On the Road in the Industrial Midwest
Famed American writer Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece “On the Road” was published six decades ago this year. In the book, Kerouac conveyed a sense of the energy the main characters found away from home. As narrator Sal Paradise puts it, “all I wanted to do was . . . go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.”
Inspired a bit by Kerouac, I hit the road last week. I visited Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Detroit. Some might not think of these as glamorous travel destinations — but that’s precisely why I went.
This proud region of the United States built our country. Our bridges were built with their steel and sweat. Our wars were won with their sons and daughters. Yet too many in these communities feel left behind. They are worried about the future. They are concerned that the good jobs that made these cities prosperous manufacturing hubs or steel towns in the 20th century are not coming back.
Many had written off these former industrial powerhouses as early as the 1970s. Some still don’t think of them as much more than fading tributes to the Rust Belt’s legacy. But I had a feeling there was a lot I could learn there — and I was right.
There’s a sense of hope in the places I visited, a sense driven by a determination to adjust to the changing economy and to pursue the opportunities presented by the digital age.
I started off my trip at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, where I gave my first major policy address since becoming Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The gist of it was this: I believe that every American who wants to participate in our digital economy should be able to do so. Broadband Internet access shouldn’t depend on who you are or where you’re from. I also believe in the power of Internet-based technologies to create jobs, grow our economy, and improve people’s lives in countless ways. High-speed Internet access, or broadband, is giving entrepreneurs anywhere an unprecedented chance to disrupt entire industries and transform our country.
That’s why my primary focus at the FCC is ensuring that we use every tool in the toolbox to boost broadband deployment throughout our country. I know that consumers everywhere want better, faster, and cheaper broadband. And I know that there’s no limit to what Americans can achieve — from Detroit, Michigan to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Reno, Nevada — if they’re given the opportunity to take advantage of these next-generation networks.
I had a chance to see these principles in action during my trip through the Industrial Midwest. I heard firsthand about the promise and perils of broadband deployment; about the entrepreneurship that was sprouting up along the way; and about the established companies that are creating jobs and innovating in these cities.
1. Broadband Deployment
With respect to broadband deployment, I saw how companies are building — or at least trying to build — next-generation networks. For instance, in Detroit, I visited competitive upstart Rocket Fiber. The company’s executive team started things off with a discussion about regulatory roadblocks. They had to get signoffs from multiple city agencies, none of which seemed to think that time was of the essence. And they had to get access to a large number of poles at a reasonable cost, which wasn’t easy; the city at first sought a very high price for pole access (using as a benchmark the high rate charged to another broadband provider for access to just three poles). Fortunately, Rocket Fiber did manage to have conduit installed while the city was building the QLine streetcar; this is a big aid to deployment, which illustrates why I’ve called for “dig once” to be part of our national transportation policy.
The challenge of deployment isn’t limited to urban areas. I drove to a very small town outside Pittsburgh to check out a rural cable headend owned by Armstrong, a family-owned and -operated business. The rows of servers and power supplies and other equipment were humming along smoothly, providing service to thousands of customers in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. But what really impressed me was a series of maps which detailed Armstrong’s service territory along with population density, average income, and more. Armstrong is offering 100 Mbps or greater Internet access service to customers in areas with relatively few people per square mile and with less than the national median income (each of which tends to limit returns on infrastructure investment). But thanks to initiatives like the FCC’s recent decision to devote $170 million to increase deployment in upstate New York — the first vote under my Chairmanship — they’re going to lay more fiber and connect more potential customers.
2. Entrepreneurs are Thriving
As I said at Carnegie Mellon, “High-speed Internet access, or broadband, is giving rise to what I have called the democratization of entrepreneurship. With a powerful plan and a digital connection, you can raise capital, start a business, immediately reach a worldwide customer base, and disrupt an entire industry.” More and more innovators in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Detroit are proving how true this is.
For instance, in Pittsburgh, I had the privilege of meeting Priya Narasimhan, a Carnegie Mellon professor. Several years ago, she was at a Pittsburgh Penguins game. Being somewhat shorter of stature, she couldn’t see the action on the ice. And she wondered why, with all the smartphones out there, she couldn’t access information easily on her mobile device. So she founded YinzCam. Among other things, the company creates apps for sports teams and sporting venues and sets up beacons that allow highly-localized information to be distributed to fans. Their clients now include many National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and National Hockey League teams — including, yes, her beloved Penguins. (And on a personal note, it was gratifying to me as an Indian-American to hear her story: her family came to America via India and Zambia, and she is a great role model for Indian-Americans and women in STEM fields.)
I also had the chance to meet with the team at Duolingo, a Pittsburgh startup. Duolingo created a mobile app that allows people to learn new languages for free. It now has something like 80 million users around the world (about 20% of whom are in the United States). It was fascinating to learn about how they are developing revenue streams, how they essentially crowdsource lesson plans for new language courses, how they are trying to enter foreign markets, and how mobile connectivity is critical for the company and users alike.
But it wasn’t just Pittsburgh. One of my favorite events took place in Youngstown, where I had the honor of being hosted by the top-ranked Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI). YBI’s Jim Cossler, an entrepreneurial force of nature and a champion of northeastern Ohio’s potential, led a roundtable with innovative area startups and me. So many fascinating stories! There was Hudson Fasteners, a family-owned company going back to 1946. It once sold things like nuts, bolts, and screws in a bricks-and-mortar store and kept inventory on notecards until the 1990s. Today, third-generation owners Lisa Kleinhandler and Cris Young have created an online sales platform that they say “put[s] the FAST in fasteners.” There was Enyx Studios, a virtual reality gaming company that kindly allowed yours truly to demonstrate his (virtual, anyway) incompetence during a demo. There was FoodECrave, a company that specializes in delivering perishable foods, especially meats, to small businesses and gourmands. There was MedaSync, a health care startup which created software that combines clinical and cost data to secure better outcomes for nursing home patients. And there was Ving!, founded by serial entrepreneur and Youngstown native Tony DeAscentis. Way back when, Tony left the area for tech jobs in big cities faraway. But now he’s back, and with Ving!, he’s aiming to help companies and individuals share more easily, and better understand third-party engagement with, their digital information. Later on at YBI, I spent time at America Makes, a national accelerator for additive manufacturing and 3D printing.
In short, there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm in that room, not least from me (and I’m not just saying that because my in-laws, who live near Youngstown, were in attendance!).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Motor City, too, is motoring thanks to startups. There are a lot of smart, dedicated entrepreneurs helping to build a better Detroit as they build new businesses. Workit Health’s Lisa McLaughlin is taking addiction treatment mobile with an online platform that is private and personalized. Lunar’s Hunter Rosenblume has started a wireless company that provides talk, text, and data services without monthly fees. And CityInsight’s Abess Makki aims to connect municipal governments with constituents through mobile technology, starting with an app that enables residents to track water usage in real time and manage billing.
These entrepreneurs are helping the so-called Rust Belt shake off the rust. They exemplify the spirit of Kerouac’s lead character, who said “we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” And they illustrate the importance of high-speed Internet access anywhere — with broadband, they can grow and thrive in soil once considered hostile to tech-based entrepreneurship.
3. Established Entities are Innovating, Too.
One of the other insights I drew from the upper Midwest is that established entities, too, are innovating. For instance, I’ve long believed that better broadband access could dramatically improve health care accessibility and outcomes. While in Ohio, I witnessed that for myself. At the Cleveland Clinic, a group focused on clinical transformation told and showed me how it is developing telemedicine in innovative ways. It’s using the Internet to connect health care providers with patients at locations as far away as Florida. It’s set up a mobile stroke unit, cutting by an average of 38 minutes the time needed to assess and stabilize a stroke patient (precious minutes, indeed: such patients lose approximately 2 million brain cells each minute they’re untreated).
And it’s established a mobile platform on which patients can easily see which providers are available, schedule impromptu or later appointments, and even send pictures of problem areas, like a skin lesion. (Notably, I was told that the typical user of this service is a mother of two in her 30s; that made me think of all the time and money she would save by not having to take time off work, find alternative child care arrangements, drive to the Clinic, and the like.)
The Cleveland Clinic was an appropriate setting for the announcement that under my Chairmanship, the FCC will continue our work on our Connect2HealthFCC Task Force, the purpose of which is to “explor[e] the intersection of broadband, advanced technology and health and further charting the broadband future of health care.” I look forward to further collaboration with my colleague Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who is leading our efforts on this important issue.
Later in the trip, I visited General Motors, one of the country’s best-known automakers. I learned about the team’s efforts to develop safety-related technologies to cut down on crashes. And I was impressed by the OnStar team’s discussion of how over the past twenty-plus years, the service had morphed from a curious feature to a sometimes life-saving connection. I could see on a massive dashboard how OnStar users everywhere were pinging the service. That brought home to me the unintended, serendipitous consequences of technology: the OnStar team probably never dreamed in the 1990s that their technology would be used by an American driver to help get information on delivering a child in a GM, or by a Chinese driver to propose to his then-girlfriend, but that’s how it turned out.
Finally, and consistent with the theme of major technology companies setting up shop in Pittsburgh, I visited Amazon. Amazon recently opened an office in a revitalized neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I had the opportunity to meet with core members of the team working on “machine translation” — essentially, allowing speech recognition technologies like Alexa operate better. It was interesting to hear how they try to teach Alexa to factor in strong accents or focus on a particular voice. These aren’t easy problems to solve, but the Amazon team is hard at work solving them — and they’re doing it in what was once a run-down part of the Steel City.
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Sal memorably conveys his sense of optimism in “On the Road” when he says “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” That’s how many people seemed to feel in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Detroit, and that’s how I feel too. Spending last week there has made me more hopeful about our nation’s future and the potential for high-speed Internet connectivity to help revitalize parts of our country facing economic challenges. And it’s renewed my determination to pursue policies that will promote broadband deployment. We must bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans, not just those living on the coasts. I look forward to continuing that work, both back here at the FCC and the next time I’m on the road.