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Oklahoma Broadband Office seeks input and expansion of service

Mike Sanders, Executive Director, Oklahoma Broadband Office
Abi Ruth Martin
Mike Sanders, Executive Director, Oklahoma Broadband Office

Reliable broadband service is essential in today's world, and we discuss Oklahoma's plan for improving access with the new executive director of the Oklahoma Broadband Office.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - taking you inside politics, policy and government in Oklahoma. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Our guest is former state Representative Mike Sanders, who is executive director of the Oklahoma Broadband Office. Thanks for joining us.

Mike Sanders: Great to be with you and Shawn this morning, Dick.

Dick Pryor: Thank you. You were hired in March to lead this agency that most people probably know little about. What's the mission of the Oklahoma Broadband Office?

Mike Sanders: Our mission, Dick, is to deliver high speed Internet to about 20% of the population here in Oklahoma. If you break that down even further, it's about 750,000 Oklahomans and you're talking about about one in six Oklahomans that do not have high speed internet or very poor, high speed internet. So, our mission is very clear. We need to get high speed Internet to mostly, if not predominantly, the rural areas. And that's what we're going to do.

Shawn Ashley: You mentioned the problem of high speed Internet in those rural areas, but a lot of people don't know there are also some suburban and urban areas in the state where access to broadband is limited. Is that an issue you will be addressing and how do you plan to do that?

Mike Sanders: Great question, Shawn. And yes. One of the things that we are dealing with is Oklahoma is a state of 77 counties. So, you bet there are holes and areas in Oklahoma County, Cleveland County, Tulsa County. And in the same process that those ISPs will be applying for applications and grants will be the same ISPs or many of the same ISPs that will be doing that as well as in the urban areas, because there's pockets just even east of the capitol. You guys know that. So, as I said, 77 counties and we're going to be looking at every one.

Dick Pryor: Your office recently completed a 19-stop listening tour where you heard from hundreds of Oklahomans. What's the takeaway from those discussions?

Mike Sanders: You know, Dick, there were a lot of great takeaways, a lot of great information on that. And I tell you, that's one of the best things that our office has done since I took over this past spring. You know, we've gone from Goodwell to Broken Bow, from Altus to Miami and everywhere in between. But we heard from many Oklahomans, many in the education field, many in the health care field, small businesses and quite frankly, just plain old citizens from the state of Oklahoma that reliability, affordability and accessibility - those are the issues that we're hearing. And those three concerns actually, not only does that help our office, you know, formulate our plan, which we have to submit to the NTIA, which is a federal partner of ours, but it really helps us to know really the pulse of those areas that we hope to get high speed Internet to.

So again, these are town halls that we've conducted across the state. What's exciting about that, this is going to continue to go forward because in October we're going to be calling a new outreach tour, the Oklahoma Digital Promise, which is part of our Digital Equity Opportunity educational program that is, again, part of our outreach. But also, we're going to go through other areas of the state as well. So, this this outreach program is nonstop. And we're excited about our past. We're excited about our future. And I'll tell you, we're going to be putting a lot more miles on the vehicle. So, stay tuned.

Shawn Ashley: The legislature gave your office $382 million from the state's American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA funds. How are you going about distributing that money?

Mike Sanders: We have a very fair and open process, an application process that every internet service provider can and will apply for. We've got the Oklahoma map, which is part of, you know, areas and coverage areas that that's going to be very essential. So, when you look at that map, which you can find on map at broadband.ok.gov, you'll be able to see a lot of the areas that I guess we would call desert areas, no high speed internet or poor high speed internet. But what's interesting about that too, is although that's going to be a great tool, the FCC map, which sometimes is not always accurate, we have to base all of our allocations and funding opportunities, including ARPA, including CPF, as well as our digital education monies off the FCC map. But the Oklahoma map will be a useful tool.

Shawn Ashley: When do you expect the broadband governing board to finish considering those requests? When will that money be going out in ISPs starting their work?

Mike Sanders: Great question. And they're going to be, we hope, that in September we're going to be able to address the governing board and they're going to have the process to plan those. Those projects are going to be announced down the road. And we really want shovels in the ground sooner than later. But, you know, Shawn, you know, when you when you're looking at the a brand new agency dealing with the federal government, dealing with all these different regs and four pots of money, because some people just you know, they have this belief that there's just one huge pot of money and one set of rules. But with those four programs that I mentioned, there are four different sets of rules, four different sets of regulations. So, to make sure that we have the right policies, the right procedures, and quite frankly, to build a capacity that we have or need in this office takes a little bit of time. If it was up to me, I would have this already out and about. But we've got to do it by the book. We've got to cross every T, dot every I, and that's what we're going to do.

Dick Pryor: And you don't have much time to get your work done.

Mike Sanders: That is correct. We are on a very tight time crunch. We've got five years as an office as it is now. But the good thing is our office has met every timeline deadline we have put our reports in. And you get - you all know - that the amount of paperwork and planning takes a lot of time and that requires qualified people, right procedures, and that's what we've done here. So, we we're on a time frame crunch, but we expect to deliver.

Dick Pryor: Oklahoma Broadband Office Executive Director Mike Sanders, a pleasure visiting with you today on Capitol Insider.

Mike Sanders: Great to be here, Dick. Great visiting with you, Shawn.

Dick Pryor:  For more information, go to quorumcall.online. You can find audio and transcripts at kgou.org and listen to Capitol Insider where you get your podcasts. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Listeners like you provide essential funding for KGOU’s news reports, including Capitol Insider, available in podcasts, online and on the air. Information on how to contribute is at KGOU.org.

Dick Pryor has more than 30 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November 2016.
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