank you very much for listening to my stories.
Kamala Harris: (38:16)
Thank you, Dr. Gonzalez. And these stories are great to hear, I will share these stories as examples of the point. Can you explain a bit about the use of telemedicine as it relates to mental health treatment compared to the use of telemedicine for physical health treatment? Or, yeah.
Rev Joan Ross: (38:40)
Absolutely. You should know that mental health care and telebehavioral, telepsychiatry, it was one of the first applications of telemedicine because it’s so successful, as long as you have a good connection that’s all you need. So it’s really, really important that mental health and behavioral health patients have access to telemedicine. For example, here in Florida, I work for a provider called Empower Florida. They are the largest mental health providers in the state of Florida using telemedicine, and they’ve been doing this since 2012. The beauty of this is that all of our patients in Empower Florida, they keep their own psychiatry. It doesn’t matter if they’re in Miami or they’re in Tallahassee or if they moved to Jacksonville or Orlando, they keep their doctor because the location doesn’t matter, geography doesn’t matter. That’s the beauty of telemedicine, especially for mental health patients.
Rev Joan Ross: (39:56)
And now when it comes to physical medicine, the things are a little bit different, because now, for example, if I’m going to treat someone who has high blood pressure or has heart disease or has diabetes, more than a conversation, I also need to know things like, “How’s your heart doing?Can I hear your heart? Can I listen to your heart? Can I listen to your lungs?” If a child has a fever and an ear pain, can I look into your ears and see if there’s an ear infection? I can do that via tele medicine, and I do it every single day, but I need to have a reliable connection because if not the technology doesn’t work and I will not be able to do the assessment that I need.
Kamala Harris: (40:44)
So the technology exists when you have high speed internet to hear someone’s heartbeat? How does that work?
Rev Joan Ross: (40:53)
Very simple. So the same stethoscope that I use in the office and I place on my client’s chest to listen to their heart and their lungs, those same stethoscopes come now in a digital version, which can be connected via Bluetooth or directly via USB to any computer. And that sound can be transmitted this way over the internet to a doctor across the country, and it’s as good as in terms of the sound and the quality.
Kamala Harris: (41:29)
And then back to mental health, one last question. I’m under the understanding and belief that people are more likely to seek mental health treatment if they don’t have to physically go to a therapist or a psychologist or a psychiatrist office, does evidence support that belief?
Rev Joan Ross: (41:52)
Yes, absolutely. So many articles and reviews have been done specifically on that issue. Much of mental health in this country has to do with stress, anxiety, and trauma, and many of these patients that suffer from these illnesses, they feel safe at home, they feel safe within their environment. So when they’re forced to leave and go to places and meet new people and retell their story or relive those experiences or traumas that they had, they choose not to, I’m just going to avoid that.
Rev Joan Ross: (42:36)
But there’s something about being at home or being in your safe, comfortable space, and then just clicking your mouse or clicking your computer and just meeting someone across the state or across the country and talk to them about your issues while you’re at the safety of your home. So, absolutely most reviews and studies done about this show exactly that, that mental health and behavioral health patients are more likely to follow up and continue healthcare if the services are able to be provided via telemedicine.
Kamala Harris: (43:18)
Thank you, Dr. Gonzalez. Thank you very much.
Rev Joan Ross: (43:20)
My pleasure, thank you.
We now turn to Kimberly Vasquez. Kimberly is a high school senior at Baltimore City College, and she is one of the lead organizers for a student led organization called Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society-
Kamala Harris: (43:37)
Kamala Harris: (43:37)
Yes. I read about your work.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (43:44)
Kamala Harris: (43:45)
Amanda Schermerhorn: (43:45)
Oh, that’s so amazing. Well, good afternoon and thank you for this opportunity to speak with you. As Mr. Evans said I am Kimberly Vasquez, I use she/her pronouns. And SOMOS is made up of the most hardworking immigrants and children of immigrants. And personally, as a student who heavily relies on Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which is a $9.95 plan for low income families, it’s a constant battle for me and my younger sisters to enter and stay connected to our classes. Like this call right now and so many others, I depend on my phone and cellular data so that my sisters and I can have faster speeds and get kicked off of our classes less.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (44:27)
Many mornings throughout this pandemic, my family and I had to decide who got priority to use the internet. Was it going to be me and my sister’s education? Or was it going to be my parents work that puts food on the table? And I hope this gives you perspective on a day in the life of students across the country and the importance of adopting functional high-speed internet.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (44:49)
But when it comes to closing the digital divide, adoption is often overlooked. You could have an exceptional program like the Emergency Broadband Benefit, but if people aren’t using it or know how to, or even know it exists, it essentially becomes useless. In Baltimore, we, the youth, have taken the lead in digital equity. And first, we won $3 million in city funding for computers and hotspots for students, then we successfully pushed Comcast to double their Internet Essential speeds for low income customers. Now, alongside a coalition of advocates, we’re encouraging Baltimore officials to invest $1 million from the American Rescue Plan towards creating a sustainable youth jobs program of digital navigators. This program would connect you to technology and further develop their digital literacy skills. Just as my peers already help their families, they would guide residents of all ages on how to effectively adopt technology and internet benefits. This would bring youth’s voice to the table and provide a pathway for marginalized students to high quality jobs.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (45:54)
Madam Vice President, you’ve talked about how important school busing was when you were a student, like those buses we need high-speed internet to exercise our own constitutional right to a quality education, this is a critical civil rights issue of the 21st century. SOMOS believes we need these youth jobs not just in Baltimore, but nationwide. Similar to programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, we need a digicorps, a national youth jobs program that solves issues of digital illiteracy and access across all our communities. This adoption strategy would dramatically increase how many community members will actually take advantage of the Emergency Broadband Benefit and other services. This program would help with COVID response, the economy and racial justice, three out of the four core values your administration holds. Also, the Emergency Broadband Benefit needs to be extended beyond the pandemic, just like Medicaid for healthcare and SNAP benefits for food access, we deserve reliable access to quality, functional internet.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (46:58)
And finally, we can’t solve the [inaudible 00:47:01] divide by giving more money to the corporations who helps create it. As your administration works on the American Jobs Plan, please keep those sections that protect the ability of cities and states to build public internet, thank you.
Kamala Harris: (47:15)
Brava, well done. So let’s talk a little bit about… You covered a lot, and I was frantically taking notes as you spoke. I think your point about adoption is a very critical one, and so I don’t want to assume that a certain age cohort just automatically gets it in terms of how to get online, how to maximize resources online, tell me how you’re thinking about that piece of it?
Amanda Schermerhorn: (47:55)
Yeah, so I think training these individuals would be critical, so we’re not just helping…
Amanda Schermerhorn: (48:03)
… these individuals would be critical. So we’re not just helping youth, but as well, they would be helping other people. And I think that’s the beauty of it. I think we need to look at our young people as resources in solving this issue.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (48:15)
And as well, if I might add I think, if a program like this, that they should be paid $15 an hour minimum. A lot of the youth that I’m friends with, they provide and support the financial needs of their families, paying bills, groceries, medical attention, and other needs. And as well, as college costs continue to rise, we need to save for college.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (48:41)
And also ensuring that our undocumented students can access job opportunities since they’re fairly often behind. But yeah, I think it’s a brilliant idea. And I think in doing this, we are going to connect more families to the services that they need since everything’s going virtual.
Kamala Harris: (49:04)
And just if you had to guess, what percentage of students that you know or that you are going to school with, have a computer or a desktop as opposed to a cell phone?
Amanda Schermerhorn: (49:22)
Well, my school, Baltimore City College High School, we’re like 80% Black. And so in my classes, I see a lot of the times that a lot of the students, usually Black and brown students, have their cameras off. And for me that’s the same thing because if I don’t have it off, then the audio puts out and I just have a lot of complications. So I would say, well, in Baltimore, 40.7% of households have no broadband internet access. And so when we were looking at by race, really one out of every two Black and Latinx kids could not access their online education. And my story isn’t unique, that’s the big point. I just had a platform to put it on there. So, yeah.
Kamala Harris: (50:09)
But how about laptops and desktops? Do you have a sense of what percentage of the high school students in Baltimore have laptops or desktops?
Amanda Schermerhorn: (50:20)
I believe 80.7% of white households have these devices, while 60% of African-Americans ones too. And the figure for Hispanic households is 47.5%.
Kamala Harris: (50:32)
Yeah. Thank you.
Amanda Schermerhorn: (50:35)
Kamala Harris: (50:36)
Keep doing what you’re doing.
Thank you, Kimberly. I’m pleased to introduce Meagan Kaiser. Meagan is a soy bean farmer and soil scientist in Bowling Green, Missouri, where she’s the chief operating officer of Perry Agricultural Laboratory Incorporated. Meagan?
Meagan Kaiser: (50:56)
Good afternoon, Madam Vice President. I just to thank you so much for holding this. And just listening to all the panelists, I feel in such a good company, and I actually have hope about this for the first time, well, really ever. I really thought that this was kind of a rural struggle and that not many people knew or cared about it. And as I listened to Kimberly, I mean, when we were in the pandemic about a fourth of our high school had no access to internet. And so the teachers had to put together packets to go pick up. And so they’re doing it very remotely, as in nobody to talk to while they’re trying to get their education. And as a mom, I share that concern. I live in Missouri and Dr. Gonzales is exactly correct. I mean, telehealth care would be a huge asset when we’re an hour from a major hospital to kind of note, should we go, or should we stay? That kind of indicator is hugely helpful.
Meagan Kaiser: (51:59)
And really as a farmer and a business owner, I worry about these community issues because we can’t attract the best and brightest to come work in agriculture if we can’t connect to the rest of the world. Our business, Perry Agricultural Laboratory, we do soil and agricultural nutrient testing for farmers all over the world and in every state in the US. And we use our science to help farmers make science-based data-driven decisions to be more economically and environmentally sustainable. And until 2019, we only had access to satellite internet. So we installed two to try to support our office operations, but we still couldn’t support the speeds that we needed. And oftentimes we would have clients call and say, “We never received our reports,” after we worked so hard to give them timely information. Our email wouldn’t go out because we just didn’t have enough upload speed.
Meagan Kaiser: (52:56)
And when you have to explain that to an international client, it really makes you feel that your business is less world-class. We spent years calling every fiber provider in our area asking, “What do we have to do? What can we do to connect our business?” And the answer was that it would cost upwards of $40,000 just to connect, not including our monthly fees. And right there is a barrier of access that if we were a new business, we couldn’t possibly justify locating in a rural area. We finally got the connection in 2019, and really this made such a difference of taking our upload speed from 0.5 to three. Now I’m not asking for the world here, but three megabytes per second upload speed was the difference of what would take me one day now used to take me three days just waiting. I would click wait, wait, wait.
Meagan Kaiser: (53:53)
And so it’s the rural development aspect. But on top of that, the upload speed is so important for us as farmers. We still don’t have this connectivity at our home or farm. We often rely on cellular hotspots, but in rural areas, even cellular data is very difficult to come by. We’ve come so far with precision agriculture, we can test our nutrient content, learn our air and water holding capacity, we know how much fertilizer we applied and exactly how much crop we gained from those applications down to the acre, but we can’t utilize any of that data and overlay it and make better data-driven decisions if we can’t upload the information to a central source.
Meagan Kaiser: (54:39)
And I strongly believe the future for agriculture to play a large role in green alternatives, for everything from plastics to fuel and lessen our own carbon footprint while producing these goods, is very real. But the only way for us to get there is to have the ability to make better data-driven decisions, and that completely relies on our ability to connect to the internet.
Kamala Harris: (55:06)
It’s such a big point that you’re making and the solution is so obviously simple if we get our act together. Really. The scientists, the farmers, you guys are doing the hard work of coming up with all of these innovative practices, right, around figuring out water and how much and when, and predicting and projecting and doing it in a way that is just smart and efficient and effective. And you can’t even upload the information to do anything with it.
Kamala Harris: (55:47)
And so the solution is so simple and in that way profound, and I wonder if you can just share a bit about what it has meant to rural farmers in terms of their ability to stay in business, their productivity, without access to high-speed internet? What does it mean to them and to their livelihood and to the American farmer? What does this mean?
Meagan Kaiser: (56:16)
Well, my dad always said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” If you don’t know what you’re working with, we have tight margins, you know? We are in large case a commodity business and all of agriculture. And if we can’t look at, down to the T, of exactly what we’re putting in, what we’re getting out, we can’t survive, we can’t be financially sustainable.
Meagan Kaiser: (56:42)
But now we’re looking at it in an even greater role in that the more that we are able to do with less, we’re feeding people, we’re clothing people, we’re fueling people, and we’re replacing products that are not as sustainable … with the soybean oil that comes from my farm I can make biodiesel, I can make plastics. These are things that are better for the earth.
Kamala Harris: (57:11)
Yeah. Let’s talk just briefly about what it has meant, also going back to an earlier conversation about, and I’m thinking of Amanda, I’m thinking of everyone, what it has meant in terms of rural America and children and education. What are you seeing there?
Meagan Kaiser: (57:35)
My gosh, well I have a six year old and a nine month old. And I mean, the first thing I think of is my baby monitor, it needs wifi access. Do you know how scary it is for your baby monitor to go out as a young mother?
Kamala Harris: (57:47)
Meagan Kaiser: (57:47)
So that’s like the first thing. My son, the idea that we can access classes or teachers or specialties in education or healthcare, or just arts even, with a connection to the internet, it just makes literally the world his oyster. And for him to be able to then learn from all different perspectives, all different walks of life on the internet and bring that to our farm, will do nothing but benefit our community, our state and our nation.
Kamala Harris: (58:25)
Thank you, Meagan. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This is such an important perspective.
Meagan Kaiser: (58:30)
Thank you. Thank you for listening and for spearheading this because we just haven’t felt heard out here on this issue. So thank you so much.
Kamala Harris: (58:40)
I want to thank all of our participants for your very impactful stories and for your advocation and vocation around this important issue of high-speed internet access. And as we close, I want to yield to the vice president for final thoughts.
Kamala Harris: (58:58)
Thank you, Vincent. Well, listen, each of you, thank you for sharing your stories. Yours is the American story. And while we have so much to be proud of, there’s still a lot of work we have to do. I’m going to talk about you guys, not behind your back, but I’m going to be talking about you and what you’ve shared today, because I think it’s really important to help people understand how fundamental this is.
Kamala Harris: (59:29)
It’s just basic stuff. And let’s take away the kind of grand gestures about it. Let’s just realize that in the 21st century, to do the work that needs to be done, to take care of a community, to raise a family, to bring healthcare, mental health care, to grow things on a farm. American industry, to think about who’s been left out or left behind and make sure that they’re connected, it’s all of this. It’s all of this and It’s very basic.
Kamala Harris: (01:00:05)
And I do believe this is very doable. And so I’m in DC right now, and this is going to be a conversation that I’m going to continue to have with the folks here and around the country. And it’s going to be about telling your stories and then getting something done, because it really is pretty basic and it really is pretty simple.
Kamala Harris: (01:00:28)
We just need to get it done. We know what we need to get done. We need to connect people. We need to do what they did in the 1930s with the Electrification Plan. It’s been done before, we can do it again. And it is imperative that we do to the wellbeing of all people in our communities and in our country and for the sake of what we need to do to compete in a world market. And I appreciate also Kimberly’s point, this is also a civil rights issue and it is about equity and fairness. So I thank you all very much for your time, I look forward to staying in touch. And Vincent, thank you for moderating us today. Thank you.
Thank you, Madam Vice President. Thank you everyone.