muninetworks.org

Syndicate content
Updated: 3 years 30 weeks ago

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits NC Bonus Episode

April 7, 2020

This is the transcript for our special bonus episode of Community Broadband Bits series, Why NC Broadband Matters. In this episode, Christopher talks with Leslie Boney, Ron Townley, and Darren Smith about urban and rural connectivity, and ways to revitalize Wilson's economy. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.       Leslie Boney: There are four times as many people in urban areas who are not connected to broadband because they can't afford it as there are people who aren't connected to broadband in rural areas because they can't have it, they can't find it. Jess Del Fiacco: We're bringing you another episode in our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, Why NC broadband Matters. I'm Jess Del Fiacco with the Institute for Local Self- reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract, support and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high capacity internet access, which is necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses and a local workforce, so each can compete in the global economy. Jess Del Fiacco: The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. We are working with NC Broadband Matters to produce this series, focusing on issues affecting people in North Carolina that also impact people in other regions. We have three guests on the show today. First, Christopher speaks with Leslie Boney, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues, about the importance of digital inclusion in both rural and urban areas. Then they're joined by Darren Smith of Wilson, North Carolina's Gig East Exchange, and Ron Townley of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments. Ron and Darren discuss how broadband infrastructure is helping revitalize the economy in Wilson and beyond. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, normally in Minneapolis, but taking a short break to visit NC State, North Carolina, a school that has been hosting a lot of really good events around broadband lately. Today I'm here at the Institute for Emerging Issues, speaking first with the director, Leslie Boney. Welcome to the show. Leslie Boney: Thanks very much. It's great to be here. Christopher Mitchell: We have two additional guests we're going to work in and really focus on toward the end of the show. I'm going to introduce them as they come on so you don't forget who they are, but I want to start off by asking you... we're here today at this reconnect event, and we'll have the video attached to wherever we post this podcast, but this is one of a series of really interesting events. And so maybe first, tell me about the Institute for Emerging Issues, and then I'd love to know more about the Reconnect series. 2:20 Leslie Boney: The Institute for Emerging Issues had been around for 30 plus years, and our goal every year is to come up with an issue that is either lurking around the corner or is stuck. Something that is about to hit North Carolina that we should do something about from a public policy standpoint, or we've been trying to work on and we're not really making any progress. And so that's the goal every year, and that's where we came up with this idea of a Reconnect theme. Christopher Mitchell: And so this Reconnect theme is not just about broadband. I think it's hard probably to talk about some of these subjects without bringing broadband into it, but there's different themes that you've had different in different locations. Leslie Boney: What we did a couple of years ago was to crowd source our next topic, and it turns out if you ask people what the biggest issue facing any state is, there are a bunch of different answers. In our case, there were 158 different biggest issues facing our state. And so we narrowed things down and as we got closer to an answer, sort of a final four of ideas, we realized that- Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, that's a very NC state analogy. Leslie Boney: Well, at the time we weren't participating in any bracket, and so when we got down to 32 ideas, we put things in a bracket cause it was the only bracket NC state was going to be participating in that year. That's how we started narrowing it down. And each week we'd say, "Okay, we're getting closer to the answer." We got down to the final actually five and we realized they were all similar issues. Leslie Boney: They were all in some cases people saying, "We are not connected the way we would like to be and we'd like to do something about it." So one theme had to do with civic connection, one with rural urban connection, another one about people feeling like they're disconnected from real opportunity in their jobs, something on health, feeling like health was holding them back from being as productive as possible, and this topic on technological opportunity. But as you alluded to, almost all those topics, broadband has come up in some way or another because it's a key part of the solution on each of those topics. 4:24 Christopher Mitchell: As you frame the issue today, one of the things I found interesting was that you didn't want us to get caught in this discussion solely about infrastructure and the idea of who has a high quality connection on the side of their home today. It's much more about how are we using that. Leslie Boney: This is a really important issue, and you and your podcast have done an amazing job of demystifying a lot of the infrastructure elements, so I'm not in any way downplaying those. Those are critical. We've got to figure out a way to solve infrastructure problems, particularly in rural areas. What we were trying to say is, if at the end of the day we have solved all the infrastructure problems and we still have, as we do, about a 60% adoption rate, that means 40% of people are not going to be able to participate in the economy that we have built for them. So we need to start thinking now about how you build an economy where everybody is legitimately able to fully participate in the economy, that high tech economy of the future, and if we do that, it happens to have huge benefits. Leslie Boney: Huge side benefits for businesses that right now are having huge skill shortages. It's going to make huge differences for our farms. We like to have small farms in North Carolina. If we want to hold onto those small farms, they've got to be as productive as possible and there are things that technology can do for them. We're going to need workers that can retrain themselves and move up over time, and if they're going to do that, they're going to need some of those courses available to take online. It's really hard to follow online via your phone. Christopher Mitchell: That's a comment that I was curious if I'd have a chance to explore a little bit, because I thought you made that point that the cell phones are important and we're not going to diminish them, but at the same time, im no way is that sufficient for people. 6:13 Leslie Boney: It's really hard to fill out a job application online. It's really hard to take an entire course online. It's really hard to do your homework or write a paper online simply using your phone. That's when you need a device. You need something beyond the cell phone. Christopher Mitchell: One of the benefits of me actually coming in for this event was that I've been able to interview a number of other people and I don't know if this interview will run before or after that one, but Latricia, Dr. LaTricia Townsend who is from here at NC state as well, made the point that, for students in particular, it's not just about filling their brains with facts or thinking how to think. They're preparing them for the workforce. And if you're not familiar with using a computer on the internet, you may not be ready to join the workforce after you finish up your education. Leslie Boney: There was a big study that came out earlier this year. It was a national study that Amazon and the US Chamber of Commerce did that looked at rural small business productivity and estimated, I'm just going to do the North Carolina breakout, I think the national number was $44 billion in underutilized potential. In North Carolina, it was $1.9 billion more, that if companies were fully utilizing technology, they would have been able to take advantage of and add to that gross state product. But when you looked at the survey of business owners, 41% of them said one of the things that was holding them back was skilled workers who knew how to work with the devices that they were hoping they would work with in the workplace. They just didn't have those skills. Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, one of the... I wouldn't even say necessarily arguments, I think some people have... You're going to think I'm crazy, but I think some people have maybe been polarized beyond what's necessary in the discussion between urban and rural, but one of the talking points has been that urban areas are where we see a lot of the progress. It's where a lot of people want to live. It's where we're seeing a lot of our universities are clustered, and frankly it's most of the economic activity now in the country. And so I want to provocatively just say, why shouldn't we just focus most of our attention on urban areas, and whatever happens in rural areas happens in rural areas? 8:27 Leslie Boney: We did a study earlier this year that looked at commuting patterns, and if you look at commuting patterns, most of the counties in North Carolina, roughly 50% of the people wake up every day and drive to another county to work. Roughly 50% of people that are working in a county have driven in from another county to work. So employers and employees no longer particularly care about county lines. Some people are choosing to live in rural areas because they're more affordable. We have a huge affordable housing problem in this state and in the nation. So in some cases, you may choose to live there because the cost of living is lower. Some cases, you may choose to live there cause you really like a rural setting, but you may want that job in an urban area. If we can get connectivity down, you can cut down on some of the commuting that's going on. Leslie Boney: And if you have a truly connected house, you can work from home. But the same is true in urban areas. Urban areas really need rural areas for food, for water, for air, for workers. I think one of the things that we've been trying to make in this connect series is the synergies that you need to have in place. If an employer's coming in and you're trying to sell them on your workforce, you're not just selling your workforce, you're selling the county next door and the one beyond that. So one of the counties we've been working with, one of the groups we've been working with is called STEM SENC, and the point is, if you're going to recruit STEM companies to Southeastern North Carolina, that's what SENC stands for, you're going to need to draw on the entire region to do that. And that's whether the companies happened to locate in an urban area or a rural area, you're going to need each other. 10:16 Christopher Mitchell: I really like that answer. I have to say that I'm sitting here nervous because some people have never heard any of my discussions before and might think that I don't care about rural areas, and so I want to throw in there to make sure that I think it's a point that we need to discuss. But I also want to say that. To be very clear, this country had a choice in the '30s, whether or not we left rural areas behind with electricity, and not just to our credit of a sense of charity, but the fact that we connected everyone made us a much better country. And so I want to make sure that we touch on that as well, because there's a lot of different answers we can give on that, but it's really important that we understand that we are all in this together unless something very horrible happens. Leslie Boney: Larry Irving, one of the speakers who came earlier in the day and spoke to the group, made the point that the danger, if we don't take this seriously, is another episode of Redlining where essentially we say that, well, we care about some people but we don't care about everybody, and maybe in 10, 15 years we'll get around to those other people and we'll solve the challenges that some disconnected rural areas have, or we'll solve some of the affordability issues that inner city areas have. But there's no real hurry for that.I would say that wasn't a great answer when we were doing rural electrification, it wasn't a good answer when we were trying to decide who gets loans for their houses, and it's not a good answer when it comes to talking about broadband connectivity either. Christopher Mitchell: I'm going to bring in our other guests now and we're going to have a little bit of a bridge before we lose Leslie, but I want to introduce Darren Smith who is the manager of the Gig East Exchange for city of Wilson, North Carolina, a city that I may have done more interviews with people from than any other location on earth because it's a wonderful, wonderful place. 12:01 Darren Smith: Very true. I'd have to agree with that. I just wanted to echo what Leslie said. You know, I think about Wilson and I think about in the '30s, and they have always looked forward, and they built their own electrical grid because they realized, we have to have this because everybody else is going to have it. We have to have this to move forward, and that has always been the DNA of the city. So when you fast forward and you see what's happening with they built their own broadband, then building a coworking space like Gig East Exchange was just a natural way to go, "Okay, we know this growth is coming from Raleigh. We've got to be prepared and we've got to make sure we're offering the services. We have the type of community that people are going to want to come to." That really something I wanted to touch on. I thought he really did a good job of that. Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. And we also have Ron Townley, who is the planning development director for the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments, which includes Wilson and points north and east of there. Ron Townley: Yeah, thanks for having me here today, Chris. Yes, I wanted to echo what Leslie said. The urban rural connection's important, but you really can't take the rural option for Americans off the table. So traditionally, we've always invested in that infrastructure where there was not a capital return on investment to the private sector, whether that was water and sewer, telephones, electrification, and now we've come to the time of broadband, the new infrastructure. And for the private sector, a lot of times these return on investments do not make sense, and a public private sector partnership has to be negotiated. Ron Townley: So coming from a region, my board of directors at the council and our five counties of North Hampton, Halifax, Edgecombe, Nash and Wilson, I've decided that the vision is really about thinking regionally, acting locally on those regional visions in order to compete globally, to keep those rural options open. Because, my family chose to live in a rural environment for the quality of life that you can find in eastern North Carolina. 14:08 Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. I want to come back and I'll ask Leslie a question, and then we're going to release you into the wild of the breakout rooms where there's a lot of interesting thinking happening. But I want to ask you, we've had a wonderful series of panels today. Is there anything that you would want to reflect on or anything that touched you more than you expected throughout the day? Leslie Boney: Well, I think the most meaningful statistic I heard, which you've made before on your program, but I think a lot of people don't hear, is that this is not just a rural challenge. When we talk about broadband connectivity and more importantly adoption, if you look at the total number of people in the United States who are disconnected, what Larry Irvin said is that there are four times as many people in urban areas who are not connected to broadband because they can't afford it as there are people who aren't connected to broadband in rural areas because they can't have it, they can't find it. And so I think that's a meaningful way of putting it into perspective and showing that this notion of digital inclusion matters not just for rural areas, but also for urban areas. It's a rural and urban challenge ,and if we can find a way to crack the code, we've done something that is meaningful for both rural and urban America. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think that's been a real challenge, and I would say it's largely a political challenge because it's easy to talk about rural areas and putting money into them to connect people, because they're areas that no one's ox is being gored. And when you start talking about intervening in urban areas, then someone may at least fear their ox could be gored. And so I think that's an important statistic, and I hope people will continue to recognize not just the unfortunate-ness of the number of people that don't have connections, but the lost opportunities that we're seeing. I suppose that's your job here. Leslie Boney: I think what powerful political coalition that would be, rural America and inner city urban America. We've never tried that before. That would be really interesting. But I think it's a moral issue. Why did we do rural electrification? Not just because there was going to be an ROI, because there wasn't immediately, although I would argue over the longterm there has been, we did it because it was the right thing to do. And in this case, we believe that significant efforts to make sure that full broadband is available to everyone in the United States, but also adopted and fully taken advantage of, is the right thing to do. And that's why we should do it. 16:35 Christopher Mitchell: Well that's a wonderful way to leave us. Leslie Boney, the director of the Institute on Emerging Issues here at NC State, which is a, go wolf pack, wonderful institution that, like I said, has been doing a lot of really good work on broadband across different parts of the university. So thank you so much for time today. Christopher Mitchell: So Ron, I'm curious then, you're representing a group of local governments more broadly across the Northeastern part of North Carolina. What are you reflecting on today? I realize listeners haven't actually seen the full day's events but did anything today strike you as surprising or in a way that you weren't expecting? Ron Townley: I think some of the statistics are surprising and of course I'm here networking, meeting new people, looking for resources to come into the area. North Carolina is divided into 16 councils of governments or commissions, and I have 47 member governments that sit at our table, our regional table. 41 of them are municipalities, five of them are counties, over 30 of them are very small and rural in nature. Ron Townley: And in order to succeed, we have a comprehensive economic development strategy. We all do, all the 16 members across the state. We all share some common goals, which is to build on the region's competitive advantages and leverage the marketplace to establish and maintain robust regional infrastructures, to create revitalized, healthy and resilient communities, and to develop talented and innovative people. Now what do you need to make those four goals happen? You cannot do it without broadband connectivity. 18:15 Ron Townley: And while there are areas in the region like the city of Wilson, like areas up in the Roanoke electric cooperative portions of the area, that are doing really well and making some magic happen. But there are also other areas that struggled to compete. They are starting to lose population. The participation rates and what internet is available, as was mentioned, is unaffordable in these rural areas. And so we are looking to bring regional scales and regional thinking and solutions to the table in order to try and address those issues. Christopher Mitchell: Darren, I'm curious as well, I feel like being with the city of Wilson in some ways, I wonder if you've seen it all, but let me start with just asking you, if you took anything away today you want to share with listeners. Darren Smith: Yeah, I really did. First of all, thanks for having me, Chris. I've got to hear you definitely talk to more of our folks in Wilson and what they're up to and what they're doing. So this is a great opportunity. The thing that stuck out to me was, there was a particular gentleman from Iowa, Zachary Hammerman, I think it was his name. I thought he did an excellent job talking about how you build a community that's such a huge part of what we're trying to do and Wilson, and what other areas of the state are doing. Darren Smith: That really stuck out to me. And one thing in particular he said, he goes, "You might as well put a pin in Raleigh and circle a 200 mile radius. It would totally include Wilson because that's where the growth is coming." And I just thought that was really eyeopening that here's someone who's gone into a city that he moved to, that he selected and really started a community space, and really started making it happen there. What made me think of Wilson and what we're doing there is the Gig Exchange. Once Wilson started building out their broadband... 20:01 Christopher Mitchell: I'm just going to cut you off for a second. Sometimes I like to just do a quick summary and then you can correct me if I'm wrong, but for people who may not be familiar, Wilson in the late 2000s built a citywide fiber optic network to connect to every last premise. The state in 2011 decided that that was not something it wanted to encourage and not only forbade other cities from doing it, but put a fence around you, and so you have an electric utility that built the fiber network. The electric utility serves nearby counties and areas and you're not able to expand that. And so that's some context I wanted people to have. Darren Smith: Yeah, no, and great job. You know when I look at that and it makes a natural progression for the city of Wilson because they're like, okay, we have this broadband, we need to utilize it. And at the very same time, they had been part of InnovateNC, which was a program that really brought to the forefront the city, to really think about how can we drive entrepreneurship, how can we drive innovation? And that immediately brings up that you have to have an ecosystem for that. Darren Smith: You have to have a community to help sustain that and build it, which then immediately brings up, well, you got to have a space for this. So the exchange... Christopher Mitchell: A physical space. Darren Smith: A physical space, and I'll touch on a couple of things. The reason we went with Gig East Exchange and maybe for your listeners, Gig East really came out of that whole innovation discussion. The city was looking for a way to label this whole initiative, and so they started thinking about the Worley Gig Park. If your listeners are familiar with that- Christopher Mitchell: They should Google it if they're not. Darren Smith: They're not. They definitely need to see pictures. They thought about we're in a gig economy, thought about gigabit speed and so they came up with Gig East. East being that we're in the Eastern part of the state. That really became the symbol for the initiative in Wilson and it really is made up of three parts. Darren Smith: We have a yearly conference. Our next one's coming up May 7th, 8th and 9th, and that is a chance to bring in thought leadership. It's a chance to bring in the Leslie's of the world to really help educate not only the local folks in our community but the region. At the same time, we do quarterly meetups to again drive people thinking about entrepreneurship, and really demystify it as much as possible, and then we have the Gig Exchange, the space. The space really is going to be, and we hope to open early May, it's a hundred year old building. The city was awarded a grant from Golden Leaf. We matched it as a city, so it makes us a little different than the over 2000-and-some coworking spaces we see across the country, in that we're not trying to make a profit. We're trying to make an impact. 22:37 Darren Smith: And that impact being, what if we had a space that entrepreneurs could come into, remote workers could come into, students could come into, people who are trying to build up their skills in this digital age could come to, and find programming and find people to exchange ideas with and exchange what they know, the people they know. That is what that exchange is about. And somebody just asked me today in the hallway, "Can you give it one word?" And I was like, "Well, I can't give it one word," but I would describe it as, it's definitely economic development is a big part of that because the city recognizes we have some strong industries with agriculture, with manufacturing, but we realize it has to be diverse. We have to have a lot of different small startup companies to help drive the economy. Christopher Mitchell: This is a point that I feel like is important to make, and this actually gets us all back to the Institute for Emerging Issues and how do we take advantage of this. For people who aren't familiar, Wilson has no business having the economic success it's had recently. You're a city that was hard hit by the tobacco downfall, I mean major hub of the entire world tobacco industry. Majorly hit by the transition of manufacturing in many areas to other parts of the world. In many ways, I would say I work with the cities. I've probably talked to more than a hundred cities that have municipal broadband networks. Almost all of them define success as just getting to where you already are, with the jobs that you've created and the way that you've revitalized the economy. People are moving there to set up their jobs, and I feel like you're saying that's not good enough. We need to do more to figure out how to take advantage of this. That's my impression. 24:22 Darren Smith: No, and I think it's spot on. I took this role as the manager, and my main focus is putting people in that building and putting programming in that building. But I've spent the last 25 years working in technology in Raleigh and I'm getting ready to move to Wilson. That's how much I believe in what they're doing. But to your point, I think a big tip of the cap has to go to the city council, their leadership, the city manager, their leadership, because it is courageous. They've made some courageous decisions about we do not want to get left behind. Darren Smith: This is great. We have these solid industries. How do we build off of those? How do we go and pull off of their experience, to diversify even more so that we do not get left behind? And this is most important is, it should hopefully, five to eight years from now, we want it to be a place where the young people go. There's opportunity here. I don't necessarily want to move. My family's here. I like the lifestyle here. There's opportunity for me and I don't have to move. And maybe we even pull back some of the young people that did have to leave. Christopher Mitchell: So Ron, what I'm curious about is I feel like if I understand your situation correctly, you're sort of sitting here and on the edge of this region that you represent, you kind of have a gold mine, and you're trying to figure out how to advantage everyone in the region with the gold mine. Is that accurate? Ron Townley: Yeah. Going back to what I talked about, about leveraging the marketplace, I actually came to North Carolina over 20 years ago in the late '90s, and moved to the Asheville greater region. Christopher Mitchell: Which is on the Western side in the mountains. Ron Townley: In the Western side, in the mountains. I think everybody knows a little bit about Asheville. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I'm used to playing for a national audience. Most of the people who are listening to this are probably in North Carolina and they're like, "Of course that's where it is." Ron Townley: Right. So you know, Asheville saw that Renaissance, right? They actually struggled for a number of years as well in the remote Appalachians of Western North Carolina, and they moved forward and have achieved great success through the creative class economy, and bringing new people in and diversifying and building infrastructure, et cetera. So now the opportunity is in the Eastern North Carolina, and we've come out here to help. Wilson's a fantastic example of what's happening. And you see energy in Rocky Mount, and you see things starting to happen in Roanoke Rapids, but it's absolutely right, as tobacco country and as a place who lost a lot of industry, folks have struggled. So in leveraging that, we really need to look at the region as a whole. How to not leave the folks in North Hampton and these small towns behind and bring them together. So we've established a regional broadband task force and that's the small towns coming together. 27:00 Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, I want to paint a quick picture. This is a region in which you have a few co-ops. There's a real mix of who's providing services, right? Ron Townley: Yes, yes. It is a very diverse population. It is about 50/50 minorities. There's a deep and rich history there that goes back for centuries, of course, and some of these towns in our region, these small towns were the first colonial towns where you could navigate the waterways of the Pamlico and Neuse rivers and Tar rivers to their farthest points where initial settlements were made. Christopher Mitchell: And now the population, it's low enough density that we don't see very easy business models to connect everyone. Ron Townley: Not in today's structure. Not in that 21st century economy. So our population is aging. Farms have been consolidating, kids have been moving out to find other opportunities, but there are people who want to come back into these towns and find this rural lifestyle, and it's difficult to do if you don't have the connectivity. That's question number one. I was talking to one person who bought a very large home in the rural area, and they were very excited at finding 3500 square feet of a home less than five years old for $150,000 or something like that. Christopher Mitchell: My head's starting to hurt. Ron Townley: But then they found out it didn't have internet. That was the reason for the price of the house. They didn't have good cell phone connectivity as well, and so that literally drives down the real estate market. So we're working with these small towns and others to try and build some regional economies of scale. Ron Townley: We're educating local leaders about digital literacy. We're doing community surveys to understand what really are the speed rates out here in the communities and what the cost barriers are. And the ultimate goal is to map the public assets, things like water towers, and right-of-ways, and other physical things that people can bring to the public sector, can bring to a public private partnership, and attract new service providers. 29:17 Ron Townley: Because some of the major providers, quite honestly, they look at these areas and they say that return on investment isn't there. We want to legislatively hold it for the future, for that private investment to make that money, but if that's 10 years from now, that's, in my opinion, 20 years too late. So we need to form these public private partnership. I think if we can build out some of this infrastructure, getting people connected to Middle Mile, expanding Middle Mile, getting wifis on the old main streets of these small towns and things like that, you're going to see economic opportunities explode again. I think if we can go ahead, the ultimate goal of the work we're doing regionally is to have some of these small towns joined together, to offer economies of scale to these service providers, to say instead of 300 homes and five farms, we can offer you 2000 homes and 25 farms to connect to. Christopher Mitchell: Yes, aggregation is the name of the game there. For people who haven't heard it, we did an episode with Greg Coltrain with RiverStreet Networks, who very much wants to work together with those sorts of aggregated local units. But let me come back to you Darren, to just push these together. So Gig East exchange is emphatically not about Wilson, it's about the region and what can you do to help the whole region? Darren Smith: Yeah. So we really want it to be seen as an innovation hub for the region, and we've already taken steps to go out to the universities. Our university is right 30 minutes away as well as Goldsboro, and for your listeners, this may not mean much, so we've gone out way outside of Wilson to make sure they understood this is for you too. And that's a big part of it that, hey, this is a resource for you as well. This is not just a Wilson based resource and that's what we've been trying to do to communicate to the region. Christopher Mitchell: So you're going to launch it in three months. Have you seen any results yet? 31:11 Darren Smith: Yeah, we actually have, even though there's not even any drywall up yet, but yeah, we have. We have partnered with an organization in Raleigh called RIOT. It stands for Raleigh Internet Of Things. 10 years ago they were an organization that was really coming together to support all these people building devices to take advantage of wireless, whether it was a flood sensor, or we see it now pretty commonly, your listeners, I'm sure have seen refrigerators that now connect to the internet and they can access their shopping list. Great organization in Raleigh, they started an accelerator program about two years ago, free 12 week program, because they really saw a need that these startups, most times they have an idea or they see a need that they feel like they have a solution for but they don't know how to sell. Darren Smith: They don't know how to market. They definitely don't know how to go pitch to a financial venture capitalist. So they started a program to accelerate their growth, accelerate their knowledge, became wildly successful as a big partner of ours. We approached them and said we're going to have this space, programming is key to success. What if we had one of your cohorts in our space? And they were like, "That's a great idea." And we said yeah, cause we could offer this to people in the Eastern part of the state that normally probably don't have access to this kind of program. And so we set out to go again to the region and educate everyone in the different towns and cities. We really hoped, because it was such a new program, if we could get four or maybe five startups to apply, we would be knocking it out of the park. We had way over 20. We literally had someone from Chicago, California, had a handful here from Research Triangle Park. Christopher Mitchell: Just to be clear, we're sitting here in February and it's like 65 degrees outside, so Chicago isn't too surprising. Darren Smith: I'm sure it wasn't too hard for them to get on a plane, but they got on a plane, flew to Raleigh, got on a train, came to Wilson, and so we had over 20 apply. We should hopefully make an announcement soon of who those six or seven, and we selected seven, but that's huge for something that we haven't even opened the doors yet and that program will be going in there, so that's wonderful. Yeah. 33:13 Christopher Mitchell: So Ron, let me ask you if you have any concluding comments as this has already been... I mean, it's hard to do justice to a topic this rich, but we're running out of time. Ron Townley: Sure, sure. Well first, I just wanted to say how much we value the partnership of Gig East and Darren and the work that they're doing out there. His story is a perfect example of build it, or even say you're going to build it and they will come. So that's important I think for these small towns as well. We're getting libraries connected. Schools are connected, main streets are starting to do wifi in these small towns. There are small entrepreneurial startup providers. We've got an internet service provider now, that is literally a mom and pop company. They're climbing the poles themselves and they've connected up a town, they're improving infrastructure in another town. And they're going down the road to hit the town down the street. And so they've found that entrepreneurial opportunity to create. Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, I just want to jump in because I feel like sometimes there's a tension in that, and I want to salute that entrepreneurial activity. At the same time, it's not always clear that that's going to be what's going to solve the longterm economic interests of the community. And I just want to make sure people have a sense that we want to celebrate people solving those problems, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the problem is totally solved for everyone at that point. Ron Townley: Oh no, we've got a long way to go. We've got a long way to go, and people need to understand the value of the internet. I think that's one of the challenges in our aging population. Somebody shared a story with me. They had defibrillator in their heart that was connected to their wifi, that communicated with the hospital. Gentleman was about 75 years old and he woke up in the middle of the night with a jolt, and he called the hospital and he said, "I think I'm having a heart attack." And they said to him, "You've already had the heart attack. We engage the defibrillator built into your chest. You were dead. We brought you back to life." Christopher Mitchell: You're welcome, Ironman. 35:05 Ron Townley: Right? So you know, that is the world we live in. So when we talk about people staying where they grew up, aging in place, having safety in rural communities, being able to move there and know that you have access to the world, it also revolves around telehealth. Ron Townley: It revolves around having that conversation online with the doctors. It's not just about download speed, it's about upload speed. It's about that medical equipment communicating instantly with that hospital anywhere in the world, and that hospital being able to respond to you. And so when older folks say, "Well I don't have that," or, "I don't think that connectivity is worth the money," to know that your grandkids will first of all come more often and stay longer, but it also really revolves around your health and living that quality of life issues. And that's what rural America really offers. That's what our small towns offer, is a fantastic quality of life. But you have to have a 21st century life to go with it. Christopher Mitchell: Right. In particular, in Eastern North Carolina, some history. Ron Townley: Absolutely. Christopher Mitchell: I mean in Minnesota, our antiques are like 75 years old. So thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time today, Ron and Darren. Ron Townley: Thank you, Chris. Darren Smith: Thanks for having me today. But I wanted to say, and Ron just touched on it, the one thing that we have found in working in East North Carolina is everybody's pulling in the same direction. Even though there's different agencies, different groups, different organizations, everyone sees the need. That's been very refreshing. But I wanted to tell your listeners, cause we've talked a lot about Gig East, tell them to go to GigEast.com. They'll see updates on the space and they'll see what's going on in Wilson. Christopher Mitchell: Great pictures of drywall being mudded. Darren Smith: Absolutely. Yeah. Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you so much. Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning into this episode in our Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series, and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets, and if you follow @NCheartsGB on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers of silvermansound.com for the series music. What's the Angle, licensed through creative commons. And we want to thank you for listening. Until next time. Tags: transcript

North Dakota Co-op Raises Bar With Free Internet Offer

April 6, 2020

As coronavirus trackers continue to tick, it’s becoming even clearer that the current pandemic will necessitate months, not weeks, of working and learning from home and other social distancing measures. To make that transition easier for its members, North Dakota telephone cooperative BEK Communications is offering new subscribers four months of free Internet access on its Lightband Fiber-to-the-Home network. The co-op is also increasing speeds and implementing other efforts through its “BEK Cares” initiative, which aims to make better broadband accessible to rural North Dakotans in response to the growing Covid-19 emergency. “BEK’s commitment to keep its customers and community connected has never been greater,” the co-op stated in a press release announcing its efforts [PDF]. “We want all of our customers and community members to know we are here for you.” ISPs Pledge to Connect Across the country, Internet service providers (ISPs) have launched various efforts to address the connectivity needs of communities impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Earlier last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, a voluntary program in which ISPs promise to pause disconnections, waive late fees, and open Wi-Fi hotspots to the public. Hundreds of providers have since signed on, including national companies such as AT&T and Comcast as well as local cooperatives like BEK. In addition to taking the pledge, some companies are also offering a couple months of discounted or no-cost service to households with students and other eligible subscribers. See the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s list of free and low-cost plans for more details on the programs being offered by national ISPs. However, certain major providers have failed to create new, affordable plans during the Covid-19 pandemic, including CenturyLink, Frontier, and Windstream. Similarly, Verizon hasn’t extended its low-cost offer to areas served by its DSL network. And some companies that have implemented programs face criticism that they aren’t accessible enough. The Cooperative Edge BEK Communications, which has almost 11,000 subscribers, currently offers households speeds of up to 2.5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) download and 1.25 Gbps upload. For its BEK Cares initiative, the co-op has committed to a number of changes to improve connectivity in the communities it serves. On top of joining the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, BEK is offering four free months of Lightband fiber service to all new subscribers. CEO Derrick Bulawa shared with a local news station that the co-op is proactively reaching out to community members who stand to benefit from the program. BEK’s plan lasts twice as long as most national companies’ offers, and it is not limited only to families that meet certain eligibility requirements, such as SNAP enrollment. The co-op has also decided to double all current users’ speeds for no extra cost. Bulawa explained: The additional speed and additional capacity was added so that when the customer had higher demand from home to meet work, telehealth, and educational needs, they didn’t have to worry about it. There’s great interest and recognition from the community. According to BEK’s press release from last month, the co-op had already taken more than 2,000 calls and was installing about 25 new subscribers each day. Valley City Commission President Dave Carlsrud said in the release: We have been utilizing BEK’s business services for years, however with the current COVID-19 pandemic, we quickly found out how important they truly were. We are very appreciative of BEK’s commitment in helping the City of Valley City to continue providing necessary services to its residents. Member-owned cooperatives are stepping up during the current public health crisis as they have done before in rural America, where co-ops have invested in high-quality broadband infrastructure for decades. Thanks to their efforts, cooperative fiber is widespread in North Dakota and other rural states. Watch BEK’s short video and view a PDF of the announcement below. Link:  BEK press release - BEK Cares - March 2020Tags: quarantinefccnorth dakotacooperativebek communicationsfree

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 6

April 6, 2020

Arizona

Apache County towns plan Internet collaboration by Amber Shepard, White Mountain Independent   Texas A digital divide with dire consequences for Texas by Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune Some of the solutions are creative. WesTex Connect, an internet service provider in Abilene, has set up free Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots next to football stadiums, at the Abilene Convention Center, in Clyde, in Merkle, at the Farmer’s Co-Op Gin in Stamford and next to a lumberyard in Stamford. More are on the way, the company says, for anyone with schoolwork to do, bills to pay, whatever requires internet access.   Wisconsin During health crisis, rural Wisconsin struggles with poor Internet service by Peter Cameron, Lake Geneva Regional News   General  US society needs a broadband big dig to get out of its hole by Rana Foroohar, Financial Times   Those without fast internet struggle in a stuck-at-home nation by Tali Arbel and Michael Casey   In rural western Alabama, less than 1% of Perry County's roughly 9,100 residents have high-quality internet at home, so online lessons are out. County teachers spent three days manually loading scanned images of math worksheets and other materials on to iPads and Chromebooks for the system’s 1,100 students to take home while out of class, said Superintendent John Heard.   As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out by Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones   COVID-19 proves we need to continue upgrading America’s broadband infrastructure by Blair Levin, Brookings    Siefer on COVID-19 stimulus: More action needed to connect millions of households by Bill Callahan, NDIA   Rural broadband in the time of coronavirus by Clark Merrefield, Journalist’s Resource   Telecom Industry, Broadband Advocates Push for Internet Subsidies in Next Stimulus by Sam Sabin, Morning Consult    Tags: media roundup

Pandemic Changes Pace of Federal Funding for Broadband Deployment

April 3, 2020

Like most other aspects of life, the ongoing pandemic has disrupted the federal government’s plans to disburse grants, loans, and subsidies for the construction of rural broadband networks. But unlike the sporting events and concerts that can be put on an indefinite hold, these funds are now needed more than ever by the Internet access providers trying to connect rural households during a time when everything has moved online. Federal agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), must find ways to manage the challenges caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus and to leverage their funds to support essential networks for families stuck at home.

These agencies’ main rural broadband programs — the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and USDA’s ReConnect — are at different stages, both in their funding cycles and in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has already led to changes at the USDA, which has extended the ReConnect application deadline and is set to receive additional funds from Congress. Meanwhile, the FCC has yet to alter the upcoming RDOF subsidy auction, but it could speed up the process to address the current crisis, which threatens to linger through the summer. While more must be done to address the many digital divides exacerbated by the pandemic, federal agencies should at least use existing programs to their full advantage to connect rural Americans during this unprecedented time. ReConnect Extends and Expands USDA launched the ReConnect broadband program last year to award more than $1 billion in grants and loans to connect unserved and underserved rural areas. In round one of the program, the agency distributed more than $600 million to 70 providers across 31 states. Many of these awards went to community-owned networks, including rural cooperatives and local governments. Earlier this week, USDA announced that it is pushing the ReConnect round two application deadline back to April 15 because of the pandemic. In a USDA press release, Deputy Under Secretary Bette Brand said: In light of the Covid-19 National Emergency, USDA is extending the application deadline for round two of ReConnect Pilot Program funding to give rural businesses, cooperatives, and communities extra time to apply for this critical assistance that will help bring high-speed broadband connectivity to rural communities. USDA had already extended the application deadline last month, setting it at the end of March. The agency did not identify the novel coronavirus, which was actively spreading in the United States at the time, as the reason for the first extension, but it’s possible that it played a role in the decision. Furthermore, Congress has allocated an additional $100 million to USDA for ReConnect broadband grants as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the recently passed stimulus package. While it will likely fund high-quality, locally-owned fiber networks, the extra money is ultimately almost comically inadequate when compared to rural connectivity needs. Broadband consultant Doug Dawson explained why on his blog: I’ve seen estimates over the years that it will take $100 billion to bring fiber to everybody in rural America. While a $100 million grant program might sound huge, if the need is $100 billion, then Congress just allocated one-tenths of one percent (0.1%) of the money needed to solve the rural broadband issue . . . When we map out the areas covered by this extra money you won’t be able to see it on a map of the US. To the FCC: Hurry Up As Congress bolsters the ReConnect program, a much larger pot of funding is simmering at the FCC. The agency’s upcoming RDOF reverse auctions will award $20.4 billion in subsidies to Internet access providers to expand rural broadband across the country. Phase one of the program has a budget of $16 billion. While the FCC plans to conduct the phase one auction later this year, Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon, has proposed expediting the RDOF process to speed up the deployment of rural connectivity.“The one thing I think the country doesn’t have anymore is time...We don’t have time to build these networks,” he shared recently on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In particular, Chambers, who works with rural electric cooperatives, recommended that the FCC award accelerated funds only to bidders that promise gigabit-capable Fiber-to-the-Home networks and distribute any remaining funding at a later date. He also suggested various changes that could facilitate the collapsed time frame, including not tweaking eligible areas and streamlining application forms. One advantage of his idea is that it uses an existing program and funding to attack the connectivity crisis exposed by the Covid-19 outbreak. Electric cooperatives and other community owned providers are well-situated to respond to the hastened timeline proposed by Chambers. “I work for 50 to 100 electric co-ops right now who’d be prepared to start building fiber networks in rural areas if the RDOF were implemented today,” he said on the podcast episode. Chambers explained how these fiber networks could not only address connectivity challenges facing families today but also prepare communities to rebuild their local economies after the pandemic: You’ve got activity today, which then leads to the economic activity of the future because you’ll be enabling, through the networks, the kinds of social, healthcare, educational — all of everything that people do by living on the Internet will be enabled in rural areas . . . We’re ready now. Let’s get started now. Let’s move the timetable for the RDOF process up. Listen to Chambers discuss his proposal and the upcoming RDOF auction on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below.   Image credit: miguelb on Flickr, under Creative Commons license Attribution 2.0 Tags: federal fundingfederal governmentjonathan chambersquarantineusdafccsubsidies

How the FCC Plans to Spend $20 Billion on Rural Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode 402

April 2, 2020

For this episode, Christopher was joined by returning guest Jonathan Chambers to discuss the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which will finance broadband deployment across rural America. Jonathan is a partner at Conexon, which works with rural electric cooperatives to plan, fund, and build fiber optic networks. The pair review the details of the new RDOF program and how the reverse auction compares to the prior Connect America Fund. Jonathan explains how the funding process rewards the local co-ops, communities, and companies that step up to provide high-quality connectivity. He argues that the FCC should move the auction timeline up to quickly expand Internet access because of the pandemic. They also talk about some issues with RDOF and about the potential for the program to improve broadband access in rural areas. Previously, Jonathan was on Episode 349 and Episode 321 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to discuss the Connect America Fund. We'd also like to hear from you. Would you like to hear shorter, more frequent episodes instead of our usual weekly episodes to keep up with the ever-changing times? Let us know by commenting below, by sending an email to podcast@muninetworks.org, or by tagging us on social media. This show is 39 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. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. 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: podcastbroadband bitsjonathan chambersfccconnect america fundrural electric coopfederal funding

Another Fiber Optic Project in Texas Aims to Connect Residents and Businesses

April 2, 2020

According to a recent article in Bluebonnet News, the City Council of Dayton, Texas, has approved a $13.7 million bond to operate its own fiber optic system. The city aims to make residents and businesses more self-reliant and less dependent on big cable companies. Located 15 miles east of Houston, Dayton has a population of nearly 8,000 people. Once the 70 mile fiber network is complete, it will meet the connectivity needs of Dayton's residents and businesses now and well into the foreseeable future. Slow Start in Texas Texas is one of 19 states that have laws restricting cities from offering their own telecommunications services to residents. In Texas, state laws prevent municipal networks from offering voice and video services, but they can still provide Internet access to households. Mont Belvieu became the first city in the state to deploy its own citywide fiber network, after successful court rulings clarified the city's authority to offer broadband access. Since the city of Mont Belvieu created its high-quality fiber optic network, MB Link, it has connected about half of its residents and has inspired other rural areas and towns in the country. Dayton, Texas, is one of those communities which shares Mont Belvieu's vision, as per the article from Bluebonnet News: Like Mont Belvieu, the City of Dayton will provide the Internet service as another utility, like water and sewer service. Theo Melancon, City Manager, believes the cost of the service will be more affordable for Dayton residents and businesses. Dayton Dreams of Speed Residents of Dayton are currently relying on DSL and cable service from large telcos, like AT&T, Frontier, and Comcast. Most of Dayton is served by monopoloy providers — only about 5 percent of residents have more than one choice for broadband access. Theo Melancon, City Manager of Dayton, feels positive that the project will serve 98 percent of utility customers with speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second for $80 a month. He told Bluebonnet News: Right now, we are very confident that customers will have at least 800 [Megabits] per second of download and upload speeds at any given time . . . In the midst of all the chaos that is going on in the investment world, we received a very competitive bid. We are at a whole percentage point lower than where we thought we would be. According to Melancon, there was more than one hand in getting the lower interest rate for the bond. One is the Finance Director and Assistant City Manager Rudy Zepeda, and the other is support from the investment market itself. Melancon said, "They believe in our business plan and our financial management. They have said as much in emails to us. S&P told our financial advisers they are so proud of what the city has done over the last 10 years." Meanwhile, the city is hiring Magellan Advisors to manage the build-out process and deploy the infrastructure within 18 months. Once the project is complete, the residents of Dayton will soon experience all the possibilities that high-quality Internet access can bring into their lives. Image Credit: Patrick Feller via Flickr under Creative Commons license 2.0 Tags: texasFTTHmont belvieu txdayton txmunibondfiber

Christopher Mitchell Joins Broadband Breakfast Live Online

April 1, 2020

Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, recently appeared on Broadband Breakfast Live Online on March 31 to discuss the impacts of the pandemic in the broadband sector. Along with Christopher, the panel discussion was joined by host Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher at Broadband Breakfast, Gigi Sohn from Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, and Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of SiFi Networks. The panelists explained policies to support universal broadband access, shared issues with telehealth, and suggested short-term solutions to bridge the homework gap. Here is an excerpt from Christopher’s discussion with Broadband Breakfast: I think that the school backbone networks can be helpful right now. We need any fiber available to immediately bring high-quality Wi-Fi to parking lots so that people can access networks right now, perhaps with a heater on and soon with an AC on. I feel like that is the major priority of what we are seeing in terms of the reactions. In the longer term, to actually make sure everyone is connected with the high-quality network, I think those school networks in some cases will be useful. Certainly, in municipal networks we've long seen sharing of cost. So if you are opening a trench to put in a school network, you should put in other conduit or fiber for other usage. A lot of municipal networks have benefited from the shared cost. So that is just a good standard practice. Watch their full conversation below or on Broadband Breakfast. Tags: press centervideoquarantineinstitute for local self-reliancebenton institute for broadband and society

Lisa Gonzalez Leaves Us With a Sense of Hope - Community Broadband Bits Episode 401

March 31, 2020

The Community Broadband Networks team had to say a difficult goodbye recently to longtime Senior Researcher Lisa Gonzalez, who accepted a new position with the State of Minnesota. Before she left, Lisa sat down with Christopher to reflect on the end of an era. Despite some bittersweet feelings, she expresses confidence that she's leaving the program in good hands.

In the eight years since Lisa joined the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, there have been a lot of changes in the world of municipal broadband. Lisa discusses how her role at the Community Broadband Network Initiative evolved over time and how more interest in locally owned connectivity translated to an increase in her output. She recounts how she took the helm of MuniNetworks.org, and Christopher credits her for the website's success.

The pair also talk about Lisa's new role as a telecommunications analyst at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, where she will apply her experience to benefit the state's consumers. Before signing off, Christopher and Lisa reminisce over her early days at ILSR and discuss how it almost didn't come to be. For more of Lisa's reflections, read her farewell post. This show is 25 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. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. 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 bitsinstitute for local self-reliance

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 30

March 30, 2020

 

Iowa

Virus exposes Iowa’s broadband weaknesses by Rod Boshart, Globe Gazette   Kansas Wheatland Electric and Wheatland Broadband suspend disconnections for non-payment while addressing coronavirus, The Great Bend Tribune   Minnesota Lack of broadband access adds to challenges for school districts in Greater Minnesota by Erin Hinrichs, Minnpost   Mississippi  Mississippi County Electric Cooperative teams with Conexon to deploy fiber-to-the-home network; build-out will provide access to broadband benefits for 5,000 rural Arkansas homes and businesses, Cision PR Newswire   New Hampshire  Bridging the digital divide: How districts are making remote learning work, Manchester Ink Link    North Carolina  Star Communications putting WiFi hotspots in Sampson and Bladen counties by Chris Berendt, Bladen Journal   Virginia Broadband project approved to proceed, The Gazette-Virginian   Washington iFIBER’s 'FIRST PRIORITY' program ensures high-speed internet access for students and telecommuters during coronavirus pandemic by Shawn Goggins, iFiberone   Wisconsin  Wisconsin's internet slowed a bit, but not broken, by coronavirus pandemic by Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel    General  New law to increase internet access for rural and tribal communities by Emma Gibson, Arizona Public Media   Congress ignores rural broadband, POTs and PANs  There is no such thing as bad grant money that brings better broadband, and all of the above allocations are welcome. However, none of this money is going to make more than a miniscule dent in the rural broadband issue. The only award that is likely to construct new broadband facilities is the $100 million for the ReConnect grant program.   5G won’t help rural americans shelter in place by Tara Lachapelle, Yahoo Finance   To fight coronavirus, millions more Americans need Internet access by Geoffrey Starks, The New York Times We should encourage all broadband providers to join the coronavirus-response effort by creating or expanding low-cost options for basic internet connections. Some have already done so, and we must do more for low-income families, who already bear too many burdens of this health crisis and its economic fallout.   Can Wi-Fi hotspots bridge the digital divide under coronavirus? By Ryan Johnston, statescoop   Why the Internet (probably) won’t break during the coronavirus pandemic by Adam Clark Estes, Vox   Libraries want to become broadband havens during the pandemic, but want more help from the FCC by Karl Bode, Techdirt   Go ahead, stream all you want. The Internet is fine—for now by Klint Finley, Wired   At least the Internet hasn't crashed: Ajit Pai on the FCC and COVID-19 by Andrea Peterson, Protocol   Sallet: Coronavirus bill should build lasting broadband future by John Eggerton, Multichannel    Tags: media roundup

Mount Olive Makes the Case for Local Broadband Solutions

March 30, 2020
Mount Olive Audio Story

We talked to residents of Mount Olive, North Carolina, about their struggle to get better Internet access and the importance of connectivity for their community. Listen to our conversations above, or read a summary below.

 

North Carolinians are fed up with slow, expensive, and unreliable Internet access. Communities across the state are seeking solutions, but are running into barriers, especially in rural areas.

The town of Mount Olive, home to about forty-six hundred people, is one such example. Only recently, after working with local Internet service provider Open Broadband, are they getting decent Internet access for residents and local businesses.  Charles Brown, Town Manager of Mount Olive, told us about the challenges the community faced before Open Broadband came to town. Getting high quality Internet access to a regional airport located just outside of town was a priority for local leaders — it generates around $21.1 million in local economic impact — but after going to every big Internet provider in the area and reaching out to their congressional representatives, they couldn’t make it happen.   It wasn’t until Brown and other town officials reached out to local Internet provider Open Broadband that they found a path forward.  OpenBroadband was able to install towers on the town’s water tanks and connect the airport. They also worked with the town to set up free public broadband access in downtown Mount Olive — something that’s especially popular during the North Carolina Pickle Festival, which draws more than 30,000 people to the area each year.   Brown said: Well, I think everybody is delighted with Main Street. We have the North Carolina Pickle Festival we hold the last weekend in April every year. So now we have the capability of having an app to show people where the pickle eating contest is or the pickle packing contest, or whatever events that are going on. They can pull up on their phone now on Main Street and know where those things are going on. It’s not just the airport and the Pickle Festival that have benefited. Just outside Mount Olive is a local company focused on crop insurance. Owner Van Alphin Jr. described the frustration of running a business without high quality Internet access as living in the dark ages. AT&T was charging them hundreds of dollars a month for service far slower than what the Federal Communications Commission considers broadband to be. They were considering moving their office closer to town for better access, but they feared business harm from not being located right amid their clients.  When Alphin reached out to Open Broadband, he found out that he could set up a tower and connect not only his business but his neighbors and the local fire department as well. High quality Internet access has been a huge boost to their business, allowing them to conduct business online, use new phone systems, and get a better back up system in place. Maybe most importantly, it’s allowed them to remain located in a rural area near their customers.    “It is as important to us as electricity and water. So it's a need. It's a need,” said Alphin. Unfortunately, many homes in the region are still waiting to get connected, including Alphin’s. When his family moved out of town a few years ago, they assumed that they’d have high speed Internet access in their new home — that wasn’t the case.   Alphin explained: We can't watch Netflix. We don't look at YouTube videos. My kids who are now, I got two in college and when they were home doing research papers, we had satellite Internet and we burned through our data in two weeks and you couldn't renew your data till the next month so they had to go to hotspots or to a restaurant to get into high speed to do the research papers and things like that. He emphasized the need to get politics out of the conversation around broadband and not let big, out of state corporations decide who gets access. Communities like Mount Olive need more options to make sure everyone has the many benefits modern Internet access offers.  Alphin continued: The small governments work for the taxpayers, which are the constituents that elect them. AT&T doesn't have to answer to anybody but their stockholders. … If they're going to block the small governments from serving us, what do we, where do we turn to?” Open Broadband was founded specifically to find ways to expand high-quality access to people in this situation. But CEO Alan Fitzpatrick is honest about the need for more tools to help local companies like his.  Fitzpatrick described one of the barriers: So we have a law in the state that forbids municipalities from starting their own Internet service to customers. There are few cities that have been grandfathered because they were already doing this before the law went into effect. …. We'd like to see the state take more positive action on, you know, allowing the use of state assets, county assets, town assets to improve broadband for everyone.   Most states do not limit communities' authority to build their own networks. In North Carolina, however, the state legislature decided cities cannot build their own networks and it has limited how they can craft partnerships for better broadband. Most of the people we have talked to have said that only a few communities would actually want to build their own networks. Instead, they want to partner with a trusted local company that will handle the technology.  Communities often already have fiber optic lines in place as part of public safety or utility infrastructure — enough that they could lease the extra capacity to significantly lower the cost for a partner to build a network in the region.   Greg Coltrain works for RiverStreet Networks, a cooperative that provides Internet access to rural communities in North Carolina. He agrees that removing barriers to partnerships between communities and Internet service providers would be a big step in the right direction.     Coltrain said: In our conversations with most of the municipalities and counties in North Carolina, we have found they just want to be a facilitator in trying to help make it happen. So there's room for some change in the law. There's room for us to reexamine what's available. And if there are assets that can be utilized for a company to come in and lease those assets so that they can reach further out into the community, it really kind of helps cut down on the substantial cost. I mean, it's a heavy lift to come into these communities and replow and reconstruct fiber throughout very small rural areas, and so if you can use the assets that are already in place to connect to, to get closer to those customers, it really cuts the cost down substantially.   A lot of folks are trying to remove those barriers, including Erin Wynia of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.  “It is critical for our education system, health care system, economic system," explained Wynia, "and in the subsets of that you can think about agriculture in rural areas or banking system.” Nearly all elected officials would agree with Wynia’s point, but political hurdles remain. Wynia walked us through some recent actions state leaders have taken to expand broadband access, and touched on some of the biggest barriers that remain.  Wynia said: Our state legislature also has taken steps to fix some legal hurdles that our electric cooperatives had in order for them to provide broadband services over air infrastructure.  The third piece, the big policy piece, that our state legislature just can’t seem to get moving right now is to allow local governments both cities and counties to be able to even accept grant money and spend it for broadband infrastructure but certainly, our state law right now prohibits local governments from participating whether it’s building infrastructure or operating the service.   In some areas of the state, the big incumbent telecom simply cannot provide the service, they cannot make money, they can’t return a profit to shareholders so there is nothing inherently bad about that, it’s just that there does need to be other options enabled. … there has been hurdles to that in our state legislature in Raleigh and I think it can largely be traced back to the influence of big incumbent telecom companies. The takeaway from all this? Broadband is a solvable problem and getting it right makes a difference. Mount Olive’s Town Manager is already seeing results: Brown shared: I tend to start to see people coming back to this area, and I'm not going to say it's because of the access to broadband, but I think that's certainly part of it, but to have access to technology. If they were way out in the wilderness and they couldn't talk to anybody on the internet or whatever, I don't think they'd be quite as open to returning here. Connecting everyone in North Carolina with fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access is a real challenge, but it is up to the legislature to decide whether the state is truly encouraging all options or continuing to prevent communities from investing locally.    For more resources on broadband in North Carolina, please visit our website: nc.localbroadband.org. Have questions or ideas? Get in touch with our team at broadband@communitynets.org. Tags: north carolinanorth carolina league of municipalitiesopen broadbandriver street networkspreemptionaudio

Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed: Big Wireless Providers’ Growth Limits Local Choice

March 27, 2020

Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, wrote an op-ed that the Orlando Sentinel published on March 5, 2020. Katie wrote about how lobbying from the big wireless companies at the state legislature restricts local communities from making their own decisions. She also touched on the importance of protecting local authority to allow communities to have their own right to make decisions. Here is the full piece:  Imagine moving into a new home. One of the reasons you chose this house was the view from your daughter’s bedroom of the park across the street, a nice change from the alleyway her room overlooked in your old apartment. Then, days after unpacking the last pair of socks, a set of ugly, bulky boxes appear on the street light right in front of your daughter’s window, blocking the view almost entirely. You contact your council representative only to find out that it’s a new wireless “small” cell and despite being on city property, state law prevents them from doing anything. Their hands, you’re informed, are tied. This story is playing out again and again in communities across Florida as companies like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile stumble over each other to build out next generation 5G wireless infrastructure. In their haste, wireless providers are slapping up poles and equipment often without concern for the impact on local communities, affecting aesthetics and straining city resources. A municipality typically has the authority to prevent or at least address this kind of local nuisance. But in Florida, there’s little recourse for the communities and families harmed by indiscriminate 5G construction. As a result of lobbying from the big wireless companies, state law limits the ability of local governments to collaborate with wireless providers over the placement and appearance of small cell wireless facilities. It also shortens the permitting process for new wireless installations and caps or eliminates the fees that cities can charge companies like AT&T to use public property. These industry-backed blanket regulations ignore the unique needs and values of different communities, limiting local control over neighborhood appearance, undermining digital equity efforts, and threatening public accountability. Strict permitting timelines and fee restrictions further burden communities. Reducing the time available to review a permit application takes city staff and resources away from other duties. The slashed fees are unable to make up for this shortfall, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the slack. In effect, the Florida Legislature is forcing local governments to subsidize private companies merely because those companies hire effective lobbyists  Improving wireless coverage is important, but it’s not an excuse for the legislature to give wireless providers carte blanche over your community. In many areas, 5G will only bring slightly faster speeds — T-Mobile tells most people to expect a 20 percent speed increase. This marginal improvement in Floridians’ lives will not outweigh the costs of state interference in local authority. These state restrictions have precedent. The Florida Legislature has long limited communities’ ability to invest in wired broadband networks to create local Internet choice and connect unserved areas. For most cities, building their own network is a last resort, but that should be decided by their residents, not lobbyists at the state Capitol. State overreach isn’t limited to communications. Florida law also prevents local governments from enacting community-supported legislation on minimum wage, environmental protection, and many other issues. Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research organization, reports that state interference in local affairs is increasing, driven in part by corporate special interests. Alachua and Miami probably need different minimum wages and almost certainly have different concerns about wireless companies putting up new poles and equipment. Forcing them to be the same is good for AT&T executives but bad for everyone else. No matter how powerful the monopoly lobbyists in Tallahassee are, communities should have some control over their property, and they should be able to demand accountability when someone interferes with it. We must protect the right to local decision-making. The author is a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Tags: press centerflorida5G

Broadband First Responders: Libraries, Schools, and ISPs Open Wi-Fi Hotspots for Students

March 26, 2020

Visitors to libraries across the country are being greeted with signs declaring, “Library Closed,” in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But increasingly, those words are followed by the ones seen outside Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania: “Park for Free Wi-Fi.”

As the Covid-19 outbreak pushes almost all daily functions online, libraries, schools, and Internet service providers (ISPs) are finding themselves on the front lines of responding to their communities’ connectivity needs — especially those of students. Nationwide, these broadband first responders are working rapidly to open and deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots that families can access from the safety of their parked cars.

Even before the current crisis, the “homework gap” meant that 7 million school-age children did not have Internet access at home, hampering their ability to get an education. Now, the digital divide is being thrown into even starker relief, as students struggle to access online classes and school districts grapple with equity concerns. Though it isn’t a permanent solution to the homework gap, these community institutions and providers hope that the emergency Wi-Fi access will give students on the wrong side of the divide a chance to learn while schools are shut down. Students Trade Desks for Cars Earlier this week, the American Library Association (ALA) recommended that libraries leave their Wi-Fi turned on and accessible while facilities are closed. In a press release, ALA stated: America’s 16,557 public library locations are essential nodes in our nation’s digital safety net . . . The COVID-19 Pandemic is disrupting this safety net and spotlighting the persistent digital gaps for more than 20 million people in the United States, including millions of school-age children and college students forced out of classrooms. Even before ALA issued that guidance, librarians across the nation were moving wireless routers next to windows and hanging up signs with log-on instructions in an effort to ensure patrons could still access Wi-Fi networks from the library’s parking lot. (Many recommend users stay in their vehicles, but some sites are allowing walk-ups, provided people distance themselves.) Starting last week, Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania, alerted community members that the Wi-Fi network remains accessible 24/7 from the building’s parking spots. A sign outside the library provides information on how to sign on to the network. The marquee outside the Virginia Public Library in Virginia, Minnesota, simply tells visitors, “OUR PASSWORD IS BOOKWORM.” Networkmaine, which helps connect public universities, schools, and libraries in Maine, has started the Study-From-Car Initiative to track schools and libraries with Wi-Fi networks open to students. It is also offering to help schools in the state set up separate guest wireless networks for the public to use during the shutdown. Schools themselves are finding creative solutions to close the connectivity gap faced by many students. In Illinois, Belleville Township High School District 201 is deploying Wi-Fi-enabled school busses to various sites in the community so students can download digital assignments. On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clarified that schools and libraries could continue to open their wireless networks to the public without endangering federal funding, quelling some institutions’ fears. “Shutting down these Wi-Fi networks could have been disastrous for the millions of people who depend on schools or libraries as their only point of internet access,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition. With that reassurance in hand, expect to see many more schools and libraries follow these examples in the coming days. ISPs Move to Connect Since the FCC launched the Keep Americans Connected Pledge two weeks ago, hundreds of broadband providers have agreed to make their Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to the public. National monopolies and small independent alike have signed the pledge, but we have heard reports that, with Comcast’s network at least, people are struggling to find working hotspots and actually get online. On the other hand, community broadband networks have not only opened access at existing Wi-Fi hotspots but are actively working to deploy more throughout their communities. The Holland Board of Public Works in Holland, Michigan, has set up an access location at the Holland Civic Center using its broadband infrastructure, helpfully offering residents a map of the best-connected parking spots. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the municipal fiber network is partnering with the local school district to deploy EPB Quick Connect Free Wi-Fi at 25 sites, including schools, churches, and community centers. East Lake Academy’s front and side parking lots are now live! pic.twitter.com/YlK0JFSXEr — Grant Knowles (@GrantLearns) March 25, 2020 Rural cooperatives, too, are working overtime to meet their communities’ connectivity needs. Through its broadband subsidiary, Kit Carson Electric Co-op in New Mexico has set up Wi-Fi hotspots in 14 locations. One thousand miles north, Minnesota-based telephone co-op CTC is deploying drive-up Wi-Fi access sites across their rural service territory and will continue to add more. For the most part, providers are positioning Wi-Fi hotspots in spots where families can park their cars to access the network, but consulting agency CTC Energy & Technology also developed a short guide for how communities could set up wireless networks in public housing and other residential buildings. In many ways, these efforts wouldn’t be as necessary if federal and state governments had invested adequately in high-quality, affordable networks years ago. However, there is still time for officials to support providers’ efforts now. Joe Buttweiler, the telephone co-op’s Director Of Business Development, shared on LinkedIn: CTC will keep adding locations and doing our best to support our communities and neighbors but we need funding NOW and without red tape . . . Get us funding to build robust, future proof, fiber networks to avoid all of these connectivity challenges from hindering us in the future. Listen to Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 400 to hear how local broadband company US Internet is addressing connectivity needs during the pandemic. Broadband Is an Essential Service Naturally, students can use these Wi-Fi networks to complete coursework, but the connection to their schools also serves a bigger purpose — ensuring their emotional and physical wellbeing during this difficult time. Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer explained to Illinois public radio how Belleville Township School District 201 was using the connectivity to check in with students: [Class] starts with: How are you doing? Is there anything you need? Are you healthy? Do you need food? Those are the questions our lessons . . . are beginning with because we understand that’s also a priority. Even without a pandemic, it’s evident that Internet access is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity. Fundamental services, like education, healthcare, and public safety, require a broadband connection, now more than ever. Families will not follow orders to shelter in place if they can’t safely access these essential services. The Covid-19 outbreak is expanding many people’s perceptions of who first responders are in a time of emergency. It’s not only medical professionals and police officers but also grocery store workers and delivery drivers who are on the front lines of the battle to contain the novel coronavirus. The fast-thinking schools, libraries, and companies working across the country to connect American students — our broadband first responders — deserve recognition too. Image credit: Schlow Centre Region Library and Don Means, Gigabit Libraries Network. Join Gigabit Libraries Network every Friday at 12 eastern time for their online discussion series "What is a library if the building is closed?" Tags: quarantineschoollibraryctc technology and energyconsolidated telecommunications companyholland miWi-FiEPBkit carson electric coopfcceducation

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 400

March 26, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 400 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Travis Carter, CEO of US Internet, a locally owned Internet access company in Minneapolis, about how the company is adjusting to the increased demand for Internet access due to the new coronavirus pandemic. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Travis Carter: The priority really is just keep our customers connected, keep them running, keep our employees safe, make sure they're getting paid so we can navigate through this together. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 400 of the community broadband bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, the Communications Manager. We've interviewed Travis Carter several times before, but never in the middle of a pandemic. Travis is the CEO of US Internet, a locally owned Internet access company here in Minneapolis. Travis intends to build out the USI fiber optic network across the city and while the coronavirus may have slowed down construction, it has uninterrupted service for subscribers. In this interview, Travis and Christopher will discuss what it's like operating his company during a national crisis and while social distancing impacts operations. He also talks about how as more people are working from home and schools are shut down, traffic is impacting demands on the network. Now here's Christopher talking with Travis Carter from US Internet. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the community broadband bits podcast. I'm here with Travis Carter in his office at the US Internet world headquarters. Travis Carter: World headquarters Christopher Mitchell: Do you call us Minneapolis? You know I am in Minneapolis. Travis Carter: Because nobody ever knows where Minnetonka or Minnesota is. Christopher Mitchell: So we are recording, we'll become episode 400. Travis Carter: I miss 300 but now I got 400. Christopher Mitchell: That's right. Travis Carter: Well done. Christopher Mitchell: And, just so you know, so Lisa Gonzalez, the person who's edited more than 400 of these podcasts who's done immeasurable amount of work, she was supposed to be 400 but this is too topical and Lisa understands that once again, I'll just be training her. Travis Carter: Sorry Lisa, how about 500 for her, then she's committed for two more years. Christopher Mitchell: Well she's leaving. I guess you didn't see the news. Travis Carter: No, sorry Lisa. Now I feel bad. 2:02 Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Actually, as we were talking today it was her last day. And so if people want to see what happens when a rock leaves an office, but Travis, you and I can, we can barely see each other. We're sitting so far apart in your office. Travis Carter: We're socially distanced correctly I believe. Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I don't say that to make fun of it. It is important and your office is pretty much empty, but I wanted to talk about what it's like to be running a company right now. So we're going to talk about a number of other things including your motor home extravaganza, adventure- Travis Carter: Cool. Christopher Mitchell: ... on mobile wireless. But let's just start over this. So what is happening with USI right now that is different than it would normally be in the middle of March? Travis Carter: Well as you can see looking around the office, all the doors are shut. There's nobody here. Fortunately, for us being in the Internet business, we have a pretty good set of systems and resources. So most of our folks are working from home. We do have one or two people that are working in our data center just to make sure that that's secure and people are able to come in and out and we do have a small skeleton staff of people working in the field doing break fix on our network to keep things up and running. Otherwise, the vast majority of them are working from home. We're using Google Hangouts, we're using our Voice over IP system to have daily calls monitoring the news and just trying to make sure everyone's happy and healthy. Christopher Mitchell: Now, even your customer service representatives, they don't have to be here. Travis Carter: Correct. Vast majority of them are at home and they're able to VPN in get on the Voice over IP system and do their job and be connected to all the resources remotely. Christopher Mitchell: Do you have people who would ordinarily be working who are not working right now? Travis Carter: Yep. So when a new home or a new business signs up, we actually deploy people out there to run fiber cables or devices inside of the homes. Those people are on hiatus right now. Christopher Mitchell: And so, as a small business owner, I'm just curious, how do you deal with that? In terms of just not knowing when you can bring them back and what you can do for them? 4:16 Travis Carter: Well, the commitment that I've made to our people is they're going to continue to be getting paid, they're going to continue to get all of their benefits as long as we possibly can, which in our game or in our business, I'm anticipating, depending it moves day to day, but it should be till the end of this pandemic. So I've really tried to reinforce with our staff and our people that we're here for them and we're not doing like unfortunately a lot of other people had to do layoffs and things like that. They're here and we're going to utilize their abilities as needed to keep things going for our customers. Christopher Mitchell: So the Savage irony is that last year at this time we weren't even close to being done with snow. The ground was frozen. I can only imagine you're looking at the window and seeing this Minnesota where we appear to be having an early spring where if we didn't have a pandemic you'd probably be getting pretty busy pretty soon. Travis Carter: We've waited for this year for four years, right? In Minnesota, we have the four seasons as we like to talk about. So we've been waiting for an early spring and it shut us basically right down about a week and a half, two weeks ago. So yeah, we would be out and running in full force. The good news is a traditional construction year for us starts April 15th. So depending on ... what is today? The 20th of March, depending on what happens now this is a volatile situation and changes every day. So maybe by the time this podcast comes out it'll be different. But as of right now, if the 14 days or 21 days people are talking about, we maybe won't miss much of the season. Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's a certainly a best case scenario. Travis Carter: Best case for us. But for us, that's not really the priority right now. The priority really is just keep our customers connected, keep them running, keep our employees safe, make sure they're getting paid. So we can navigate through this together. 6:09 Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, the other savage irony we've got multiple ones her, is that at a time in which you can really install new customers, what is the demand for your services looking at? Travis Carter: It's at an all time high, it's three to four times our normal unloading of customers. Now, fortunately for us, we've got a tremendous amount of apartment buildings or what we affectionately call MDUs multi-dwelling units already pre-wired. So the vast majority of people can just plug into the jack and they're on. And so we've had real big uptake in our MDU customer base. But single family homes are through the roof as well, and a lot of them are disappointed that we're not going to be able to get them hooked up right away. But I'm sorry, it's not worth the bigger risk right now. We will happily hook you up when this is behind us. Christopher Mitchell: What does the demand of your existing customers look like? Travis Carter: The way we always do our network design is for Sunday night and Monday night. These are the busiest times for Internet traffic, streaming, peering, all the different types of stuff that we have. And so the average day now looks like a Sunday night. So if you take our network and you break it into the core network and these are the pieces that connect to Netflix and all the different types of services, we try to run at about a 10% utilization. So we're sitting there about 10% utilized during the day where normally it would be much lower than that. So if you think of every day now as Sunday night prior to this, that's really where we're sitting. Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that we're seeing elsewhere is that the peaks are getting higher both during the day and during the night. Travis Carter: Yeah. So our big peaks historically were always the Super Bowl, Academy Awards. Christopher Mitchell: Well, but you talking about Game of Thrones. 8:00 Travis Carter: Well that's the super peak. That's the Mount Everest of our business is the Game of Thrones denial of service. When that came out, this is nothing near that. When people talk about working from home, our Netflix, Hulu, YouTube servers are pretty busy during the day now. So I think a lot of people that aren't working or are taking that opportunity to maybe catch up on their streaming content. Christopher Mitchell: I think we're about to ... We have decided, my wife and I had to pull Jackson out of daycare and anticipating daycares will soon be closed anyway here in the state of Minnesota. And so I can tell you that probably you'll see more streaming. I'm not one of your customers yet unfortunately, but for Comcast, they would see that probably there will be more streaming in my house during the day even if I'm working. Travis Carter: Yeah, streaming is huge right now. VPN traffic, obviously big for people working from home. And again, for us it's just focusing on keeping things running. Christopher Mitchell: And I'm hearing that some people, my non technical people especially might be a little frustrated with Zoom not working as well. Although I think Zoom has been one of the ones that works to best. Some of the other often proprietary video conferencing solutions may not be working as well. That's not because of the IP layer, right? Travis Carter: No, I think it's their server stackers. Let's be honest, who would have thought about this? If you and I were running around talking about a national pandemic that was going to effectively shut the country down, we'd be considered one of those fringe people. Christopher Mitchell: Right, I imagine going into a CEO and saying, "I want you to spend 20% more in this area on the off chance that we suddenly have a doubling of demand." Travis Carter: Exactly. So what we did is when this started, is we started to load up on spares, lot of compute power, a lot of fiber power, a lot of switch power. So in the event if we have failures, and B, if we get into capacity constraints, we're going to be able to just take it from local inventory versus trying to ship it in from a vendor who may not be open at that time. So yeah, but you're a hundred percent correct. If we would have been running around saying we need 50% more compute capacity just to sit here, we would have never got that approved by anyone. Christopher Mitchell: What's happening with your wireless network? 10:20 Travis Carter: So we made a decision early on that our wireless network is made up of 2,500 wireless access points in the city of Minneapolis that we would previously you had to have to log in, give your name a credit card number, just so that we knew who you were. It was a way to trying to track it. It was an early method for trying to track people if there's some bad actors out there. Well, what we did now is we just opened it up so that it operates like a Starbucks or a hotel and just let people use it if they needed to use it. So as of this morning there was about 7,300 connections onto the free public wifi network in the city of Minneapolis. Christopher Mitchell: And that was an idea that the city had also come up with independently well. Travis Carter: Yeah, it was kind of ironic. We were working on it internally on how we're going to do it. And then the city called and they said, "Hey, would you guys consider it?" And we're like, well, ironically we're ... so did they come up with it first, I don't know. We all kind of came up with it together and we enabled that last Monday. This is now Friday, so it would have just been a few days ago. And you can see a steady increase in the number of people that are connected to it. Christopher Mitchell: Now when the city calls you and you pick up the phone, does it speak with a computerized voice? Travis Carter: Oh no. Nice people down there. Trying to do best and they're just like, "Hey, can you help?" And I'm like, "Of course we can help." Christopher Mitchell: No, I was just trying to make a joke and obviously it went over very well. Travis Carter: Yeah. The big government, this is the government calling. No, they're just people like you and me, we're just trying to deal with technology, I can't imagine what they're dealing with. Christopher Mitchell: What are some of the challenges that you foresee with throwing open a 2,600 node wireless network with the expectations people might have when they see that on the news? 12:04 Travis Carter: Yeah, and that's some of the things that we're working through now is the expectation. So you got to imagine when we put this wireless network out, like cell phones and tablets really didn't exist. Christopher Mitchell: By 2007, 2008. Travis Carter: Yeah. So now we're sitting here with a scenario in the early days, you would need to have a client device that we would connect to your home. And then we would run a cable into your house and we'd put a router in your house and you would use the wireless network to connect from your home to the PoE or the node, and then you would connect wifi inside your home. That's the model we've been using for the last 12, 13 years. Now you have people that are turning their phones on and they're looking for the SSID and trying to connect from the bowels of their home and going, "Why is it not working?" So we have a little bit of education that we need to do and that's the process we're going through right now is wifi ... These are the same phones that could barely connect from your garage to your kitchen and now you're trying to go a thousand feet down to the corner. It's just physically, there's not enough power there to make it happen. Christopher Mitchell: Well, it feels like we're reliving the experience of 15 years ago with the expectation that a device on the other side of the block is somehow going to be able to give you a robust connection within your home. Travis Carter: Well, what's interesting though, and I haven't been able to really put my thumb on it is these phones have cellular service. So why wouldn't somebody just continue to use their cellular service? Christopher Mitchell: Well, we can talk about that in a minute. Travis Carter: Yes. So it's kind of like, okay, I understand the wifi is free and I would love people to use it and a lot of people are using it. But if you're in a stucco home that has effectively a Faraday cage in there. So you've got your little cell phone that purposely doesn't transmit at a high power cause it's a battery, that had all these technical things. But in this time people don't want to hear that. They just want to know why. Christopher Mitchell: Right, right. Travis Carter: And again, it's not an excuse, it's just the way the technology works. 14:05 Christopher Mitchell: You started an experiment recently in terms of lowering the price and some of the low income areas that you're serving with some of the buildings that have all low income households. Travis Carter: Correct. We have a fair number of units that are wired ready to go with high speed Internet and we were having a very minimal uptake in these buildings and I like to work from data, not emotion. So where was the hurdle? Was the hurdle price, was the hurdle demand, were most people using their cell phones? What was it? So we started with the very first one is price. So we lowered our price in half. Christopher Mitchell: So a typical price for anyone in the city, it would be $50. Travis Carter: 50 bucks, right. 50 bucks gives you a 300 megabit up and down. So now we're going to say it's $25, 300 megabit up and down. So we created a marketing piece, we worked with the management company and we offered that service two months ago now. And so far we have zero people. Christopher Mitchell: Zero? Travis Carter: Yeah. Christopher Mitchell: I was expecting some number. Travis Carter: Nothing. Okay, so now we know $25 isn't the right number. Again, if it's the just price- Christopher Mitchell: And it's fascinating because what you would expect, what I would expect is that moving from 50 to 25 may not result in everyone signing up, but now you would have moved past the threshold for some group of people. Travis Carter: And again, we're trying to quantify some data here. So now we're at zero new subscribers, the 13 subscribers we had, they're still there and off they go. So now the question is, prior to this whole Covad issue, do we now lower the price- Christopher Mitchell: COVID. Travis Carter: Sorry, COVID. Christopher Mitchell: Covad was an old- Travis Carter: Sorry. Yeah, COVID. Do we now- Christopher Mitchell: I think Covad, wasn't that a company? 16:02 Travis Carter: Old telco company. That's why I had that in my head. So now do we lower the price again? So again, trying to determine what type of demand there is, and again, maybe people aren't interested. See, this is what's ironic for me because you and I live in this technology game and I couldn't go 10 minutes without being on the Internet, but there's a whole set of society that doesn't ... I talk about this on your podcast every time. We still have like 1200 dial up customers like modems, and all your millennials on here are like, what? Christopher Mitchell: Really, who's even repairing those? Travis Carter: Go on YouTube and search for modem and listen to them. Christopher Mitchell: Those devices are well above their meantime between failure. Travis Carter: Exactly. I mean yeah, getting the money for all good job manufacturers. Christopher Mitchell: USI really did it. Travis Carter: Exactly, but the key here is, my demand for connectivity, your demand for connectivity is very different than maybe somebody else's demand for connectivity. And so again, we're just trying to get to the source. Christopher Mitchell: Although I can imagine people who work in digital inclusion may be pulling their hair out a little bit because there is no one way to describe this population. And we were talking about millions of people at the end of the day. And so there's certainly some of them who don't subscribe for that reason. For a lot of people that data does suggest its price motivated. Travis Carter: Yep. Christopher Mitchell: But at the same time we don't have a lot of experiments with this. Travis Carter: That's why I thought we use this like, I think it's 500 units is our sample size. We're just using this as our Petri dish to figure out the right thing. Christopher Mitchell: Right. So you have signs up, and- Travis Carter: Oh yeah. Direct mail signs, the property managers notifying them. So there's no misunderstanding in what it is. Christopher Mitchell: Well, and that's where I'm really curious and I think this is where I hope we'll see more research in terms of whether there's a ... for instance, there's a group here in Minneapolis called CTAP, which I cannot remember exactly. They're involved with Americo. They've been trying to work on digital divide issues for a lot of years. And it would be interesting if they spent some time, for instance, just going door to door and interviewing people to be like, did you know this was available? Travis Carter: Yeah, exactly. Christopher Mitchell: How come you are not using it? 18:16 Travis Carter: Well, that's maybe one of the next steps is to grab some of that data. My current thought is the next step is, so one thing we've changed and we've just changed it since the beginning of the year, is we've started to promote television service through our Internet product via YouTube TV. So it started out a little slow, but we've just now added it to our order form. It's unbelievable the number of people that are interested in television. Christopher Mitchell: Across your whole... Travis Carter: Across all of our new customers. So what we're doing now is I'm thinking, let's go back to this area, our pilot project, reintroduce it at a low price with a television component attached to it and use that as our second data point. So we have price alone Internet only now we'll have price alone plus TV and then we'll start continuing to ratchet ourselves. I'd love to get to the end of the exercise and go, this resonates with certain people and this is what it is. And then it's duplicatable. Christopher Mitchell: Another common challenge for people is devices, but you have a relationship with PCs for people. Travis Carter: Correct. Yeah, them and the gadget guy. There's a bunch of people that we have worked with to help people with technology because you're spot on. I don't even know if most of these people have computers. I don't, and again I hate to say these people, it's just this group, this group of people that it's either price or demand or entertainment. I don't know what it is yet. Christopher Mitchell: Right. One of the things I was going to say was, I'm so staggered at zero new signups was that in some ways your experiment has a major ... the pandemic falling right in the middle of it could have totally corrupted it because you may see sudden new demand because of the people being quarantined. But its zero and zero. 20:04 Travis Carter: Yeah, exactly. Now again, my data is four or five days old, so we could reconvene say in another few weeks and see. But it was not very promising price only. Christopher Mitchell: So this is something that you and I have talked about quite a bit is, how do you as a private company figure out how to connect the entire city? And one of the things that I've said is that I would like to see the city doing more and I know that you have your own conversations with the city and I don't want to put any words in your mouth but, looking at it from a perspective of a private company, you as an ego point of view, you want to be in front of every address in Minneapolis. Travis Carter: Correct. Christopher Mitchell: And that's important to you. Travis Carter: Yeah that's a career goal. Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Travis Carter: I'd love at the end of my career to go, yep, the place I grew up in and where I went to school and all my friends live, we did that. Christopher Mitchell: Now, the challenge is that, on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis where there's demand, you're using the proxy of your wireless service because you've had wireless everywhere for 12 years. You have a sense of some neighborhoods take much more of it than other neighborhoods. Travis Carter: Correct. And so the challenge for us is appeasing the financial institutions that we borrow money from. We have to be able to make the bank covenants work. And so you have two ways of doing that. I can continue to raise the price on our current customers to feed in areas that I feel are less demand or I can figure out why there is less demand. And that's where we're using these apartment buildings that have historically low uptake because I feel if we can figure out the right formula there and if it's a price, entertainment, maybe a technology component, whatever that ends up being. Because remember, an apartment building in my mind is no different than a series of homes. It's, how do we crack the demand and desire element? That's what we're working on now. So if we can get that figured out in this pilot project, I think that will apply to everywhere in the city. 22:05 Travis Carter: And then I affectionately been calling them Internet opportunities zones. So this is an area here that we don't see as much uptake, but we have a rationale based on our pilot project again, pre pandemic of this is the products and service we should put into that opportunity area, and then we have to figure out how to finance it. So maybe there's an opportunity to work with the city. They're always open to ideas. I don't know what they can or can't do, but they're at least open to having ideas. Maybe I can find some other funds. Maybe the Minnesota Broadband grant would stop not allowing us to participate. Christopher Mitchell: Because it's targeted at rural areas. Travis Carter: It's targeted in the rural areas, which is fair. I totally get it, but- Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's fair in the sense that Comcast convinced the legislature to write it in a certain direction. Travis Carter: But I would love to be able to go to them and say, "Hey, you know what, how about I put up 50% and I get a 50% grant and then I can make the math work everywhere." So again, there's a solution here and as long as I'm sitting in this chair, we're going to finish Minneapolis. It's just how we're going to get there. I just need to be not emotional along the way and whatever people think or call me names or whatever the case may be, we're going to figure it out. Christopher Mitchell: Are people calling you a Trekkie again? Travis Carter: Yeah, they call me a nerd, but I'm okay with that. Christopher Mitchell: I was having this conversation with someone in Minneapolis and I mentioned to them that ... I think this is worth repeating, that from your point of view, it's not a game. Let's just say for a second the SpaceX could turn out to be something with their Starlink in which they would suddenly take 30% of the market. They're not going to, and they're not even trying to do that. But we fundamentally don't know what's going to happen in two or three years. You have loans you have to pay back and people have this sense like, oh, I'm sure you're just an LLC and at the end of the day, the worst thing that happens to you is you lose your business. Travis Carter: Well, since I am personally guaranteed on all this, I lose everything. Christopher Mitchell: And that's what I wanted to, yeah. 24:10 Travis Carter: I have absolutely nothing at the end of the year. And sadly I'm not qualified to do anything else. My backup plan was to work at as a greeter at Walmart and I heard they got rid of them. So it's like that's all I had. So I have got to make this work. Christopher Mitchell: Right, but the point I think is, people have a misunderstanding. They think that you could go to a bank and say, I want you to loan money to this limited liability corporation. And then if it doesn't work out, hey, too bad you don't get paid back and I'm take the money I made and I'm going to go to the Caribbean. Travis Carter: Again it matters, if you've never been in business, if you've never been an entrepreneur, I can understand why you might think that. But that's not the way it really works. Banks are in the business of being paid back and there's no misunderstanding at the bank, you've got to be able to pay him back. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Travis Carter: They don't take risks for public good or whatever, how you want to refer to it. They look at you and go, "All right, what are the odds of us getting paid back?" And I was telling my bank, the odds are 100% because I work day, nights and weekends to make sure that this is going. But I would challenge you on one thing though. Technically I feel we do know where we're going and I'll put my name and reputation on this. Wireless will never replace fiber. So the deeper we can get fiber into the neighborhoods, the better off the citizens will be and the users of the network, and I'm 50 years old, I'll be happy to sit here in 40 years and have this conversation with you again. Christopher Mitchell: No, I think you're right, but there's a couple of assumptions you're making. One is that you're going to have a company offering a very good value proposition. Now, Comcast cable offers and some people might be falling off their chairs when I say this, a pretty good value proposition in a number of areas. They offer pretty fast connections, and I'm saying that relative to a company like Mediacom or CenturyLink. Travis Carter: Fair enough. And honestly, they do a pretty good job. 26:05 Christopher Mitchell: Right. But with their prices and whatnot, there's always going to be an opportunity to compete against them. And to some extent, you certainly done well competing in some of the fiber, but if you look in Boston with netBlzr or Starry two ISPs that are doing quite well, also competing as Comcast with wireless. I think if Comcast switched to an all fiber infrastructure, those wireless companies would still be doing pretty well because there's a couple of other variables that are also important. Travis Carter: Well, and I'll agree with you that I think to what you're seeing, the shift in the ISP world or other, it used to be speed, speed, speed, speed, speed. It's now how reliable are you? Even the conversation I was having this morning, speed wasn't even a conversation. It was how many nines of uptime do you have? Because people expect the Internet to be there now because they're using it for so many parts of their life. And honestly, with VPN traffic and all that, that's really low bandwidth utilization. So it's hard to even see a big uptick from people working from home, like VPNed for doing email and group chats. When we get into situations of streaming and all that, that's where the consumption really is and so when you grow up your whole life and TV just works and now you put them on an Internet streaming platform, to them it's still TV. Why wouldn't it work? It's one of the challenges we had with Voice over IP. The phone companies did such a good job with landlines. My landline worked my entire youth. Never once was it not there. Christopher Mitchell: People don't even appreciate it. I think like you could literally have a tornado that would rip apart the electric system and I'm not saying that every telephone worked, but there was a lot of them that still worked. Travis Carter: My water always comes out of the pipe. I don't know how, I haven't really dug into how it works, but it's always there and that's what Internet is becoming. Christopher Mitchell: Well, and it's hilarious because most people don't know how that happens because if they knew how it happened, they wouldn't go buy a ton of it before a pandemic because water is one of the things we're not going to run out of. 28:05 Travis Carter: You know what? When you and I ... I don't know when you were growing up, when I was growing up, I drank water out of the faucet. Christopher Mitchell: I still do. I put ice cubes in it though. Travis Carter: But you know what I mean? So yeah, I'm not sure that we're ever going to run out of that. So no, I think that the key here is that it's all about reliability and we're seeing that now when my friends are calling me up and saying, "My VPN is dropping like crazy, I'm buffering in Netflix," not on our network, but on somebody else's network. It has nothing to do with the speed conversation. And I think that's a key thing. Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I think people take it for granted now. They think it's going to be fast enough in urban areas in particular, that it's not a differentiator anymore. They assume that part- Travis Carter: Correct, yeah. Christopher Mitchell: ... and they're looking for the reliability. So I want to end by talking about your great vacation. No one can see the slides but ... Travis Carter: I had this harebrained idea. I hadn't really had a vacation in years. And so I decided I'm going to go on a vacation and I decided to do it the way our ancestors did except not in horse and buggy. I got a motor home. Right? Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Travis Carter: Well, now here's the challenge. I'm an Internet addict, and I admit it, what am I going to do? So I'm going to give the cellular companies and opportunity now. So went out and got a LTE router and a couple of SIM cards and on the road we went. Christopher Mitchell: Did you go crazy with the T-Mobile? Travis Carter: I went with T-Mobile blast thing. We have 5G, there's no 5G right? That's a hell of a marketing. Anyway, so I got the T-Mobile blasting, I got the Verizon thing, and down the road we go. Well about four days into it, they worked okay. If you had good coverage and I'm using the signal meter, you got to be a dang IT scientist to make this work. But anyways, on day five it all stopped. So I called back to the office. I'm like, "Hey my cellular thing isn't working." "Well, you're over your data limit." I'm like, "Huh? Data limit?" 20 gig or something in like two and a half days. Well, then you get more and more and more. I think I ended up spending $300 on data through this whole thing. And you know what I ended up using most of the time? Is I'd go find somebody's wifi hotspot at a Starbucks or at a McDonald's because ... and I will say this and we'll put this in the podcast for all time, there is a 0% chance cellular takes over being everyone's Internet provider. It's terrible. 30:28 Christopher Mitchell: Well even the 5G, they talk about how great it is and they fully expect, I think four fifths of it, 80 percentage to be offloaded on wifi. Travis Carter: Yeah, it's exactly it. So then I did this little experiments, they talk about how well, if only if the cellular tower is overloaded, are we going to rate limit you? So I was on the outskirts of Abilene, Texas or something, or Amarillo Texas and I went out in the middle of nowhere. There was me and cows. I was getting rate limited like crazy. So anyways, I'm just saying that this was my whole thing. This is why cellular companies, Starlink, all these kind of ... they're all wireless at the end of the day. We'll never compete on what we're putting in. You put in a fiber connection to somebody's house, you give them a high quality wifi connection. Even now with wifi six coming out is the biggest evolution in wifi and it might be something you want to talk about in a future podcast, game changer. FCC opening up the six gigahertz band, game changer. Travis Carter: So I would challenge you to say, yeah, we know what the next 10 years is going to be. And unless they invent something faster than light, I think we're okay. So I'm okay with personally guaranteeing tremendous debt to build this out, because I think it's the right thing to do. And even in this pandemic you can see there's zero impact on the network. Everyone's working, everyone's enjoying the content. We just need to get through this together. Christopher Mitchell: That's a great way to end it. I was trying to decide if I should go anywhere else, but I feel like that's a good place to end. Travis Carter: Is that episode 400. Christopher Mitchell: Episode 400. Travis Carter: In the bag, huh? Sorry Lisa. Christopher Mitchell: Lisa will be on next week with a conversation that we recorded as her goodbye. It's tragic to work with someone for eight great years and then not even have a chance to see her as she moves onto another job, but- 32:27 Travis Carter: Well, congratulations for her. And can I call dibs on episode 500 then? Christopher Mitchell: You could try, that'll be two years from now. Travis Carter: Thanks Chris. Well done. Christopher Mitchell: Hopefully, we'll maybe do it in a bar that actually has people. Travis Carter: Well yeah, because I haven't seen anyone for days. It was nice for you to come over today. You are my first human interaction in almost a week. So thank you. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Travis Carter, CEO of US Internet, a local Minneapolis based ISP. Check out other conversations with Travis and episodes 359, 301 and 194. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at mininetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast at mininetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow mininetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @mininetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power, Composting for Community and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 400 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening. Link: Tags: transcript

Bridging Divides, Building Opportunity in Rural and Urban North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits North Carolina Bonus Episode!

March 26, 2020

Early last month, before the spread of the novel coronavirus turned staying home from a quiet night in into a moral imperative, Christopher traveled to North Carolina to attend the Institute for Emerging Issues Forum at North Carolina State University. While there, he interviewed Leslie Boney, Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues. He also spoke with Darren Smith from Wilson's Gig East Exchange and Ron Townley from the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments. We wanted to share their conversation as a special episode of the "Why NC Broadband Matters" podcast series we've been working on with NC Broadband Matters. The nonprofit organization works to connect communities across North Carolina, bringing high-quality broadband access to residents and businesses. Christopher and Leslie discuss the Institute for Emerging Issues, and Leslie describes how they developed the theme of the forum, ReCONNECT. They talk about the importance of not only expanding broadband infrstructure but making sure people and businesses can take advantage of technology. Leslie explains why rural and urban communities rely on eachother and both deserve investment in digital inclusion. After Leslie leaves, Darren and Ron share what's happening in Wilson and eastern North Carolina. They reflect on their experience at the forum. Darren talks about Wilson's new innovation hub, the Gig East Exchange, and how the city is building off its municipal network for economic and community development in the region. Ron describes the varying levels of connectivity in the communities that make up the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments and explains how they're working to improve braodband across northeast North Carolina. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or with the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed. Transcript for this episode coming soon! Listen to other Community Broadband Bits episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Thanks to Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com a Creative Commons Attribution (4.0) license. Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsnorth carolinaNC Hearts Gigabitwilsoneconomic developmentdigital divide

“Broadband Competition Matters” Says Former FCC General Counsel

March 25, 2020

In a recent article, “Tell The Story We Know: Broadband Competition is Too Limited,” Jonathan Sallet laid out the case for robust broadband competition as a necessary step in expanding high-quality connectivity nationwide. “Academic research tells us that more broadband competition matters: pushing rivals to up their game, saving money for consumers, increasing the quality of service,” explained Sallet, a current Benton Institute Senior Fellow and former General Counsel at the Federal Communications Commission. The article, co-published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, identified greater broadband competition as one of the four “building blocks” needed to reach the goal of connecting all Americans to modern Internet access by 2030. Sallet has expanded on this goal in the report, Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, which we covered last year. In addition to creating more Internet choice, the report cited the need for continued efforts to deploy broadband infrastructure, increase affordability and adoption, and connect community anchor institutions. Communities Crave Competition It’s not a secret that greater broadband competition lowers prices and improves service quality. For example, the municipal fiber networks in Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have kept incumbent providers’ rates low even as speeds increased. “By the FCC’s calculation, new competition saved Wilson’s approximately 50,000 residents more than $1 million per year,” Sallet noted in the article. However, as he pointed out, other communities are much more likely to live under a broadband monopoly or duopoly — and to pay dearly for it. “We can expect people with only one choice to pay monopoly prices,” he wrote, “and people with only two choices to pay the higher prices typically charged by duopolies.” He continued: In fact, new FCC data (which we all know systematically overstates the presence of fixed broadband competition) shows that, at the typical speed of 100/10 Mbps, 80 percent of Americans have either no choices in broadband providers (monopoly) or only two choices (duopoly). That’s very little competition. Local Solutions One way to address the lack of Internet choice is to return authority to local governments to invest in the broadband infrastructure their residents and businesses need. “Local communities should have the freedom to help their people fully participate in a broadband world: learning, getting jobs, obtaining healthcare online,” explained Sallet. Alexandria, Virginia, has only one high-speed, fixed-broadband provider. As Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson explains, lack of competition leads, he believes, to an inferior product. Moreover, small-business owners say that lack of broadband competition limits investment and makes Alexandria a less attractive location for businesses. One small-business owner, whose business requires the transfer of large data files, told Mayor Wilson that he sends his employees who live in other places home to send and receive files where their broadband is better than it is at work. To help tackle these issues, Alexandria plans to construct an institutional fiber network to connect city buildings, schools, and other community anchors. In the future, the city could lease extra capacity on the network to private providers to build out to businesses and residents. Alexandria began searching for a vendor to build the network last fall. The current Covid-19 outbreak, which is forcing families to rely on whatever connectivity they have at home, further underlines the importance of local authority as an antidote to broadband monopoly. A lack of competition has not only put affordable, reliable Internet access out of reach for many, but it also threatens entire communities' links to the outside world if their sole broadband provider experiences a network disruption during this time. Listen to Community Broadband Bits episode 381 to hear more from Sallet on broadband competition and on his report, Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. Tags: competitionbenton institute for broadband and societycoalition for local internet choicewilsonalexandriamonopoly

Clarksville, Ark., Digs Into Fiber Build, Plans First Home Connections

March 24, 2020

John Lester, General Manager of Clarksville Connected Utilities (CCU) in Clarksville, Arkansas, knows a thing or two about the value of a municipal broadband network. “Just keeping the dollars in Clarksville is gonna have a big impact. Do you have a calculator handy?” Lester asked me, when I called him earlier this month to learn more about the city’s planned foray into residential broadband services. “Let me talk you through something,” he replied, after I said I did. “Let’s say we’ve got 4,500 potential customers and 75 percent of them get high-speed Internet, in some fashion. What’s that number?” From there, he ran through a handful of calculations to illustrate the economic benefit of Clarksville’s new Fiber-to-the-Home network. Assuming residents save about $20 per month and the savings continue to circulate locally, the network could grow the city’s economy by $4 million every year. “That stays in our consumers’ pockets right here in Clarksville, Arkansas,” Lester explained. “There is an economic impact today and every year going forward.” Residential broadband service is only the most recent evolution for Clarksville’s municipal fiber network, which already connects utility infrastructure as well as area businesses and community anchor institutions in the city of nearly 10,000. Home installations are due to start soon, depending on delays caused by the global Covid-19 outbreak. Starting With a Plan Clarksville’s fiber journey began in 2016 when the city utilities department (which rebranded last year to Clarksville Connected Utilities) deployed a SCADA system to connect its electric, water, and wastewater systems. At the time, Lester was already thinking about how the rest of Clarksville could benefit from the utility’s fiber network, drawing on his prior experience as the city manager of Chanute, Kansas. “We absolutely needed a communications system for our utility infrastructure,” he explained, “but we leaned strongly on one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits [of Highly Effective People] and that was ‘begin with the end in mind.’” Next, the city underwent a thorough planning process to determine how it could leverage its existing fiber ring to connect the community and what the best business model was. Clarksville ultimately decided to run the network itself, instead of building the infrastructure and partnering with a private company to provide broadband access. “When it really boiled down to the numbers, it made the most sense for us to operate the network,” said Lester. Clarksville’s first priority was to get local anchor institutions hooked up to the municipal network, before connecting businesses and finally homes. The Clarksville School District was an early customer. Because of CCU’s new fiber network, the district was able to subscribe to two dedicated fiber strands capable of 10 Gigabit per second speeds at a lower cost than it paid previously. After CCU began providing business connectivity, a local company, Munro Shoes, was even able to expand production and create 25 new jobs. As CCU built out fiber, the municipal utility was always planning for future uses of the network. Lester described their mindset: Everytime we looked at something or touched something, we envisioned what that long-term gain might be and we built to that long-term gain. That’s why there are 288 strands in the core cable. That’s why, when we put in boxes to string the fiber through, we put in extra conduit… All the people that we have talked to who have been in this market for a while, they’ve all said, ‘Nobody comes back to us and says we put too much fiber in.’ Thanks to that foresight, Clarksville’s municipal network is well prepared for its upcoming expansion into residential services and beyond. “Even though 1 gig is the standard now, what’s on the near horizon is 10 gig,” Lester said. “We have already built in those elements in the network to allow us to go to 10 gig without a heavy lift.” Good Old-Fashioned Service Clarksville began construction on the residential fiber network last September, and Lester expects to finish building the distribution portion of the network in April. When we first spoke on the phone, Lester said that the utility was planning to start connecting households to the fiber network, but the growing Covid-19 outbreak is now forcing delays. According to a recent Facebook post, CCU will only complete the outside portion of home installation surveys for now. Already, CCU is seeing a lot of interest from city residents. More than 670 people, including some who live just outside of Clarksville, have registered on CCU’s CrowdFiber site, out 4,500 potential subscribers within city limits. So far, advertising has mostly been through word of mouth. “In a small town, that’s the most powerful type of advertising you can have,” Lester pointed out. In an early survey, which asked respondents whether they would switch to a municipal network if it offered the same service at the same cost, 67 percent said they likely or very likely would, “just to talk to somebody on the phone that they knew,” Lester said. CCU is taking the community’s desire for quality, hometown service to heart — “Part of our tagline is the latest technology combined with good old-fashioned service.” Lester shared. Once CCU is able to proceed with home installs, households will be able to subscribe to both Internet access and VoIP services, which will be resold from a local telephone company. Residential broadband service tiers start at 100 Megabits per second symmetrical for $44.95 per month and go up to 1 Gigabit per second symmetrical for $89.95 per month. Businesses can subscribe to up to even higher 2 Gigabit per second speeds. There is no charge for home installation. In addition to keeping residents’ money in the local economy, the goal of the municipal fiber network and the utility’s other efforts, like its solar power plants, is to attract people and businesses to the community. “We’re hoping that this initiative . . . can help market the community because it’s about economic development and community development,” Lester explained. Listen to Community Broadband Bits episode 367 to learn more about Clarksville and its growing fiber network. Image credit: John Lester and Clarksville Connected Utilities Tags: incrementalscadautilityFTTHvoiceclarksville arArkansasmunielectric

Connecting During a Pandemic With US Internet - Community Broadband Bits Episode 400

March 24, 2020

Not even a pandemic can stop this week's guest, US Internet CEO Travis Carter, from finding ways to bring better connectivity to his company's subscribers and the community. For the 400th episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher interviewed Travis (from six feet away) at the US Internet office outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. The pair discuss how the ISP is responding to the crisis, including by limiting home installs and opening up access to its public Wi-Fi network. As people transition to remote work, online education, and digital entertainment, Travis explains how the network is experiencing increased interest from new customers and greater demand from current subscribers. Christopher and Travis also talk about US Internet's pilot project in low-income housing and how the ISP is trying to determine what barriers prevent households from signing up for the service. Travis describes some of the funding challenges he faces as he expands the network throughout the city and how US Internet differentiates itself in terms of reliability. Before closing the interview, he shares his disappointing experience with mobile connectivity during a big roadtrip he took last summer, arguing that wireless networks can never replace fiber. Travis was previously a guest on Community Broadband Bits episdoes 359 - An Insider's Perspective on Urban Fiber Deployment, 301 - Wireless and Wired; US Internet Knows Both, and 194 - ISP US Internet Gets More Respect Than Rodney Dangerfield. This show is 34 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. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Read the transcript for this episode.  Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. 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 bitsUS Internetquarantinedemanddigital dividepilot projectlow income

Christopher Mitchell Talks Quarantine Connectivity on Marketplace Tech

March 23, 2020

Marketplace Tech’s Molly Wood interviewed Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, this morning on national radio. The pair discussed how broadband providers are responding to increased demand during the Covid-19 outbreak and what barriers there are to expanding Internet access to families sheltering-in-place. Christopher has been a guest on Marketplace Tech before, providing his perspective on issues including security concerns around Chinese-made network equipment and the effects of ending network neutrality on municipal networks. Connecting New Subscribers Schools and businesses have closed across the country, but many students and employees are still expected to complete work from home. This is leading households to subscribe to broadband at record levels in some areas. Christoper explained: There’s a lot of people who are signing up for service who didn’t have it before, or maybe they’re going to a better provider. We’re seeing in areas that have one or more cases of the virus that some of the [internet service providers] are seeing record sign-ups, in some cases twice the previous record of a daily number of new customers. The surge in demand is creating a challenge for providers still figuring out how to safely connect new users. A number of companies have temporarily halted home installations, while others are instituting policies to protect their employees and household members. “We will need to find a way in which we can do new connections,” Christopher said on Marketplace, “because I think this connectivity is just going to become more and more important” States Stopping Local Solutions The novel coronavirus isn’t the only issue providers and communities are grappling with as they try to connect families stuck in their homes. Currently, 19 states limit local governments’ authority to invest in broadband networks, restricting communities’ abilities to respond to this unprecedented need for high-quality connectivity. “We really need to see those limits go away so that communities are free to expand internet access as rapidly as they can,” Christopher argued on Marketplace Tech. States and even the federal government have the ability to address this barrier right now, said Christopher, explaining: The states themselves could change the laws . . . They could decide tomorrow to get rid of those limitations. The other option would be for the federal government to strike them down in some manner. Congress could do that directly, or it could condition aid of certain kinds to those states to say, “If you’re going to limit broadband investment in your state, then we’re not going to give you federal dollars to expand the networks.” He continued: We’ve spent billions of dollars on networks that are obsolete . . . writing checks to big companies that are delivering very slow DSL that does not qualify as broadband. Those big companies have all had their shot, and it’s time to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to expanding internet access. “A Real Test” for Rural Networks Increasing broadband usage will strain some providers’ networks as they struggle to scale up to meet demand. Christopher identified wireless broadband companies, especially those in rural areas, as some of the providers that may face problems. “This is going to be a real test for the wireless ISPs,” he said on Marketplace Tech. “I do think we will get a winnowing of the networks that will succeed” Want to know how your Internet access provider is measuring up? Take this speed test, co-sponsored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the X-Lab, and the Marconi Society. Listen to the entire interview with Christopher on Marketplace’s website or below. Link: Tags: audiointerviewquarantinepreemptionchristopher mitchell

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 23

March 23, 2020

Indiana

Latest telco and electric cooperative fiber broadband partnership offers a unique model by Carl Weinschenk, telecompetitor It’s still quite common for telcos and electric cooperatives to go it alone on fiber deployments, however. Last June, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) released research that said 140 U.S. telecom and electric cooperatives have deployed gigabit broadband services, primarily in rural areas. The majority of these were independent projects, rather than partnerships between the two types of companies. The 2019 research showed a big increase from 2017, when ILSR identified 87 gigabit broadband deployments by telco or electric cooperatives. Iowa Clear Lake Internet provider making it easier to work from home by Mike Bunge, KIMT3 News    Maine Litchfield Broadband Committee: Legislature should support community broadband, Central Maine    Minnesota  Paul Bunyan Communications expanding to Pennington, Strawberry areas of Leech Lake Indian Reservation, The Pilot Independent    Internet providers ready to handle deluge of remote workers, Minnesota’s Internet experts say by Caitlin Anderson, StarTribune   Otter Tail County selected for Blandin Community Broadband Program, Pioneer Journal    Missouri  Coronavirus fight shows need for broadband infrastructure by Dan Cassidy & Eric Bohl, The Missouri Times    North Carolina SkyLine/SkyBest to offer free broadband service by Bill Fisher, GoBlueRidge   Ohio ‘Digital divide’ leaves some schools giving lessons on paper, some online during coronavirus closures by Patrick O’Donnell, Cleveland.com Ohio’s three-week school closures to control the coronavirus are highlighting Ohio’s “Digital Divide,” the large difference in Internet access between different communities and neighborhoods. While affluent districts like Solon have enough students with Internet access at home for online learning, poor districts don’t and have no choice but to send lessons home the same way schools would have decades ago.   General Congress passes DATA Act for rural broadband Internet by Jeff Postelwait, T&D World    Disconnected: Remote work and virtual learning without broadband access by Amanda Magnus & Anita Rao, BPR News   Response to New Coronavirus Coronavirus exposes how bad America’s homework gap really is by Linda Poon, CityLab But getting online for class will be hard for kids in Young’s Glendale neighborhood, where residents are largely immigrant, of lower income, or part of the refugee community. “We’re in a historically underserved community, and it has the lowest rate of internet-at-home in the city,” she says. Many students would typically do their homework at the library. With libraries closed, both the Wi-Fi inside and the hotspot devices they lend out are no longer available. Internet Providers Won’t Cut Off Users Over Unpaid Bills for 60 Days by Johnny Diaz, The New York Times   116 More Broadband And Telephone Service Providers Take Chairman Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, telecompetitor    Online learning will be hard for kids whose schools close — and the digital divide will make it even harder for some of them by Jessica Calarco, The Conversation    How utility, phone and Internet companies are giving consumers a break during coronavirus pandemic by Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY  Many utilities, telecommunications companies and automakers are easing shutoffs and waiving late fees to accommodate consumers who might be struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. Companies like Comcast, PG&E, AT&T, Hyundai and Duke Energy are among the businesses giving people a break, in one way or another. Is the Internet resilient enough to withstand coronavirus by David Belson, Internet Society    Philly Fed report exposes digital divide for minority, poor and rural communities by Jon O’ Connell, The Citizens’ Voice   The FCC should send Wi-Fi hotspots to schools to close the homework gap by Jessica Rosenworcel, The Verge Tags: media roundup

"Disconnected" in Rural North Carolina: A Documentary

March 20, 2020

“While most of us take a high-speed Internet connection for granted, many living in rural areas feel disconnected,” states North Carolina television station WRAL’s new documentary, “Disconnected,” which first aired on March 19. The documentary features local officials, healthcare professionals, small business owners, and families from across the state discussing the importance of high-quality broadband access and the struggle to connect rural areas. Though “Disconnected” was recorded before the Covid-19 outbreak forced schools and businesses to close nationally, the ongoing crisis further emphasizes the necessity of getting all North Carolinians connected to affordable, reliable Internet access. “Disconnected” was created with help from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, and Google Fiber. Watch the documentary below or on the WRAL website. A Tale of Two Cities To illustrate the importance of connectivity for everything from education to healthcare, “Disconnected” takes viewers to two small North Carolina towns — one with high-speed Internet access and one without. In Enfield, home to 2,300 people, businesses and residents alike struggle to get connected, and town officials face difficulties attracting new employers to the area. Enfield Middle S.T.E.A.M. Academy reports that about 60 percent of students don’t have Internet access at home. WRAL interviews one student’s family, which only has unreliable satellite connectivity. “It’s a lot of running around,” says Lashawnda Silver, the student’s mother. “If I don’t provide it for her, she’s going to lose out.” Similarly, an Enfield health clinic says that most patients aren’t able to connect at home and even 40 percent of staff lack home broadband access. “It’s a barrier for their healthcare,” explains Mary Downey, Family Nurse Practitioner. The city of Wilson is less than an hour south of Enfield, but it’s a world apart in terms of connectivity. Wilson's 49,000 residents have access to gigabit speeds over the city's reliable fiber network, Greenlight. We’ve shared the story of how Wilson built its own network and is now reaping the benefits to the local economy and citizens’ quality of life. “Disconnected” explores some of these benefits, spotlighting the city’s emergency room, which can now provide telestroke services, and a local business that can connect globally because of the network. “Whatever It Takes” Unfortunately, state law prevents other North Carolina communities from investing in better connectivity, as Wilson has. This restriction, supported by large telecom monopolies, keeps towns like Enfield locked out of the modern economy, unable to benefit from the health and education benefits of high-speed broadband. “You have to completely enable the local folks to find their own solutions,” broadband consultant Doug Dawson told WRAL. “That will eventually fix it.” North Carolina Representative Josh Dobson, who sponsored legislation to permit localities to partner with private broadband providers to offer access, agrees that cities and counties need greater authority to solve the connectivity gap. “It needs to be all hands on deck, whatever it takes,” he said. To take a speed test, learn more about Internet access in North Carolina, or find out how to take action, visit NC.LocalBroadband.org. Tags: north carolinanorth carolina league of municipalitieswilsonpreemptionbenefitshealth caretelehealthvideoeducationsmall businesseconomic development