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Gigabit Isn’t Just for City Folk — Rural Americans Demand High Broadband Speeds Too

muninetworks.org - April 21, 2020

There’s a belief out there that households don’t really want or need more than a basic broadband connection, much less gigabit connectivity. This mistaken impression especially affects rural areas, where observers point out that a resident may have more fingers on their hand than Megabits per second (Mbps) on their current Internet connection, so surely they’ll be satisfied with a bump up to broadband speeds of 25 or 50 Mbps.

However, in our experience at MuniNetworks.org, demand for high-speed connectivity is actually quite robust in rural areas where the infrastructure exists. We’ve heard from rural cooperatives that many of their fiber network subscribers opt for higher speed tiers and that gigabit take rates near 30 percent in some instances. This suggests rural areas are much more likely than more urban areas to opt for tiers above the lowest cost option.

Even if the majority of rural subscribers don’t need the very highest broadband speeds, it’s important to note that the demand is there and will certainly continue to grow. As federal and state governments invest in rural broadband deployment, they must ensure that the networks they’re subsidizing can meet current and future needs.

Co-ops Feed Need for Speed

Back in January, Telecompetitor reported that Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina, shared on a press call that two thirds of the co-op’s broadband subscribers selected a speed tier above the lowest and cheapest option of 50 Mbps. This isn’t because the co-op’s members have extra money to burn. “We’re one of the poorest areas of the nation. We have a lot of low-income individuals who are our members,” Wynn told a reporter in 2019. Last month, we spoke with representatives from another electric cooperative, Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC), for episode 398 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They told us that many of their members also choose to subscribe to above-baseline speeds. The co-op only offers two speed tiers on its fiber network, 100 Mbps or 1 gigabit, and nearly 30 percent have selected the gigabit tier. The relatively high take rate for gigabit speeds isn’t a result of aggressive marketing or promotional offers. “We're not pushing either package,” explained David Godspeed, president of OEC Fiber. “I'm pushing the experience. I'm pushing the service.” In comments recently filed with the Federal Communications Commission, consulting firm Conexon, which has worked with dozens of cooperatives on broadband projects, reiterated the desire for high speeds from rural co-op members. “Many of the cooperatives with which Conexon works already have customer ‘take rates’ for gigabit tier service in excess of 30% — and these coops just launched broadband service,” the comment shared. Of course, these are just a few data points, not an exhaustive survey, but the bigger picture is still clear. Rural communities want true high-speed connectivity, and unlike bankrupt monopolies (cough, cough, Frontier and Windstream), rural co-ops are ready to meet that demand. Gigabit for Today and Tomorrow We can speculate as to why rural co-op members subscribe to the higher speeds. Perhaps farmers want to pursue precision agriculture applications, or small business owners and remote employees need better connectivity to work from home. Maybe it’s because the physical distance of rural areas make completing routine tasks in person, like doctor visits and check deposits, more time consuming, making the convenience of telehealth and online banking that much more alluring. Or it could simply be the result of releasing pent up demand for connectivity in rural communities. Goodspeed compared connecting to a new fiber network to upgrading from the old family car: We can all remember our first car, and it was probably our brother's or sister's. And it was a hand-me-down and you got coat hangers with the door locks and you had everything else. But when you got your first big-boy or big-girl job and you went and bought that car, you just said, "Holy cow, I can go really fast . . . I'll never have to look back again.” He continued: I think that what's happening is that people have been so deprived of having an experience in the home, whether it's doing homework with the kids or watching Netflix — which is something we all take for granted, but some people have never had that experience. And I think they just said . . . “You're telling me that I can have that kind of experience in the home and never have to worry about my Internet speeds or anything like that ever again? I'm taking it." We build broadband networks to meet future not present needs because demand will inevitably rise. This is especially true in rural areas where construction cost per subscriber is high and it’s not feasible to replace the network every several years. Rural subscribers are already signing up for gigabit speeds at high rates, and the only technology that has been proven to meet that need in rural areas with room to grow is fiber. We should keep that in mind as the FCC prepares to invest $20.4 billion in rural broadband expansion through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and state agencies continue to manage their own broadband grant and loan programs.   "View down Main Street in Ahoskie, facing west" by Wikipedia user Indy beetle. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0). Tags: ruralspeedrural electric cooptake rategigabit

Digital Inclusion Saves Lives During a Pandemic - Community Broadband Bits Episode 405

muninetworks.org - April 21, 2020

Our lives have mostly moved online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the millions of Americans who don't have access to home broadband have been left behind. Whether it's unavailable or just unaffordable, these families must risk their health to access essential services, like healthcare and education.

This week for the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), about the many ways that the pandemic has highlighted digital divides in our country. Angela shares how NDIA is helping address urgent connectivity needs by supporting digital inclusion practitioners on the ground and by raising public awareness during the crisis. One of NDIA's efforts is their list of Free and Low-Cost Internet Plans from national broadband providers. Christopher and Angela review some of the providers' offers and discuss the problems that NDIA has found with the plans. (Spoiler: Comcast is doing, well, pretty good actually. Charter Spectrum on the other hand . . . ) Angela explains why it's important that these plans serve more than just students if we want to keep people safe at home. The pair also talk about creative efforts to temporarily deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots as well as longer term plans to improve broadband access and availability. However, Angela reminds us that removing the cost barrier is still the quickest way to get people connected today. This show is 31 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode.  Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.  Tags: podcastbroadband bitsaudiodigital dividenational digital inclusion alliancequarantinecomcastcharterlow-income

Electric Co-ops Request Expedited Rural Broadband Subsidies From FCC

muninetworks.org - April 20, 2020

Earlier this month, more than 70 electric cooperatives joined consulting firm Conexon in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to speed up planned rural broadband funds in response to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. In comments filed with the FCC, Conexon called upon the agency to accelerate phase one of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction, planned for later this year, in order to connect rural communities and bolster local economies affected by the current crisis. Specifically, Conexon suggested that the FCC expedite RDOF applications and subsidies for providers that plan to build gigabit fiber networks, since under the current auction rules, those bidders are essentially guaranteed funding. The filed comments, available in PDF format below, included an open letter signed by dozens of electric co-op leaders who support the proposal. While the urgency of rural connectivity has been underlined by the nationwide shutdowns intended to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the need for better rural broadband isn’t new. Conexon stated in its comments, “Whether the current health and economic crisis lasts a few months or a year, funding long-term rural fiber networks is necessary and long overdue.” Proposed RDOF Process Unlike those who want to postpone RDOF until the Covid-19 crisis passes or the FCC collects more accurate broadband data, Conexon opposes any further delay of the auction. “If anything, in the current economic climate, the RDOF Phase I auction should be accelerated, not delayed,” the company stated. In its comments, Conexon proposed a couple measures the FCC could take to expedite the RDOF process for gigabit-tier bidders while allowing the rest of the auction to proceed as planned. Most importantly, the FCC could streamline the application process by combining steps in the process and require faster broadband deployment from winning bidders. Conexon also suggested that the agency could extend funding for gigabit fiber networks even if RDOF is postponed, saying, “In the event the auction is delayed beyond this year, the FCC should fund such applicants at the [auction’s] reserve price.” Additionally, Conexon argued that the gigabit speed tier for the RDOF auction should be reserved only for technologies already proven feasible in rural areas and for providers willing to actually offer high speeds. “Satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, every means of delivering information other than by carrier pigeon, now claims Gigabit tier capability, lack of deployment or actual service notwithstanding,” Conexon said in the comments Co-ops Commit In an open letter filed with Conexon’s comments and addressed to President Donald Trump, congressional leaders, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, over 70 electric cooperative CEOs and general managers echoed Conexon’s call to accelerate RDOF funds for rural fiber networks and expressed their readiness to start construction. Electric co-ops from across the country joined in, including providers with long-standing fiber networks, like Midwest Energy and Communications and Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, as well as ones with newer broadband efforts, like Monroe County Electric Power Association and Forked Deer Electric Cooperative. Importantly, the proposal would require no additional funds from the federal government. The letter explained: We are not asking for any new funding to be appropriated by Congress, merely that the timetable for the FCC’s program be accelerated. We are not asking for special treatment, only that any company that is ready to build now be given the opportunity now, instead of waiting until next year. We are not asking for a bailout, but a partial investment in infrastructure, at amounts and in areas already determined by the FCC. The letter noted that the expedited investment in rural connectivity would create jobs and lay the foundation for local economic development, helping their communities recover faster from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. It would also enable the co-ops to connect their members to essential services during the crisis, the co-ops argued: The COVID-19 crisis accentuates a point we have known for some time. For our kids to have the same educational opportunity, for our young adults to find work without moving away from the community, for our elderly to receive quality health care, rural America needs fiber broadband service Listen to Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon, discuss RDOF and the proposal on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. View the PDF of Conexon’s comments and the co-ops’ open letter below. Conexon comments on RDOF filed with FCC and electric cooperative open letterTags: jonathan chambersruralrural electric coopfederal fundingfccquarantine

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 20

muninetworks.org - April 20, 2020


Digital divide leaves rural and poor Sonoma County students with no Internet connection by Yousef Baig, The Press Democrat   Colorado Internet service in western Colorado was so terrible that towns and counties built their own telecom by Tamara Chuang, Colorado Sun   How do you study online without a computer or Internet access? It’s a reality for many Colorado kids by Erica Brenlin, Colorado Sun    Connecticut Connecticut opens investigation into Frontier's business practices by Peter Cameron, Sun Prairie Star   Indiana Schools, donors rush to fill 'digital divide' and keep students learning during closures by Arika Herron, IndyStar   Unpaid bills put free Internet offers out of reach for some Indianapolis families by Stephanie Wang and Dylan Peers McCoy, Chalkbeat   Kansas To the bookmobile! Library delivers Wi-Fi to those in need by Brianna Childers, Government Technology    Vermont 7 Vermont towns comprise new community broadband group, WCAX3   General  US's digital divide 'is going to kill people' as Covid-19 exposes inequalities by Amanda Holpuch, The Guardian   Communities working to close the digital divide amid COVID-19 by Tim Sandle, Digital Journal    Report underscores role of state policy in broadband expansion by Kathryn de Wit & Dan Kitson, Pew Trusts   Opinion: FCC’s better broadband mapping is needed upgrade, Government Technology    Help is on the way: Rural broadband funding update by Kara Mullaley, Broadband Communities    I live in rural America cut off from the Internet. The pandemic has made me more isolated than ever by Karie Fugett, Vox   AT&T gave FCC false broadband-coverage data in parts of 20 states by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica    Lack of Internet exposes digital divide, The Community Voice  Tags: media roundup

New Hampshire Towns Join Chesterfield, Partner With Consolidated Communications for Fiber Builds

muninetworks.org - April 17, 2020

In the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire, at least six towns have voted to issue bonds to construct fiber networks in partnership with regional incumbent telephone company Consolidated Communications. Chesterfield approved the measure in April 2019 and recently executed a public-private partnership contract with Consolidated. Chesterfield was the first municipality in New Hampshire to take advantage of Senate Bill 170, signed into law in 2018, which allows municipal governments to bond in order to build broadband infrastructure in places not served by commercial broadband providers. Over the last year, the towns of Dublin, Harrisville, Rindge, Walpole, and Westmoreland have also voted to bond are also in the process of bonding, or have already bonded (Rindge), and are finalizing public-private partnership contracts with Consolidated to develop Fiber-to-the-Home networks. The towns plan to issue bonds in July and should have finalized contracts by that point. New Hampshire’s rural areas have struggled to connect rural residents to adequate broadband, and these towns are undertaking these partnerships to improve currently insufficient connectivity. Part of the challenge has been the rotating series of incumbent telephone companies, from Verizon to FairPoint and now Consolidated. Large publicly-traded telephone firms have difficulty justifying investments in rural areas when the same amount of capital could offer a much greater return in higher-density cities. But Consolidated is developing a new model with these towns that may work to everyone’s benefit. Chesterfield has already executed their contract with Consolidated. The forthcoming contracts between Consolidated and Dublin, Harrisville, Rindge, Walpole, and Westmoreland will very likely be reflective of Chesterfield’s contract with one important difference, shared Tim Wessels, a Rindge Teltech Committee Member. The Chesterfield contract with Consolidated calls for the town to transfer the town-funded network to Consolidated when the 20-year bond is retired. But according to Wessels, Consolidated does not want to own the town-funded last-mile networks in Dublin, Harrisville, Rindge, Walpole, and Westmoreland, and this requirement is no longer in the contracts with the other towns. Partnership Details Chesterfield and Rindge have officially bonded, and the four other towns in New Hampshire pursuing partnerships with Consolidated have voted to issue bonds through the New Hampshire Municipal Bond Bank. All of the towns’ partnership contracts include a matching donation from Consolidated to help fund the network. The town of Rindge bonded for $2.6 million and Consolidated contributed $2.5 million; Chesterfield bonded for $1.8 million and Consolidated contributed $2.5 million. To finance the town’s bond payments, Consolidated will charge every subscriber a monthly “infrastructure fee” and deliver the collected fees to the town 30 days before the annual bond payment is due. To start, Chesterfield residents will pay a $10 fee and Rindge residents a $9.50 fee. The fee is based on how many miles of fiber will be needed in the towns and how many residents might subscribe to Consolidated's broadband service. If there are an insufficient number of subscribers paying the “infrastructure fee” at the time the town’s bond payment is due, Consolidated is contractually bound to make up the difference, which they anticipate will be the case for the first few years as they build their subscriber take rate. The “infrastructure fee” cannot be increased but may decline over time because the interest for the bonds is front-loaded, with higher rates in the first half of the 20-year period. The town of Rindge is also considering a flat-rate fee structure for the entire 20-year bond period; Consolidated Communications would return any excess money in the “infrastructure fees” fund to the town annually. In New Hampshire, when a municipality bonds to build something they must own the infrastructure. Each town will execute a 20-year contract under which they own the network and Consolidated maintains, operates, and monitors the network. When the 20-year contract ends, each town (with the exception of Chesterfield, which will turn over ownership to Consolidated) can renew the contract with Consolidated or request bids for a new network operator. Consolidated does own the fiber patch cable from the street address to the premises and the premises fiber router, unless the subscriber has opted to purchase these components rather than renting them. This model is similar to that of Huntsville, Alabama, which is working with Google Fiber and other service providers in an open access arrangement. We think it gives the first ISP a significant advantage, but is an improvement over most networks today where the ISP owns the entire network. In contrast to the other towns’ pending partnerships, Chesterfield’s arrangement with Consolidated actually transfers ownership of the fiber network to the company after the town retires the bond in 20 years. While the town will be able to levy taxes on the network once it’s in Consolidated’s possession, the loss of public ownership will severely curtail the town’s ability to ensure the company continues to provide high-quality service. Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative, said of the town’s decision: Chesterfield has found a reasonable solution to how they incorrectly defined the problem — a lack of modern Internet access. However, the real problem is distant monopoly control of an essential input for the community — high-quality Internet access — and as they again lose control over that essential input, they will regret giving it away. The hookup to each premise in Chesterfield will be free if the home is located less than 150 feet from the connection box, and it will cost subscribers 55 cents per foot beyond that. This could result in large hook-up fees for some residents whose homes are far from the roadway and the connection box. The other towns plan to waive this fee in their forthcoming fiber projects, but it may be temporary. This detail could be changed in forthcoming contracts with the other towns who may see it as discouraging to subscribers. Consolidated owns the optronics and the network electronics, which it purchases and installs as the managers of the network. If the network changes operators after the 20-year contract, these components would be part of that negotiation. The contract for Chesterfield has been executed but none of the other contracts have been signed yet for the five other New Hampshire towns pursuing partnerships with Consolidated. Once contracts are signed and the towns have secured bond funding through the New Hampshire Municipal Bond Bank, Consolidated must begin building the network in 30 days and cannot take more than 24 months to complete the network build-out. Access and Competition As it stands, none of the partnerships with Consolidated Communications will be open-access networks. The company has an indefeasible Right of Use (IRU) to the town-funded networks, and Consolidated Communications will be the sole ISP on each of the networks. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we have developed a set of criteria to determine whether we consider a partnership’s network to be community-owned. Both parties must balance the risks and rewards of the partnership, which includes build out costs, maintenance, ownership, and service. We have looked to towns such as Westminster, Maryland, as an example of an equitable partnership that balances these risks and rewards proportionately between the municipality and the private company. In the example of Westminster, the city built the fiber network, owns it, and leases it to Ting, which operates the network during an initial period of and has a period of exclusive Internet exclusivity service providing privileges. After this period, Ting will remain an Internet Service Provider (ISP) but the network will become open-access, allowing other ISPs to rent the fiber infrastructure, enabling more service competition. Importantly, Westminster owns the network, ensuring that the network can adapt to meet local needs. The public-private partnerships with Consolidated Communications are largely equitable agreements, but the lack of current broadband competition and the fact that the contract gives Consolidated sole ISP rights to the new networks leaves subscribers and the municipalities in the Monadnock region with less power to advocate for appropriate pricing and service. With that said, Consolidated is taking on some risk in guaranteeing the bonds, and reportedly the company's pricing will be the same statewide. Broadband competition lowers prices and improves service quality. Without many foreseeable competitors, Consolidated will have an advantage as the most accessible high-speed fiber broadband provider. While some of the towns have cable, DSL, and/or limited fiber access, which creates some competition, none of the services are on par with the high-speed Internet access that Consolidated can provide via the town-funded fiber infrastructure. However, for people struggling with slow DSL, the prospect of a fiber network is undoubtedly persuasive along with the fact that Consolidated will have to make a case for renewal after 20 years if it treats its subscribers poorly. It's certainly better than resigning oneself to a life of spinning wheels and failed file uploads.   "Town hall and historical society, Chesterfield, New Hampshire" by Wikipedia user Magicpiano, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) Tags: new hampshirechesterfieldrindgepartnershipFTTHbondfinancing

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 404

muninetworks.org - April 16, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 404 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This episode brings Scott Mooneyham, Director of Political Communication and Coordination for the North Carolina League of Municipalities to discuss the importance of local Internet choice in North Carolina. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.     Scott Mooneyham: This is an issue that they know about, that they're dealing with every day in their everyday lives and right now they're dealing with it in a way that they never have. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 404 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. Today, Christopher talks with Scott Mooneyham, Director of Political Communication and Coordination for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Scott tells Christopher about what he's been hearing from communities responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and how this crisis has highlighted the importance of high quality Internet access. Scott and Christopher also discussed Disconnected, which is a new documentary from North Carolina's WRAL news station that profiles a town called Enfield. Scott tells us about how a change in law could allow towns like Enfield that have their own electric utility to work with partners to improve local connectivity. Now here's Christopher talking with Scott Mooneyham of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Christopher Mitchell from my house in St. Paul, which is the better of the two cities next to Minneapolis where our office is for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm back on the phone with Scott Mooneyham, someone I've been working with quite a bit over the last few years. Scott is the Director of Political Communication and Coordination at the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Welcome to the show, Scott. Scott Mooneyham: Good to be here, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: Scott, I wanted to have you on because I feel like there's so much happening in our cities around the nation, and in particular North Carolina as a place where you and I have been working together quite a bit, and I just wanted to get a sense, what are you hearing from communities that are dealing with COVID-19, this pandemic? 1:57 Scott Mooneyham: Again, obviously this has changed life dramatically in communities. We represent over 550 cities and towns in North Carolina, and so for a lot of those elected officials, they're dealing with a myriad of issues right now, including how to enforce some of these social distancing rules. We have a lot of essential businesses out there that are... I mean, people are still having to conduct their lives, and so people are trying to reach a balance with that. There are also concerns about... they're hearing concerns from their constituents, their businesses about how to stay in business from their individual residence, about how to conduct their lives and keep on with their connections to work as much as possible. Scott Mooneyham: So there are all those things going out there, but obviously this has also brought to the forefront this issue with people trying to work remotely, with school children trying to conduct their schoolwork remotely, and right now our schools in North Carolina, the public schools, are shut down until May the 15th. Those are issues that have really come to the fore here right now and their own, their residents' minds, if they have a poor broadband connection how they can negotiate through this time. Christopher Mitchell: And I mean this is something that I feel people don't always have the greatest grasp of all of the things that local governments have to deal with. But I mean, they're certainly worried about the things you mentioned, but there's all kinds of other things you didn't have a chance to mention, right? I mean, public safety. There's still house fires, I think. Any number of things that could go wrong. I'm sure you're worried about what happens with the next time hurricane season kicks up on the eastern part of the state. Scott Mooneyham: Absolutely. 3:54 Christopher Mitchell: So there's so much happening. But I am curious, what are you hearing on the broadband front in particular? Are there any stories that have really struck you, that you've heard from your local communities? Scott Mooneyham: As you introduced me, Chris, you talked about working with me on this issue a lot, so I've been out there as one of the public faces out there talking about this issue. And so now that people are... There is a stay at home order in North Carolina and has been for a few weeks now, I'm hearing from people about this issue where they directly emailed me and one of the communities that I've heard from is, really, it's only 30 miles outside of Raleigh, the State Capitol and a major metropolitan area. And it's a place that's only a 10-minute drive from a major private university, Campbell University. And yet this is an area where I've gotten a couple of inquiries from people and they either have very poor Internet connection or none at all, and no home connection at all. It's been interesting that certainly this has obviously, when people are at home like they are right now, it's really... the need, it's really been show and it's exacerbating. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think you forwarded to me an article that was about a family about three to four miles outside Chapel Hill, a preeminent university, major community part of the triangle. And in that case they were talking about how they had speeds that were very slow, much less than 10 from AT&T on a slow DSL connection, and there was a couple of memorable phrases. One was that there's high school kids that are trying to do their work on technology that's older than they are, like the DSL circuit was put in before they were born. Scott Mooneyham: Yeah. 6:02 Christopher Mitchell: And then on top of it, there's this phrase that I just... It struck me because it said, the connection would go out for hours at a time. And it just struck me because we're not allowed to go out for hours at a time, and yet the connections can. It's so frustrating. Scott Mooneyham: It is. And that's not... even before this virus struck and we were faced with this crisis, those were not unusual stories before. And I don't know if you know that, but we've heard from people in our mountain counties here where it's not unusual sometime for them to lose their Internet connection for a week or more. And you think about that, I mean, this is an important public safety issue and I think it's certainly more important than ever right now because people are at home more, and so if people feel that isolation from the world more that we're seeing now just how important it is to be connected and how these broadband connections are a part of your connection to the rest of the world. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you've done that I was excited to be a part of, was this WRAL documentary called Disconnected, and we'll have a link to that on the pages where we post this. But also if anyone just Googles WRAL Disconnected, I think there'll be able to find it really well. It's a 20-some minute documentary. I really liked it. I'm just curious if you can reflect on... This was something that you really worked on and you had, I think, high expectations going into it. What did you think of it? Scott Mooneyham: Well, I think it's a really great documentary. One of the things that it does, Chris, it really utilizes a small town in Eastern North Carolina, Enfield, North Carolina, which is in an area in the northeastern part of the state that suffers from poor broadband connections generally. I think if you were to look at the state, you've often talked about how North Carolina has some of the best broadband connections in the country in some of the metropolitan areas. But when you get up in the Northeastern part of the state in particular and in the mountain areas, that's where you see this situation at its worst where you have people either have no home connections at all or their home connections are technology that is where they have poor speeds and struggle with reliability. 8:36 Scott Mooneyham: So, at any rate, the documentary I felt it was really great because it compared and contrasted Enfield, and there were a number of interviews with both city officials, school officials, business owners, school students, parents, all of the folks that are affected by this, and really made a strong case for how this one community and the outlying areas of it as well are really struggling economically and educationally and from a healthcare perspective, and how much better broadband can help that. And it contrasted that community with Wilson, North Carolina, which is a few miles to the west, but still in Eastern North Carolina and still surrounded by a lot of rural areas of the state. Scott Mooneyham: But Wilson, as a city and broadband provider, Greenlight, and one of the best systems in the country, and it's just startling how, when you see the difference between Wilson and then a community like Enfield. And what's really sad about this is that Enfield is an electricity provider. There are a number of communities in North Carolina that are electricity providers, and so it has some infrastructure that can be utilized if we change the law here. And of course that's the big thing for us at the North Carolina League of Municipalities, we've been trying to get the law changed here to better encourage public private partnership. 10:05 Christopher Mitchell: Right. And we're not really expecting Enfield to want to duplicate what Wilson did so much as most likely work with a provider in order to try to improve access using some of the assets that Enfield has and perhaps some new ones that they would create. But it would be more likely a partnership, and even if that wasn't true for Enfield, a majority of the local governments that would take advantage of a change in the law would want to work with existing providers rather than trying to build their own new wheel from scratch. Scott Mooneyham: Absolutely. And there's dozens of homegrown providers in North Carolina that are willing to do this work except for the fact that it's expensive. I mean, it's expensive to connect people in rural areas and so they are trying to make the business model work. But there are a number of providers out there from ones that are just in a few communities to some that are working all across the state that are very much interested and want to work with towns, with local governments, with whomever they can to try to limit their expenses and create a retail service for people out there. But as long as the law hinders the ability of local governments to work in the best way possible, cooperatively with them, this is going to continue to be an issue. Christopher Mitchell: Well, and this is the part that drives me nuts because the federal government has recognized, I mean, everyone, everyone at the federal government admits, they do not know where broadband is and where it is not. The state uses the federal information to try to figure out where the problem is. The state therefore does not know where the problem is and where it is not. Although, to its credit, the state is now trying to collect better data in order to make that information available for its programs to improve access. But the only people who know is Enfield. If you go to the local government officials there, or probably a lot of people walking the street, they could tell you where the Internet access starts and stops. And yet they are the ones who are prohibited from doing anything about it. It's just insanely mind-boggling. 12:24 Scott Mooneyham: It is. And you're absolutely right. At the local level people understand this very well. You know, Chris, January of 2019 we went around, stated, and did a few of these meetings, and when you get out there away from these metropolitan areas, they know about this issue. It did not take a whole lot to get community interest in those meetings and get people out to those meetings, because this is an issue that they know about, that they're dealing with every day in their everyday lives. And right now they're dealing with it in a way that they never have. Christopher Mitchell: So last question I want to ask you about is, after the WRAL documentary aired around the state, I suspect you had people reaching out to you and I'm curious if you have any stories from that? I mean, the ones that aren't necessarily related to the COVID-19, but just stories of people reaching out after they saw that and said, "It really resonated with me." Scott Mooneyham: Oh, absolutely. And I talk about that one community that's not far from Campbell University, and they had seen the documentary as well. So, yeah, I received a number of people responding to that, and I think, hopefully, what we wanted out of that documentary, and as you said, we spent a lot of time working with WRAL and the folks there to try to connect them with people who could talk about this story in ways that resonate with people and in ways that connect people. And so that's exactly what happened. It connected people and we have heard from individuals, whether it is related to the COVID issue or whether it's this issue of telehealth. So we're very pleased, Chris, with the outcome of that in that regard. All of us now are working from home and having to deal with a lot of other different issues. 14:22 Scott Mooneyham: On the one hand, this crisis has brought this issue more toward the forefront, but it's also, in terms of, from a policy perspective, it's not the thing that's always foremost on people's minds as they're having... If you look at from policymakers, they're having to deal with all kinds of issues related to the crisis. And I will say, one of the things that's been very heartening about all of this is that we have seen a lot of follow-up, whether it was people calling us or contacting us or whether it was just people responding on their own. Clearly this is an issue that is at the forefront of people's minds. It's going to continue and it's very good that that documentary helped to build on this. I've seen more stories, in particular right now, from school teachers who are having... As I said, our schools here are shut down until May the 15th, and you have public school teachers that are out there doing their best to connect with students, and it's not easy. Scott Mooneyham: There was an editorial from our former governor that appeared today or yesterday, Beverly Perdue. She was saying that they're real heroes and I think people would agree. I mean, they're out here doing their best to connect with their students even in this atmosphere, this landscape where it's not easy to do so. And she said she really hoped that we could take the lesson learned through this and act on them when this crisis is over, because these teachers deserve more. They deserve to be able to be connected to their students without having these Herculean efforts to figure out ways to connect with them, and obviously the students themselves deserve that as well. Christopher Mitchell: So, as we're wrapping up this discussion I just wanted to note, my understanding of the legislature is that we have no sense of whether they're going to be able to address broadband because right now they have a first priority of just figuring out the physics of how they could meet in a safe way to conduct the state's business. And then the second thing is, is that they are very worried about the hospital situation and making sure that they do everything they can to deal with the peak. And then after that it seems like it's anyone's guess if there's any other business that will be conducted. 17:04 Scott Mooneyham: Absolutely. There are ongoing house committee meetings taking place remotely right now. So they are adjusting to this world as well. I think they will be able to address needs but what is considered a critical need right now, today, and as you mentioned the public health issues, and then they're going to be dealing with the budgetary impacts of this as well. Having said all that, Chris, I mean we're certainly bringing this issue up of broadband connectivity even as we're talking about other priorities, and we're going to continue to do that. This is, hopefully, again, this is obviously a difficult time for everybody in this country and this is, in a lot of ways, this is a tragedy, but we need to learn lessons from this and emerge from this recognizing just how crucial being connected in the 21st century is. Christopher Mitchell: Right. I imagine that the likely scenario, absent a miracle cure, is that sooner hopefully, or later, we will be off lockdown but we will be doing testing and there will be times in which different regions go into lockdown because of an outbreak. And so this, making sure everyone has high quality Internet access, is something that it really needs to get done because it isn't a matter of, "Oh, well, if we don't get it done in the next two months we won't need it as much anymore." It will be needed for some time. Scott Mooneyham: You're absolutely right and we're probably going to be in four, five, six months is, if we are there in this kind of world you're talking about and there is more testing and certain parts of the population are able to reengage economically and socially, where we're going to see those types of outbreaks you're talking about at that time, Chris, it's going to be in the same rural areas. And so, you're right, this is not going away and we really need to address these issues. Broadband is part of a larger issue as well related to the rural areas and how they're being left behind economically, and this country can do better by the rural areas of North Carolina and of all of our cities. 19:41 Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you. Thank you so much, Scott, for the work you're doing and for taking some time today. Scott Mooneyham: Great. Thank you for having me, Chris. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Scott Mooneyham of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. 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 and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and The Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed to Creative Commons. This was episode 404 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening. Link: Tags: transcript

Master the Basics of Broadband with ILSR’s Christopher Mitchell on Merit Webinar

muninetworks.org - April 16, 2020

Need better Internet access in your community but don’t know where to start? Want to educate your local leaders on broadband solutions but they can’t tell DSL from fiber optic?

Join the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Christopher Mitchell on Tuesday, May 5 at 12 p.m. ET for a webinar on broadband basics as part of Merit’s Michigan Moonshot Educational Series. The conversation will introduce various broadband solutions and technologies, giving participants the necessary foundation to start working on better Internet access locally. Merit, a statewide educational and research network run by Michigan’s public university system, is hosting the event. Michigan Moonshot is Merit’s effort to improve Internet access in the state by collecting accurate data, disseminating educational resources, influencing policy decisions, and connecting communities to funding. ABCs of Connectivity Christopher’s presentation, on Tuesday, May 5 at 12 p.m. ET, will “explore the trade-offs, capacity, and economics behind common Internet access technologies, including cable, DSL, mobile wireless, fixed wireless, satellite, and fiber optic,” according to the event page. The webinar will aim to give participants “the confidence to engage in broadband discussions, debates, and efforts to improve broadband Internet access.” This introduction is ideal for residents, community leaders, and business owners who want to engage with local efforts to increase connectivity. If you already have a good understanding of broadband technologies, consider inviting local officials or stakeholders to the webinar to build their knowledge. Sign up online in advance for the webinar link. Dust up on the Rules Merit is also hosting a second webinar later in the month titled “Local Community Broadband: A Good Answer to Internet Connectivity.” The presentation, scheduled for Thursday, May 28 at 12 p.m. ET, will explore the opportunities and the legal considerations of a community broadband project, including regulatory barriers. Currently, Michigan state law requires that all communities participate in a specified bidding process before developing a publicly owned network. The speakers for this webinar are Jim Baller, of Baller Stokes & Lide and Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and Michael Watza, of Kitch Drutchas Wagner et al. Jim has a wealth of experience with community broadband initiatives, and we rely often on his analysis of state laws that restrict municipal networks. Michael will also share from his experience with local broadband efforts. “Going head to head with an often overbearing telecommunications industry, Mike has helped several Michigan-based communities fight through legal barriers,” the event page shares. Register separately for this event on Merit’s website. For more, view previous webinars from the Michigan Moonshot educational series. Tags: institute for local self-reliancechristopher mitchellmichiganMeritjim ballereventwebinar

Electric Cooperatives Connect Rural Southeast: Two Co-ops Plan FTTH Projects

muninetworks.org - April 15, 2020

Two more electric cooperatives recently announced plans to build Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to connect their rural members in the southeastern United States with high-quality Internet access.

The co-ops, Mississippi County Electric Cooperative (MCEC) in Arkansas and Monroe County Electric Power Association (EPA) in Mississippi, will partner with Conexon to manage network design, buildout, and implementation. Conexon has worked with dozens of rural electric cooperatives across the country to deploy broadband access to better serve their member-owners. Rural communities in the southeast have long struggled with unreliable, unaffordable connectivity, and the current Covid-19 pandemic is further amplifying the health, education, and economic disparities that result from inequitable Internet access. But rural cooperatives, in the region and beyond, are stepping up to meet their members’ broadband needs. Arkansas Co-op Continues Through Crisis Late last month in a Conexon press release, MCEC announced that it was launching a new subsidiary, MCEC Fiber, to offer its members Internet access with speeds up to one Gigabit per second symmetrical. With its new 600-mile fiber network, MCEC will join several other electric co-ops in Arkansas, including Ozarks Electric Cooperative and Craigshead Electric Cooperative Corporation, that have invested in broadband infrastructure for their communities. MCEC President and CEO Brad Harrison said in the release: We have long seen the need of our members and communities for reliable and fast internet service, given that it has become a necessity in many parts of life . . . This network is important for our community, and Conexon opened our eyes to the fact that not only could we provide the service, but we could offer a gold-plated solution to our members. Construction is already underway, and the co-op plans to complete the network build in five years. MCEC hopes to connect its first members to the growing fiber network sometime this year. Jonathan Chambers, Partner at Conexon, described the value of the co-op’s undertaking in the context of the current pandemic: At a time of uncertainty, one thing is certain: The world is interconnected in many ways, and the future of information, education, work, healthcare, shopping, social connection and entertainment are all tied to internet access . . . While much of the world has hit the pause button, MCEC is moving forward. First REA Co-op Follows Suit In Mississippi, the first Rural Electrification Association cooperative in the country, Monroe County EPA, decided to enter the broadband business as well, empowered by state legislation lifting the prohibition on electric cooperatives offering Internet access. Since the state law change in early 2019, several Mississippi co-ops have announced their own fiber projects, including North East Mississippi EPA and Tallahatchie Valley EPA. Monroe County EPA’s new broadband network, M-Pulse Fiber, will connect cooperative members to symmetrical gigabit speeds. The 1,500 mile fiber network will cost approximately $29 million to build, according to a press release from Conexon. In the release, Chambers explained how the project fits into the co-op’s long history: Monroe County EPA [Director] Tom Crook once told me about his grandfather’s role in establishing Monroe County EPA, which was the first REA (now RUS) electric co-op in the country . . . Monroe County EPA has sustained the community with electricity for over eighty years. It will now bring that same commitment to service and provide both electricity and broadband to the community for the next 80 years. Construction on the network will start before the end of the year, but Monroe County EPA has already started on the engineering work. Yesterday, the co-op shared on Facebook a picture of General Manager Barry Rowland affixing a tag for the new fiber network onto a utility pole to kick off the project. Excited members left comments like, “Can I love this post twice?” and “Congrats on changing lives,” and posted memes to celebrate. Monroe County EPA plans to connect the first members to the new fiber network in early 2021, and members — who need Internet access now more than ever — can’t wait. Rowland told local news station WCBI: With the schools, the situation we’re dealing with, we’ve allowed Wi-Fi access in our parking lot here. One of our members, she thanked me because she comes to our parking lot and watches their church service. I think it will be great for the whole communities we serve. Conexon Connects Co-ops to Funds Through its work with electric cooperatives, Conexon has helped many of its partners access federal funding for rural broadband deployment. In 2018, the company organized the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium, which was one of the largest winners in the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund phase II reverse auction. Listen to Jonathan Chambers talk about the auction results on episode 321 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below. Conexon plans to reprise its performance with the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium in this year’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The upcoming reverse auction will distribute approximately $20 billion to rural broadband providers over two rounds of funding. Learn more about the upcoming auction on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, which also featured Chambers. Listen below.   "Big Lake Refuge" courtesy of Jeremy Bennet/U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (CC BY 2.0) "Monroe County Chancery Building" courtesy of Flicker user josepha, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Tags: mississippiArkansasFTTHcooperativerural electric coopmonroe county EPAmississippi county electric co-opruraljonathan chambers

NC Needs Local Internet Choice to Tackle Pandemic - Community Broadband Bits Episode 404

muninetworks.org - April 14, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting communities across the country in different ways. Recently, Christopher called up Scott Mooneyham, Director of Political Communications and Coordination for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, to find out how towns and cities in the Tar Heel State are faring. Christopher and Scott discuss how the spread of the novel coronavirus has changed life in the state's communities and how local governments are responding to new needs while continuing to provide essential services. Scott shares stories from towns that are now struggling with broadband access, despite their proximity to major metros, creating public safety concerns. The pair reflected on WRAL's recently released documentary "Disconnected," which compared connectivity in two North Carolina communities, Enfield and Wilson, and explored how the different levels of broadband access affected residents. They talk about how municipalities like Enfield would be able to partner with local companies to improve Internet access if the legislature removed the restrictive prohibitions currently in state law. Scott explains how the current Covid-19 shutdown has elevated the issues raised in the documentary while also piling many other priorities onto state legislators' desks. This show is 22 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.  Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsnorth carolina league of municipalitiesquarantinepreemptionwilson

Upcoming Rural Assembly Events Spotlight Critical Need for Better Rural and Tribal Broadband During Pandemic

muninetworks.org - April 14, 2020

Over the next couple weeks, the Rural Assembly is hosting two livestreamed events on Internet access in rural and Native communities during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The conversations will address the topic from different angles. The first event, scheduled for Thursday, April 16 at 4 p.m. ET, will explore how people in rural areas and on tribal lands are accessing broadband and the impacts of limited connectivity. Speakers at the second session, on Friday, April 22 at 4 p.m. ET, will discuss how federal policymakers and other government officials are addressing the lack of reliable rural broadband and what more needs to be done. Register now for the free events. Old Problem, New Urgency This isn’t a new concern — rural and tribal communities have struggled with inadequate connectivity since before the Internet even existed, when people had to unite to invest in their own telephone networks. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent data, broadband is still unavailable to more than 20 percent of rural Americans. Nearly a quarter of the tribal population also lacks access to broadband infrastructure. Even when broadband is supposedly available, many households still can’t subscribe because federal data overstates coverage and services aren’t always affordable or reliable. Now, the movement of most life online in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus has raised the stakes for rural and Native communities already impacted by poor broadband access. Not only will communities without adequate connectivity have a harder time keeping people safe at home and connected to essential services like schooling and healthcare during the global crisis, but they will also face a steeper climb out of the economic recession once the pandemic recedes. Event Details The Rural Assembly is hosting the first online conversation on Thursday, April 16 at 4 p.m. ET. Panelists will discuss the current state of connectivity in indigenous and rural communities and describe how poor connectivity is limiting access to education, employment, and healthcare during the pandemic. “This conversation does not present solutions,” the Rural Assembly explains on their site. “Instead, it seeks to learn about the impact that substandard or lack of Internet service has on the safety and wellbeing of rural and Native communities.” Edyael Casaperalta, Attorney at Casaperalta Law, is the moderator for the first event. Speakers include Mark Estrada, Superintendent at Lockhart Independent School District in Texas; Dr. Libby Cope, Health Director at Sophie Trettevick Indian Health Center in Washington; Tim Lampkin, CEO at Higher Purpose Co. in Mississippi; and Kim Phinney, Senior Fellow at Center for Rural Strategies in Vermont. The second session is on Friday, April 22 at 4 p.m. ET. It will cover the government response to the current broadband crisis in rural areas and tribal lands. Panelists to be announced. More details and registration are available on the Rural Assembly’s website. In the meantime, listen to episode 393 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to hear Edyael Casaperalta, moderator of the first session, talk about Internet access in indigenous communities and tribal fixed wireless networks. Tags: eventwebinarquarantinenational rural assemblytribal landstribalcenter for rural strategies

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 13

muninetworks.org - April 13, 2020


Municipal election results roll in, 3 new municipalities pass broadband service by Brennan Linsley, Colorado Politics    Georgia Blue Ridge Mountain EMC Transforms Broadband Have-Nots Into Broadband Haves by Sean Buckley, Broadband Communities   Kansas  Monroe County EPA teams up with Conexon to launch fiber-to-the-home network, Monroe Journal Monroe County EPA will begin construction on the network by the fourth quarter of 2020, with the first customers expected to be connected by early 2021. The four-year build-out will span 1,500 miles of fiber, serve 100 percent of the power’s association’s 10,800 members and is anticipated to cost in the range of $29 million. Maine Coronavirus sparks new interest in bridging digital divides by Zack Quaintance, GovTech   Minnesota New urgency for rural broadband by Aaron J. Brown, Hibbing Daily Tribune   Missouri Wisper, Rural Electric Cooperative Sho-Me make deal on Missouri broadband builds by Joan Engebretson, telecompetitor   New York Buffalo Public Schools grapple with the city's digital divide: ‘It’s just a big equity issue.’ by Kyle S. Mackie, WBFO   North Carolina Working from home? North Carolina's new site maps Wi-Fi, ISP deals by Ryan Johnston, Statescoop   Tennessee Ben Lomand awarded $2 million broadband access grant for Cumberland County by Gary Nelson, Crossville Chronicle   Twin Lakes to receive broadband grant, Overton County News   Grant for broadband accessibility in Perry County, Buffalo River Review   Texas Lockhart provides all district students free internet service so online learning can start by Heather Osbourne, Statesman   Trust and entrepreneurship pave the way toward digital inclusion in Brownsville, Texas by Lara Fishbane and Adie Tomer, Brookings   Utah Roger Timmerman: COVID-19 reveals a gap in our online infrastructure by Roger Timmerman, The Salt Lake Tribune   General Our lack of will to expand broadband access has left millions of students disconnected during closures by Ben Hecht, Fast Company   Verizon canceling FiOS installs and telling customers to wait a few months by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica   Verizon is canceling many home-Internet installations and repairs during the pandemic, and some customers are being given appointment dates in November when they try to schedule an installation. The November appointment dates appear to be placeholders that will eventually be replaced by earlier dates. But Verizon is sending mixed messages to customers about when appointments will actually happen and about whether technicians are allowed to enter their homes.   Worried about 5G and cancer? Here’s why wireless networks pose no known health risk by Glenn Fleishman, Tidbits   Jon Cusack The Latest Celebrity To Spread Nonsense About 5G by Karl Bode, TechDirt Tags: media roundup

Monopoly ISPs Too Big to Make Good on Covid-19 Internet Offers

muninetworks.org - April 10, 2020

Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Internet access is more important than ever before. Elementary school math classes, routine doctor’s appointments, after-work happy hours, and more all require a high-speed broadband connection now.

In response, many national Internet service providers (ISPs) have introduced free and discounted plans to keep people connected during the crisis (though there are still holdouts). Comcast has raised speeds and is offering 60 days of free broadband service to new low-income subscribers. Charter Spectrum is extending a free two month offer to new customers with students in the household. And AT&T is giving low-income families signing up for new service a couple of months free. The charity of these companies is commendable, but their plans still leave many people disconnected, forcing them to choose between staying safe at home and accessing essential services. Eligibility oversights leave out households in need, and overwhelmed call centers make signing up for programs difficult. In many cases, families are falling through the cracks simply because the national ISPs are too big and too monopolistic to catch them. Ineligible and Unaccessible The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has documented many of the issues that families across the United States face in trying to access ISPs’ Covid-19 offers. Ars Technica covered their concerns in a recent article, spelling out the shortcomings of various providers’ plans. One problem is the eligibility guidelines restrict many households from taking advantage of ISPs' programs. In many cases, free connections are only available to new subscribers, even though many people are now struggling with reduced incomes. A number of companies have excluded prior customers with unresolved debt from re-enrolling under the new offers. For example, AT&T’s free Internet offer only applies to households with no unpaid broadband bills from the previous six months. Programs limit eligibility in other ways that can leave out some families in need. For plans targeted at low-income subscribers, households must meet specific needs tests that might not capture their unique financial circumstances. Charter only offers the two months of free access to households with students, cutting out seniors who need to access telehealth services and adults now working from home. Even after families determine they’re eligible, actually signing up for free or discounted service can be a headache. NDIA has reported long wait times on Charter’s phone lines in particular — as long as four hours in some cases. This puts people in the untenable position of wagering limited phone plan minutes on the possibility of a home broadband connection. Charter in particular is not making it easy for new low-income subscribers to transfer to the company's existing, pre-pandemic low-cost plan, even when they qualify for it. NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer told Ars: We are hearing repeatedly that people who try to sign up for the free two months are being told they will be charged $50 for service after the free two months, as if it were a promotional offer, not a crisis offer. There are even problems with the seemingly straightforward Federal Communications Commission Keep Americans Connected Pledge, a voluntary effort announced in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Companies that sign on agree to temporarily suspend disconnects and late fees, but it appears that some people were still disconnected over unpaid bills, despite the pledge. Verizon Neglects DSL Customers One company, Verizon, has limited access to broadband relief in a different way. The provider is offering free service to current customers connected through the federal subsidy program Lifeline and a $20 discount to new Lifeline-eligible subscribers. But this offer only applies to customers on Verizon’s Fios fiber network, not those using slower DSL connections. “By not including DSL, their most vulnerable customers are being left out of a valuable resource . . . [including] in underserved cities such as Buffalo and Baltimore,” Siefer explained to Ars. Analysis by the Community Broadband Networks initiative shows that areas where Verizon only offers DSL are home to households with lower median incomes and more people of color than those served by Fios. View the charts below to see how Verizon’s Fios and DSL service areas differ in three metros. Verizon justified the decision by saying that their DSL subscribers aren’t eligible for Lifeline, telling Ars, “our DSL service does not meet the Lifeline program [speed] qualification standard” of 20 Megabits per second. Yet, it appears that it’s not a requirement to actually enroll in Lifeline to get the $20 discount offered to Fios customers. Instead, it’s possible that the company is reluctant to entice new subscribers to their already slow and overburdened DSL networks. Diseconomies of Scale The national ISPs that have announced free and low-cost Covid-19 offers surely mean well, and their generosity is welcome. However, it seems that many companies are just too big to effectively respond to communities’ urgent connectivity needs. While local broadband providers can choose to be proactive during this time — North Dakota cooperative BEK Communications said it was actively reaching out to the community to find those in need — national monopolies, like Charter or Comcast, can only react to the requests pouring in from households. It’s difficult for these broadband behemoths to scale up operations quickly in a crisis. Many providers’ neglected DSL networks, like Verizon’s, are already stretched to capacity. And compared to a smaller provider, where staffing up means hiring a couple of extra people, the large telephone and cable companies might need tens or hundreds more new employees to keep up with growing demand. Furthermore, high-quality customer service is unachievable at the scale that national ISPs operate, especially during a high-demand time like a pandemic. Charter’s tied up phone lines tell one piece of that story. Also, it’s practically impossible for customer service representatives to make exceptions or solve individual circumstances when they’re talking to a customer from small town North Carolina one minute and a New York City family the next. These are the diseconomies of scale that make monopoly ISPs less able to fulfil their vital role of connecting Americans, both in normal times and during a national emergency. To account for these failures, advocates, including NDIA and Public Knowledge, are pressing the federal government to establish some sort of free broadband program nationwide. Siefer told Ars: We don't see any alternative to a federal broadband subsidy during the health crisis . . . If people do not have Internet, they will certainly not stay in their homes. The digital divide is now a public safety issue. A national broadband subsidy won’t solve all of the problems caused by broadband monopolies, but it’s an important option to consider now that the stakes are literally life or death.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits NC Bonus Episode 7

muninetworks.org - April 10, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 7 of the Why NC Broadband Matters series on the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Dave Kirby, President of the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association. The pair discuss the importance of telehealth services and broadband to achieve health equity. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Dave Kirby: Convenient means for most people who are also working or taking care of children are taking care of elders, not having to arrange for those things to be managed in their absence, while they go off for a nurse and doctor visit that could have been done with a telehealth modality, with just a few minutes out of both a doctor's day and the patient's day. Jess Del Fiacco: We're bringing you another episode in our special community Broadband Bits Podcast series, Why NC Broadband Matters. I'm Jess Del Fiacco, with The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract, support and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high capacity Internet access necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses and a local workforce so each can compete in the global economy. The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, The Coalition for Local Internet Choice. The Institute is working with NC Broadband Matters to produce this series, focusing on issues affecting people in North Carolina that also impact folks in other regions. Today we're joined by Dave Kirby, President of the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association. Jess Del Fiacco: In this episode, Christopher and Dave talk about the role of broadband in telehealth in 2020. They discuss the differences between rural and urban healthcare and how telehealth in rural areas could reduce costs. Dave also points out all of the issues that health technicians can face without broadband access, and why telehealth has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, here's Christopher talking with Dave Kirby of the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, a special edition on North Carolina, as part of our long running series that started from about a hundred years ago before this pandemic began. Well, we are going to be addressing it today, talking about telehealth, but this is part of a series sponsored by NC Hearts Gigabit, NC Broadband Matters, organizations that care a lot about broadband in North Carolina. So let me introduce you to my guest. Dave Kirby is the President of the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and he's actually its founder from back in 2006. When that's not keeping him too busy, he provides consulting and information security and privacy for emerging information technology type stuff. Welcome to the show. 2:25 Dave Kirby: Thank you. Good to be here, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you taking some time to come in, I guess we're all staying in right now, but to do this interview. Tell us a little bit about what the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association does, please. Dave Kirby: It's an association of, whose members are subscribers to the North Carolina Telehealth Network, and its mission is to advocate for and support broadband services for public and nonprofit healthcare providers here in North Carolina. Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. So we've decided to switch to a different microphone over the phone line rather than doing the interview because I was afraid of the quality. So I don't want to work my producers too hard. Dave Kirby: Right. Christopher Mitchell: I guess one of the things that I wanted to ask you about is what does broadband have to do with healthcare now, in the year 2020? Dave Kirby: Well, you can pick up almost anywhere with this, but I would pick up maybe 15 years or so ago. The public policy around healthcare gravitated towards the idea that the use of information systems in healthcare needed to be broader and deeper in order to improve the efficientness, effectiveness and all around quality of healthcare. And a number of programs and pushes later, what we have is most healthcare providers in the country have adopted information services mostly that are remotely serve. So these are like electronic health record system, is a big piece of this. Connections to places like imaging centers and other diagnostics, labs, that sort of thing. And so if you just turn on today and look at it, what you'll find is that most healthcare providers are very dependent minute-to-minute on the availability and quality of their broadband connection, nowadays. The result is a much higher interest, much higher profusion of high quality and highly reliable broadband connections throughout the healthcare system. 4:30 Christopher Mitchell: I think it maybe worth taking a step back to describe what the healthcare system is, in part because so many of us I think try to spend as much time as we can not dealing with the healthcare system. But when you say the healthcare system, is this a few big hospitals or how far down does it get? Dave Kirby: No, in North Carolina, we clock it at something in the neighborhood of a couple of thousand sites, those being hospitals, clinics, things called federally qualified health centers, which serve mostly the low income people, free clinic behavioral health sites in the State, the kind of outlying clinics that you see around the typical hospital. All of our big hospital systems here in this State, as maybe the public thinks of them, are not just hospitals. There are hospitals plus a large number of clinics for every one of them. So, oh, I can pick a number, UNC Health Systems seems to have something like 250 odd sites, at which care are provided throughout the region. I believe Novant is another good example. They have something like 400, 500 sites here in North Carolina. And so virtually anywhere today that you meet somebody who's providing you a medical service, that's part of the health system. Christopher Mitchell: And that location is going to need broadband just as part of how they do on a regular day. They're going to need a high quality Internet connection that is not going to break the bank and is going to make sure they have the reliability they need. Because I'm assuming if they're down for 15 minutes, it can be really a problem. 6:11 Dave Kirby: It's a problem being down for 15 minutes. Although if the outage is caused by, say a typical one is a fiber cut, where somebody has unfortunately cut a piece of fiber somewhere and taken down a whole bunch of people usually, it usually takes on the order of hours to repair those things and maybe a day or more depending on weather conditions. And most healthcare providers are now in a situation where what happens immediately when the network connection goes down is that they no longer have access to patient records. They no longer have access to functions that allow them to even make appointment and carry out ordinary clinical activities in the course of seeing a patient. They can't record information that will be relevant, either for getting paid or for subsequent clinical care. So those are all really important consequences for the typical site today. Dave Kirby: Now of course, it's true also that the people who are doing what I think the public imagination sees as telehealth services, most people iconically think of talking to a clinician over a video link, and surely that's a major form of this kind of activity. But those things also require connections, and when they're down or not working adequately, then the experience that both the clinicians need and that the patients value is interrupted. And you can imagine what a disturbance it is. So it's at least as important as power and water and any other utility in the typical healthcare site today. Christopher Mitchell: I like the way you phrase that in terms of the popular imagination. And just briefly, I mean I think we do want to spend most of our time talking about that, the part of imagining using the video system to do it either from your home or from a local location with some distance specialists. But I mean just from a perspective of telehealth writ large, is that the most important thing that we're working on right now? Or are there other aspects of telehealth that often get ignored but are crucial to understand for improving healthcare? 8:22 Dave Kirby: Well, I think that aside from the direct video call kind of centric care model that we just talked about, the second sort of large category of applications are probably generally better described as connected care. They look like places where patients usually have devices that they keep with them at home or as they move around. And devices might be say, an Internet connected watch or an Internet connected monitoring system at home that monitors things like glucose level or weight for people with COPD, and communicates that information back to a healthcare provider. Sometimes automatically and sometimes at the patient's direct request in each case, and that becomes part of the care process. It either, it may become a notification to the care provider that something needs to be done, that the patient needs to be engaged or it may just be the accumulation of information like a longterm glucose readings from a diabetic to help determine what to do to help them, whether their A1C is working well or whether their glucose levels are working well on a more acute basis. So there's all this communications of stuff that's going on with us in our daily lives, and that kind of field is getting to be called connected care. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that rural America is dealing with all over the nation is these rural hospital closures. And that seems like it's really hit North Carolina hard, particularly over the last 15 years when you've been working on these issues. And I'm curious if you can give us a sense of what care is like in rural areas of North Carolina, without the telehealth and then we can go into how that is hopefully changing both now and in coming years. 10:19 Dave Kirby: Well, I think the historical problem in the rural areas that telehealth applications have been focused on is extending viable access to care to the rural population, especially in places where that viable access is just totally missing. And by viable access, I mean let's suppose you have to see a psychologist and you live in a rural area and you've decided to enter into a therapeutic kind of relationship with them where you go once a week. Well, if you're in a rural area and the psychologist is 50, 100 miles away, which would be pretty difficult, it's just not practical for you to do that unless it's just hyper critical for you to see this person and you're willing to somehow manage a 50, 100 mile trip, times two, once a week in order to do this. Well that cuts off a lot of people from practical access to a service like that. And so at least for the last decade or so, the telehealth applications have been emerging, have been ones for address to rural populations, have been to cut the travel problem. Dave Kirby: Of course, the travel problem exists in the other direction too. You have limited opportunities to bring the psychologist to the patient's community once a week, for example. Same thing with medical providers. It's not great use of an expensive resource like a doctor for example, to have them have to show up and spend a lot of their lives traveling around the State in order to get to a number of very thinly populated pockets of people. That's a real hard problem to solve, in terms of making good sense out of spending healthcare time and even attracting people to do it. But the remote doctor, the remote nurse, the remote therapist and psychiatrist, those things are things that you can practically do with a lot of care scenarios. Of course eventually, you're going to hit a bump where a patient has to really see a doctor. But what's happening here, is telehealth is reducing those occasions and making access to medical services a lot broader and better and easier and more viable for people in rural populations. 12:44 Christopher Mitchell: Do we have any sense of the difference, whether it's in dollars or some other measurement of how people living in rural areas are missing out or having worse outcomes because they don't have the same access that people do in more urban areas? Dave Kirby: Well, you can certainly find any number of projects over the last decade or so who've been put up as pilot projects that were meant to evaluate this. And those pilot projects of course have produced the first round of data that helps us see what the difference is between a population with and without telehealth based activities with it and access to medical services through telehealth modalities. I don't think I've seen one rolled up into one big package because it's usually studied one issue at a time. So here's therapy for depression over here, and here's program to support diabetics in the rural community that's telehealth based. And here's another one that's about managing strokes in rural locations. And so it's a little hard, at least I don't have access to a kind of an overarching thing. Dave Kirby: But you can tell by the number of projects, and at least my sense of how broadly it is that the payers who, especially Medicare, Medicaid and private payers, have agreed that this is an effective modality for addressing these populations, is the rate at which payers and the ways in which payers over the last years have loosened their willingness to reimburse, for the so-called professional services. So the actual doctor's time taken in a telehealth application, and also to somewhat to reimburse providers who use telehealth modalities and have costs associated with that. So the business of using telehealth is getting paid for more and more, and I'd say overall that only happened after there were a lot of demonstrations about how effective this was in improving the health outcomes for people in the areas that the telehealth application address, usually rural areas. I mean that's the biggest focus for these things. 15:00 Christopher Mitchell: It seems like in your answer there is an unmet need in rural areas that there's a differential for people who are in rural areas with the care that they can get and that the entities that are in charge of figuring out how to cost effectively deliver care to them have determined that telehealth is effective. I'm assuming they're using a pretty high bar to make that decision. But then the third thing is, is are we seeing that then limited or even in some way rationed by the availability of high quality Internet access in different areas then? Dave Kirby: Well that aspect of the problem has been what I spent a lot of my time on in the last 15 years, and the answer is yes, there's quite a distinction between the availability and the cost of broadband in rural areas as opposed to urban areas in this State. And this is repeated everywhere in the country. I'd say most of the difference is a consequence of the cost of providing wired or fiber services in thinly populated areas versus heavily populated areas. You take a city where you put in the money to bring a fiber by a building that's an apartment building that has a hundred people in it and that costs X, get that fiber from there back to a point of presence somewhere on the vendor's network. That same amount of distance in a rural area, that's only one 100th of the population density, would mean that somehow that same cost has to be born by a single connection. 16:44 Dave Kirby: And now that's an extreme to point out the effect here, but you'll find along the way that for wired connections, especially in fiber connections, this is a really important feature of the cost structure, is what it costs to bring a cable into your facility or your home, wherever that is. Wireless has made this a little bit easier for some modalities because of its ability to thread signals without having to take a wire literally down to the last inch in order to reach a person. And the good thing about that is, have been able to reach some more people in a way that's cost effective. But that's still limited in some places where you can't get either enough bandwidth on the wireless side of that connection or you can't even bring it out to some parties. And I guess we've all had experiences traveling around where there was just a dead zone, there was just no signal from any vendor you could find providing wireless services. Dave Kirby: And that's much more common in rural areas than it is anywhere in an urban space. And again, the math of this tends to be part of having to justify putting up the cost of running, say a cell phone tower. And by the way, every cell phone tower has to have a way to move it, data that's passing through it, back up into the network. And that's usually a fiber connection of its own. Although it's a single fiber connection that carries service for a very high number of people, compared to say a suburban situation where fiber is strung between houses. So although the wireless doesn't help a good bit, it's still not gone as far in terms of cost and benefit as would be helpful for us to reach virtually everybody in the State. And this is a general countrywide problem. 18:37 Christopher Mitchell: I feel like one of the challenges has to do with the business models that have been used thus far, in that both public and private business models have tried to generally pay for themselves with the direct revenues. But I think a conversation like this, we can really try to talk about some of the value we were talking about a few minutes ago that currently is out there. Because a person in the Western part of the State who can't get to a doctor regularly, who may not be able to get even to a clinic regularly to get checked up for a chronic disease. Not only are they experiencing pain, but there's also societal costs for many people who may be on publicly supported health insurance. And so, if we can have high quality connectivity to that person, we may start saving money elsewhere. And that's one of the reasons many of us justify then spending public dollars in a variety of models to make sure everyone's connected. Dave Kirby: I agree that part of the justification in specific cases, and going back to those, all those pilots studies I talked about a few minutes ago, they're often framed in terms of savings, in terms of dollars in the healthcare system. They're rarely framed in dollars associated with social costs elsewhere, like people who aren't healthy enough to work, not being able to participate in the work world or people who are not healthy enough to take care of their families, not being able to carry out the role of helping to raise children. Those sorts of things are rarely included as part of the cost. But I feel, and I think most people intuitively feel that, that's a serious costs in the broad sense of the term. The most important long serving, and I think the largest dollar wise program, have been the programs carried out by The Federal Communications Commission to essentially subsidize everything from telephones to nowadays broadband for the public and for healthcare providers and other social good groups like schools. Those have been going on for a long time, back since the 1934 Telecommunications Act. Christopher Mitchell: I believe so. 20:53 Dave Kirby: Yeah. The original thesis, as I understand it, behind the '34 Act was, well America ought to be connected because without it then America isn't a country, it's two. It's those who are connected and those who aren't. And if it hadn't been for that, then connecting rural phones, initially, would not have been affordable by much of anybody because who could pay the actual underlying cost for a thinly distributed population across the amount of dollars it would have cost to put wires and enough equipment at the right intervals, and that's continued to this day. There is some limited amount of interest so far, but growing in the area of subsidizing broadband for the public, especially for health purposes. Some of the latest stuff announced just yesterday by the FCC in their connected care program and the even more emergent COVID-19 telehealth program, those are about extending dollars, subsidizing costs for methodologies that are meant to actually go out into public homes and even be mobile with people as they get through their workdays and shopping and anything else that they do in their normal lives. So I'd say there's limited, but growing interest and doing things that reach the public, but there's very well established interest in the SCCs part and carrying out the core of this congressionally mandated requirements under the Telecom Act of '96, to reach out into the healthcare community and connect public and nonprofit healthcare providers. Christopher Mitchell: Well, in the current situation with the pandemic, we're recording this on Friday and hope to release it next week. So a lifetime could change between then, but certainly we're afraid to see a what happens next. We're hoping for the best, but it does seem like right now we're in a situation in which we would love to have the possibility that both healthy people, which is to say people who are not ill with COVID-19 would be able to do their healthcare visits from home. And that people who may have a lot of symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19 would also be able to check in from home and not travel, in that way, avoid overrunning emergency rooms until a specialist had said, "yes, you are a candidate for someone who needs to come in". And so it feels like we're just missing a tremendous amount of telehealth potential right now because we haven't connected a lot of people. 23:31 Dave Kirby: That's true, and some of that is about broadband availability. But there are other barriers too, that are coming down, and some of them are coming down very fast nowadays because of the COVID crisis. I mentioned already the reimbursement issue and although the payers have been growing over the last few years, public and private payers have been growing. And what kinds of telehealth enabled episodes of care they'll reimburse professionally for, there is still some distance to go. And I sort of, this is just my gut feel, is that this crisis will boost interest and push that quite a lot faster than it would have otherwise gone, so that by the time this is over. Let's suppose that we, I don't have any more of a crystal ball than anybody, but let's suppose we look up again a year from now, we're likely to see an awful lot of providers and payers having found new ground in which they can and feel motivated to prioritize serving patients this way. Dave Kirby: Like any new thing, it takes some time and energy of its own just to adapt a new way of providing care to people. Doctors reasonably enough, want to know that they have a modality where they can feel assured that they're not just giving nominal access to care to people but are giving them the kind of quality care that they deserve. They also have regulatory and malpractice issues to deal with. They want to make sure they stay on the right side of those as they extend themselves remotely. And some of it's just changing habits. I'll give one example. My sister is a psychotherapist, has been a psychotherapist for 40 years and although I've been talking to her for the last decade or so about maybe doing some of her practice on telehealth based modalities, just in the last two weeks, she's essentially been forced to do that. And she's adapted and it's been a struggle, but she's there where most of her patients she's seeing remotely now and many of them are people who she feels are responding better. 25:42 Dave Kirby: She never would have gone out and done that experiment, I don't think to find out which ones would respond better. Others are responding about the same and a few, she doesn't feel are responding as well. But in this case, it's better to have some session that they don't respond to as well as they might an in person session then none at all, which would have been the alternative in this particular situation. So I think there'll be a lot of growth in this area and. I personally applaud it. I think people all over the country, regardless of almost where they live, that they ought to have access to high quality health care. But that's just me. Christopher Mitchell: Right. So with you, it's hard for me to imagine someone who's not nodding their head right now. One of the things I'd be curious about as well as if over the over a period of weeks or months, if there's a improved ability to attend. I mean I think this is one of the things for people with recurring healthcare is if we can make it more convenient, whether it's for mental health or other forms of healthcare. We may see improved outcomes, I would assume, from just making it as convenient as possible to get help. Dave Kirby: That's quite possible. I think people on these pilot programs that I've talked about before have tried to measure these things. And for people listening, when I think of what do they mean by convenience, they usually mean that it becomes practical for people to do things rather than just a little nicer somehow. So convenient means being able to see the therapist once a week as opposed to maybe once a month. Convenient means for most people who are also working or taking care of children or taking care of elders, not having to arrange for those things to be managed in their absence while they go off to some physician visit or some doctor visit that could have been done with a telehealth modality with just a few minutes out of both a doctor's day and the patient's day, at a time that was convenient to both of them. 27:46 Dave Kirby: And so, take somebody who's working and they have children and they have elderly parents, but the elderly parents are taking care of the children while the worker is off during the day. Well there's the grandparent has to have a doctor visit, well what happens? The worker has to go off the clock in order to take care of the children and maybe two workers. They have to take the children along with the elderly parent in the car to the doctor and then reverse the whole thing. And very many of these folks are not living in a world where they have such high discretionary income that they can say, well that's all right, I just won't make quite as many dollars this month. Dave Kirby: Instead they have very little discretionary income. And so in effect, giving up work for a day, if nothing else, and sometimes there are other things that matter, but giving up work for a day means losing a significant income that's applied toward direct immediate needs in the household. So this convenience idea, I think, is better described in those scenarios rather than yes, well, so I can do something on my phone as opposed to having to be a salaried person who just takes an hour off and goes to a doctor visit that's five miles away. That's not the kind of situation that we'll get the big gains from. But you're right, I mean, I sort of expect surprises. I expect people to get surprised about these new modalities and I expect them to take them up and find the convenience of the ways that we've just been talking about is now possible and practical and that they'll prefer them. And that will push the healthcare community along with their own interest in providing good care and being efficient and effective. 29:29 Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you spelling out some of the scenarios that are encompassed by trivial, perhaps you said the word convenience. But I think that's something that, it's faced by not just millions of people, but probably tens of millions of people. And there's such hope, as we overcome all of the barriers to telehealth that you noted. The one that I focused on is broadband and I know that we can get high quality broadband to everyone and let that not be a barrier. And I don't know if anyone will write the story or do the studies to find out what a gain there is, but I think we'll find that States and the federal government save significant money as we're able to use this and all Americans are able to take full use of it. Dave Kirby: We might save some money on healthcare, but I'd argue there's another ethical moral argument and just an argument about the culture of the country, which is making people healthy is a good in itself. It's not just making them healthy so they can work and making them healthy so they can do other things. Being healthy is a good thing for a person. Well, we've all had experience at least with being sick in minor ways and it's hard to have an enjoyable life when you're ill. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And as someone who's had chronic pain for 15 years, I personally, it's not a significant source of pain and there's nothing I can do about having some pretty bad arthritis. But it's frustrating to know there's people out there who are probably in more pain than me who could be treated, and as you say, live a better life, and we can solve that. So I really appreciate your time today. I think you put some of this, the telehealth discussion, into a much greater context than we normally see. So thank you very much for that. 31:13 Dave Kirby: Oh, you're welcome. I hope it's been helpful to your listeners. Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning into this episode in our Why NC Broadband Matters Podcast series, and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. And if you follow @NCHeartsGB on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers of silvermansound.com for the series music, What's The Angle, licensed through Creative Commons. And we want to thank you for listening. Until next time. Link: Tags: transcript

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 403

muninetworks.org - April 9, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 403 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Steve Song, fellow with Mozilla about spectrum, wireless Internet access, and the current pandemic cirsis. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.     Steve Song: So, a strategy that is going to increase value for the elites, as opposed to democratizing access and making access cheaper and more affordable to everyone, I think it's only going to exacerbate inequality. Not just in the US and Canada, but everywhere. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 403 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. Today, Christopher talks with Steve Song, who was a part time fellow with Mozilla. On the show today, Steve explains how he became interested in helping people get connected to high quality Internet access and he talks about why some of the strategies the United States has adopted are not designed to bring Internet access to the most people possible. Steve tells Christopher about the new ways Spectrum is becoming available for innovative approaches to expanding wireless connectivity, and they discuss the ways in which our current pandemic crisis has influenced how we think about networks and how prepared we are to depend on them. Now here's Christopher talking with Steve Song of Mozilla. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, working out of my house in St. Paul, which is better than Minneapolis any day anyway. But today I want to talk with Steve Song, who is a person that I think of as being a very interesting thinker on wireless issues, and more broadly someone who thinks outside the box, who isn't just the kind of person who feels constrained by what's been going on. But anyway, he's a part time fellow with Mozilla. He also works with the Network Startup Resource Center at the University of Oregon, and he does some work with the Association of Progressive Communications on something that's near and dear to my heart, supporting community networks around the nation. Welcome to the show, Steve. Steve Song: Thanks very much for having me. Christopher Mitchell: Steve, you and I met as part of the Mozilla contest, in which we were judging. We were deciding who wins and loses for some funds around community networking technologies and disaster resiliency last year with the WINS contest. Steve Song: That's right. Yeah. It was a very interesting competition. 2:19 Christopher Mitchell: Yes, it was. And there was great projects, I think many of whom we all loved and had to make hard choices on, but I was very impressed with you throughout, in terms of just experiences that you'd had and judgment that you could share that I didn't feel like other people had. And I'd sort of made a note that I wanted to have you on the show. And then recently, we were on a call together after the shut-ins began, when people began staying home. And you just made a stray comment that I felt like we really should address, which had to do with where we've prioritized wireless technology is going in recent years. But let me just start, let me ask you, tell us a little bit about yourself. What's the 92nd version of how you came to be interested in all of this work and supporting getting people connected around the world? Steve Song: It goes back a long ways. It actually goes back to the early '90s. I moved to South Africa to get involved in the mass democratic movement there, and got involved in setting up one of the first Internet servers for nonprofits there and running a nonprofit Internet service provider. And was just amazed how, while the postal service was completely subverted by the apartheid's government, email and Internet actually provided this outlet for nonprofit organizations to reach the outside world and to self organize. And it just seemed to be that this was something of unlimited potential in terms of benefits to civil society. And of course the reality is proven that it's a sword that cuts both ways in terms, but we still agree that the benefits outweigh the downsides. Otherwise we probably wouldn't be talking today. 4:09 Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean, it's easy to see that, let's just say that a loved one suddenly indulges in conspiracy theories that they hadn't before or people who are in some ways, maybe harmed by a hoax or phishing attacks on email or something like that. But we tend not to notice that every research, biology center in the entire world is working together right now on a cure or a vaccine or mitigation or other things, sharing information in ways that just are unfathomable 50 years ago. Steve Song: Not to mention, literally millions of students who are carrying on their education or trying to carry on their education thanks to being able to connect to the Internet. Although, part of what I hope we'll talk about today is all those students who can't do that. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Yeah. I think, 10 years ago, I think that a lot of our cable networks would have fallen under the onslaught. We had many fewer people connected. And let's hope that if this happens again in 10 years, that everyone will have a high quality home connection and we'll be able to deal with that mis-fortunate situation even better. But let me ask you about something, which is, as we think about whether we have prepared technologically well for this or not, tell me a little bit about, when we were talking before, you mentioned that the hero of connectivity has been mobile technologies. And I'm just curious if you can tell us what that means. Steve Song: Well, I think certainly in emerging markets, if you go back to the early '90s, telecommunication infrastructure was terrible. I mean it was mostly copper based and poorly maintained and not a lot of investment going into it. And with the arrival of GSM technologies and also other innovations, like pay-as-you-go services, it allowed people to gain access, to voice and to message and communication places we would never have dreamed that it was economically possible. So a whole revolution of connecting people to critical life saving technology happened over the course of say, 1994 into the sort of 2000s. And that transformed with the arrival of smart phones, into the delivery of Internet via smartphone, tablet technologies, into places that nobody would've believed possible as well. So it is a remarkable story and one would hope when we continue to deliver access. But I think what we're seeing now is just the limitations of that model, that mobile networks go so far into areas, but in rural areas where there are sparser populations, where income levels are lower, it's just not the economic incentive for operators to deliver services. 7:15 Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we've seen in the United States, and I'm presuming it's true, if you have any low income households in Canada. I'm not entirely sure you have any because we idealize it as such a wonderful place where everyone's polite and I guess in some ways above average, which is not Minnesota anymore, unfortunately with the end of Garrison Keillor's reign, but the point I was getting at is that we have a lot of people who depend on mobile technologies here, as well, for the Internet access because they cannot afford a fixed connection in their home. And if they have to choose between a mobile connection and a fixed, many have chosen a mobile connection. And so, you described how the world's been connected, but in many ways our working class people who are on the edge, have also had to rely on mobile networks because we haven't made it a priority to make sure everyone can afford a high quality fixed connection, even though they're mostly available in the United States. Steve Song: Yeah. I think that if we are going to connect everyone, affordably, to the Internet and all the rest of it, yeah, we need actually a mix of models. And large operators have delivered tremendous value in terms of the spread of network infrastructure. But just as with any business or any sector, small businesses are just as important as big businesses. And historically, that's been impossible to do in the telecommunications sector because you have to invest in the entire supply chain of communication. But now, thanks to the spread of fiber optic networks, there's a certain dis-aggregation that goes on. And if you can connect to a fiber optic network, then you can arguably deliver competitive services anywhere. And that's what we see with a lot of wireless ISPs, particularly in the U.S., but everywhere else in the world as well, is that they can generate businesses and deliver services and indeed, community networks can as well in terms of operating different sustainability models of cooperatives and community owned network infrastructure. 9:31 Steve Song: To date, they've largely been limited to what we know as license exempt spectrum or wifi, in the 5 gigahertz and 2.4 gigahertz bands, which is great, but is somewhat limited in the ability to deliver services for two reasons. One, because it's a limited amount of spectrum, but also because licensed exempt works because the power limits are constrained on it, which means it can operate on a fairly small networks with that. As opposed to the mobile network operators, which operate transmitters that are road testing much more loudly and a bigger area. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things you said when we got the idea for this show was that we have not prioritized 5G as providing any of the functionality that we really need right now, as we live in our homes and poke our heads out on occasion to make sure no one's around before we run to the grocery store or a jog. And so I'm curious what you meant by that. What else could we have done? And if Steve Song was the wizard who set the 5G specs, what should have been done in terms of how we evolved to the next generation of wireless technologies here? Steve Song: 5G does represent tremendous technological advances in many respects. But if we were to wind the clock back at to 1900 and think of the telecommunication industry a bit like the motorcar industry, we're at that moment where you could have Henry Ford deciding to build the cheapest, most practical car for as many people as possible, or you could have Mercedes-Benz deciding to build an elites automobile for the discerning customer who can afford it, and that requires very, very high performance vehicles. And 5G is more of a Mercedes Benz than a Model T Ford, right? It's focused on very, very low latency connections, which may serve the interests of high frequency traders, or focused on massive amounts of bandwidth to serve virtual reality applications. 12:00 Steve Song: But it's not focused on driving down the cost of access and it's not focused on rural connectivity. And I think if we've learned anything from the pandemic is that we need to make sure everybody's connected. Because right now, in order for this strategy of everyone staying home, they need connections to the Internet, they need their kids to be able to gain access to information, they need to be able to operate remotely. Of course, it's not practical for everyone, but there are a lot of people who can still carry on their jobs if they had access to connectivity. So a strategy that is going to increase value for the elites, which is a focus on urban architecture and higher, faster bandwidth, as opposed to democratizing access and making access cheaper and more affordable to everyone. Steve Song: I think it's only going to exacerbate inequality in, not just in the U.S. and Canada, but everywhere. A strategy to do that would be to focus on driving down the cost of 4G infrastructure and making it pervasive. At the same time, as you're developing 5G infrastructure and there's lots of interesting things going on in that domain. So there's an initiative as part of the Telecom Infra Project, called OpenRAN, which is opening standards for radio infrastructure. There's lots of low costs or manufacturers that are producing 4G technology at the same kind of prices as we think of as wifi infrastructure. But now the challenge is, how do we open up an ecosystem, give access to spectrum so that those technologies and those more kind of federated open standards based approaches can thrive. Steve Song: And the U.S. is really, I mean full credit, on the forefront of that happening. So the FCC is doing that with the 3.5 gigahertz band with something called Citizens Broadband or CBRS. It's fantastic, very much at all, it's with the rest of the world that has rather decided to auction that spectrum in a much more traditional manner. And recently the FCC have also announced that the 6 gigahertz band of their intention to expand, 5 gigahertz wifi into six gigahertz. So in many ways, the U.S. regulator is very much someone to look to in terms of ideas for innovation in this space. But at the same time you, you have this discussion of kind of like, how do we win the 5G race in order to achieve economic supremacy? I think economic supremacy comes from everyone having affordable access because the real generators of value are the people, right? Not technologies. 14:50 Christopher Mitchell: I agree, absolutely. I'm just struck by one of the reasons that we fear in some extents, the rise of China is because it has so many people who could be so incredibly productive and do so much. And similarly with India, is that the number of people they have that could do interesting things if they were all connected and that sort of a thing. We don't worry as much about the rise of Luxembourg, there's some limits there. But let me be contrary and say that, it seemed to me that, that you were saying we missed opportunities. But then you listed a lot of things we're doing right, in terms of the CBRS, in terms of the 6 gigahertz for unlicensed wifi. To some extent, T-Mobile with the way it's deploying its 5G, in terms of the rural areas, bring the benefits of 4G to a wider audience because of the spectrum bands that they're using. I'm not exactly sure what I'd change if I could go back and implement your plan. So what didn't we do that we should have done more specifically? Steve Song: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think my comments are directed more broadly than the U.S. Christopher Mitchell: So let's just get this on record then. So we have a person, both of us are very critical of many things that this FCC has done, but it's a reminder that they have made some very good decisions, that will give us longterm benefits, despite the fact that we would still disagree with perhaps a majority of the decisions they've made. Steve Song: Yes. What I like about spectrum policy in the U.S., is that there have been very deliberate decisions taken to enable small enterprise to deliver services. And the U.S. has a thriving wireless ISP industry that that is benefiting from those decisions. Could they do better? Sure. But I think in those respects, the U.S. is an outlier. If I look at the rest of the world and a few countries have taken the steps to enable access, for instance, TV white space spectrum, which the U.S. was a pioneer of. You got a few countries following suit, but it has ultimately been slow to take off elsewhere. 17:20 Christopher Mitchell: I'm just fascinated by that. Is that because of incumbents generally? Are they just more powerful elsewhere? Is it actually corruption? There's a tendency in North America, in particular in the United States I think, to assume one reason that, that doesn't happen as people aren't as intelligent elsewhere. And that's not my experience. My experience is people elsewhere are quite intelligent. And so I'm curious why they're making decisions that we would think of as being pretty easy to classify wrong. Steve Song: There are a few reasons. One, it didn't transpire as successfully as one might have hoped in the U.S. So there was a lot of pushback from the broadcast industry, from the wireless mic industry, which resulted in the regulations being a much more watered down set of regulations than one might have hoped, and somewhat bureaucratic in how it's applied, which has slowed down. I think its adoption in certainly in emerging markets because it's now quite a complex thing to adopt with, geolocation database authentication and so on. I think it has also suffered from a lot of lobbying from the mobile operators who see it as a potential threat to their business model, which relies on exclusive access to spectrum, which they pay for typically at auction or through other mechanisms, millions of dollars for that exclusivity, which then acts as a kind of firewall to participation from other operators. And they see things like dynamic spectrum as wildfires, ultimately sort of threatening that model. And fair enough, it should, it should threaten that model. Christopher Mitchell: That's the goal. 19:13 Steve Song: Any healthy ecosystem, think about forest, you want young growth that will ultimately grow up into, to be bigger trees. And the idea of sort of killing off or stopping that growth is not a great stimulus to competition. Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I think one of the things that I recall us discussing, is communications in times of disasters, and I'm curious about that as well. The points that you make I think are very well taken, in that we haven't chosen to maximize the democratic potential of these technologies by driving down the cost and making sure they're widely available. One of the areas in which I suspect we'll pay for that is in the response to disasters, of which I think you could certainly classify what we're in right now, where the systems are actually working better than they may in other disasters. But nonetheless, still we see lots of problems and most especially because of how many people are not connected to high quality networks right now. And so, do we build a more brittle system than we had to? Steve Song: This disaster is unique in that it's not something that we can recover from quickly, and it's something that actually requires us to stay in place. And we've never experienced that before. And there's no quick answer. I mean, I think there are some modestly rapid responses in Google Loon are going to deploy over Kenya to increase access to air. It's not like we can suddenly roll out a hundred new base station somewhere to fix the problem of affordable access. I've seen a lot of articles in the press saying, "well, actually broadband is something that's so important to us. It needs to be a utility and we need to go back to thinking of it like utility". I largely agree with that perspective. Although, I don't think anybody wants to go back to the days of kind of a single monolithic, national bureaucratic utility. I think there's an opportunity now to revisit the ideas that utilities in the same way that electric cooperatives have done so amazingly in the U.S., that are now evolving into fiber optic utilities, that local infrastructure, especially in rural areas, just seems like a very natural response to the problem. Because I live in rural Nova Scotia in Canada, and we care about our little economy here and are prepared to invest in it. But the mechanisms are simply not designed to enable that or support that. 22:10 Steve Song: All of the kinds of universal service schemes are aimed at big operators and trying to somehow create an attractive enough scenario for big operators to arrive here. And even when they do, you may only get one operator that actually ultimately ends up serving a region through a universal service program that provides you with access. But it doesn't necessarily provide you with affordability because there's no competitive pressure on the prices. Christopher Mitchell: You allow me to make a wonderful point that I've been kicking around lately, which is in the United States, the Connect America Fund, has certain requirements in terms of a history of operations, a letter of credit and this and that. You got to jump through these hoops that really discourages local solutions from getting the money. They prefer to lend to big stable organizations like Frontier and Windstream, companies that are going through bankruptcy right now. And it makes you think. We know that AT&T does not care about rural America. We know that CenturyLink has been very clear for years that they will only invest in rural America, where they get most of the money from someone else. And for some reason, that seems to still be the way the federal government thinks it should be distributing money. And they should have figured out a long time ago, that's not the best model. But it just seems like it's set by who has the powerful lobby rather than what's best for a community like you. I mean, you, like most communities, don't get a say in how the money is spent on your benefit and it's just wrong. Steve Song: Well, and indeed. We have formed and registered a cooperative here with the intent of raising money to build a rural fiber broadband network, but unfortunately haven't been able to participate in any of the universal service schemes because of requirements of being a commercial operator. I understand this is government money, and one wants to make sure that is spent in a responsible way. At the same time, cooperatives have demonstrated themselves throughout the U.S., in Northern England, in Spain, as being very, very credible alternatives and creating mechanisms to allow them to thrive. I think it's just a missed opportunity. The irony is that cooperatives have such a pedigree where where I live in Nova Scotia, they've been around for 150 years. And in the agricultural sector and the finance sector have proven to be the optimum mechanism in many ways for stimulating rural economies. 24:47 Christopher Mitchell: Yes. It is frankly depressing how few lessons were taken correctly from the enormous success of the rural electrification administration. To some extent, I'm glad people do still recollect that it happened and that's how we connected rural America. But people really haven't yet understood that the magic was the local ownership of the cooperatives rather than a whole lot of federal money. Steve Song: Well, and indeed. I mean that lesson is being taken on in, not just in the global North, but in the global South, in South Africa. In the Eastern Cape, there's a cooperative that was formed just a few years ago called Zenzeleni. And they are delivering Internet services in a rural area at a fraction of the cost of the incumbents. And they can be doing so much better. Not to circle the conversation around, but if they had access to spectrum, because they have wifi technologies, which are great but not great for rural areas where you're trying to cover a large sparsely populated region. So that's certainly part of my work now is working to encourage regulators to release that spectrum in rural areas. One of the things we know is that spectrum in rural areas, in any country you pick in the world, is mostly unoccupied. 26:17 Steve Song: If you take something like 2.6 gigahertz, which is a popular LTE band in the UK, into rural areas, it's maybe 5% occupation of that spectrum. So what is needed, I think are specific rules around rural access to spectrum. We can't treat it the same as in urban areas. And that's one place where the UK is actually pioneering a very interesting new models for access to LTE spectrum, specifically designed for rural areas. And it's interesting, it's a bit like CBRS, but it's more targeted to areas where there is no use of spectrum in rural areas, whereas CBRS is more generic in that respect. Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's excellent. It's a good note of hope to end on, and I appreciate you taking the time to come on the show, Steve, and share the work you've done around the world, but also helping us to remind ourselves that just because we did things one way in the past, it doesn't mean we have to keep doing them the wrong way. Steve Song: I'm flattered to be asked. I'm a big fan of your work. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Steve Song of Mozilla. 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 and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support, at any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 403 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening. Link: Tags: transcript

Benefits of Telehealth Go Beyond Covid-19 in Rural NC - Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Bonus Episode Seven

muninetworks.org - April 9, 2020

With Covid-19 cases growing across the country, it's more important now than ever that households have access to telehealth services.

For the seventh episode of the "Why NC Broadband Matters" podcast series, we spoke with Dave Kirby, president of the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association, about the role of telehealth in the healthcare system, both during the pandemic and after it ends. "Why NC Broadband Matters" is created in partnership with NC Broadband Matters, a nonprofit organization working to connect communities across North Carolina to high-quality broadband access. In his conversation with Christopher, Dave explains the important functions broadband serves in modern healthcare systems, and he describes different telehealth applications, including video visits and connected care devices. The pair discuss how hospital closures and limited access to healthcare impacts rural North Carolina communities. Dave touches on some of the research into how broadband can connect underserved areas to remote healthcare providers. Unfortunately, many rural communities don't have adequate Internet access, and the lack of connectivity is a barrier to telehealth. Christopher and Dave talk about the challenges to expanding broadband for telehealth in rural areas but also about the potential cost savings of better healthcare access in the state Before wrapping up the interview, Dave predicts that the current Covid-19 crisis will push more healthcare providers to adopt telehealth, even after the pandemic ends. They also consider how the move to telehealth services could actually improve outcomes for many people in North Carolina. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or with the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed. Read the transcript for this episode.  Listen to other Community Broadband Bits episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Thanks to Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com a Creative Commons Attribution (4.0) license. Tags: podcastaudiobroadband bitsquarantinenorth carolinatelehealthrural

OpenCape Residential Fiber Pilot a Window to Better Connectivity on Cape Cod

muninetworks.org - April 9, 2020

Earlier this month, OpenCape Corporation, a nonprofit fiber provider in southeastern Massachusetts, announced that it will pilot Fiber-to-the-Premises residential service at a new mixed-use development in Hyannis on Cape Cod. For the project, CapeBuilt Development is renovating a historic building to house apartments and businesses. Thanks to OpenCape’s connectivity, they will be first fully fiberized residential units on the Cape. OpenCape hopes that the pilot project in Hyannis will serve as a model for towns in the region that are looking to invest in municipal broadband networks. The Covid-19 pandemic emphasizes the importance of investing in quality connectivity for Cape Cod families to enable working and learning from home. “The only way that becomes truly possible is to ensure that they have access to robust, reliable and affordable Internet connectivity in their homes,” said OpenCape CEO Steven Johnston in the press release. In response to the current public health crisis, OpenCape has also upgraded customers’ bandwidth and taken the Federal Communication Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge to not disconnect customers affected by the pandemic or charge late fees. “It is something we feel fits within our mission, that we are supposed to be serving the communities in southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod,” Johnston told the Falmouth Enterprise. “Hip and Historic” The location of OpenCape’s new pilot, 255 Main, is a restoration of the town’s historic Furman building, which once housed the Hyannis Board of Trade during the previous century. “It is incredibly fitting that 255 Main will be the very first fiber enabled residential units on Cape Cod,” Johnston explained in the release. “As we looked for ideal locations to pilot residential service, this location was an excellent fit based on our goals and objectives for the Hyannis downtown area.” In partnership with developer CapeBuilt, the pilot project will connect all of the residences and businesses in 255 Main to OpenCape’s fully fiber broadband network. These will be the first fiber-enabled housing units on Cape Cod, according to OpenCape. Building residents will be able to subscribe to gigabit connectivity for less than $68 per month, which CapeBuilt is including in rent for the first year. “We describe 255 Main as being at the Cape’s intersection of hip and historic,” said Rob Brennan, president of CapeBuilt, in the press release. “With the addition of OpenCape’s 100 percent fiber internet, residents at 255 Main will access the fastest internet on Cape Cod.” Connecting the Cape With the residential pilot in Hyannis, OpenCape hopes to inspire other communities in the region that are exploring municipal broadband networks. “Our goal is to pick a handful of projects like 255 Main to use as examples for towns who are considering building their own fiber networks and connecting them to the OpenCape Network,” Johnston shared in the release. Falmouth is one of the Cape Cod towns getting closer to a community fiber network. Home to about 32,000 people, Falmouth already has municipal facilities and anchor institutions connected to a cost-saving fiber network operated by OpenCape, and the nonprofit is in the process of expanding to downtown businesses. Currently, the community is conducting a feasibility study, commissioned by Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, to determine if the town should invest in a citywide fiber network. Early survey results are promising. Learn more about OpenCape on episode 215 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Tags: massachusettsopencapecape codfalmouth mafiberpilot project

Community Broadband Networks Round up Half of ReConnect Round One Awards

muninetworks.org - April 8, 2020

Last fall, we reported on the large number of community-owned broadband networks among the applicants for the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect broadband program, which awards grants and loans to expand rural connectivity. Since then, the USDA has distributed more than $620 million to 70 providers in 31 states as part of ReConnect round one. Just over half of the awardees are community networks, including rural cooperatives, local governments, community agencies, and a tribal provider. The other ReConnect awardees are locally owned providers. Almost all grant and loan recipients plan to build high-quality fiber networks with the funds. While the impact will be limited by the relatively modest size of the program and restrictive eligibility requirements, the ReConnect awards will nevertheless lead to improved economic opportunity and quality of life in rural areas. These investments will enable more rural Americans to take advantage of precision agriculture, online education, and telehealth visits — services that are now more important than ever as the nation finds itself in the grips of a pandemic. Co-ops, Munis Win Big Approximately 30 rural telephone and electric cooperatives in 16 different states are taking home ReConnect grants and loans from the first round of funding. Co-op awards include a nearly $19 million grant for Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative, a $28 million grant and loan for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and a $2.73 million grant for Emery Telecom for projects in Colorado and Montana. Several municipal networks are also recipients of ReConnect funding. One of the awardees, Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa, accepted a modest grant to expand it’s broadband network to homes, farms, and businesses outside of the small city. Another, the Town of Arrowsic, Maine, is working with two nearby communities to invest in a new fiber network, financed by a $1.2 million combined grant and loan. Orangeburg County, South Carolina, will use the nearly $10 million grant it received to expand its long-standing Fiber-to-the-Home network to connect more county residents. In addition to cooperatives and local governments, awards also went to a pair of development agencies in rural West Virginia and a tribal telecommunications company owned by the Seneca Nation. These loans and grants will help put more rural Americans in charge of their own connectivity because the elected officials and co-op boards that operate community-owned broadband networks are more accountable to their subscribers. And the ReConnect funds going to local companies, instead of cooperative or municipal providers, will still benefit rural communities. Since they’re connecting friends and neighbors and not faceless customers states away, locally-rooted networks are likely to continue to invest in their rural infrastructure and provide top-notch customer service, unlike national monopolies like Frontier Communications. Reconsidering ReConnect Round one of the USDA’s ReConnect program already has resulted in a better outcome than the early phases of the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund, which gave billions of dollars to national monopolies to waste on decrepit rural DSL networks. However, there are still facets of the ReConnect program that could be improved to ensure all rural communities have a fair shot at accessing financing. Only the most disconnected rural areas are eligible for funding. Eligible areas must have at least 90 percent of the population unserved at speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload, far lower than the FCC’s definition of broadband, 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Additionally, areas already receiving subsidies from the FCC are excluded from the ReConnect program. This will leave behind the rural communities where geostationary satellite company Viasat is receiving subsidies to provide expensive, unreliable satellite access. Local official Nick Green shared with us how the rules will arbitrarily impact the residents of Grant County, Oregon, which partnered with Oregon Telephone Corporation on a ReConnect-funded fiber project: We have to tell the residents in those areas we can’t use this federal funding to connect you because according to the rules you’re already connected via satellite. And their response is, “Are you kidding? I can see the fiber optic cable running in front of my property.” In February, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden urged the USDA to address this issue and other concerns with the ReConnect program, including eligibility requirements and the accessibility of the application process. “Many local ISPs feel as if [applying] is more akin to a high-stakes gamble rather than soliciting funding for a fiber-to-the-premises project,” they explained in a letter to the federal agency. More Funding in the Pipeline Currently, the USDA is in the process of distributing an additional $550 million in grants and loans for the second round of the ReConnect program. Because of the pandemic, the agency pushed the application deadline for this round of funding back to April 15, and Congress allocated another $100 million for ReConnect grants as part of the federal response effort. Also on the federal level, the FCC is preparing to auction off up to $16 billion in subsidies at the end of this year as part of the Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF). We expect to see another strong showing from community-owned networks, similar to the FCC’s earlier Connect America Fund reverse auction in which electric cooperatives won over $250 million. With families across the country stuck at home for many more weeks, Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon, has proposed expediting some of the RDOF funding to speed up broadband deployment and address the digital divides being exacerbated by the national emergency. Listen below to Chambers on Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 402 to learn more about RDOF and about his proposal.   Image credit for picture of fiber deployment: Robert Ashworth via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 license Tags: usdafederal fundingfederal grantfundinggrantloanruralcooperativerural electric coop

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 402

muninetworks.org - April 7, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon about how Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) differs from Connect America Fund. The pair also discuss how the FCC should move the auction process so that local ISPs can quickly start connecting rural households during the pandemic. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.     Jonathan Chambers: This approach is that the winners and losers are not chosen in Washington. They're chosen at the local level by whether somebody's willing to step up, build a network, provide service. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. We have Jonathan Chambers back on the show today. Jon is a partner at Conexon, which works with rural electric cooperatives to expand Fiber-to-the-Home in rural areas. In this episode, Christopher and Jon discuss the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund or RDOF. They discuss the eligibility and auction process for RDOF and how it is related to the Connect America Fund. Jon breaks down some of the differences between the two programs, including that RDOF will be more influenced by local initiatives than the Connect America Fund was. Jess Del Fiacco: And Jon and Christopher discuss why these changes should result in better networks and better service for rural areas. Before we get started, we have a quick question for our listeners. We recognize that news is happening quickly these days. That's why we're releasing this episode ahead of our usual schedule. We want to know if you'd prefer shorter, more frequent episodes of this podcast, or if you'd rather we stick with our standard weekly schedule. We always want to do what works best for you, so leave a comment on this episode post, send us an email at podcast@medianetworks.org, or reach out to us on social media to let us know what you think. Now, here's Christopher talking with Jon Chambers of Conexon. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast headset edition. Hope my voice is coming through okay, but this is having some technical difficulties with the working from home. Nonetheless, I have a wonderful guest, a repeat offender, Jon Chambers, partner at Conexon. Welcome back to the show. Jonathan Chambers: Thank you, Chris. Thanks for having me. Good to talk to you as always. 2:00 Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and we're going to be talking about rural broadband subsidies, the program that's been set up and it may or may not happen this year now as everything seems up in the air, but for people who are brand new to the show, why don't you tell us a little bit about what Conexon does? Jonathan Chambers: We do one thing. We work with rural electric cooperatives across the country helping them plan for design, construct, operate, maintain fiber optic networks. The only thing we do are Fiber-to-the-Home networks. It's the technology we believe in. It's the only thing we think that anyone should invest their funds in. Christopher Mitchell: And depending on how we count, there's now more than 100 rural electric cooperatives that have customers who are turned on with fiber optic broadband networks. I mean, you actually tend to follow this a little more closely than we do. We do our best, but is that number about right? Jonathan Chambers: You'd think that it'd be easy to know that number, and we work with well over 150 co-ops today, over 40 of which have built and are operating fiber networks. I'd say the majority of the rest of them are in areas where the population density is so sparse that it does require some kind of public support, grant subsidy, which is my lead in to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. I think that once this Rural Digital Opportunity Fund gets up and running and produces the opportunity, we'll have 50 to 100 additional electric co-ops get into the business. Christopher Mitchell: That's excellent. And for people who need a little bit of background, we've covered this numerous times before, but the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund ultimately will be a $20 billion auction process. It is the third round effectively of the Connect America Fund approach to expanding broadband in rural areas, and in particular, this is kind of the end of what you and I would consider just tragic and incredibly frustrating lost opportunities in which companies like AT&T and CenturyLink and Frontier got billions of dollars to build obsolete connections. They're still cashing checks this month, next month, all the way through December, but very soon we will see an auction process that will open that up and we believe make better use of the money. You think that's a pretty accurate description for someone who's not all that familiar with the process? 4:50 Jonathan Chambers: It may seem to some people that this, the new fund that was announced last year by Chairman Pai, this new program, it may seem like it's new. This particular latest evolution started in 2011, and from 2011 to today, until later this year and before the funds start flowing next year, will be a decades-long process to finally take what had been subsidies that are given to one type of company, telephone companies, with regulatory requirements to produce a minimal level of service, to change that entire construct, to be one where funding is made available to those who would provide the best level of service, and the process by which the funding is given out is through an auction process. Jonathan Chambers: It may seem like it all is going to come in a rush, 16, $20 billion for the next 10 years, but in the last 10 years, the FCC has spent $45 billion for a combination of four megabit per second service in some places, 10 megabits per second service in some places and 25 megabits per second service in some places. So this RDOF has that chance to produce Fiber-to-the-Home networks in large parts of the country, capable of 10 Gigabit per second services. It's a dramatic change. It's just like a lot of things in life. It's not an overnight change. It's a 10-year long process. 6:31 Christopher Mitchell: And I think what you noted in terms of the four megabit, the 10 megabit, the 25 megabit connections, those were the minimum required. And in some cases that's a generous minimum. I don't think we're actually seeing the testing yet to find out if companies like AT&T and Frontier are actually meeting that minimum. But on the plus side, I know that some of the smaller companies did in fact invest in fiber optic technology. But our collective frustration is that that money wasn't used entirely for technologies that are future-proof, that can provide a high quality of service in rural areas that is similar to what we expect in urban areas, which has been how we treated telecommunications from the beginning, more or less of telecommunications. Jonathan Chambers: Yeah. This is a long-standing debate. It goes back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the years prior to that, the debate as to whether areas of the country were so sparse that the only way you could support any type of service, electric service, telephone service, broadband service, would be to have a single monopoly which was regulated and which received guaranteed rates of return or guaranteed subsidies. Not just the last 10 years I talked about, but this is now after 25 years, finally a change that you can see taking place across the country. A long-standing theory that only one company could survive anywhere and therefore we should provide it with funds, guaranteed payments and regulated versus the other theory, which is, this market is like a lot of markets. 8:28 Jonathan Chambers: If you allow for people to compete in the marketplace, you'll get the best results. And, of course, there will be areas that get better service and areas that get worse service. I'll always remember somebody telling me when I first joined the FCC years ago, I didn't stay very long, but when I was first at the FCC, somebody saying, "We take the spread the peanut butter thin approach." Everybody gets the minimum. And, I don't know, I don't want to take this analogy too far. I'm more like a chunky peanut type. I think- Christopher Mitchell: Yuck. Jonathan Chambers: I think you get this approach, the approach that the FCC is taking now is going to produce inconsistent results across the country. There will be parts of the country with terrific service, rural areas with Fiber-to-the-Home service, with world-class service. And there will be parts of the country without. And it's going to be a sorting over time. If you believe in competition, you don't have to believe in the results of competition, which is that the best does win out, but it doesn't win out everywhere. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think is important about that is that I don't think we will see massive regions in which there's no access. I think we will see that areas that, for instance, have well-organized and well-run cooperatives, we'll see better access. I think areas in which counties are better organized will find ways of improving their situation. And so this isn't a situation in which the federal government is picking the winners and losers, to use a phrase that is often loaded, but there's no getting around the fact that there are going to be winners and losers. 10:18 Jonathan Chambers: Yeah, but this is, and you just put your finger on it, this approach, and that's why I'm so supportive, but I realize that not everybody is, this approach is that the winners and losers are not chosen in Washington. They're chosen at the local level by whether somebody is willing to step up, build a network, provide service. This is so much more a local initiative approach to building broadband. I don't think that's quite appreciated. The reason that I'm so enamored by electric co-ops and the way electric co-ops were organized, arranged themselves, built networks, sustain those networks, stayed in those local communities, and by and large the same electric networks that was started in 1930s is that it is local. Locally owned, locally controlled. Membership-owned networks where the boards come from the community. That's really what we're talking about here with broadband, making broadband in rural areas look a lot more like rural electric co-ops have looked like for 80 years. Jonathan Chambers: We also think that electric networks themselves, since they have a requirement to get fiber built into the networks for a whole host of reasons that I won't bore you with, we think that the electric networks of the future are a combination of electric and fiber networks, and that it's electric cooperatives that are taking the lead. And it's not taking the lead on... you're sort of touching on this a little bit. You can't tell me, if you're just in some part of the country, you can't tell me whether something like this is going to take hold or not. We work a lot in Mississippi and in Arkansas and in Oklahoma and in Missouri, and in parts of the country that are the poorest counties in the states, the poorest parts of the nation, and it's in those parts of the country that we find folks are having the most success in building these networks. This is local initiative. It has to come from leadership at the local level. It is the furthest thing from a program dictated by an office building at 12th and D Street in Southwest Washington, D.C. 12:53 Christopher Mitchell: I'm going to ask you about SpaceX in a second, but I want to cover one other thing that I think people should be aware of, and that's how the reverse auction works, which is just to say that, let's assume that there's a set of territories that there is a subsidy available for, and I would say I'm willing to build a fiber optic network. They're offering gigabit service and I will need some amount of money per household in order to do that. And then if you were to say, "Well, I can do Gigabit at a lower amount," then you would beat me in that auction. And it gets more complicated because there's different tiers of service, and there's package bidding and things like that. But fundamentally the auction works in that, in a list of available areas that are up for auction, we're looking for service providers that can build the best network at the lowest cost effectively to the Universal Service Fund. Jonathan Chambers: Yeah. So there's been a twist in a very positive direction with the auction design. Christopher Mitchell: One that you were involved with. Jonathan Chambers: I gave a lot of credit to Chairman Pai for adopting this proposal. Yes. But for adopting this proposal. And that is, it isn't quite the best network at the lowest cost. The current design of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction is the best network for the budget, the best network. That's a really different approach. The actual auction is referred to as... It's a reverse auction. It's a descending clock reverse auction that's in two stages. To unpack that a little bit, the reverse part just means, in a forward auction you're bidding for items. You say, "What am I bid for this something? This vase?" I bid $100. They'll start the bidding at $100. That's the reserve price, and people bid it up. That's a forward auction. Jonathan Chambers: In a reverse auction, you're bidding for money. In a reverse auction, the reverse part is, you say, "Who would be willing to provide service?" That's the unit you're agreeing to, that's your obligation. "Who's willing to provide service for $100?" And then the descending part is, after you say you have more than one person willing to provide service in a specific geographic area for $100, then the question is, "Okay, who's willing to provide service for $90?" So the descending, instead of the bidding going up, the bidding goes down and when you have one bidder remaining, that bidder wins. 15:36 Jonathan Chambers: Here's the twist. The FCC has said that when they have sufficient budget for all the bids everywhere across the country, that they will, at that point, you get to what's called the budget clearing round. The FCC will establish the budget clearing around price point and at that point they will award funding to the highest tier, that is the highest performance tier in every geographic area where there's a bidder. So, Gigabit-tier bidding wins. Whether or not somebody would be willing to build a lesser network for less money, the FCC is prepared to award funds to the best level of service, not the cheapest level of service. That's almost a commonplace, "Sure, why wouldn't you do that," kind of an approach. It's revolutionary in terms of like in FCC or regulatory speak. It's a regulatory revolution. Christopher Mitchell: I quite like that provision. Just so people are fully understanding, then, the terminology clearing means when... If we have $17 million available, if... for all of the awards, all totaled together, and all of these areas are added up, means that at that point the $17 billion would cover everything. That means it clears, right? Jonathan Chambers: Yeah. So to use the actual numbers in this auction, if you add up every single reserve price, and the reserve prices are determined by the FCC's cost model, if you add up every reserve price and every eligible census block across the country, you get $29 billion. That's from information the FCC released last week. The budget for this auction is 16 billion. There's two phases to the auction, but the first phase is 16 billion. So you have $29 billion chasing 16. So you have to have round after round. 17:43 Jonathan Chambers: First you have your opening round and you add up all of the bids everywhere across the country, and you add up that amount of money, and that's the total amount of bidding pressure you have. And to the extent round after round that the total bidding pressure is above $16 billion, the auction continues. You go to the next round. Once you add up all of the bidding across the country and you get one penny below $16 billion, the budget clears. You get to the clearing round, and it's at that point that whatever the clearing round price is, that Gigabit tier beats a 100 megabit tier, a 100 megabit tier beats 50 megs, 50 meg beats 25, that is the FCC will award funding to the highest tier at that point within their budget. Christopher Mitchell: One of the interesting things that came along, I mean, you and I have been very much in agreement regarding the foolishness of putting federal dollars after geostationary satellite, which is to say the Viasat, the HughesNet, the sort of satellite services that even most people in rural America have rejected despite wanting Internet access. And having that as their only option, a majority of them have decided not to use it because it is encumbered by high prices and low performance and all kinds of problems. And the FCC has a list of technologies that cannot bid at certain levels. For instance, we know that DSL cannot deliver Gigabit, and so if you're bidding with DSL's technology, you're not allowed to bid to deliver Gigabit. And for a long time the rules were set, or appeared to be set, such that satellite technologies could not bid for Gigabit. And then, let me just have you pick up the story there, because it seems to me just repeating the mistakes of 1996 in terms of just assuming that promising technologies will pan out. 19:42 Jonathan Chambers: The way the FCC operates under the chairman currently is, three weeks before a vote they release a draft order, a draft public notice, whatever draft that they're going to vote on. And then, in the intervening weeks before the votes, lobbying goes on. It's a shock, isn't it? Christopher Mitchell: Right. Good and bad. I mean, if you're just going to be overly simplistic, let's say good and bad lobbying takes place. Jonathan Chambers: You know, it's in the constitution. You can seek redress from your government. I'm not against lobbyists. I didn't want them in my past life. So the FCC released a public notice setting out its rules for the auction and its procedures for the auction. So this was what's called a Procedures Public Notice. And the procedures largely followed the same procedures that were used in the Connect America Fund auction, which said that the only folks that could bid at the highest tier, the only technology that folks could use to bid at the highest tier, was technology that was already in use, by demonstration of having offered service already and submitted to the FCC as they collect information every six months under what's the form number is... Form 477, only for technologies where people had reported on their Forms 477 that they offer Gigabit service. Seems simple enough, right? Don't give money to somebody for a technology that doesn't actually... isn't proven to offer the service. So that was the approach that they had taken here. Christopher Mitchell: If I could jump in for a second, I mean, for instance, one of the reasons for that is that a technology may work well. If you remember when 4G LTE came out, man, it was great because there was like three people with 4G LTE phones. And if you expected the same performance then that happened when millions of people had those phones, it's a whole different world. And this stuff's complicated, and so, even stuff that looks like it'll work may get complicated when a million people try to use it simultaneously. 21:56 Jonathan Chambers: In the past, the FCC has followed an approach where it would spend public funds on the tried and true technologies, those that had already been deployed and operate in the public marketplace so that you can see the performance. It's not, again, not that radical a notion. Leave speculation to venture capital. Use public funds for that which has already been proven. That's the approach. The FCC released... It voted on this public notice and released it, and when they released it, they had changed the language and they had changed it in a particular way to open the door to low Earth orbiting satellites to bid at the Gigabit tier, which is a service that they don't provide today because they don't provide any service today. And so it is an unproven technology, an unproven approach. We're currently in a public comment period. The FCC hasn't resolved the question. I don't think it's a big deal for the FCC to ask the question. You know, it's fine. This is a rule making. You ask questions, you get public responses, and then you make a decision. Jonathan Chambers: It would be a really big deal to open up the public purse to a speculative venture like any of the low Earth orbiting satellites. If they prove themselves out, if they can deliver Gigabit service over a period of time and report to the FCC, just like everybody else has to do, then maybe at a future auction they'd be admitted to bid at that tier. But that's not the way the rules have ever been written before. That's not the approach anybody's taken before. And look, everybody will find advances in their technologies. So this is unfair to every other technology who might say, "Oh, but my technology will evolve and eventually be able to provide Gigabit service." I'm sure the fixed wireless providers would say that. So to treat low Earth orbiting satellites as a special case, that is to give them a special benefit, different than every other technology, than every other service provider, than every other company, it would be highly unusual. I don't expect that's what will happen, but, like they say, watch this space. 24:30 Christopher Mitchell: So, Jon, this is an issue in which I feel like... I know that you have a very defensible position on some people that I quite respect take a disagreement, and I just can't make up my own mind on it because I see that it's frustrating on both sides. And this has to do with what some are calling stacking. The idea that if you accept money from the FCC in this auction process, you are not supposed to accept other money as well, which is also to say that census blocks that are getting money from a state or some other program like ReConnect and USDA are not supposed to be eligible then for money from the Connect America Fund. And so, if you want to walk us through why we should not have stacking, then I'll be happy to try and complicate that a little bit. Jonathan Chambers: Yeah, so I have both a policy view and a practical view on that. My policy view is, I agree with the FCC's approach. If a state or a federal agency, state agency has provided funding for broadband in an area and the recipient is offering service or is gotten money to offer service that exceeds the FCC's threshold, the minimum of 25/3 threshold, then, you know, public money is scarce. Don't duplicate public money. I agree with the approach what the FCC has adopted. 26:04 Jonathan Chambers: They're going to try to cull the list of eligible census blocks to remove from the list, from the RDOF auction, anywhere where someone has received state funding or reconnect funding, which is an RUS program. Again, as a policy matter, I think that's the right policy. As a practical matter, I think it takes too much time, just like I think it takes too much time for another decision the FCC made, which was to allow for carriers to update or challenge or produce new information that would challenge the current FCC's eligible block list. In other words, to remove additional areas because somebody is claiming service, and again this is a claim of service. They don't have to prove anything. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's so frustrating because... Then you almost want to then have a challenge for the challenge process. Jonathan Chambers: Then you'd want to challenge process, and when the FCC conducted a true challenge process prior to the CAF II, the right of first refusal process, it took two years, or 18 months. It took an inordinate amount of time and very little was changed at the end of the day. And the reason very little gets changed is you do have this challenge and counter challenge and here's what we don't have for either of those things. You could say both are the right policy. They're the right policy because you want the right results. You want money targeted, you want scarce dollars spent wisely. All of that's true. Jonathan Chambers: Here's what we don't have today. We don't have time. We're out of time. The nation is in crisis and as anyone who lives in a rural area would tell you today, living in an area in today's society without access to broadband is living at an extreme disadvantage. Can your kids go to school today? My kids are at home. They're at home because all the schools in my area are shut down, and my schools are having online classes. If I were living in a rural area where my kids don't have access to school because they don't have access to online classes and the school was shut down, what are you telling them? Christopher Mitchell: Yes. 28:25 Jonathan Chambers: I'm working from home. Easy for me to work from home. Christopher Mitchell: Right. So, the reason that I agree with you on that is, I find it very frustrating that there are places here in Minnesota in which credible estimates suggest the public, through local subsidies, state subsidies and federal, are paying 90% of the cost of building Fiber-to-the-Home that CenturyLink will loan. It's not in many places, but I find that principle odious, that we would put that much public money into something that people have no control over the future of the governance, the rate structure, any of these sort of decisions. And so, for that reason, I'm frustrated with the idea of stacking subsidies, particularly because it's companies that have massive staffs that can figure out how to do this. Small companies are going to be much less able to be able to figure out how to navigate all these different processes. Christopher Mitchell: At the same time, when I talk with my friend Matt Schmidt who is now working with the State of Illinois and he looks at it and he says, "Well," and this would be my interpretation of what he would say, because he would not say it in this way, but, "If Illinois gets stuck with census blocks in which the FCC has decided that it's going to subsidize some lame 25 megabit connection, then Illinois would like to take a shot at improving that in order to make sure that those folks have better access." And that to me seems like a reasonable argument because there is so little local input into how this decision is made. 30:05 Jonathan Chambers: You understand my general view, which is, money for broadband, solving the rural broadband problem, is not that difficult, and that most of the efforts to date, federal and state efforts have reduced the prospects that you'll get through broadband. Money is spent and given to somebody for some minimal level of service which makes it harder for somebody else to come in and compete. The wrong levels of service are set. The wrong geographic, and the designations are set. You make it too difficult for one type of company or another type of company. I think it's all much simpler and maybe that's just the way my mind works. I think we need to set a national priority and a national priority is for fiber to every home in the country. Jonathan Chambers: Now you and I may disagree as to either the public ownership with public funds, or how it's operated or all the rest of it, but I think the one great failing of the past administration, less so the current one, but the current administration, too, is that the definition of what's necessary often does get set at the top. If you set a speed as your standard, you'll get speeds. If you set capacity, you'll get capacity. If you say fiber, you will get fiber. And there are those, I suppose, who will argue that there's something better than fiber out there, but man, they've not been in my business. Christopher Mitchell: Five years ago I pooh-poohed the idea of fixed wireless doing very much. Increasingly I think fixed wireless will provide essential competition, but I strongly believe that we should set a national priority of fiber everywhere, and in areas in which... that we don't see the fiber being managed in ways that people like, whether it's how it's priced or the services or reliability or whatever. I think there's opportunities for fixed wireless technologies to be used in different business models. I remain extremely concerned about the fixed wireless technology and the business model of certain companies, which is not to say anything about all fixed wireless companies, but there are many who I think are just trying to figure out how to... if you can serve 70% of a region, that's good enough. And that just leaves us with a massive public policy problem. So I'm strongly supportive of a fiber policy set at the highest levels. 32:43 Jonathan Chambers: If I have one complaint, and I guess I complain as much as the next guy, but one complaint about the RDOF, about most state programs, about the general policy approach, is that it will leave some folks with a lesser level of service over a long period of time, and there won't be other funding. If it's satellite, and there will be a lot of satellite pay for out of RDOF, if it's fixed wireless. If it's other levels of service, that's it. The FCC has spent its money. It's spent a decade's worth of money and they're not going to say later, they're not going to say in two years, "Oh, there's somebody else now willing to build a fiber network. Okay, we're going to make more money available for you," or, "We're going to take the money away from the person that won it before." Jonathan Chambers: So, back to what I was saying earlier, you'll get this unevenness across the country. Not everybody is ready. Not everybody has a local institution that's capable of building a Fiber-to-the-Home network and operating it. You won't get that. I do think we need to get started, but I do worry about spending public money on technologies that are only meant to last for three years or five years and then you got to come back and spend the public money again. Christopher Mitchell: So you have a proposal that is detailed on the Conexon site, on the blog that's there. It went up I think March 23rd, maybe, or something like that, but definitely here recently. I am curious if you can just give us a thumbnail sketch of why everything's changed in the past two weeks. I mean, this is a time in which we've gone from thinking there could be an issue to kind of come into grips with the fact that many of us are going to be leaving our homes very infrequently for several weeks. But what does that mean for what Congress should do in regard to RDOF, and more broadly, rural broadband? 34:44 Jonathan Chambers: I do think the RDOF is a great program. What I wrote in the blog and what I'm advocating for is that they accelerate the implementation of it. The FCC has an awful lot to do in a short period of time, and I'm worried they won't get their work done and this program will slip. And I think, as what I was saying before, the one thing I think the country doesn't have anymore is time. We have a lot of time hanging around our houses, I guess. We don't have time to build these networks. I work for a 50 to 100 electric co-ops right now who'd be prepared to start building fiber networks in rural areas if the RDOF program were implemented today. Under the current timetable, it will be implemented at the end of this year, into next year, and into 2022. I think it needs to be implemented more quickly, and I have made a proposal about how to accelerate the implementation without changing the nature of the program, without changing the auction rules, without changing the amounts of money. Just an acceleration approach. Jonathan Chambers: And I think it's something that Congress could take up and pass. It wouldn't cost any money. And now that the whatever time this recording will be released, Congress has just voted to spend $2-plus trillion. This wouldn't be any additional appropriation by Congress. No additional expenditure. It just moves the timetable, and that's my main emphasis in all of this. It's time. We have folks ready to go to work now building networks. It's one of the few things you can do under the current crisis. Jonathan Chambers: You can build networks, you can be outside, you can replace poles, you can string strand, you can lash fiber, you can do all of the steps necessary to get fiber out into rural areas. And it produces economic activity because where you're building, you've got construction workers, you've got activity today, which then leads to the economic activity of the future because you'll be enabling through the networks, the kinds of social health care, educational, all of everything that people do by living on the Internet will be enabled in rural areas. So, that's my long-winded way of saying, we're ready now. Let's get started now. Let's move the timetable for the RDOF process up. 37:22 Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thank you, Jon. Jonathan Chambers: Thank you, Chris. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Jon Chambers of Conexon. You can learn more about Jon's proposal to speed up the RDOF program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in his recent blog post at Conexon's website. That's Conexon.US. 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, Local Energy Rules, and The Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to the monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening. Link: Tags: transcript

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 401

muninetworks.org - April 7, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 401 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Lisa Gonzalez, Senior Researcher of Community Broadband Networks initiative about her time advocating for local Internet choice. Lisa reflects back on her early days and shares her journey with ILSR. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.     Lisa Gonzalez: I feel really good about everything that we've done and where we are now and I feel confident that the community broadband initiative is going to be great without me and I feel really good about the future. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 401 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, the communications manager. If you're a regular listener, you may already be missing a familiar voice in our podcast. Lisa Gonzalez recently left her position as senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance to become an analyst for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. We couldn't let her leave without one final conversation on the show. In this interview, you'll hear Lisa and Christopher talk about her role at ILSR, how her work changed over the last eight years and how more communities than ever are turning to us for resources and advice. They reminisce a little about her early days on the job and why she felt so at home at ILSR. Lisa also talks about what she'll be doing in her new position with the Department of Commerce. We'll certainly miss having her as part of our team, but we know she'll do great things there. Here's Christopher talking with Lisa Gonzalez. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Super sad edition. Lisa has been with us, introduced more than 400 podcasts and this will be her final episode that she's appearing on at least for a while. Maybe, who knows? Maybe we'll get you back in a different capacity. Lisa Gonzalez is a senior researcher who's been working on my team for eight years here at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. You've been just a big part of the success that we've had. You were responsible for that, not just here for it. So Lisa, it's wonderful to have you on the show and very sad that this is the last time. Lisa Gonzalez: Well, thanks Chris. It is kind of sad to be here, but I feel confident that I'm passing the torch onto a really great group of people who are working for you. I feel really good about everything that we've done and where we are now. I feel confident that the community broadband initiative is going to be great without me. I feel really good about the future even though we are doing this remotely. 2:27 Christopher Mitchell: What a time to feel great about the future. Lisa Gonzalez: In the grips of a horrible virus scare, but that too shall pass because we have really strong, capable people who know a lot about science and we've survived this long and I'm sure we'll survive longer. So I feel good about it. Christopher Mitchell: I feel in anticipation of leaving my team, you're starting to take drugs. Lisa Gonzalez: Maybe for all you know this is when I've stopped. Christopher Mitchell: Well, Lisa, I feel we should review briefly what you've done, which is effectively everything on the team. But what has been the majority of your activity on a daily basis while you've been here in recent years? We can go back a little bit more and talk about the history of what you've seen and reflect on it, but what do you do around here? Lisa Gonzalez: Well, of course, as you said, that's changed over the years. But recently I have been managing the muninetworks.org website. That involves learning about different communities and what they've done to improve connectivity and sharing those stories and also researching what's happening with different laws in different communities. Different methods that people are using to improve Internet access. We've been doing a little bit more with digital inclusion in the past few years with tribal networks, mostly just getting the word out. So that's been the bulk of what I've been doing lately. Helping a little bit with technical advice for people who contact us. Doing the podcasts, editing them. Just a big variety of different things as needed. Christopher Mitchell: How many Google alerts would you say you average in a day? 4:15 Lisa Gonzalez: Well, I don't know because lately I've gotten a little bit behind on the Google alerts and that is because things have gotten so busy. That's another reason why I feel hopeful about this because what it means is more people are understanding the value of local networks. I have not too many Google alerts, only about, I don't know, 50 or 60 or so. But they have been pretty busy lately and that's one of the reasons why I've gotten a little bit behind. I would say each day I probably get, I don't know, somewhere between 40 and 50 so I do go through them. I have a different strategy, some are really broad, some are really narrow. But it's been really challenging the past couple of years because so many more people are realizing that if they want to stay competitive, their communities need to invest in this kind of infrastructure and take control of their local connectivity. Christopher Mitchell: You joined us about eight years ago, not long after a muninetworks.Org was launched. Certainly, muninetworks.org was doing a much lower traffic at that time in terms of the amount of content we were putting up, maybe three stories a week or so I think. At that time, if anything happened, we were just thrilled because sometimes we were trying to figure out what to do. Lisa Gonzalez: I remember sitting in my office and every time there'd be a story you'd come running in and you'd say, you have to write about this, you have to write about this. Oh I remember that. Christopher Mitchell: Straight out the teletype. Lisa Gonzalez: Exactly. Exactly. Now it's just difficult to keep up with. There's just so much and it's great. I feel like that's partly because of what we've been doing. I feel we've really expanded the word. 6:11 Christopher Mitchell: That was certainly our goal. It's been really rewarding to see that that's been something that's taken off and people have really appreciated that it's made a difference. At this point I think you have a Google doc of 100 stories or more that we'd like to do that we keep putting off. Because we add new higher priority stories on a regular basis. Whether that's me running in your office still, which happens less frequently or are you just seeing things? Lisa Gonzalez: Yes that Google doc is I believe something like 36 pages long. One of the things that I always have a new intern do is go back through the old pages because all of the news stories are at the beginning. I have an intern go through and try to look at the older stories, potential stories and oftentimes there are stories that are about a community that has already done something. Sometimes those stories are about communities that have examined the possibility and dismissed it. Sometimes those stories about communities that have examined the possibility and put in conduit or created policies or sometimes they're about communities that have actually... That's why we started something like that to just kind of watch communities and it's just amazing how many places are actually doing things. Christopher Mitchell: I feel there's a major transition four and a half years ago. I remember it well it was 2015 because my son was born. That's when I'm more or less realized I could not continue the level of micromanagement that I had been doing. I basically stopped being so... I would say micromanaging of your work and you took over muninetworks.org and since then it's been you who has been writing a lot of the stories, editing all of the stories, getting them up, managing the publication schedule and things like that. People still credit me for it, which I appreciate, but you've been the heart and the soul of the site for many years now. 8:16 Lisa Gonzalez: I remember that time and I remember how things were sort of starting to happen and your wife was expecting and you were like, I am getting kind of nervous. I don't really know what I'm going to do. I said, let me take care of muni networks. You were like, "I don't know." Christopher Mitchell: It's my baby. I'm going to have another baby but I want to keep my first baby. Lisa Gonzalez: Right. I said, "Well, you don't have much choice." And you did. I appreciate that. Because I really enjoy writing the shorter stories. I mean, I had done few reports and they were great. I like writing longer stuff but I prefer writing the up to date shorter things. It was a good way for me to feel productive because I'm the kind of person who likes to make things and produce things and get things out there. I like that quick turnaround and I really appreciated the fact that you allowed me to do that because I feel everyday I am productive and it's been a great experience. Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think readers, listeners to the podcast have all appreciated that you've made it such a priority. I know that you've gone above and beyond many days to make sure that you are getting it done. That you are providing fresh content for people. I know in talking to people that they appreciate it. They don't think they have a sense of what it takes to have managed that level of output to be publishing. I believe on one year, 550 stories and in two years, 450 stories or so in two of the years. It's just a remarkable amount of output that has been wonderful. 10:05 Lisa Gonzalez: It really does sneak up on you. But also, I mean one of the reasons why is because we have contacts and people get in touch with us and they're willing to let us talk to them and they are willing to share what's going on in their communities and that really does make our stories better. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Now, let's talk about, I think what it's like to be here. In part this is an opportunity not to talk about how this is the most amazing place to work, which it is. I certainly love the people that are here, but more a sense of how we do things. Because I think a number of people who don't like our work would think that we are just looking for ways of promoting municipal networks. I have tried to keep my eye on the ball that what we're doing is trying to help local communities be strong. Sometimes that means building a network and sometimes it means investigating it, but deciding not to. I'm just curious if you've seen over the eight years, have you seen that change at all or what your thoughts are in terms of when you ask yourself, what am I actually doing here? What are you doing here? Lisa Gonzalez: Good question, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: You don't ask yourself what you're doing here. Lisa Gonzalez: Obviously, I don't or else I'd be able to whip off an answer. Here's the thing. All my life I have felt people have tried to tell me what I should be doing and it's true. People have tried to tell me what they think I should be doing. People have tried to tell me that they know better what's for me than I know better what's for me. That's one of the things I appreciate about the Institute is, that's not what we're about. As a woman, especially being born when I was born, which was in the 60s, we don't need to get into any more detail. Christopher Mitchell: Right. The 1860s it been wonderful. 12:05 Lisa Gonzalez: Yes. It's been a wonderful 154 years. But I appreciate the fact that people need to make their own decisions. That's one of the things about the Institute that I like is people have the capacity to examine their situation and they're the only ones who know what's best for them. That might be an individual, it might be a municipality or a county or state. They should be the ones to decide what to do moving forward. Christopher Mitchell: Well, it seems you've been in the right place for a while. Lisa Gonzalez: Yes, I would say so. Christopher Mitchell: So if we talk about the podcast now, briefly, Lisa. We launched it eight years ago, approximately 50 episodes a year, more or less. Pretty accurately until this year moved a bunch of bonus episodes and things like that in the past few months. At the time I'd been listening to podcasts for three or four years and that time I felt like everyone had a podcast. But no, we were still pretty early and now everyone has a podcast and probably next year even more... Every once we'll have podcasts. I don't know. But I'm curious. I mean, when I first said, "Hey, I want you to edit this." What were your thoughts? Lisa Gonzalez: I was not a podcast fan. I never have been, which seems strange because I have a theater degree. I'm kind of like, "You cannot see a podcast." But I was also excited about the fact that I could do something that involves a certain amount of artistic content. So I was glad to do it. It felt a little strange to me. I had never worked with Audacity before. Now, I know a lot about it, although I think there's probably a lot more that I could learn about it. 14:00 Lisa Gonzalez: I will say that there are a lot of podcasts out there that I've listened to that I find annoying. Because I don't want to hear what you had for lunch before we get into the content of why you're here. I appreciate that about what we do. I'm glad that we started doing it because there is no... Well there may be a few other podcasts that cover this kind of material, but I think that we still fill a gap that people need to hear. Even if we don't have a gigantic audience. There are people who don't have the time to read the reports and don't have the time to read articles all the time and listening to a podcast is what they need. Christopher Mitchell: I feel before we talk about where you're going. One of the things I want to mentioned that's your... You mentioned you have the degree in theater, you have a JD in law, which has been very useful in the past here. You also have a deep, deep love of Renaissance Fair and geek culture type stuff. Lisa Gonzalez: How's that? Christopher Mitchell: For people who aren't familiar, Lisa has not even come close to expressing the interesting many eclectic tastes that she has. But let me ask you, as someone who's actually put on your own play recently, as we go back out in society again, do you want to make a pitch for people to do live theater or to do something they wouldn't ordinarily do, like go to the Renaissance Fair. Lisa Gonzalez: Yes. Actually I want them to do it now while they're stuck at home. I want them to open up a play by Shakespeare, by Oscar Wilde's, by someone who they have never read before by Eugene O'Neill. I want them to read it and I want them to read it out loud and I want them to film themselves. And then I want them to post it on YouTube and I want them to share it with all of their friends. I love theater and there's many reasons for it, partly because it's a way for people to understand each other. Also, because it's a wonderful teaching tool. Those are the reasons why I love to do it and it brings people together. Now that we're all separated, this is a wonderful time to be doing it and to be using the Internet to do it. So, I hope that people take that to heart and actually go online and do that. 16:30 Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about what you're going to be doing now. You're, moving to Broadway and you're putting on plays. Lisa Gonzalez: I am. They're all going to be exclusively online. Christopher Mitchell: You'll, probably do that from your home in Minneapolis. What's next for you, Lisa? What are you doing next week? Lisa Gonzalez: Starting Monday I'm going- Christopher Mitchell: As people who are listening to this. What did you start doing yesterday, Lisa? Lisa Gonzalez: I'm going to be working at the Department of Commerce. Christopher Mitchell: For the state of Minnesota. Lisa Gonzalez: For the state of Minnesota in the telecom division. Doing some of what I do now at ILSR for constituents in the state of Minnesota Christopher Mitchell: Just, I know that we're not going to get too deep into it, but what is the Department of Commerce do when it comes to telecom? Or is that what you're just finding out now? Lisa Gonzalez: A little bit of both. I'm told that I'm needed there and that we're going to be doing what we can to help consumers, especially for those that have had some issues with telecommunications companies and some other things. Developing good policy, good state policy. Christopher Mitchell: Good. Well, I certainly think that you will bring a fair eye to it. I don't want to... I guess I shouldn't make assumptions about others who are working in similar to us on issues that they call consumer issues. I certainly don't see it as consumer issues. I see it as subscriber when it comes to the Internet because we all produce. Nonetheless, the point I wanted to make is that one of the things in our office we've tried to do is not to pretend that if we could just get rid of Comcast, that it would be a good thing and that the world would be easier. But that the big companies play an important role and we may envision a different role for them in the future with different sets of regulations in a different marketplace structure. But that we're not angry at Comcast and we don't think that Comcast or a single company is the reason that there's some problems that we'd like to fix. 18:33 Lisa Gonzalez: Certainly, there are guidelines for them to follow and it's important that they do. Oftentimes, those guidelines need to be adjusted. Christopher Mitchell: I think that you're going to be a wonderful employee of the state and that you're someone who can put aside personal feelings and we've worked with me all these years despite your inherent contempt for me which I appreciate. Lisa Gonzalez: That's why it was eight years, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: Right. But Lisa, it's been a wonderful time. This is a point at which I want to make sure people... Check out the post Lisa wrote. A post about her time here, but I don't know that I've... I don't think I've written anything really publicly about it. But Lisa, I definitely credit you with a lot of the success that we've had. You've seen me raw times when I was learning how to manage by making mistakes and you with your maturity, your intelligence, your kindness, you helped guide me through it. When I was choosing between two recent graduates, younger people, and you as at a position knowing you're a single mom with two children at the time. It was one of those things in which I was just sort of like, I don't know. I'm a person who's not managed a lot before. Christopher Mitchell: I have a lot to learn and it was a little bit intimidating. I think that the single best decision that I made in the early years was hiring you. Because you brought a stability and just the strength of the office that I had no sense of when David talked me into hiring you. Lisa Gonzalez: Well. Thank you David. 20:15 Christopher Mitchell: That's right. David definitely... I mean I had no idea how to look for talent. David Morris, co-founder, ILSR said that it would be idiotic not to hire you. I had some doubts here or there. In part because honestly when you did the interview, this is the part I'm just remembering now. You seemed partially interested in the job. The other people that interviewed are desperate for the job and you were kind of like... You just had this look as you're looking around our office, which had been 20 years of dust and stuff. Lisa Gonzalez: It was disgusting. Lisa Gonzalez: When we moved into the new office, you guys had three vacuums in the closet. Christopher Mitchell: I think one of them worked partially. But at any rate, I mean the point I just wanted to make with that is that you're a very special person but also as other people are listening, there is I think a stigma against hiring a person who's a single mom. One of the things that I'll say that I think I learned is that not everyone is like you Lisa. But you brought a very no nonsense attitude. You knew how to get your work done. You focused on it and you got it done. I feel there's a tremendous power that comes from being responsible for two children solely that a lot of workplaces would benefit from. Lisa Gonzalez: I tend to agree with you. To be Frank, I had already. If you go back... If you're listening and you read my posts, you'll see that I had already applied for a lot of jobs at that point. I had heard crickets from everybody. So when I came in and talk to you, I kind of expected to just hear crickets from you as well. So I think I was probably not disinterested as much as not expecting much. I have sort of learned that when you are looking for a position or looking for anything where you're collaborating with someone, it's a two way street. It's not good to end up with someone who you are not going to be happy with because in as much as you were interviewing me, I was interviewing you. 22:42 Lisa Gonzalez: Who wants a job that they're going to hate. Because both of you will be unhappy and it's not going to remain permanent anyway. So, that was sort of the attitude that I had at the time and I appreciate the opportunity because I really didn't know anything that I was talking about when we got started and I really did learn a lot. I know that the things that I learned from you and David and John were things that allowed me to take this job that I'm going to be having at the state. It's a great opportunity and I appreciate it. Thanks Chris. Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, Lisa, it's a great place to end our last interview, but thank you from the bottom of my heart for being such a wonderful person in our office for all these years. Lisa Gonzalez: Thank you and you're welcome. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Lisa Gonzalez, former senior researcher at ILSR. 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 podcast from ILSR Building Local Power, local energy rules, and the composting for community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiative if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a minute to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 401 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening. Tags: transcript

Think Local, Connect Global with Smart Wireless Policy - Community Broadband Bits Episode 403

muninetworks.org - April 7, 2020

This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher speaks with Steve Song, a fellow at Mozilla who works to connect unserved communities across the globe. Steve shares his background starting out at a nonprofit Internet service provider in 1990s South Africa, and they discuss the negative but mostly positive effects of widespread Internet access. While acknowledging the limitations of mobile connectivity, Steve describes the essential role wireless technologies have played in connecting people worldwide. To get everyone online, Steve argues that we need a mixture of models, including wireless providers. Christopher and Steve also talk about how the potential impact of 5G is being diluted by focusing on high speeds instead of affordable, rural Internet access. At the same time, Steve explains that the U.S. has been a global leader in terms of opening up wireless spectrum for many uses. For better rural connectivity, Steve points to cooperatives as an exemplary model to follow, and he speaks to the need to treat spectrum differently in rural areas. Talk to us! Would you like to hear shorter, more frequent episodes instead of our usual weekly episodes to keep up with the ever-changing times? Let us know by commenting below, sending an email to podcast@muninetworks.org, or connecting with us on social media. This show is 29 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode.  Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.  Tags: podcastbroadband bitsaudiomozillaWirelessspectrumfcc5Gmobile

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