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Examining the Internet and Machine Learning with David Weinberger - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 348

March 19, 2019

We bring listeners many stories from communities across the country who are taking steps to improve connectivity and find better ways to access the Internet. This week, Christopher and his guest talk about why we value the Internet. Author David Weinberger is also a Senior Researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and a Writer in Residence at Google PAIR.

David has worked with technology and the Internet for decades and has studied how the Internet and access to such vast amounts of information has changed the way we understand information, relationships, and the world we live in. Christopher asks David to share is findings and his analysis and they talk about the risks, the benefits, and the possibilities that these shifts bring. Christopher and David get into a deeper look at the value of the Internet and the responsibilities that we share as a result of this limitless tool that takes information from anywhere to anyone.

David has in recent years worked with machine learning, which he’s weaved into his research. He and Christopher look at the problems and potentials that machine learning have revealed and discuss possible solutions and innovative approaches. David explains his discoveries that connect interoperability, unpredictability, and the expansion of innovation. 

For more, check out these articles by David:

Our Machines Now Have Knowledge We’ll Never Understand

The Internet That Was (and Still Could Be)

And order his most recent book from IndieBound, Everyday Chaos, to be released in May 2019.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 41 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. 

Tags: audiobroadband bitspodcasttechnologyberkman klein center

Washington Legislature Considering Broadband Investment Plan From Governor; House Hearing Today

March 19, 2019

Governor Jay Inslee started to promote his bill for better broadband earlier this year and, with any luck, Washington will have a solid foundation to expand broadband before the end of this year’s legislative session. SB 5511, a measure backed by the Governor, has sailed through the Senate, and has now appeared in the House. The bill establishes a State Broadband Office and earmarks funding for local broadband initiatives.

The bill is on the agenda for today's House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee meeting at 10 a.m. PDT.

Difficult But Doable

In order to bring high-quality Internet access to all of Washington, millions and possibly billions of dollars of infrastructure investment are required. No one is certain how much completing the task will cost, and obtaining a better estimate will be one of the tasks of the State Broadband Office (SBO), which will be created by SB 5511. The bill allocates $1.2 million for the SBO.

Rural communities, economic development organizations, and tribes have all supported a measure to establish state investment in broadband infrastructure deployment across Washington. In January, Inslee met with leaders from communities across the state, including Colville Business Council member Susie Allen representing the Colville Tribes, to discuss the need for state funding:

“I have been working on broadband initiatives on our reservation for many years, but unfortunately, substantially, we still remain under-served and unserved, without broadband services,” said Allen. “The Colville Tribes have invested several millions of dollars to begin to meet this need, but we require assistance from the state and federal agencies to complete this work… The lack of broadband service creates not just an inconvenience, but poses real safety concerns throughout the reservation.”

The Colville Tribe has invested $6 million in order to connect the tribal government and under the terms of SB 5511, they would qualify to receive more funding in grants and low-interest loans.

The Tribe has plans for an addiction treatment center on Colville land because the nearest existing facility is about an hour away. In order for patients to receive treatment at the new facility, however, the Tribe needs a high-quality, reliable Internet connection for telehealth applications. SB 5511, if passed, would help fund the project.

Eligibility Abounds

The applicant pool for SB 5511 allows a wide array of eligible entities. In addition to tribes, local governments, nonprofit organizations, co-ops, public-private partnerships (“multiparty entities comprised of public entity members”), LLCs organizes specifically for broadband expansion, and private sector corporations are eligible to apply for funds.

In Washington, public utility districts (PUDs) have worked tirelessly to expand connectivity to rural areas via their fiber optic infrastructure. State law mandates that they limit service to wholesale service and there are places where residents and businesses have a choice of ISPs that deliver retail service via PUD fiber. What happens, however, if there is only one ISP offering retail Internet access to subscribers and something happens to that ISP?

SB 5511 provides authority to PUDs in Washington to operate temporary retail services via their infrastructure to end users if an ISP using the fiber ends service to subscribers. The PUD can only offer the service if there are no other ISPs willing to take on the subscribers and the PUD must try to find a replacement, but subscribers won’t be left without Internet access.

Port districts, which obtained more authority to work with private sector partners in last year’s legislative session, are granted more discretion in SB 5511. Last year, HB 2664 removed a requirement that only “rural” ports could use their fiber infrastructure for public-private partnerships outside of their port district. With SB 5511, port districts can also acquire and operate telecommunications facilities outside of their districts in order to provide wholesale service. The added authority can contribute to expansion of service in rural areas.

PUDs and port districts have proven their ability to effectively bring broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved Washingtonians. With access to more funding and the knowledge developed by entities such as Chelan PUD, Grant PUD, and the Port of Ridgefield, rural communities where people still aren’t served have a better chance to be connected through expansion.

Decent Definition, Dilemma

The FCC defined “broadband” as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps back in 2015 and there are still some states that rely on an inferior 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps standard. Fortunately, Washington SB 5511’s authors defer to the FCC for the standard which all applicants’ projects must achieve for funding.

The bill prioritizes funding for unserved areas, so projects such as the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in Anacortes would have less of a chance to obtain a grant or loan. As we learned from speaking to them earlier this year, funding streams that focus on unserved and underserved communities can often cut off communities that are investing in municipal networks. While places such as Anacortes are deploying fiber to stimulate economic development, improve services and prices, and to have more reliable connectivity, the fact that DSL or cable Internet access is available in the city labels them as “served.”

Not A Large Pot

The Governor has proposed $25 million toward infrastructure projects over the first five-year period but as the SBO continues to do its work and determine the actual financial need to deploy statewide broadband access, that figure may grow.

Applicants are expected to match grant awards, with exceptions for certain tribal and rural projects. There is also a cap of $2 million per project award and additional exceptions apply if a project has already been developed with significant local investment from a tribe or if a project is “remotely located.”

Read more details about the specific funding requirements from the Bill Analysis for the House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee (2nd substitute bill).

Where it Stands

The Second Substitute version of the bill is on the agenda for the House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee for today, March 19th at 10 a.m. PDT. After passing through Ways & Means and Environment, Energy & Technology in the Senate, the full body passed it 47 - 0.

If you’re a Washington resident and interested in seeing this bill continue forward, contact your Representative and ask them to sign on or to vote to pass it when it comes before them.

Read the bill in its current version.

SB 5511 Bill Analysis (second substitute) SB 5511 Bill Language (second substitute)Tags: washingtonstate lawsfundingstategrantloanlegislationsb 5511 wa

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 348

March 19, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 348 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In this episode, Christopher speaks with author and researcher David Weinberger. Their conversation touches on many topics, including the importance of the Internet, how the concept of knowledge has changed throughout time, and the promise of machine learning. Read the transcript below, or listen to the episode.

 

 

David Weinberger: It's a library unlike any we've had in that you can casually dip in, spend literally the rest of your life exploring a topic by following links — links that we made for one another. This blows apart just about every idea about how the world goes together.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 348 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzales. David Weinberger from Harvard's Berkman Klein Center and Google joined Christopher this week. As a senior researcher, author, and writer in residence, David has spent much of his time analyzing the Internet and how it has affected society over the years. Christopher and David take some time to discuss David's observations and conclusions, including addressing why the Internet is important and valuable despite its negative characteristics. The conversation also looks on how knowledge in the age of the Internet has changed and taken on a whole new meaning, not only in how information is distributed, but in how it's gathered, the extent of its reach, and the expanding responsibility that accompanies the changes. Chris and David also discuss machine learning, David's hopes and concerns, and how it expands innovation. Now here's Christopher with David Weinberger.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with David Weinberger, the senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center, also writer in residence at Google, working on machine learning, and the author of several books that I've enjoyed: Too Big to Know, Everything Is Miscellaneous, and author with several others in The Cluetrain Manifesto, and another book we'll tease in a second. Welcome to the show, David.

David Weinberger: Thanks. Great to be here. And by the way, you gave me a little bit of a promotion by making me THE senior researcher. I'm just a senior researcher. It's a little bit like the Internet.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm just excited I got through that without an edit, so I'm going to keep it.

David Weinberger: Yeah, well please. Sure. I'll take it.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, one of the things that I really enjoy about reading your work, David, and in the conversations we've had in the past too, is I feel like whether you're writing or talking, you're often both making it an argument while chatting with the reader or the person you're talking to about the argument you're making. It sort of gets meta in some ways, and I always appreciate that, so . . .

David Weinberger: I am not aware of that, but thank you. I should probably try to make it up, take it up another level.

Christopher Mitchell: IN one of the articles that I was reading, for instance, you were talking about how the Internet was paved over and then later you came back and said that actually it really wasn't pavement and you're sorry you brought it up at all. Those are the kind of comments I really enjoy.

David Weinberger: Well, thanks.

Christopher Mitchell: So anyway, you've written some other books too. Those are just the books I read that I listed. I highly recommend those, but I wanted you to validate something now that I've buttered you up, and that's that I am correct in capitalizing the word the Internet when I'm talking to the global Internet that connects all the other networks.

David Weinberger: Yes, you are correct. The style guides say you and I are both wrong. I have a book coming out in May, and I lost the argument with my editor both over capitalizing "Internet" and "Web" when talking about the World Wide Web. The style guides are just against that idea. I think it's — grammatically you can argue it and that's fine, who cares? Politically, I think it's a mistake because especially as the Internet is in danger of fracturing, if it hasn't already depending on how you look at it, I think we need to have a more and more vivid sense that there is this thing. It is the Internet. It is a single thing that touches everyone, and it's the same thing. The experiences of it are different of course, but it's the same thing that touches everybody. So I am very much, even though I lost the argument — I had to put in a footnote in, might be the first footnote in the book — it's an early one anyway — acknowledging that I had lost that argument.

Christopher Mitchell: You say that grammatically, you can argue it. Frankly, I've never understood it. I mean, I always think of the Taj Mahal. There's one of them, really. I mean there's facsimiles, but there's one and we capitalize it because it's one very special, unique thing that's a proper noun. I just fundamentally don't understand how the Internet is not a proper noun.

David Weinberger: Well, in the same way I think — and I lose this argument all the time — it's the earth is lowercase "e" and Earth is capital "E" and same for the sun, which seems to me just totally backwards to begin with if you're going to do it, and I don't get it. But there's a certain level of arbitrariness in some of this, I think, in language, could be.

Christopher Mitchell: I was just going to say, I feel like reading your books, you get a sense that there's a lot more arbitrary in our lives than we're prepared to accept and that we realize at first glance

David Weinberger: You are absolutely correct. That's a theme throughout my books and my life. We normalize everything. We look for generalizations, general principals because in some sense that's how language works and how thought works, but we also have tended to emphasize and valorize those generalities as truths as opposed to — and this is unfair, but I'll say it anyway — as opposed to being more or less shortcuts. This is one of the reasons why I've gotten so interested in machine learning, and we may come back to that in the conversation, but machine learning does not begin with a generalized model of how its domain works. Here's how business works: why, there are the following 30 variables and factors and here's their relationship. You know, you model the business. We do that and it works pretty well. It works well enough that we continue doing it, but machine learning doesn't work work that way. You give it the data, you don't give it the model, and it creates its own model. And the models that it creates are highly probabilistic and they connect individual data points and can be gigantic webs — lowercase "w" by the way — gigantic webs of correlations, probabilistic correlations. I mean, it can be so complex, we simply cannot understand how some of these systems come up with some of their results. It does not start with nor does it always, or even that often, come up with generalizations, with general principles. It's a really different way of thinking about the world, and in some ways I think it's more accurate than the shortcuts that we take. No offense to Newton. I don't want to argue against Newton's laws because they seem to be pretty good.

Christopher Mitchell: They got us pretty far.

David Weinberger: Yeah, we've done okay with them. And he was a fairly bright fella, got to give it to him.

Christopher Mitchell: So we're gonna focus on something you've given a lot of thought to, which is the Internet. I wanted to have you on because I've done almost 350 shows now, most of which just take for granted how important the Internet is and expanding access to it and things like that. And one of the things I was recently reflecting on was I don't know that I've done a good job describing why it's important, not just because kids need an education or because Netflix is nice, but why the Internet is more important for reasons beyond that. And so, you've given this a lot of thought, I know, because you and I've talked about it and you've written about it, even caring so much about the book that you published it with lowercase "i's" in it. So the question I want to pose to you as we get into this is there's this question that you said you often get, which certainly is headlines in magazines time and time again: "Is the Internet making us dumber?" And even beyond that, you know, is the Internet or Facebook to blame for real harm that's being done in terms of people's anti-vaccine beliefs or, you know, climate change denialism or things like that? How do you respond to those sorts of questions?

David Weinberger: First of all, I admit that in many ways the Internet has been a destructive force. I don't want to argue — I think it's not only pointless, it's wrong to argue against the sorts of things that people point to. I find that the negatives have been very well covered over the past 10 years.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

David Weinberger: There's lots more to say, but I don't feel like I have anything really to contribute to that. I want to acknowledge the negatives and I have no problem doing so, but I think it's also — I agree with you about this Chris — that it's important even while one is pointing out all the negatives, that we remember how radically different and beneficial the 'net has been, even with all those negatives, because otherwise we're in danger of losing it. I mean, it's possible to lose this thing. It's something we built; it's something that we can lose. I mean, I have an odd interest in this, which is not only in sort of the social formations that have been so beneficial to us — they have their negative side but that have been so beneficial to us — and I don't know that we want to talk about the following, but personally my major personal interest is in ways in which the Internet has led us to think about the world differently, about how the world is put together and power relationships in the world and what it means to be social. And I'll give you a really simple example — I mean, obvious example. I actually don't think it's a simple example, but it's a clear one.

Christopher Mitchell: A very complex, clear example.

David Weinberger: Yeah. Well, just because the ramifications of it are so, so huge and that we so take for granted now. The hyperlinks. You know, we're now in the 30th year of the World Wide Web. A hugely important component part of it are hyperlinks, right? And they are relatively new. There were systems before, and in fact I worked for a company that made one, that enabled people to have hyperlinks between . . . But you know, they didn't have any traction in part because these systems were not open systems and in part because at least in some instances, like the company I worked at which is called Interleaf — in the '80s you could do hyperlinks, but the creators of the documents, which tended to be, you know, technical documentation departments, had bought this expensive system — they were hard coded. You had to compile a system. You wanted to add a new hyperlink, you had to recompile the system and redistribute it. Hyperlinks on the Web, because of their accessibility, because the web took off so quickly and had so much material, they change our idea about how knowledge and ideas go together, about whether the right approach to knowledge is always to try to get it concise enough that can fit in a book that can fit on a shelf, whether there's sort of a centralized control over what counts as included in a topic or related to a topic. In a book, the author is in control of that. That's fine. It's one model, but it was basically our only model. The author gets to say what the book is about and what references he or she is going to make and the links that go out and those links are printed and so nobody really follows them anyway, and on the Web, anybody can link to anything. We've built incredibly quickly this massive, unprecedented in human history, bottom up, democratic — a little "d" of course — but also individualistic web of connections among ideas. That's a web of meaning. Here's one simple sentence; the rest of the Web springs out of it because everything on the Web is connected. So in a literal sense, you start anywhere, you can get anywhere. That's why it's important that we talk about THE Web and THE Internet, right? And so, there is this gigantic web of meaning, a semantic web if you will, that has been built by individuals from many, many, many cultures and backgrounds and interests. We've never had that before. We've never had anything like it. And anybody can speak and anybody can link and draw the connections she wants. So this is a different idea about what knowledge is like, what meaning is like, what it means to know something. It's a tool like we have never, ever had. It's not simply that the Internet is an information library the way that it early on was thought of and talked about. It's a library unlike any we've had in that you can casually dip in, spend literally the rest of your life exploring a topic by following links — links that we made for one another. This blows apart just about every idea about how the world goes together.

Christopher Mitchell: Well it seems like it's — it's funny because the two words that come to mind are both democratic and anarchistic in terms of it's choose your own adventure. One of the things I think about almost every time I'm in a room of people is one of the things I've learned, I believe from reading you, which was that in a group of people, the smartest person in the room is the room, I think is the phrase actually.

David Weinberger: Yes, the subtitle of one of my books.

Christopher Mitchell: So is that Too Big to Know?

David Weinberger: Yeah, it's part of it. It's a very long subtitle, but that's buried in there somewhere.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I'm pretty sure I read the whole book, not just the subtitle.

David Weinberger: Stopping at the subtitle would have been fine.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure, well no, but the sense in my mind is that, you know, there's a difference between, in the past, I think one could accumulate knowledge by locking oneself into a very large library and just learning and learning and learning. And increasingly we've gone beyond that. It's not even about what a single person can accumulate in terms of knowledge. That's very limiting to think of it in that way. And to some extent when you go back to what's the difference between the '80s and now, I feel like there's just this difference of you really need to get a group of people together to do anything interesting because you just don't expect one single person would have that kind knowledge.

David Weinberger: Yeah. We spent a few thousand years with the assumption based upon the necessity that the way to know something is to get it into a single skull that's through single person project. That became a more pronounced tendency as time went on, and that requires a very rigorous discipline over topics. I mean, how long can a book be? Right, a book was and in many ways still is, I guess, the fundamental unit of knowledge. And we're going through a phase shift here, but books are really, really short. And anybody who's written a book knows that you have to be very disciplined about what you're going going to talk about, which means you can't talk about most of . . . It turns out that once you take the paper out of the system of knowledge, which the Internet and then the Web very effectively did, that a lot of the ideas about knowledge turned out to be based upon the limitations of paper. So for example, once you publish something on paper, you really can't change it. It just settles. But knowledge also has had this character property of being the stuff that we have settled on as a culture. If it's still being debated, we say, well, no, we don't know yet, but once it's settled, then it can become knowledge. We've had to filter. Knowledge has been filtered. Right from the ancient Greek origins of it, knowledge was a category that came later than the category of opinion and it was the set of opinions worth believing. In the west, that's been a guiding a property, but it means that knowledge is always filtered. Books also are highly filtered. Very few of them get published relatively, and very few of them can fit in any library, and there's no library that can fit all of them — no physical library can fit all of them. Libraries have to throw out books. I say, this as somebody who spent five years co-directing a library innovation lab. I don't mean to slight libraries. It's a fact of physical life that libraries have to throw out some books or sell them or whatever in order to make room for the new ones. And so, knowledge has always been filtered, and I don't think that it's an accident that the properties of knowledge have also been the properties of paper. You take those out and knowledge really begins to change. It becomes something that multiple people do in networks by building networks, connected networks, of knowledge or webs of knowledge. But one of the biggest changes I think we are now living through and is making us very nervous for understandable reasons, is that when you have a web of knowledge, that web consists of differences among the people. And sometimes they are very friendly differences in which one person knows about one topic or whatever, but inevitably are also webs of differences of ideas. There's disagreement. The knowledge never settles. And we look out across this field and we see disagreement, but that's in fact — the dream of knowledge is that everybody agrees with it; the fact of knowledge has always been that that has never been the case. And I'll give you a positive example of this in scholarship. I think we are quite happy, I assume we are quite happy, to have traditional networks of knowledge — we don't call them that, but that's what they were — traditional networks of knowledge among scholars on, say, Shakespeare who spend — we don't want them all to agree. We want them to disagree. We hope that they're, you know, civil and the rest of that stuff, but that disagreement is where all of the interest is. It turns out that that's not just a humanities thing though. It turns out that the fact — and we don't like it, I understand that — the fact is that we don't and never will all agree about anything. But now we're on a single thing, the Internet, where we see those differences and we see that they don't get resolved and it's very disturbing to us.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I think one of the challenges that we have is where that spills over, and I think this comes down to whether you're talking about, again, like anti-vaccination confusion or even disagreement over basic facts in politics today. In part, because we're in an area, I think, in which people have a sense that you can find evidence for whatever you want, and we haven't yet adjusted. People haven't adjusted to the reality in which you have a higher responsibility if you're making an argument than just saying, "I found a convenient fact." You have to go beyond that, if we're going to do interesting things as human beings,

David Weinberger: The optimist in me, which is consistently — that person is consistently wrong, unfortunately, so feel free to slap them down. The optimist in me says that we are at an evolutionary — eh, I hate to use the phrase — inflection point.

Christopher Mitchell: Would you say the paradigm is inflecting?

David Weinberger: Inflecting paradigms is — that'd be a great traffic sign, don't you think? Warning: paradigm inflection ahead. I think there's some evidence to be somewhat optimistic about this, where we have to be more meta, we have to be more aware because you know, I hate to say it, but the old paradigm — now you've got me using the paradigm word — the old paradigm of knowledge was not actually. . . Because once something is settled, it's settled. It's known, it's done. You don't bring it up again unless there's some good reason. Everybody agrees, which of course they never did, you just couldn't hear the people who disagreed because they were disenfranchised.

Christopher Mitchell: They didn't get the paper.

David Weinberger: Yeah. And so we had an illusion that there was unanimity around knowledge, and so that lets you believe things without having to be very meta about it. You know, it's just true, it's just right, and everybody knows. Now, the conversations I think have to — really should is what I mean because I don't know that they will — become more aware about the role of evidence, less certain about one's own position, and more humble. I think there's evidence that in many areas that's happening. There's also pretty clear evidence that there are lots of places where people are becoming even bigger, let's say, jerks. That's not the technical term I would use, but bigger jerks than they ever were. I'll tell you a secret hope of mine, about machine learning. If we accept what seems to me to have been true — and others — to have been true for thousands of years, which is that we understand our minds often on the basis of using the metaphors that we gained from the tools that we use, then if the new tool is becoming — and we certainly saw this in the computer era when suddenly everything about our minds and then the world became information. The term information became a hugely important term when it had not been one, even though people can't tell you what it means. And I don't mean in the science sense, just it's a placeholder word for something. Anyway, so we've seen in the computer era that we've refashioned our idea of ourselves in terms of information and inputs and outputs and so forth, and if the same thing happens with machine learning in a particular way — machine learning is always probabilistic. It relies upon measures of confidence in order to do its work, and if we begin to understand ourselves along the machine learning model than maybe a good thing from my point of view would be if we picked up on the [fact that] all statements have a confidence level, that we recognize that they're all uncertain.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I actually think that's really valuable. I'll tell you what I got out of it is something that I do think a lot about, which is this idea of how much confidence do I have in this thing that I'm saying. And if I'm speaking to people that are asking me for advice, I'll often say, well, like I think this thing and I'm very confident about it, and I'm about to say this other thing later in the conversation, and I'll say, look, I'm much less confident about this, in part because if I'm wrong about this, you shouldn't assume I'm wrong about the other thing because I'm more likely to be wrong about this thing. It's hard to know these things.

David Weinberger: Yeah, and also you are an honest and competent consultant and advisor, and I say this having known you for awhile.

Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you.

David Weinberger: You're welcome. And yet — so here's one of the popular negative things about to say about the Internet, which is true, which is the Internet is an attention economy and you gain attention because it seems to be a trick of the mind. One of the — this is in parentheses — one of the things that's been fascinating to me over the past few decades, because I'm old, is watching the extent to which the idea that we are rational creatures, that this is our destiny and our being, seeing that idea eroded by behavioral economics and much more, in which basically the brain now seems to many of us to be all optical illusions all the time except they're cognitive illusions. Nevertheless, one of the optical illusions is that we pay attention to strong or outrageous statements. It's not hard to see why. And so, the Internet economy as many have pointed out is an attention economy in which outrageousness is rewarded. That goes against the hope that we will become a more humble, measured, meta creatures. And then I want to say the third thing is, well, you know, there's sort of an Hegelian dialectical synthesis of this, which I think is maybe one of the dominant modes that you find on the Internet, which is people who assert things in a very overly bold voice do so knowingly and are heard as purposefully, knowingly overstating because it's funny, often. You see this in places like Reddit, where that's a pretty common form of expression. And so, it's both the attention grabbing overstatement, but done archly often with a signal, sometimes very implicit just by the subreddit that you're in, that no, we know that this is just — we're just being outrageous because there's some truth in what we say, but it's also pretty funny to talk this way. We can spawn a really funny thread if we talk this way.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think some of it is also — I think there's a sense of frustration of being unheard. You know, I feel like we see this around, for instance, the work I'm doing right now around 5G where we've become extremely snarky because, you know, honestly, part of it is that we feel the expectation that if we say smart things and we figure out smart things, people should listen to us. And then if they don't, we start to feel frustrated and then you kind of lash out in that same way. But you know, I think if you go back 25-20 years ago, people didn't have an expectation that they had any means of influencing those sorts of events unless they were born into the right family or went to the right schools or something like that.

David Weinberger: Yeah, absolutely. One of my deep concerns about my early views of the Internet and of the Web in particular, which, you know, it goes back to early nineties-mid nineties, and views that I still hold many of and have expressed some of, is that at the time I was a middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated white guy, and so the Internet was like a dream for me. It was like made for me because in some ways it was made by people like me. And the early Web fulfilled because, you know, initially it was not poor people and it was mainly Americans and other well-developed western countries and the like

Christopher Mitchell: People spoke English, had a certain set of expectations and knowledge.

David Weinberger: Yep. You have tons of very technical and highly professional and educated, you know — it was an Internet of privilege. And that allowed me a certain set of fantasies which were fulfilled at the time, but were destined to — and I did know this and write about it, but not sufficiently — fantasies that were, you know, not going to last as the Web reached to people who weren't like me.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think about as we accelerate that forward to some extent, this idea of people who are like me or have like interests being able to gather around. You know, I told you I wanted to talk a little bit about what we think the future might be, and you said, like an intelligent person, I have no interest in making predictions.

David Weinberger: Well, it's not that I don't have an interest. I have tons of interest, it's just —

Christopher Mitchell: Maybe you've learned enough lessons.

David Weinberger: Yeah, especially since the book that's coming out, Everyday Chaos — sorry, that's a plug. "Available for preorder now."

Christopher Mitchell: From your local bookstore. So the prediction I want to sort of root around in is this idea that, you know, if you look back to 30 years ago, something like CRISPR comes around, this idea of being able to edit the DNA and make dramatic changes, which is still a work in progress in many ways. Nonetheless, it happens. Probably someone writes about it in a journal, and then maybe over the next six months some people read the journal and other places and they iterate, and three years later some more people learn about that in a different journal. And now, I feel like instead it's more like as a lab in South Korea is iterating, there's a lab in California that's iterating, and over the course of a year, you have 20 or 30 years of scientific progress because of the Internet. And when people talk about the Internet as though, you know, it's only a form for clicking outrageous headlines, I think about things like that and just the way that — I'm really fascinated to see what happens, and this will be good and bad. Change sped up just means we get the good and the bad faster. But I feel like when I look at the history of innovation, and so much of it comes from different groups learning about different ideas, if we just have so much more of that, I feel like we're going to see much more change in very interesting ways. So I'm curious what you make of that, if I'm missing anything here.

David Weinberger: 100 percent. The only things I would add to it I know you agree with which is that this is not simply a quickening pace of existing processes, but there's so much sharing and collaboration, that it is the networking of knowledge, right in front of our eyes. One of the things I think is hugely important and is obvious — this is why I don't make predictions. I mean I really try not to. My actual interest as a writer is in trying to read what is already here to show often why it's why it's deeply weird.

Christopher Mitchell: You mean why, even if you knew everything that was happening a hundred years ago, you wouldn't have guessed we'd end up here. Like, we weren't destined to end up where we are. Is that what you're saying?

David Weinberger: Well, yes. It's so wildly contingent, but that's not the sense that we've had traditionally. We certainly recognize the contingency, but we also look to the general rules and we look to the trends, and it's just, you know, history is nothing but a series of unpredictable, unlikely events. I mean, wildly improbable events. So one of the things that to me is really exciting, that is increasing the pace of innovation, is our explicit and sometimes implicit attempts at making things interoperable. That is, interoperability, as you well know, is when an item from one system turns out to be usable in another system, often in an unpredictable way. And so we are increasing the unpredictability every time of the world in very fruitful ways as we increase the interoperability, which the Internet has done incredibly well for the sorts of materials that it deals with. Every time somebody comes up with a new data standard or a protocol for sharing information or set of services or an open platform —

Christopher Mitchell: Or a viedo that tells you how to, like, hook these two things together, right? I mean, like, just do-it-yourself type stuff.

David Weinberger: Absolutely. I mean, it's actually a great example because all of that stuff is an accelerant and what it accelerates is not only knowledge and new services and products and gives people control over the things that they use that they didn't create that can make something new out of it or tune it to the way that they want. All of this we take for granted. We take it for granted even in video games. You know, video games, one of the earliest examples of reconfigurable systems, modding where you could take a game and change — the game makers enable you, let you and sometimes enable you, by giving you tools to change their own game. I mean, it's very different from a Henry Ford model of how you build a car. You know, 19 years of the Model T didn't change.

Christopher Mitchell: Or my Toyota today.

David Weinberger: Exactly. Yeah. Right, try to mod that.

Christopher Mitchell: I just want it to stop beeping at me when it's below 37 degrees outside. I live in Minnesota. It's always below 37 degrees. Stop yelling at me, car.

David Weinberger: Well, no, that's your fault. You could move. Really, that's just shameful, Chris, sorry. Yeah, so interoperability is an accelerant for this sort of — it makes the world less predictable and that increases the pace at which we innovate. And we have not — there's so many efforts in so many areas to increase interoperability. We call it different names, but it's like — I'm going to go back to Newton who I've sort of mentioned a couple of times — but you know, gravity, it's pretty good. Universal Law of Gravity seems to be pretty much right. Newton discovered these causal relationships, but interoperability is also a way in which two things can interact but we get to design the rules. We get to decide how these things are going to be able to interact, and that is taking us to a world that we cannot possibly, possibly predict. And it's a dangerous world too. I mean, CRISPR has wildly horrible applications possible, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I mean, it's one of the things I worry a lot about. I mean, I view it as — perhaps as a result of the specific sci-fi that I've read — I view it as, if it doesn't kill us off or kill us off in sufficient numbers, it will give us the tools to avoid killing ourselves off with climate change because of the ability to change organisms to remove carbon from the air and things like that. But yeah, I mean, I know that in my lifetime, if CRISPR provides the kind of things we expect it will, that terrorist groups will be finding ways of trying to do horrible things with biological weapons, you know? And so, it's a very scary future, frankly.

David Weinberger: Yes. It's horrifying, terrifying, and makes, you know, concern about the Internet seem like small potatoes — potatoes you should pay attention to but . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Without the Internet, none of this stuff happens though, I mean, I think.

David Weinberger: Yeah. That's an excellent point. I thought you were going to suggest that CRISPR could save us from climate change because we would be able to develop gills.

Christopher Mitchell: No, I would love that though. I think I might take that over wings if I had my choice.

David Weinberger: That's an interesting choice.

Christopher Mitchell: Well you know, I think it may be less crowded down there because everyone else is going to take the wings.

David Weinberger: Here's the next sci-fi novel.

Christopher Mitchell: Well let me ask you though about this, right. I mean, so in one of the articles that you provided that we'll include in our link, you write about — you know, I think a person like me might just think that when you think about machine learning and I think about just generally — which isn't machine learning — smart machines, the difference between Deep Blue, which was IBM's effort to win chess and AlphaGo, they seem like they're both just really intelligent machines that can do things that I cannot do or in fact any human can do, but they're fundamentally different. And I'm curious if you can tell me why it matters that one uses machine learning and the other doesn't.

David Weinberger: With traditional computers, a developer comes up with a model of the world: the pieces that go together and how they relate, which things matter and what their relationships are. And that goes along with our old idea that knowledge. It has to be a very reductive idea. That's why we make spreadsheets for our businesses, but nobody, you know, if the factory catches fire, nobody blames the spreadsheet nor should they. So I mean, they work. They're better than nothing, but they are idealized visions of the factors, you know, isolated set of factors

Christopher Mitchell: And perhaps hiding patterns that we can't see because of the way we construct these models.

David Weinberger: Yes, that's exactly it. So instead, with machine learning, you provide data. You don't give the machine a model of the domain. You give it the data. All it knows are the numbers. It has no idea about what those numbers stand for. And it iterates and finds correlations, relationships among those numbers, building vast, intricate networks in which one data point may be connected to thousands of others with weights about, you know, their probability, likelihood, resulting in neural networks and that produce usable results — that's why we use them — but in some instances do so through networks that are simply too complex for human brains to understand them. This, at its best, when it works — and I have to put in the disclaimer, there's terrible dangers in this as well. The one that is most often talked about, which is appropriate, is that because machine learning makes models based upon data and because we live in an unjust world, that data reflects injustice. And so the models, unless carefully managed, will reflect and maybe amplify those biases — the biases in the data, which are biases in the world.

Christopher Mitchell: And to be very clear about what you're driving at there, the fact that for instance, if I'm a youth and I am engaged in shoplifting, I am more likely to be arrested if I'm a person of color. Therefore, the system that's looking at the data will start to assume people of color may be more likely to commit crime.

David Weinberger: Yes. I'll give you another quick example, standard sort of example. If you are using machine learning to call resumes who should get an interview with a human, and you use existing data, more than regrettably women will not correlate as highly with senior management jobs as men will in almost all industries. And so the machine will learn from that and it will learn that women don't correlate very well with senior management job, so that has to be carefully controlled for. There's a huge amount of work that's been done on this, which is entirely appropriate. Nevertheless, the sorts of models that machine learning makes seem to me in their architecture to be truer representations of how the world works. There's all of these little pieces that have influences. I mean, back to Newton, everything affects everything else. Everything has a gravitational pull on everything else. Machine learning gets closer to the complexity that is the world. That's why it works better. It's why we use it. And if we can internalize that model, I think we will be better off.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I will look forward to learning more about that in May with a book called Everyday Chaos.

David Weinberger: That was smoothly done.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh yes, I'm nothing but smooth. I've taken up more of your time than I asked you for. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about these things, and I'm sure we'll be developing some more questions for you in the future. So thanks for coming on.

David Weinberger: Thank you. I look forward to seeing you.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and author, senior researcher, and Google writer in residence, David Weinberger. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on important research from all of our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Follow us on Instagram. We are ILSR74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 348 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Link: Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 18

March 18, 2019

Colorado

Trustees approve broadband project by Tyler Pialet, Trail-Gazette

"Broadband service is critical for any community moving into the future, and technological challenges are greater for a smaller community like Estes Park," Lancaster said.

 

New Hampshire

Voters to decide on broadband for Chesterfield by Bob Audette, Brattleboro Reformer

 

Oregon

Maupin, Oregon completes gigabit broadband network, bridging the digital divide, Cision 

 

Tennessee

Milan provides residential broadband as part of public utilities by Josh Robinson, WBBJ News

 

Virginia

Botetourt County fighting for broadband access by Cynthia Beasley, ABC 13 News

"From the time I got that email..." she said. "Ten minutes - to get that website to load. By the time I got there the job was already gone. Because of the slow Internet, I wasn't able to get that job."

 

Washington

Click! seeks public comment on proposed partnership with cable, Internet provider, The Suburban Times

 

General 

Silicon Valley mayor to feds: ‘Get out of the way’ of innovation by Jack Corrigan, Nextgov

“Good policy could take one of two forms. If you want to treat telecom companies as public utilities … mandate they serve everyone in all parts of a community. Secondly, if you decide they’re not going to be public utilities then simply allow cities ... to negotiate at the table so the city can ensure their residents are well-served.”

Ajit Pai promised new jobs and 'better, cheaper' Internet. His ISP pals have a different plan by Dell Cameron, Gizmodo 

Senators: FCC should diversify broadband mapping data sources by John Eggerton, Multichannel News 

 

Tags: media roundup

Estes Park Trustees Vote Yes on Muni

March 18, 2019

Last week, Trustees in Estes Park, Colorado, unanimously voted to change the community’s municipal code in order to bring constituents what they want — a publicly owned broadband network.

Strong Support

It’s been four years since 92 percent of voters in Estes Park chose to opt out of the state’s restrictive SB 152. By reclaiming local telecommunications authority through the opt out referendum in 2015, the mountain town of approximately 6,300 residents was able to explore possibilities for better connectivity. 

After several days-long outages caused by lack of redundant infrastructure in the area, local business leaders and town officials knew it was time to take control of the situation. Surveys in the community revealed that approximately two-thirds of respondents want better connectivity in the community and of those respondents, 40 percent consider it the most important service the town can offer. 

Recently, local editors from the Trail Gazette echoed the sentiments of the community and urged community leaders to end discussion and take action:

…Estes Park needs more action and less discussion for greater access to information and global connectivity. No longer is accessible, fast and reliable broadband Internet a luxury; it is a necessity in our digital world.

Prior to the March 12th vote, the Broad of Trustees opened up the meeting to allow comments from the public. In addition to Trustees’ questions about economic development, reliability, and potential capacity of the proposed infrastructure, residents stepped forward to voice their opinions.

Not one citizen spoke out against the project.

Town resident Michael Bertrand, who works as an asset manager for a real estate investment firm and works remotely, opened up public comment with a statement in favor of the project. "I need reliable internet," Bertrand said. "I've had fiber in other locations in the past and it's incredible. The speeds you get are just fantastic."

Estes Park is one of the many tourist destinations in the Rockies where hunters, campers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts flock to all year. With a population that swells and an increasing expectation that travelers will find high-quality Internet access everywhere, Estes Park was not able to convince incumbent cable and telephone companies to upgrade services. Additionally, serious flooding has compromising public safety communications.

Strong support on the ballot has encouraged town leaders and made them hopeful that many residents and businesses will sign up for the service once Estes Park has the network up and running.

"Four years ago, 92 percent of voters voted to take back the right to provide broadband services in the community," said Town Utilities Director Reuben Bergsten during a proposal to the board to approve the amendment to the municipal code. "Things haven't changed. In the 2018 community survey, broadband was ranked the number one need to improve above workforce housing, street repairs and numerous other services."

A Step Ahead

With their own electric utility operating in Estes Park, experts have determined that existing fiber infrastructure and resources will greatly assist in deploying Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH). The town will issue revenue bonds to cover the cost of deployment, which they most recently estimate to be around $28 million.

They plan to begin construction this year. Premises within Estes Park Light & Power’s service area where smart grid fiber exists will be the first to receive service later in 2019. The entire community will have access to the network within three to five years.

Estes Park has decided to pursue a retail model and will provide Internet access directly to subscribers, rather than work with a private sector ISP. The town’s electric utility has worked to garner a strong, favorable customer relationship with residents and will nurture that further through the broadband service. Specific plans and speeds are still being established and subscribers will have more than one option.

Estes Park is taking a page from Longmont’s playbook and offering what they refer to as their “Trailblazer” discount

Early subscribers will be offered a Trailblazer discount, an exclusive discounted rate available to charter members that will remain in place for the life of the account. Soon, the Town’s local concierge support team will be available to walk residents and businesses through plan options. 

Review their FAQs and Press Release for more on the network plan. You can also learn more about the project by reviewing the town’s broadband page, where they’ve documented news on the initiative.

Image of Estes Park courtesy of Colorado.com.

Estes Park Press Release and FAQsTags: estes park cocoloradoFTTHelectricmuniretailsb 152

Tallahassee Talks Fiber RFP

March 14, 2019

The Tallahassee City Commission was divided, but they passed a vote 3 - 2 earlier this month to move forward with a feasibility study focusing on a citywide fiber optic broadband utility. City staff will now begin to prepare a Request for Proposals (RFP) to find a consulting firm to prepare the study.

People Want to Know

Newly elected Commissioner Jeremy Matlow brought the issue to his colleagues, stating that people brought up the subject to him while he was campaigning:

“A lot of people see what other cities are doing, such as Gainesville and Chattanooga, and asked why can’t we do that here...That’s the question we’re trying to answer: Can we do that here?”

Along with Matlow, Elaine Bryant and Dianne Williams-Cox voted in favor of the proposal to fund a feasibility study, the latter favoring the possibility of competition for incumbents Comcast and CenturyLink. “If you don’t want competition, provide better service,” said Williams-Cox. "Let’s look at it and research it,” she said, "and look for funding sources for this."

"We can not stay in the space we are now. We have to move forward. I think it’s worth putting it on the table for discussion,” Bryant said. “We need more information.”

Divided Opinion

While three Commissioners want to learn more about the possibilities, Mayor John Daily and Commissioner Curtis Richardson seemed to firmly oppose any possibility. Primarily, they expressed concern over the estimated cost of more than $283 million dollars to bring fiber to the community of about 191,000 people. City staff developed the figure based on a reported estimate developed by a private sector Internet access company. The ISP wanted to enter the market in Tallahassee and determined that it would cost $150 million to deploy in a limited area.

Tallahassee has a municipal electric utility, which would likely favorably impact an estimate to deploy broadband citywide. A consultant might find that the city could use existing infrastructure, equipment, and personnel. Florida, however, imposes various restrictions that include taxes on municipal networks. The state laws demand quick returns that even private companies don’t have to meet — restrictions that often intimidate local communities from investing in publicly owned broadband networks.

Matlow, Bryant, and Williams-Cox want to learn more about the possibilities, including partnerships. They realize that other communities around them, such as Martin County, Ocala, and Palm Coast, have the infrastructure that businesses need for daily operations.

“When we look to the future, are we really laying out the infrastructure we need to be competitive on an economic basis,” he added. “We try to recruit companies here that require high speeds so there are a million different ways to enter this, including public-private partnerships.”

Tags: floridatallahassee flurbanconsideration

Co-op Cooperation in Rural North Carolina: RiverStreet Working with Electric Co-ops

March 13, 2019

In an effort to find ways to connect some of the state’s most disconnected communities, RiverStreet Networks and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives recently announced that they will work together for a series of pilot projects across the state. The initiative has the potential to discover new options for high-quality Internet access for residents and businesses in areas that have been left behind by national Internet service providers.

Going All Out 

North Carolina’s RiverStreet Networks is bent on bringing high-quality connectivity to people living and working in rural North Carolina. After expanding their physical infrastructure through deployment, the communications cooperative started to acquire other fiber networks in various areas across the state. Most recently, RiverStreet merged with TriCounty Telephone Membership Corporation

For RiverStreet, branching out among areas of the state were there is no high-speed Internet access is an opportunity to tap into an underserved market, not only an underserved population. It’s become obvious in recent years that rural communities want high-quality Internet access at least as fervently as in densely populated areas where big corporate ISP already have a monopoly. After upgrading their own members, RiverStreet was looking for growth; partnering with electric cooperatives is the next step to reaching more subscribers.

Listen to RiverStreet’s Greg Coltrain and Christopher discuss the merger and RiverStreet's plans to bring broadband to rural North Carolina:

Partners and Potential

Twenty-six electric cooperatives will be working with RiverStreet on pilot projects aimed to test out various models in mostly rural areas of the state. With infrastructure to approximately 2.5 million people, the partners will examine ways to deploy broadband with existing electric co-op infrastructure as part of the pilots. The partners want to implement smart technologies in addition to broadband access for better energy use:

“From a utility standpoint, broadband technologies benefit cooperative members by allowing them to better manage their home energy use, and they will make cooperative distribution systems more dynamic, flexible and efficient,” said Joe Brannan, chief executive officer of North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “Not only that, but this deployment could also bring economic development, education and healthcare opportunities – by leveraging existing assets – to the parts of our state in most critical need of such services.”

North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives reach 93 out of 100 of the state’s counties. Read more about how cooperatives are bringing fiber connectivity to areas left behind in our 2017 report, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet. With infrastructure, personnel, and knowledge already in place — especially when electric and communications cooperatives partner — rural communities have a realistic chance of enjoying Internet access equal to, or better than, that in urban areas.

Tags: north carolinacooperativenational rural electric cooperative associationpilotruralriver street networkscollaborationpartnership

Comedian Tackles Connectivity - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 347

March 12, 2019

On a typical episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, you’ll hear from a guest whose community may be in the process of deploying a publicly owned fiber network, or an elected official who has championed a broadband-friendly policy for their city or town. Sometimes we talk to local business leaders or cooperative board members who’ve led their communities toward better connectivity. For the first time ever, we have a comedian on the show this week — Ron Placone. What does this mean? Not that the issue of publicly owned networks is joke material, but that it’s something that people from all walks of life care about.

Ron is host of the streaming show, “Get Your News on With Ron,” a show driven by its audience. He has a popular YouTube channel and is regularly on the Jimmy Door Show and The Young Turks, often discussing municipal networks and the importance of network neutrality. In his home town of Pasadena, Ron is also a broadband champion, inspiring fellow citizens to attend City Council meetings and encourage elected officials to consider the possibility of a publicly owned broadband network. Christopher and Ron discuss how Ron’s using his ability to reach people to help spread the word about the benefits of municipal network and some of the challenges he’s faced as a citizen advocate. 

They discuss the relationship between municipal networks and network neutrality. As an artist and journalist, Ron is a steadfast believer in the tenets of network neutrality and like many people, see that local broadband networks can provide it. 

Last October, Christopher appeared on Ron’s show:

For more of Ron’s videos, from comedy to news to more conversations on municipal broadband, check out his YouTube channel. You can also go to ronplacone.com for more information.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 29 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Tags: audiobroadband bitspodcastelected officialscaliforniapasadenagrassrootsnetwork neutrality96 Telecom act

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 347

March 12, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 347 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with comedian and YouTuber Ron Placone about telecom policy, net neutrality, and Ron's efforts to bring municipal broadband to Pasadena, California. Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below.

 

 

Ron Placone: The idea of community is a very uplifting one because that's where you can really, I think, make some positive change. You know, change doesn't happen from the top to the bottom; it happens from the bottom up.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 347 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Christopher interviews comedian and municipal broadband advocate Ron Placone. Ron is a busy guy and in addition to his own career making people laugh from the stage, his YouTube channel, and a streaming show, Get Your News On With Ron, he's a regular on the Jimmy Dore Show. This time though, we've got Ron. He's here to talk about his experiences with municipal networks, network neutrality, and related policies. He and Christopher discuss why network neutrality is important to him and to other people whose lives revolve around a free and open Internet. Ron describes how he's using his platform to help spread the word about both network neutrality and municipal broadband, both in his hometown and he hopes to a wider audience. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel and listen to his show, Get Your News On With Ron, on iTunes or other streaming services. You can also check out ronplacone.com for more information on how to follow and connect with Ron. Now here's Christopher with comedian and broadband advocate Ron Placone.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, talking with Ron Placone, the comedian and YouTube personality that does Get Your News On With Ron. Welcome to the show, Ron.

Ron Placone: Thanks for having me. I've been a listener for a while now, so good to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, well I've heard from a few people lately that that I should be hamming up the intro, so I feel like this is a part of the show that people are starting to look forward to — at least some people are. Everyone who hates it should let me know too. So let me just start by asking you a little bit about your background. You're a comedian and a YouTube personality. What is that like?

Ron Placone: Well, it's a lot of fun. You know, I love doing both things. I was a road comic for many years and then when I moved here to Los Angeles, I started getting involved with this show called the Jimmy Dore Show. And I'm, I'm still, you know, at the Jimmy Dore Show, and I do a lot of stuff with the young Turks, and then I do my own show, Get Your News On With Ron. Simultaneously, issues of net neutrality and stuff like that has always been a very important cause to me. It's something that I've always been interested in and it's something I'm always learning about, since about 2004 when all those movements kinda got started. And of course, when we finally got it on the books in 2015, that was a good thing, and then of course Trump's FCC has repealed it. I know your listeners are already fluent in a lot of this stuff, but I've always seen muni broadband, which, you know, in the past few years I've gotten more turned on to as many people have, as sort of the permanent fix. Let's take the Internet out of the hands of these corporate entities and into the hands of cities and communities. As an online content creator, I see a lot of the importance in this for many reasons, but you know, a reason that really hits home with me a lot is just the idea of a vibrant and flourishing independent media, especially as of recent with the AT&T and Time Warner merger being okayed by the courts, which I'm sure you've already talked about. But you know, with that happening — I mean, look, AT&T owns CNN. Comcast owns MSNBC. So now you have these two big cable behemoths that control your access to the Internet, don't need to follow net neutrality anymore, and they own two big media outlets. This is not a healthy scenario for independent online-based media. Because our media structure in the United States is so horrible — you don't need to agree or disagree; that's that's my opinion — but because it's so horrible, this is a pretty big issue. And I think a lot of people — it's one of those things, sometimes people are passive and then all of a sudden we lose the medium, and people think it's so hard to believe that we're going to face this situation where videos don't load on the Internet or it costs 30 bucks extra a month to access your Twitter or you know the Internet looks like Cable Television 2.0. we can't fathom that happening. Well guess what? In 1996 they couldn't fathom what happened to radio happening.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Sure.

Ron Placone: They had no idea anything like that would happen, and then because of the Telecommunications Act in '96, they showed up one day and no one had a job anymore. So it can happen and once you lose the medium, you don't get it back.

Christopher Mitchell: And to be clear, what you're talking about with the radio is we had a lot of locally run stations and then they all got bought and turned into robot DJs over a period of 10 years or so. But there was this moment in which we saw a lot of the impact of that consolidation happening all at once.

Ron Placone: And it had to do with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Of course, technology did play a role too. I'm not going to make it out like that had nothing to do with it, but the big gutting of radio was largely due to that piece of policy because nobody paid attention to it.

Christopher Mitchell: No, that's true. Now, I have to say, first of all, you should be much nicer to AT&T. They now own HBO, so you know, you want to get your own act on there.

Ron Placone: Good point. I face this conundrum every day.

Christopher Mitchell: Most of the people that I know, even talking about net neutrality, wouldn't necessarily know to draw the radio issues back to the '96 telecom act. Were you a technical person? Are you someone who just — I mean, what is your background that you know about the '96 act, you know, something a lot of people just have no idea what year that would have passed.

Ron Placone: I'm a big media policy guy. I mean, when I was in college there was actually a media reform group, and I was in it. I was really involved with community radio, and I actually got into stand up because I wanted to be on the radio. Like I was like, I want to do talk radio, and then I read some article that said stand up comedy is a good way to get into that, which is still to this day true. And so, I started doing standup, and then I got bit by that bug and became a touring comedian for years and years. Now I guess it has come full circle cause the Jimmy Dore Show is syndicated via radio, so I guess technically it did come full circle. So yeah, and I went to graduate school for communication and I studied media policy. Like, that was my area of focus. So I read a lot of Dr Bob McChesney. I read a lot of Chomsky. I read a lot of, you know, Saul Alinsky and stuff like that. So the media reform movement has always been part of my life too. I mean, I used to go to those conferences. I was just sort of, you know, I had in my own little YouTube channel that was not very big at all. I wasn't, you know, doing anything on a bigger platform at that point, but I was still showing up there and I was learning. So I think that what happened with net neutrality or what is still happening with net neutrality — we're still fighting — that was kind of the telecommunications act of our generation. You know, this time, fortunately we were paying attention and we're fighting back. They didn't fight back until it was too little, too late because, you know, I think everybody — we had the school president that played the saxophone, everyone's sort of sleeping, and he just kind of pushed through this horrible act.

Christopher Mitchell: Some of my listeners — and I would say that I would have to give this deeper thought — I think would say that the act actually in many ways was quite good. It was the lack of enforcement and the way the courts then later interpreted aspects of it that really, when it comes to broadband, allowed, the idea of having one network that had multiple, shared ISPs on it. That was kind of envisioned by the act. And then later was ruled back both by Clinton and by the George W. Bush administration.

Ron Placone: Are you referring to the telecom act?

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, the '96 act. I mean, the idea was that the telephone wires would be shared and would have multiple ISPs, and they'd have to lease out their infrastructure. You know, so I would say that parts of the '96 act were bad, parts of it I think were conceived well but then implemented poorly and the courts took it apart unfortunately.

Ron Placone: Well, yeah, a lot of the verbiage in it sounds great. I mean, if you actually read the thing, you're like, oh, this is alright. But then you kind of read between the lines and you see what it really does and now we see the effects of it, you know. And whether it was completely intentional or not — I tend to think it was —

Christopher Mitchell: But that's led you to your solution, I think, right? So I mean, you're here identifying very real problems and you're looking to local solutions, I think in part — and this is maybe reading into you my analysis, which is that we can't trust the federal government to get it right anyway, so let's figure out how to do it locally.

Ron Placone: Well I think — and a lot of that kind of stems from, you know, I produce a lot of political comedy content, so I pay a lot of attention to the news. My show is called Get Your News On With Ron, where people literally send me news and we talk about it together. I let the viewers decide what we talk about. So I do spend a lot of time, you know, diving into electoral politics and trying to make it funny. And sometimes that can be incredibly discouraging just in general because it's not a very happy landscape, Chris, as I'm sure you're aware. So, the idea of community is a very uplifting one because that's where you can really, I think, make some positive change. You know, change doesn't happen from the top to the bottom. It happens from the bottom up. And I always tell listeners, I'm like, now is the time to kind of pick a lane and get started, you know, cause that's what we gotta do.

Christopher Mitchell: So what are you doing?

Ron Placone: So my lane's municipal broadband. You know, I decided this is an issue I've been passionate about for years and years. I am not a tech person at all, but I do know a thing or two about the policies behind it. I have been studying the cases, not to the extent that that you have, but I learned a lot from you guys and then I try to share it. I started a playlist on my YouTube channel just dedicated to municipal broadband and net neutrality. Our interview's in there when you did my show. And that's helped people start kind of informal task forces in their community. I get emails on the regular of people saying, "Hey Ron, I got my local DSA chapter on board with municipal broadband. It's one of our missions now," "Hey Ron, my mayor is really into municipal broadband and I made my mayor watch your entire playlist."

Christopher Mitchell: That's great.

Ron Placone: Well, it's kind of ironic because some of my listeners have had more success than I've had.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Ron Placone: And I'm like, man, soon you're going to be teaching me.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, well it must be frustrating because Pasadena already has fiber. And I mean in the southern California area, you've got a few places that are going full municipal Fiber-to-the-Home, but you've got a bunch of them that are at least doing something in terms of connecting businesses. But you know, if I remember correctly, Pasadena is only doing dark fiber, right?

Ron Placone: So what's going on with Pasadena: I showed up at a city hall — and this is all documented on my playlist — I showed up to a city hall, spoke on behalf of the cause for municipal broadband. I brought a nice chunk of people with me and they all did too. So it got put on a city agenda, so we were like, that's great. They did this study that I think their intentions were good, but it was not a very thorough study. And they used one case study, the case study of Beverly Hills, which is, you know, one of the wealthiest towns in the country and what Beverly Hills is doing is straight up Fiber-to-the-Home for residents because they can afford it. They're Beverly Hills. So that's what they're doing. So they were like, "This is what Beverly Hills is doing. This is how much it's costing them. Here is that multiplied by the mileage of Pasadena. We can't afford this. I guess we're just going to count on the corporations." So they gave us this presentation. The word net neutrality wasn't even in it, so I went up and responded. There was like a response period for citizens. I responded, which that is also on my playlist, where I said, "Hey guys, I appreciate you doing this and taking the time to put this together, but you looked at literally one case study and you didn't look at any others. I find it hard to believe that Chattanooga, Tennessee, has some gold token Pasadena can't have, or Sandy Oregon or Monticello, Minnesota or, you know, Longmont, Colorado or Fort Collins, Colorado. I find it hard to believe all those places can do something. Or Charlemont, Massachusetts. They're a town of 7,000. Or Oberlin, Ohio. Do I need to go on?" I was like, "I don't think all these places have some gold token that Pasadena can't have. I find it hard to believe."

Christopher Mitchell: That is literally one of my most frustrating pet peeves is that idea of we either have to do nothing or we have to find the most expensive possible way of doing something, and those are the alternatives.

Ron Placone: And you guys are providing a resource for people. You guys provide that service to figure out the best method, and I'm working really hard to get you guys out here. I really want that to happen. I know, like, the hesitation isn't on your guys's end. It's on my city's end, and that's what I'm fighting for. So, I recently sent the city, a letter, just a nice letter, and I urged them to join Next Century.

Christopher Mitchell: Next Century Cities.

Ron Placone: Yes. I urged them to join that organization, and one thing I could use as leverage is I was just like, hey you guys mentioned all of our towns. Because they were like, "Hey, Burbank's not going to try to do municipal broadband, so we're not either." I said, "Hey, guess what? Burbank's a member of Next Century Cities. Beverly Hills is a member. Santa Monica is a member. Los Angeles proper is a member." So I said, "Hey guys, it costs nothing to join. We have nothing to lose, everything to gain. We just need basically the signature of a city official." By the way, this is something I feel is necessary to point out, when we started showing up to city hall, all of a sudden they made city hall an hour earlier. If someone wants to say it's a coincidence, they can. I'm going to say it's because we kept showing up, but . . .

Christopher Mitchell: So is that more difficult for you then? Is that what you're saying?

Ron Placone: Yeah, because it's at 5:00 p.m. now. It used to be at, like, 6:30, and then all of a sudden they were like, it's 5:00 now. And it's like, gee, what happened? And it wasn't just us. I mean, there's been some issues of police brutality in Pasadena. I don't know if you've seen it in the news, so a lot of people were protesting and stuff like that, which probably more of the reason, but so they made city hall and hour earlier. So it'ss part of the reason why I haven't been going much. Now it's really hard to get there.

Christopher Mitchell: How did you have a group of people at your back when you started going to city hall? Because I think this is one of the first questions we get from folks is, I feel like I'm alone in my community — what can I do?

Ron Placone: We announced it on the Jimmy Dore Show.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so that's nice if you have that available.

Ron Placone: Well that is, and I tell people that I want to help any way I can and one of the ways I can is I do have access to some reasonably sizable platforms, not only — and Jimmy's been very supportive of this. He knows it's something I care about a lot. You know, a lot of the net neutrality and municipal broadband content that the show puts out are things I produce, and he's always been supportive of doing those segments. So I do stuff there and then I also do stuff on my own channel, Get Your News On With Ron, which has a lot of information on it. It's not as big, but it has a lot of information on it. And then I also do a collaboration with Mike Figueredo of the Humanist Report, another really good YouTube personality, and he's based up in Portland. The northwest has a lot going on with muni broadband, as you're aware, and so he's kind of, you know, really digging out there. So, we're doing what we can with our platforms to try to amplify this.

Christopher Mitchell: Have you tried doing any in person events? I mean, I know that you're aware of the Broadband and Beers that Fort Collins had done that worked for them and, and we'd like to make that happen nationwide. Just finding the time to try to create that sort of a movement is difficult. But have you tried doing a physical event aside from city council meeting?

Ron Placone: So I have my comedy tour, which is called the Progressive Comedy tour, and I do it with another comedian named Graham Elwood. And it's just a stand up tour. Like, we're both regulars on the Jimmy Dore Show. We both have our own shows — I have Get Your News On With Ron; he has a show called Political Vigilante — and we've been going across the country. And I will say, every single show — and I've always directed people to your website, Chris — every show, there's been at least two or three people that come up to me that said, "Hey, I'm trying to get municipal broadband here."

Christopher Mitchell: Oh that's cool.

Ron Placone: Which is really fricking cool. And so, you know, we've been doing these shows, people have been coming out, and these are people that really want to do something in their community. You know, we're all so busy these days. People are working two and three jobs. It's fricking nuts out there. But still, they're hungry for change and they're hungry to do something. And maybe they heard about Muni broadband from me, and now they're really into it. They're saying, "Yeah, I want to send you stuff," and I'm like, please do. I mean, I think part of the appeal of it is that they're watching me fight for this too in real time, and I've been documenting all of it. You know, like when the city hall happened and they told us, "Oh, we can't afford it. Sorry, here's one case study. Oops," I documented my response. Like, as soon as it was over, I streamed on my channel and I just said, "Gee, I'm glad we got this far, but man, the results were disappointing." Then I showed my response, which, you know, I wanted to show my appreciation that they took the time to do it, but also I feel like this was a little not as thorough as it should have been and I think we need to keep this conversation going. So now I'm trying to get, you know, my city turned onto these resources. So, to make a long answer longer, I think Broadband and Brews is a fantastic idea, and I've been trying to find ways to kind of incorporate the touring I'm doing with different causes. You know, we have different groups show up and table. Veterans for Peace shows up to our shows. PM Press shows up to our shows. The DSA shows up. Movement for a People's Party shows up. If we come out to your area, I would love it if you guys showed up. And we're going to be coming to Minneapolis at some point because it's one of my favorite cities in the world. I just can't come during certain times of the year, Chris, as I'm very fragile. I do not handle snow.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to tell you, my wife and I just saw Demitri Martin last week here, and he made it a part of his act. I think most of the comedians I've probably seen in the winter have some kind of riff about it that they'll do, so you know, it can be helpful.

Ron Placone: Well you guys know how to handle it. I mean, I'll say that. You know, I used to drive around 45 weeks a year, so I certainly have had my share of winter in my lifetime. But I was never worried whenever I was up in the Minnesota area because I knew they knew how to take care of it. I knew those roads were always going to be clear. Now if you get out into the rural Dakotas, which had been there, then it gets a little bit no man's land-y, but . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Well let me bring you back and ask you about — because you're very politically savvy. I mean the groups that you've named, you're involved with Democratic Socialists who have taken an idea that used to be verboten and in turned it into something that a whole movement is operating behind. When it comes to municipal broadband or more largely net neutrality, I feel like there are people and elected officials who are taking this as something that they should be championing, but I'm also seeing from a lot of elected officials a sense that people don't vote on this. You know, people will talk about it, it might motivate them to do some things, but we've not seen an impact at the ballot box. What do you think about that?

Ron Placone: There's a couple of things going on there. First of all, I think that net neutrality is not covered as much as it needs to be, and a lot of cases, it's not necessarily covered honestly. You know, I'll use MSNBC for as an example. They're owned by Comcast. You're not going to find an honest net neutrality piece from them, or at least I sure haven't. So that's part of it. I think another part of it is, people are aware of it when they shine a light on it and then they just think that the battle is over or that we don't have to worry about it anymore. You know, when John Oliver did that segment on net neutrality when we were about to lose it, they crashed the FCC's website because so many people wrote comments.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, millions of people.

Ron Placone: And when they actually take an honest poll of it, when it's, like, an issue that's in the blogosphere or news-sphere or whatever you want to call it, about 83+ percent of Americans favor net neutrality all across the political aisle.

Christopher Mitchell: I've seen that too.

Ron Placone: But then what happens is people go, "Well, we haven't really seen any effects yet." And I think the general person isn't necessarily aware of, well you haven't seen any effects yet because we're battling this out in court. You know, when Ajit Pai said, "Hey, the loss of net neutrality is going to bring about more jobs." The only area where he was right about that was when it comes to attorneys because they've been working plenty because they've had plenty of work, either defending net neutrality or defending Ajit Pai's FCC in court, because that's what's been going on. People have just been battling in court. So I think the general person isn't really cognizant of the entire war, metaphorical war, going on around this issue. They just kind of become aware when a battle happens. And I think that's largely the fault of the press. Plus let's be honest, it's not the sexiest issue at face value, you know.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's bring it back to Pasadena. And you're absolutely right. Although I think you going back to 2004, it's wonderful. A lot of people think I've been around since 2013, and so this is a long going issue. Just the fact that most people know what it is now is remarkable. But I wanted to ask you, those kinds of people who aren't paying as close attention, do you think you need to mobilize them to get Pasadena to move forward or is that not necessary to get Pasadena to move forward?

Ron Placone: Oh, I think you need to mobilize as many people as possible because I think this is going to be one of those things. It might take a ballot initiative. It might take an alliance, which involves some people running for office. I think it's going to take a big local push, and one of the things I've been trying to do — you know, I think messaging just really needs to be on par. An organization that I'm really excited about — I mean, I like Free Press a lot. I've been following them for years, pretty much since they started. Fight for the Future I think has really been knocking it out of the park as of recent. I really love what they're doing. And a lot of these organizations are a little more specifically net neutrality focus because they understand that we really need to hold the front lines. The way I like to see it — and I hate to use these war metaphors because I am like one of the biggest passivists I know when it comes to the literal thing. But in the metaphorical world, net neutrality is kind of the battle for the net that we have to win, but muni broadband all across the freaking country, that's the war, so to speak. And that's what we really need to do to win this thing once and for all, and to make sure that the Internet is always going to be the open platform and the medium we know it as. It's going to take city-owned Internet all across the country, and you know, the proof's in the pudding worldwide. I mean all the countries that did this in the first place, they get better speeds than we do, better access than we do, and they usually pay a much cheaper price for it. The countries that did what we did and handed it over to corporate interest and allowed organized duopolies to happen, their access kind of sucks. Look at Australia. So you know, the proof is out there that this is a very important thing and cities that were ahead of the curve, they're kind of celebrated. I mean look at Chattanooga — they're Gig City now. They sniffed this out early on. They've had their municipal service since 2014. They were ahead of the curve. I think that there needs to be some strong messaging there. I'm trying to get #BigCable to really catch on, on social media. I think it's the next important chapter. But you know, there's so much going on right now and it's such a divisive time politically on so many levels, as we know — and we could open that can of worms and be talking all day — that I think a lot of people, they sort of see this as this is kind of something we have to put on the back burner. My perspective is, look, I understand how you might come to that conclusion, but here's the deal. Without an efficient communication vehicle, any other effort we have in this country is futile. We need to have an efficient communication vehicle. Go ask the firefighters in California who got their data throttled while they were fighting a fire how important that is, and it's because of the loss of net neutrality that that was allowed to happen, that Verizon was able to get away with that nonsense.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I think it's worth — I mean, I'm always a little bit touchy about that example because it's not clear that Verizon would have not been able to throttle them, but the important thing is the FCC would have been able to step in and resolve it, which is something that we lost. There's always people who are looking to try and discredit people like you and I if anything is said inelegantly, so I wanted to make sure we nailed that down. Do you have any last thoughts here as we're wrapping up the interview that we didn't get a chance to talk about?

Ron Placone: Well I just want to let people know — I know that your following are other people that are really into these issues. If you're in Southern California or in Pasadena, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. RonPlacone.com is my website. Right now is just kind of an informal task force of me and people that are, you know, usually affiliated with my show in most cases, kind of helping out in any way they can. So please, if you want to get involved directly, please reach out to me.

Christopher Mitchell: You record a live news show, and they can jump in on the comments and talk about muni broadband there. What time do you record usually?

Ron Placone: Mondays through Thursdays, 1 p.m. eastern time / 10 a.m. pacific time. And it's just Get Your News On With Ron. It's just on my YouTube channel, youtube.com/ronplacone. And if you're into, hey, how do I get started in my town, obviously Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you guys provide great, phenomenal resources that I tap into all the time. And also, you know, you can look at my playlist and you can see what I did at my city hall. Some people have asked me for my transcript. I've sent it to everybody that has asked. You know, I'm more than happy to share that if you want it written out or you can watch what I did at my city hall and do it at yours and see what happens. So ronplacone.com, youtube.com/ronplacone, and @ronplacone on Twitter.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thanks for coming on. It's great to hear not just that you're doing great things, but that everywhere you go you're finding people that are trying to figure this out.

Ron Placone: I think we're slowly starting to build the movement, Chris. And thank you for doing what you do because I mean, you guys are the backbone. And you guys have been for a long time now, so it is essential what you guys are doing and I look forward to us collaborating more in the future.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Ron Placone, comedian, YouTuber, and broadband advocate. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on important research from all of our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Follow us on Instagram. We're ILSR74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 347 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 11

March 11, 2019

Arkansas

Q&A with Jeremiah Sloan, Craighead Electric Cooperative Corporation: Arkansas co-op builds fiber fast by Sam Pratt, Broadband Communities 

 

Minnesota

Broadband 'moonshot' has rural Minnesotans hopeful by John Reinan, Star Tribune

“They did it in the ’30s with electricity. They did it in the ’50s with telephones. This is the electricity of the 21st century,” said Anne Schwagerl, an organic farmer in Browns Valley on the South Dakota border.

 

Mississippi

Electric co-ops look into funding opportunities to provide Internet service by Dennis Seid, Daily Journal

 

North Carolina

New partnership to test models that could bring high-speed Internet to unserved and underserved rural North Carolinians, NC Electric Cooperatives

“From a utility standpoint, broadband technologies benefit cooperative members by allowing them to better manage their home energy use, and they will make cooperative distribution systems more dynamic, flexible and efficient,” said Joe Brannan, chief executive officer of North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. 

Broadband Internet unavailable to many in Eastern NC, WITN

Jason Dart said, "You can't do normal life generally speaking in America anymore without being able to get on broadband.

 

Oregon

Oregon lawmakers eye cellphone fee to pay for rural broadband by Mike Rogoway, The Oregonian

 

Vermont

In Vermont, high-speed Internet for all gets more likely by Hilary Niles, US News

 

Virginia 

When home Internet access is too expensive, low-income residents turn to other resources by Matt Jones, The Virginian Pilot

 

Washington

Tacoma, Wash., plans municipal broadband P3 that includes private commitments to net neutrality, equity, and privacy by Joanne Hovis, CTC Technology 

 

General

Ajit Pai’s rosy broadband deployment claim may be based on gigantic error by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica 

Technology strategies for municipal fiber broadband by Ravi Hichkad, Broadband Communities 

Social justice or inequality: The heart of the net neutrality debate by Gigi Sohn, Benton Foundation

NACo rolling out mobile app to test broadband speeds by Mary Ann Barton, National Association of Counties  

Rural America will fall further behind without all-fiber broadband infrastructure investment by Lisa R. Youngers, The Hill 

Municipal broadband Internet: The next public utility? By Chris Teale, Smart Cities Dive 

“The issue is: the market isn't solving the problem. I don't expect a for-profit company to take on an effort that will not make them money; that's not what they do, they are for-profit.”

 

Tags: media roundup

Citywide Fiber Network Nears Completion in Lincoln, Nebraska, Due to Municipal Conduit

March 11, 2019

Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, will soon boast another fan favorite — a citywide fiber network that will make gigabit speeds available to all residents and businesses.

The City of Lincoln and ALLO Communications, a Nebraska-based Internet service provider (ISP), are approaching the end of the deployment phase of their partnership aimed at building fiber out to every home and business in the city of about 285,000. To expand the fiber network, ALLO has leased access to Lincoln’s extensive conduit system, which hastened the buildout and lowered costs. With only minor construction remaining, all of Lincoln will soon have access to fast, affordable, reliable gigabit connectivity.

In November, ALLO’s President Brad Moline announced that the company would be “substantially done with boring and conduit placement” by the end of 2018. After that step, which is considered the most intrusive of the construction process, ALLO stated that they still needed to connect approximately 3,000 - 4,000 homes to fiber.

City Owned Conduit Leads the Way

Lincoln began its conduit project in earnest in 2012, taking advantage of downtown redevelopment to deploy conduit along public Rights-of-Way. As of 2016, the city had spent approximately $1.2 million building and maintaining the 300-mile-long conduit network.

To bring better connectivity to Lincoln residents and businesses, the city leases access to the conduit system to private ISPs to deploy fiber networks. In return for access to the conduit, private companies pay fees and abide by the city’s Broadband Franchise ordinance, which stipulates that providers follow network neutrality principles, in addition to other policies designed for the public good. Lincoln also requires companies to make any conduit that they add on to the existing network available to all other ISPs in the system.

A handful of other companies were already leasing access to the conduit in 2015 when Lincoln announced that it would partner with ALLO to build a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The ISP started connecting subscribers in 2016, and three years later, it’s about to bring fiber broadband access to all homes and businesses in the city. ALLO offers voice and video services in addition to Internet access, and residents can subscribe to the following three tiers:

  • 20 Mbps symmetrical - $45/month
  • 300 Mbps symmetrical - $70/month
  • 1 Gbps symmetrical - $99/month

Success Despite State Restrictions

Nebraska is one of about 20 states that has barriers to municipal broadband. State law prohibits municipalities from both providing Internet access directly and partnering with a private company to offer access; a conduit system was one of few options Lincoln had for broadband infrastructure investment.

Conduit networks present both benefits and challenges to municipalities. Conduit can help communities attract high-quality Internet access providers, resulting in better connectivity and more competition. Communities that invest in conduit to lease to private Internet access companies also have the ability to maintain tight control over their Rights-of-Way to reduce damage due to repeated excavation and disruption of daily traffic. However, building conduit doesn’t ensure that ISPs will come or that they’ll behave for the benefit of the community. Lincoln addressed these issues by developing smart policies and promoting the network to ISPs. Mike Lang, Economic Development Aide to the Mayor, explained in episode 182 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, “There was a lot of very proactive outreach behind the scenes in order to secure the broadband provider mix that we currently have.”

Lighting Up Lincoln

The city’s conduit network and partnership with ALLO have produced notable benefits for Lincoln. Residents and businesses now have access to high-quality broadband from more providers than before, and the city has been able to implement innovative programs involving schools, traffic lights, and other public facilities. The conduit leases are also bringing in revenue to the city. When he was on the Community Broadband Bits podcast in 2016, Lincoln’s Right-of-Way Manager David Young estimated that the city would be receiving more than $2 million annually in fees by 2018.

From the start, a major goal for the conduit project was to help Lincoln remain relevant in a rapidly changing economy. When announcing the conduit initiative in 2012, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler said, “As Mayor, my goal is keep Lincoln among the most competitive economies not only in Nebraska, not only in the United States, but the entire world.” It seems the partnership with ALLO is helping the city do just that. At a press conference celebrating the near completion of ALLO’s fiber network, Beutler said, “What a game changer this has been for the city of Lincoln.”

To find out more about Lincoln’s conduit system, listen to Community Broadband Bits episode 182, Conduits Lead to Competition

and episode 228, City of Lincoln Conduit Spurs FTTH, School Network Innovation.

You can also learn about the city’s approach to small cells and 5G deployment in episode 238, Small Cells Yield Big Results in Lincoln

and episode 285, Catching up with Lincoln on Fiber, 5G, and US IGNITE:

Tags: lincoln nenebraskaconduitFTTHpartnershipfibereconomic developmentgigabitallonetwork neutralityright-of-way

Christopher's Plans for Broadband Communities Summit All Set...What About Yours?

March 8, 2019

Are you still considering whether or not to attend this spring’s Broadband Communities 2019 Summit in Austin on April 8th, 9th, and 10th? We thought we’d share more information about Christopher’s panels so you can see what you will be missing if you decide to stay home.

Register online for the Summit.

Lessons Learned and Shared

Learning about what communities did that worked and what didn’t work is one of the most valuable aspects of the Summit. On April 10th, at 10 a.m., Christopher heads up a discussion with folks from four different communities across the U.S. to discuss what they learned in deploying their publicly owned fiber networks. Each of these communities faced adversity and found a way to change course to turn difficulty into positive outcome:

One of the challenges of evaluating capital-intensive local broadband projects is that they typically lose money in their early years. Come learn from four communities that have overcome significant challenges – and learned invaluable lessons along the way. 

Participating on the panel will be:

More From Christopher

Don’t forget about the special program offered the afternoon of the first day of the conference by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC). There will be several conversations that focus on local authority. Christopher will participate on a panel hosted by Joanne Hovis from CTC Technology and Energy and CEO of CLIC. The topic, “The States and BDAC: What it Means for Local Internet Choice,” will address the tension between state and local authority, including recent advancements for local communities. They’ll also discuss the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) and its state “model” code, which interferes with local control, along with potential consequences in the realm of public-private partnerships.

In the spirit of healthy debate, organizers are once again including a panel that includes experts from different approaches to discuss the future of broadband and related issues. Christopher will participate in the panel of people who don’t always agree to discuss a range of issues such as economic development, education, reality vs hype, where should our investments go, and how to ensure equitable access to broadband. The panel takes place on Tuesday, April 9th.

Check out the special promotional lit below (larger version here) that describes some of Christopher’s plans for the Summit.

More Than Christopher

As a reminder, Susan Crawford will deliver the Keynote Address on April 11th to discuss the findings from her recent book, Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — And Why America Might Miss It. Take a few minute to listen to Christopher and Susan discuss the book in episode 343 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Susan is one of a long and distinguished line-up of presenters who will fill the Summit Agenda. 

For a short time, you can also get a discount by using the VIP Code: Summit560. If you use the code, you’ll save $390 off the regular price to attend the full Summit. The discount expires on March 22.

Check out the Broadband Communities 2019 Summit, “Fiber: Putting Your Gigs to Work” page for more details, including a list of speakers and a schedule of events.

Register now to attend the Summit.

2019 Broadband Communities SummitTags: eventbroadband communities magazineeconomic developmentconferencechristopher mitchellsusan crawfordfibergigabitcoalition for local internet choice

Tennessee Senator Tries Again With Bill to Restore Local Authority

March 7, 2019

Senator Janice Bowling has become a broadband hero in rural Tennessee and on the pages of MuniNetworks.org. Year after year, she introduces legislation aimed at expanding local authority to allow communities the ability to improve connectivity. She’s back this year with several bills aimed at expanding fiber in rural areas. 

Seeking Better Connectivity…That’s All

Like Bowling’s past legislation, related bills SB 489, SB 490, and SB 494 grant municipal electric utilities the authority “to provide telecommunications service, including broadband service” and specifies that they can do so beyond their electric service area. This change in the current law would allow places like her own community of Tullahoma to expand to serve neighboring towns. There is no fiscal impact from the Senator’s bills.

Bowling has seen firsthand how access to fiber optic infrastructure, such as Tullahoma’s LightTUBe, lifts economic development, improves educational opportunities, and helps a local community reduce costs. The city has thrived since investing in the network in 2009, while many of the communities that have had to rely on subpar service from the larger incumbents have limped along. 

SB 489 also extends authority for municipalities to collaboration for telecommunications and broadband service, to ease any uncertainty about public-private partnerships.

In her broadband bills, Senator Bowling defines “broadband” as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical, a move that illustrates the value of upload speeds in today’s economy. Rather than considering subscribers as consumers of Internet access, the Senator recognizes that their ability to send information is part of what drives the online economy.

Cooperative Questions Resolved

The bill also addresses some of the issues facing cooperatives, which are a increasingly developing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks in rural areas of Tennessee and other states

While electric co-ops would still be prohibited by state law from subsidizing broadband and telecom services with electric side revenues, SB 489 explicitly authorizes electric co-ops to offer such services. Additionally, the bill would remove the current requirement that an electric cooperative establish a separate subsidiary and offer broadband and telecom services through that subsidiary. Telephone cooperatives also receive explicit authority to construct broadband infrastructure and offer services. 

The bill recognizes that cooperatives have enormous potential to bring high-quality Internet access to much of Tennessee’s rural areas. The language of SB 489 states that electric cooperatives have the authority to offer broadband beyond their service areas. SB 489 states that telephone cooperatives can supply telecommunications services and broadband beyond their “historic service area.” 

Read the text of SB 489.

Not Yet, Tennessee

On March 5th, Senator Bowling spoke briefly before the Commerce and Labor Committee, where her bills were being discussed. 

She described how she had visited universities and colleges, including those in places where municipal utilities furnished the fiber connections they needed. In contrast, she was told by Tennessee Tech, where there is no fiber, that such infrastructure in the rural areas of the state would be the “biggest economic impact the state could have.”

She chose to bypass a vote and she moved the bill to the General Subcommittee because she felt none of the bills had the necessary support. Bowling said she thought that, rather than see the bills “go down in flames,” the better course is to educate legislators and constituents and approach the subject in the future.

Watch Bowling’s brief presentation to the Committee, which begins at 22:50:

 

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Folks from the Jefferson County Broadband Action Group, like other rural grassroots organizations in the state, want to see the harmful Tennessee restriction lifted so local communities can do their part to expand fiber connectivity. In a March 6th post, they wrote a post describing SB 489, SB 490, and SB 494 and encouraged constituents to act:

…Please contact your Representatives and Senators to ensure that they co-sponsor or back these important bills! …[L]egislation passed in 2016 authorizing broadband to be supplied by telephone and electric cooperatives was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go nearly far enough to rapidly deploy fiber broadband to needy rural areas in the state of Tennessee. Many of these areas will be waiting for years to get fiber broadband at the current rate of deployment by the cooperatives.

Senator Bowling has decided to take a long-game approach to passing her bills. The time will allow ample opportunity for more constituents to contact their Senators and Representatives, to express their thoughts about supporting SB 489 and lifting Tennessee restrictions. If you’re interested in contacting your elected officials to express your thoughts about this bill and its companion, HB 821 from Rep. Iris Rudder, find your elected official at the Tennessee General Assembly website.

You can also join the Jefferson County Broadband Action Group on FB to get more updates in your FB feed.

Tennessee SB 489Tags: sb 489 tntennesseelegislationtullahomastate lawsrural electric coopcooperativegrassrootslocalauthority

Idaho Falls Pilot Is a Go; Sign-ups Now Available for Fiber Connectivity

March 6, 2019

Idaho Falls residents in select areas are now able to tap into fast, affordable, reliable connectivity through their city’s fiber optic network. Idaho Falls Fiber (IFF) and Idaho Falls Power (IFP) recently announced that premises in three residential areas of the city can now sign-up to connect to the open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. 

Check out the IFF Fiber Service Areas Map.

With A Little Help From UTOPIA

Idaho Falls has operated Circa, a municipally owned dark fiber network for around eight years. The infrastructure has been managed by IFP to offer connectivity to local businesses and municipal facilities, but a few years ago, community leaders began investigating ways to use the resource for residential purposes.

After working with two separate consulting firms and reviewing options and recommendations, city leaders decided to move forward. Located across the Snake River from Ammon, Idaho Falls may have been inspired by the accolades Ammon has collected in developing their open access software defined network. With significant infrastructure in place via the Circa Network, a residential pilot program is a logical step toward improving connectivity for the entire community.

Idaho Falls leadership began collaborating with folks from UTOPIA Fiber, who they hired to design and manage the pilot. As in places such as Owensboro, Kentucky and Anacortes, Washington, the city chose to pursue the pilot to examine how FTTH might be received by residents, what technical issues might arise, and to help spread the word that high-quality Internet access would be available from the municipal utility.

"We'll see how the economics work out in this, what the, you know, support is within the community, support is within the neighborhoods," [General Manager of IFF and IFP Bear] Prairie said. "And then we'll have the conversation whether to broaden this out citywide in the early summer, with the city council making that decision." 

Prairie told KIDK that the city also had another concern:

"We really wanted to see what the ability was to run fiber infrastructure alongside our electrical infrastructure, both economically and feasibly...Can we use that same infrastructure for both types of wires and cables?" 

All Hail Competition

The fiber infrastructure will allow residential connectivity up to 1,000 Megabits per second (1 gigabit). Residents who want to connect will pay IFF a $30 per month infrastructure fee, which will appear on a resident’s utility bill. As an open access network, the infrastructure will host several ISPs and residents will have a choice of several, which will send a separate bill for services.

Currently, four ISPs offer Internet access via the network, each with a range of packages and prices; most advertise symmetrical service. Subscribers can obtain gigabit service from all four on the Idaho Falls infrastructure with rates from $48 per month to $69.95 per month and each offers lower tiers at 250 Mbps. In addition to the $30 infrastructure fee paid to IFF, subscribers who choose gigabit connections can expect to pay around $78 - $100 per month. Several of the ISPs offer VoIP and only one offers video for the time being.

A comprehensive side-by-side of offerings from the four Internet access providers working on the IFF network is available on the IFF website.

In a release Prairie stated:

“This is a milestone for Idaho Falls residents. We’ve had great response from local internet providers and we’re now ready to roll this program out to the public.  There has been a lot of support and interest from the community for this, so it’s an exciting time and we’re eager to start connecting customers.”

Watch Prairie discuss the project with East Idaho News:

Tags: idaho fallsidahoopen accessFTTHcompetitionutility feepilotpilot projectgigabit

Minnesota Homegrown Connectivity, Christensen Communications - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 346

March 5, 2019

Brent Christensen, Chief Operating Officer of Christensen Communications, came into our Minneapolis office to sit down and have a chat with Christopher this week for podcast 346. Their interview comes a short time after Christopher and several other Institute for Local Self-Reliance staff took a tour of the Christensen Communications facilities.

Brent has an additional role as President and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance (MTA) a group that advances policies encouraging expansion of broadband connectivity. Brent describes some of the ways MTA has helped Minnesota and local leaders establish policies to help private sector telecom companies bring better connectivity to local communities, especially in rural areas. He and Christopher spend time discussing Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband Program and why they think it’s been a success.

The conversation also covers the permitting process, railroads, and partnerships, in addition to other topics. Brent and Christopher discuss some suggestions for communities that are interested in working with local companies, based on Brent’s years in the industry and the knowledge he’s gained from his family’s business.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsminnesotarurallocalpermittingpartnershipfundingstate policystate laws

Great Expectations for Maine's SanfordNet Fiber; Completion Slated for This Fall

March 5, 2019

SanfordNet Fiber, considered the largest fiber optic community network in Maine to date, is under construction and expected to be completed late in 2019. The project recently attracted the attention of WGME, who profiled the community and the investment as part of their “Working Solutions” segment.

Check out the video at WGME's website.

Taking Control in Maine

Reporter David Singer visited Sanford and nearby Millinocket to talk with business owners and economic development experts in both communities. Sanford, centrally located in  the geographic center of southern Maine, was not connected to the Three Ring Binder, the state fiber optic network developed with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) during the Obama administration. "11,000 miles of fiber were strung up and down Maine but not in Sanford -- 10 miles to our east, 10 miles to our south,” said Jim Nimon, Executive Director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council.

Rather than be left behind, the community of approximately 21,000 people decided that they needed to act on their own and pursue what has become known in the area as the “fourth ring.” Sanford’s project will emulate other projects in the state, and use the “Maine model.” The city is deploying the infrastructure and will work with private ISP GWI to bring gigabit connectivity to local businesses. GWI is a tested partner and will operate the network, having established a similar arrangement with Rockport. You can learn more about the “Maine model” in this conversation with GWI’s Fletcher Kittredge from episode 176 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast in 2015.

Making it Work

The 45-mile project will pass through three neighboring communities; the final deployment estimate comes in at around $2.3 million. Sanford has pieced together funding by selling a decommissioned schoolhouse, obtaining a federal grant, and using tax increment financing (TIF) to fill in other gaps. Obtaining the needed funds for the project put their timeline behind a bit, but the community has been determined to complete the project. 

In addition to economic development purposes, local community anchor institutions (CAIs), such as a new local hospital complex, needs the 10 gigabit symmetrical connectivity. The city has been working toward their goal since 2014 and expect to see business productivity increase from $47 - $191 million over the next 10 years. Engineers plan to connect 88 commercial premises and economic development experts anticipate at least 140 new local positions arising from the investment.

As the SanfordNet Fiber project progresses, other communities will watch and learn.

To showcase their community, Sanford created a video in 2016:

Image of the Sanford Number One pond by Kaelus Primus [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Tags: sanford meeconomic developmentmunidark fibergwimainemediatax increment financingbusinessanchor institutions

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 346

March 5, 2019

This is the podcast for episode 346 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance and vice president and COO of Christensen Communications, a small telephone company and Internet access provider in Madelia, Minnesota. Listen to the episode.

 

 

Brent Christensen: So we have access to everything, and we can do everything that the big guys can.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 346 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. What's it like to own and operate a local telecommunications company? This week's guest, Brent Christensen of Christensen Communications is visiting with Christopher. In addition to discussing his experiences offering services in greater Minnesota, Brent also talks about his role with the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, an advocacy group that represents the interest of companies like Christensen Communications all over the state. Brent and Chris discuss some of the advances Minnesota has made in bringing support to ISPs expanding broadband and how the alliance has helped with those advances. They also talk about the permitting process, how railroads factor into deployment for companies like Brent's, and some of the matters that Brent as a telecom provider has found local governments should consider to improve chances of partnerships. Learn about Christenson Communications at chriscomco.net. Now here's Christopher with Brent Christensen of Christensen Communications.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell coming to you from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, speaking today with Brent Christensen, the president and CEO of MTA, the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, as well as the vice president and chief operating officer of Christensen Communications out of Madelia, Minnesota. Welcome to the show Brent.

Brent Christensen: Thanks Chris. Thanks for having me on.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that might be the longest title that we've had for anyone, which is a pretty good record, interviewing some government folks.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, well they say the longer the title, the less it means, but it kind of reflects both the jobs I do.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to thank you for coming into our ice cube today. I feel like this is our Klobuchar moment of doing our interview in an office that has lost its furnace. If you hear a hum in the background, it is a space heater that is making things tolerable in here, but it's —

Brent Christensen: It's not bad. It's kind of comfortable.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Well, you know, it's about 55 degrees. And I dunno, I like to sleep in this weather, so I'll try to stay awake for the entirety of the interview.

Brent Christensen: Sure. I'll try not to bore you too much.

Christopher Mitchell: So tell me about — well for background, I just visited your office down in Madelia, Minnesota, and got a tour of what you're doing, and I'd like you to just describe a little bit the history of Christensen Communications.

Brent Christensen: We started in 1903 and we started — there were 48 people in town that got together. The Fairmont Telephone Company built lines from Fairmont to Madelia, but would just serve the city limits, and so 48 people got together and decided that wasn't good enough. They wanted to get outside of the city limits, so they started a telephone company — kind of the first CLEC here, one of the first CLECs. And they went to my great great grandfather who owned the flour mill in town and said, "Hey, would you buy 25% of the stock?" So he did, and that's how we got involved with it. And over the years [we] acquired more and more of the stock until my grandfather passed away in 1982 and he had all but five shares. My Dad picked those up. So that's kind of the — you know, it was one of those things that it could have gone either way in 1903. I mean, they could have sold stock or they could have started a co-op. I mean, it's just that's the way it went. I'm the fifth generation of my family to be involved with it, and we've been part of the community ever since.

Christopher Mitchell: And how many lines do you have?

Brent Christensen: We have about 1,100 total. We've got about 900 access lines in our ILEC in Madelia, and then we've got about 300 or 400 in our CLEC in Saint James.

Christopher Mitchell: Great, and just for people who are newer to the show, ILEC is your incumbent territory and CLEC is where you're a competitive carrier.

Brent Christensen: That's correct.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, you're competitive in effect everywhere now, but it's the old historic boundaries when we had a monopoly officially.

Brent Christensen: And that's on the different sides of business, you know. So on the telephone side, our incumbent area is Madelia; they're franchised area. But then on the broadband, there is no franchise area so we can go pretty much anywhere.

Christopher Mitchell: So what is it like being one of the smallest telephone companies in the modern era when, you know, you're having to look at these advanced technologies and things like that?

Brent Christensen: You know, that's a good question. People ask that all the time. So how does a little guy like us survive? And to be honest, we don't know any other way cause we've always been small. It's all partnerships. So we partner with other telephone companies. We started broadband Internet in 2000. I didn't know anything about it, so we partnered with another telephone company who was already doing or just starting it. And we have connections to the outside world through Mankato and New Ulm. We lease a fiber that goes all the way up to the 511 building. So we have access to everything and we can do everything that the big guys can. We just like to brand it ourselves sometimes if it's not our product and we get it from the phone company, but we can do anything.

Christopher Mitchell: And you face competition from a cable company in Madelia.

Brent Christensen: Right. Yeah, Comcast has two properties outside the Twin Cities metro, and one of them happens to be Madelia. And the irony in that is we started the cable company back in the early '80s and sold it off, so . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Oh really?

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: So have they gone to DOCSIS 3.1 there or . . . ?

Brent Christensen: I believe they have, yeah. They've taken fiber to the node, and they did that a few years ago.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's one of the things that, you know, I try to pay attention to because I have a lot of criticisms of Comcast, but I also have the sense that of the big cable companies, they tend to upgrade more widely the fastest. So I'm always curious what's really happening in smaller towns.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, it must've been probably close to 10 years ago when they upgraded there and put fiber in their network in town.

Christopher Mitchell: So, you're also the president/CEO of MTA, which is not the Montana Telecom Association. It's the Minnesota Telecomunications Alliance, I believe.

Brent Christensen: Yup.

Christopher Mitchell: So tell me about that.

Brent Christensen: So we're the trade association that represents — and it depends on how you count them. I count them on the holding company level, so there's 44 members of MTA. They operate over 70 telephone companies throughout the state of Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, because for instance like Acira [pronounced: Akira], I think they operate two, right? They have two different co-ops that they operate.

Brent Christensen: Acira, yeah. Yes, they're two separate —

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, Acira [pronounced: Asira]?

Brent Christensen: It's two separate co-ops that share staff and management.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay, and it's pronounced Acira, apparently.

Brent Christensen: Acira.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Brent Christensen: And then, you know, like Arvig has got 12 companies or so, and Nuvera, which used to be New Ulm Telecomm, they have several. There's a lot of them.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So what are your big priorities this year?

Brent Christensen: Well, our number one priority is to get funding for the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program, and that's been — we didn't get funding. We got funding passed through the legislature, but it was in that mega omnibus bill that didn't get passed. So we didn't get that last session, so we're really working hard to get funding for that for this year. I don't know what it means, but the governor, the House and the Senate all have the same numbers for the grant program. I take that as optimistic, so I hope it is.

Christopher Mitchell: Which would be the highest it's been funded for any single year, I think, in the first year. Is that right?

Brent Christensen: Well, no. They did have a $35 million grant year in like year two or three.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Brent Christensen: That is higher, but it's not unprecedented.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. The grant program is one of the areas in which you and I agree.

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: For people who aren't familiar — Brent, we'll talk about this later — you're not a fan of municipalities getting involved directly in this, and I originally helped to design this program. It changed a bit in the course of legislating it. I got the sense that you were pretty nervous about the state getting involved at the time.

Brent Christensen: Well, I wasn't a fan, and I certainly wasn't a fan in the beginning of the Office of Broadband Development. I saw it as another regulator involved in this. You know, our industry is unique — and I speak about the landline telephone side. Not only are we the only competitive utility, but we're regulated by the Department of Commerce, the Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Attorney General, and the FCC. Our competitors are not. So I was concerned that that was going to tip into the broadband world as well, and I was wrong. They really prove that, you know, they bust down silos at the Office of Broadband Development, and they really have helped in much more ways than just the grant program.

Christopher Mitchell: I credit that almost entirely with Danna MacKenzie.

Brent Christensen: Oh, absolutely. Danna and Diane and their staff — they do a phenomenal job. And I think there are two factors in there. One, that it got housed in DEED [Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development] and not Commerce.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Brent Christensen: So it's an economic development issue now, not a regulatory issue. That's a big part of it. The other part of it is the people that they've got. Diane Wells came from the Department — well, she is an employee of the Department of Commerce, assigned OBD. She's one of the few people I've ever met in state government who understands private business. And then Danna's experience. She's a problem solver; she's interested in that, not in politics. And I haven't met anybody that doesn't fully credit them with the success of that office.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think Danna brought with her was more than a decade of experience with this issue. She had a sense of the real dynamics having been in IT for a very rural county in Minnesota.

Brent Christensen: Yup.

Christopher Mitchell: And I would just harp on this one last second to say that for other states that are looking at programs: I think the rules matter. I think where you house it in the departments matter. But finding a good person is the single most important thing.

Brent Christensen: Yup, I couldn't have said it better myself. I absolutely agree. Not only does she serve on the FCC's BDAC, Broadband Development Advisory Committee, but she has also worked with a number of other states to replicate what we do here in Minnesota. I've had the opportunity to do that too, and I tell them exactly what you just said.

Christopher Mitchell: And one of the other things that I think is important, which I suspect you'll agree with, is that one of the best things about Minnesota's program, the way it's designed, is that it doesn't really have a high overhead. Almost all the money that's appropriated goes toward better networks.

Brent Christensen: Absolutely. That was another big thing. You know, when you start — government never goes away; it only gets bigger. I've never seen an exception to that until OBD.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I would disagree with you on that, but we're not going to go down that pipe.

Brent Christensen: Darn it, we were on a roll. [laughs] Shoot. But that's absolutely true. They have not gotten any bigger. They found their niche. They do it really, really well. And they do so much more than just the grant program. I'll give you an example. We had a problem with MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) and the permitting process that it took to get right-of -way permits to deploy fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Brent Christensen: And it was taking a long time. It was taking, you know, up to 12-16 weeks. And we have a very short construction season, so we're trying to get this out. Well, they facilitated through DEED's — DEED's got a onestop business shop where they get all the players together, they sit down, and we've cut that time almost in half. It still has a ways to go compared to our neighboring states but we're cutting it down, and they did that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I learned on my tour that I thought was really interesting as a lesson learned, Mike Denn, one of your technical guys, he said that a lesson you've learned is it's better to go down thinly populated roads, like really just township roads, as opposed to the bigger MnDot roads.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, the permitting is so much easier when you do it that way, and a lot of times you just go pay $100 to the county and you're done and you got it and you can go. That's not the case when you're at MnDOT. And we're going to talk later about railroads — that's really not the case for the railroads. It's easy to do that, easier to do that, and it's cheaper and we can deploy faster.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Brent Christensen: Because we have such a short construction season.

Christopher Mitchell: Last year in particular.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, right.

Christopher Mitchell: I was talking to some of the — one of our listeners runs US Internet, and I think he was saying it was the shortest construction season they've had since they started doing fiber.

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I mean we had early snows, we had late snows. And actually I was just looking at some photos from last year, photos of me building a big snow tunnel with my son in the middle of April and 10 days later shooting a baseball game with green grass and blue skies. So pretty quick turnaround there.

Brent Christensen: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: So railroads, you mentioned that. This is something that I've long been frustrated with. Whenever I talk to people about the real challenges of deployment, they'll say to me things like, "Dig once is nice, but let's deal with the railroads and a few other issues." So I just learned from you that states have more authority to deal with this than I thought they did.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. We had a real bad problem for a number of years with railroads. And the problem was they were charging us fees to even be in public right-of-ways, and then they were charging some exorbitant, and a lot of times ongoing, fees. I'll give you an example. We had a case when Garden Valley Technologies was building fiber to City Hall in Fosston, and they had about several blocks that they had to parallel the railroad right-of-way and then cross it to get City Hall. The permits and the fees that the railroad was going to charge him came to a total of about $72,000 over 20 years, and you don't make that up in monthly service fees. You know, it was very expensive to do that.

Christopher Mitchell: And when we're talking about this, does the railroad actually have to do anything? Does it incur any costs?

Brent Christensen: No. No. Yeah, that's the crazy part. Well, you know, they believe they own all of it, even in the public right-of-way. So we were able to pass a law in 2016 that put a cap on that and put a standard fee for crossing a railroad right-of-way and then nothing if we're in a public right away because we have just as much right to be in the public right-of-way as everybody else does. So that helps. We still have some shenanigans that are going on. We still have some problems with the railroads. They'll require flaggers and to be onsite, and they're holding up applications and different things like that, but we're working through those. We got a great attorney and he sends letters and we just keep plugging along.

Christopher Mitchell: And I do hear from some ISPs that they have good relationships with railroads, so I don't want to cast too wide of a net, but some of them are really just looking to maximize their return on something that doesn't really impact them at all and is really important for the community

Brent Christensen: And their argument — and I get it — their argument is that they have to protect the integrity of their railroad. And I get that, but in this day and age, we directionally bore under the railroads. And we start 50 feet on one side, go way under their stuff, and come out 50 feet on the other, so there is no impact. The law says that they need to be compensated for the diminution in value of their property, and there isn't any. So, you know, that's — and we've got a couple of court cases in our favor and so . . . It is something to deal with and it delays and it could cause problems with the deploying of the network.

Christopher Mitchell: And so let's get back to Christensen Communications now. Tell me what your plans were before the A-CAM model came out, which I believe is the Alternative-Connect America Fund model.

Brent Christensen: Yes, that's exactly what it is. The A-CAM came out in January 2017, so for about two years before that, we had been working on a plan to go Fiber-to-the-Prem. Because of our size, it isn't something we can go out and service dead on. I mean, we just can't afford to do that.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I mean, you can you give us like an average cost of what you expect it to hit you with?

Brent Christensen: We thought the total project would be in the $6 to $8 million range. And so the first step in that was to engineer the whole thing, and I told the staff, we're not putting anything in the ground that isn't part of this master plan going forward, so we're going to do that. So we started that, and then we knew something would be happening in that realm; we didn't know exactly what. So we started that plan, and we were one year into it. We were working on the businesses on Main Street first. In 2016, we had a fire that took out a big chunk of our main street, so that kind of shifted our plans as they rebuilt. We were going to build the south side first, and then the north side of the main street. The fire was on north side of main street, so we're building over there. So we did that the first year and then put in some big fibers to move out of town, and we were building that out. Well, A-CAM came along, and so we had to make a commitment that we would build out in the rural areas to certain standards. Some of them were 25/3, some were to 10/1, and then there were actually some that were also 4/1.

Christopher Mitchell: Just for pausing for a second — and that's based on a model that the FCC uses based on reasonableness of costs to make sure those people have something.

Brent Christensen: Yes, yes. So we took a look at that and decided that that would accelerate and define where we were going to build first, so that's what we're doing. We're using the A-CAM money. It's speeding up the process. I mean, it would take us probably 15 years to build it the old way, and now we can do it probably in 10 so that's our plan. And as far as building to the speeds, we're not. We're just taking fiber everywhere, and I think most of the A-CAM companies are doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: And you say that [meaning] in Minnesota?

Brent Christensen: Yeah, yeah. In Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, because you said there [were] eight others in Minnesota.

Brent Christensen: No, there's 14 total, 14 companies, and it's something like $54 million a year that's coming into the state for A-CAM.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So when you're planning that sort of thing, you mentioned doing the master plan and everything, you have seven employees.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. Right.

Christopher Mitchell: Does that mean some people work overtime? I mean, how do you make it work to take on just the normal work and then additional work with the long-term planning?

Brent Christensen: That's a really good question. We do it a couple different ways. First of all, we don't engineer it ourselves. We hire an engineer. Mike Denn, who you met, is our outside plant manager. He works with them and they did the whole master plan, and then he does some of the smaller projects within that. We've gotten into fiber splicing and we have our own splicing trailer, and so we have Mike and then one other tech that will handle that. Then we have a technician that handles trouble calls, does a lot of fixed wireless work, telephone systems, that sort of thing, and we have another tech that kind of manages the network. In a small shop like ours, everybody does something, a little bit everything, so everybody's there to help each other out. And then we got one guy that fixes computers, and when he's not doing that, he will take trouble calls too. They all take turns being on calls, so they all share the workload. They work really, really well together. It's an incredible team. And then we have the two gals that run the front office. Everybody helps everybody else out depending on what's going on. You know, we have to use outside vendors for construction and for engineering and that sort of thing.

Christopher Mitchell: So what you're describing to me actually seems broadly similar to the trends I see, you know, particularly in, like, Iowa where we see some munis that have fewer than 4,000 lines. I think most of the munis are bigger than you, but they have similar issues. So anyway, whenever I'm thinking, I don't necessarily change the way I'm thinking about this, but I think you draw a significant distinction between a municipality that is directly providing service and a small company like yours.

Brent Christensen: Yes. I have to clarify because to me there are ILEC munis and CLEC munis.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Brent Christensen: And you know, in Minnesota we used to have two, now we have one. And that one is a member of my organization.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, much like Swiftel is out in South Dakota.

Brent Christensen: Yes. Yep. So that's a different deal. You know, anytime you're going to CLEC, you're taking a risk, and I believe it's a lot cheaper to expand the network than it is to create a network. And so, when you've seen some expansions and business cases that didn't live up to their pipe and didn't work, we've seen some partnerships, more at the county level than the municipal level, that I think have been very successful. And I think that's the model that, if a community wants to expand their broadband, I think that's the model that they need to follow. Find a partner and go for it.

Christopher Mitchell: What's a model county partnership in your mind in Minnesota?

Brent Christensen: Oh, I think the — and this was one of the side effects of the grant program that nobody saw coming, was some of these partnerships. To me, Big Stone and Swift; they're the gold standard on this. You know, they're built out. Other projects are still trying to find their way and they're done, and that's . . .

Christopher Mitchell: And how did that work?

Brent Christensen: I'm not the subject matter expert on it.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. [laughs] I didn't tell you there'd be a big test here.

Brent Christensen: The county bonded for the match for the grant, then they loaned that money to the telephone company (in this case, it was Federated Telephone), and then they built the network. Well they have 10 years before they have to start paying it back, so they can build up their customer base, they can build up the revenue, and then they can start paying it back. And also, uh, the county is responsible for helping to market this and getting people on board. So, you know, we're past the days of build it and they will come.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's a real partnership.

Brent Christensen: That's a real partnership. They did that, and they did that in a span of basically two years from start to finish and they're done. To me, that's the way to do it.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. And so, I like that model, and we've seen a number of these models in which the county is often subsidizing in some manner the expansion. I think that's entirely appropriate for essential infrastructure. I like it when it's a co-op. I told you when we were driving around that if you're going to partner with a small local company, I'm in favor of that too. I would encourage a right of first refusal in the event that the small local company sells to a company that is not as rooted in the community, which I think of as being a significant difference in terms of how decisions are made. And so, I'm supportive of that. I'm also supportive of the ones in which you said things didn't work out. And in Minnesota, we actually have a high concentration of municipal networks that I would say didn't perform financially as expected and yet did deliver benefits to the community as expected and to the extent that they needed to be subsidized — I mean Monticello is an example — I think the community seems, you know, at peace with it. I think the community did not want to subsidize it. They are subsidizing it. They hopefully will get to a point soon in which they are not, but they are delivering the benefits that they were looking for in terms of having local businesses have competitive service and things like that. And I say that just because I think the things I've said, you know, you certainly would not agree with a lot of them, but the point I would like to discuss with you is this idea: I don't think there's always a willing partner nearby. And I think, you know, for instance with Big Stone and Swift, if all of the counties nearby were clamoring for that, I think it overwhelms Federated, and so I think there are extenuating circumstances in cases.

Brent Christensen: My problem with that is there is no full disclosure with the taxpayers. You know, they're told one thing — that these networks are going to be self sufficient, taxpayer money will not go into this, and that didn't happen. And then when they defaulted on the bonds, that adversely affected the community.

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, just to be clear, I think we're talking about — well there's one community that defaulted on the bonds and that's Monticello.

Brent Christensen: Monticello. Yup. Right.

Christopher Mitchell: And I think that's really frustrating and actually there's repercussions, not so much for Monticello, but that nobody can really sell revenue bonds that are not backed by the full faith and credit now to build these networks. And so, you know, I agree with you that that did not work out as expected, but I want to offer a little bit of context.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. And I mean, it's also scared off a lot of communities too.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Brent Christensen: Let's look at Annandale. I mean, Annandale, they wanted a Fiber-to-the-Prem solution. Well, I have not found a single customer that cares how they get their Internet. They only care that they get their Internet. And so, there was a provider, a cable company, that said, we'll do a hybrid fiber coax network, and that wasn't good enough for them. So they tried to get a carve out from the grant program, wasn't successful, ended up with a hybrid fiber coax network, and now they've got all the Internet they can use.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I mean I don't know as much of the details as to how that wrapped up. If I was in Annandale, my concern would be that they still don't have the high upload speeds that they would want for certain businesses and that sort of a thing.

Brent Christensen: Well businesses can get — I mean everybody that I know, if a business has a need and wants it, they can get it. They can get fiber cause there's fiber to the node there, so getting fiber to the customers that specifically need it, we do that all the time.

Christopher Mitchell: No, that's true. And let me just say that I think there's a difference between the way that you would do it — if a business in Madelia said we need fiber to us and you were, let's say, a half mile away, I don't think you would charge them $25,000 upfront and $1,500 a month ongoing. Maybe I'm wrong. That's the sort of prices we see, and that's even a low price that I've seen from the largest cable company in the United States.

Brent Christensen: Well, we do charge an aid to construction on that stuff because . . . I mean, you gotta be able to pay for it. I mean, you can't reinvest in your network if you're not generating revenue. So we do charge — we had an example. We had a tower outside our exchange that wanted fiber to it, and I can't remember what the aid to construction was, but it was probably $10 grand, $8-$10 grand, for us to bury to them, and they paid it. Now, they paid the regular monthly fees after that, and that wasn't anywhere near $1,500, but there is an aid to construction on some of those bigger builds.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Brent Christensen: We're looking at another one now in Saint James, where they're building to their park, and we're talking to the city about what how we're going to get the fiber out there, and that's going to be a spendy one too. So there's going to have to be some sort of help with the city in a partnership. Those things happen. But, the bottom line was the consumers got the, the level of service that they need, and now everybody's happy.

Christopher Mitchell: In Annandale.

Brent Christensen: In Annandale, yup. I think there has to be meaningful conversation. You get sold that, you know, it has to be fiber. Well, it'd be great to have fiber, but some places you can't afford to put the fiber in. We're seeing fixed wireless working. We've replaced a lot of the original fixed wireless stuff that we have in rural Watonwan County, and we replaced it with some of the stuff that I was showing you. We're getting 30, 40, 50 Meg out of that stuff. It's crazy.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. No, fixed wireless has come a long way and in a lot of applications it works well. I'm on the record as being deeply concerned about its ability to serve as universal connection.

Brent Christensen: Oh, I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with that because I mean, we're talking more than just from the antenna to the customer. That's the easy part. That's where the speeds are great. It's the backhaul, and if you don't get the backhaul right —

Christopher Mitchell: Or the customer lives on the wrong side of the hill.

Brent Christensen: Right, right. But in those cases, you know, we're finding that we're taking the extra time to put that antenna in the right place. We don't just slap them up on the side of the building and go on.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but you and I both know that there's some providers —

Brent Christensen: WISPs.

Christopher Mitchell: — WISPs, who do not do that. You actually said it before I did. You said the exact same words. There's this thing called WISPs, but there's really two separate groups that are, I would say, perhaps even roughly equal in size: those who are doing it right and those who aren't.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, I mean those who are, you know, trying to get it up, they're down and dirty and they don't care; they just get a signal and go. And then you have the ones that are engineering it and they're doing it right. And we're trying really hard not to have service calls. That's the goal.

Christopher Mitchell: Well that's, you know, what you get from a company that has more than a hundred years of operating experience. You worry about the capital costs, but you really worry about the operating costs.

Brent Christensen: And then the other part of it is, when you only have seven employees and they know where your office is and they know where your house is, we got to put decent stuff up in here or they're going to come into my office and yell.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, you said something about, sort of, some people call it like a fiber fetish. You know, I understand that you're frustrated with perhaps non-technical people just latching onto this idea and are probably even frustrated people like me, who I would say I have good reasons for promoting that. Nonetheless, you like the provision of the Minnesota grant program that requires effectively fiber or very high capacity wireless. It has to be scalable to 100 Megabit provision. You think that's a smart provision.

Brent Christensen: I do, and the reason I do is because we get an argument from legislators and others that say this is just throwing money away at temporary solutions and it's not. Because of that scalability requirement, we're not throwing them away money and it makes sense. We're using taxpayer money, general fund money — there needs to be some accountability for it. It needs to be put out for stuff that's going to be there and last. And it was really smart that they allow for middle mile projects too because that allows the fixed wireless to work and you get some decent backhaul out of the deal, ao I think that's an important provision.

Christopher Mitchell: And so, one last issue around munis as we come to the end of our time, and that's what do you think about munis in which they put in fiber to lease or in which they're building a network in which it's available and they're not offering services directly?

Brent Christensen: You know, I started out as a combination technician and I worked in our central office and stuff. I honestly don't know how that would work and nobody's been able to explain how you can have multiple providers jump on and off a network like that, So I think I'd have a better understanding if somebody could explain to me how that would actually work. I get putting duct out there and making that available to anybody that wants to put it in. Then, like we talked about on Friday, the problem with that is, you know, getting on and off that duck, cause that's not always where you need to be on and off.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. You don't have the right hand holds in the right spot.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, you don't have the right hand holds, and then you end up having to backtrack and that costs more than putting it in yourself. But sharing a fiber or jumping on an existing fiber that's lit, I don't get it. I don't know how that works so . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Well in this case could be dark also, and so I'm curious about cases of — would dark fiber be just sort of similar to what you were saying about the duct then.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, depending on where you go. Now, if you're using it for, for backhaul — you know, we lease dark fiber from other companies to get like to the 511 building and things like that. That makes sense. You know, but I don't know how to visualize that.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, hopefully we'll spell it out and answer those sorts of questions.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, I'd be interested. I mean, I'm interested in seeing if there's an application, you know.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, but I actually think it's really valuable to have a sense of you as an ISP saying, "I don't really understand how that would work," because that's something that local governments need to know if they're going to think about this, just making sure they're talking to someone like you if they're expecting you to use it.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and let's be honest. I mean, the fault that we have on our side is that we have a set expectation or we know how the business works. But the days of doing the traditional models — we have to be a lot more creative. I think those days are slowly going away, so we have to, particularly a small company like mine, we've got to look at a new partnerships. After you left on Friday, I had a meeting with the IT folks from Blue Earth County, and they're interested in doing something in Blue Earth County. And they brought in their map and they brought in a list of all the providers who are around them, and I looked at that list and they're all people that I work with today. We own transport groups together and we do business in many different ways, and so it makes sense to sit down and say, "Okay, what can we do?" You know, maybe I take a piece of Blue Earth County that I wasn't going to build in before and the county helps us out and figures out a way through a broadband grant or whatever to do that. I think there has to be creative solutions to solving this problem. One thing we all have in common is we want broadband everywhere. We know we have to have that. You know, we also do economic development for the eastern half Watonwan County, and we're done chasing 200 job factories. We're going after telecommuting jobs, one and two at a time, all the time. And we bring in a doctor or a superintendent, they bring a spouse who can telecommute and bring their job — we win.

Christopher Mitchell: Your county is also one of the ones in which I see you're imprisoning young people on snowy days.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. And you know, if I was still on the school board, we'd have a conversation about that because there's some other districts that dialed it in. You know, they're learning from home. They call it a alternative learning day.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure, and I was just thinking of this snow storm we had and the blizzard conditions with the wind and everything. Watonwan County was one of the places where people got stuck.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, they did. We had over 50 people that were stuck in Madelia this weekend, and I was stuck on my farm. I couldn't get into town.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's — you know, we started with the cold of Minnesota, we'll end with the cold of Minnesota. I love this place. You lived in Texas for a while.

Brent Christensen: I did.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad you came back.

Brent Christensen: I am too. You know, my wife was born and raised there, and she likes to have one good blizzard, so we had to stay at the farm and get snowed in once a year and she's done now.

Christopher Mitchell: Waiting for March — or June.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, June.

Christopher Mitchell: All right, well thank you so much for coming in, Brent.

Brent Christensen: Hey, thanks for having me on, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Brent Christensen of Christensen Communications. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on important research from all of our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Follow us on Instagram. We are ILSR74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 346 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 4

March 4, 2019

California

San Jose tackles the digital divide by Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs 

The city recognizes that there are no instant fixes and already recognizes that it might take a decade to bring fast affordable broadband to everybody in the city. I’m sure that $24 million is also just a downpayment towards a permanent broadband solution. But this plan puts the city ahead of every other major metropolitan area in the willingness to tackle the problem head-on.

 

Colorado

Bill aims to maintain net neutrality by Charles Ashby, Daily Sentinel 

City celebrates milestone for Connexion broadband service, but sign-up dates still unknown by Nick Coltrain, Fort Collins Coloradoan 

 

Kentucky

Rural broadband funding could connect more Ohio Valley communities to high-speed Internet by Liam Niemeyer, Ohio Valley ReSource

 

Maine

Wired for future: How broadband bridges gaps between countryside and city by David Singer, WGME

South Portland broadband plan could hit funding snag by David Harry, The Forecaster

 

North Carolina

Broadband Internet unavailable to many in Eastern NC, WITN 

 

Pennsylvania

Gov. Wolf pushes for statewide broadband access by Paul Guggenheimer, TribLive

 

Tennessee

No connection: Residents struggle with limited Internet options by Heather Mullinix, Crossville Chronicle

 

Texas

Improving broadband access in rural communities by Destiny Richards, KFDA

 

General 

Pew initiative to study broadband access hurdles by Skip Descant, GovTech

“So while there is that big gap, I don’t think that this is a policy issue that’s split very neatly along urban and rural lines,” she continued. “There’s no one-size-fits-all to broadband connectivity and solving that gap. Every community is different and has different characteristics and different needs. And subsequently, will require different solutions for closing those gaps.”

Windstream chooses bankruptcy filing over appeal of negative decision involving Uniti Group spinoff by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor

Multi-tenant broadband report: Only price and location matter more than broadband by Phil Britt, Telecompetitor

FCC ready to authorize $140M in rural broadband funding for CAF II auction winners, Verizon among them by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor 

FCC uses cherry-picked stats to justify giving consumers a giant middle finger by Karl Bode, Techdirt 

Former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler says the Internet needs regulation by Klint Finey, WIRED

Tags: media roundup

North Carolina Broadband Making Priorities Lists, Editorials, in North Carolina

March 4, 2019

In recent years, North Carolina has become a legislative broadband battleground in the war to regain local telecommunications authority. This legislative session, support from Governor Roy Cooper, outspoken State Legislators, and North Carolina media may make an impact on state law.

Let's Fix This

In 2015, the FCC preempted restrictive state laws which set dire limitations on municipal network expansions, but the state chose to back telecom monopolies over citizens’ need for better connectivity. The state took the FCC to court and won, which meant North Carolina’s laws won’t allow places such as Wilson to help neighbor Pinetops with high-quality Internet access. In addition to preventing local community networks from expanding, requirements and regulations are so onerous, that the state law is a de facto ban on new networks.

Lawmakers such as Republican Rep. David Lewis has put broadband development among the top of their priorities list. In a letter to constituents, Lewis wrote:

High-speed Internet access has transitioned from a luxury to a necessity of our 21st-century economy...It is needed for economic growth in North Carolina, yet many rural communities throughout the state do not have access to broadband services because of their under-developed infrastructure.

In order to get fiber out to people across the state, governments — federal, state, county and local — should be able to invest in fiber infrastructure, and in turn, lease them to the service providers who sell access to the consumer. We have to do something so that the people of this state can be connected to our ever-evolving world.

Cooper, a Democrat, presented broadband deployment in rural areas at the top of his agenda during the State of the State Address. According to a WRAL.com report, both Republican and Democrats strongly supported the proposal with intense applause. The positive bipartisan reaction to his comments reveals that policy makers from both sides of the aisle recognize the critical nature of high-quality Internet access for their constituents.

Last year, the state developed the Growing Rural Economies and Access to Technology (GREAT) Program, which made $10 million available for rural broadband project grants. The program had been an alternative to the BRIGHT Futures Act, proposed by the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM). Due to state restrictions on municipalities that effective prevent investment in new networks, however, grants from the GREAT Program are out of reach. This year, the NCLM hopes that those restrictions can be removed so local governments can invest in publicly owned infrastructure in order to work with private sector ISPs.

Locals Lend their Voice

Governor Cooper isn’t the only North Carolinian who wants to take the necessary steps to improve connectivity options around the state. Editors at the Fayetteville Observer published a piece that describes their view on how to “grow the rural economy” is through publicly owned broadband. The Wilson Times picked up the piece and republished the editorial. Wilson, home to the Greenlight Community Network, has reaped the benefits of their publicly owned network since 2008.

In the opinion piece, editors point out that the urban-rural digital divide in North Carolina is worse than ever, and that, even though lawmakers publicly recognize that high-quality Internet access is an essential utility, they aren’t willing to put funding in the hands of the people who can provide it — local communities. 

Like many other editorials on the subject of rural broadband, Fayette Observer Editors draw the parallel to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and opine that it’s time to apply that approach to broadband. Editors acknowledge Rep. Lewis’s constituent letter and task him and his colleagues with taking the next step by changing state law so North Carolina communities can invest in publicly owned infrastructure: 

Thank you, Rep. Lewis. We’ve waited a long, long time for our lawmakers — especially those in our legislative majority — to recognize the problem. Our state’s rural areas will continue to face depressing economic prospects until government gets involved with expanding our fiber-optic infrastructure and making fast internet service available to whoever wants and needs it. In these days of “smart” homes and workplaces, that’s just about all of us. And in this era of “cloud” storage, every business, large or small, needs to have those high-speed connections.

We hope Lewis’ colleagues in the House and Senate agree.

Listen to Christopher talk with Will Aycock from Greenlight about some of Wilson's programs to bring high-quality connectivity to all residents to help bridge the digital divide:

Tags: north carolinadigital divideeditoriallegislation

Texas Lawmakers Look at Easement Bill for Electric Co-ops

March 1, 2019

In the past year, communities and cooperatives in Texas have been making gallant efforts to better connect local residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. Now, they may get a little help from the State Legislature.

Helping Co-ops

Earlier in this session, Senator Robert Nichols introduced SB 14, a bill that will allow electric cooperatives that hold easements obtained for electric service infrastructure the ability to extend those easements to broadband infrastructure. The bill replicates the FIBRE Act, a 2017 Indiana bill that opened up possibilities for rural cooperatives in that state.

Nichols told KLTV that he has high hopes for his bill:

“I’m getting a lot of support because all of the other plans for broadband that have been proposed use subsidies,” said Nichols. “This one asks the state for nothing, it asks the federal government for nothing.”

He also told KLTV that the Governor’s office has expressed support for the proposal.

Read the text of the bill.

Similar to Indiana’s FIBRE Act, the extension of the easement applies to those that already exist. By enacting making the change, cooperatives that already have infrastructure in place will save time in deploying fiber optic networks because they won’t need to obtain a second set of easements from members who’ve already granted them for electricity infrastructure.

In addition to offering broadband to members sooner, cooperatives who are able to take advantage in the change in the law will also save financially. Personnel costs, filing, and administrative fees add up when a co-op must obtain multiple, sometimes dozens or hundreds, of legal easements. Occasionally, a property owner doesn’t consent to an easement right away. This change in the law will prevent hang-ups in deployment due to uncooperative property owners that can jeopardize a project.

Back Home Again in Indiana

Several Indian electric cooperatives have announced Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) deployments since the FIBRE Act took effect. Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation, South Central Indiana REMC, and Orange County REMC have all decided to either deploy new networks or expand existing FTTH infrastructure to reach new rural areas.

We brought you the story of Texas’s Taylor Electric Cooperative, which has been deploying fiber in the Abilene region. They described their investment and incremental approach as a “natural fit” in order to deliver the services their members want.

In the past few years, local towns in Texas have also shown more interest in pursuing local self-reliance to improve Internet access option. When the District Court ruled that Mont Belvieu had the right, as a "home rule" community, to bond for, develop, and offer broadband to the general public, they created MBLink.

Since then, Lampasas has started looking into open access infrastructure; they are fed up with poor treatment from incumbent AT&t and ready to work with other ISPs. As a “general powers” city, Lampasas would need to change their charter to become a “home rule” city, if they wanted to follow in Mont Belvieu’s footsteps to create a broadband utility. Nevertheless, Lampasas plans to build the infrastructure on which private sector ISPs can offer Internet access to businesses and residents.

Co-op Capability

More than ever, rural electric cooperatives are taking the initiative and answering demands from members to offer the next utility — broadband. With personnel, infrastructure, and know-how already in place, it makes sense. Adjustments in state law, such as SB 14, can help rural citizens obtain high-quality Internet access by removing barriers that complicate broadband deployment for cooperatives.

Texas SB 14 Tags: texascooperativerural electric coopeasementright-of-waypole attachmentslegislationsb 14 tx