Meridiam: Is it fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic’s possible ‘silver lining’ was a heightened awareness that the system in place for providing access to high speed broadband had failed?
Mayor Hamilton: I do think the pandemic made so tangible how critically important digital access is to many people in many ways that weren’t as tangible before. Whether it was a kid doing homework and schoolwork and class time from home, or a senior needing health care, or millions and millions of workers who needed to connect to their workplace, we realized how fundamental it is in so many ways to have better access than we do, and more affordable access. And I hope it helps us see digital access to infrastructure as a basic part of a community, just like roads and water and electricity.
Meridiam: Could you please talk about the added value of fiber, what you call ‘the electricity of our time’, versus broadband, particularly in terms of the difference in future proofing?
Mayor Hamilton: Well, first, I’m not an expert. So many people know a lot about this. But I do think, broadband is a term that is very loosely defined in America. What I understand is that having digital fiber, optical fiber that can carry the gigabit speeds and beyond that, connected to every premise, is such a fundamental infrastructure. I don’t use the phrase “future proof,” because we can’t proof anything entirely against the future. But it is definitely future leaning; it is the way to accelerate us as a community, for us to accelerate into the future.
Really, just like electricity was in the beginning of the 20th century – if you didn’t have it, you didn’t even know what you were missing. You couldn’t lean into the future the way you needed to. And that’s the way I think about the fiber optic cable – it helps assure that ability to lean into the future.
Meridiam: For nearly the past decade, the federal government has provided over $22 billion to support the expansion of rural broadband. It’s somewhere between 6% and 12% of Americans that still do not have the access to a quality broadband network. What’s different now? How much of a role did the Biden infrastructure plan play in influencing your vision for your city’s future?
Mayor Hamilton: Well, the Biden infrastructure investments are critically important for us, in at least two ways. One, just the concept that we should all be thinking about digital access as a fundamental premise of successful communities. And two, this continued support for access to the $30 a month subsidy that’s available to households in need. Because again, broadband, we defined it in such low speeds, that it didn’t, it doesn’t really work to think everybody has access to broadband, because you can have access to broadband, even the 90% that do, it’s not sufficient for what you need. Today, you really need higher speed connections than how we define broadband. So I do think the federal government’s investment and policies have been critically important to help us move forward. But I also would say our community’s experience is overwhelmingly led by private sector investment and mission, like we found with Meridiam, as well as the partnership with our community that’s so committed to helping work together on this.
Meridiam: At Meridiam it’s our firm belief that nothing new and critical gets built without a strong local champion leading the charge. What do you see next for Bloomington?
John: Well, first, I appreciate that approach of partnership. That’s not always true from investors. And we do really appreciate that sense of partnership. I think what’s next for Bloomington is when we are a wired community, with access at every premise to the 21st century technology of digital fiber, we have great potential to be one of the places that will continue to prosper through climate change through digital, through diversity, equity, inclusion challenges, to be able to continue to support the quality of life that people want here. It’s a fundamental building block. And so it really makes everything more possible in the future from my perspective.
Meridiam: Studies have shown the cause and effect relationship between high speed internet access and economic growth. You touched upon that earlier. What specific societal impact would you point to, in both the short and long term for Bloomington?
Mayor Hamilton: It’s a game changer.
Having universal, affordable access to the high-speed digital network is a game changer for our community.
It means that our youth, our kids in school can do better than they otherwise would and have access to materials and opportunities that they wouldn’t have. It means that our workers, our workforce, will be able to compete for jobs they otherwise couldn’t, and provide them opportunities to advance in ways they just wouldn’t have without digital access. It provides health care opportunities for our whole community as we see that system evolving to hopefully involve more telemedicine and home care and those kinds of things critically important. But then just at the most basic level, I do want to make sure we talk about the digital equity program, which we believe is the best in the United States, that we’ve been able to do together, the ability to offer thousands of our local residents who are struggling, who are struggling as families, to offer to them really top quality, digital access for, yes, for healthcare, for jobs, for education, but just for quality of life, to be able to join entertainment and to be connected to your family members in other places, and to have full access to the modern world. And we’re so proud that together, we are offering what is essentially free access to thousands of our families who are otherwise struggling, it’s something we can do to help them get a step up the ladder and a much better life for a family.
Meridiam: Thank you for that and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. And my final question, which, again, you touched upon earlier, in addressing the question of the equity program. How important a partner like Meridiam has been in bringing your vision for Bloomington and its region into reality. Has Meridiam’s specificity as a mission driven company play a role in the partnership? Do you think it has influenced the strength of this partnership that we form together?
Mayor Hamilton: Absolutely.
You know, we in Bloomington have been looking for a partner to advance these complicated, but so fundamental opportunities for us. And we’ve danced with a bunch, but we couldn’t find the right partner until we found Meridiam. I do believe that your mission orientation, your approach to collaboration with local governments, your commitment to net neutrality and to digital access as infrastructure are very important to the to the successful partnership. I think it’s very important for the United States as a whole to do better on both of those fronts on thinking about digital access as infrastructure, thinking about it as a real equity play.
Meridiam: Is there anything that we did not ask that you’d like us to include?
Mayor Hamilton: I think again, I am not sure we explicitly said how valuable from our perspective it is that you approach this as infrastructure available to others to use, just as our roads are shared by many entities seeking to serve the community.
The digital infrastructure can be used by various entities seeking to serve the community. That’s unusual, and extremely important from our perspective. And we appreciate that shared perspective, as well as net neutrality. And of course, the deep commitment to digital equity. Those three components are really powerful and important. And we’re proud to be in partnership with you.