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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 355

muninetworks.org - May 7, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 355 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher interviews Christopher Ali, assistant professor at the University of Virginia. They discuss how the federal government could develop a better rural broadband plan, whether people believe Internet access is a utility, and how cable news and Facebook impact the way people get information. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.

 

 

Christohper Ali: There's a role for the federal government in streamlining and democratizing this process. There's a role for states acting as the go between, and I really think that the solution to rural broadband are the local and municipal and cooperative ISPs that are coming up. They are the unsung heroes.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 355 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In April, Christopher went to Austin, Texas, to attend the Broadband Communities Summit, and while he was there, he had the chance to interview several guests for the podcast. He's back now, but we're still sharing his conversations, including this important talk with Christopher Ali, an assistant professor from the University of Virginia. If you read the New York Times, you may have read his piece from February 2019 titled, "We Need a Rural Broadband Plan." In that opinion piece, professor Ali shares his experiences traveling and researching in rural areas to discover what federal efforts have accomplished up to now. He also offers suggestions on ways to improve the current system that include better coordination rather than passing federal dollars to the large incumbent ISPs hand over fist. Christopher and professor Ali carry on that conversation, and since media studies is his area, they talk also about the way the Internet impacts media and the effect it's having on democracy. From the analysis of the influence of behemoth Facebook to the importance of smaller local media outlets, this is an important and interesting conversation. Here's Christopher talking with assistant professor Christopher Ali.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadand Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell here speaking with Christopher Ali, a assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Did I drop any words there?

Christohper Ali: No, you're good.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. For the sake of our listeners, we're both Chris's that use Christopher more formally.

Christohper Ali: Yes, sir.

Christopher Mitchell: But tell me a little bit about what you do with a, ]]as a professor of media studies.

Christohper Ali: Yeah. So I specialize in media policy and regulation, and that goes both for the kind of classes that I teach and for the research that I do. So in terms of teaching, I teach a huge survey course called media policy and law, which goes everything from broadband to broadcasting to the first amendment to obscenity to porn to libel and slander, you know, and then I teach a more specialized class called Internet policy and regulation, which really looks at the policies and funding mechanisms for broadband access, both in the United States, which we cover in the first part of the semester, and then globally. So we look at things like Internet shutdowns in conflict zones and Facebook Free Basics in India, aboriginal broadband in Canada, and try and make comparisons between what's going on in the rest of the world and what's going on here at home.

Christopher Mitchell: And you are here at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, where we're doing a lot of interviews sort of off the cuff, a little less planned. What brought you here as a professor who's studying media studies?

Christohper Ali: This summit has actually been on my radar for about two years now, and it's something that I've always wanted to do, but not being in industry, the registration fee is a little hefty for public service professors like myself.

Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting and there's no way to necessarily know this, but for people who are interested, the people who run the conference generally I can try to come up with ways of making it easier for people who work in the public sector and things like that.

Christohper Ali: Oh, well that's great to know. But how I think I got on their radar was that two months ago I published an op ed in the New York Times calling for a national rural broadband policy or kind of coordinated federal effort. And Drew Clark, the president of the Rural Telecommunications Congress reached out to me and wanted to have a chat, and in the end, he invited me to be on a panel here talking about the technologies of rural broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: You and I were on a show about three years together, but I think one of the things that I find most interesting about you is some of the students that have gone through your program. You've had some great folks: Cat Blake, who's becoming famous at Next Century Cities, Katie Watson, who had been at Next Century Cities, is now with the Internet Society. You've had some really great folks come through, and I think — I mean according to them, you've helped inspire them to want to work in this field.

Christohper Ali: Well, thank you. I mean, I am incredibly proud of the work that they're doing and the work that they will do in the future. I mean, it's been really an honor and a privilege to get to see both Cat and Katie kind of excel and find passions in this space that I am also really quite passionate about. So I love following their careers. I hope that more of my students at the University of Virginia will kind of be interested in this space. I've already got a couple of students who are writing their undergraduate theses on municipal broadband policy, and actually one of them just got hired as . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Don't say Comcast, don't say Comcast.

Christohper Ali: No, NCC's new intern.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, right, Next Century Cities.

Christohper Ali: And New America also just picked him up, so he'll be in DC starting in a few months actually. So, yeah, I'm incredibly proud of the work that they're doing and you know, if I played a small role in helping them do this, then I'll take that.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's talk about the op ed in the New York Times because you described it as calling for a national rural broadband policy. We already have one. It consists of writing very big checks to very big companies who then are not obligated to deliver broadband to anyone really. So what's wrong with that?

Christohper Ali: Ah, you know, so here's the thing. I mean, we spend $6 billion a year through kind of cross industry subsidies through loans and grants on rural broadband, and I actually think I might be in the minority by saying that I actually think that's a good number. I just don't think we spend it wisely.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Christohper Ali: Certainly the fact that $2 billion of that gets allocated to the 10 largest telecommunications companies with no accountability to roll out DSL is highly, highly problematic. So one of the things that I argue for in the New York Times piece and that I argue in my book that's coming out in two years, is that we need to democratize this process. You know, I love the idea of competitive auctions where all stakeholders are equal and can bid, but I also think part of the larger problem at the federal level is that we lack coordination. We've got the FCC on one side doing what it's been doing. We've got RUS on another side who —

Christopher Mitchell: Right, the Rural Utilities Service.

Christohper Ali: The Rural Utilities Service, which you know, had its history as the Rural Electrification Administration and incredibly successful in the 1930s and '40s connecting this country for electricity and telephony. And then you've got NTIA who kind of just comes in and out depending on what Congress has ordered the NTIA to do, without kind of a single voicing champion of this issue. And what I call for in the op ed is that we need a coordinator. We need one agency that is in charge of deploying and thinking about rural broadband. I personally think it should be USDA. I think that with their offices throughout the country, they are much more accountable to community needs than the Federal Communications is, which this particular FCC is quite hostile to communities. So, you know, I'd love to see that, and there's actually a bill in Congress right now —

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, let's just hold on there for one second. It's worth — it came up yesterday in a panel on the first day during the Coalition for Local Internet Choice day that Chairman Pai is not friendly to cities, but there's a commissioner, I assumed that they were talking about Michael O'Rielly who is outright hostile. It's not a matter of saying I prioritize, like, the companies, the big telecom companies, over the cities. He literally would like to see the cities burn it seems like.

Christohper Ali: I agree. You know, when he makes his public statements about this, I just cringe and I'd love to know, you know, more about where he's getting his information and his data from. I have my suspicions about where it's coming from. Between O'Rielly at the FCC and then of course BDAC, the Broadband Deployment Advisory . . . Council?

Christopher Mitchell: It's "Council," I believe. Yes.

Christohper Ali: You know, stacked with industry representatives who are also incredibly hostile to municipalities and to communities. I'm not sure the FCC is the right organization to be fighting this fight, despite the fact that the chair of the FCC claims at least kind of rhetorically or discursively to support issues of rural broadband. But you know, just because you're from Kansas doesn't mean you get to make these claims.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right. That's right. So, coordination. Let me run by you what we tend to think because I agree with you. Like, if there's going to be someone handling rural broadband in the federal government right now, I think it makes sense for it to be USDA, and USDA frankly has done a good job. I mean, we're just looking at the map of fiber in the United States from co-ops. North Dakota, South Dakota largely have the best broadband you can get in the nation because of USDA, so they're doing a good job. I tend to be absolutely supportive of what is trying to be done, but I don't really know that there's much of a federal role in terms of getting it done. And you know, it just challenges me sometime because I think, well if NTIA for instance, which I admire how they did BTOP and I don't want to insult them with this, but I will say that the amount of money that they have to spend to do a report does end up being far greater than what an organization like ours would do or, you know, what kind of experts would do. So I just don't know that it's necessarily great for the federal government to be doing this, so, you know, how do you respond to that?

Christohper Ali: I think one of the things that I'm learning throughout my research about rural broadband is that it is a situation where it's an all hands on deck situation. You know, we need to empower communities, we need to empower co-ops, we need states to empower this by getting rid of some of these ridiculous laws that are on the books.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Christohper Ali: You know, the prohibitive co-op laws that we're seeing slowly being rolled back, but you know, the prohibitive muni laws are there and quite sticky. At the federal level though, I mean there's a couple of reasons why I would say that we still need a coordinated federal push is they still control the majority of money and right now USDA and the FCC don't talk to each other, despite the fact that they have a memorandum of understanding, but they're quite hostile to one another. But that becomes really problematic because it is the local co-ops and ISPs who got caught in the middle, right? So one of the things that 99% of all companies that receive a USDA telecommunications loan are dependent on Universal Service Fund money to provide the subsidy to guarantee the loan.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Christohper Ali: So they are tethered between the FCC and USDA. They cannot exist without these two organizations. And when these two organizations don't talk to each other or actively disagree, it's the local ISP, particularly the co-op, that gets caught in the middle. So that's the kind of regulatory clutter that I think we need to get rid of, and I think that if we had a point agency that could really help. I love USDA, I love RUS, but they're also an incredibly conservative organization, and when it comes to funding, they typically actually don't give out all the money they're allocated. It's really difficult for communities to apply or co-ops to apply for RUS money. The paperwork is insane.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, yeah. If you didn't grow up with it, it's very difficult.

Christohper Ali: Right. And so, you know, wouldn't it be great if we could streamline these efforts at the federal level? And there are some states that are kind of acting as go betweens. Minnesota and Danna MacKenzie, her office, the Office of Rural Broadband — Office of Broadband Development, excuse me, in Minnesota, has done a great job kind of unpacking RUS and FCC language for providers in Minnesota, but I'd love to see that rolled out kind of nationally. So, there's a role for the federal government in streamlining and democratizing this process. There's a role for states acting as the go between, and I really think that the solution to rural broadband are the local and municipal and cooperative ISPs that are coming up. They are the unsung heroes of rural broadband, and I love that there's so many of them at this event here.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about urban areas. What is a challenge there? And frankly, is there a role for the federal government there do you think? Because we may start there and work our way down.

Christohper Ali: Absolutely there is. Lifeline and E-Rate. We are so dismissive of low-income urban communities. We — actually, I mean policy makers are quite dismissive of this. And I think even sometimes people like myself, when we talk so much about rural broadband, tend to forget that there are other digital divides. I mean, my, my book and my research is so focused on this, but I need to remember as well that low-income communities, minority communities, newcomer communities are equally as susceptible to this digital divide as rural communities. You know, we could ask the exact same thing about tribal communities in this country — which is something that we very rarely talk about, if at all, and I'll fault myself for not investigating that more too — is how do we have these conversations with tribal communities to bring broadband there. So I think, you know, we've got these three pockets — low-income urban communities, rural America, tribal America — that seem to each be fighting their own battles and you know, to have these larger conversations, I think, are so incredibly important and it's something that the federal government can do. You know, I'm a believer in that the government is there for all people. This is the Canadian in me speaking right now, so I do think there's a role here.

Christopher Mitchell: So you mentioned Lifeline and E-Rate. This was something that just recently came up because I was talking with a group of people and discussing how I'm really excited that some of the solutions we're seeing with public housing, getting a gigabit even to the unit for $10 a month. And some of the people were saying, well, $10 a month is still too much for some people to pay. This was at the Net Inclusion Conference, which I encourage people to mark their calendars — April 7 through 9 next year in Portland, Oregon. A wonderful conference. It'll be terrific. And I was saying, well, remember if 70,000 people had voted a different way in three different states, we would have Lifeline covering that in public housing, Lifeline being a program through the FCC that pays people for a phone or broadband subsidy of $10 a month. The Lifeline program was going to be expanded to more business models that would have enabled this sort of a thing. But one of the challenges is that $10 a month doesn't get you a whole lot in today's market, and so I'm curious, what do you think about what needs to be done to improve Lifeline?

Christohper Ali: I mean, the cynic in me would say that the chair of the FCC needs to get his hands out of Lifeline. You know, I don't like the idea of companies being stripped of their ability to do this. I fundamentally believe that the Internet and Internet connectivity is a utility. I go back and forth on whether or not I agree with the United Nations that it is a human right.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I just never want to have that fight myself either.

Christohper Ali: It's actually a conversation I love having with my students because we get into a really amazing conversation about rights and needs as a human. But it is a fundamental utility and we've got minimum standards for instance of how much voltage and wattage an individual residence has, right, that all electricity companies have to sign on to. We certainly have potable drinking water conversations. It just frustrates me so much that we're not having this conversation or not seriously having this conversation about broadband. And in fact, you and I heard today someone on a panel say, I'm not going to call broadband a utility.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh no, I didn't hear that. I didn't go to the session.

Christohper Ali: It was the representative from AT&T said that.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's why I didn't go to the session.

Christohper Ali: It broke my heart. I think if we change that conversation, it would make the argument so much easier for broadband for low-income communities. I still think that we — those who are homeless and we look at them and they have a phone and think of it as a luxury.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me just jump in because I'm not actually convinced that we do. I think smart people — this is my critique of smart people like you. Smart people look around and say, well, there's a lot of policy makers that just don't get how important broadband is. And there's fewer every year, fortunately, but that's true. But like 75 or 80 percent of the public agrees with you already that broadband is a utility.

Christohper Ali: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: Like, maybe we've won that fight and we just have to move on and ignore the other people who don't get it to some extent.

Christohper Ali: I mean, that's a really good argument, and maybe we have won but if we have won, why aren't we . . . ? You know, wouldn't this be a victory then?

Christopher Mitchell: Technically, I think the term for the majority on the FCC is dead enders.

Christohper Ali: Ah, yes. Yeah. I also think we're fundamentally hostile to low-income people in this country, and I think that's also part of the problem.

Christopher Mitchell: No, I absolutely agree with that and I don't want to say that it's wrong to, like, keep thinking about this, but I do sometimes think that we forget that we are representing the majority of people who believe broadband is key infrastructure. And I actually believe that a majority of people also would see a homeless person with a cell phone and say, okay, well that really makes sense because, like, what are they going to have? A landline?

Christohper Ali: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean, but there's very loud, obnoxious minority of people who have a lot of access to media that I think are destroying our discourse. In fact, you know, one of the interviews I did this morning that was probably run a week or two ago in his feed, Asfi was mentioning about how important vision is as a sense, and I was arguing that that's why cable television is — not cable television, cable news is destroying our country. Like, I think, if you wanna look at the things that are bringing us apart, I think, particularly nationally, but all news television just, it screws up our brains because of the visual. You're a media studies professor, so I get to just throw this stuff out there. You either are looking at me like I'm crazy or you're just thinking, well, yes, this guy already explained all that or this woman already explained all of that a few years ago.

Christohper Ali: Yeah, there's a lot of conversations going on in my field about the role of cable television and kind of distorting this kind of national discourse. Certainly we're in a news climate in which being first is more important than being right, which is because the 24 hour news cycle, you just need to turn out content. It's not unlike clickbait on Buzzfeed, right? I mean, you just need constant content. Now it's highly problematic when that content comes in the form of news. Most of it is not in fact news even. It's opinion.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, or it's just, like, it's irrelevant, but it's exciting because, oh man, our brains just love gobbling up anything like a perceived danger.

Christohper Ali: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, we're going to see so many more stories about the fact that that one person out of a million was murdered than we will about how we're all losing $30 a month to, like, a monopoly of one field or another.

Christohper Ali: Definitely, and you know, where that's particularly damaging is in local news, and local news is my other big passion of my academic career. So what happens when communities are losing their local news voices? Where are they going to for their news and information? Are they going anywhere anymore for their news and information. And we're certainly seeing the rise of news deserts, you know, areas without access to fresh, local news and information. And broadband actually has an important role to play here because those communities are typically rural.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Christohper Ali: So not only are you now perhaps without your newspaper of record, you probably don't have a broadcaster, or you're getting your news from the next largest market. You don't have an Internet connection or you have a subpar Internet connection, this is kind of a spiral or kind of a circle of — I don't know how to coin this term, but you know, some sort of information paucity that is really detrimental. And I'm not talking about politics. I'm just talking about information. I mean, you know, people have their partisan issues, but we all need access to information.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I think one of the challenges is that most of the information we have access to, it has the wrong incentives. And because it's exciting — I mean, this is where to some extent, and again, I'm sure you've given this more thought than I have because this is media studies, but, I have some trouble saying for instance that, like, if I took over CNN, I should do it totally differently. Now, I would argue that that TV news is always going to be manipulative. I mean, we just know that. I realize, sorry, dear listener, this interview is all over the place. Like, this is what happens when I don't have as much structure. But podcasts, which I'm obsessed with, you know, I mean, people will sit and listen to 30 minutes of podcasts. If it was a video, they probably would turn it off after a minute, and that's where the vision distorts the way we process media, I think.

Christohper Ali: Right. And you know, it's funny that you mentioned that, oh, if I inherited CNN, I would do things different. You know, the company that tried to do that with Al Jazeera America. They tried to import a much more European style of news, right, which is much more conventional, much more hard news, much less talking heads.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. A lot of former BBC employees.

Christohper Ali: Absolutely. Obviously they had a branding issue because Al Jazeera is tainted in this country, but they misread the American news market. They thought they could offer this product that no one else was, except no one watched it even if they had access to it.

Christopher Mitchell: Because I mean, this is my challenge, right? I mean, you're looking at me, you might graciously say 30 pounds overweight, and it's because I have a choice between eating stuff that's nutritious for me or not. And you can tell what decision I made on a daily basis.

Christohper Ali: Well, I mean, but who doesn't want some Texas barbecue? Let's be honest, I mean.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, no, I would totally — it's the sugar that's killing me. The barbecue I actually consider to be one of my more healthy choices.

Christohper Ali: Understood.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, so as we wrap up here, let me just ask you about the role of Facebook because in the 2016 election — and I'm trying not to be too partisan here in any way, but I think a lot of people made up their mind based on, I think, some faulty information. You know, I don't think people really had a sense of what the actual policies would be of Donald Trump. You know, particularly in the primary fields and that sort of a thing. But, well, there was a big question about the role of broadband and Facebook in spreading misinformation and perhaps, you know, confusing people, which is not to say that some people don't embrace Donald Trump's policies and style. But the point in my mind is, as someone who cares about the development of the Internet, does it worry you that we might just be basically spreading sugar across the land and sort of like poisoning people rather than actually helping them?

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. It does concern me. It concerns me when my students don't realize that Facebook is not a publisher — Facebook is a publisher, but that Facebook is not a news source. You know, they'd say, where do you get your news? Facebook. Well, no, where did you get that article from? And they can't trace it back. One of the conversations that I I think about, I worry a lot about is, how do we get Facebook to take responsibility as a publisher? And I say this because there's a regulatory issue here, right? And section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, so long as Facebook is not a publisher gives it a lot of — it's an interesting scapegoat to not take responsibility for what's on your platform. Certainly we're seeing Europe and now most recently the UK just a couple of days ago really crack down on this. You know, Germany has already done this pretty severely. It becomes difficult here in the United States to regulate that type of speech or to police it or even to have that conversation without being accused of being anti-American or anti-First Amendment. It is incredibly worrisome. I'll defer to my esteemed colleague Siva Vaidhyanathan who has literally written the book on Facebook and the spread of mis- and disinformation here.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me jump in to ask you, because you made the point I think of, where are you getting that information? And people say Facebook, but they're not. I mean, we've seen that the top trending stories are typically from Fox News, which I would argue are designed specifically to mislead people in specific ways. And similarly people will think, oh, I don't get my local news from the newspaper, I get it from the Internet, most of which comes from a newspaper.

Christohper Ali: Yes it does. So anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of all original reporting in a major city is done by the newspaper. Right. And, yeah, I don't think people realize that. You know, we tend to use newspaper and think just about the paper product, but of course, it's the online product as much. And where are, you know, local TV getting their news from? They're sitting down and reading the newspaper first and then figuring out what to do about, you know, their broadcast day. I think that if Facebook, Google, if these platforms were serious about saving journalism, we would see what, you know, Emily Bell, who's the executive director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism just quite frankly, calls for a transfer of wealth from these companies into local news, either through funds, you know, like a larger competitive fund or kind of direct investments, rather than these piecemeal, you know, things that they're doing. Facebook has their local local news initiative, but it's always done through Facebook and Facebook always becomes this hub. So I find their desire to save local news rather disingenuious. I can say the same thing about Google. They make so much money.

Christopher Mitchell: And there's good people in both companies who really do want to solve this problem.

Christohper Ali: Yes, yes.

Christopher Mitchell: But I feel like in some ways it's like handing a very earnest doctor a butter knife and saying, I would like you to do surgery with this. At a certain point it's just the wrong tool, no matter how hard you try and how good your motives are.

Christohper Ali: Absolutely. Facebook is the wrong tool. You know, there are amazing employees in Facebook who are fighting the good fight, but the platform of Facebook is not the right tool to save journalism.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Christohper Ali: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I really enjoyed talking with you.

Christohper Ali: Yeah. It's been great.

Christopher Mitchell: It's fun to — I mean this is the kind of conversation that I'm often having and sometimes people find them entertaining so I enjoy recording them so that we can, you know — just this broadband stuff that we're working on, like, it matters what it results in. And I'm glad that people like you are really focused on not just getting it out there but trying to make sure that we're thinking critically about is it making us better off or not.

Christohper Ali: Oh, thank you very much. I'll keep fighting the good fight.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia discussing media, the Internet, and the need for a federal rural broadband plan. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them any place you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 355 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - May 6

muninetworks.org - May 6, 2019

Alabama

Legislature advances broadband bill, funding by Caroline Beck, Alabama Daily News 

 

Arkansas

Community matters: Improving access to broadband by Sen. John Boozman, The Times Record 

 

Georgia

Bill clears electric co-ops for broadband services in Georgia by Stephen Hardy, Lightwave

 

 

Maine

ConnectME program launches $740K round of broadband grant funding, MaineBiz

 

Massachusetts 

Windsor annual town meeting preview, Berkshire Eagle

3rd candidate enters Ward 7 race for Northampton City Council by Bera Dunau, The Daily Hampshire Gazette

 

Michigan 

ISD part of team helping with rural Internet research by Phil Wenzel, The Sault News 

“Educators have been talking about the ‘digital divide’ for two decades, and while some progress has been made in closing the gap, inequities persist in communities across the country,” said Charlotte Bewersdorff, Merit’s vice-president of marketing and member engagement, in the release.

 

Minnesota 

Technobabble: Municipal fiber, could it happen to you? by Jason Ogaard, Hutchinson Leader

Bill funds broadband, housing, mental health initiatives by Sen. Torrey Westrom, AgWeek

Rural Minnesota needs full broadband funding by Nancy Hoffman, Herald Review

 

Missouri 

Conexon locates headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, Area Development 

 

New York

Residents tell local reps of Internet woes by Charles Pritchard, The Oneida Daily Dispatch  

 

North Carolina 

Lawmakers look for ways to reduce barriers to rural broadband by Taylor Knopf, North Carolina Health News 

Wilson launches new Greenlight website by Brie Handgraaf, Wilson Times 

 

Oregon

Portland is again blazing trails for open Internet access by Susan Crawford, WIRED

 

Pennsylvania

Mayor Peduto is in New York studying public fiber-optic networks. Here’s why. By Bill O’Toole, Next Pittsburgh 

 

Wisconsin

3C Co-op in Crawford County seeks input with broadband survey, Vernon County Broadcaster

Meeting aims to tackle broadband access issues in rural areas by Rashad Williams, WAOW 

 

Vermont

Internet access faulted in Shaftsbury survey by Patricia LeBoeuf, Bennington Banner

While about 92 percent of respondents to a town Internet survey reported they have Internet at home, 44 percent said it is not sufficient for their use — it is either "way too slow" or "not fast enough." And 7.4 percent of respondents said Internet service isn't available at their homes.

 

General

The regulatory pendulum by Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs

Want next generation precision agriculture? You'll need rural broadband, Benton Foundation

E-connectivity is not simply a rural issue; Internet expansion, economic productivity, and food security contribute to each citizen’s quality of life, regardless of where they live. The benefits of broadband e-connectivity accrue not only to the producers using Next Generation Precision Agriculture technologies, but also to consumers throughout America and the world who value a safe and efficient food supply.

Ajit Pai says he’s fixed giant FCC error that exaggerated broadband growth by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

AT&T withdraws from Lifeline program by Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs 

New Digital Equity Act website; House intro coming soon by Bill Callahan, NDIA

Why 9-1-1 needs fiber by Lisa R. Youngers, Broadband World News 

Rural carriers accept $65.7 million in new ACAM funding for rural broadband by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor 

USDA report puts economic value on broadband and precision agriculture by Phil Britt, Telecompetitor 

Broadband part of $2 trillion infrastructure deal between Democrats, Trump by Marguerite Reardon, CNET 

We are leaving older adults out of the digital world by Jessica Fields, TechCrunch 

A co-op future for broadband in America? By Miles Hadfield, Co-op News

Rural broadband co-ops create opportunity for next level of telehealth by Craig Settles, Daily Yonder

Tags: media roundup

Express Your Support for Community Networks With This Constituent Letter

muninetworks.org - May 6, 2019

If you believe that publicly owned Internet networks are one of the tools that can help in efforts to expand fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to people in your state, and you want to share your thoughts with elected officials, use this language to get started. There may not be a project being developed in your area or a specific bill that you support, but you know that you want decision makers to vote favorably on measures that advance policies and financially support local authority and communities’ efforts to improve local connectivity through publicly owned broadband infrastructure. We’ve created a brief constituent letter/email that you can use to get started in drafting correspondence to state and federal lawmakers that convey your support for publicly owned Internet networks and local authority.

Keep It Simple, Keep It Effective

State and federal legislators typically serve on multiple committees and, as a result, their time spent on each issue is often limited. In order to encourage them to digest your full letter, stating your thoughts in a brief letter or email is often the most effective. Being direct, polite, and supportive goes along way with Representatives, Senators, and their staff.

You can include examples from your own state or from other places to help politicians and their staff learn more about the advantages of community broadband networks. Large national Internet access companies spend millions each year to employ lobbyists who spread negative misinformation about publicly owned broadband networks. You can help balance those efforts by sharing some of the positive results. Use our Municipal FTTH Networks page, the Economic Development page, search a specific state on MuniNetworks.org, or click on one of the pins on the Community Network Map to find a sample network.

If you live in one of the 20 states where restrictions are in place that legally discourage or prevent communities from investing in publicly owned infrastructure, you can mention your state’s restriction in your letter and encourage your elected officials to work toward removing it. You can check out our Community Network Map and select the “States with Barriers” tool. Click anywhere within the red on the state and a box will pop-up with a short explanation that describes the limitation and a citation to the specific law. Insert the information with the letter.

We also encourage you to use your own experiences to personalize your letter. If you live in a place where you already have access to the Internet via a community network, you can share the benefits. If you wish you had better connectivity, explain why. 

Improving access to broadband, especially in rural areas, is quickly becoming an issue that elected officials are moving front and center as they reach out to voters. This letter is crafted to state elected officials, but the language can also be worked for contact with your representatives at other levels of government. We encourage you to make changes that reflect your own style and to share it will other people who also want to express their support for community broadband.

You can find information on your elected officials with this look-up tool from Common Cause.

Dear [REP/SEN NAME],

As your constituent, I am writing to ask you to support community broadband networks, including municipal networks and other publicly owned networks, as a solution to inadequate Internet access in our state.

Community broadband networks, such as [EXAMPLE(S) FROM STATE], bring affordable, high-quality Internet access to residents, encourage market competition, and enable local economic development. Publicly owned broadband networks can also reduce costs for local government buildings, schools, and libraries. Also, because they are run locally, not by a company headquartered in a different state, subscribers can hold community owned networks accountable.

Unfortunately, [STATE RESTRICTION — e.g., “Tennessee state law prevents municipal networks from extending beyond their electric service territory”]. This restriction keeps affordable, reliable, and fast broadband out of reach for far too many of our state’s citizens [OR “Tennesseans,” “Idahoan,” etc.] We should be able to make these decisions locally.

I ask you to remember the many benefits of publicly owned broadband networks when developing new legislation and that you vote to support local communities’ ability to solve their own connectivity needs. In addition to removing state laws that discourage community networks, it’s important that you support proposals to help local governments fund planning and deployment of broadband networks.

As your constituent and a voter, I consider this issue a priority.

Thank you for your time and your service.

Sincerely,

[YOUR NAME]

Tags: legislationresourcestate lawsstate policy

Bipartisan Bills Introduced to Correct Tax Law Hindering Rural Co-op Broadband

muninetworks.org - May 3, 2019

Last November, we reported on a change to the tax code that is deterring rural telephone and electric cooperatives from leveraging government funding to expand broadband access. We were alerted to the issue by the office of Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig requesting that they remedy the issue and announcing her intention to introduce corrective legislation.

Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks.

Addressing Legal Ambiguity

As we explained last year, a tax policy change included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act carelessly put rural co-ops at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they accepted government funding for broadband projects or disaster relief, among other things. Traditionally, these government grants were excluded from the requirement that electric and telephone cooperatives obtain at least 85 percent of their income from members (often referred to as the member income test) to maintain their tax exemption. The 2017 law threatened this precedent by changing the tax code so that “any contribution by any governmental entity or civic group” is now included in a corporation’s gross income. This has made some co-ops hesitant to apply for programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Pilot Program for fear of jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

To end the legal uncertainty that electric and telephone co-ops are now facing, the RURAL Act would explicitly exclude government funding for broadband infrastructure and other important investments from the member income test. Specifically, the bill would exclude the following funding sources from a co-op’s gross income for the purposes of determining tax-exempt status:

“any grant, contribution, or assistance provided pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act or any similar grant, contribution, or assistance by any local, State, or regional governmental entity for the purpose of relief, recovery, or restoration from, or preparation for, a disaster or emergency” or “any grant or contribution by any governmental entity . . . the purpose of which is substantially related to providing, con­struct­ing, restoring, or relocating electric, communication, broadband, internet, or other utility facilities or services.”

The two bills are currently in the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee.

Rural Broadband a Bipartisan Issue

Republicans and Democrats united to introduce the RURAL Act in a show of bipartisan support for better rural connectivity. In a press release announcing the new legislation, Senator Smith stated:

“These bipartisan bills are good for people in rural Minnesota, rural Ohio, rural Wyoming—and rural communities across the country. Democrats and Republicans alike supporting efforts to allow rural broadband to keep expanding . . . shows what we can accomplish when we come together with commonsense fixes to make life better for Americans.”

Tags: federal governmentfederal fundinglegislationtina smithminnesotarural electric coopcooperativeruraldemocratsrepublicans

Report: San Francisco's Public Housing Low-Cost Gig and How They Did It With Monkeybrains

muninetworks.org - May 2, 2019

Local communities continue to search for ways to tackle the digital divide and in San Francisco, the city is making strides by working with a local Internet access company. The City by the Bay and ISP Monkeybrains have adopted a new model to bring high-quality connectivity to residents in public housing. The approach not only creates new opportunities for people who were once denied economic and educational opportunities, but does so in a way that is financially self-sustaining. With modest maintenance and start-up costs, Monkeybrains and San Francisco has found a way to bring the same high-speed Internet access to low-income households at an affordable rate. Read our new report, A Public Housing Digital Inclusion Blueprint: Monkeybrains and San Francisco Deliver a Sustainable Gig, to learn how the partners found a way to shrink the digital divide in public housing facilities.

Download A Public Housing Digital Inclusion Blueprint: Monkeybrains and San Francisco Deliver a Sustainable Gig [pdf], here.

A few national ISPs offer programs for households considered low-income, but those services only offer slow and typically unreliable connections. The program that Monkeybrains and San Francisco has created provides high-speed Internet access to public housing units at no cost to the end user. In some cases, the ISP does receive a monthly payment of $10 per unit from building management. No matter what, each user receives the same level of customer service and support as those who pay standard monthly rates. From the beginning, the goal was to bring the same level of service to subscribers in public housing as Monkeybrains subscribers throughout the city.

We spoke with Preston Rhea and Mason Carroll from Monkeybrains back in 2017, when we first learned about the plan, which was still being developed. You can listen to episode 264 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to understand the early challenges Monkeybrains faced. 

You can also listen to Christopher’s conversation with co-author Hannah Rank about the report. The two sat down when they began to work on the case study to discuss the project for episode 319 of the podcast. 

Lessons for More Communities

Every community, regardless of population, must contend with digital inequity. As local communities continue to recognize all residents’ need for high-quality Internet access, models such as the approach developed by Monkeybrains and San Francisco spark further innovation. 

From Christopher:

“These households need Internet access to search for jobs, improve their education, access government services, and for many other reasons common to modern living. Monkeybrains' work in San Francisco shows how smart one time investments in public housing can guarantee high-quality access to all in public housing.”

Download the full report [pdf] here.

Tags: reportsan franciscomonkeylow-incomehousing authoritywisppartnershipfixed wirelessdigital dividegigabitcalifornia

Next Century Cities Looking for New Leader

muninetworks.org - May 1, 2019

We recently shared the news that dynamo Deb Socia was leaving her post as Executive Director of Next Century Cities (NCC) to pursue a new position as CEO and President of the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her departure leaves a gap that Next Century Cities and all its 200+ members now need to fill.

While taking up the mantle at NCC will be a heavy lift due to the high bar that Deb established, we’re all confident that the right person is out there. In order to reach that perfect candidate, we want to share the posting for the position of Executive Director and encourage interested people to apply.

Cover letters and resumes need to be submitted to Cat Blake by May 15, 2019 at cblake(at)nextcenturycities.org. If you have questions, you should contact Cat. We’re reposting the call for applications here to reach as many potential, but you can also see the original story at theNext Century Cities blog.

Position Summary


The Executive Director’s primary responsibility will be the development and strategic leadership of the Next-Century Cities project, with a key focus on building and coordinating the project’s 21st Century Leadership Forum of elected officials and other city leaders.

Essential Responsibilities and Tasks

  • 
Set and execute the overall strategy for the project

  • Recruit mayors and other elected officials to become members of Next Century Cities

  • Help conceptualize and coordinate key projects, including city-to-city learning, policymaker education, resource creation and curation, and demonstration projects

  • Lead the media strategy, including identifying and executing press opportunities

  • Liaise with and continue the conversation among elected leaders

  • Lead day-to-day operations of the project

  • Lead fundraising

Required Education, Experience, Knowledge, Skills and Ability


  • Bachelor’s Degree

  • Working knowledge of the following: Broadband infrastructure builds (types, methods, challenges), spectrum, tech policy

  • Creating and managing organizational budgets
  • Writing grants and implementing grant projects
  • Skilled public speaker
  • Comfortable working collaboratively as part of a small, focused, and highly effective team

Valued and Non-Essential Education, Experience, Knowledge, Skills and Ability


  • Strong network of city and county connections

  • Strong knowledge of broadband adoption issues as well as successful interventions
  • Experience educating lawmakers at the state and national level

Attributes


  • Exceptional communicator

  • Extremely well organized, detail-oriented and analytical

  • Flexible, able to handle multiple priorities simultaneously
  • Sense of humor and willingness to use it

How to Apply


Please send cover letter and resume to Cat Blake (cblake@nextcenturycities.org). Due date: May 15, 2019.

Tags: next century citiesdeb socialeadership

Highland, Illinois, Always Working for A Better Community Network Experience - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 354

muninetworks.org - April 30, 2019

 

As part of our series of interviews conducted during the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, earlier in April, we’re sharing Christopher’s interview with Angela Imming. Angela is the Director of Technology and Innovation for the city of Highland, Illinois, home to Highland Communication Services (HCS).

HCS has been serving the community for almost 10 years now, and the city has had the opportunity to experience both victory and challenge. In this interview, Angela describes both. She talks about how, after losing some of the community thrill that often accompanies a relatively young project, HCS has reached out to their subscribers. In gathering community input, Angela and her team have been able to enhance the network’s success and reinvigorate local pride in the fiber optic network. 

Angela and Christopher also discuss how HCS is using new tools, such as targeted social media campaigns, to increase take rates and attract people to the town of Highland. By combining business acumen and the community-centered approach, HCS is achieving the goals they’ve redefined for themselves and living up to the city’s tradition of innovation.

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

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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: highland ilillinoisFTTHmuniaudipodcastbroadband bitssurveymarketing

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 354

muninetworks.org - April 30, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 354 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher talks to Angela Imming, Director of Techology and Innovation for the city of Highland, about the Illinois community's fiber network, Highland Communication Services. In particular, they discuss how the community owned network analyzed and improved its approach and how to define success. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.

 

 

Angela Imming: The data just bubbled up to the top and we knew why the customers wanted us to do that, and that became our message. And that message is one of ownership. It's a bit of a pride in "No, we wanted to do this, and look, we are doing this, and we will celebrate because of that."

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 354 of the community broadband bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. During the Broadband Communities Summit earlier this month, Angela Imming from Highland, Illinois, was able to make time to talk with Christopher. They talked about the community's publicly owned network, Highland Communication Services. Angela offers some pearls of wisdom that come from a place where the city has experienced a few bumps in the road as they've worked to improve and grow their network. She talks about how they've collected data from the community and listened to subscribers to improve the services they offer and how those changes have increased their success. Christopher and Angela also have a conversation about the meaning of success as it pertains to a community network and the way that HCS is using tools from both the public and private sectors to drive growth. Now, here's Christopher with Angela Imming from Highland Communication Services.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, normally in Minneapolis. Today I'm in Austin, Texas, for the Broadband Communities Summit, and I'm speaking with someone that I have wanted to have on the show for a long time, Angela Imming, the Director of Technology and Innovation for the city of Highland in Illinois. Welcome to the show.

Angela Imming: Thanks Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: We just finished up a panel about four different communities that have faced significant challenges. We're going to talk about what you've done in building the municipal fiber network, but the first question, I always like to try and locate where we are in real geography. So where is Highland?

Angela Imming: Yeah, so we are in the southern part of Illinois, but for anybody who is from that area, they know that we're really not south. There's three and a half hours more south of us. We are actually about 35 minutes to the east of St. Louis, so that gives you a good idea.

Christopher Mitchell: Your title is the Director of Technology and Innovation.

Angela Imming: Correct.

Christopher Mitchell: You have a municipal electric, you have a head of that utility, but the fiber network answers to you.

Angela Imming: Correct.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay, so just tell me how that works briefly.

Angela Imming: Yeah, sure. So the city of Highland went out for bond letting after a referendum about 10 years ago when it was evident that the incumbents weren't going to be building out for us, and the way we were able to get that referendum passed is we had funds sitting available in our enterprise fund, which is our Light and Power department. So we own our own distribution for electric, we have some generation. Dan Cook is the Director of Light and Power. He has the resources to dig stuff in the ground and hang stuff on the poles anyway, and so it was a pretty obvious choice when — you know, it's not high voltage, it's low voltage. Can you just open the ground and put this in for us? So those folks, IBW, report to Dan. All the other parts of HCS report directly in to me. So that would include our triple play service — we have voice, video, and data — and service technicians, customer service, billing, all of that.

Christopher Mitchell: So we're going to jump back briefly to before you were there. I'm sure you know more about the history than I do anyway, but I know that this was before your time. Mark Latham, city manager, I believe?

Angela Imming: Correct.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, he was just telling me that he thinks that one of the things that was really important to the success of your network, especially given the challenges that you faced, was that referendum demonstrating the community support for it.

Angela Imming: Right. That is correct. He tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Don't forget to tell everybody how important that referendum is." Somebody in the panel earlier talked about, you know, you have to leave politics out of it. You have to figure out a way to leave the politics out of it. And I think that's pretty much impossible given that we are a city and we are owned by a city, but I would say that the next best thing would be to empower the politicians, right? Empower them with information, empower them with data. And that's exactly what the referendum did. See, we want this, we as a community want this, and they are clearly servants of the people. And so, that helped to get it across the line.

Christopher Mitchell: And am I remembering correctly? It was 79 percent support, I think.

Angela Imming: I believe it was, yep. 79 percent is what the stories say.

Christopher Mitchell: I actually vaguely remember that, and I think I sent a note to Mark Latham around 10 years ago in which I was like, "Hey, can I get the wording in that referendum just so we can document it and have it in our files?"

Angela Imming: I could get that for you if you wanted it.

Christopher Mitchell: No, I have it.

Angela Imming: Okay, good.

Christopher Mitchell: He responded. Yeah, we have it somewhere on muninetworks.org.

Angela Imming: Okay, great.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. So, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was this idea of the turnaround communities. Highland is a network that that is clearly successful today, but there are days in which, I think, before you came on and why you came on, that it wasn't clear that it was going to be successful. So tell me what happened.

Angela Imming: I don't know what happened to make it fail or what happened to make it successful. You know, there's a line there, I think a continuum, where failure stops and success starts, but there's a big gray area in between that you kinda have to move around. One could say that we had 44 percent saturation rate, and we hadn't used all of our bonds, and you know, we were growing, and we hadn't even expected to be cash neutral until the year 2032. So on those laurels, it feels like we were pretty successful, but from the eye of the beholder is really what determines your success. And so, we had some new management in the city, and excitement was waning, and we had not a high enough take rate. You know, we weren't doing enough.

Christopher Mitchell: And for context, 44 percent is good. I mean certainly, you always want more, more is better, but a lot of munis in years three and four, they might be around 35 percent and they're worried there, but —

Angela Imming: I think you're hitting on a note I probably should have brought up in the panel, and that is that, you know, your take rate isn't the indicator of success and neither is the ARPU, the average revenue per user. Your success is indicated by your profit, your profit margin, and if you have an ARPU of $127, but you have a cost of $187, you're not successful.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I think it's worth noting, I mean, you're describing the way it will naturally be evaluated if there's not a message coming from the utility.

Angela Imming: Correct. That's correct.

Christopher Mitchell: People just naturally think success means more revenues.

Angela Imming: Yes, that is correct. And so, while we were kind of tracking where we wanted to be, we knew that in order to continue to build out and continue the support of the community, we had to hit that sweet spot of success. I guess when the excitement wanes and you kind of fall back to the fundamental reason of what you're doing and why you're doing it, that has to be very clear and that has to be messaged. And so, I just took an approach that has been very good to me over the course of my career. It's the DMAIC approach, which is Lean Six Sigma continuous improvement approach where you basically go through the steps to define and to measure and to analyze and to improve your process. And so, for two years, knowing that the quality of our product just really wasn't enough to make people come to us, we went through the very fine operational excellence details. I won't get into it, but just know that, you know, you have to take that process improvement approach at times. So when we got to the other side of that and we realized that, hey, guess what, we have a very legitimate — we have a very competitive product and we still weren't bumping those take rates up, we had to look at our acceptance rate and why people weren't accepting us. That's when it got fun, frankly. That's when we decided to really get into the minds of our customers, and we worked with the digital economist Michael — Michael Curri and we —

Christopher Mitchell: C-U-R-R-I, from SNG.

Angela Imming: C-U-R-R-I. Shout out to Michael — and Gary who is a solid hand. And you know, we just kind of worked through the process of figuring out what it is that our customers wanted. If you don't have the data, you can't measure the data, you can't manage the data, and so we just went back on the fundamental ways of execution. And we got amazing data from Michael. Not only did we find out that 23 pwercent of our customers said that they would — or the respondents, I should say — said that they would relocate if it weren't for high speed broadband. We got that answer from five different perspectives. So we got that answer in terms of what the household composition is — so how old are the people in your house? We got the answer from the perspective of how long have you lived in Highland? What is your education level? What is your financial means? And so from that data, we really were able to say, "Okay, right, people want gigabit Internet and they will pay $100 for it, and they really don't care a whole lot about this other product that we have that we're gutting through to try to make it valuable."

Christopher Mitchell: Is that other product video?

Angela Imming: Actually, it's linear video. Yeah. And we found that they were starting to warm up with the idea of streaming and over the top, which gave us the political leverage to say, "This is something that we need to do. We need to act on this." The tipping point, if I could find the moment prior to engaging with Michael, we decided to hold a summit, a broadband impact symposium, within our town, and we invited Bob Knight and Jeff Kling and Michael Curri. And we had different breakout sessions — so one for small munis and not-for-profits (we invited other munis in). There were anchor institutions, small businesses — and got through the day with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. The evening was dedicated to — it was a different venue. It had a lot of fun stuff, snacks, and whatever. And it was dedicated to our residents to come in and tell us what they need that we don't have and what we're not doing right. And do you know that nobody came?

Christopher Mitchell: You know, I feel like, when you're saying that, my reaction was thinking that probably no one came or everyone came. It's often not in the middle it seems like.

Angela Imming: Nobody came.

Christopher Mitchell: So what did you take away from nobody coming?

Angela Imming: Well it was beautiful because we had two members of council who were there and we had three or four members of our industrial development commission, and that right there told the story. They had heard all day that we are diamond in the rough, that we are a gold mine, and people just don't know what it is that we have, and then with their very own eyes they saw the fact that nobody came. And at that point they commissioned us to go into a full fledged marketing analysis and research campaign. And from that we worked with Michael, and the rest really is bit of a history.

Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that you mentioned on the panel was a sense of internally there was a longing for goals. There was sort of almost a stagnation in terms of people didn't really have a sense of why it was important that you were doing this.

Angela Imming: Right, right. So about four years in, which I'm beginning to understand is the pivotal point, you know, we were just stagnated. And this is when I came onto the scene, and I had the earnest question: why are we doing this? You know, what was the goal? And when I started asking around, like, nobody could say exactly why we were doing this.

Christopher Mitchell: And when you're saying "this," you mean Fiber-to-the-Home?

Angela Imming: Why are we building — yes.

Christopher Mitchell: People were dissatisfied with the company.

Angela Imming: People were dissatisfied. That's not what they said, but you know —

Christopher Mitchell: We try to keep a clean tag, so thank you for not repeating that.

Angela Imming: That's going to be hard for me. At any rate, if you don't have the very clear "why," you'll never have the "because," right? Why are we doing this? Because. And so, you know, at the end of this marketing and research engagement, the data just bubbled up to the top and we knew why the customers wanted us to do that, and that became our message. And that message is one of — it's ownership. It's a bit of a pride in "No, we wanted to do this, and look, we are doing this, and we will celebrate because of that."

Christopher Mitchell: So where are you at today then? So you know, you felt like you were not meeting your goals at 44 percent. You've been on the job for five years?

Angela Imming: I was hired with the city about five years ago, but I was hired just for the IT set — I shouldn't say just — to be the IT director. And then they kind of lured —

Christopher Mitchell: Victim of your own success.

Angela Imming: Yes, that's exactly right. They lured me in. So I've been responsible for HCS for about four years.

Christopher Mitchell: Highland Community Services.

Angela Imming: Highland Communication Services.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, Communication.

Angela Imming: Communication, yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: That's actually what I meant to say. It's just my brain didn't communicate to my mouth. Right now, where are you at then?

Angela Imming: Right now, gosh, I just can't help but smile. We have 57 percent.

Christopher Mitchell: I think last time I talked to you it was 54, so you're still growing.

Angela Imming: Yup, we're eking up. We have the support of the community and the council to continue to finish the construction. We have about 15 percent of premises left to build out to.

Christopher Mitchell: So you haven't actually finished connecting all the people?

Angela Imming: No, we have two neighborhoods that are still clamoring, you know, "Ah, I want you, I need you, I need you," so it's built into the plan to complete that in the next year. So 12 months from now we should be complete. Our profit is trending towards a 15 percent increase annually. We have come to a place where — and I realize that the financial goal either was or became to be able to operate in the black were we not paying for our bonds. So as we went through this, you know, "What are we doing here? Why are we doing this?" you have to identify what your success is. How will we know if we're successful? Well, we'll know we're successful when HCS could manage their operations and pay for their own operations, not in debt, were it not for our bond debt, our debt service that we had to cover. And we're there. As a matter of fact, when we take into account that were we not growing, were we not still, you know, kind of in the growth mode for construction —

Christopher Mitchell: Right, it costs a lot to connect a home.

Angela Imming: Yes. Were HCS not here and all of the city services had to use the incumbents and were we not paying for our debt service, we would be in the black probably a little bit too much, probably about $350,000 - $400,000. So that's where we are right now. We are deploying some of the items that the customers requested through the survey, which one was just a complete loss. I had no idea that people actually were interested in someone providing networked security cameras that were in a managed environment. So basically, we created a new product called PremView.

Christopher Mitchell: And that's for residents?

Angela Imming: Residents, commercials, either.

Christopher Mitchell: Both.

Angela Imming: Yup. We've one upped them a bit. So we've said, since we own our own network and we have our own data center with all kinds of storage in there, we will deploy your cameras, we will show you how to use them, how to access them, and we will give you 10 gigabytes of storage on our fully redundant, high availability servers in our data centers so that you can keep four months of it.

Christopher Mitchell: And there's very little operating costs for you to do that cause it's all in network.

Angela Imming: Yeah, that's exactly right. And so, that's what we're trying to do is capitalize and bring new products in to the mix, on top of things that we've already paid for.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things you mentioned on the panel was the social media aspect and it's really helped you to grow, and so you didn't just start, you know, splattering images on Instagram. You were a little bit more careful about that.

Angela Imming: Well, I tried. I guess one thing that I don't know if it's a credit or a curse, but I'm a very methodical person. And I feel like in times like these, when the energy and the enthusiasm is gone, you have to fall back on a process. And so, after we had gone through the continuous improvement process and made our product high quality and we were in the middle of our acceptance — trying to get acceptance is when we did a lot of that in house. I created a lot of marketing, advertising campaigns. Some were fairly successful, but when one of the council people asked, "Well, how come you're not on Facebook all the time? You know, all these other incumbents, they've got someone responding on Facebook all the time." And I probably shouldn't have said it this way, but I said, "Well, what do you want me to say?" Like, I don't know. We're here, we're great. You know, we're cheap, we're better. Harvard University says we're the fifth best.

Christopher Mitchell: In terms of cost. You're the biggest advantage over the incumbents, I'm guessing.

Angela Imming: Yes. Fifth best economic choice in the country.

Christopher Mitchell: That's the Berkman Klein Center report.

Angela Imming: Yes. But how do you say that, right? And so again, after the survey with Michael, we had been commissioned for some additional funds and so we took that money and we went to the professionals. We chose Drive Social Media — they're in downtown St. Louis — and we embarked on an advertising campaign that embeds our product inside of social media. And we get the advantage of the Facebook algorithms and the Google algorithms, and every four months they come back and they show us that we only spent 67 cents on that advertisement and these are the people who saw it and which graphic and which text did better. And so, we're constantly improving that. It's been very fun. It's been a lot of fun.

Christopher Mitchell: Is that you then? I mean, how does that work in terms of what kind of time does that take to manage that?

Angela Imming: At the outset, it's very involved. Besides the photo shoot that comes out, you know, you sit down with our designers and I guess our team. They get inside of your head. You know, what do you like, what do you not like? It was very hard for them to understand that I'm not worried about repeat customers and I'm also not worried about the high ticket products. I have to sell the product that brings me the most profit, and it just so happens that that's not the most expensive product on our list. But the other thing that we did was we started utilizing social media and the web to put Highland in front of people who might be looking for a new home. So for example — this was taxing — we went out and said, based on our survey results and based on who we are as a community, we don't feel like millennials who were in the city would assimilate in Highland. We don't think that we have what they want. We feel like the best thing Highland has to offer is a new home for somebody who maybe had lived in a small town but their town has dried up. So what we did was we took the algorithms and said, if you live in these zip codes, which mapped to small Illinois communities, and if your browsing traffic shows that you are looking for real estate or you're looking for a job or you're seeking cost of living requirements, then we are able to just pop a photo up or pop an advertisement up in front of their web browser that talks to them about the city of Highland. So what started as an advertising campaign for Highland Communications, halfway through, I indicated we need to do this for all of the city, not just for Highland Communications, and it's working. We track our outgoing customers for why they're leaving us and we track our incoming customers for why they came to us. We track that data and we write reports based on it. Those are our metrics now. Our churn rate is down 45 percent, and the churn rate when people leave, it's not because they're leaving Highland, it's because they're leaving the area that we — they're moving out into the country. And so, we can measure the impact that this has had on us.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there a specific surprise in terms of what images worked best or anything like that? I mean, is it like a rack — I'm guessing not a rack of fibers or, you know, just a picture of a water fountain or something.

Angela Imming: Yeah, I'll tell you what goes over very well. And so we have a couple of different, they call them audiences, right? So we have the local audiences where we are trying to just make them feel good about us, and then we have the audiences that we're trying to attract to come to the city of Highland. Hands down. The ones that work the best internally are those that are coupled with the movie theater in town because it's ancient and I guess they renovated it maybe 10 years ago, but the memories and the feel good emotions that come with that . . .

Christopher Mitchell: It's just, a lot of small towns have totally lost their theaters, so just the fact that you have one is a big deal.

Angela Imming: Yes, that gets all kinds of traction. And then the other one are any photos that include people that are familiar in the city. So we did photo sessions of our internal city, right? So when our customer service representative is in one of the advertisements or when my daughter is in one of the advertisements, that goes very well. In terms of externally, people love green space, they love big homes, and so anytime we flash up a photo of a nice home with a nice yard, and then we mention, "Oh, we were voted the best recreation center in Southern Illinois. We have the fifth best fiber in America. We are 30 minutes from downtown. We have, you know, accredited schools," I think that's the draw. People love the idea of a small town with big city amenities, and that's really what we are.

Lisa Gonzalez: So last question is, I think, what is one of your favorite anecdotes of why the success of this network matters?

Angela Imming: It has to be successful. We have legendary people from the city of Highland. I mentioned on the panel, we have a gentleman with 1,397 patents from the city of Highland — you know, milk and evaporated milk, canned milk, which seems like maybe it's insignificant, but that process was invented in Highland and it allowed milk to be transported across America to urban cities where cows don't grow.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Also important in war zones, like where our military needs to fed.

Angela Imming: Absolutely. That's exactly right. And so, we just can't fail because this is us, this is who we are, and we have a legacy to protect.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, thank you for coming on, Angela.

Angela Imming: Yeah, sure. I appreciate it. Had a good time.

Christopher Mitchell: Great.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Angela Imming from Highland Communication Services in Illinois. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 354 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 29

muninetworks.org - April 29, 2019

Arkansas 

Efforts to provide Internet where residents need it most, KAIT8

 

Colorado

Town of Vail opts into Project THOR to enhance regional broadband service by Scott Miller, Vail Daily 

Public, private or both: Eagle County communities mull broadband options by Pam Boyd, Vail Daily

Boulder, Colo., considers funds for expanded broadband by Cassa Niedringhaus, Daily Camera 

 

Illinois

City markets its new broadband business by Pam Eggemeier, SaukValley.com 

 

Kansas

For small-town economic success, broadband is the new railroad by Peggy Lowe, Marketplace

 

Maine

How Central Maine Power plans to keep its vow to improve rural broadband by Lori Valigra, Bangor Daily News 

 

Massachusetts 

South Hadley Electric continues rollout of high-speed residential Internet access by Dennis Hohenberger, MassLive

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest. Customers are giving us a lot of positive feedback. There’re very hungry to have competition, to have options,” Fitzgerald said, “a chance to pick from different vendors versus having to choose one.”

Municipal fiber-optic networks grow in number across US by Elianna Spitzer, The Falmouth Enterprise

 

Minnesota 

Blue Earth County to look into rural broadband needs by Trey Mewes, The Free Press 

 

Montana

City saluted for forward stance on broadband, Bozeman Daily Chronicle 

In the 21st century it has become clear that adequate Internet service qualifies as another essential component of infrastructure.

 

Virginia

Who needs broadband? Virginia pushes forward with expansion despite not having the answer by Mallory Noe-Payne, Virginia Public Radio 

 

Washington

Bridge the digital divide, The Seattle Times 

 

General 

The consequences of a broadband deployment report with flawed data by Lindsay Stern, Public Knowledge 

Why the hell are states still passing ISP-written laws banning community broadband? By Karl Bode, Techdirt 

We've noted repeatedly how these towns and cities aren't getting into the broadband business because they're "socialists" or because they think it's fun. They're doing it because of decades of market failure, leading to historically awful customer service, sky high prices, slow speeds, and patchy availability. US broadband is a web of dysfunction thanks to growing natural cable broadband monopolies, corruption, and regulatory capture. Letting natural monopolies literally write protectionist laws banning creative, local, niche solutions only makes the over-arching problem that much worse. And yet here we are.

 

One size does not fit all by Trevor Jones, Broadband Communities 

Finding middle-mile connections by Offir Schwartz, Broadband Communities 

The digital divide is worse than we thought by Tyler Cooper, TechRadar 

Fiber Internet is the key to growth, but most of America lags behind other countries, author says by Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press 

From megabits to basis points: Connecting fiber optic broadband and municipal credit intelligent investing by Barnet Sherman, Forbes

Why we have crappy rural broadband by Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs

Can “Slapping ‘new and improved’ on CAF” close the digital divide?, Benton Foundation 

T-Mobile Sprint merger opposition: Broadband associations, others say it will harm rural areas by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor

 

Tags: media roundup

City Leaders in Bozeman, Montana, Declare Broadband Essential Infrastructure

muninetworks.org - April 29, 2019

In mid-April, city leaders in Bozeman, Montana, passed Resolution No. 5031 to officially declare broadband essential infrastructure for the city. The declaration comports with the city’s long-term goal to bring high-quality connectivity throughout the community.

Read Resolution No. 5031 in its entirety here.

Pointing Out the Positives

In addition to describing the ways access to broadband has improved opportunities for residents and businesses, the language of the resolution lays out the steps Bozeman has already taken. In addition to establishing a planning initiative, the resolution describes their decision to adopt a master plan, and the creation of nonprofit Bozeman Fiber. The resolution also chronicles the city’s investment and urban renewal plan, which includes Bozeman Fiber, and the fact that broadband has become a contributing factor to the city’s social and economic health.

As part of the resolution, the City Commissioners include their next steps in order to advance citywide connectivity in Bozeman:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Bozeman will; 1) create and implement a conduit utility master plan and begin the transition for operating the conduit system as its own enterprise fund; 2) include a conduit design and construction standard as part of the City’s approved engineering standards; 3) maintain updated record drawings and GIS mapping of the City-owned conduit network; 4) consider the expansion of the existing City-owned fiber optic conduit network infrastructure when appropriate and when funding is available; 5) utilize conduit lease revenue for the purchase of additional public conduit; and 6) align conduit network expansion decisions with the City Budget and Capital Improvement Plans and planning processes.

Bangor, Maine, passed a similar resolution last summer. As communities make such formal declarations, they show their commitments to improving local economies and encouraging their constituents to consider connectivity an integral part of daily life.

Bozeman Fiber

The city created nonprofit Bozeman Fiber back in 2015 to provide commercial connectivity via publicly owned fiber to bolster economic development. Funding from local banks helped shore up the capital needed to build the fiber optic network. With $3.85 million, the city constructed the first 23 miles and, in addition to local businesses, Bozeman’s schools are also using the network.

According to Greg Metzger, President and CEO of Bozeman Fiber, the nonprofit has had connection requests from people who work from home. Expanding to one house at a time, however, isn’t cost effective. With conduit already in place, however, he estimates the cost of connecting a premise drops from $75 per foot to $6 per foot. By aggressively installing conduit and carefully mapping where it’s deployed, Bozeman can help reduce the cost of later deployment.

Andrew Hull of Elixter, a marketing agency that uses Bozeman Fiber, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that his company requires the kind of connectivity he gets on the network.

“My company is very focused on marketing technology and is very dependent, if not entirely dependent on, high-speed quality Internet service,” Hull said. “That access definitely helped us in the last one to two years of growth.”

Elixter began with one employee and now has 50.

Bozeman Fiber recently announced that they are increasing speeds for small and medium sized businesses that now subscribe to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) / 50 Mbps and 250 Mbps / 100 Mbps. Subscribers at either level of service will now receive 1000 Mbps (1 gigabit) / 50 Mbps and 1000 Mbps / 100 Mbps with no increase in price.

Local Support

Just a few days after the City Commission passed Resolution 5031, editors of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle applauded the decision.

Editors of the Chronicle describe the city’s decision to invest in the network “forward thinking” and say of the resolution:

Of the new priorities Bozeman city commissioners added to their strategic plan recently, perhaps none will prove to be more consequential than declaring broadband internet service to be essential infrastructure – just as important as streets, bridges and water and sewer systems.

The Chronicle also advocates for government to participate in advancing better connectivity. Editors acknowledge that there are some things the private sector does better than the public sector, but that when it comes to establishing broadband networks, which are essential infrastructure: 

Only government entities are positioned to establish the rights of way and provide maintenance for streets, roads and water and sewer systems.

As the community continues to grow, reliable high-speed Internet will be essential for attracting the right kinds of clean industry jobs. And putting it on a par with other vital infrastructure will make certain that will be available throughout the city in the future.

Listen and Learn

Listen to episode 233 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, recorded in December 2016, to hear Christopher interview Anthony Cochenour and Bret Fontenot from Bozeman Fiber about the network's strong start.

Photo credit City of Bozeman Facebook Page.

Bozeman, Montana, City Commission Packet with Resolution 5031Tags: bozemanmontanaresolutioninfrastructureeditorial

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 353

muninetworks.org - April 29, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 353 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting about what's going on in the telecom world. They cover the 5G hype, public-private partnerships, the growth of electric co-op broadband, and much more. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below. 

 

Doug Dawson: And these communities are going to wither and die if they don't get broadband, and they all are realizing that now.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 353 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Our series of interviews that Christopher conducted at the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, continues this week. Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, who also writes the popular POTs and PANs blog, sat down and talked about important happenings for this week's podcast. Christopher and Doug get into 5G and all the hype that surrounded it. They also talk about electric cooperatives and how their involvement in broadband deployment has continued to rapidly expand, and they get into public-private partnerships. Doug and Christopher talk about the fact that more communities now than ever are interested in developing publicly owned networks. They also talk about recent projects and events that have surprised them and make a few predictions. To stay up to date with events in telecom, municipal networks, and broadband, check out Doug's blog, POTs and PANs by ccg.com. Now here's Christopher with Doug Dawson of CCG consulting.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, doing another interview from Austin, Texas at the Broadband Communities Summit. I'm here with Doug Dawson, a fan favorite from last year, president of CCG Consulting. Welcome back, Doug.

Doug Dawson: Thanks Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: You asked as we were sitting down what we were going to talk about, and I was just thinking "whatever." There's a lot of things happening. What does CCG consulting do, for people who didn't listen last year?

Doug Dawson: We're a full service telecom provider, so we do a little bit of everything. And because of that, over the years we've had 900 clients, so that's a really big chunk of the broadband industry. We do feasibility studies, we do regulatory compliance, we do engineering, we help people with billing systems, we raise money. So if you need it, we probably do it.

Christopher Mitchell: And at least one of you lives and dies by Maryland.

Doug Dawson: That would be me.

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry about them in the tournament. I was a fan. So, let me ask you, how embarrassed are you that last year you thought 5G wouldn't be the amazing end of the world, you know, solve everything problem, and here we are in 2019 and 5G is everywhere. It's 5GE everywhere, right? That's what the "e" stands for.

Doug Dawson: Uh, yeah. That's everywhere except where you are, yes.

Christopher Mitchell: So what has changed? Has anything changed in the 5G hype from what you expected and what we were talking about last year?

Doug Dawson: Not at all. The hype has become clear that it's really a political motivation more than anything else. They're using that as the hammer to get what they want out of the FCC, who's handing the wireless carriers everything they ever wanted on their wishlist. They've created this idea that we're at a 5G race. You can't be at a race for a technology that every country in the world can buy they want. So it's working. I mean, the FCC is using that as an excuse to hand them everything they want. It's also good for their stock prices, but there is no 5G coming next year or the year after or the year after. Even though there's a whole new round of announcements the last week alone, there's no actual products there. At&T's rolling out 5G in 19 cities — there's no 5G phones.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, there's an announcement from Samsung that people are trying to make a lot of hay about. There's this weird attachment because it'll kill your battery if you leave it on for 10 minutes, because of the energy consumption from 5G. I mean, that's what you're talking about. I mean, not the novelty things, but a real product.

Doug Dawson: A real product. It's going to break in over 10 years, just like 4G did, and that's what we knew from the beginning. I think by next year the hype's going to die down. I think eventually people will go, "Shut up."

Christopher Mitchell: Well, at least someone will join us saying, "Shut up," I guess.

Doug Dawson: Yes. Yes, indeed.

Christopher Mitchell: We've heard a little bit about the results in Sacramento of 5G from a study that Craig Moffett did on Wall Street. I don't know if you had a chance to look at it, but there's been a lot of discussion about his findings. I'm curious if anything in Sacramento struck you as surprising, in terms of what Verizon's doing in its first proprietary 5G rollout.

Doug Dawson: It actually almost completely validated what I expected, so you know, speeds that are good but not awesome. I mean, let's not make any mistake, 300 Megabits a second is great, but I don't believe that they can do it for 2000 feet. I believe they're fudging those numbers. The physics is just not there. But you know, what Craig Moffett says is he doesn't see the business case, and I don't either because you're now directly competing with Fiber-to-the-Home. If you get fiber close enough for every five or six houses, why wouldn't you just build the drops. Today that's cheaper than what they're doing. And so for that to work for them, they've got to get the price of those radios way down and then they have to look at the lifecycle costs. Those radios are just flaky. They're always going to be flaky on every kind of bandwidth you would ever use, so keeping them running, right, is always gonna — you know, Verizon laid off, what is it, 20-some percent of their staff last year, remember? 44,000 people. They're trying to get rid of people. Why in the world would they get back into a neighborhood intensive wireless business? I don't understand what they're thinking here, and I don't know that they have any intentions of doing it. I think that this was for their stock price again. There's not many cities where there's going to be enough fiber for them to actually go up and down all the streets. But I agree with Craig Moffett. I don't see how the math works, unless those radios are $40 a piece and they're not. They're going to be way more than that.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean, one of the headlines that I'd seen, which I didn't check on, it really validated my assumptions, which is dangerous — anytime you read a headline that validates your assumptions, you should have the integrity to look into it more rather than just assuming that you are right. I mean, this is a major problem of our society right now I think — but I'm curious what you think. It was basically the idea that like this tester wanted to check out 5G, but he had one tree between him and the radio and could not use it because of that.

Doug Dawson: Right. And that's the reality of the complete flakiness of wireless. It's never going to be one hundred percent coverage. You can't make it work, and there's no way around that. You're going to end up with 70 percent coverage or something. You come out to their house, visit, spend a truck roll, and then go, sorry it doesn't work here. I don't know that we're ever going to see that. I expect that actually to pop up in small, rural county seats, not done by Verizon, done by little guys. You know and places like that, that might be a good technology where there is no fiber at all, and it might turn out that they can make a business case out of that. There's no way they're going to do that for all of Sacramento or all of any major city. Verizon just announced they're closing down, at this point, I think it's over 150 wire centers from copper, and so they're going to finish those off in fiber. And they've proven fiber lasts forever where they already have Fios. Why would you put in a technology that's going to be having problems in seven or eight years, and why would you put in a technology where, as we keep doubling the speeds we need every three years, it's okay today and in 10 years it won't be that okay? It's like everyone else will be selling 5 gigabit and you're selling 300 megabits. It's not going to have a good marketing appeal at some point. I don't think they really are going to do that. I just really can't believe that that's a good idea for them.

Christopher Mitchell: So as we move away from 5G in our discussion and ideally the obsession that it has over the industry, what out there is changing? Is there anything about 2019 in terms of dynamics that you're seeing that are different that you may not have protected?

Doug Dawson: I didn't think that the electric co-ops were going to leap at this as fast as they are. I mean, I've had a number of electric co-ops as my clients for 15 to 20 years. They're very conservative folks. Co-ops are generally run by farmers and local business folks, and they're not usually young people. That's who's on co-op boards, and for them to all be deciding to get into fiber tells us something about the true nature of rural broadband. We do surveys as one of the many things we do, and we did a survey for a co-op out west that every single customer said they wanted fiber, including people who don't even intend to have a computer in their house. They wanted everybody else to have it. And so, we've never seen that before. Anywhere close to that.

Christopher Mitchell: I know that you know the difference, so let me clarify. They didn't say they wanted broadband . . .

Doug Dawson: They wanted fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: They wanted fiber.

Doug Dawson: They wanted the co-op to build a fiber network. And so, you know, these are folks who are living on their cell phone data. They've all given up on satellite data. It just doesn't even work, actually connect. And these communities are going to wither and die if they don't give broadband, and they all are realizing that now. What's amazing to me is that the rural folks have talked the co-op board members into it; they've also talked local politicians into it. I've visited counties now where they tell me the number one political issue is lack of broadband. You know, opioids or something else will be a far distant number two, but everyone that wants broadband in their house. So you know, it's now becoming a true crisis out there. I didn't expect it to get that big that fast. I mean there's been five very conservative states who overturned the law against co-ops being in the business. Who would have ever thought that a state like Mississippi would do that, where AT&T owns the politicians in that state? It was a unanimous vote to overturn that. I mean, that tells you something. That's completely unexpected. I would've not been surprised by a 55 - 45 vote, but 100 percent. Every single politician voted for it at the state level, including the guys from the cities. They can't vote against it right now. To me, that's a big change that I didn't expect. The other big change I'm seeing is public-private partnerships are actually starting to work and get popular.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's come back to that in a second and we'll dig into that because I want to dig into this for a second. The rural issues with the co-ops — there are senators who are telling people who contact them, "Oh, we've got it covered. We have ReConnect. $600 million is going to be great." The people I'm talking to here are telling me that — and frankly, by the time this airs, we'll know a lot more because this is one of many interviews that we're recording, but the ReConnect seems like there might be more than $3 billion of applications for $600 million.

Doug Dawson: Well, think about it. That's $12 million per state. That doesn't even do half of a county project.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Doug Dawson: I mean, let's get serious about how little of an amount of money that is. I mean, you're from Minnesota where they've been given out $20, $30 million a year and they need to do that for three decades to make a dent in the problem. So $600 million is nothing. On top of that, the money so hard to get that a lot of the folks are not going to qualify for it anyways.

Christopher Mitchell: Well that's one of the suppositions because the rules are a little bit crazy. They seem like right now they're being softened a bit because they were so crazy in terms of, if you identify one premise that you identify as not having broadband but it does have broadband, then your application gets tossed out. I mean, given the level of data we have, nobody can make that level of certainty, and people are thinking that's because they're just trying to weed out as many projects as possible given the oversubscription that we're expecting.

Doug Dawson: Yeah, there's gonna be a whole lot of applicants who will be very disappointed. The money's going to go to folks who are already RUS borrowers. That's where it's going to go — hate to say it.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about public-private partnerships. I agree with you absolutely in that it seems like it's more viable. What are you seeing, and what does that mean? Because that term has been used for so many different things.

Doug Dawson: Well, I'm seeing three different kinds. First off, you're from a state where I think it's almost a dozen counties at the county commissioner level have voted to contribute a grant towards broadband if they could find a partner. Now they haven't all found a partner yet, but they've put the money on the table.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Doug Dawson: So that's one kind of public-private partnership.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and these are counties that have economic distress in many cases.

Doug Dawson: Some of these counties have no money. The very first county that did it, I just — it's like wow. You know, they had trouble finding the money to pay for the $50,000 broadband study, and then they put $5 million on the table. I mean, that's pretty eyeopening how bad they think the problem is. And the people in the county supported that, and they're going to support a bond issue, which means their property taxes are going to go up. It's the only way to pay for it. So that's one kind, and that's new. I don't think I remember a local grant for broadband before.

Christopher Mitchell: I agree.

Doug Dawson: I can't remember one in the past. There might have been a few here and there or maybe little tiny ones, you know, but they're putting big numbers on the table.

Christopher Mitchell: They are, yeah. In some cases it's a grant. Sometimes it's a loan that has like a . . . like it's 10 years until you start repaying it. Yeah, but it's real money and it's taxpayer dollars. Like, there's no bones about it, right?

Doug Dawson: It's taxpayer dollars. The other kind we're seeing is they're going, look, I can find the money to build a network, but we do not want to be an ISP, so they're bringing in people to operate it. And so, that's a pretty common model. That's happening all over the place. You know, people really want to do open access and, you know, they just can't make that work, so they just bring in one quality operator. It's usually somebody local. It's usually someone who the people in the town already know — the county next door has them already and likes them. So that's a really popular model. The third model is interesting, and there's only a few of them that are public-private partnerships. This is the model that's going for the co-ops. It's the model where they find a partner to operate it, but they both put money into it. There's not too many government ones of those yet. There's been a bunch that discussed it, but that's a pretty uncommon model. But in electric co-ops, the co-op is building the fiber, then the partner builds everything else. They bring in the trucks, all the electronics, all that sort of stuff. It's like a true partnership where they then somehow share in the profits over the years. So you know, communities are looking at that. They're a little nervous about that, but I've talked to a lot who are considering it. So I think going to by the end of this year — you said what's new in 2019. I think we're going to see a couple of those come out in the public this year. That would be new. It's sort of like what Huntsville did, but in the rural places.

Christopher Mitchell: So actually jumping back to rural again for a second, what do you think — I mean we have Amazon now talking about a very low earth or at least lower earth orbit satellites. I think that's the fourth or fifth. I mean we're looking at upwards of 20,000 satellites in the sky in low earth orbit.

Doug Dawson: Well there's been applications for 10,000, now and there's still other companies talking about it. That's scary if you're going to be a manned space flight, trying to work your way through that belt. But what we don't know is anything about price or speed, and I think we got our first hint of that two weeks ago when OneWeb came to the FCC and asked for a million licenses for US earth stations, which means customers. And so, they're not trying to solve everyone's problem. They're not trying to bring 14 million people, 14 million households broadband. So that tells me they're going to charge a premium price, and in rural areas you can. So I think their model is going to be a premium price, and if they fill up their satellites, I honestly don't think we're going to be looking at mass speeds of more than 100 megabits. That's my guess. Again, SpaceX said that they could do a gigabit, but what they didn't tell you, because if you read their spec in great detail, they would have had to shoot a beam down from like five satellites to the same customer just to add up to the gigabit. And they're not about to — if they do that, they're only going to be able to serve, you know, 10,000 people.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Doug Dawson: They were not going to do that. I actually think they will do that. They're going to do cell site backhaul if that's what they do. I think a lot of these guys are building the networks for that, and they're going to realize there's a whole lot more money in cell site back haul. They're going to go, wait a minute, I could have three customers or I could have a million customers — it's a lot easier to deal with three customers. So we'll have to wait and see if they actually do residential broadband because that's hard work. We all know that it is.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the lessons I take away from just Sirius and XM as well is that we may start off with four or five companies doing this, but I presume that within a year or two, maybe a little bit longer, it will consolidate into one.

Doug Dawson: It may not because a few of these guys are billionaires who are very stubborn people.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay, sure.

Doug Dawson: You know, they're like, I'm not joining with that asshole, you know, so we'll have to see about that. This is not a normal industry.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Doug Dawson: I mean, what amazed me was, you know, Amazon is not — I mean, he took that satellite company 100 percent in the divorce settlement. He really thinks this is important. That's a business with no assets or money, but his wife just gave him 100 percent of that. That's his baby, right? And these guys are, you know, they're the generation that I come from. They all love the idea of getting out into space. It's the dream.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, you know, I'm in the middle of one of many science fiction novels right now so I'm a fan, and frankly I think a lot of the naysayers are jerks because like it was one of those things that the kinds of people who do things that are totally unexpected, they're not people like normal people, like our neighbors, right? Like, they are people who have big egos and they do special things.

Doug Dawson: You know how people always say, I want to have a beer with that guy running for president. No one really wants to have beers with these guys.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, right, and you know, that's what we need. I mean, Tesla was not the kind of guy who would be comfortable to have a beer with.

Doug Dawson: No, he was not.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you, in terms of the munis, we are seeing — I mean, right now I was trying to count it up, but in terms of like . . . We have like what, like maybe 20 municipal projects happening in western Massachusetts and that's sort of a unique circumstance, but on the front range we have a good three or four that are percolating and very seriously moving forward, I think, and I'm forgetting several others. I mean, there's a lot of things moving forward right now. Are we seeing something different in terms of cities, you know, committing to this and actually building out in municipal ownership — some of them might be using partnerships, but what I'm trying to get at is municipal citywide networks. Are we seeing a growth?

Doug Dawson: You know, we do 15 to 20 feasibility studies every year now for a couple of decades. I think a large percentage of the ones I'm doing now are actually going to turn into projects. I mean, there's years where I did them and none of them turned into projects. They were just seeing if that was a good idea or not. But everyone is coming to me now is pretty serious about it, so I do think there's been a change. Now that doesn't mean they're going to make it because raising the money's always the hard part, so you know, if there's anything that stops them it will be that. You know, I mean we saw Tallahassee put out a bid for RFP and then obviously within the following three weeks, Comcast or AT&T got to them and then they voted to reverse it.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Doug Dawson: But the past three to two. They weren't serious about it.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. No, and I think that's really important as cities are thinking about this. I was — who was I talking to? Someone was just talking about — it was a consultant here talking about an electric board, and we were talking about the co-ops that aren't doing it. He thinks maybe a third of the electric co-ops will ultimately not do anything around broadband. And he was citing as an exampl, a board in which the deciding vote was five - four I think, and the guy was very happy to have been a deciding vote to stop the project. Which, you know, from what you're just saying, I would actually say yes, I'm glad he did too because like when you're talking about something that is an existential, either make or break for the organization, you shouldn't do it on a 5 - 4 vote.

Doug Dawson: And you don't want to have it canceled a year into the project where you spent a whole bunch of money and have nothing done for it. Yeah, I agree with that. The board has to be behind it. Now, if that community really cares, they'll get a new board.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's exactly it, and this is where —

Doug Dawson: And then they deserve to get it to them. I also think you have to remember electric co-ops fall into two categories. There's the ones who can walk: you do a feasibility study, you go, "It's $45 million," they go, "Okay, we're good," because they already know they can borrow that much. So now they just have to decide if they want to do it, but the money is not an issue for them. And probably about a third of them are in that category. The rest of them, money is the scary issue. You know, some of them don't have the reserves. They are so rural that even on the electric side they're not making a lot of money, and they can't go to the bank and easily borrow this money.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and some of them are upside down on propane ventures or other things, and they're really scared after that.

Doug Dawson: Right. So some of them probably can't make this work unless they get some of the federal government help or some other way to make it work, and so you can't really fault some of them for not thinking it's a good idea because they may not be able to pull it off financially. That's a pretty big concern. If you can't pay your debt back, you lose your co-op. When you pledge your co-op to a loan, that co-op's going to be sold off to commercial provider for 10 cents on the dollar at some point, so . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and I think, you know, some of these areas that are not moving forward, I suspect that they're kind of in a declining pattern. You know, I mean, the way that the United States government and many state governments I think have systematically harmed rural economies is irreversible.

Doug Dawson: Most of them are losing population, right? And the population is aging like crazy, so that's not a good combination.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that ILSR is constantly talking about, I mean, you need strong local economies for these places for people to want to live there, and when you're giving all these incentives to companies like Amazon to basically try and take the margin away from them so people are buying their products on Amazon rather than locally. There's a lot of government policies that are involved in that. That's really harming the kinds of businesses that you need to be livable because when a grocery store closes, people start moving out,

Doug Dawson: Right, they do. Grocery stores or doctors. When you can't get those two things, you leave.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So have you paid attention to the Erie County, in New York, approach?

Doug Dawson: I have.

Christopher Mitchell: What do you think about this, and I don't want to talk specifically about them unless you want to for some reason but this is an interesting model. If I were to describe it more generically, a county says we can't afford to bond to build out to everyone. so we're going to build a backbone and try to work with a few providers ideally to, you know, connect. And this is what Centennial did with Ting. What do you think of that model?

Doug Dawson: Well, we have enough evidence that half the time it works and half the time it doesn't work. There were a whole lot of middle mile networks built with the stimulus funds 10 years ago, and some of them don't have a customer on them yet. Some of them have been very successful. And so, just building the middle mile fiber is not enough. There still has to be a business case there. In Erie County, just to talk about this a second, they have two different bands of the county. They have one that's somewhat populated, and people can probably make a business case in there. And then they've got the same stuff we all have, which is really spread out houses. The middle mile's not going to lure somebody to do that because that's not your big cost of doing it. It's the last mile. So the middle mile doesn't fix you. They could pay you to take the middle mile and it doesn't make a business case. So it'll work maybe. It doesn't hurt, but they're talking about spending a lot of money. If they do that and nobody shows up, they just wasted a lot of money.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I think in their case they are hoping to use it for some efficiencies and they're hoping to get some 5G and things like that that they'll be leasing to. But let me ask you this. If it works out in the way that you just described, is it unreasonable to think that the county would say, all right, we're going to build this middle mile and we'll have a company — hopefully a local company like Empire will come in and build out to the homes in areas where they can make it work and then maybe the county will bond again in a few years and build out more to the last out of those hard to reach areas.

Doug Dawson: That's what it's going to take. It would take a long protracted — you know, if it's really going to — and I don't have any numbers, but let's say it took them $150 million to get everybody, and that could be twice or half the number, they would have to go after that year after year after year. If they don't have the money to do it now, then they could do it over time. The fact is they're doing this because those folks were telling them they want broadband. They're trying to respond to that big cry for help, and so you have to say their heart's in the right place. I'm not saying it won't work. I'm just saying there's a lot of places where it didn't work. Now, if I was doing it, I wouldn't build the middle mile til I had the end user ISPs signed up already. Now that it's on the table, let's have a serious discussion about if I build this, will you show up? Let's sign contracts. You know, I don't think I would do it otherwise — or at least enough of them to cover a pretty big percentage of them so it made sense, you know. And if all they end up doing is getting the outer suburbs served, they've still made a lot of progress because that's probably where most of the people are who are outside the city limits. So, you know, there's no right or wrong here. They're trying, and I hope them success and I hope it works because there are some middle mile networks that have been highly successful.

Christopher Mitchell: Well actually, in fact in — I'm stumbling over my words here because frankly I'm frustrated. It wouldn't have gone the way I wanted it to, but Ontario built a network. Ontario County, they built their Axcess Ontario network, middle mile. It did not catalyze a lot of investment until it did, where Empire had started building out a little bit and then bought the whole network from the county. Now unfortunately the county no longer has an open access network, but they do have a local provider that is investing.

Doug Dawson: I think cities have to recognize that if they build it, the chances are probably 50 - 50 that it's going to eventually get sold. It's just too attractive. If someone comes and offers you money, counties and cities have a hard time turning down that profit. They never see profits. And so they end up with one provider, but the point is they got fiber. Is it more important to get fiber or open access, and that's a decision they each have to make.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, so here's what I would say to that, and let me know if I'm interpreting your comments correctly because I don't think you're passing a judgment of whether it's wise to sell it, but you're saying that the incentives of a given city council and mayor are to sell it and then knowing that they're not going to be around when perhaps 10 years down the road, it proves not to have been a wise decision.

Doug Dawson: Oh, absolutely. It's a election year decision. You bet.

Christopher Mitchell: So my answer to that though is that I think they should think about — and I always compare Chattanooga to Fios, right? Both GPON — same fiber, same technology. What Chattanooga is doing with it is vastly different in terms of the community benefits. Now, it's worth noting Chattanooga is an outlier, Wilson is an outlier in terms of the way they've done that, so most munis haven't achieved that same level of benefits. But with the right leadership, I think, ownership of the network does create vastly more benefits than just the fiber itself.

Doug Dawson: It can, but not all cities — some cities build it and they just operate it like a business and they don't do any of that community benefit stuff. And there's nothing wrong with that either if it brings everybody broadband, but the cities who put that extra effort into it end up with amazing things happening. I mean, Wilson's reinventing their town. Chattanooga — I was their first consultant many, many years ago. That town was poor. I mean, that's transformed their town. It's not like made it all of a sudden rich, but you can just see the benefits all over town from it.

Christopher Mitchell: Well in fact, if the state would take the chains off, I'd love to see what they could do. I mean, the fact that they have a dramatic profit, a net income, and they are not allowed to drop the cost to low-income subscribers below a set level that the state set is just infuriating.

Doug Dawson: It's mind boggling.

Christopher Mitchell: So last question —

Doug Dawson: The state is voting against citizens getting cheap broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean I like to say this: the city has decided that rather than cities expanding broadband at no cost to the taxpayer, they want to subsidize slower, more obsolete forms of technology. Although most of the money is going to fiber even though they didn't have to. So last question I would ask is, is there anything, like any of your clients or anything you've read about, in terms of cities that are doing anything that's really cool that again you just think more people should know about?

Doug Dawson: I did a study for Cortez, Colorado. It's in the southwestern corner, and it is isolated. You have to drive an hour in any direction outside the city limits to see the next set of house. Right?

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. My wife and I drove through there once, and it is beautiful.

Doug Dawson: There's an hour away is Durango, and then around those two towns for a long way, there's nothing.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Doug Dawson: So this is the kind of place that's hard to justify fiber, right? I did a study for them. They put out an RFP to see if somebody else would come in and build it out of their own money, and they got six responses, five of which I think were really serious. That's never — how many RFPs have we seen in the last 15 years of cities inviting somebody to come build and nobody ever responded? I've never seen anyone actually pull that off, and now there was five responses. That tells you that there's commercial companies out looking for the right opportunities, so that's a big change. So that one surprised me. It's not going to be a muni project, but they did the work. They did the work to quantify the cost of the network. They did the work to set a rate structure. Not that those other companies will follow it, but they have a model that I created that they hand to the guy and they go, "I can make money here." And so, they did all the hard work because ISPs don't want to go into a strange market and try to figure that out. That's expensive.

Christopher Mitchell: My assumption is, is that there's a real benefit in Cortez because they have a lot of the businesses on net, and so you can start generating revenues day one when you go in there because they have that — even though there's a lot more investment that's needed, there are some revenues on day.

Doug Dawson: There's some revenues on day one. I mean, it's not a lot and it's not going to pay for the network, but it's better than zero. It's just an interesting — and again, that's not a wealthy town. I was surprised to get five. If they would've got two I would've been surprised. To get five is just mind boggling.

Christopher Mitchell: What's the — there's a backpack company there that stayed in town because of that fiber.

Doug Dawson: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: I can't remember the name of them though. My wife and I love them. My wife has like six of their packs. I just have one big one.

Doug Dawson: They have the coolest little factory; I've been to it. Yeah, it's a bunch of hippies. You'd think they were in Asheville or one of those other cities like that. It's an awesome place to work, and boy, they do good stuff.

Christopher Mitchell: Osprey backpacks.

Doug Dawson: Yes. They're awesome. They're the best backpacks.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I'm a huge fan. So they actually manufacture them there too? I know their headquarters are there.

Doug Dawson: They do. They found an old building that had been some other sort of little manufacturer; they completely rehabbed it. They have this awesome workspace. The employees have great benefits. They give them all the perks, like you can take off and go hiking when you want because this town is in the middle of all those beautiful national parks. They actually thought about moving because they couldn't get broadband, and so when the city brought them the broadband that took that off the table because they did not want them to leave. That was the first new place they had in years, but they're going to be there forever now. They have great broadband, so yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you, Doug. It's always great to get a sense of what's going on. I love your blog, POTs and PANs by CCG. You can sign up to get it by email, so like once a week you get all the stories. And it's been cited on multiple panels today and yesterday as well. A lot of people are reading it.

Doug Dawson: I started it as a way to make myself read what's going on in the industry, and now I don't seem to be able to stop.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, we appreciate you coming on to share your learnings with us.

Doug Dawson: Alright, well thank you very much, Chris. Always good to see you.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and president of CCG Consulting, Doug Dawson. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. You can also follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. Access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 353 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

South Hadley FTTH Deployment Progressing in Massachusetts

muninetworks.org - April 26, 2019

By this July, the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) expects to begin serving the the first subscribers to Fibersonic, the town’s municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Construction, which began in January, is rolling along and SHELD anticipates the citywide project will be completed within four years.

Showing Their Interest

SHELD is signing up subscribers now on the Fibersonic website. Residents who express the desire for the service will also help SHELD see which of the town’s 32 fiberhoods are more likely to gather more subscribers at a rapid rate and can help determine which areas are connected first. The first two areas where construction crews are working are the Ridge Road and Old Lyman Road areas. Each fiberhood will serve approximately 250 to 300 subscribers.

Check out the Fibersonic map, which SHELD will keep updated for the community, to see where construction occurs.

Sean Fitzgerald, who came to SHELD from Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), says that the intense interest from the South Hadley public reflects the lack of competition in town. Comcast offers Internet access in South Hadley, along with cable TV and voice services.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest. Customers are giving us a lot of positive feedback. There’re very hungry to have competition, to have options,” Fitzgerald said, “a chance to pick from different vendors versus having to choose one.”

SHELD offers one level of service: symmetrical gigabit connectivity for $74.95 per month. If subscribers enroll in autopay, the monthly rate drops to $70 per month. There’s no installation fee and the municipal utility offers a seasonal discount for subscribers who will be away from their homes for three to six months.

Like other municipal networks that have been launched in the past few years, Fibersonic won’t offer video. With more people cord cutting and an increasing number of streaming services available online, communities are often choosing to avoid the commitment and extra expense required with providing video services.

Regional Watch

As South Hadley develops their FTTH network, residents in the neighboring communities of Northampton and Holyoke are watching developments. 

Holyoke, where a publicly owned network already serves commercial subscribers, will put the issue of residential service on the ballot this fall in the form of a nonbinding measure. In Northampton, the community recently approved funding for a feasibility study to look deeper at the potential for connectivity through municipally owned infrastructure. The Northampton High-Speed Community Networks Coalition reported that they recently completed developing a survey and that the local Chamber of Commerce plans to share the survey with Northampton businesses.

Local coverage on the deployment: 

Image credit John Phelan [CC BY 3.0]

Tags: south hadleymassachusettsFTTHmunielectricgigabitsymmetryfiberhood

Georgia Telephone and Electric Cooperatives Partner for Better Business Connectivity

muninetworks.org - April 25, 2019

Last August, Pineland Telephone and Jefferson Energy Cooperatives in Georgia began developing a project together to bring fiber connectivity to businesses in the small towns of Louisville (pop. 2,200) and Wrens (pop. 2,000). This February, the partners finished construction and celebrated with a ribbon cutting ceremony. The event marked marked another instance in which cooperatives are working together to improve connectivity in rural areas.

The project began in Louisville last summer when the cooperatives realized they could team up to reduce costs and improve Internet access for businesses in Jefferson County. In a July 2018 press release, Pineland Telephone commented:

“Rural America lacking the broadband service needed to compete globally is on everyone’s radar, with Georgia and national legislation being considered so that improvements can be developed. Instead of waiting on funding and policies that may not come, cooperatives working together determined a way to make advancements in the communities in which they serve.”

Pineland’s Dustin Durden told the Augusta Chronicle that both cooperatives deployed fiber simultaneously. Jefferson Energy worked on construction between Bartow and the Louisville area, which were then connected to Wrens, while Pineland began with fiber within the town of Louisville and then worked within Wrens. Working together, they were able to finish the project in about 18 months.

As Durden explains in this Facebook video, Pineland, Jefferson, and the city of Louisville are using the infrastructure to make free Wi-Fi available in the community’s downtown park:

Fiber for Electric Efficiencies and Expansion

Jefferson Energy sees several uses for the new infrastructure:

“It’s helping us with our communications efficiencies and we’re going to utilize that fiber in the future for what we call distribution automation,” Dillard said. “It will improve our efficiencies and our responsiveness to outages or power quality and improve our service.

“This was just the first step. We were acting as the bridge from their service territory to our territory. Now we’ve got them here and hopefully now we can work with Pineland to further expand in the future.”

Partnerships Proliferating

Earlier this year, we wrote about Pineland’s project in Americus to deploy fiber for commercial subscribers in the Sumter County town of about 17,000 people. Pineland invested about $2 million into the project along with contributions from local donors. One Sumter Economic Development Foundation facilitated the project.

We’ve seen an increase in telephone and electric co-op partnerships for broadband recently. Notably, communications cooperative RiverStreet Networks has entered into a partnership with North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives as a way to expand high-quality Internet access to rural communities across the state. Collaboration makes sense: electric cooperatives often have the ability to manage and expand the infrastructure while telephone and communications cooperatives have the personnel and expertise in broadband.

Learn more about the ways cooperatives are filling the connectivity voids in the U.S. in our 2017 policy brief, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model For The Internet Era.

Tags: ruralcooperativepartnershippineland telephone cooperativejefferson energy co-oprural electric coop

Deb Socia to Lead Enterprise Center in Chattanooga

muninetworks.org - April 24, 2019

It was only a year ago that Next Century Cities Executive Director Deb Socia received the Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award. Since then, Deb has continued to raise the bar for nonprofit leaders. She has brought people together, advocated for smart policies, and developed resources to help local communities improve connectivity and shrink the digital divide. Now, Deb has decided it’s time to share her high-energy magic in Tennessee. Deb recently announced that she has accepted a position as CEO of the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga.

The Heart and Soul of Next Century Cities

Since she started the organization in the fall of 2014, Deb has led its team and the member communities that collaborate and share information. The group began with a modest 32 members, but through Deb’s hard work and determination, more than 200 communities have now joined. The nonprofit, through her vision and leadership, has assisted local governments in their vision of better connectivity and local policies that encourage broadband investment.

Before getting Next Century Cities off the ground, Deb was the Executive Director of the Tech Goes Home program whose mission is to ensure digital equity. Deb also spent 32 years as an educator and education administrator, a role that gave her many of the skills she has used to bring people together. Deb worked as the founding principal of the award winning Lilla G. Frederick Middle School, a Boston Public School where she led the one-to-one laptop initiative. She has received a many awards for her work in education and in helping local communities get their populations connected, including recognition as the NATOA Community Broadband Hero in 2013, the 2013 Pathfinder Award from MassCUE (Mass Computer Using Educators), and the 2010 Leadership and Vision award from CRSTE (Capitol Region Society for Technology in Education), the Google Digital Inclusion Champion Award, Motherboard Human of the Year, and an NTENny Award.

Deb has also earned undying respect and admiration from the people who know have worked with her, like those of us at the Institute who are also incredibly proud of her!

The Next Chapter

When she spoke with the Times Free Press about her upcoming transition to the new role, Deb said that she’s looking forward to working on connectivity issues at the community level ”where you can directly see those who are touched" by the results:

"I'm really pleased with the national work I've been able to do in working with cities across the country in recent years, but I'm ready for that opportunity to be back in the community where I can feel the impact of the work that we do as an organization."

She also described Chattanooga as a place where, in the past, she imagined herself one day. She begins at the Enterprise Center in July and they’re looking forward to her leadership with anticipation. According to Sydney Crisp and David Belitz, from the Enterprise Center, they chose Deb because she stood out from an already strong pool of candidates.

According to the organization's website:

The Enterprise Center is a non-profit organization with a local board of directors whose public-serving mission is to establish Chattanooga as a hub of innovation and improve people’s lives by leveraging the city’s digital technology to create, demonstrate, test and apply solutions for the 21st century.

Deb and her team will be charged with advancing three important strategic goals for Chattanooga:

  • Promote and develop Chattanooga’s Innovation District
  • Establish Chattanooga as a test-bed for the development of next generation smart products, processes, and services.
  • Address issues of digital equity and promote digital asset availability

Read more about the organization’s goals, vision, and philosophy here.

Looking for A Leader

Deb’s departure leaves Next Century City searching for a new captain. Replacing her will be challenging, but staff and leadership at the organization hope interest is strong. Deb has increased the presence of the nonprofit and made people aware of its value in connecting rural and urban communities. Broadband has transitioned from luxury to necessity, and a growing number of people have made it their mission to help connect everyone — one of those people will be the right fit for Next Century Cities.

Parting Words from the Policy Director

Having worked with Deb since the inception of Next Century Cities as the Policy Director, Christopher had these words to say about Deb’s departure:

Deb built Next Century Cities into what it is today - an organization that has quietly helped countless cities dramatically improve Internet access while also representing their interests in DC. Few could have accomplished what she did with such intelligence and grace. She will do very well at the Enterprise Center and we will miss her presence at Next Century Cities.

The Community Broadband Networks team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance will miss Deb, but we know that she will take the Enterprise Center to new heights and we wish her the best of fortune in her new leadership role.

Congrats, Deb!

Tags: next century citiesdeb sociachattanooga

Doug Dawson Shares Surprises and Safe Bets - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 353

muninetworks.org - April 23, 2019

Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting and author of the POTS and PANS blog, was willing to sit down with Christopher for episode 353 of the podcast this week. Christopher interviewed Doug in Austin, Texas, at the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit. They discussed all sorts of happenings in the telecommunications and municipal network space.

In addition to 5G and the hype that has surrounded it for the past year, Doug and Christopher make some predictions about where they think the technology will go. They also talk about the involvement of Amazon in the satellite broadband industry and what they think that means for different folks from different walks of life.

Other happenings that Doug and Christopher get into include different public-private partnerships that Doug has been watching and some new models that he’s seen this past year. He’s noticed that communities are more willing to work outside the box and that an increasing number of local communities are moving beyond feasibility studies to investment. Doug and Christopher talk a little about Erie County, New York, where the community is developing a middle mile network, and Cortez, Colorado, where the town has attracted several private sector companies because they worked hard to develop the right infrastructure.

Check out POTS and PANS for Doug's great articles.

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

This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

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

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

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsccg5Gfixed wirelesspartnershiperie county nycortezfeasibilityrural electric coopcooperativeruralsatellite

California General Assembly Committee Considers Pro-Monopoly Bill April 24th

muninetworks.org - April 23, 2019

In recent years, an increasing number of local communities have started looking into the possibilities of developing broadband infrastructure. One of the reasons they often cite for their investigations is the desire to increase competition for broadband services. In California, public interest groups recently put out the alarm about AB 1366, a bill introduced in February that will strengthen the power of monopolies in the state.

Wrong Direction

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) posted an article about the bill in March, in which they described AB 1366 as a state-level version of “the Federal Communications Commission’s lead to abandon oversight over a highly concentrated, uncompetitive market.”

AB 1366 removes the 2019 sunset from a bill passed last year that prohibits state or local governments from taking any steps to regulate or create standards for VoIP or broadband services (“Internet enabled services”). The ban on state and local “laws, rules, regulations, ordinance, standards, orders or other provisions” will be permanent if AB 1366 passes. California will relinquish oversight of the activities of the major national Internet access companies, such as AT&T and Comcast, putting all trust in these companies and removing local and state authority.

Bad News for New Entrants

If California denies itself and its local governments the ability to make policy changes, it will also prevent cities from taking action to encourage new entrants into the marketplace. Californians will suffer and monopoly providers will gain by removing the power to increase choice.

In San Franciso, the city passed an ordinance that banned a traditional practice in which landlords prevented competitive ISPs from entering their buildings in exchange for kickbacks from one ISP that wanted to serve the entire building. As a result, new entrants, such as fixed wireless Internet access company Monkeybrains, had no access to potential subscribers — even those who wanted to sign up. After San Francisco changed local policy, which would not be allowed in an environment described in AB 1366, Monkeybrains was able to offer services in more buildings, creating competition for the incumbent ISPs, and as a result, improving services for every one.

Likewise, local government needs to maintain control over the poles and conduit in their rights-of-way in order to facilitate better connectivity. Access to those assets typically doesn’t consider the possibility that telephone and cable companies beyond the traditional monopoly providers would ever require access to those routes. Without the ability to change their local rules, regulations, or policies, local communities will be hamstrung in using these valuable tools to encourage competition.

Big Guys Love It

Frontier, Verizon and AT&T (through the CTIA), and Comcast (via the CCTA) have been engaged in the usual lobbying in the State Capitol to pass the bill. With the chance to continue operating with little or no oversight into the future, all but guaranteeing their positions as monopoly players in the state, AB 1366 is the type of bill that the large corporate providers can’t pass up.

Status

AB 1366 has been referred to the Committee on Communications and Conveyance, and will be heard April 24th (tomorrow!). EFF is encouraging Californians who want more competition in the broadband marketplace to call or email their Assembly Members and express their opposition to the bill. 

Another option is to call or email the members of the Communications and Conveyance Committee and tell them that you want more competition in Internet enabled services, such as broadband and VoIP services, and you believe AB 1366 will have the opposite effect. Stopping this bill early in the legislative process is the best way to end its progress.

Read the bill here.

Tags: californialegislationstate lawsmonopoly

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 22

muninetworks.org - April 22, 2019

Arkansas

Why did Arkansas change its mind on municipal broadband? by Nick Keppler, CityLab

“If someone with a degree in coding gets a remote job here, they can’t stay,” she says. Arkansans who want to take online classes face the same roadblock. “I’ve had people tell me they can’t pull up emails at their house,” Davis says. “They have to go to McDonalds and use the Internet.”

(please see our story for a more detailed analysis of the bill, SB 150, which passed this session) 

Colorado 

Yampa Valley Electric gets OK to start broadband work in Craig by Clay Thorp, Craig Daily Press

Loveland council to vote on new rules for small-cell wireless providers by Julia Rentsch, Reporter-Herald

 

Kansas

For small-town economic success, broadband is the new railroad by Peggy Lowe, Marketplace

Thanks to an existing local fiber network and help from the Rural Innovation Initiative, Emporia is hoping to become a rural tech hub, with an incubator for entrepreneurs who will bring jobs to the area.

 

Montana

Bozeman declares broadband as essential infrastructure by Katheryn Houghton, Bozeman Daily Chronicle 

 

Ohio

Affordable, reliable broadband key to economic development by Senator Rob Portman, Logan Daily News

 

Washington

Senator visits Yakima to discuss digital divide and how to fix it by Janelle Retka, Yakima Herald-Republic

Rural broadband Internet bill heads to Washington governor by Anthony Kuipers, The Lewiston Tribune

 

General

Municipal broadband Is roadblocked or outlawed in 26 states by Kendra Chamberlain, BroadbandNow

Interactive rural broadband CAF map updated by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor

Trio of North Carolina counties close to broadband agreement by Charlotte Wray, Henderson Daily Dispatch 

Senate Democrats confront ‘digital divide’ in new bill by Makena Kelly, The Verge

Report: 26 states now ban or restrict community broadband by Karl Bode, Motherboard 

“In a time when communities need as much investment as possible to build strong economies, these states are more focused on protecting the monopolies that are investing too little,” ISLR’s Christopher Mitchell told Motherboard in an email. “Many of these states are actually using taxpayer dollars to subsidize privately owned networks when they will not let local taxpayers decide to build their own network—which is often done at no cost to the taxpayer!”

FCC rural broadband fund would move funds from existing program by Bill Lucia, Nextgov

 

Tags: media roundup

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 352

muninetworks.org - April 19, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 352 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher interviews Dr. Robert Wack about the impact of better broadband in healthcare. Read the transcript below, or listen to the podcast episode.

 

 

Robert Wack: And so, what we'd like to do is that same process that's occurring in intensive care units — move that out into the home, so that your home now becomes basically a nurse that's watching you, keeping an eye on your health, and hopefully anticipating problems long before they become a serious thing.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 352 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. While Chris was at the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, he met up with Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster, Maryland. As a healthcare professional. Dr. Wack has a special interest in how a broadband network can help deliver better care, and in this interview he and Christopher discuss some of the interesting programs he's been working on. From broadband for home monitoring to assisting in triage to reducing costs, it's obvious that connectivity is a tool that we can't afford not to develop in the battle for better healthcare. Now here's Dr. Robert Wack and Christopher talking about healthcare and broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and I'm in Austin, Texas, for the Broadband Communities Summit, which is an event that I do interviews at every year. Actually, I think three years now, maybe this is the fourth, I've done an interview with Robert Wack, City Council president of Westminster, Maryland. Welcome back.

Robert Wack: Thanks Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: So you're a very entertaining person to have on for a variety of reasons, just a very eclectic thinker and whatnot. Yesterday, you gave a really interesting presentation about healthcare and telemedicine, and so we're going to focus on that. But first of all, let me just ask you, how are things going with your network, the public-private partnership with Ting?

Robert Wack: It's going extremely well. We are pretty much on schedule, under budget, and preparing to wrap up the main construction of the backbone and signing up customers. From a financial performance perspective, we're right on track. We're hitting our customer acquisition goals on schedule — actually ahead of schedule. Our target was 20 percent within a year of lighting up each phase, and we, meaning mostly Ting, are beating that goal. Well, they have beat it for every phase that we've lit. The next step is, internally for Westminster, our goal is 40 percent at five years, Ting's goal is 50 percent at five years, and we're on track. So it's still a long way to go, ramping up subscriber acquisition, but the way we put the project together, the way we modeled it was all, you know, for very long term, slow ramp up and we're doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: Aside from being the city council president who I think had the vision for this and was a driving force for it, you're an author, which I always like to bring up and you always giggle about, but you're also a doctor. And so you have some hands on experience and you're paying close attention to this, and Maryland is a really fascinating state for a variety of reasons. Then we have the Affordable Care Act, which is Obamacare, which has changed some incentives for hospitals. So give me a sense of maybe setting a broad stage, just like you did yesterday on the session we didn't record. What's the stage for broadband in healthcare right now?

Robert Wack: Well, let's just start like yesterday with a very broad picture of healthcare. And you know, this is a very oversimplified generalization and it's somewhat pessimistic and I'm sure people might take issue with one piece of it or another, but the general —

Christopher Mitchell: No, if there's one thing Americans can agree on it's healthcare. I'm pretty sure about that.

Robert Wack: So our healthcare system is broken and is failing, unfortunately, even despite recent progress with, for example, the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act was a great step in the right direction, but it was not sufficient to fix the many problems that our healthcare system has. And those basically boil down to three main areas: One, we spend way too much on healthcare. Two, we do not get the same results from our healthcare system that other countries do, so we deliver healthcare very inefficiently. And three, there are still massive, terrible inequities in our healthcare system. There are parts of the country that don't have access to the same levels of healthcare that other parts of our country have, and there are certainly major socioeconomic discrepancies between the quality of healthcare — and you know, racial discrepancies as well, so there's huge problems. So that's the big picture, is our healthcare system struggling and not heading in the right direction. There are pockets of hope and things that seem to be going well, but there are many, many more changes that need to happen. So in that context, in the state of Maryland, we have participated for many years as part of a pilot project from CMS, the Center of Medicaid and Medicare services, that places authority for setting rates for healthcare reimbursement at the state level. So unlike many other states, the state of Maryland says what reimbursement rates are going to be for a hospital, and that effectively controls how much a hospital can make in a given year. And what that does is they've created the mechanism for capping hospital expenditures in any given year, and then that in turn flips the incentives for how hospitals deliver care. So instead of in the past, or what most of the rest of the country has, where there's this incentive to drive volume — more surgeries, fill the beds, build a bigger hospital — it's the exact opposite. Now it's keep people healthy, do fewer surgeries, keep people out of the hospital.

Christopher Mitchell: So hospitals actually in this situation, they have a real incentive to spend on things that other hospitals don't have an incentive to spend on.

Robert Wack: Correct. Absolutely. So now there's much bigger focus on community health, preventative health, wellness programs, many new things — things that we've always talked about, but there just weren't the financial incentives there, so that's a big, big change. So in that context now, programs that look at, for example, using technology to provide preventative healthcare or chronic disease management in the home as opposed to in the hospital now become much, much more interesting, and so that's the area where I've started to really do some interesting things.

Christopher Mitchell: My rudimentary understanding of healthcare was sort of really broadened, I think, when I understood that there are a very few number of diseases that massively drive the costs of healthcare up. I mean, diabetes and dementia, like sort of . . . schizophrenia. And so, getting a sense of how dealing with a few chronic diseases, if you can get those managed, you can dramatically change healthcare expenditures. So tell me a little bit about how that may play into what you're talking about here in broadband.

Robert Wack: So, I took a full time job recently with a home care agency. I'm over the medical director for a home care agency, and they have a fascinating pilot program that they're calling the chronic care management program, that's generating some really impressive results in terms of keeping costs down and keeping people out of the hospital. They just completed an analysis of a two year pilot program. There've been about 200 patients came through the program, but there were 120 that were part of the analysis. And they did a preintervention assessment of healthcare utilization, emergency room visits and readmissions, and then they were enrolled in the program, and then they looked at the following 12 months and again looked at readmissions and emergency room visits. And what with the intervention of using this remote patient monitoring technology, which I'll explain a little bit more detail, they were able to reduce emergency room visits by over 50 percent and hospital readmissions by over 80 percent, which resulted in $2.1 million in avoided costs from hospital utilization.

Christopher Mitchell: Over . . . ? Now remind me of the timescale. Over one year, over two years?

Robert Wack: Well, the one year of the intervention. So they tracked the data over two years before and after, and so during that 12 months, $2.1 million of savings.

Christopher Mitchell: And this just in the community of Westminster?

Robert Wack: No, no, actually this is in Frederick, Maryland.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, Frederick. Ok.

Robert Wack: But it was just those 120 patients. Those 120 patients accounted for $2.1 million worth of healthcare savings, so imagine the impact it could have if it was used more broadly. So we're looking at aggressively expanding that program. But the key thing there is the technology is actually pretty simple, and the technology is not what generates the savings. What generates the savings is the higher level of patient interaction and communication that the technology enables, which is usually the case with technology. The technology is not necessarily the solution; the technology is an enabler of a better solution. Christopher]: Right. It's how we use it, right?

Robert Wack: Correct. Yeah. So what this is, is these are basically like an iPad, a tablet, that's armored, so if they drop it or you know, whatever, leave it out, it's not going to fail. And it has a little SIM card in it that's connected to a cellular plan to transmit the data. The patients are taught how to use a Bluetooth enabled blood pressure cuff, a Bluetooth enabled scale, and a Bluetooth enabled pulse oximeter, which checks pulse rate and oxygen level. And those three things for certain kinds of patients, for example, patients with congestive heart failure or patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are enough to get a general sense of how a patient is doing in the home. But the key is daily check ins with a nurse who they have a relationship with, and then the ability for that nurse to sort of intervene very, very early if they start seeing any changes that either they see in the vital signs that they are remotely monitoring or in what the patient reports through their check ins. That's what's making the difference, is that they can talk patients through minor changes in their lifestyle or their medications before they even think about going to the emergency room, and that's having this major impact in their hospital utilization. So it's a huge step forward with actually a fairly minor technological fix.

Christopher Mitchell: These daily check ins, are they video check ins or . . . ?

Robert Wack: Sometimes it's a phone call, sometimes it's a video check in, and so the tablet has the capability of doing a simple, you know, Skype-like video chat, but it's mostly just, again, for that personal touch. The quality of the video is not so great that they're doing any sort of assessment because of the video. That's a whole other thing which we can talk about in the other project we're working on.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, we'll get to that in a second. I think, you know, one of the things that I might hear from someone who is skeptical of the need for better fiber networks throughout the nation would be, "Aha, the 4G networks are great, and you know, problem solved."

Robert Wack: Yeah. So, no. Problem not solved. So for example, cellular networks become congested, cellular networks occasionally go down. So yes, they're good, and yes, in this case it works. But if you're talking about scaling, well, let's just look at the expense. So for this particular service, that cellular connection is 56 bucks a month and —

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, ok. Yeah, that's a lot.

Robert Wack: That's a real lot, and it really impairs the scalability of the program in terms of the financials of it because there's a significant labor cost, as you can imagine, with the nursing service. But that's where the value is. This particular service, although effective and certainly demonstrating some results, is going to be tough to scale because of that communications expense.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean, just back of the envelope, I'm thinking that's, you know, the monthly communication costs just for the subscription of the 4G is probably on the order of $70,000 to $90,000 for a year across 120 patients.

Robert Wack: Yeah, right. That's quick math.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I was doing it for a while you were talking. And someone might write in to say, "No, you're off by an order of magnitude," which happens to me sometimes.

Robert Wack: Yeah, no. So yeah, it's a nontrivial expense, and so that's where, boom, right off the top, if you had cheap, ubiquitous broadband, then that part of it goes away and the solution becomes more scalable.

Christopher Mitchell: And in a place like Maryland, given the incentives, it wouldn't be unreasonable for a hospital to say, okay, you have a home connection. Maybe we can give you a coupon or we can do something in which the hospital would pay some portion of the cost of that home connection to drive the cost down.

Robert Wack: Well, there's also a copay. So there are Medicare codes now to bill for this sort of thing, which also improves the economics of it, but those codes require a copay and some of our patients can't even afford the copay. So we have to figure that out. We've got to figure out how to manage the economics of this. Clearly, the intervention works. Clearly, that higher level of daily communication and monitoring of that data has a major impact on healthcare utilization. Now, how do we make it scale? How do we manage the economics of that in a way that makes it so that we can use it more broadly?

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things you mentioned yesterday is that — I mean we were talking about this Maryland specific thing, but this is relevant for hospitals all across the nation because the Affordable Care Act has very high penalties for hospitals that are readmitting people for the same problem over a period of a certain — I think it's within a month or something.

Robert Wack: Right, and in future iterations of healthcare reform, it's going to happen. It has to happen. As I said in the beginning, our system is failing. And at some point the political tides will shift, and we will have major healthcare reform. It might be after there's some series of catastrophes, you know, but either way it's gonna happen. And that's one of the things that will need to happen, is what's going on in Maryland, where you flip the incentives and make it so that people are focusing more on preventative care, wellness, and community-based healthcare, not hospital-based healthcare.

Christopher Mitchell: Tell us about — a perfect case in the example, you had a specific person who had a challenge of anxiety.

Robert Wack: She had anxiety and some heart problems that were real, legitimate heart problems. But she also had anxiety, and one of the things that we discovered is that she was afraid of the dark. And at sunset or shortly after sunset, her anxiety would mount, she would start feeling her heart beating rapidly, and she would start thinking she was having an exacerbation of her underlying heart issue. So in the past, she would call 911 and then the EMS folks would get there. They'd check her heart rate and sure enough it was elevated and put her in the ambulance and bring her to the ER. And she'd get a big workup, and it turns out it really wasn't her heart, it was just . . . And so with this remote patient monitoring now, she now has a way to — the nurses will see her heart rate going up. They may call her first before she can call them, and then they have a conversation and they kind of do that initial assessment that would happen at the emergency room and avoid the 911 call, avoid the unnecessary ER visit, and keep her happy and keep her in her home. And it's a perfect anecdote about how this higher level of communication really makes an impact on keeping people happier and in their home.

Christopher Mitchell: If you didn't have those tools, it would be harder to have that personal relationship because it is the personal relationship that matters, but the nurse has to have access to some of the diagnostics —

Robert Wack: Data.

Christopher Mitchell: — on the body. Right.

Robert Wack: Exactly. Data she can trust. So let's say they didn't have the remote patient monitoring, but they did have the communication. The patient calls or they have a conversation, and she said, "Well, what's your heart rate?" Well, you don't know that the patient really knows how to check their own heart rate, but she's got objective data that says her heart rate's, you know, 120 and that's a real piece of information. So yes, it's the combination of the data and the communication and the relationship that that makes the difference.

Christopher Mitchell: So what's the other program that you alluded to?

Robert Wack: Yes, I think we talked about MAGIC before, didn't we?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. The Mid-Atlantic . . .

Robert Wack: Come on.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh no, I'm just stuck on the "g" — Gigabit.

Robert Wack: Gigabit.

Christopher Mitchell: Gigabit . . .

Robert Wack: Innovation . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Innovation . . .

Robert Wack: Collaboratory.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I was going to say center, but that's the wrong word.

Robert Wack: Yeah, collaboratory's a cool made up word that I picked up from a conference one time. They were research scientists talking about their collaboratory, and I was like, ooh, I like that.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.

Robert Wack: So, yes.

Christopher Mitchell: If Shakespeare got to make up words, you can too.

Robert Wack: Exactly. So magic is a nonprofit in Westminster whose mission is to realize the economic development potential of our fiber network, and we have a number of programs and projects to do that. A lot of it's around workforce development, working with students, developing tech skills, but another one is our healthy smart home project. And in that we are using sensor technology and data collection to improve healthcare outcomes for the six residents in those two homes who are clients of another nonprofit that delivers residential services to adults with intellectual disabilities. These folks also have lots of medical problems and also go to the ER a lot.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I dated a woman who provided care at one of those facilities and just one of the challenges is having people overnight, I mean, frankly, because it's hard for — these businesses usually don't have thick margins —

Robert Wack: Nope.

Christopher Mitchell: — and trying to figure out how to have that all night coverage is challenging.

Robert Wack: Yes, and it's very labor intensive as you can imagine. And so, any little deviation from the routine has a major impact on their staffing and their expenses, so if a client has to go to the emergency room or has to stay in the hospital overnight, it really blows up their staffing.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Robert Wack: So these folks are frequent utilizers of emergency room visits and are often admitted to the hospital, and the nonprofit that we're working with has kind of tasked us to find a way to decrease that from happening. So we started putting in technology similar to what what's being used in this other program, but now we have to figure out a way to not only generate the data but also create remote viewing capabilities that allow a much more detailed assessment and triage to happen in the home. And that's going to end up being high resolution video to allow the same sort of thing that's happening in the other program but at a much higher level of fidelity and scope. So let me lay out a scenario for you: The way the current healthcare services are provided for the clients is if something happens with a client — they fall and hurt themselves or they develop a fever or cough — the staff calls a triage service that's contracted, and these people are remote, but it's just a phone call and they have a conversation about it. And unfortunately, because of the lack of information and the lack of transparency into the situation, the result of that conversation is more often than not the advice to go to the emergency room, which really doesn't help anybody because then once they're in the emergency room, somebody can actually lay eyes on them and say, "Oh, this isn't a big deal," and now they've spent four, six, eight hours in the emergency room really basically for nothing. So what we're going to do is in addition to collecting the data, we're going to put in a 4K cameras and then have that connected to the emergency room and give that view into the house so that those sorts of assessments can be done by a healthcare provider. It might not be a physician; it might be a PA or a nurse practitioner. But to give a much higher level of comfort for making a decision not to escalate the care because that's what you need. You need that level of trust. You need that level of quantity and quality of data, to include visual data, about what's really going on in the home so that a healthcare provider can say with confidence, "This is okay. You don't need to come to the emergency room. This will keep until tomorrow or this doesn't really need anything. Everybody can relax." You can't do that over the phone or it's hard to do over the phone absent a longstanding relationship, and the reality is staff turn over. You know, so the nonprofit, their staff turns over, and at the nursing agency that's doing the triage, they have staff turnover. So it's more likely than not that the people on either side of the conversation don't know each other and may not know the client very well. And so in that vacuum, that information vacuum, it's impossible to have any kind of trust about really how reliable is the information I'm getting, and I'm not going to take a chance on making the wrong decision because I don't trust the information. So how do you change that? You build that trust, you give a better view into the house, and that's going to be through video and correlating that with data — vital signs data and other data that we're collecting, for example, about diet and about daily activities and behavior patterns. We are accumulating a substantial database of past behaviors that the staff log in through a software platform that now a clinician, they can say, "Oh, they threw a tantrum and hurt themselves, but this is their usual thing." Well how does the clinician know that? Well now we can show them. Look, here's the pattern of behaviors over the last two years, and yes, after a holiday, behaviors deteriorate, or after a big meal of candy or whatever, behaviors deteriorate, you know? So, it just generally gives more information and a better view into the situation so that people can make better decisions.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there a liability angle to this in terms of preserving the video? I mean, because liability is a major issue around health.

Robert Wack: Absolutely. And not as much on the clinician side, like in the context of an emergency room visit, but that's certainly a piece of it.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, because actually, I mean, it just seems [unintelligible]. As I was thinking about this, if they were in your office, it feels like it would be an affront to privacy to record that, but the nature of a video chat is that it is recorded anyway. And so, one could preserve it so that if there were a question later — did the clinician make the right call? — one would be able to evaluate it and say this is evidence I was presented with and, you know, a competent person in my position would have made that decision.

Robert Wack: That's exactly right. That's a really, really good point that this will be a challenge for implementing this kind of technology across the whole healthcare system because everybody's going to have to get used to this new thing that now there are other ways to document the interaction that occurred. And that's the future, but, you know, the doctors are going to have to get used to it, the family is going to have to get used to it, the lawyers will have to get used to it. It will probably eliminate some spurious sort of lawsuits about stuff, but when it does happen, there will be that evidence and, you know —

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Robert Wack: But the goal is everybody gets good care and everybody does the right thing, so that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Robert Wack: It's why we keep a medical record, is to document the care that was given, so this is just an extension of that.

Christopher Mitchell: So you told a story about Johnny yesterday that I enjoyed about the 2:00 AM phone call.

Robert Wack: Sure.

Christopher Mitchell: Which my wife and I had to make an emergency room [call] on 104 fever — I think if we had talked to you then, you would have said you got to come in.

Robert Wack: If only you had called me, Chris, maybe we could have avoided that visit. No, so you know, as a pediatrician, sometimes parents become worried about situations that may or may not warrant that much anxiety. And when that phone call happens, and it's usually in the middle of the night to the on call doctor or the on call nursing service, same problem — they can't see your child. They only hear the anxiety in your voice and then the scant details of, you know, what you're relating: fever of 104, you know, etc. So usually, the answer to that is go to the emergency room, even though most times that's probably not necessary. And so a high resolution video that's, you know, reliable and secure and always there if you need it would help give that reassurance that even with 104 fever, Johnny's okay because you can see him running around in the background going, "I want a juice box, I want a juice box." Sometimes people sort of fixate on one piece of data, but there are many other pieces of data that really paint a different picture. And an experienced clinician could see that, yes, Johnny has 104 fever, but he's doing okay.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Robert Wack: And so, dose of Motrin and everybody go back to bed. So yeah, I think it's more broadly applicable, but again, people are going to have to get used to the presence of some kind of camera technology in their home and that occasional intrusion into their privacy, but we could really solve a lot of problems

Christopher Mitchell: Are there high speed broadband applications that aren't video? I mean, so much of this is about video that allows you to use the judgment that you've spent decades honing, but are there other things in terms of sensors that just would require, you know, high capacity?

Robert Wack: Somebody yesterday asked me after the talk about thermal imaging, you know, and I thought, well, I've never thought of that. Or what did he call it? Something else . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Hyper spectrum?

Robert Wack: Yeah, yeah. Hyperspectral imaging or something. Yeah, and I thought —

Christopher Mitchell: He was a guest last week.

Robert Wack: Yeah. That's a really great question because what it does is it opens the door to other sensory modalities that could be used diagnostically. I think the reality today is that if you thermally imaged somebody with a fever, the clinician wouldn't know what to do with that information because it's not part of our standard data set, you know. We know what temperatures mean, we know what heart rates mean, we know what, you know, respiratory rates mean, and we know what they mean in the context of different disease problems, so we know how to act on that information. We wouldn't know how to act on thermal imaging for example. But, I think your point, your larger point, is absolutely spot on, is that having that high capacity data connection and the ability to share that information does open the door to potentially new data channels that would beneficially impact that therapeutic decision making.

Christopher Mitchell: A few weeks back, I did an interview with David Weinberger and we talked about machine learning a bit, and it'll be fascinating as you're creating these data sets with this information that you would only have among people who are hospitalized and being able to get like that data —

Robert Wack: That's exactly right.

Christopher Mitchell: As you create these data sets of people in their homes, you know, machines may see patterns that we would not, that would predict certain, you know, negative health outcomes.

Robert Wack: That's absolutely right, and that's actually one of the broader strategic goals of the healthy smart home project, is that sort of machine learning is happening right now inside hospitals, particularly inside intensive care units. So there are algorithms now that are being applied to the data that's generated from a patient that's in an intensive care unit that are being used to assess the probabilities of deterioration over the next 6, 12, 24 hours and looking at every bit of data that's generated — heart rate, respiration rate, changes in those things, temperature, laboratory values, white blood count, urine output, oxygen levels — the whole thing, and then also nursing assessments as well, which turns out is one of the most valuable pieces of information. It's still the humans involved where the machines depend on the humans for that critical data input, but using that critical data input, they can look at the data in ways that humans can't and then make some predictions. And so, what we'd like to do is that same process that's occurring in intensive care units — move that out into the home so that your home now becomes basically a nurse that's watching you, keeping an eye on your health, and hopefully anticipating problems long before they become a serious thing.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. As long as we don't have Nurse Ratched, we'll be set.

Robert Wack: That's exactly right. So, of course it raises all sorts of privacy issues. It raises all sorts of security issues, data integrity issues, all of which — and costs, you know, so we're trying to do the healthy smart home project in as cheap a way as possible. How do we pack as much capability into the home at the lowest possible price and still achieve those goals of security, reliability, stability, privacy?

Christopher Mitchell: And so one of the things to come back to the beginning about, I think, is that if you do extrapolate across the United States, you could build, like, broadband to a lot of places that don't have it with the avoided cost of hospitals. I mean, with just a fraction of it.

Robert Wack: Oh yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Beause I mean, we're looking at hundreds of billions of dollars in avoided cost potentially.

Robert Wack: Absolutely. Yeah. So these are — I think you used a word the other day about —

Christopher Mitchell: Diggity? [laughs] Spillovers?

Robert Wack: Spillovers, yeah, maybe.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Robert Wack: So this is absolutely a spillover. You know, so with better broadband, you start having these ancillary impacts on education, healthcare, etc., which are hard to quantify, but in this instance, not terribly hard to quantify. In Maryland, we know in this instance $2.1 million over 12 months. That can build you some fiber. Now, unfortunately, the hospitals desperately need that cost savings, so they're probably not going to plow that into fiber, but the point still stands.

Christopher Mitchell: So this is just totally — people who are just in broadband could probably sign off right now because the last question I wanted to ask you — I was just going to end the interview, but there is an interesting point, I think, that I worry about very low probability, high impact events, and as we have hospitals that are focused on reducing bed counts, are we putting ourselves in danger in the event of a horrible catastrophe?

Robert Wack: We already are there.

Christopher Mitchell: We are there. Okay.

Robert Wack: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: We're worried about the margin there. I'm really just [unintelligible].

Robert Wack: So, back when H1N1 flu was out and about, there were heightened concerns about a legit influenza pandemic like 1918 where Spanish flu killed millions of people. And so, there were some in Maryland, but I think, I'm pretty sure this happened nationwide as well, there were efforts to, you know, assess the system, see how the system would handle something if this H1N1 really took off and became a serious pandemic, where mortality was significant. What they found was, with multiple tabletop exercises, is that because we have squeezed all of the surge capacity out of the system in the pursuit of efficiencies and reducing costs, that the system will fail. It will absolutely fail because we don't have enough ventilators, we don't have enough isolation rooms, we don't have enough capacity in the morgues to handle the people who die, you know. And then when you start factoring in people missing work, the whole system breaks down pretty quickly.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. For people who want a picture of that, Stephen King's uncut version of The Stand, I think, paints a very clear picture of it.

Robert Wack: Or, there was a movie that came out with Matt Damon and it had like a one word name, like Pandemic or something and —

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it wasn't outbreak, but it was something similar to that.

Robert Wack: Yeah. And it was actually a very — Gwyneth Paltrow was the index case. She caught some virus in China when she was having an affair with somebody and brought it home.

Christopher Mitchell: More likely goop would cause it.

Robert Wack: But it was actually — you know, there were some embellishments for Hollywood effect, but in terms of how it rolled out and the impacts it had, it was actually not far from the truth. It's going to happen. Maybe that's the crisis that gets us over the hump for trying to really reform our healthcare system.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I mean, the good news is, is that as we quantify this stuff, we can make better arguments for the ancillary benefits of broadband and why we need public investment in it and we need to do it intelligently.

Robert Wack: Sure, sure. And get your flu shot.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely, yes. Thank you so much, Robert.

Robert Wack: Alright, thank you, Chris. 

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Dr. Robert Wack about how broadband is assisting healthcare professionals to improve care at home and in the clinical setting. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 352 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Northern California City Gets Closer to Downtown Fiber Pilot

muninetworks.org - April 19, 2019

Earlier this month, Redding City Council decided to take the next step toward building a fiber network in a portion of the Northern California city’s downtown. Council members voted unanimously to move forward with exploration of the proposed pilot project after considering the design and cost assessment presented at the April 2nd council meeting.

City staff have been methodically researching the fiber project since May 2017. The exact model of the network is still up in the air; options include retail services from the city to the general public over the fiber infrastructure, opening up the network to multiple Internet service providers (ISPs) in an open access framework, or partnering with a single private provider. Following the approval from council, the city will now conduct further stakeholder engagement and a thorough risk assessment of the proposed fiber project.

Reading up on Redding

Redding (pop. 91,000) is the county seat of Shasta County in Northern California. Local industries include lumber, retail, and tourism, and the city is home to Mercy Medical Center. The community may already be familiar to some as Redding was impacted last summer’s devastating Carr Fire. Residents in outer neighborhoods and nearby towns had to evacuate to escape the wildfire, which killed eight people and consumed more than 220,000 acres and 1,000 homes.

For Internet access, residents can generally choose between DSL from AT&T and cable Internet access from Charter Spectrum, while businesses have a few more options, including fiber in certain areas. However, costs for fiber optic connectivity are high, according to Vice Mayor Adam McElvain, and some small sections of the city still don’t have any wireline connectivity. The Master Broadband Plan, shared with city council, also notes that “Downtown Redding has the lowest broadband adoption rates in the city, with rates between 20 and 40 percent,” compared to rates of over 80 percent in other areas.

The city has its own municipal electric provider, Redding Electric Utility (REU), established in the 1920s after the city purchased it from the investor-owned Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E). If Redding moves forward with the downtown pilot project, the city plans to take advantage of REU’s existing electrical infrastructure to deploy the fiber network.

Council OKs Next Steps

At the Redding City Council meeting on April 2nd, McElvain presented the Master Broadband Plan to his fellow council members. Redding worked with the Geographic Information Center at Chico State University and received assistance from the federal BroadbandUSA program to prepare the report. The Master Broadband Plan assessed the cost and design of the proposed downtown fiber network and offered additional recommendations to the city, such as enabling public-private partnerships, developing a dig once policy, and creating conduit specifications.

McElvain, who included the downtown fiber network in his platform while running for office, explained that the downtown area was selected for the pilot project because it is densely populated, includes a variety of subscriber types (residents, businesses, schools, etc.), and has access to middle mile fiber. The Record Searchlight reports that 200 to 300 residents and 400 to 500 businesses are located within the footprint of the pilot area. The path of the proposed network is available on page 40 of the Master Broadband Plan.

The report estimated that the cost of the downtown fiber network would fall somewhere between $1.9 million to $3.5 million, depending on how the network is designed. In his presentation, McElvain identified public and private grants and subscriber backed financing as possible funding sources, noting that Redding might be eligible for U.S. Economic Development Administration grant money, especially considering the city’s recent experience with the Carr Fire.

A Charter Spectrum representative who attended the meeting, and repeated the usual false talking points: that "most municipal networks fail," overstating the services Charter offers in Redding, and grossly inflating the number of ISPs offering broadband service in the community. Nevertheless, City Council members voted 3 - 0 (two councilors abstained) to allow city staff to take the next steps towards developing a fiber pilot in downtown Redding.

What’s Next for Redding?

For proponents of the municipal fiber network, a major goal of the project is attracting businesses, promoting economic development, and revitalizing downtown Redding. The city being able to offer Internet access “at a fraction of the cost of what's available now at a much higher speed would be a huge benefit for economic development," McElvain told the Record Searchlight. At the council meeting, Redding Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jake Mangas said that if this effort led to increased speeds and lower costs from existing ISPs, that alone would be “a win for business as well.” The project would also generate revenue for the city to support essential services like public safety.

But there’s more work to do before Redding can begin to reap the benefits of a downtown fiber network. Next, city staff will begin surveying city residents and businesses, building off a previously conducted survey. At the same time, they’ll continue to research grant options and develop an in-depth risk analysis.

McElvain and others working on the proposed fiber project hope to bring the results of these efforts back to council by September for a final decision

Redding Master Broadband PlanTags: redding cacaliforniaconsiderationmaster planeconomic developmentpilot projectpilot

Great Lakes Energy Planning FTTH Expansion in Rural Michigan

muninetworks.org - April 18, 2019

Great Lakes Energy (GLE) is considering expanding their Truestream fiber Internet access and voice service to more rural areas in the northwestern region of Michigan’s lower peninsula. In a recent news release, the electric cooperative announced that they began sending engineers to their Boyne service area to collect necessary information for analysis as they explore possible deployment in the area.

Growing One of the Largest

Last summer, we reported on the co-op's pilot project in the Petosky service area and their long-term plans to bring gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to their 125,000 members. The cooperative decided to begin with residential service and potentially expand to business subscriber offerings in the future.

Subscribers from the pilot area have reported positive feedback. Brian Bates, who is also the owner of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petosky, posted speed test results on the Truestream FB page and commented:

“Truestream is more than 400 times faster than speeds we were able to get with our previous Internet provider. And for 75% less money with no contract and unlimited everything!”

By January, approximately 9,000 potential subscribers had registered interest via the Truestream website.

Better Broadband Coming to Boyne

Boyne City is located directly south of the city of Petosky and the GLE Boyne service area includes parts of five counties in the surrounding region. GLE will conduct a second field study this fall if results of the first study are favorable.

“If the findings are positive,” said [Lacey Matthews of GLE Communications and Communications], “Great Lakes Energy may budget for expansion of the fiber network in 2020, pending approval by the Great Lakes Energy Board of Directors in late 2019.”

As other cooperatives have done, GLE is depending on help from members interested in signing up for the service to decide where exactly to deploy FTTH within the Boyne service area. People should express their interest at jointruestream.com to help guide GLE in its strategic deployment plans. If GLE can better ensure fiber investment will lead to maximum sign-ups, their incremental approach will have better results.

Internet service from Truestream is available at three speed tiers:

  • 100 Mbps symmetrical for $59.99/month
  • 200 Mbps symmetrical for $69.99/month
  • 1 Gbps symmetrical for $99.99/month

Subscription fees include a Wi-Fi router. Telephone services costs $34.99 per month; more details are available at the Truestream website.

For more on the project and the cooperative, listen to Christopher interview Shari Culver from GLE for episode 324 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They discussed the decision to pursue the project and their incremental approach.

Tags: great lakes energyrural electric coopruralmichigancooperativeFTTHexpansionincremental
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