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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 347

March 12, 2019

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Placone: Are you referring to the telecom act?

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: So what are you doing?

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

Christopher Mitchell: That's great.

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

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Next Century Cities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Oh that's cool.

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, millions of people.

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

Christopher Mitchell: I've seen that too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 11

March 11, 2019


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



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

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



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


North Carolina

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

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

Broadband Internet unavailable to many in Eastern NC, WITN

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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tags: media roundup

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

March 11, 2019

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

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

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

City Owned Conduit Leads the Way

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

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

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

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

Success Despite State Restrictions

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

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

Lighting Up Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: lincoln nenebraskaconduitFTTHpartnershipfibereconomic developmentgigabitallonetwork neutralityright-of-way

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

March 8, 2019

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

Register online for the Summit.

Lessons Learned and Shared

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

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

Participating on the panel will be:

More From Christopher

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

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

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

More Than Christopher

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

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

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

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

Register now to attend the Summit.

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

Tennessee Senator Tries Again With Bill to Restore Local Authority

March 7, 2019

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

Seeking Better Connectivity…That’s All

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

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

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

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

Cooperative Questions Resolved

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

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

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

Read the text of SB 489.

Not Yet, Tennessee

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

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

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

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


Slow and Steady Wins the Race

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

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

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

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

Tennessee SB 489Tags: sb 489 tntennesseelegislationtullahomastate lawsrural electric coopcooperativegrassrootslocalauthority

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

March 6, 2019

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

Check out the IFF Fiber Service Areas Map.

With A Little Help From UTOPIA

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

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

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

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

Prairie told KIDK that the city also had another concern:

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

All Hail Competition

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

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

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

In a release Prairie stated:

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

Watch Prairie discuss the project with East Idaho News:

Tags: idaho fallsidahoopen accessFTTHcompetitionutility feepilotpilot projectgigabit

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

March 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsminnesotarurallocalpermittingpartnershipfundingstate policystate laws

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

March 5, 2019

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

Check out the video at WGME's website.

Taking Control in Maine

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

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

Making it Work

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: sanford meeconomic developmentmunidark fibergwimainemediatax increment financingbusinessanchor institutions

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 346

March 5, 2019

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: And how many lines do you have?

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

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

Brent Christensen: That's correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Oh really?

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: Yup.

Christopher Mitchell: So tell me about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: Acira.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

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

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

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

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

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

Brent Christensen: Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

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

Christopher Mitchell: Last year in particular.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, right.

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

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

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

Brent Christensen: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: Yeah, yeah. In Minnesota.

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: Yeah. Right.

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: And how did that work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: Monticello. Yup. Right.

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

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

Christopher Mitchell: In Annandale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: WISPs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Christensen: I did.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad you came back.

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

Christopher Mitchell: Waiting for March — or June.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, June.

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

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

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

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 4

March 4, 2019


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

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



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

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



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



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

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


North Carolina

Broadband Internet unavailable to many in Eastern NC, WITN 



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



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



Improving broadband access in rural communities by Destiny Richards, KFDA



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: media roundup

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

March 4, 2019

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

Let's Fix This

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locals Lend their Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: north carolinadigital divideeditoriallegislation

Texas Lawmakers Look at Easement Bill for Electric Co-ops

March 1, 2019

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

Helping Co-ops

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

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

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

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

Read the text of the bill.

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

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

Back Home Again in Indiana

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

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

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

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

Co-op Capability

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

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

Arlington Dark Fiber Network at Crossroads, ARLnow Reports

February 28, 2019

When Arlington County, Virginia, decided to deploy dark fiber and make it available to businesses in 2015, officials dreamed of economic development, tech innovation, and competition in the broadband market. Four years and approximately $4 million later, the fiber network has fallen short of those lofty goals and instead lies in the ground mostly unused.

A recent investigation by the local news outlet ARLnow explores the reasons why Arlington’s network has failed to live up to expectations; ARLnow’s article takes a nuanced look into the project’s specific shortcomings. In particular, the article points to certain choices that Arlington made when designing the network and lease contract, presenting an opportunity to learn from the county’s mistakes and offering hope for the network’s future.

What Went Wrong

Arlington conceived of the 10-mile dark fiber network as an extension of the county’s existing network, ConnectArlington, which already serves schools, traffic lights, and other government buildings. County officials believed the dark fiber expansion, which businesses and Internet service providers (ISPs) could lease access to, would promote economic growth. “At the time,” ARLnow explains, “county leaders championed the construction of the ‘dark fiber’ network as a transformative step for Arlington.” One former official even described the dark fiber as a “competitive advantage over other jurisdictions.”

Unfortunately, county leaders’ “build it and they will come” attitude has not bred success, and the network is drastically underutilized at present. This failure was not inevitable, the article says, but rather “Arlington officials made a series of decisions in designing the program that scared off any businesses interested in leasing the fiber.” ARLnow quotes a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee assembled by the Arlington County Manager:

“‘They have this huge amount of fiber in the ground, and not a single strand of it has been leased,’ said Chris Rozycki, a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee that studied ConnectArlington [and CEO of Potomac Fiber]. ‘It’s like they’ve built an interstate, with no on-ramps or off-ramps.’”

Based off the work of the committee, the article identifies several reasons why ConnectArlington’s dark fiber expansion has failed to result in the economic development that officials were hoping for. One main reason is the design of middle-mile dark fiber network, which is unlit and doesn’t connect to individual buildings, making it difficult for Internet access providers and other companies to tap into the network.

Another factor is the county’s long and complicated leasing contract. ARLnow describes the document as “full of legal jargon and complex provisions — a copy of the agreement provided to ARLnow clocks in at 72 pages long — which worried some prospective customers.” Certain contract provisions also concerned potential lessees. ARLnow notes:

“The agreement also allows the county to boot ISPs off the network with just one year’s worth of notice, complicating any efforts by an ISP to sign customers to long-term deals. Rozycki said the terms of the agreement pushes so much risk on to his company that his investors threatened a revolt when he tried to sign a deal with Arlington.”

Arlington officials also identify Virginia state law, which places onerous restrictions on publicly-owned broadband networks, and other legal obligations that the county has as complicating factors, reports ARLnow.

Turning the Network Around

Although Arlington’s network has floundered since its construction four years ago, the many other publicly-owned dark fiber networks around the country prove that these kinds of projects can succeed if designed well. For example, the dark fiber network in Huntsville, Alabama, has attracted Google Fiber to the city, bringing better connectivity to residents and businesses. In California, the city of Pasadena leases dark fiber to large institutions, including local universities and a NASA laboratory, resulting in an annual revenue of nearly $500,000.

In a report, the Broadband Advisory Committee made recommendations to Arlington County on how to better use its dark fiber. ARLnow summarizes some of the suggestions:

“For its part, the committee urged the county in its report to remove the ‘poison pills’ and ‘contract traps’ in the agreement that scared away companies like Rozycki’s. The group also urged the county to rewrite the agreement ‘in plain English,’ offer longer lease terms and provide ‘adequate remedies other than contract termination’ should problems arise with the network . . . The group hopes to see the county build new laterals, offer grants to companies hoping to do the same and advertise incentives to ISPs looking to enter the market.”

The ARLnow article ends with a few quotes that point towards a potentially bright future for ConnectArlington:

“‘Getting rid of it at this point, I think, is a mistake,’ [Arlington County CIO Jack] Belcher said. ‘We have the opportunity to leverage it in so many ways as a county.’ For all their criticism, committee members agree. [Executive Director of Next Century Cities Deb] Socia says she applauds the county’s ‘willingness to look for ways to more fully utilize’ the network, instead of simply giving up . . . ‘They have the makings of something really interesting there,’ Rozycki said. ‘They just need the right people and partners to make it work.’”

Listen to Christopher and Jack Belcher discuss plans for Connect Arlington in 2014 in episode 97 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast:

Tags: arlingtonvirginadark fiber

Baby Step Toward Better Broadband in Arkansas

February 27, 2019

Earlier this month, we learned about a Senate bill in the Arkansas State Legislature that, in it’s original form, would have rescinded state restrictions preventing many municipalities from improving local connectivity. After amendments, SB 150 lost most of its effectiveness, but the bill that became law this week is still a small step in the right direction for a state where the rate of broadband connectivity is some of the lowest in the country.

Beginning Promise

For years, Arkansas has been one of the states that doesn’t allow government entities from providing broadband services to the public. The ban specifically disallowed “directly or indirectly, basic local exchange, voice, data, broadband, video, or wireless telecommunication service.” There has always been an exception to the ban for communities that have their own electric or cable utilities and want to offer telecommunications services. No municipality may offer basic exchange service, interpreted as telephone service.

Only a few communities have taken advantage of the legal exception, such as Paragould, Clarksville, and Conway. In recent years, electric cooperatives are deploying in rural areas, but many of the state’s rural residents rely on DSL, fixed wireless, and satellite. In the few more populous communities, there may also be scattered cable connections available. 

Even though large incumbent ISPs have collected federal grant funding in the past, deployment in Arkansas has been inadequate to connect all Arkansans. According to the FCC, connectivity to households is near the bottom of the list.

SB 150 is one of several bills introduced by the Republican Woman’s Legislative Caucus as part of their “Dream Big” initiative. Other bills in the initiative addressed issues such as juvenile justice and education. When we spoke with its primary sponsor, Senator Breanne Davis about SB 150, she said that one of the bill’s main purposes was to get the attention of those incumbents that have done little to bring high-quality Internet access to her constituents and the people of Arkansas despite accepting federal subsidies.

SB 150 as introduced did get everyone’s attention, including advocates for publicly owned broadband infrastructure. The bill’s direct language eliminated the ban on all the services that municipalities aren’t able to offer except local exchange services. SB 150 granted permission for government entities, without exception, to invest in broadband infrastructure and offer the previously banned services directly or through public-private partnerships. The presence of a municipal electric utility, according to the language of SB 150 as introduced, was no longer necessary.

Along with other broadband policy researchers and advocates, we immediately wondered if Arkansas was ready to take a giant step toward rural broadband deployment. As it turned out, they were more inclined to baby steps.

When the bill was introduced, Senator Davis discussed the importance of allowing communities to invest in broadband infrastructure on their own or with private sector partners when incumbents didn’t get the job done. The language of the original version of the bill supported a lift of the ban with no strings attached.

In this interview, she talks for a few minutes to summarize the bill:

The bill received favorable press and, with more than a dozen Republican women Senators, many from rural areas, supporting it, SB 150 picked up steam early in the legislative process. Senators quickly adopted amendments in committee that significantly diluted the potency of the bill. We asked Senator Davis about the amendments and she said "that there are some fights that we're not ready to take on."

The amended SB 150 reinstates the ban that would have been lifted to allow most municipalities and other local government entities to help deploy broadband across the state. Now, communities are only able to deploy in unserved areas and only if they apply for and received grant funding.

The amended language, added early in the process reads:

(5)(A) A government entity may enter into a public-private partnership with private providers to make voice, data, broadband, video, or wireless telecommunications services available to the public. 

(B) After reasonable notice to the public, a government entity may, on its own or in partnership with a private entity, apply for funding under a program for grants or loans to be used for the construction, acquisition, or leasing of facilities, land, or buildings used to deploy broadband service in unserved areas, as defined under the terms of the granting or lending program, and if the funding is awarded, then provide, directly or indirectly, voice, data, broadband, video, or wireless telecommunications services to the public in the unserved areas.

Attorney Jim Baller, who knows municipal telecom law better than anyone, provided more insight into the potential consequences of the bill. In addition to severely restricting the removal of the ban, the change in the bill also limits local governments to criteria in grants for which local communities apply. If a community had service in only a few locations that met the FCC's definition of broadband (25 Mbps / 3 Mbps), they likely would not be able to develop a gigabit, community-wide fiber network. The goals outlined in the bill's legislative intent are too lofty to be achieved with other technologies.

Many grants don't provide enough funding to cover the full cost of deployment, particularly in unserved areas. If the costs not covered by a grant cannot be supplemented with revenue from areas considered served, the promise of deployment in unserved areas dwindles.

The amended bill moved quickly through both Senate and House, passing unanimously in both chambers. Davis had added added an emergency clause in order to allow local communities to apply for state and federal grants that are available now. Such strong support from both parties reveals that the understanding that broadband deployment in rural areas is a critical issue crosses party lines.

Governor Asa Hutchinson received the bill on February 20th and it became law as Act 198 on February 26th.

Mixed Blessings

What began as a giant leap devolved into a baby step, but it’s still a move forward. In places such as Arkansas, where state legislatures have had restrictions or bans in place for several years, it’s bound to be a long process to reverse harmful laws to reinstate local telecommunications authority. Christopher told Craig Settles for a Daily Yonder article:

Despite the setback in the state Senate, we are excited to see this leadership from a state that increasingly recognizes the benefits of local networks rather than shipping their wealth to Dallas and the East Coast. For too many years, the big cable and telephone companies have limited local Internet choice but this bill is a first step to improving Internet access for everyone.

Baller has decades of experience working with municipalities on telecom issues. He was disappointed, but provided some advice for Arkansas lawmakers:

In its legislative findings, SB 150 notes that Arkansas ranks second from the bottom of the nation in access to advanced communications capabilities and to the many economic, educational, health care, and other benefits that such access would foster.  

The version of SB 150 that the Arkansas Republican Women’s Legislative Caucus introduced would have freed municipalities to do their part to overcome this problem, either through their own efforts or through public-private partnerships. The more modest version that [has now become law] is a step forward, but it is unlikely to be nearly as effective. If that turns out to be the case, the Republican Women’s version may point the way to a better solution.

Compare the original version of SB 150 with the final version as codified in law.

Image of the Arkansas State Senate by Cliffderivative work: Jack Cox at en.wikipedia [CC BY 2.0]

SB 150 Prior to Amendments SB 150 After Amendments and Passed by the State LegislatureTags: Arkansaslegislationsb 150 argrantsruralstate lawsbarrierjim ballermuni

D.C. Screening and Discussion Rescheduled: "Do Not Pass Go" on March 26th

February 26, 2019

Winter has not been kind this year. In addition to interrupting our kids’ learning with numerous snow days, stranding the Minnesota office in our homes due to dangerously cold weather, and interrupting our typically prolific workflow with day after day of shoveling, minor ice related traffic accidents, and sick kids, there’s one other unforgivable offense that rests square on the shoulders of Mother Nature: the cancellation of the D.C. screening of Do Not Pass Go. An impending winter storm forced the cancellation of the event, which was scheduled for February 20th. The organizers are ready to try again, however, and the new event date is March 26th, 2019, 5 - 7 p.m. The venue will be the same — the offices of the National League of Cities/National Association of Counties at 660 North Capitol Street NW.

Register for the free screening and the discussion.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), Next Century Cities, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), and the National League of Cities (NLC), will lead the discussion about the film and the policies that influence the events of the film and the people living in Pinetops, North Carolina. 

Do Not Pass Go, a documentary by Cullen Hoback, tells the story of Pinetops, where the community finally obtained high-quality Internet access when their neighbor, Wilson, connected Pinetops to Greenlight. The Greenlight community fiber optic network later had to disconnect Pinetops, however, when the state chose to protect incumbents from competition. Hoback’s film tells the Pinetops story and examines how lack of competition has negatively impacted rural communities.

After the screening, the group will discuss regulatory and legislative barriers, and actions that local and federal government can adopt to help communities that consider municipal networks an option.

The panel will include:

  • Christopher Mitchell from ILSR
  • Terry Huval: Former Director, Lafayette Utilities System, Lafayette, LA
  • Suzanne Coker Craig: Managing Director, CuriosiTees of Pinetops LLC; former Commissioner, Pinetops, NC

After the panel discussion, stick around for the Networking Reception to continue the conversation and share experiences.

With any luck, we’ll have Mother Nature on our side and her calmest spring weather.

Register now for the free screening, panel discussion, and reception.

Watch the trailer:

Tags: pinetopswilsonnorth carolinanational league of citiescoalition for local internet choicenext century citiesinstitute for local self-reliancechristopher mitchellFTTHstate lawsevent

Small Town, Big Connections With Marshall FiberNet - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 345

February 26, 2019

This week, Marshall FiberNet’s Customer Service and Marketing Manager Jessica Slusarski talks to Christopher about the town’s investment in their community broadband network. Quiet and quaint Marshall, Michigan, didn’t expect to become one of the state’s communities with the best Internet access, but here we are. Like many other small towns where big incumbent providers didn’t want to make infrastructure investments, most of Marshall was stuck with DSL and some premises were still using dial-up connections. Their solution was clear — build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Jessica and Chris discuss how the idea became a reality and what were some of the services that the city decided they wanted to include for subscribers, based on the needs of residents and businesses. They also discuss how, even though Michigan requires local communities to reach out to the private sector first, a lack of responses allowed the town to move forward. Jessica describes the favorable response from users and how subscribers are taking advantage of better Internet access than they’ve ever experienced.

We also learn about nuts and bolts, including what it took to get the network deployed, how the city administrates the utility, and what’s next. You can learn more details by reading our coverage of Marshall’s FiberNet.

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

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsmarshall mimichiganFTTHmuniruraldsldial-upgigabit

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 345

February 26, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 345 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher talks to Jessica Slusarski from Marshall FiberNet about the Michigan town's new Fiber-to-the-Premise network. Listen to the episode here.



Jessica Slusarski: Nobody else wanted to build that. Nobody else wanted to be involved with something where there's no way to lock in the customers and make sure that it was a worthwhile investment. But we knew it would be, so we went through with it ourselves.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 345 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. When large corporate incumbent Internet service providers weren't interested in providing the quality of services Marshall, Michigan, wanted and needed, community leaders decided to do something about it. The small town in the south central part of the state deployed their own gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home network. Now businesses and residents are signing up, and local government offices are saving money while also getting faster, more reliable connectivity. In this week's podcast, Christopher talks with Jessica Slusarski from Marshall FiberNet. They talk about the why, the when, and the how behind this project that has transformed Internet access in one small midwestern town. Learn more details about the deployment at, where we dived deeper into the project, and at, where you can see what services they offer. Let's get to the interview. Now here's Christopher and Jessica Slusarski from Michigan's Marshall FiberNet.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, today speaking to another Upper Midwest denizen, Jessica Slusarski with FiberNet in Marshall, Michigan. And Jessica, you are the customer service and marketing manager in case you forgot. Welcome to the show.

Jessica Slusarski: Well, thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. So tell us a little bit about Marshall, Michigan, which I have to say, every time my fingers start to type "Marshall, Mi-" I immediately type "Marshall, Minnesota." So tell me about Marshall, Michigan.

Jessica Slusarski: Well, we're a small little community, about 7,088 — [as of the] last census — residents. We're a historic little community, and it's a nice, quiet little town.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I know you're not far from Battle Creek because, just through the randomness of the modern world, one of my colleagues here, her parents recently moved to Marshall and are customers of the fiber network.

Jessica Slusarski: Oh, excellent. Yes. Yeah, we are not far from Battle Creek at all. It's about a 12 minute drive.

Christopher Mitchell: Tell me a little bit about what connectivity was like in Marshall prior to you building the fiber optic network.

Jessica Slusarski: Oh, it's about the same as it was 10 years ago, probably about an average of 2-12 Megabits per second. In a couple cases we can get up to 100 Megabits per second, but those cases are few and far between and very expensive.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm presuming you have cable from a private company as well as DSL. Is that accurate?

Jessica Slusarski: WOW and AT&T, they provide cable.

Christopher Mitchell: A private citizen in your community does have choices, but you still don't have very high capacity speeds prior to your investment.

Jessica Slusarski: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: So you decided to do what about that?

Jessica Slusarski: We decided to build our own network.

Christopher Mitchell: So what went into that decision?

Jessica Slusarski: Well, we had a lot of complaints and a lot of vocalization about how slow the Internet was in town, so city council kind of went about making sure that we were able to make that a little bit better. The director of FiberNet, Ed Rice, he knew about fiber optics; he's pretty well versed in telecom and electric. And he heard that doing Fiber-to-the-Premise was an excellent idea, and he asked for it and we got it.

Christopher Mitchell: And now, when you decided to move forward, one of the interesting things is that you are a municipal electric provider already, but it sounds like you didn't structure this in the way that many municipalities have in terms of it being a municipal fiber division underneath the electric division.

Jessica Slusarski: No, nope. We are our own department.

Christopher Mitchell: So then you report directly to the city council then or your board basically?

Jessica Slusarski: Pretty much, yeah. We do have a director and he's the same. It's Ed Rice, the director of utilities as well.

Christopher Mitchell: So tell me about your goals. One of the things that I saw is that you aim to have simple pricing, and I'm curious what that means to you.

Jessica Slusarski: We basically want to remain cost neutral. We want to be a service for our community, not necessarily a for-profit entity, so all of our pricing is transparent. We have a $50 deposit instead of a monthly fee for the equipment, so if they ever want to cancel service, they can bring back their equipment and get their $50 back. And our residential rates are as is stated on the website, starting at $40 a month to $200 a month, depending on what they want.

Christopher Mitchell: So if I sign up for 150 Megabits — I'm assuming that's symmetrical —

Jessica Slusarski: Yes, absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: — at $60 a month, then each month I'm gonna pay you $60?

Jessica Slusarski: Yup.

Christopher Mitchell: That's revolutionary.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah, $60 a month, that's it, 150 Megabits per second.

Christopher Mitchell: I was talking to a friend who runs a private network, who gets a kick every time I reference US Internet here in Minneapolis, and I think he said once something about how, you know, we've got these, like, calculators and things; we can figure out how to charge people the amount — you know, we know ahead of time what we're going to charge them and we can advertise that rate.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah. We just want it to be as simple as possible, make it as easy and transparent as we could.

Christopher Mitchell: So how did you end up financing the network then? Because you know, you mentioned that you're not seeking a profit, but I'm assuming that the network is — you did say it was expected to break even. And so, you know, that's one of the challenges of running these networks of course. How did you end up financing it?

Jessica Slusarski: We started financing it through loans from the electric department and the local finance district. We got loans from both of those to finance the project and we expect to break even in about five years.

Christopher Mitchell: And so you have internal loans and then you're also basically doing what's a Michigan version of tax increment financing, it looks like, including some revenue bonds that will be paid back presumably by some of that. So when did you launch?

Jessica Slusarski: We officially launched February of last year.

Christopher Mitchell: Happy Birthday.

Jessica Slusarski: Why thank you. It is about that time, isn't it? Wow. Yeah, it is. It's been about a year. We've been officially for the most part done with construction and everything since October/November last year, so we whipped through construction pretty fast. And there's a little bit more to go and we had to halt on that because of the weather, which here in Michigan is a little buried right now.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I understand that you've been having alternate cycles — I mean, up in Minnesota we've just had snow, snow, snow, but I understand you've been melting, ice storm, snow storm, melting, ice storm, snow storm. It sounds like it's been challenging.

Jessica Slusarski: Yes. It's been very snowy, and then as soon as that snow melts, it is mud and it is muck. And we really had to kind of take a breather on some of the construction because we're doing most of the plowing by ourselves. We do have a little plow that we do some of the underground work with, at least for as far as installing homes, and if we use that now we will destroy everybody's lawns.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure, and at the same time, you already have more than 20% connectivity. In one year, 20% connectivity is terrific.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah, we are actually about — I think as of today, we have 840 customers, and there's a total of 4,000 and some odd customers available, at least residences and businesses. Yeah, we are getting there.

Christopher Mitchell: And one of the things that I know that Lisa had reported on previously in her story was that you were looking at a 38% take rate, but you have expectations of exceeding that, not just breaking even, but you know, having many more customers than you would need just to break even.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah, since we already have 840 odd customers, we expect break through that. Most of the businesses and residences that are not connected are either waiting for us to get there. We do have some construction to do for the apartment buildings still in town, so those are expected to be completed by summer, as long as we do get permission from the building owners to create an entirely new infrastructure within their walls. Probably our biggest setback there is waiting for permissions from the apartment buildings. That'll bring in a lot of new customers. And then, just the fact that the contracts that the other providers in the area offer are so expensive to get out of. We do understand that it might be more worthwhile for them to just wait it out, especially when it's $300-$400 to get out of a contract just for a resident.

Christopher Mitchell: Have you seen any competitive response since you've been moving forward? Any upgrades from the providers that were already offering service?

Jessica Slusarski: No upgrades. I'm pretty sure that they're running at full capacity. Their speeds are not going to get any better. They do have fiber out here, but it's not Fiber-to-the-Premise. They're not going to be able to offer the same kind of speeds that we offer. The problem is that they're doing a lot heavier advertising, and we're trying to keep our prices low and as community friendly as we can, so we don't exactly have a big budget for that. And then, they are also able to significantly lower their prices and offer the triple play with phone and television, but those are both going by the wayside, so we don't expect that to hold up for long.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you have a sense that, offering straight up data, do you have a sense that many of your customers are then using other products? Like, are you encouraging them, to say, if anyone comes to you and says, "How do I get TV service?" and you say you could use X service or something like that?

Jessica Slusarski: Absolutely. Pretty much everybody working in the fiber department is a millennial and we all love Netflix and Hulu. And those are what we use, so we have no problem offering our own personal advice, which is another thing not the residents really appreciate is that we're not out to sell extra services. We just kind of give our recommendations off of what we personally like, and we're able to talk to them about those with no real bias because we're not making anything off of it. We just like it.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of a reaction have you had from the community? You know, people going from a few Megabits a second to some dramatically better speeds — is there anything memorable?

Jessica Slusarski: We have had a couple of YouTubers and a lot of gamers — a lot of gamers — who appreciate it so much. We had a couple photographers who mentioned that their upload times are insane now. Same with the YouTubers. Lisa did mention in the article Sam Rodriguez, who I went to school with. He was working with 48 hour upload times for his YouTube podcasts, Twitch streams and now he can do it in minutes. And he's loving it; I know that. And then we do have a couple other YouTubers in town that are for-profit YouTube creators, and they're really happy with the service.

Christopher Mitchell: And I have to assume that just outside of town, probably, there's also a lack of high quality access. Are you seeing people thinking about moving into town? Are they demanding that you figure out how to expand after you've finished connecting everyone in town?

Jessica Slusarski: Yes. We do get a lot of requests to come out into the townships. And when people find out that we're not in the townships who are moving out into the townships, they are crushed, but they have to go. Because I'm pretty sure that the fastest that you can get in the townships is 2 to 12 Megabits per second. I don't think WOW is out there. I think it's just AT&T and they're, ooh, not very fast out here.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and we don't expect them to be making any investments either. I mean, they're really trying to focus on their mobile service. So have you thought at all — I mean, is that something that's under consideration? Are you just focused on the present and not worrying about what comes next until you get there?

Jessica Slusarski: Oh, no, we've definitely been thinking about expanding out into the townships for a long time, but due to the restrictions in Michigan for expansion, we've been having a little bit of difficulty in getting out there. In order to get us out there, it's kind of up to the townships and not necessarily up to us in being able to do that.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, before you could build of course you had to make a bid available, per Michigan law. When you made that bid available, did you have a sense of whether anyone would bid? Because just to reflect for people who aren't aware, you have to make a bid available and only if you don't have three competitive bids, are you allowed to move forward, if I remember correctly.

Jessica Slusarski: Yup, that's correct. We didn't have any bids actually, so we were allowed to make our own. We didn't know what to expect. We knew that it would probably be low because were pretty much demanding that there were no contracts, transparent fees, and nobody else wanted to build that. Nobody else wanted to be involved with something where there's no way to lock in the customers and make sure that it was a worthwhile investment, but we knew it would be so we went through with it ourselves.

Christopher Mitchell: There are further restrictions for you to be able to expand it where everywhere you go they also have to go through that kind of rigamarole.

Jessica Slusarski: Yes. Yup, so that includes the townships too. They would have to put out the same process. They would have to have the same meetings, put out their own CBA (cost benefit analysis). They would have to do the exact same process that we did, but then we'd be able to bid on that — same with the competitors, but I don't think they would want to put in that much effort for that for such small areas

Christopher Mitchell: Relating to customer service, my last question to you, which is your domain — you know, operating a small network, I got to think it's pretty challenging to figure out how to staff up when you're so rapidly growing the customer base. What are some of the tensions involved with creating a new ISP that's municipally owned and making sure you're able to handle the calls you get and things like that?

Jessica Slusarski: Woo. Yeah, we were down to just two people in the office for awhile and that was tough. We'd pretty much sit in the office all day and hammer out those phone calls, but we do have a call center now. It's actually through Coldwater, which is a town just south of us. They have their own — I think it's a DSL network and —

Christopher Mitchell: I thought it was municipal cable, but it's definitely —

Jessica Slusarski: Yes, they have their own cable, and they have a call center for that and for Internet. And they were able to take us on for after hours, so the three of us office personnel could go home and sleep at some point.

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs]

Jessica Slusarski: But it's actually been really great because we are Fiber-to-the-Premise. There's not a whole lot of outages. We have a lot of redundancy where we don't have a whole lot of technical calls, and a lot of them are just people wanting to know before they commit what it is and what they can do to get television and all that stuff. We do have a really high senior population, so changing from cable, which, you know, we've all been used to for the last 20-30 years into Netflix and streaming television has been a huge jump for a lot of people. But we are more than happy to explain, and we will even come out to your house and help you set it up. So we've been really happy with being able to go out there, and we feel like being a bigger part of the community is more important than, you know, anything. We want to be very customer service oriented no matter what your needs are, and we've been really focused on customer education as well. If anybody is having an issue with their Internet or connecting their printer or anything, we're able to help with that too. So we're not just going to hang up on you if we know it's not an issue on our end; we'll come out and make sure that our services are working for you as well.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's one of the biggest benefits that a network like yours can offer. And you know, even me as a very technical person, there are times when I'm just tired of learning the new thing, you know, so it's great knowing you can get some help.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah, and it's pretty funny because I was having some issues at my house hooking up — it was actually my printer; it's always a printer. And I was looking up how to fix it, and it was like, contact your ISP. And I was like, oh, okay, let me just call myself real quick. But you know, it's usually an issue with the device and it's really easy just to go over. It's a lot easier to go and help somebody than it is to, you know, tell them no, we can't do anything about it, and it's a lot better. And a lot of customers have been really appreciative of that, and we love it.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I bet. How many of the people that are calling is their first question about TV, whether or not they'll be able to watch University of Michigan sporting events?

Jessica Slusarski: Probably about a third.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I thought it might even be higher.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah. Yup, at least a third. A lot of people are really concerned about — you know, we have a lot of people working from home, so they want to be able to utilize their actual Internet service instead of getting cut off. There's a lot of outages with the other competitors, which was a huge problem and why we wanted to do Fiber-to-the-Premise. But yeah, a lot of people want to know how to watch the Big 10 Network, especially.

Christopher Mitchell: The other question I forgot to ask earlier was, how do you get out of Marshall? Was there a network you could just hook into and lease? How did you handle that problem to get to the wider internet?

Jessica Slusarski: Oh, we went through Merit, and we're looking into another outside connection for a fail over option, possibly even a third connection. There's a lot of different ways that you can get out there. I know Cogent is a huge ISP for ISPs. There's quite a few but we went through Merit Networks to start off with, and they supply basically from Detroit to Chicago a lot of institutions, a lot of colleges. So it's a really solid network and we've been really happy with them.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thanks for taking the time. When we first learned about you, we were desperate to find out more because we try to track these things. You guys kind of flew under the radar until you popped up and were already connecting customers. So I'm really glad you made some time for us to talk, to get an update and look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

Jessica Slusarski: Yeah, thanks so much. It was great talking to you.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Jessica Slusarski, from Marshall's FiberNet in Michigan, discussing the town's municipal gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home network. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on important research from all our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Follow us on Instagram. We are ilsr74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 345 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - February 25

February 25, 2019


The 4th utility: How Ventura County is working to increase broadband by Arlene Martinez, Ventura County Star



Community-owned utilities provide reliable, affordable broadband service by Josh Byrnes, Des Moines Register



Google Fiber leaving Louisville by Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs

To stay competitive, Kentucky utility doubles Internet speed by Austin Ramsey, Messenger-Inquirer 



Northampton eyes municipal broadband network by Bera Dunau, Daily Hampshire

“We don’t want to be the last Western Mass town to have the benefits of a high-speed municipally controlled network,” said Feldscher.



Making broadband work in Marshall, Michigan by Lisa Gonzalez, CitiesSpeak 


North Carolina

Let’s Connect’ seeks better broadband for rural NC by Katie Kienbaum, News & Observer  

Grant to help expand telehealth opportunities in WNC, The Dispatch 



Digital distress: What is it and who does it affect? Part 2. by Roberto Gallardo and Cheyanne Geideman, Medium

FCC says gutting ISP oversight was great for broadband by Karl Bode, Motherboard

Ajit Pai says broadband access is soaring—and that he’s the one to thank by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

"I beg to differ," Rosenworcel wrote on Twitter. "Millions of households—in rural and urban communities—have no access to high-speed service. That's a fact."

Senate bill would create rural broadband office at FCC by Benjamin Freed, StateScoop

Broadband, bluegrass and beer: How rural communities are getting innovative with broadband applications by Drew Clark, Broadband Breakfast

“So we got together and decided to just do it ourselves,” Irvine said. “We didn’t want to wait.”  

Mayors or the FCC: Who understands the broadband needs of metropolitan residents? by Blair Levin, Brookings 


Tags: media roundup

Local Leaders Looking at Muni Possibilities in Northampton, Massachusetts

February 25, 2019

In May 2018, Mark Hamill and Lee Feldscher penned an opinion piece that ran in the Northampton Daily Hampshire Gazette. In their article, they laid out all the reasons why they believed their city needs a publicly owned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Nine months later, city leaders have approved funding for the first of a two-part feasibility study.

Comcast, the City Council, and Community Input

As the Hampshire County seat and home to about 26,000 people, Northampton, Massachusetts, has attracted Comcast as an Internet service provider. The presence of a cable Internet ISP means better connectivity than in most rural areas, but it also has evolved into lack of competition. As is often the result, residents experience poor customer service and are hungry for local Internet choice.

At a February 21st City Council meeting, Hamill and Feldscher spoke in favor of the feasibility study. They also presented a petition created by their grassroots group, Northampton Community Network, filled with hundreds of signatures. 

Feldscher presented the signatures to the mayor at the meeting.

“The unanimous response we received from people was, “Sure, I hate Comcast, where can I sign?” Feldscher said.

At the February 21st meeting, City Council approved funding to survey residents in Northampton to learn more about the potential of a municipal network. The funding, estimated at around $30,000 will come from the city’s Capital Improvement Program. The city will survey the community in 2020 and complete the feasibility study in 2021. Completing the study will cost approximately $40,000.

Feldscher and Hamill weren’t the only Northampton residents to support the resolution to fund the feasibility study. With the repeal of federal network neutrality protections, a growing number of people are concerned that large ISPs, such as Comcast, will take advantage of the gap in protection. Networks owned by and accountable to local citizens can enforce the tenets that the federal government no longer require since they repealed network neutrality, including throttling, data protection, and paid prioritization.

Doing Their Homework

Hamill and Feldscher founded the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition as a way to educate the community. They describe themselves as “advocates trying to convince the City Council to create this community network.”

The group has researched other communities in western Massachusetts and in other places where local governments have invested in publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure. In addition to the communities working with Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), they’ve studied Leverett, Greenfield, and Chattanooga. Other communities in the state that are planning for, or investigating, the publicly owned option are also on their radar.

In addition to the most pressing issue of subscriber rates, the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition has an eye toward future progress of the community. On their website, the Coalition has addressed FAQs, such as:

  • Network neutrality
  • Cost and financing
  • The Municipal Light Plant (MLP) process in Massachusetts
  • Benefits of local control
  • 5G
  • Competition and the status of Verizon FiOS in the region

The Coalition has also collected rates for similar speed tiers from Comcast and several municipal network Internet access providers so Northamptoners can compare. In order to allow folks from the community a voice, the Coalition has provided a link to their petition in support of a municipal network for the community.

Fiber in the Hood

According to a 2016 report from the city, Northampton already has municipal fiber connecting at least 26 buildings. Public schools, libraries, and municipal facilities use the fiber for services such as local area network connectivity and VoIP, but municipal facilities rely on private sector retail Internet access providers.

At the time of the report, Northampton decided that they would not pursue a FTTH network across the community. The city also has access to four strands of the Five College Network, a fiber optic network dedicated toward educational purposes that travels through several Massachusetts communities. The Five College Network fiber is intended only for non-commercial facilities. In 2016, the city was using only one of the four strands. Among other recommendations, the report suggested using the other three strands to connect municipal facilities to reduce the financial burden of connecting with private sector Internet access providers. 

The 2016 report concluded that, even though Northampton was not ready to begin serving businesses and residents, using city fiber assets for such activity in the future isn’t impossible. The report suggested that if the community wanted to move forward by investing in a publicly owned network, they should take a cautious and adopt an incremental approach, focusing on connecting businesses.

Three Years Later

Now that other communities in Massachusetts have developed their own municipal networks and subscribers are signing up, the market may look significantly different. Other towns in Massachusetts are proving that their residents want fast, affordable, reliable Internet access that’s accountable to subscribers who own the network. As communities around Northampton move forward with gigabit infrastructure, those in charge of the city’s future need to keep their eyes on the future because it’s important to stay competitive:

“We don’t want to be the last Western Mass town to have the benefits of a high-speed municipally controlled network,” said Feldscher.

Tags: massachusettsnorthampton mafeasibilitygrassroots

Central Ohio Community Investing in 100 Gig Fiber Network for City Connections, Economic Development

February 22, 2019

Hilliard, Ohio (pop. 36,000), is moving forward with plans to deploy a carrier neutral dark fiber network after city council approved funds for the project last month. The 25-mile fiber network will connect government buildings and businesses in the Columbus suburb and will be capable of speeds up to 100 Gigabits per second, reports Columbus Business First. Officials hope that improving Hilliard’s broadband infrastructure will help the community attract and retain businesses, encourage local economic development, and reduce municipal connectivity costs.

Deployment Details

During the first phase of the project, Hilliard will run fiber to municipal buildings and local businesses. The carrier neutral network will connect to the Metro Data Center in nearby Dublin, Ohio (home to DubLINK), giving the city government and businesses access to a wide selection of providers, who will have the ability to lease fiber from the city. In the future, the network could expand to serve other entities, such as local schools. The city does not plan to connect residents.

The total cost of the network’s initial phase is $3.17 million; to fund the fiber rollout, Hilliard City Council set aside $2.9 million in January as part of the city’s capital improvements budget. This included a $1.25 million loan from the Franklin County Infrastructure Bank, which has also invested in two similar projects, including Grove City. Hilliard Economic Development Director David Meadows said that the remainder of the funding comes from a conduit and traffic signal project that was approved in the city’s 2018 budget.

Economic Benefits for the City

Like many communities, the city of Hilliard is investing in a municipal fiber network to strengthen and grow the local economy. Currently, the community’s limited options for Internet access pose a concern to prospective companies. “We’ve had some businesses express issues with connectivity here,” Meadows explained to Columbus Business First.

Additionally, the new network will help Hilliard improve connectivity in municipal buildings while lowering the cost. In an email, Meadows said:

“With the connection into the data center, the city was able to competitively bid to other carriers that not only gives us 10 times the bandwidth, but at a fraction of our current cost.”

Tags: ohioopen accesscarrier neutralleasehilliard ohpublic savingstraffic lights