As mayor of the self-proclaimed "Gig City" for eight years, Andy Berke frequently touted the virtues of Chattanooga's publicly-funded high-speed broadband network in enhancing everything from schools to medicine to remote work.
Less than 10 months after leaving his job at Chattanooga's City Hall, Berke is back promoting the expansion of broadband - on a national stage.
The 53-year-old attorney, former state senator and former mayor joined the U.S. Department of Commerce on Monday as a special representative for broadband.
In his new role at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Berke will work to help states and territories connect, prepare and take advantage of an influx of $48.5 billion in new federal funds to help make broadband more accessible and affordable to underserved communities.
"This is a transformative moment for broadband and one of the most significant moments for telecommunications in our country," Berke said in a telephone interview shortly after starting his new job. "The president set a really ambitious goal to make sure there is affordable broadband available for everyone, and we have a chance to do what a lot of people have been searching for a long time to create a huge national connection plan state by state and area by area."
As part of the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Biden signed into law in November, Congress allocated nearly $42.5 billion for states to help with broadband deployment, mapping and adoption projects under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program along with another $6 billion for the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program and other initiatives to help bridge the digital divide between those with and those without broadband service.
Although several billion dollars of federal aid for broadband service has been offered in the past through a variety of programs, the infrastructure package will pump out an unprecedented level of federal aid for improving access to high-speed internet service.
"My role is to be the main interface with states, cities and tribes as we prepare to get the funding out and then to help make sure that we get the best possible plans at the widest possible point," Berke said. "This is substantial commitment and increase in funds. We've never seen investments at these levels before, and I'm going to try to help to make sure that these dollars get deployed in the best possible manner."
The telecommunications administration where Berke is serving as special representative was formed in 1978, although the agency's Institute for Telecommunications Sciences lab in Boulder, Colorado, has conducted research for more than a century. The agency has never had anywhere near the funding level allocated by the infrastructure spending package.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told U.S. governors last month at the National Governors Association that states and tribes are best suited to figure out how to deploy the federal funds for broadband expansion to ensure all Americans get digital access, not just wealthy or urban areas.
"You all are on the front lines of the fight to close the digital divide," Raimondo told the governors. "You know where this money needs to go better than anyone. States will soon have access to initial planning funds, which will help inform a five-year action plan."
Stephen Yusko, a spokesperson for the telecommunications administration, said Berke will be traveling the country talking to governors, mayors, tribal members, digital inclusion advocates and other stakeholders who stand to benefit from the broadband programs. The administration is expected to begin reviewing applications in May, with funds allocated over several years.
Berke said he will be working both remotely from his home in Chattanooga and from the administration's offices in Washington, D.C., along with traveling the country to promote and help states and tribes with their grant requests and plans.
After leaving city hall in April 2021, Berke served for nine months as a special adviser to the chancellor at Vanderbilt University before shifting last week to his new post. Yusko declined to discuss Berke's salary for the new administration job.
Berke said he was attracted to his new role as special representative for broadband because of President Joe Biden's support for expanding broadband service to all.
"We know the administration values this effort because President Biden believes the economy can't get back on track unless everybody can participate," Berke said. "I obviously want to contribute to a program that the administration thinks is of the highest need."
Berke said his appointment "shows how seriously people in Washington, D.C., look at the experience and success that Chattanooga has had with broadband."
Chattanooga's municipal electricity company, EPB, launched its broadband service more than a decade ago before Berke was first elected mayor in 2013. But as mayor, Berke worked to bridge the digital divide using the city's gig service through programs like Tech Goes Home and HCS Connect.
"We in Chattanooga are a model for making sure that every household and business has a connection, and we are at the forefront in ensuring that it is affordable for all people having been the first community in the country to have no cost internet for every family with a child on the free- or reduced-price lunch," Berke said. "People in the federal government have seen how we have been able to improve our economy and our quality of life, and it's exciting to be able to work to expand these efforts across the country."