Tech industry pushes back against bill making phones easier to repair

Environmentalists and electronic repair shops on Monday hailed a bill making it easier for consumers to repair their electronic devices as a way to reduce toxic waste. But technology firms criticized the legislation for potential cybersecurity risks and unintended consequences. 

The clash came during a hearing for AB221, a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) that would require manufacturers of digital electronic equipment to produce documentation and the parts and tools necessary to diagnose, maintain and repair electronic devices valued from $100 to $5,000.

"Quite simply, this bill allows for you to just fix your cell," Torres said.

Torres described working at a repair shop throughout college and watching as electronic devices became harder to repair, forcing consumers to purchase new phones rather than repair ones they had. The bill will allow small businesses to perform repairs that manufacturers will not and expand access to certified technology programs that give consumers more affordable and environmentally friendly options, she said.

Passage of the bill would also address a shortage of educational technology, said Torres, who is a teacher, noting that the right to repair will give schools and other institutions the information needed to maintain equipment and access more affordable refurbished electronics and help bridge a digital divide.

Nevada is among 25 states considering "right to repair" legislation that followed from a 2012 Massachusetts state law requiring automobile manufacturers to make information and parts needed to repair cars available to consumers.

Under AB221, electronic device manufacturers would have to provide repair manuals, diagrams, relevant software patches, parts, tools and supporting information — with no extra profit for the manufacturer. The legislation holds that companies would not have to divulge any trade secrets or alter any arrangements between a repair provider and manufacturer.

E-waste accounts for up to 70 percent of landfills' toxic waste, and research from the United State Public Interest Research Group indicates that Americans purchase 161 million new smartphones each year, which takes 37.7 million tons of raw material to satisfy, or the equivalent to an Empire State Building in materials every six days, Torres said.

“Making it easier to repair these devices will mitigate climate change by reducing the energy consumed in the manufacturing phase of production,” Torres said.

The bill excludes automobile and agricultural equipment manufacturers, but there was some confusion surrounding the definition of electronic devices, and Torres said lawmakers were still working on how to best legally define a term that encompasses cell phones, computers, laptops, printers and other smaller electronic devices.

Violation of the law would be considered a deceptive trade practice, and companies would be open to civil and criminal penalties that would initially consist of a civil penalty of $5,000 and jail time with escalating penalties for continued infractions.

The bill raises “myriad” concerns, said Cameron Demetre, a representative for TechNet, a national bipartisan network of technology CEOs and senior executives. He cited the potential for unintended consequences, including privacy and safety risks.

“It is essential each repair person is properly trained in how not only to repair the device but also establishes a relationship with manufacturing in order to create a critical accountability link,” Demetre said.

He added that as far as environmental concerns, electronic product manufacturers have substantial environmental accountability programs.

“Our companies take tremendous pride in eliminating their environmental impact,” Demetre said.

Nine Nevada-based advocacy groups, including the Nevada Conservation League and Great Basin Water Network, submitted a letter supporting the bill and lauding it as a necessary step to lowering affordable electronics barriers. The letter emphasized that the bill would also reduce the wasteful practice of throwing away electronics that use materials mined from Nevada's lands.

"Toxic heavy metals from e-waste make their way into our water sources through the runoff cycle and impose another unmitigated externality to consumers," the letter said. "Right to Repair would extend the lifetime of devices, create a viable market for used electronics, and reduce the need for constantly buying the newer, more expensive models."

The legislation would weaken existing relationships between manufacturers and authorized repair facilities, said Lisa McCabe, a lobbyist for CITA, a trade association for the wireless communications industry. She added that the legislation would provide no protection or quality assurance for consumers.

“The marketplace already provides a wide range of consumer choice for electronic repair without the mandates imposed by this legislation,” McCabe said. “Even if an independent repair is provided the technical information required under this bill, without specific training on reassembling his device, they could unintentionally cause any kind of performance problem.”

Curtis Jones, president of the Technology Center Inc., an electronics repair shop in Sparks, said that without the legislation, electronics will increasingly end up in landfills and businesses such as his will be forced to close.

“My customers come to me pleading with me to fix their printers and their computers. I have to tell him I can't, I can't get parts. I can't get any help from the manufacturer to do it,” Jones said. “They don't want to have to go buy a new printer because it's just too expensive. We have to send truckloads of computers and printers to the dump every year because the recycling option is now disappearing.”

When a consumer purchases a product, they should have the right to repair it, Torres said.

“This will create some competition for tech companies, but I think that this is what's best for Nevada consumers and Nevada small businesses,” Torres said. “Independent repair providers throughout Nevada are small businesses. Expanding access to repair shops will help Nevadans find gainful employment, and will help Nevada consumers repair their devices.”

Months before a company lobbied the Legislature to create its own county, it purchased faraway water rights that could fuel future growth

Near the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where thousands of visitors travel to the Burning Man Festival each fall, irrigation systems stand idle on a fallow field in February. 

The land looks like many other agricultural operations in the state — but looks can be deceiving.

The titles to the water underneath farmland in this rural area are now held by Blockchains LLC, a company touted by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and lobbying lawmakers for a new statute that could effectively give the private cryptocurrency business the sovereign powers of a county.

Blockchains, which bought about 67,000 acres in and around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center in 2018, briefed lawmakers this week on plans to develop “Painted Rock Smart City.” To do so, Blockchains wants Nevada to create “Innovation Zones,” a pathway for large-scale developers focused on technology to break away from existing counties if they make major investments. 

Sisolak backed the concept in his State of the State speech earlier this year, singling out the company, which has donated thousands to the governor and other politicians (Blockchains and its CEO Jeffrey Berns also have donated to The Nevada Independent, which discloses all donors).

“Following the passage of my Innovation Zone legislation,” Sisolak said in January, “Blockchains LLC has committed to make an unprecedented investment in our state to create a smart city in northern Nevada that would fully run on blockchain technology — making Nevada the epicenter of this emerging industry and creating the high-paying jobs and revenue to go with it.”

A new city — Blockchains wants to build about 15,000 dwelling units — will require finding water in an area where it is scarce. The industrial center’s water district is committed to serving Blockchains a portion of water, according to its service plan. But the allocation is not enough potable water to support a city projected to have more than 36,000 residents and 22 million square-feet of industrial development.

To get the water it needs, Blockchains is looking at importing it from rural Nevada.

"Most of the water we’ve looked at is up north,” Lee Weiss, the company’s executive vice president said in an interview. “The water we’ve recently acquired is still in Washoe [County].”

The company, Weiss said, has looked in other areas, including in Humboldt County, noting that it has “been looking at water deals and potential ones since we first were interested in the land.” 

The Black Rock Desert on Dec. 31, 2020. Blockchains LLC purchased water rights in a nearby groundwater basin about 100 miles from its land in and around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

At the edge of the Black Rock Desert

In late November, Blockchains entered into agreements for a cache of faraway water rights for more than $30 million, according to documents filed with Washoe County recorder’s office. One month later, state officials received documents to put the water in Blockchains’ name. The water, primarily used for agriculture, is in northern Washoe County outside the town of Gerlach.

If fully permitted and transferred about 100 miles, the water could help fuel growth in the company’s futuristic city at the center of the state’s economic development strategy. The water would be enough to fill thousands of football fields to a depth of one foot — each year.

Even if the company moved a portion of its water to its planned town near Reno, such an action could cause environmental damage and face a litany of local, state, federal and tribal permitting challenges. Infrastructure needed to convey the water could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

When a developer tried to export water from the area in 2007, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Washoe County, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Sierra Club all raised concerns. 

"The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is fiercely protective of its water resources, and 15 years ago, the tribe opposed an effort to move this same water from the San Emedio Basin to Fernley,” said Chris Mixson, an attorney for the tribe. “We’re watching these water rights very closely.”

There are also lingering questions about how Blockchains plans to manage sewage capacity for a new city along the Truckee River. Wastewater treatment can prove costly, and the tribe, along with other water users, would likely contest any plans to discharge additional effluent in the river.

Based on the advice the company has received, Weiss said he was confident Blockchains could move water in a way that was environmentally sound and did not conflict with other water use.

“We’ve looked at other potential purchases where the obstacles were much more than the ones here,” Weiss said, adding that Blockchians rejected other deals over environmental concerns. 

Meghin Delaney, a spokesperson for Sisolak, did not respond to emails about whether Sisolak was aware of the company’s water portfolio or had concerns about water related to the project. 

His administration might have to sign off on Blockchains’ water plan.

Under one draft of the legislation, a developer looking to create an “Innovation Zone” must show the Governor’s Office of Economic Development that they have “secured or can secure access to public utilities and natural resources necessary for the development proposed for the zone.”

A sign pointing to the San Emedio Basin, where Blockchains LLC purchased water, on Feb. 6, 2020. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

Recording a new deed

On Nov. 17, Washoe County recorded a water rights deed. 

The document, in addition to other agreements filed with Washoe County, handed over a varied collection of water rights to Blockchains in two areas, miles away from where the company owns land. Of the more than 7,000 acre-feet of water rights Blockchains purchased, Weiss said the company could only use a portion — about 5,900 acre-feet — of those rights.

An acre-foot of water can serve a little more than two homes per year in the Reno area.

A portion of the water, according to the state’s database of all water rights, is in the San Emedio Basin, outside of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation. The water is used to irrigate land at Empire Farms, according to records, and sits in an area used to generate geothermal power.

The second collection of water is tied to farming in Hualapai Flat, below the Granite Range and near the playa that hosts Burning Man each year. Hualapai Flat is also home to the iconic Fly  Geyser, which is located on a ranch that was purchased by the Burning Man Project in 2016. 

For years, developers have eyed moving the water to fuel municipal and industrial development.

Blockchains purchased its water from Sonterra Development Company. Sonterra, controlled by Wade Company and Flagstone Fernley Holdings, had planned to develop land in Fernley. In June 2019, Sonterra sold its Fernley lands, according to an agreement signed with Blockchains.

In 2007, Sonterra Development Company proposed a pipeline to transfer the agricultural water to Storey County, where the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center is located, and Lyon County. At the time, Sonterra told state water officials that the project was estimated to cost $100 million and take about 10 years before the agricultural water was put to municipal use, records show.

Others have sought to pipe water out of the area. At Hualapai Flat, another entity, High Rock Holdings LLC, applied with the state to ship roughly 10,000 to 14,000 acre-feet to many of the same locations in 2007, according to a protest Washoe County filed with state water regulators. 

Lahontan cutthroat trout in a Pyramid Lake spawning channel on March 2, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Moving water around

Finding water to fuel growth in and around the industrial center has long proved challenging.

The industrial center, home to the Tesla Gigafactory, is located along the Truckee River, which is fed by snowpack in basins around Lake Tahoe and empties into Pyramid Lake. Along the way, the Truckee River is used as a source for drinking water in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County. Through a canal, some of the river is diverted to irrigate farms in and around Fallon.

As with many watersheds, there are increasing and often competing demands on the Truckee River, with little water to spare. The river is tightly regulated to protect water quality and Pyramid Lake. With limits on the river, developers have looked elsewhere, only to meet a slew of challenges. 

Weiss said the company continues to look for more water to support the project.

“We recently committed to purchase certain water and we’re out there looking for more and always evaluating what our future needs are going to be and how we can fulfill those needs, along with assistance from our advisors, including our water counsel,” Weiss said.

When Sonterra and High Rock Holdings proposed exporting water to western Nevada in 2007, they faced pushback from environmental groups and entities at various levels of government. 

In a protest filed with state water regulators, the Bureau of Land Management raised concerns that exporting too much water — and transferring the use from agriculture — could harm local springs and limit future growth in an area with potential for geothermal and outdoor recreation. 

In 2007, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe told state officials that taking water from the San Emedio Basin could hinder decadeslong efforts to restore Pyramid Lake. For years, the tribe has worked with the federal government and Truckee River users to improve conditions for two endangered fish, the cui-ui and the Lahontan cutthroat trout. Recreation at Pyramid Lake is central to the tribe’s economy.

The Sierra Club and the Great Basin Water Network filed a similar challenge. 

Were Blockchains to move its water, it is likely that many of the same entities would file protests. The Burning Man Project, which has water rights in Hualapai Flat, declined to comment, but the organization has been involved in water-related issues in the area. The nonprofit recently submitted comments on a proposed geothermal project and expansion near Gerlach. 

When it comes to transferring water from farms to cities, Nevada law requires developers meet a high threshold to prove their project will not harm the public or existing water rights in an area. They must prove a project is environmentally sound and not detrimental to the public interest. 

State regulators never ruled on the merits of the 2007 proposal. In 2010, the state denied the project; Sonterra’s plans for the water had been put on hold after the housing market crashed. 

Horses at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center
Wild horses at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Existing water at the industrial center

As the economy recovered, the area in and around Reno began to grow quickly. 

The industrial center played a pivotal role in that growth. Mirroring the economic development strategy of other states, former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval used tax incentives to lure Tesla and other companies to the park. But for long-term growth, there was a need for more water.

Over the past few years, the industrial center’s water district negotiated with local governments to build a pipeline that would send treated effluent to the industrial park. The project was cast as a win-win, keeping effluent out of the river and providing reclaimed water to grow businesses. 

The industrial center’s water district history may appear to offer a precedent for the Blockchains proposal to give private interests the power of local governments. For years, the water district’s board and operations were controlled by the industrial park’s developer. After the district tried to use eminent domain, as reported by The Nevada Independent, it restructured its operations.

In January, the Storey County Commission became the district’s ex-officio board of trustees. 

According to the service plan for the water district, known as the Tahoe Reno Industrial General Improvement District, the treated effluent will go into what is known as a “process water” budget.

Out of that budget, Blockchains is entitled to 1,800 acre-feet of water, according to the plan.

The residential development that Blockchains is proposing would be located in the Painted Rock area off of I-80, east of the industrial center’s footprint, Weiss confirmed. Whether the industrial center’s water district would serve that area is subject to discussion, Weiss said. 

If Blockchains wanted to import water, it’s also unclear whether the district would be involved, especially if the company effectively forms a local government. Shari Whalen, who operates the water district, said that “Blockchains has not contacted us about any water importation project.”

In the meantime, she said the water district is reviewing the proposed legislation. 

“The district is concerned about the bill draft, and we have questions about it,” Whalen said.

‘Innovation Zones’ promoted by Sisolak would create semi-autonomous county at behest of Blockchains LLC

A proposal created by Blockchains LLC and circulated in the Legislature describes the fantastical contours of a plan to create a semi-autonomous county that slowly assumes powers of the county it’s based in and is supported by a cryptocurrency known as “stablecoin.” 

The plan, obtained by The Nevada Independent, includes draft language creating “Innovation Zones,” a concept touted by Gov. Steve Sisolak in his State of the State address last month but that otherwise has not been described publicly in detail. Sisolak touched on the idea as one element of an economic development plan to create close to 200,000 jobs and help Nevada dig out of a crushing, pandemic-driven recession.

It comes as the company argues existing rules governing municipalities are too inflexible for the  kind of revolutionary project Blockchains LLC hopes to realize.

The proposal by Blockchains LLC would create essentially autonomous districts that function as a county-within-a-county, taking over responsibilities such as tax collection, K-12 education and other services normally provided by county governments. Such “zones” could only be created by a private developer who owns more than 50,000 acres of land (such as Blockchains), promises to invest up to $1 billion in the Zone and agrees to levy an industry-specific tax on an “innovative technology” based in the Zone itself.

The bill language has not yet been submitted to legislative bill drafters, and could change substantially between the initial version and whatever version is introduced in the Legislature. A spokeswoman for Sisolak said the governor looks forward to releasing more information on the “Innovation Zone” concept in the future, but at this time “has not submitted a bill draft request related to this initiative so we will not be commenting on any language at this time.”

But the proposal is the most detailed plan yet for just exactly how Blockchains, LLC plans to build a proposed blockchain-powered “smart city” on more than 67,000 acres of undeveloped high desert land east of Reno at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center.

Blockchains LLC CEO and founder Jeffrey Berns announced the company’s grand plan to build a blockchain-orientated city on the purchased property at a conference in Prague in 2018, with plans to hire more than 1,000 employees by 2021 (a plan the company later said was “too optimistic.”)

Blockchain technology is described as “a decentralized, distributed ledger that records digital information that can be used for business transactions, personal finances, civics, record-keeping and many other applications,” and describes the company as well-positioned to help people connect to “Web3” (a re-imagination of the backend of the internet through blockchain technology) through various applications now under development.

Proponents say that massive amounts of tax revenue could be captured through a financial transaction tax if there is worldwide adoption of stablecoin. Blockchains’ property in tiny, rural Storey County would be the global headquarters for the technology needed to support the cryptocurrency.

Blockchains already envisions developing “Painted Rock Smart City,” which over a 75-year period would include an estimated 36,000 permanent residents. Renderings in the document illustrate Space Age-style silver buildings in the style of Frank Gehry set in rolling brown hills of Northern Nevada.

The company is drawing on the cities of Boulder, Colorado, Provo, Utah, San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington for inspiration. The document projects the company will break ground in 2022.

The smart city is envisioned to eventually employ 1 in every 50 Nevadans and account for nearly 2 percent of all wages produced in the state.

“Blockchains’ investments not only generate meaningful impacts for the State of Nevada, they are expected to propel the Silver State’s global positioning,” promises the document, dated July 2020.

Here’s how the proposed “Innovation Zone” concept would work. First, a company or person would need to submit an application to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) for approval to create the “Zone.”

Such a zone is required to consist of at least 50,000 contiguous acres of undeveloped land owned or controlled by the applicant, be located within a single county, not have any permanent residents at the time of the application and not be part of any pre-existing city, town, or other governmental division established by law — all provisions that would apply to Blockchains, LLC.

The application is required to include at least nine pieces of information or planning documents, including a comprehensive general plan for future development, an estimate of construction and future employment, documentation showing sufficient investment promises ($250 million initially, $1 billion over 10 years), an economic impact statement and certification that a qualified developer has been obtained and has secured or can secure access to public utilities and natural resources needed to complete the project.

The plan also requires any “Innovation Zone” to be tied to an industry-specific tax applied to an “innovative technology,” with creation of the “Zone” contingent on creation of the tax. Such a tax could be applied to a variety of “innovative technology” such as blockchain, autonomous technology, the Internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence, wireless technology, biometrics and renewable resource technology.

If approved by the state, an “Innovation Zone” would then be created and given authorities typically granted to local governmental bodies like a county commission or municipality. It would be led by a three-member Board of Supervisors, all appointed by the governor (though two must be appointed from a list of five applicants provided by the “Innovation Zone” applicant, and none can have a “pecuniary interest in the applicant or a commitment in a private capacity to the interests of the applicant”).

“The traditional forms and functions of local government political subdivisions existent under Nevada statute are inadequate alone to provide the flexibility and resources conducive to making the State a leader in attracting and retaining new forms and types of businesses and fostering economic development in emerging technologies and innovative industries,” a draft bill creating the “Innovation Zone” states.

The smart city would inform the actual county where it’s located when it is prepared to assume basic service responsibilities such as police and fire, wastewater treatment, health care, a judicial system and education. Officials in the existing county retain their authority and provide services with the Innovation Zone until the board of the Zone elects to assume the responsibility.

Once the transition is complete, the Innovation Zone is no longer subject to county ordinances. The proposed bill language specifies that any references to “county” in Nevada law would also include Carson City and the Zone.

Residents would vote in the surrounding county until there are at least 100 eligible voters — then they would vote in elections organized by the Zone.

Every other year, the Zone must provide to the Legislature a report that estimates the progress and investment in the Zone and includes “a description of the use of the innovative technology in the Zone and how the innovative technology is being advanced in the Innovation Zone.”

Blockchain’s proposed industry-specific tax through the “Innovation Zone” would be based on transactions using stablecoin, a kind of cryptocurrency that aims to achieve price stability by being backed by a reserve asset. It can be pegged to a currency like the dollar or something like gold, and Blockchains envisions creating its own kind of stablecoin to serve Painted Rock and, eventually, the world.

In rural Nevada, bridging the education 'digital divide' largely means improving internet access

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19 created in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News and several member newsrooms. The project is made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.


On weekdays in the spring, Angela McVicars began her mornings as a pseudo-information technology specialist. She would log onto the internet, rousing the connection from its slumber, and try to solve any problems before the clock struck 9 a.m. 

That’s when her oldest daughter logged onto Zoom for a virtual class. A half hour later, her younger daughter did the same. 

Even if McVicars had successfully launched the internet, a sense of foreboding clouded their remote learning. They knew it was a matter of when, not if, the internet connection would suddenly freeze and require a manual reboot — a process that could take a handful of minutes or close to an hour if a call to their service provider was needed. And every time that happened, it meant more lost instructional minutes or precious time seeing their friends on screen.

“It got more irritating,” said her daughter, Brenley Skadburg, then a fifth-grader.

Her assessment captures the essence of the family’s distance learning experience. They live in McGill (population: 1,068), a former company town that sits along U.S. 93 in eastern-central Nevada. It’s the type of place where children take off on four-wheelers and explore the nearby mountains or bask in a local swimming hole fed by a natural spring. McVicars knew she couldn’t get away with mischief growing up here. The town chatter would reach her parents before she got home.

Now, she’s a preschool teacher at the local elementary school and her husband works for a heavy equipment dealer that serves the nearby mines. She can’t think of anywhere she would rather raise her own children.

“It’s a great little place besides the internet,” she said, “and we can all live without the internet mostly.”

But the internet hiccups became more onerous in mid-March when COVID-19 started crisscrossing the nation, forcing widespread school closures. Nevada students completed their fourth quarter remotely, either online or using paper curriculum packets. The sudden experiment unearthed a host of uncomfortable realities, including inadequate technology access.

The problem catapulted the term “digital divide” into the national vernacular seemingly overnight. If any semblance of learning was to happen outside brick-and-mortar schools, students at least needed a tablet or computer and internet access. Not everyone had both or even one. The situation caused the superintendent of the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, to boldly declare he couldn’t guarantee learning for all children. But it wasn’t just large, urban districts grappling with the issue. Rural districts were feeling the crunch, too, albeit in different ways.

For McVicars and her daughters, it was the daily headaches of unreliable internet. Before the pandemic, general browsing could be hit or miss. Streaming shows or movies spawned even more glitches. So McVicars didn’t even bother trying to do her own work when her children needed the internet for school. She would either work before their online learning started or drive 13 miles to the White Pine County seat of Ely, where stronger cell signals allowed her to use her phone’s WiFi hotspot. Uploading videos — in this case, McVicars reading stories aloud to her preschoolers — went faster there.

It was another workaround the family engineered during distance learning. And spotty internet or not, McVicars said she didn’t cut her children any slack. She stepped in to help when the technology faltered and they missed a lesson. But she worries how children without parents nearby fared.

“In McGill, we’ve never had very good internet service,” she said. “That was one of my biggest worries going into this.”

McGill Elementary School as seen on Sunday, Aug.23, 2020. (Mattie Jensen/The Nevada Independent)

A ‘magnified’ problem

McVicars’ fear wasn’t unique. 

A survey conducted earlier this year by the National 4-H Council and Microsoft found that 20 percent of teens living in rural areas lack access to high-speed internet, and nearly half of those surveyed said slow internet connections impeded their ability to complete homework assignments.

Homework is one thing. An entire school day is another. And when COVID-19 shuttered schools, that became the reality.

“I think it magnified the problem,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that’s dedicated to closing the digital divide. “The problem had been there, but it was kind of not given enough attention.”

Some states, including Nevada, were already attempting to overcome the rural digital divide, which tends to be an access issue rather than an affordability one as in the state’s urban centers.

“In Clark and Washoe, there are huge communities that do not have access to the internet — and I should say high-speed internet — because they can’t afford it or they don’t know that they could afford it,” said Brian Mitchell, director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology (OSIT). “ … In the rural areas, it could be both or it could just be access. There are people who are well off — they worked for the mines, they’ve worked for local government or other businesses — and they still may not have access to high-speed internet.”

Plus, the term “high-speed internet” can be a misnomer in less-populated areas. While service providers may call it that, the internet is barely faster than a dial-up connection in some communities, Mitchell said. It may not work if too many people are online at the same time, or buffering may occur when users try to watch a video. 

The better description, he said, is “unreliable, low-speed internet.”

But, in recent years,  some state-led initiatives — with the help of smaller, entrepreneurial broadband companies — have improved the internet paradigm in Nevada’s far-flung locales. OSIT launched a Whole Community Connectivity program in 2017 with a goal of attracting better broadband options for residents, businesses and public institutions such as libraries, schools and health care facilities. Since then, five counties and two municipalities have joined the initiative. 

Local governments, businesses, schools, nonprofits and internet service providers have worked together to create a strategic plan that leverages investment opportunities and aggregates demand. For instance, in Ely, fiber is being laid in tandem with a Nevada Department of Transportation project along U.S. 93, which Mitchell said will improve broadband connections for the entire town. 

Meanwhile, the state significantly increased its share of funds through the federal E-Rate program, which provides schools and libraries with discounts for telecommunications and internet services. The number of Nevada applicants filing for federal E-Rate funding grew by 39 percent from 2017 to 2020. The amount of funding the state received through the federal program also increased during that time period, going from $6.4 million in 2017 to $7.5 million this year.

Mitchell said some of those funds have helped pay for the steep, upfront infrastructure costs — digging trenches and laying fiber to connect rural schools with high-speed internet. The federal dollars, however, cannot be used to purchase Chromebooks or pay for internet connections inside students’ homes. That means, for example, that schools receiving E-Rate funds cannot put an antenna on their roofs and broadcast internet to surrounding neighborhoods.

In light of the pandemic and distance learning, the state sent the Federal Communications Commission a letter requesting a waiver to that rule. 

“We believe that the purpose of E-Rate is to fund internet for learning and if learning is no longer taking place in the school, but it’s taking place in the home, then that should be allowed,” Mitchell said.

FCC approval of the waiver is a longshot, though. Traditionally, the FCC has opposed that arrangement because of concerns about it competing with private providers’ offerings. State officials say they could restrict network access to students’ devices while also filtering out non-educational content. The FCC has not responded to the state’s waiver request yet.

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition also has been lobbying Congress to make a one-time $5.25 billion appropriation to facilitate remote learning. About $4 billion would go toward expanding internet connectivity, while $1 billion would pay for devices such as tablets or Chromebooks, Windhausen said. He framed it as an investment that could pay dividends beyond the immediate remote learning needs.

“Something that’s not often talked about is that there is a racial element to this lack of connectivity because it’s tending to impact the black, Hispanic and tribal consumers at a greater rate than caucasians,” he said. “And given all of the increased attention to racial relations in this country, this is the kind of that that would help racial equity — for Congress and the state to devote resources to make sure everybody gets connected.”

Whether more federal money gets earmarked for distance education needs remains to be seen. Congress has not agreed on another coronavirus relief bill. 

A mad scramble 

There was no summer break for educators and state leaders trying to bridge the digital divide. Mitchell and his OSIT team have been working with Nevada’s 17 school districts on connectivity plans. 

By sheer numbers, the greatest needs existed in Clark and Washoe counties. An OSIT presentation shared with the Nevada State Board of Education in late July showed that 20,000 households with children in Clark County and 6,000 in Washoe County needed an internet solution. The numbers, although jarring, reflect the large size of those districts. More than 320,000 students attended the Las Vegas-area district last year, while the Reno-area district served 64,000 students.

By contrast, about 2,000 households needed an internet solution in the Lyon County School District, which educates more than 9,000 students in western-central Nevada. Connectivity needs in other rural counties ranged from zero to 680 households. 

Mitchell said there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Dynamics in each county differ. But he’s confident districts are well on their way to closing the digital divide, even if they’re not continuing full-time distance education. Nevada districts are either relying on WiFi hotspots distributed to families or low-cost internet programs. 

As a result, Mitchell said, many of the connectivity and device numbers he shared with the state board in July have been significantly reduced.

“I think that we will be able to connect the majority of the kids in the state pretty close to the start of the school year to both a device and an internet connection,” he said. “I think we’re making good progress. I don’t know we’ll hit every single student.”

As of Monday, four school districts — Carson City, Eureka County, Mineral County and White Pine County — had met connectivity and device needs for all their students, Mitchell said. That doesn’t necessarily mean every student has a Chromebook and internet access at home. It depends on the learning model being used by the districts. If it’s a hybrid model, in which students attend some days in person and work from home other days, they need the internet and a computer. But for districts fully reopening their schools, officials only needed to ensure computers and internet access for those students who opted for a distance education plan.

Still, it’s a sign of progress after the spring shutdown sent shockwaves across Nevada’s rural school districts and entirely altered operations from one night to the next. Many board members and superintendents recalled “scrambling” through the experience and noted they could not have prepared for such an unprecedented and swift change. 

Eureka County School District Superintendent Tate Else said most of the “normal” pre-pandemic procedures of the school day weighed heavily on district leaders this summer. Things like: How should we get students to and from school? What about feeding them? Or checking temperatures? And how will we handle recess?

The district’s greatest concern, though, was how to get internet access to families who do not have it. 

“As far as getting WiFi into every student’s house here, that’s still a plan we’re working on and it’s a big one,” Else said. 

Eureka County wasn’t alone. School district leaders across the state expressed the same sentiment. They also spoke candidly about the outcome of the spring school closure.

“I think that there were great successes,” Douglas County School District Superintendent Keith Lewis said. “There were probably significant failures.”

Lyon County School District’s superintendent, Wayne Workman, said the abrupt shift to digital learning in the spring clearly solidified one thing in his mind: The student-teacher interactions that happen organically in classrooms are critical to learning. 

He didn’t try to put a rose-colored tint on the state-mandated distance education.

“I don’t think we understand what this pandemic has done to our kids yet, in all reality,” he said. “Getting them back we know is going to be critical.”

The district has approved a hybrid reopening, in which students in lower grades will attend in person all five days and older students will rotate on a cohort schedule. The model, however, relies heavily on technology.

Long before COVID-19 became a household term, the Lyon County School District had adopted a “co-use” technology model. The district purchased enough Chromebooks to achieve roughly a 2-to-1 student-to-device ratio, which leaders thought would encourage creativity and group work. They didn’t want Chromebooks simply becoming a digital worksheet, Workman said. But the pandemic forced them to reverse course and start securing more devices to achieve a 1-to-1 ratio.

As for the connectivity problem, Workman said the OSIT estimate — 2,000 Lyon County households needing internet service — may have been a tad high. Still, he acknowledged challenges in areas such as Yerington, Smith Valley and Silver Springs, where internet and cell phone coverage can be spotty and poverty can be another barrier.

An irrigation sprinkler runs in the Smith Valley on Aug. 15, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The district settled on purchasing WiFi hotspots for those families in need of internet access. In areas where hotspots may not work, students can download the curriculum onto their Chromebooks at school. 

“We recognize that is not optimal or ideal, but nonetheless it might be the temporary solution,” he said.

The Humboldt County School District found itself in a similar situation during the spring. Superintendent Dave Jensen said the 3,500-student district, which stretches from Interstate 80 to the Oregon border, relied on an “awful lot of packets” to facilitate distance education. Families, especially those without computers or internet access, picked up and dropped off the paper curriculum bundles while honoring social distancing. 

Teachers did the best they could, Jensen said, but the district lacked what he called a “meaningful mechanism to introduce new curriculum,” in part because of technological deficiencies. In Denio, an isolated community in the county’s far northern region, cell signals are weak. The same is true on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, where many families lack home internet access.

The Humboldt County School District has problem-solved connectivity issues for all but roughly 200 students, most of whom live in those two areas. Like the Lyon County School District, Jensen said the temporary workaround is downloadable materials. The inequity bothers him.

“This creates a scenario where my most at-risk student population now have inadequate access to a 21st century curriculum,”  he said.

Thirty WiFi hotspots donated from the city of Fallon put Churchill County Superintendent Summer Stephens at ease last spring. The connectivity problem had been keeping her up at night. But by the time students were halfway through the fourth quarter, most, if not all, students had home internet access. 

Churchill, like other school districts in the state, had tried WiFi-equipped buses early into the coronavirus-triggered shutdown. It wasn’t a resounding hit but remains an option.

As the district begins the new year with a hybrid model, Stephens said communities shouldn’t forget about another piece of the connectivity puzzle — child care centers. 

“We need to ensure that those sites have connectivity because part of that out-of-school time will be kids doing remote learning,” she said. 

What that will likely take: more public and private partnerships.

Jensen, the Humboldt superintendent, wants to see more innovation to address the internet shortcomings in hard-to-reach places across the state. He pointed to “Project Loon” — a Google initiative that delivers internet via stratospheric balloons — as an example. Nearly three years ago, the project launched two of the high-tech balloons from Winnemucca and guided them to Puerto Rico, where they provided basic web access in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

A Nevada child living on a remote mountainside ranch, he said, shouldn’t be limited to internet access only at a physical school. 

“Ultimately, if we’re going to solve this issue at a state and national level, we have got to get creative and push the envelope from where we are now,” Jensen said.

He believes the pandemic, an invisible force that created numerous education headaches, may at least accelerate that kind of technological revolution.

Angela McVicars and her daughters Presley Skadburg, left, and Brenley Skadburg, right, work with their sheep on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, at the White Pine County Fairgrounds. (Mattie Jensen/The Nevada Independent)

An uncertain new year

Those advancements won’t come in time for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Nevada’s rural students will resume classes — virtually or in person full time or part time — between now and early September. 

The White Pine County School District, for instance, is planning to fully reopen schools come Sept. 8. It’s also offering an online option for families who aren’t comfortable sending their children back to school. 

White Pine County Superintendent Adam Young said the reopening is possible largely because the district has the space to socially distance its roughly 1,200 students — an enrollment number that’s half the size of some Las Vegas high schools. Even though White Pine County has recorded far fewer COVID-19 cases (24 as of Tuesday) than the state’s more populated regions, Young acknowledged the situation could change quickly. A pivot back to distance learning could become necessary.

“Who am I to say what it will be like in a week?” he said.

If distance education does become the norm again, school leaders say another hurdle — beyond device and internet access — is technology literacy. Simply put, the online programs used for remote learning aren’t necessarily familiar or easy for parents and students to navigate. It’s a whole new kind of learning curve.

Lewis, Douglas County’s superintendent, said educators quickly realized parents weren’t Google Meet experts, nor did younger students know how to access their email accounts and send messages to teachers. 

Teachers used a wide range of apps and tools to foster learning, making the process even more challenging for parents who were overwhelmed by the tools and how to use them. 

“It was hard for parents to manage where communication was going to come from from their third-grade teacher versus their seventh-grade teacher,” Lewis said, adding the district was “all over the map” in the beginning of the transition. 

The shutdown brought to light the need for a more streamlined approach with teachers using the same platforms and tools. It also raised questions about how many times students should individually meet with their teachers online, how much work teachers should assign and how attendance should be taken and counted. 

On the flip side, the rapid move to virtual instruction spurred the district to question its pre-pandemic status quo teaching procedures and look toward more innovative approaches, especially given the technology they now have available. 

“We're trying to modernize our delivery and, and like I said, we have 1-to-1 technology — we need to use it as more than just a note-taker,” Lewis said, before framing the issue around this question: “Are we really developing researchers with our kids?” 

As for Brenley Skadburg, who will be entering sixth grade this year in White Pine County, it's not the academic side of an instructional model that concerns her.

In the spring, when her home internet connection in McGill stumbled daily, her classmates’ on-screen faces would disappear. Gone would be those precious minutes to squeeze in a friend chat. Or at least try. Sometimes it was difficult to hear what people were saying even if the internet was working.

She's looking forward to the social aspects of returning to an actual school.

“I get to see my friends,” she said.

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Digital and cashless gaming technology viewed as bringing casinos into the 21st century

Cashless gaming has been used on slot machines throughout the casino industry for at least two decades, although it wasn’t initially accepted by customers.

When the original systems, dubbed ticket-in/ticket-out, were introduced, they confused older slot players, who didn’t understand why winnings came out in the form of a ticket voucher, rather than cash, which they had originally loaded into the machine.

Everi Holdings CEO Mike Rumbolz remembers those days vividly. He was vice chairman of Casino Data Systems when the company deployed one of the earliest ticket-in/ticket-out devices. Twenty years later, Rumbolz is leading Las Vegas-based Everi’s efforts to develop products in the cashless gaming space, one of dozens of gaming equipment providers and technology companies seeking a foothold in the now-expanding segment.  

“The most important part is what does the customer want to do,” Rumbolz said, recalling the initial but small cashless gaming rollout. “Much like ticketing, which became ubiquitous on the casino industry floor when patrons adopted it, the casinos will add cashless when customers will accept it.”

On Thursday, the Nevada Gaming Commission will consider changes to two regulations covering the electronic transfers of money to games or gaming devices. Currently, regulations allow customers to transfer money from a debit card to a game or gaming device, but very few properties have the licensed systems in place.

Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan said the language changes codify what already exists.

“The language is to confirm that a patron can use a debit card at a table or gaming device only if the transfer of money is done through a cashless wagering system,” Morgan said, adding that the system, “must be licensed and approved by the board.”

The cashless systems are also subject to additional requirements in the board’s technical standards. 

Other changes include a daily monetary transfer limit and responsible gambling messages “conspicuously displayed” on devices that includes the website of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling.

National approach

The American Gaming Association believes the time is now for cashless gaming. Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization announced a framework for allowing digital payments on casino floors, citing a study that found a majority of casino customers want the option to use cashless or digital technology for gaming.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a renewed interest in cashless gaming, the AGA has been leading an 18-month collaborative industry-wide effort to come up with a structure that covers eight principles for modernizing casino payments nationwide.

At last year’s Global Gaming Expo, AGA CEO Bill Miller said transforming the casino floor to meet with a growing digital universe would become a primary goal for the organization. Then-AGA Chairman Tim Wilmott, who retired in December as CEO of regional casino operator Penn National Gaming, said the gaming industry was “prehistoric” in the way it engaged with customers financially.

The principles cover a litany of issues, including responsible gaming, regulatory acceptance, security, choice and convenience, and public health.

Miller said cashless payment and digital technology “aligns with gaming’s role as a modern, 21st century industry and bolsters our already rigorous regulatory and responsible gaming measures.”

Gaming industry consultant Brendan Bussmann, a partner with Global Market Advisors, said the pandemic, which caused a nationwide shutdown of casinos in mid-March, should be the reason for pushing forward technology that is common in other areas of business.

“Cashless payments not only allow for a modern experience on how payments occur across every other industry around the globe but also will likely help attract more millennials back to the (casino) floor that have been cash adverse,” Bussmann said.

Omer Sattar, executive vice president of Sightline Payments, a Las Vegas-based digital payment solutions company, said the expansion of cashless gaming will create opportunities for numerous businesses.

Sattar cited how Starbucks customers pay for coffee simply by waiving the barcode from a digital wallet on their mobile phone across a QR reader at the checkout counter.

“There are probably up to five companies involved in that single transaction,” Sattar said. “No one company can provide the end-to-end process in a cashless ecosystem.”

Nevada at the forefront

Years ago, Nevada outlawed credit cards from being used directly on a slot machine.

“The credit card is the one instrument that concerns people the most,” said Rumbolz, a former Control Board chairman and a CEO for both casino operators and manufacturers. “You’re gambling with money you don’t have. But a debit card is tied to your checking account.”

Gaming equipment providers, through the Association of Gaming Manufacturers (AGEM) trade organization, are supportive of the proposed regulatory changes that will be discussed Thursday.  

“As we collectively experienced over a decade ago with ticket-in/ticket-out technologies, driving the gaming environment toward a cashless environment will have profoundly positive impacts,” AGEM attorney Dan Reaser wrote in a letter submitted to the commission. “These outcomes range from enhanced legal compliance, improved public health and safety especially given the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as more robust responsible gaming alternatives and advanced operating efficiencies.”

AGEM Executive Director Marcus Prater said regulatory changes “need to start somewhere, and Nevada needs to take the lead.”

Cashless and digital systems

Everi already provides kiosks to casinos where customers can withdraw money from their debit cards directly onto a ticket voucher that can be used at a gaming table or slot machine. Customers set the amount they want to withdraw.

The company is testing a virtual wallet for casino customers, allowing players to use their mobile devices to activate slot machines. The app allows a patron to move funds from a debit card onto the platform, which can be tied to their player loyalty account.

Rumbolz said e-wallets require companies to have federally regulated money transmitter licenses overseen by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insures the funds on an account. Everi has obtained those approvals.

Scientific Games and other slot machine developers are also creating mobile wallets as the interest in cashless and digital technology increases. Sattar said the four slot machine manufacturers – International Game Technology, Scientific Games, Aristocrat Technologies and Konami Gaming – provide “95 percent of all the slot machines,” so the mobile wallets need to be uniform.

Rumbolz said regulations won’t be the largest stumbling block to mobile wallets finding their way onto gaming floors. Casino operators – cash-strapped by the COVID-19 shutdowns – may be apprehensive toward spending money to retrofit their games.

“For an app on your phone that transfers money directly to a gaming device requires near field technology inside a slot machine, either a Bluetooth antenna or something inside a bill validator,” Rumbolz said. “There are several ways to do it but all require an upgrade or a touching of the gaming device. Again, this is all patron-driven.”

AGA effort

Jonathan Michaels, the AGA’s vice president of strategic alliances, provided research that could convince gaming leaders to move forward. He said 57 percent of past-year casino visitors said digital or contactless payments on the casino floor is important to them because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another 59 percent of casino customers said they were less likely to use cash in their everyday lives out of coronavirus concerns.

The primary idea behind digital payment technology was choice. Casino operators believe customers will continue to use cash. Rumbolz, despite the effort toward digital, said he believes cash won’t disappear until “we have become a completely cashless society.” 

The AGA’s effort began long before COVID-19 existed. Following the legalization of sports betting in May 2018, commercial casino operators realized they needed to increase their mobile wagering capabilities.

“After sports betting, we started to see a lot more acceptance,” Michaels said. “There was a lot of discussion from groups on tools to prevent overspending by customers. There were talks about security, privacy and responsible gaming. There was a lot of interest in the industry.”

Michaels said the challenge was that in many states, payment laws were “all over the map,” with some written 20 years ago, “before online was even contemplated.” The principles, he added, came through consumer research and industry input.

Responsible gaming and regulatory reform

The No. 1 principle from the AGA is to equip customers with more tools to wager responsibly. Most of the digital options allow customers to monitor their gaming activity and set spending limits.

Digital payment platforms can provide tools to enable customers to wager responsibly. Also, the technology provides casino operators, regulators, and law enforcement increased transparency into matters of anti-money laundering and monitoring of financial transactions.

Alan Feldman, distinguished fellow for responsible gaming at the UNLV International Gaming Institute, said the technology provides “amazing tools for customers.” However, regulators should require casino operators “to turn on the tools” so that they can be used properly.

Also, digital payment technology could provide data for various research initiatives into areas problem gambling analysts have tried to understand, such as the size of the average transaction.

“There ought to be a requirement at the first two-to-five years of data be provided to an accredited research academic institution for study,” Feldman said, saying he wasn’t advocating directly for UNLV. “There is wealth of data available that give us clarity into problematic betting patterns and other harmful behaviors.”

Bussmann, the gaming consultant, said state regulators have an opportunity to create a structure that includes the proper financial and consumer protections, including meeting anti-money laundering requirements placed on casinos by The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasury.  

“Leaders in the space both from operators and regulators will need to make sure that FinCEN standards are upheld and proper responsible gaming tools are available across all platforms,” Bussmann said. “Legislating and regulating the industry across all states and jurisdictions will be key to making the payment ecosystem seamless in working with operators, advocates, financial institutions, and other key stakeholders.” 

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at howardmstutz@gmail.com. On Twitter: @howardstutz

Nevada Interrupted: Technology allows high school students to compete virtually in civics competition, may open future participation to rural students

Many Nevadans are adjusting to the spread of COVID-19 by practicing social distancing, stocking up on supplies and staying at home. The Nevada Independent is sharing their stories each day. 

If you are a Nevada business owner or worker whose job has been upended by the coronavirus, we would love to feature your story. Send an email to ideas@thenvindy.com for consideration.

***

Reno High School senior Lauren Kinder and Incline High School senior Emerson Fleming did not have a choice in whether they would walk at graduation or attend prom. 

But they did get to vote on whether to participate in the national “We The People: The Citizen and the Constitution” civics competition — albeit digitally — and it was a simple choice for Kinder.

"Of course. Why wouldn't we try to do this? If we have the opportunity, it's better than nothing," she said.

Usually, the national competition takes place over three days in Leesburg, Virginia at the end of April and consists of 56 teams from schools across the United States. Teams testify to constitutional law experts on topics such as freedom of speech, privacy rights and voting.

The teams are made up of four students who present a four-minute opening statement on a question related to the Constitution. After they finish, a panel of three judges asks follow-up questions. Students share speaking time and work as a group to answer the questions and present different sides of an argument. 

Because of the coronavirus, the directors of the We The People competition had students and judges participate via Zoom. Reno High School and Incline High School were two of the 30 schools that decided to participate virtually. 

Students still had the same time limits, and the same number of judges assessing them. But instead of having to prepare to present on multiple questions, and then find out which question they would answer the day of the program, organizers let the teams know the question ahead of time. 

Incline High School students pose for a photo after Nevada's We The People state-level competition on Feb. 1, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Nevada Center for Civic Engagement )

Fleming said that although he was hesitant to try an online format, he was glad that he could still participate. Before the competition, Fleming said he rarely spoke about government and disliked public speaking. 

"When you become so immersed into that and it just ends up becoming a big part of your life, and you realize there's certain political issues that you hadn't even thought about, that's the aspect that I love about it," he said. "I learned so much that I really became interested in something that I genuinely had zero interest in talking about before."

Adjusting an in-person competition to an online format was tricky, said Milton Hyams, a teacher at Incline High School and the director of the program there.

"About a month ago, I had no idea what Zoom was. So in terms of a learning curve for me and for the kids and for my colleagues around the country, I mean, this has been an extraordinary experience," Hyams said. 

Kinder said that at in-person tournaments, some teams used a predetermined gesture such as leaning forward or placing hands on a table to indicate who wanted to speak next.

The students had to figure out other ways to answer questions over Zoom without interrupting each other.

"I kind of laughed to myself during one of our last Zoom meetings because I used to hate FaceTime meetings," Kinder said. "And then this past month, that's all we've been doing. I think four times a week we had a Zoom meeting, so I definitely got used to it."

Along with learning the technology, Fleming and Kinder had to weave COVID-19 into their testimonies and arguments. Kinder, whose team talked about privacy concerns, said her discussion included the pros and cons of tracking phones as a measure of social distancing, whether police should be able to scan body temperatures and whether people should receive permission before recording a Zoom call.

"You can't really do a competition over Zoom because of COVID-19 and then ignore it from the privacy aspect," Kinder explained.

At the national competition held on April 25 and 26, Reno High School placed sixth and Incline High School twelfth.

Hyams said that usually the students fundraise as a class and then travel to D.C. together. Until they couldn’t do so, he said he did not realize how traveling and being in the same place together allowed the students to be on equal footing. Each student could have the same amount of food and rest and time away from family and social pressures, something that a virtual competition does not guarantee. 

"We talk about the speed of the internet, we talk about sharing bandwidth, we talk about sharing devices, we talk about families working and some people sharing rooms,” Hyams said. "I mean, this is all a whole different frontier."

He said his students come from various economic backgrounds, and the technological aspect of the competition made that apparent. Even though students could use school-provided laptops, he knew that some of his students struggled.

"Something I've been thinking about too is that technology is great if you have all that access, but accessibility is sometimes a little bit tough," he said.

Reno High School Students pose for a photo after Nevada's We The People state-level competition on Feb. 1, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Nevada Center for Civic Engagement )

Trey Delap, the executive director of the Nevada Center for Civic Engagement, said that the competition went so well that they are working on an online program to make it easier for rural schools to participate. He said that they are working to address any economic disparities and figure out ways to be more inclusive.

Kinder said that she missed the in-person banter and interactions of studying as a team together and wishes she could have competed in D.C. with her team. But she does not want to discount the first three-quarters of her senior year and the experiences she had at the competitions leading up to nationals.

"Some people are like, 'this feels like the whole year was a waste,' but we still had districts and state was super fun and it's been a really great experience overall," she said.

This story has been updated at 8:30 AM, 5/06/20 to clarify Delap's title.

Nevada Interrupted: Jet-setting corporate trainer misses coffee break interactions, but finds bright side in online-only sessions

Many Nevadans are adjusting to the proliferation of COVID-19 by practicing social distancing, stocking up on supplies and staying at home. The Nevada Independent is sharing their stories each day. 

If you are a Nevada business owner or worker whose job has been upended by the coronavirus, we would love to feature your story. Send an email to ideas@thenvindy.com for consideration.

***

Leslie Riley is no stranger to figuring out creative solutions in moments of crisis. 

During the 2008 recession, Riley was laid off from her job. The lack of available positions prompted her to found Full Circle Inspiration, a Las Vegas-based communications business offering leadership and workplace growth training.

Before COVID-19 shut down airports and in-person meetings, the corporate trainer was traveling around the globe, speaking at conferences, facilitating business meetings and training clients on how to develop better communication and address interpersonal conflict.

As the virus spread, however, Riley's clients began canceling or postponing meetings scheduled for April and May. Staring at an increasingly empty calendar, Riley said that she was not sure how she would navigate the loss of meetings until one of her clients asked if she could host a training virtually.

"Of course, I said yes," Riley said. "But the more I thought about it, the more … [hosting a traditional training online] felt like trying to cram 'real' into a virtual box rather than creating something for the world as it is now."

Riley said she was a little hesitant to move fully online, but that everyone working with her is aware that she is still working through some bugs, adjusting to the new medium and it is going more smoothly than she could have anticipated.

"At the end of the day, my job as a facilitator is to do just enough talking to get the rest of the group to communicate with each other and to start solving their own problems. So that doesn't change virtually," she said.

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting Leslie Riley hosted. (Photo Courtesy of Leslie Riley)

One significant challenge Riley said she is adjusting to is a newfound reliance on technology.

"If the tech isn't working, everything goes to hell in a handbasket," she said. "In my old life, that was not a concern. The worst thing that could happen tech-wise was that the projector wouldn't work or we couldn't use the PowerPoint slides. So I always just had a backup."

And some clients are unwilling to make the shift. 

"I had another client that I offered to do [virtual training] for because I was going to be teaching the facilitation skills and they were like, 'nope, we only want it live,'" she said. 

One element that’s missing is the conversations that happen during breaks in in-person meetings that can further spark creativity. She’s still trying to figure out ways to replicate that experience online.

"Being able to connect when you're on a break versus kind of going back to isolation when you're on a break, that's the main difference that I see," Riley said.

Once the pandemic ends, Riley said she thinks virtual programming will add to the options that companies will be able to choose from, but not supplant in-person meetings and the spontaneity that comes with it.

"There's lots of connections that are possible, but nothing replaces just being able to hang out with your friends or your colleagues and actually grab a cup of coffee and talk about things in a non-structured way that doesn't require a Zoom," she said.

How AI and facial recognition tech could reshape Las Vegas casinos

The Las Vegas Strip at night

The year is 2022, and you’ve just pulled up a seat at one of thousands of glittering slot machines on the Las Vegas Strip. As the multi-colored patchwork of jackpots dances on-screen, something new pops up: your name, greeting you like an old friend.

That friend just so happens to be a face-scanning artificial intelligence (AI), cross-referencing every contour of your face as quick as it can in a bid to make the gambling experience more seamless than ever before. 

That’s the future that nearly a hundred casino executives, industry analysts and lawyers crammed inside the UNLV Boyd School of Law to discuss last Friday during a day-long marathon primer on AI, machine learning and facial recognition — and how it could transform nearly every facet of the casino experience. 

Exactly how the gaming industry implements this new tech, however, could be as much of a minefield as it is a business boon. 

Though the possible applications of machine learning and facial recognition in casinos are many, they largely fall into the customer service realm, allowing a casino operator to automatically recognize who you are and adjust service in real time. 

Facial recognition could allow camera-equipped slot machines to recognize and log in VIP players, potentially cut down on fraud, enforce self-banned or casino-banned players and increase the potential for a casino to snag new players in existing customer loyalty programs. 

At the table games, the use of facial recognition cameras could drastically reduce the work done by pit managers by allowing them to identify and track known players instantly, instead of tracking those players by the clothes on their back. 

All these discussions are spurred by the fact that casinos are already looking to integrate these technologies into their games, said Anthony Cabot, Distinguished Fellow in Gaming Law at the UNLV Boyd School of Law and an organizer of Friday’s conference. 

“What we're seeing is this introduction of technology into the gaming industry in ways we've never seen before, and because of it, it started to raise issues — or questions — as to how this works and what the ramifications could be for things like patron privacy, anonymity and data protection,” Cabot said. 

In seminars ranging from explaining AI to diving deep into its implications on the slots, table games and sport books to the new possibility for casino security teams, nearly two-dozen speakers delved into a morass of competing laws, perceptions or other problems that could doom the technology before it got off the ground.

When it came to solving those problems, there was little consensus. Still, Cabot said he is hopeful that a collaboration from the industry and its regulators while the technology is in its infancy could be key in ensuring the best solutions eventually rise to the top.

“This literally was the first time, that I'm aware of, that the industry and the experts and the regulators have ever gotten together to even discuss these issues,” Cabot said. “We're right at the cusp of a new era, and it gives us that unique opportunity to do it right from the beginning.” 

Among all the potential benefits of the use of biometrics and AI in casinos, perhaps none stands to make as much of a societal impact as the potential to help identify or address so-called “problem gamblers,” or those gamblers whose behavior has veered into unhealthy or addictive tendencies that actively harm their lives. 

Research shows few gamblers meet the clinical criteria for problem gambling — only about 8 percent or less of gamblers display problem gambling behaviors, with just a fraction of that representing those with a diagnosable gambling addiction — but diagnosing and ultimately steering such gamblers to clinical help has long been a challenge for the industry. 

Enter the use of data and machine learning as a vehicle to find the most harmful behaviors. Through the use of specialized games designed to separate typical gamblers from problem gamblers, researchers have hypothesized the added use of facial recognition could help operators more quickly identify exactly who might need professional help — assuming the machines don’t misdiagnose a gambler along the way. 

But Alan Feldman, Distinguished Fellow in Responsible Gambling at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute and a former executive at MGM Resorts International, told The Nevada Independent that while facial recognition presents an opportunity worth more study, the field is still dominated by more questions than answers. 

“Facial recognition technology has become quite effective in recognizing an individual, but as it relates specifically to problem gambling, I'd say the jury is still out,” Feldman said. “There is still an understanding of what we'd like to know, in other words, it would be nice to know if there were patterns you might detect that might prevent someone from getting into any kind of trouble, or if there were patterns that could actually identify someone who is in trouble.”

As the field develops, one key concern — both for the use of facial recognition for problem gambling as well as its use in casino games more broadly — remains: the inevitable conflict between facial recognition technology and an expanding slate of data privacy and protection laws. 

Feldman said that even if the system could manage to identify and alert an operator to a customer with problematic habits or behaviors, nothing would stop customers from opting to remove themselves from the system entirely. 

“Here you have the unintended consequence of an impossibly bad outcome coming from a really good intent and a good idea, which is: let's go see if we can identify people who may be having a problem and keep them healthy, and instead, what we do is upset a customer, cause them to refuse to let anyone see their data,” Feldman said. “And now, whatever problems they are going to suffer, they are going to suffer them alone, with no one observing.”

As of now, casinos would largely be bound by the country of origin of the customer when it comes to matters of such privacy regulations. For many states in the U.S., those laws are lax or non-existent, but some states, like California, are adopting new measures that would allow people to opt out of the collection, use or sale of personal data. 

Even more comprehensive than the California law is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, often referred to by the shorthand GDPR. A massive omnibus measure that marked a watershed moment in the legal development of data privacy and protection, GDPR stipulates, among other things, that users have a right to have certain data erased entirely. 

As the gaming industry rapidly develops its own uses for such technology, growing unease about the use of facial recognition by governments and police forces have shined an Orwellian spotlight that’s led some local legislators to ban its use outright. 

Still, as of September, a Pew Research poll found that 56 percent of U.S. adults trusted law enforcement officials to use such data responsibly. Those same respondents were much more bearish about advertisers, however, with just 18 percent of adults placing any trust in the vast American marketing machine. 

That is to say nothing of increasing concerns over the safety of such massive tranches of personal data — data that may prove easy targets for hackers or other malicious actors under the right circumstances. Data breaches have already become an everyday risk of an increasingly internet-connected world, and the addition of yet more personal data to casino back rooms could potentially increase the value of hitting casinos with hacking attacks like ransomware. 

For the casinos of Las Vegas and beyond, Cabot said convincing the customer to go along with facial recognition will come largely in the industry’s ability to eschew existing practices from the social media giants, such as the widespread use of such data by Google or Facebook for more online advertising. 

“There's different ways this can evolve,” Cabot said. “In one sense, we can do nothing, in all the different casinos, manufacturers, they can all go out and do their thing and try to comply with this patchwork of laws. The second thing we can do is, as an industry, try and get ahead of it.”

IndyVideo: A look at new tech at CES

Roughly 175,000 people came through the The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this year, listening to keynote speakers and checking out booths showing off tech’s latest and greatest. 

Spread out in venues on the Las Vegas Strip, the trade show showcases thousands of new electronics from smart TVs and electric cars to personal robots and the fastest new computers. The Nevada Independent headed to the CES showroom floor to see what was on display.

Governors seek funds to improve broadband, get telemedicine, education initiatives into rural West

Governors from the West, who hail from states with vast tracts of sparsely populated land, are making it a priority to implement technology that can bridge inequities between urban and rural areas — including more broadband access to bring high-speed phone and internet service to remote areas, long an issue in Nevada.

Sixty-five percent of Nevada’s rural population is without access to sufficient telecommunications compared to five percent of the urban population, according to a 2016 report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Nevada’s state leaders have been working on the issue for years, and a discussion on broadband access came last week at the Western Governors' Association’s (WGA) annual winter meeting in Las Vegas.

Attendees heard a private-sector pitch from keynote speaker and Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford, whose multibillion-dollar company oversees a farmer-owned co-op that touches “half the acres of farmland in America.”

“We need a 1930s rural electric type of initiative to go across the United States with speed,” Ford said on Friday. “The estimate for the level of investment needed to close the technology is $150 billion.”  

Ford was referring to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration policy in 1935, which increased the amount of rural households hooked up to electricity from just 10 percent to 25 percent by 1939 and cleared the way for the use of running water, refrigerators and the radio. 

The $150 billion figure has been cited by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, and other Democratic White House candidates have also promised to set aside billions of dollars to address the lack of affordable broadband in remote areas.

Although access to fast internet may be taken for granted in urban areas, rural and tribal infrastructures are often not up to speed, taking a toll on education, health care and economic development. According to the FCC’s Bridging the Digital Divide initiative, 97 percent of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed service compared with 65 percent in rural areas and approximately 60 percent on tribal lands.

More than half of Nevada counties lack broadband services at current FCC standards and more than half of the state’s total area either lacks cellular service or only has one provider, according to a 2016 update from the Nevada Governor’s Broadband Task Force. Without these services and without competition among service providers, internet and phone bills tend to be more expensive and potentially unaffordable.

Rural health care lags behind urban areas in technology and has unique challenges including expensive transportation to faraway emergency medical services and inadequate distribution of physicians, the WGA said. By expanding broadband — defined as high-capacity transmission systems that enable large amounts of data to be communicated simultaneously — to underserved areas, the governors hope to implement new technologies, such as telemedicine, to narrow some of those gaps.

The federal government and Nevada elected leaders are also taking steps to tackle the issue.

On Monday, Sen. Jacky Rosen and 46 other senators sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission urging the FCC to prioritize the development of rural broadband networks as the commission moves forward with updating rules to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction proceeding. With the RDOF, the FCC has proposed to establish a $20.4 billion fund, to be distributed as an auction, to target at least 4 million rural homes and small businesses that lack broadband access.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Thursday that it would open up $550 million in 2020 as part of its ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which provides a combination of grant and loan options for service providers and local governments to expand broadband capabilities. Nevada is not among the states awarded through the program, but other western states including Alaska, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota and Wyoming were awarded federal money to expand broadband capabilities in underserved areas. 

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated $1.5 billion over the next ten years to expand broadband access to underserved areas in 45 states. Earlier this year, $5.6 million of that was allocated to Nevada, to expand high-speed internet access in Clark, Nye and Douglas Counties.

And then there’s the ACCESS BROADBAND Act, sponsored by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, that requires the Department of Commerce to establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The bill, which passed in May, aims to streamline processes for schools, libraries, businesses and health care facilities to apply for federal broadband resources.

Following the governors’ meeting, the WGA released a policy resolution describing the health care challenges in remote areas that can be connected to lack of broadband and calling on federal leaders to help.

“The federal government should work with states to facilitate the deployment of broadband to underserved areas, recognizing that adequate broadband access has a direct correlation to rural populations’ ability to access telehealth and telemedicine,” the resolution said. 

Nevada’s efforts

Nevada has been taking steps at the state level to advance the adoption of broadband, and the stakes are particularly high in rural areas.

A report published last month by the Rural School and Community Trust ranked Nevada as the state having the second-highest portion of rural communities with an average household income hovering near poverty. Nevada also ranked as the “highest-priority” state in regard to college readiness of rural high schoolers.

“In rural areas, some of the challenges are exacerbated in terms of access to services,” WGA Director Jim Ogsbury said on Friday. “Whether it’s health care, whether it’s education, access to broadband and access to job opportunities.”

To fund the expansion of broadband infrastructure needed for statewide education initiatives, public libraries and competitive postsecondary education, states and local governments look to the federal government.

Nevada’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology (OSIT) coordinates state applications for the federal E-rate program, which provides discounts and reimbursements to eligible schools and libraries that install new technology to improve internet access.

OSIT Broadband Development Manager Jojo Myers Campos said that the Nevada Connect Kids Initiative, which aims to increase E-rate applications and funding in the state, is up and running and “going fantastic.”

“We have spent [almost $300,000] in the past year providing state match,” Myers Campos said in an interview on Tuesday, referring to state dollars given in tandem with federal money to fully fund broadband expansion.

In 2015, lawmakers passed the Nevada Telemedicine Act, requiring broadband connectivity to rural health care sites. Under Nevada law, Medicaid must cover telehealth services “to the same extent as services provided in person.”

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill in 2017 to help ensure broadband connection in rural hospitals, health clinics and correctional facilities. The bill’s “Dig Once” policy, which made it a standard to install broadband connectivity infrastructure when constructing any new roads in the state, was praised for making it a standard to “kill two birds with one stone” when doing roadway improvement projects. 

Under Sandoval, the state had comprehensive plans to expand broadband connectivity and called for the designation of a Nevada Broadband Task Force, which ran from 2015 to 2017 but has since been discontinued.