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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 349

April 1, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 349 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Jonathan Chambers about the FCC's Connect America Fund phase II reverse auction and satellite Internet access provider Viasat's attempts to retroactively change program testing requirements. Read the transcript below, or listen to the episode.



Jonathan Chambers: Ask the people in those areas. Ask them to make the judgement. Run tests where they test the quality of the service. Listen to people. Put first the people that you're supposed to serve. You'll get your decisions right more times than wrong.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 349 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Jonathan Chambers from Conexon is becoming somewhat of a regular on our show. He's back again, and this time he's here to discuss an issue that's arisen regarding last year's Connect America Fund Phase II auction. Christopher and Jonathan talk about the award that went to satellite Internet access provider Viasat. There are questions surrounding the company's request to retroactively change some of the project eligibility requirements. It appears as though the FCC is considering honoring Viasat's request. In addition to the effect on other Internet access providers who bid but did not receive federal funding, the issue questions the integrity of the process and the commission. Jonathan, who used to work for the FCC, talks about the importance of including local perspective and experience when making these types of decisions. Jonathan and Christopher also discuss possibilities for how people at the local level can let government agencies, such as the FCC, know their thoughts about these kinds of decisions. Now here's Christopher with Jonathan Chambers.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance talking to an old favorite guest, Jon Chambers, a partner with Conexon. Welcome back to the show, Jon.

Jonathan Chambers: Thanks Chris. Thanks for asking me

Christopher Mitchell: When you were last on, we talked about the Connect America Fund auctions and a lot of the things that went right, maybe some of the things we weren't super happy about. We're gonna pick that up a little bit today with a little bit of retrospection, perhaps, and talk specifically about something that has gone wrong and in many ways has actually gotten worse because of other developments since then. But first, let's just briefly remind people, Jon, if you could, what was the Connect America Fund auction, for people who might not remember?

Jonathan Chambers: So the auction was a reverse auction, meaning the federal government was offering funding in exchange for delivery of service. This goes back many, many years when the FCC had decided that it was going to change its funding of telephone service in rural and high cost areas to fund instead the combination of telephone, voice service, and broadband service. And over many years, the FCC developed a mechanism for doing just that, and the mechanism is an auction mechanism. The first larger scale test of this auction was held last July and August in what is referred to as the Connect America Fund II auction. There will be followup auctions of that one because not all of the areas of the country were bid out. Not all of the areas of the country have yet been opened up for auction. That was the first and in many cases a test case of if you hold an auction, if you offer funding, will you get companies willing to serve high cost rural areas with high quality broadband service? And in large part, the auction was a huge success. There were bids across the country. In every one of the 30,000 census block groups, there was interest in bidding. In the time since the auction was closed, the FCC has engaged in that next step, which is to confirm the ability of companies to fulfill their obligations, to gather the paperwork, to collect network diagrams, to go through what is called the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier process at the states where funding was won — all of those steps, which are the precursor to actually giving out funding and having the companies that bid on the areas agree to start building networks and providing service. The very first of the authorizations for funding have been prepared over the last just several weeks, so we're in that phase. It's been six, seven, eight months, but we're in that phase now of the FCC reviewing, state commissions reviewing, companies responding to requests, and this, as I said, sort of phase of authorization so that the companies can get about the work of building networks and providing service.

Christopher Mitchell: And Jon, your company Conexon works with electric cooperatives to provide fiber service. You've been contracted with cooperatives that have gone after these subsidies, you've worked with cooperatives that have not needed to go after them or have chosen not to go after them, but that's your background for several years now and where your expertise in this comes from, as someone who watches it very closely.

Jonathan Chambers: Yeah, so years ago, when I was at the Federal Communications Commission, I discovered through the analysis that the commission staff was doing that there was a real cost advantage for six, eight, ten separate reasons, a real cost advantage in building fiber networks in rural areas if you built leveraging the existing infrastructure of a rural electric cooperative. I became fascinated by those advantages, by the history of these co-ops, and the opportunity that they had to build world class telecommunications infrastructure in areas where no one else would build or could build. So when I left the FCC some years ago, I started working with electric co-ops in order to build, plan for, operate, design — everything, you know, soup to nuts, to deliver high quality broadband service in rural areas. And the company where I'm a partner, we formed what we called the Rural Electric Electric Cooperative Consortium to bid in the CAF II auction last year. So we were a participant in the auction, won funding across the country, a total of $186 million over 10 years, all to do one thing: to build Fiber-to-the-Home networks to offer gigabit speeds in areas that are currently unserved and areas that really have no other prospect of getting gigabit service, the same levels of service you can get in most of the country today.

Christopher Mitchell: And so I think it's worth noting that we're not going to go into great depths about rural broadband and satellite. I think we're saying that we think that there are many reasons why satellite is not a good long term solution. In particular, the standard satellite we see today, which may be capable of high throughput but has latency problems and other problems including very high cost. But, I might sum it up this way — and Jon, you can jump in to correct me or to, you know, add on — but Viasat won more than $100 million in the auctions. In many ways I kind of felt at the time, well I don't think it's a great investment, but at least people living in some areas will have subsidized satellite while we wait for something better to get to them. And then the ReConnect program came along — and this is a program out of the Department of Agriculture, $600 million for rural areas — and said that any areas that were getting money from the Connect America Fund Phase II auctions would not be eligible effectively — there's a little bit of nuance, but effectively not eligible for this money, which in my mind changed everything because then communities that get Viasat money went from, in my mind, saying, "Oh, it's kind of a waste of money, but there's maybe a mild benefit to it," to "Actually this is a very bad situation because getting money for Viasat now means you are not eligible for the real money that matters to build high quality networks to your region."

Jonathan Chambers: It's a difficult puzzle that the federal government, state governments, others have been trying to solve for many years, which is the only reason anyone is engaged in this, anyone meaning the government agencies are engaged in this, is because of market failure, and not market failure in any profound sense. Just simply, where there's a lack of decent broadband service, there's a lack of a lot of things. Lack of decent cell phone service, lack of cable television service. It's the same network economics that play itself out over and over again. And so, the government has devised ways of trying to subsidize or give grants in order to get service out to high cost rural areas, and satellite is a part of that. It's long been recognized as part of the solution. The difficulty is that, at least to the way I think of it, satellite today, satellite in the past — and you know, I'm not making predictions about the future, but the likelihood is that satellite doesn't now and won't deliver the same quality of service that you get through other technologies, Fiber-to-the-Home for example. So if the government is going to make a decision to spend the public's money, part of the question is how long is that funding cycle, and does it preclude any other solution for those areas? If you think something is better than nothing. So satellite — not to disparage satellite — but better than what is out there today, and what the government is doing is buying some capacity on the satellite network so people can afford satellite. That is, it becomes more affordable to use the Internet in a fulsome way. The question is how long and does that become the exclusive solution in some of these areas? And the combination of the FCC's decision, which was to permit satellite participation, and then the Rural Utility Services decision to exclude any other funding for any provider, any solution, any technology if satellite or anyone else receives funding from the FCC, that means that in those areas of the country where satellite is the option from the FCC, other parts of the federal government, the Department of Agriculture through their RUS programs, they won't fund anything else. That's their decision. I disagree with the decision, but that's their decision to date. If you have satellite through the FCC's program, that's the only type of service that the federal government has decided it will fund for at least the next 10 years, if you follow their logic. That's the cycle of these programs: 10 years. 10 years is an awfully long time in technological development. 10 years would be an awfully long time for a rural community to be excluded from the same types of service, the same levels of service that are available to the rest of the country.

Christopher Mitchell: I think it's worth noting that over this period of 10 years, it's not like we're thinking of these areas where they're just super remote on top of a mountain. These are areas that may be just a few miles from areas that are getting Fiber-to-the-Home over the next three years from some of your rural electric cooperatives. You know, so these are not areas that are totally inaccessible. We're not talking about Alaska here in this case. We're talking about areas that people will, over 10 years, move from the areas in which satellite is the exclusive option to a few miles down the road where they may have fiber optic Internet service. And so this is where, you know, as you're describing it, I know that you care deeply about this, but the injustice of it, that the community has no say over it, is staggering.

Jonathan Chambers: That very point you make has been to me the one fatal flaw in government funding programs of this nature. There is no opportunity anywhere in the process for a local community, for the residents of a community, for the businesses in the community to have a say in the services that are funded by the federal government. This is purely a dialogue between the federal government and in the past, telephone companies and more recently, any other Internet service providers. And by that I mean, it's about the only federal program that the FCC administers that I can think of in which no consumer choice, no consumer preference, no consumer decision is involved at all. It's as if you'd say, well, we in the federal government — that's when I was in the federal government and since I've left — we in the federal government think that we know what's best or we know at least what's possible for your area. I have said frequently over many, many years now, that it is not just possible, but it is realistic to build Fiber-to-the-Home, to every single rural home in America. In most cases, you don't need any federal support, state support, subsidies, grants or anything else, but there are areas as you get more and more rural, as you get below 3, 4, 5 homes per mile, where some public support is necessary in order to bring the level of service up to the same level of service you get in the rest of the country. So to me the question has always been, what do you spend the public's money on? And to me also, you know, the related question is if you're going to spend the public's money, why not ask the public what it would prefer? In the case of satellite service, there is an easy fix of course, which is if the FCC is going to fund one program, it shouldn't preclude all other programs, from being available to rural areas. If there needs to be some displacement, some tradeoff between one funding program and another, well that's just math — you can figure that out. But what if we're talking about is precluding an area from ever getting the level of service that you get in the rest of the country — where I live, where you live. Well that to me, that 10 year period of time we were talking about, that's a digital death sentence. You can't expect the community to attract investment, to attract businesses, to have startup businesses, to keep young people if the community is going to be in a disadvantageous position with respect to the rest of the country and most of the rest of the world.

Christopher Mitchell: And so this is where I wanted to set that context as we go into the second piece of this discussion, which is to summarize that in many ways, I don't think we would even be having this second part of the discussion, if not for the fact that this is so important for these rural residents, these rural businesses that they not be precluded from a better solution. And that's that because it is now so important who gets the money and how it is spent, when we look back, we find that it appears that the FCC may quietly, retroactively change the rules of the program to advantage Viasat — rules that that prevented there from being additional satellite bids because HughesNet had decided it could not meet the standard that was required in order to participate in the auction. Viasat argued it could meet those standards. And now that the auction is over, it's quietly trying to change the standard, and it appears the FCC may go along with it. It's just mind boggling.

Jonathan Chambers: Yeah, sometimes things sounds so strange that you don't really believe it. I've been following this, but I hadn't weighed in on the controversy between Viasat and Hughes — both satellite providers of broadband service, both submitted applications to participate in the CAF auction that we've been discussing. And last year, the FCC adopted a rule that they'd been working on for many years to set the terms of how do you test the services once the money has been spent and once the services have been deployed? How do you ensure that the public's money was properly spent? So the FCC adopted these testing protocols, referred to as the metrics order, and upon reviewing the testing protocol, Hughes decided that it could not meet the voice tests because of the latency of satellite. If you're making a satellite voice call, you still have to do a round trip between whatever your device is, the connection to the satellite, and then back again, and that latency can be half a second, 600 milliseconds, it can be a second or longer depending on whether you're calling a landline device or another satellite device. Hughes — and this decision was made before the auction — Hughes reviewed the rules and decided it was not possible to meet the test. Viasat apparently made a different decision because Viasat participated in the auction. Viasat bid in the auction, won as you mentioned in 20 states $110 million. And then something really odd occurred. Viasat and Hughes both asked the FCC to change the rules that had been adopted. Hughes asked them at the FCC to change the rules prospectively, and Viasat asked the FCC to change the rules retroactively. And Hughes has since been before the FCC — this is all public information; you can read their comments and their filings — and explained to the FCC that if the rules were changed, it would be an unfairness to Hughes and the other participants in the auction because Hughes would have participated in the auction under a different set of rules. So when I said sometimes things are strange and, you know, you wouldn't think they would occur, it does seem to me that Viasat is holding two or three positions that contradict each other. Either it believes it can comply with the rules, in which case no rule change needs to be made, or it believes it can't comply with the rules and is asking for a rule change to be made. If it thought it could comply with the rules at the time of the auction, then I think it's a pretty easy problem to solve. You don't change the rules. If Viasat now believes that it cannot comply with the rules, well that's a much tougher problem to solve because they bid throughout the country and their bidding affected other bidders. It affected our bids. That is to say, the co-ops that I worked for would have won more money. And you know, then you get to the really fundamental question of the integrity of the auction process itself. If you're gonna change the rules after the game, how can you trust the game? If you're going to change it even in small ways, if you're going to consider — you know, one test was sufficient last year, but now we're going to consider it different tests that might be easier to meet or the test standard might be slightly different or the number that you have to test to should be changed. Even small changes can have sort of fundamental effects on the auction integrity, on the participants in the auction. The easiest thing of course to do is to stick with the rules that are adopted in the first instance, adopted prior to the beginning of the auction, which is what I expect the FCC will do. I mean, how could you do something different than that? The FCC has 30 plus years experience in considering auctions, running options. It is the crown jewel of FCC policy and spectrum policy, now in this funding for rural areas policy. You don't throw all of that away by doing something as detrimental to the interests of the public and the bidding participants as changing the rules after the game.

Christopher Mitchell: You and I both know different groups that are directly impacted by this. I've talked to a rural electric that would be seeking money to expand under the ReConnect program, the USDA program, to expand its Fiber-to-the-Home service into areas that are ineligible because they're getting Viasat money. I've traveled to a community that is now ineligible, and they were going to partner with a local telephone company in order to expand service. They're now basically out of luck because they can't access the money, and you know even more different groups that would be using ReConnect funds if not for Viasat getting that money and taking that money off of the table for those regions. And so, I wanted to, as we're getting closer to the end here, I wanted to note that we still have yet — so there's this issue of the FCC could hold to the rules. I feel actually feel embarrassed for saying that. Let's hope the FCC stands true and does not change the rules retroactively. But there's a second line, which is the state public utility commissions. They designate eligible telecommunications carriers who are eligible to receive funds like this, and theoretically a PUC could say, well, this entity Viasat cannot or does not get ETC status because they cannot meet the metrics we've decided to create for designating certain carriers to be eligible. Now, I'm sure you're going to explain this and in some ways I'm just trying to set you up for it, but is it possible then that for instance, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission could say, no, we're not going to give an ETC to Viasat, but that for instance, Oregon would roll over or another state would roll over and we would have this sort of split then?

Jonathan Chambers: Public utility commissions, public service commissions were given explicit authority in 1996 to consider this very question: is somebody that is seeking public support, federal funds in this case, are they eligible, are they qualified, are they capable of delivering quality service? That's a determination by states. In some cases, some of the states have deferred to the FCC on that decision, but in other cases they've done what they've been doing since the late 1990s. So you might get different determinations by different states because the state has this long view, the state commissions are a little bit closer to the people than the FCC, and so the states do have a responsibility to look out for the quality of the service provided. You know, I think this comes back to the other point that I was making. For a state to know whether the service is acceptable, it does seem to me that the easiest course for a state to take is to ask the public, to ask the public that it is supposed to serve. The testing that needs to be done of any type of service should be done in the areas where the public is affected. Like you mentioned Oregon. The people in Salem, Oregon, where the Public Utilities Commission sits, they're not affected by this decision one way or the other. But people in eastern Oregon are. People in Rural Oregon are. People who live where the population is two and three homes per mile, they'll get affected by this decision. So I've been told over the years that you can't ask people, that you need expert agencies to make these decisions, and what I always come back to is if you divorce policy making from the people that are affected by the policies, you've made a fundamental error. Here I think there is a pretty straightforward approach, whether it's in Mississippi or Oregon or Pennsylvania or anywhere else. We know the areas that have been won in this auction, where folks would be applying for RUS grants or anywhere else. Ask the people in those areas, ask them to make a judgment, run tests where they test the quality of the services, listen to people. It sounds like — I'm the farthest thing from a populist, but I did believe when I was in the government, and I do believe now working for cooperatives, that if you put first the people that you're supposed to serve, you'll get your decisions right more times than wrong. If you even ignore the opportunity to ask the question, you've really done a disservice to the people you're supposed to serve. That that would be what I would suggest for a public service commission. Set up a testing mechanism, ask the people who live there, make your decision based on the results, you know, as you get responses from the people in rural areas. They're the only people who matter in this case. Certainly not me or you.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I very much support that. It seems — I'm just trying to imagine what we would tell a person listening to this what they could do to make that happen. And I have to think that, for instance, if their state legislature held a hearing on this and made the PUC notice it, or even if you know, a few people from a legislature were to send letters to the public utility commission, asking them what's going on here, that might be useful.

Jonathan Chambers: Yes, I agree with that completely, but more important, I think a lot of times folks feel as if they have no voice, no authority, no power in these decisions. It's incumbent on both sides here, the two sides being the people who work in the government agencies and the people who live in these areas where the decisions affect their lives, to be involved. The reason that I love working with rural electric cooperatives is that everything hearkens back to a time when these cooperatives were first started in the 1930s, in the 1940s, where there weren't a lot of people just sitting around waiting, waiting for somebody to build something, waiting for somebody to come and deliver electricity because the waiting time had passed. There wasn't going to be service in those areas unless these membership organizations were formed, unless people did the hard work of putting up poles and stringing the electric wire. That start of 80 years ago, 85 years ago in some cases, continues through this day. It really is the most elemental community based effort and, you know, it's always been my message to rural areas: Build something. Build it yourselves. Go back to a time in which times were tough, when folks didn't sit around watching cable television and moaning about the state of the world. They got off their couches, they got up, they built something. Build something now. And to the extent that government wants to assist, assist in the community efforts. I mean, we are, you know, a country right now riven with divisions. The only small suggestion I have to anybody is to get off of Twitter, get off of TV, and go out and build something for yourself, your communities, your kids for the future. And I would suggest governments should support those efforts.

Christopher Mitchell: You can't go wrong by telling people to turn off the so called news on the TV, from my point of view. I might be a little bit softer on Twitter in terms of saying follow the people who are inspiring you to get out and build this stuff rather than the people who make you pull your hair out or the people you only agree with. But I agree entirely, and this is something that I was just reflecting on in a recent event I was at. The time you're talking about was not an easy time. It was a time when, if it wasn't their local economy that had cratered, it was a threat of Nazi-ism abroad. There were threats all over, and people still figured out a way to pull together. We certainly can do better than that in a time of the abundance that we have if people put their minds to it, so that's what we try to celebrate.

Jonathan Chambers: Yeah, I'm not suggesting, you know, hearkening back to some golden age.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Jonathan Chambers: The 1930s, the 1940s, those were hard times. Look, I have been criticized. Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is a time to tear down and a time to build up. I would suggest that in our country the time for tearing down is long past. We have been tearing each other down for the last several years, certainly, and will for the next couple of years. I would suggest that we look to the teachings of the past, and the way to stop tearing down is to stop tearing each other down and start to build. That there is reward in the act of building. That this time period you and I were just discussing was a time of building. That's how we got out of the troubles of the time. Bridges and dams and public works and national parks and these electric cooperatives, which built electricity to three quarters of the geography of our country over that period of time. I'd say we should build again.

Christopher Mitchell: This is also a time of great ideological difference then. This was a time in which people were very much divided between those who called themselves socialists, there may have been a few anarchists leftover, there were certainly capitalists, small business capitalists. There was a great variety, and we found common purpose in building together. You know, I think there may be a correlation between the fact that we have not done as much building over recent decades and that we are so divided because your experience and my experience is that when we talk about building in these rural areas in which we imagine that there is so much more division, we don't see it when people are working together for solving pragmatic problems. They put the kind of ideological stuff to the side and they work together and they have a good time. So, you and I could go on for a long time, but let me just give you a chance to agree or disagree.

Jonathan Chambers: Yeah, I think there's a heck of a lot of value and hard work in building these networks. That's what this really is — it's hard work. There's no magic. You've heard me say before, the Internet itself seems like magic. The ability to access information from almost anywhere in the world, the ability to communicate, to entertain and be entertained, to do all of that instantaneously —it's got a magical quality, but it's only delivered because of the hard work of people over decades of time. People who put up poles and strung wire and lashed fiber and create and put up buildings and structures, and invent new electronics — all of that is what enables the Internet. The Internet is a physical thing. And I'm not clever enough to know how to do what is created on the Internet, but I sure know how networks are built and what it comes down to. What it comes down to is hard work and the opportunity to do something for yourself, your community, your future. That's what I really ever suggested that the government do. Assist those who really want to help themselves and their communities. Ask people what they want, and then support their efforts. Don't make decisions for them. We're not that smart to make decisions for everybody in the country.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you Jon. I really appreciate you bringing your expertise onto this. It's something we're following, we'll continue to write about and talk about here through ILSR's work. But [I] definitely appreciate the work you're putting into this, and let's hope that we make sure that people actually have some sort of say over their future.

Jonathan Chambers: Thank you Chris. Always great talking to you.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Conexon's Jonathan Chambers talking with Christopher about the FCC and Viasat. 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. You can follow us on Instagram. We are ILSR74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Cuck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 349 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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Vermont Lawmakers Eager to Support Local Broadband Efforts

March 29, 2019

Current lawmakers in the Vermont House have rapidly advanced H 513, a bill that addresses both policy and funding hurdles in an attempt to expand broadband throughout the state. After a vote of 139 - 2, the bill went on to the Senate on March 26th.

Looking at Local Models

H 513 recognizes that more than a quarter of the state’s premises don’t have access to broadband speeds as defined by the FCC, 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. The state’s Department of Public Service, which assembled the data, also determines that almost a fifth of premises can’t obtain speeds of 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps. With so many rural communities hurting for access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, state lawmakers are anxious to find tools to expand broadband across Vermont.

Legislators note in the language of H 513 that they believe the FCC’s “light-touch” approach toward expansion of broadband:

“…does little, if anything, to overcome the financial challenges of bringing broadband service to hard-to-reach locations with low population density. However, it may result in degraded broadband quality of service.”

H 513 goes on to acknowledge that grassroots approaches that use local knowledge and support will be the most successful in Vermont.

Lawmakers and their staff have lauded ECFiber as one model that works in a place like Vermont, where many smaller communities can pool their resources and work together to develop a regional network. As the Communications Union District has developed over the years and dealt with funding challenges head-on, it has become apparent that access to capital is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.

Funding for Innovation

In order to help local projects, H 513 will establish the Broadband Innovation Grant Program within the Department of Public Service (DPS) and the Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA). 

The grants will be used for feasibility studies and are limited to unserved and underserved areas. Municipalities, nonprofit organizations, cooperatives, and for-profit entities can apply for the grants that are limited to $60,000. The number of electric distribution utilities that can obtain the grants cannot exceed two and the bill also directs DPS to study the issue of electric companies as broadband providers. A report on the issue is due on January 1, 2020.

Loans from VEDA will be distributed for infrastructure and also directed at unserved and underserved communities. The limit for loans is $1.8 million and loan amounts can be as high as 90 percent of the project cost. Loans can apply to new projects or the expansion of existing networks. The same types of entities are eligible to borrow and they do not have to begin repayment for up to two years. The program has the authority to loan out a total of $10.8 million.

Rep. Tim Berlin, Chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee, the group that developed the bill, commented on the reasons for the optional 2-year deferment:

“What they are doing is stringing fiber, they are trying to sign up subscribers and there is very little revenue coming into those entities,” he said. “That’s very difficult financing to find from a bank or from the capital markets.”

The bill also requires the appropriate state administrators to examine the issue of general obligation bonds as a way to fund capital improvements needed for networks. The Secretary of Administration is expected to make a report by the end of 2019.

Policy Changes, Different Perspectives

Along with financial assistance, H 513 will make practical changes in the law to encourage more broadband development. The legislation directs the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to revise pole attachment rules to accommodate one touch make ready policies. Several requirements to an amended rule are included in the language of the statute.

Electric cooperatives in Vermont will no longer be barred from receiving financing from the Rural Utilities Service for nonelectric activities when H 513 passes.

The bill also gives municipalities the authority to use municipal revenue bonds to develop infrastructure for public-private partnerships. H 513’s language states that a private sector partner could own, operate, or manage the network but must guarantee the bond and be responsible for the debt service.

As with other bills this session, the minimum threshold speed for projects is 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps, the FCC’s standard for broadband. While this speed is adequate for today’s households’ uses for Internet access and multiple devices, we’d prefer seeing state funds directed toward networks that provide higher capacity connections, especially upload speeds. Dedicating state dollars toward 100 Mbps symmetrical networks would be an improvement that would extend the useful life of the equipment lighting fiber networks and serving the ever-increasing needs of households and businesses.

Vermont Public Interest Research Group's director of communications and technology Zach Tomanelli

"VPIRG believes jumpstarting community-owned broadband efforts is the key to addressing Vermont’s connectivity issues and we’re hopeful that the reforms contained in H.513 will do that.”

Read the text of H 513 and take a look at the bill summary prepared by House Staff.

Image of the Vermont State House by Jonathanking CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

H 513 Text of the Bill H 512 Summary of the BillTags: Vermontlegislationfundingstate lawsstate policyloangrantecfiberone touch make readyh 513 vt

Lenoir City Utility Board Opens Fiber to Potential Partners in Tennessee

March 28, 2019

Lenoir City, Tennessee, has actively explored options for broadband for about ten years. After briefly considering broadband over power lines, the Lenoir City Utilities Board (LCUB) decided the time wasn’t right for the utility to offer Internet access to the public. The LCUB, however, is making a move to to open its fiber loop assets to potential partners, hoping to improve service for people in Lenoir City and surrounding areas.

Dark is the Way to Go

At their March 18th meeting, the LCUB members unanimously voted to accept proposals from private sector companies interested in leasing excess capacity on the utility’s fiber loop. According to LCUB general manager Shannon Littleton:

“There’s 80-85 roughly miles of 228-count fiber that’s around the perimeter of our system….We’re utilizing a small percentage of it right now. We plan on using a larger percentage of it in the future. We sat down as a group and decided there’s potentially 100 pair or 200 pair of fiber ... depending on what the board says, that we could put out to the marketplace for a period of time until the electric department decides to take it back for its own use.”

LCUB has already received requests to lease fiber on the network, suggesting potential competition and better options for folks in the rural areas of the LCUB service area. AT&T and TDS Telecom are incumbents with Lenoir City, but in the areas outside of town wired Internet access is difficult to come by.

Feasibility Results

LCUB deployed the fiber ring approximately three years ago for electric utility use, but has since hired a consultant to complete a broadband feasibility study with the asset in mind. The study estimated that Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) for all of LCUB service area premises would cost approximately $127.5 million. While it’s clear that people in rural areas of LCUB territory are lacking options, the more densely populated communities have fiber service from private sector providers. According to Littleton, approximately 13,000 customers are situated within a quarter-mile of the fiber optic ring and LCUB serves about 70,000 electric customers in four counties.

LCUB chose to open up its fiber to companies on or near the existing fiber loop, rather than pursue a more ambitious plan. LCUB Fiber Committee member Joel Garber:

“We have seen a lot of information, we’ve seen a lot of proposals, we’ve talked to a lot of people….We know the potential of the fiber network we have and we have many options yet to be done.”

As a potential model, LCUB is looking closely at Maryville, located to the east. The community owns downtown fiber and has made it available to lease to ISPs. To date, Spectrum is leasing the fiber to serve businesses in the downtown area.

Lenoir City

Lenoir City, the “Lake Capital of the South,” is considered part of the Knoxville Metropolitan Area; population has grown from around 6,500 in 2000 to about 9,200 in 2018. While there are a couple of Internet access options in town, the rural areas outside city limits don’t have the same choices.

Four major highways pass through town and commercial areas have spread out along several of theses routes in recent years. The 2000s have heralded in economic growth in the community and along with it the need for high-quality Internet access. A new hospital, expanded retail and commercial developments have all contributed to the regions need for better connectivity.

Tags: lenoir city tndark fiberleaseutilitytennessee

Folks Gather for Fiber, Film, and Fiddle in D.C.

March 27, 2019

In an evening filled with art and broadband policy, folks gathered in Washington D.C. to attend a screening of the film Do Not Pass Go, a documentary that examines the efforts of Wilson, North Carolina, to expand high-quality connectivity to rural neighbor Pinetops, and how big monopoly providers and the state legislature blocked their attempts.

Next Century Cities, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, the National Association of Regional Councils, and the National League of Cities hosted the event, which included a panel discussion on relevant state laws, the value of local authority, and possible solutions at the federal and local levels to bring everyone high-quality Internet access. In addition to our own Christopher Mitchell, Terry Huval, Former Director of Lafayette Utilities System and Suzanne Coker Craig, Managing Director of CuriosiTees in Pinetops LLC and former Pinetops Commissioner spoke on the panel moderated by Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities.

Attorney Jim Baller, President of Baller Stokes & Lide and President and Co-founder of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice also took some time to discuss specific state barriers that interfere with local authority for Internet network investment.

After the panel discussion, attendees and panelists mingled and enjoyed music supplied by Terry Huval and his fiddle:

It’s just like I’ve always said, broadband policy and Cajun fiddle music are a match made in heaven. Thank you to Terry - former manager of Lafayette, LA’s utilities system - for sharing your talents! #LocalChoice

— Cat Blake (@cat_hannah_b) March 26, 2019


Host A Screening in Your Community

Holding a screening in your community to raise awareness and help educate neighbors about publicly owned networks is a great way to help bring concerned people together. Details on how to order the film so you can arrange a screening are available on Vimeo.

We have also prepared a screening packet to help you and your group with the discussion and with next steps.

Check out the Do Not Pass Go trailer:

Do Not Pass Go from Hyrax Films on Vimeo.

Tags: next century citieswilsonpinetopsmonopolypreemptionstate lawschristopher mitchelleventlafayettecoalition for local internet choice

FCC Considers Retroactive Rule Change for Viasat - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 349

March 26, 2019

Over the past few years, Partner Jonathan Chambers of Conexon has become our “go-to guy” for FCC conversations. This week, he joins us to talk about a recent issue that revolves around the Connect America Fund Phase II auction and one of the grant recipients, Viasat.

With former experience working at the FCC in the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, Jonathan has insight we try to tap into every time a thorny issue arises. Satellite Internet access provider Viasat was one of the top winners of federal funding, winning more than $122 million. Questions remain, however, if they will be able to deliver services that meet the requirements and deliver what they promised. Apparently, Viasat is unsure if their chosen satellite technology will be able to meet the testing thresholds and have asked the FCC to retroactively adjust the requirements to ensure their services pass muster.

The FCC has yet to decline this request, which raises direct and indirect issue with the CAF II program, the FCC’s administration of the program, and Viasat. In this interview, Jonathan and Christopher discuss the issue in more detail and use the matter as a springboard to more thoroughly talk about the role of federal, state, and local government in developing rural broadband. Jonathan and Christopher ponder ways for local residents to have more of a voice in how broadband is funded and deployed in their communities and how ways to improve the process.

For a list of the CAF II winning bidders, check out the August 2018 FCC press release. You can also learn if your area is in a region where Viasat has won a bid by checking out the CAF II Auction Results map.

To learn more about voice service and the CAF II requirements, check out Community Broadband Bits episode 321, in which Jonathan described in detail testing and minimum standards.

You can also review Viasat’s original Petition and Reply in Support of their Petition in which they ask the FCC to reconsider the third-party mean opinion score (MOS); the issue is a matter of public record. We also encourage you to spend some time reviewing other filings from Viasat and also from Hughes relating to CAF II decisions.

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

This show is 39 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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

Tags: audiobroadband bitspodcastconnect america fundruraljonathan chambersfccsatellitevoice

North Carolina Broadband Bills Benefit Local Communities, Co-ops

March 26, 2019

Two pieces of recently introduced legislation in North Carolina’s General Assembly show a potential to help grow broadband in rural areas. In the past, state lawmakers have kept publicly owned Internet networks tightly reined in to protect cable and telephone monopolies operating in the state, but the restrictions may be loosening as state leaders recognize the need for more options.


The long list and leadership positions of sponsors attached to H 431 indicate that the FIBER NC Act shows promise. It’s four primary sponsors include the Rules Committee Chair and a Finance Committee Chair, which also bodes well for the future of H 431. Our friends at the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) tell us that they expect a similar companion bill with equal muscle behind it to come from the Senate.

The FIBER Act would change existing barriers to allow municipalities and local government the authority to invest in publicly owned broadband infrastructure in order to work with private sector partners. The bill also includes procedures that local governments must follow if they decide to pursue a public-private partnership, including conducting a feasibility study, and proper notification and execution of meetings. Within the language of H 431, the authors include specific instructions for publication and advertisement that describe the opportunity to lease the infrastructure.

Bipartisan support of the bill and the fact that almost 50 House Members, in addition to the four sponsors, have signed on add to the optimism that H 431 has a bright future. Folks at NCLM have expressed strong support for the bill and are galvanizing constituents to encourage elected officials to move H 431 forward. 

It’s first stop is the Committee on Energy and Public Utilities. If it passes there, H 431 will move on to Finance and then to the Rules Committee.

Read the full language of H 431 and follow it’s progress.

Untying Cooperative Hands

When we published our 2016 report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, we pointed out that the state’s 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives’ access to capital for broadband infrastructure was a major obstacle blocking high-quality Internet access in rural regions. Three years later, the General Assembly appears to be addressing the matter with S 310 and it’s companion bill H 387.

In the past, state law prevented electric cooperatives from applying for federal funding for broadband projects; this bill removes that restriction. With the ability to pursue federal funding, electric cooperatives and their members will have access to more opportunities to develop the infrastructure that has escaped them because large, corporate Internet access companies have focused on densely populated areas.

Lawmakers have included in the language of S 310 an expansion of easements that have traditionally applied only to electricity infrastructure to also apply to broadband infrastructure. Texas is also considering similar changes in their state law that would allow cooperatives to expand rural broadband. Indiana implemented the change in 2017, and cooperatives have since invested in projects around the state.

Another important and potentially game-changing component of S 310 is the removal of the current requirement that a cooperative’s broadband subsidiary “fully compensate” the electric operations division for use of personnel, equipment, property, and services. Removing the requirement also lowers the cost of new ventures by allowing electric cooperatives the ability to use existing trucks, personnel and equipment as needed without placing the burden early on the shoulders of a new broadband division.

Both S 310 and its companion H 387 carry a long list of sponsors from both parties. The House bill will follow a similar course to H 431 and begin in the Committee on Energy and Public Utilities. The Senate version starts in the Committee on Rules.

Read the full text of S 310 and follow it through the North Carolina General Assembly.

H 431 The FIBER NC Act S 310 Tags: north carolinalegislationnorth carolina league of municipalitieseasementcooperativerural electric coopbarrierh 431 ncs 310 nc

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 25

March 25, 2019


City of Fayetteville seeks broadband expansion by Hicham Raache, KNWA

"We want to make sure that the people in NWA and Fayetteville have the tools they need to understand the technology and to use it effectively to participate in the digital economy," Jordan said. 



Garamendi aims to ‘save the Internet’ with focus on rural communities by Matthew Keys, Daily Republic 



Introducing community-owned and operated broadband, Estes Park News



Flagler business town hall focuses on broadband access by Aaron London, St. Augustine Record 

“We’ve gotten to a point today where having high-speed access is no different from turning on your water in the morning or turning your lights on,” she said. “It’s not something that separates us from an economic development standpoint when we have it to make us better than anybody else, but the differentiating point today is when you don’t have it.”



Vinton pushes forward with fiber-to-home by Mitchell Schmidt, The Gazette



Maine picks new director to lead broadband push, The News & Observer


New York

Poloncarz wants to close county's digital divide with $20M high-speed network by Sandra Tan and Caitlin Dewey, The Buffalo News



Better rural broadband speed: Fiber optic comes to Maupin, Hood River News 



VEC receives $1.3 million grant for broadband in McMinn County, Daily Post Athenian



O’Brien supports broadband for rural areas by Jimmy Galvan, The Bay City Tribune

“If we can help by getting broadband brought to their houses faster and cheaper, then that is what that bill would help us do,” O’Brien said. “This would be greatly beneficial to both the school district and the community. If I have a child through their high school career, most of their life will be spent on a computer. 



Broadband plan in the works, NRVN News

Virginia electric utilities wiring rural areas for broadband by Daniel Berti, Capital News Service



Seattle Internet access study: Nearly universal access but more should be paying less, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog

Washington lawmakers struggle to close rural Internet gaps by Jake Goldstein-Street, The Seattle Times 



FCC spectrum auction tops $1 billion by John Eggerton, Multichannel

Bridging the digital divide: Getting high-speed Internet to everyone, AgWeb

The U.S. desperately needs a “fiber for all” plan by Ernesto Falcon, Electronic Frontier Foundation 

Ending bans on broadband deployment by Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs

Three important points on broadband competition by Jonathan Sallet, Benton Foundation 

A broadband agenda for the (eventual) infrastructure bill by Blair Levin, Brookings

Microsoft says the FCC 'overstates' broadband availability in the US by Karl Bode, Motherboard


Tags: media roundup

Volunteer Energy and Twin Lakes Telephone: Cooperatives Continue to Connect Rural Tennesseans

March 25, 2019

Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative began collaborating in the fall of 2017 to bring high-quality connectivity to folks in Bradley County, Tennessee. Based on the results of a successful pilot project, the cooperatives have expanded gigabit connectivity to more areas. With a recent grant award, the partners will continue to offer the service to more rural Tennessee residents and businesses.

Catching Up on the News

When we last reported on VEC and Twin Lakes, they had announced that they would be launching the pilot in Bradley County. Residents and businesses in Bradley County have long felt slighted by the state’s restrictive laws that prevent Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber from expanding into their county. Over the years, Bradley County and Chattanooga officials have searched for ways to serve Bradley County, but the state’s insistence on protecting large incumbent monopolies by preventing expansion have left Bradley County folks without fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

VEC and Twin Lakes commenced the pilot in the Camelot subdivision of the Bigsby Creek Road area of Bradley County. In a February 2018 blog post describing the first customer’s experience, subscriber Mrs. Charles Hollifield said, “We had no problem with the installers. They were on time and friendly. We chose the 25 Mbps because we do not download much but it works well. We haven’t had it quit once since we got it.” 

Since then, the initial pilot area passed 120 homes in the first pilot area. Later in the summer of 2018, VEC passed 545 more residences in two additional communities. Last fall, VEC received $1 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to apply toward expanding fiber to approximately 730 premises in in Meigs and Hamilton Counties.

State Assists With Deployment

As part of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act (TBAA) grants awarded in March, VEC received another $1.3 million which they’ll use to connect 867 premises in McMinn County. VEC expects to begin construction on the expansion of the network in the fall of 2019 and complete the project within 24 months.

VEC has consistently applied for grants to help fund expansion of the gigabit network to rural communities in their service area. In order to help secure the TBAA grant, they enlisted the help of potential subscribers:

“Thanks in part to the offer of partnership funds by the McMinn County Commission and in part to the community members who wrote numerous letters of support, the Spring Creek application was the only one submitted by VEC that was approved for funding in 2019,” noted VEC officials.

The TBAA awards, announced in late March, totaled $14.8 million and are aimed at expanding high-quality connectivity in rural areas of the state. Approximately 8,300 households in 17 counties are slated to obtain broadband service from a mix of 13 rural telephone and electric cooperatives, along with several telecom companies, including large national provider TDS Telecom. According to a press release from Governor Bill Lee, grantees have pledged approximately $20 million in matching funds.

States have an interest in investing in rural broadband infrastructure for residents who have been left high and dry by urban-focused corporate ISPs. In Tennessee, however, the state also stymies a valuable resource — local communities with municipal electric utilities already providing high-quality connectivity. If state policymakers would lift the restrictions imposed on places such as Chattanooga, Jackson, and Tullahoma, nearby rural communities with need which located outside the electric service areas could obtain broadband access from trusted municipal providers.

Deployment Follows Demand

In order to take a strategic approach to deployment, VEC uses a crowd fiber approach and deploys in areas where residents have expressed interest through preregistration.

In addition to Internet access, subscribers can sign up for video and voice services.

Residents can sign up for three different Internet access plans from VEC and Twin Lakes:

  • 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download / 2 Mbps upload for $49.99 per month
  • 250 Mbps / 100 Mbps for $64.99 per month
  • 1,000 Mbps (1 Gigabit) / 250 Mbps for $79.99 per month

Business services range from 12 Mbps / 1 Mbps for $54.99 per month to 1 Gigabit symmetrical service for $499.99 per month.

Tags: tennesseerural electric cooptelephonetwin lakes telephone cooperativevolunteer energy cooperativeruralcollaborationFTTH

Maine’s "Youngest City" Issues RFP for Broadband Plan; Proposals Due April 26th

March 22, 2019

Over the past few years, many cities in the rural state of Maine have begun exploring ways to improve local connectivity. Following in their footsteps, Biddeford has recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to assess Internet access in the community and develop a Broadband Plan. The RFP specifically notes this plan should include information on increasing digital inclusion in the city. Proposals are due April 26th.

Read the city’s full RFP.

Background on Biddeford

Biddeford (pop. 21,000) lies 15 miles south of Portland along the coast of Maine. Throughout much of the city’s history, textile mills were a major part of the local economy. After the decline of the textile industry in the region, the city redeveloped many of the abandoned mills and made attempts to revitalize the downtown area, resulting in a robust arts and food scene that belies the city’s modest size. (Eater even named a Biddeford restaurant as one of the “18 Best New Restaurants in America.”) These efforts, as well as a lower cost of living, have helped attract younger people to the area, making Biddeford Maine’s "youngest city" with a median age of 35.

Although broadband is available to most of the city, local connectivity has room for improvement. According to Federal Communications Commission data from 2017, nearly half of all Biddeford residents only have access to broadband from one provider, and no provider offers gigabit speeds within the city. Currently, Biddeford has two free Wi-Fi hotspots in its downtown area — the result of a partnership with private companies, including GWI, a Biddeford-based Internet access provider, and Axiom Technologies, a broadband company out of Machias, Maine.

RFP Details

Biddeford is looking for a consultant to create a Broadband Plan for the city that:

  • Identifies existing high-speed Internet assets in the City,
  • Identifies areas of the City lacking adequate high-speed Internet service, where augmented high-speed Internet service will be required to meet the demands of future “smart” infrastructure
  • Identifies the need for greater access to high-speed Internet and computer equipment for low-to-moderate income individuals and families that will promote Digital Inclusion

The selected consultant will be expected to meet with city staff and the Biddeford Broadband Team, which was created to monitor the project, and to hold a public meeting. They should also provide a written Broadband Plan that includes:

  • Graphic and written representation of high speed Internet assets in the City . . .
  • Recommendations (in graphic and/or written form) of areas of the City likely to require expansion of high-speed service and the most appropriate download and upload speeds to satisfy future demand. This may include low-to-moderate income neighborhoods
  • Recommendations for enhanced Digital Inclusion of low-to-moderate income households,
  • Summary of public comments and input

Funding for the plan comes from a $15,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation, a charitable nonprofit that finances projects throughout the state.

The deadline to submit a proposal is Friday, April 26th. Biddeford will announce which proposal it has selected on Friday, May 10th, after the Broadband Team and city staff review submissions. Proposals will be evaluated based on the consultant’s experience and expertise, the services they plan to provide, and the relative cost, among other things

Maine Communities Doubling Down on Broadband

Biddeford is just one of many Maine communities that are taking Internet access into their own hands. Nearby, Sanford has begun construction on a broadband network that will connect area businesses and community anchor institutions. Once completed, it will be the largest community fiber network in the state. Further north, the two towns of Baileyville and Calais have joined forces to create the Downeast Broadband Authority, which is deploying a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in the region. Yet more communities, such as Cumberland County, are still in the planning stages of improving local connectivity.

Biddeford RFP for Broadband PlanTags: biddeford memainerfpmaster planplanninggwi

Hillsboro, Oregon, Introduces Broadband Utility: Hello, HiLight!

March 21, 2019

Last year, city leaders in Hillsboro, Oregon, decided to pursue a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for all premises after studying the possibilities since 2014. Crews have started construction and the city has now introduced the name of its newest utility, HiLight.

Equity Matters

Throughout the process of exploring municipal network possibilities, community leaders in Hillsboro have kept digital equity high on their list of priorities. In order to meet one of their goals — to bring high-quality connectivity to lower income neighborhoods — one of the first areas of the city where HiLight will deploy is in Southwest Hillsboro and the premises around Shute Park. Connectivity rates in these areas are the lowest in Hillsboro, where many residents qualify as lower income.

In order to expedite deployment, the city has decided to start construction in the South Hillsboro area, a section of town where new roads and homes are being built. By taking advantage of the current excavation, the city’s dig once policy will ensure conduit goes in the neighborhood now, which will greatly reduce the cost of deployment. Hillsboro will also install conduit whenever roads are excavated in other areas of town to prepare for future deployment.

By late 2019, HiLight should be connecting residents and businesses to the network. They plan to take an incremental approach to connecting all areas of the city and will strategically consider locations of businesses, busy travel corridors, and schools as they decide where to expand. Hillsboro will invest approximately $4 million toward deployment per year for the next seven years and anticipate subscriber revenue will cover operating costs.

Schools as A Building Block

Earlier this year, Hillsboro and the Hillsboro School District (HSD) announced a partnership to invest in fiber that the schools will use for connectivity and that will serve as the foundation for the city’s new broadband utility. As part of that investment, the city council voted to contribute $3.3 million towards the construction of the fiber optic network construction. HSD will dedicate 2017 Capital Construction Bond funds toward the project.

By developing their own network and ending the need for leased lines, HSD anticipates saving approximately $5 million over the next 10 years. The city will manage and maintain the network for HSD at no charge. As for their own benefit, the city of Hillsboro expects to also save $10 million through the reduction in deployment costs of the citywide fiber optic network.

“This is the ultimate community partnership,” said Mayor Steve Callaway. “Our local school district and our local government understand the needs of our students and our neighbors, and this will help us move forward with the long-term buildout of the City’s fiber network to serve families throughout the community.”

Hillsboro is taking a tip from places such as Chanute and Ottawa in Kansas, and Santa Monica, California. In those cities and towns, investment in community network began with or integrated early school fiber optic resources to reduce the cost and effort required to deploy a citywide FTTH project. Often federal E-rate funds can lend a hand in paying for deployment.


Prices are not finalized, but the city expects to set rates at around $50 per month for symmetrical gigabit Internet access. Hillsboro will also provide services to low income residents for $10 per month. Commercial subscribers will pay approximately $70 per month but prices will vary, depending on what businesses need.

Video service will not be available from HiLight, but Hillsboro will be working with a private sector partner to offer voice.

Check out Hillsboro’s video announcement:

Image of Hillsboro downtown courtesy of Tualatin

Tags: hillsborooregondigital divideFTTHlow incomeaffordabilitygigabitsymmetry

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

March 19, 2019

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

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

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

For more, check out these articles by David:

Our Machines Now Have Knowledge We’ll Never Understand

The Internet That Was (and Still Could Be)

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

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

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

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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

Tags: audiobroadband bitspodcasttechnologyberkman klein center

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

March 19, 2019

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

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

Difficult But Doable

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

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

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

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

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

Eligibility Abounds

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

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

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

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

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

Decent Definition, Dilemma

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

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

Not A Large Pot

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

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

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

Where it Stands

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

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

Read the bill in its current version.

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

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 348

March 19, 2019

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Weinberger: Well, thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: They got us pretty far.

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

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

Christopher Mitchell: A very complex, clear example.

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: So is that Too Big to Know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Would you say the paradigm is inflecting?

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

Christopher Mitchell: They didn't get the paper.

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Maybe you've learned enough lessons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Or my Toyota today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Weinberger: That's an interesting choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Weinberger: That was smoothly done.

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

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

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

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 18

March 18, 2019


Trustees approve broadband project by Tyler Pialet, Trail-Gazette

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


New Hampshire

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



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



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



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

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



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



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

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

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

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


Tags: media roundup

Estes Park Trustees Vote Yes on Muni

March 18, 2019

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

Strong Support

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

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

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

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

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

Not one citizen spoke out against the project.

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

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

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

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

A Step Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of Estes Park courtesy of

Estes Park Press Release and FAQsTags: estes park cocoloradoFTTHelectricmuniretailsb 152

Tallahassee Talks Fiber RFP

March 14, 2019

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

People Want to Know

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

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

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

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

Divided Opinion

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

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

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

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

Tags: floridatallahassee flurbanconsideration

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

March 13, 2019

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

Going All Out 

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

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

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

Partners and Potential

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

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

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

Tags: north carolinacooperativenational rural electric cooperative associationpilotruralriver street networkscollaborationpartnership

Comedian Tackles Connectivity - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 347

March 12, 2019

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

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

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

Last October, Christopher appeared on Ron’s show:

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

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

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

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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

Tags: audiobroadband bitspodcastelected officialscaliforniapasadenagrassrootsnetwork neutrality96 Telecom act