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Baltimore for Broadband Op-Ed Demands Local Authority

On July 27 an important op-ed appeared in the Baltimore Sun to argue for the creation of a Baltimore Broadband Authority (BBA). Written by a cohort of three philanthropic organization presidents, two consultants, one broadband coalition leader, and one state senator, the op-ed echoed the calls of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and community groups, such as the Baltimore Broadband CrowdFiber initiative, who believe that in order for Baltimore to continue its development into a haven for young people, minimize pernicious digital inequalities, and ensure economic growth, the City must take charge of its fiber assets. As the authors wrote:

We urge the city of Baltimore to move quickly, but carefully, to create the much-needed Broadband Authority and act with all deliberate speed to devise a comprehensive, workable plan to move us forward.

The most recent op-ed comes in the wake of a series of moves by the City of Baltimore to study existing broadband infrastructure and adapt plans to expand access across the region. In June, the City released two studies to address increasing demand for broadband in areas that incumbent providers Comcast and Verizon have neglected (that being the vast majority of the city). One report, by the Smarter City Task Force, highlights the severity of the digital divide in the City of Baltimore:

There are no precise estimates of how many people in Baltimore lack access to broadband Internet. While national surveys suggest that about 20 percent of Americans do not have broadband at home or a smartphone, it’s reasonable to conclude that the percentage of Baltimoreans who lack broadband is higher. Baltimore has a large population of African Americans and people who have low incomes or low educational attainment – three demographic and socio-economic groups that nationally are significantly more likely to lack home broadband access.

The second report is more extensive than the first, including GIS maps of publicly-owned broadband assets ranging from dark fiber to wireless towers. Its policy suggestions include the creation of an open access network along the pre-existing Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN); leasing dark fiber assets to private entities; taking advantage of the Department of Transportation’s underground conduit lines; and installing more “vertical assets,” such as wireless towers and rooftops, to increase Wi-Fi availability.

In Baltimore, more and more individuals are becoming aware of the negative impacts of Verizon and Comcast’s practices regarding broadband deployment, and recognizing the importance of broadband to local economic development. Other Washington D.C. area communities - such as Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia - are currently in the process of launching their own community broadband projects. Same goes for Harford County, Maryland. Some forward-thinking Maryland communities, such as Howard County, MD have been working to increase fiber availability for years, as CIO Chris Merdon explained in a January Broadband Bits Podcast.

Residents like D. Watkins, who in 2014 published an op-ed in Vice’s Motherboard, “Life on the Other Side of the Digital Divide,” have also lambasted the City of Baltimore for its insufficient broadband infrastructure. “Public libraries are an option for free internet access,” he wrote, “but unlike liquor stores and churches, you can’t find one on every corner.”

The continued push for a Baltimore Broadband Authority by non-profit, philanthropic, and government leaders should help to create a space for further discussion of Baltimore’s digital inequalities, but it will also be crucial for these entities to work directly with local community leaders. Even as the City’s high-level fiber assets are leveraged, ground-level work with communities and incremental deployment strategies will be key to ensuring an equitable rollout of broadband technologies.

Biloxi and Mississippi Gulf Coast Towns Pursuing Fiber Initiative

Community leaders in the city of Biloxi want to expand massive water and sewer infrastructure improvements to include broadband infrastructure. The City Attorney Gerald Blessey recently addressed members from the Leadership Gulf Coast group and during the speech he shared the idea to spread fiber throughout Biloxi.

Mayor FoFo Gilich has already spoken with the Governor who, reports WXXV 25, is interested in the idea. Streets in town are being excavated for the water and sewer project and Gilich wants to use this opportunity to install conduit and fiber.

Biloxi recently settled a lawsuit for just under $5 million with British Petrolium (BP) for economic losses arising from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Community leaders consider fiber a strong investment to help the area recover.

“And not only is it going to be economic development, but it’s going to be quality of life. Our school system needs this. The medical system needs this. The casino industry needs this,” said [Vincent Creel, city of Biloxi Public Affairs Manager]. 

The Biloxi plan may be happening in coordination with a larger initiative to bring fiber to the coastal area. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Fiber Ring would link 12 cities along the southern coast; each community would determine their own level of service.

The Sun Herald reports that Governor Phil Bryant has offered an additional $15 million in BP state settlement funds to deploy fiber. While any network is still in the idea stage, the plan will likely involve establishing a nonprofit organization to own and operate the fiber ring.

The Coast counties need the economic development a fiber network could bring. According to the Sun Herald:

Since Hurricane Katrina, the recession and oil spill, the three Coast counties are down 2,700 jobs compared to the pre-recession numbers of 2008, and down 5,600 jobs compared to pre-Hurricane Katrina in 2005, [Blessey] said.

The technology will draw talented new people and high-tech business to the Coast, he said. He sees the technology supporting research at colleges in South Mississippi and providing medical teleconference capabilities that would allow a patient on the Coast to confer with a specialist anywhere in the country. The circle would let movie, television and video game producers work from South Mississippi instead of going to other cities that have the technology, and he said it would help monitor pollution in the Gulf and the health of the fisheries and forestry.

"The infrastructure is just first step," he said.

The state might look at what Virginia did with some of the tobacco settlement money in establishing the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, now the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation. The effort has aided Danville and Martinsville muni fiber approaches by providing a connection to the outside world and creating a connection for peering exchange.

MBC began in 2004 when the state used funds from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and $6 million in matching funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration to commence a fiber backbone deployment. The first $12 million paid for approximately 350 miles of fiber to industrial parks in southern Virginia. Since then, additional grants have aided in extending the network to over 1,800 miles. In 2012, MBC transitioned from a cooperative, that paid excess revenues to members, into a nonprofit corporation which made revenue and grant management less complicated. Under the new model, excess revenues can be reinvested into the network.

The nonprofit operates an open access middle mile network throughout southern Virginia. It provides wholesale transport in more than 20 counties for 45 providers of varying levels from large international companies to small local ISPs. MBC is credited with injecting a healthy dose of economic activity into southern Virgina.

From MBC's History page:

The broadband capacity it has brought to Southern Virginia has attracted numerous companies to the region and has helped to bring more than 900 jobs and $1.3 billion of private sector investment to the region. Most notably, MBC was a critical component in securing the Microsoft data center project for Southern Virginia, which has already announced over $1.3 billion in private sector investment and 180 high-paying jobs.

We talked to Tad Deriso from MBC in Episode #146 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Have a listen.


WXXV 25's report:

Lafayette Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of "Yes" to Network

In June, 2005, voters in Lafayette chose to invest in a municipal FTTH network, now known as the only municipal gigabit network in the state, LUS Fiber. To celebrate the milestone, City-Parish President Joey Durel has declared July LUS Fiber Month. Current customers' Internet access has been boosted up to gigabit speed at no extra charge for July and the city will celebrate with a series of events this week. The entire community is invited to participate onsite but most of the events will be broadcast live so if you are not there, you can be part of the celebration. See the list of events below.

In the past ten years, the network has attracted thousands of new jobs, created better educational opportunities, and helped bridge the digital divide. Just last fall, three high tech companies committed to bringing approximately 1,300 new jobs to the "Silicon Bayou." The presence of the network, the University of Louisiana's local top-ranked computer science program, and its quality grads were two more key factors for choosing Lafayette. In April, Standard & Poor gave LUS Fiber an A+ bond rating based on the system's "sustained strong fixed charge coverage and liquidity levels, and the communication system’s improved cash flow."

The July issue of the local Independent tells the story of the network. According to Terry Huval, Director of LUS Fiber, the self-reliant streak has always been part of Lafayette's culture - in 1996 the city celebrated its 100th year vote to create its own electric and water system. The Independent article describes that culture as it permeated the vision shared by City-Parish President Joey Durel and  Huval.

"The vision was simple: Lafayette was already benefiting from a very successful electric, water and wastewater system, and LUS could leverage its expertise to offer Internet and other telecommunications services, if that is what our community wanted,” he says. “After we threw out the idea, the entrepreneurial, wildcatter spirit of Lafayette seemed to take it from there.”

lus-fiber-win-fight.jpg

Even with a vision, it took strong community organizing to overcome incumbent efforts to derail any municipal network project. John St. Julien was at the front of those efforts; he spoke with Chris in episode #19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast about organizing strategies and fending off attacks from incumbent providers. Mobilizing to improve connectivity with a fiber network brought together individuals from every demographic in the community. Business leaders worked with community activists because they all needed better connectivity.

Fighting misinformation and lies from incumbents became a valuable tool, reports the Independent:

The citizen group was able to settle into reaction mode: Once the dumb, clunky messages came out, they took to their emails and blog and pointed out every single lie. It wasn’t just an opportunity to educate; it was an opportunity to draw on local pride and, again, that spirit of audacity. “It was a lot of fun to watch, waiting for them to say something else ridiculous and outrageous,” John St. Julien remembers.

Those clunky messages eventually backfired and, with anti-incumbent sentiment strong, the voters chose to serve themselves with a publicly owned, accountable, reliable municipal network.

Achieving success has not been easy as LUS Fiber has had to contend with lawsuits, delays, restrictive state laws, and twisted criticisms over the past ten years. While Lafayette has much to celebrate, Huval reflected in the Independent article on what more could have been accomplished if the situation were different:

We entered this arena as underdogs.

We had to fight for every success we achieved. We were forced to accept a law that was going to make our entry into this business far more difficult. We incurred lawsuit delay after lawsuit delay — delays that impacted our entry into this competitive market for three years. I know of no local government telecom system that has had to go through the extreme challenges we encountered.

If we would not have had all these early legal impediments, we would have been on-line faster and drawn in far more customers, more quickly. If we could have captured the level of strong enthusiasm in those early years, there is no doubt our revenues would have been stronger, and we could have been even more creative and aggressive. ... Under the circumstances, there was not much we could have done differently and still reach a successful business result.

We concur. Lafayette's success is all the more powerful given the tremendous obstacles they had to overcome. But they overcame them and kept a sense of humor throughout. We have greatly enjoyed every opportunity to interact with everyone we have met from Lafayette - from Joey Durel, Terry Huval, and John St Julien to recent transplant Geoff Daily to the folks making poboys at Olde Tyme Grocery.

Thanks to the city utility, local Cox customers report that the company appears to be reacting to the competition with more reasonable rates and better customer service. LUS Fiber is in the black and revenues are projected to reach $50 million per year in the next nine years. While LUS Fiber and the people of Lafayette are celebrating success as measured by time on the calendar, they can also celebrate their own grit and determination. 

Durel to the Independent:

I knew this had the possibility of transforming Lafayette — that 25 years later, Lafayette would be a better place because of this...Even if fiber just breaks even, but we create thousands of new jobs because of it, that’s a win.

Watch video below from KLFY Channel 10 reported on the network earlier this month, highlighting one of the telemedicine applications made possible by LUS Fiber.

 


Schedule of events:

Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) With City-Parish President Joey Durel and LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval

Tuesday, July 14th - 1:30 - 3:30 p.m.

Get answers to your questions as we host an AMA session. Join us by going to http://reddit.com/r/iama

Fiber for Breakfast

logo-LUS.gif

Wednesday, July 15 - 7:00 - 10:30 a.m. CST


Live Remote Broadcast on KATC-TV 
LUS Fiber Customer Service Center - 1875 W. Pinhook Road
Join us for a live remote braodcast on KATC-TV and a breakfast bite.

George Porter, Jr. & the Runnin Pardners
 The Park at the Horse Farm

Levitt Amp Concert Series feat.

Wednesday, July 15 - 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.


Come out and celebrate with LUS Fiber - a night of great music and fun, in a venue steeped with history.

LUS Fiber joins City-Parish President Joey Durel for "Lafayette Live" on KPEL


Thursday, July 16 - 7:30 - 8:00 p
.m.

City-Parish President Joey Durel is joined by LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval during "Lafayette Live" on 96.5 KPEL. Be sure to tune-in as they reminisce the 2005 Election and the ten-year road that followed.

Our report, Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks dives deep into Lafayette's accomplishment. But in terms of our enthusiasm for what Lafayette has accomplished, well ... Kermit is a pretty good proxy for how we feel:

Upgrade Seattle on Need For Better Access - Community Broadband Bits Episode 153

We were excited to begin writing about the Upgrade Seattle campaign back in January and this week we are presenting a discussion with several people behind the campaign for episode 153 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We are joined by Sabrina Roach, Devin Glaser, and Karen Toering to discuss what motivates the Upgrade Seattle campaign and the impact it hopes to have on the community.

We discuss their strategy for improving Internet access, how people are reacting, and how Upgrade Seattle is already working with, learning from, and sharing lessons to, people organizing in other communities for similar goals.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

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

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

EPB and Chattanooga Will Lower Price of Internet for Low Income Students

In an effort to extend the benefits of its gigabit network to lower income Chattanooga school kids, Mayor Andy Berke announced that the EPB will soon offer the "Netbridge Student Program." 

WDEF reports that children will qualify for the program if they are enrolled in Hamilton County schools and are currently enrolled in the free or reduced price lunch program. Comcast's Internet Essentials uses the same eligibility criteria. Households that qualify will be able to sign up for 100 Mbps service for $26.99 per month. Details are still being discussed.

Last year, Hamilton County schools replaced a number of textbooks with iPads in an attempt to take advantage of Chattanooga's fiber asset to improve student performance. The move revealed a grim reality - that many students' access to that incredible gigabit network (or any network) stopped when they walked out of the school. Educators found that children with Internet access at home made significant strides while those without fell behind. From a December 2014 article on Internet and Chattanooga students:

In the downtown area, for example, only 7 percent of potential customers subscribe to high-speed broadband Internet. In economically depressed areas such as Alton Park and East Lake, only 15 percent of residents have high-speed Internet, according to EPB.

We spoke with Danna Bailey, Vice President of Corporate Communications from EPB, to get some details on the plan and she confirmed that the program is still in its infancy; officials at EPB plan to have it ready for students by the fall. She told is that the rate of $26.99 is what EPB must pay to bring 100 Mbps to a customer when it is unbundled. The regular rate is $57.99. 

Note that the slowest speed anyone can get on the EPB Fiber network is 100 Mbps symmetrical. Unlike other providers, EPB is not offering a much slower tier to low income households. We haven't been able to verify, but we suspect that EPB is limited by state law on its pricing. State laws that prohibit municipalities from offering services below cost may be uniquely hurting low income households -- yet another reason that states should allow communities to make these decisions locally.

We were curious about how EPB plans to contend with the high incidence of mobility among lower income families, which often complicates their ability to qualify for Internet Essentials from Comcast. EPB acknowledges that this may become an issue, but because they are so entrenched in the community and serve so a large segment of housing, Danna does not believe it will be a difficult problem to overcome. 

They are also determined to avoid the enrollment pitfalls of Internet Essentials because, according to Danna, it defeats the purpose when people who need the program cannot enroll. It is also undecided at this point whether or not the program will be extended to other low-income households, such as the elderly or adults without children.

We applaud any community's attempt to provide fast, affordable, reliable Internet access to their less advantaged citizens. The program is new, but we hope that EPB will consider this sort of program for all those that need affordable access, rather than just a small segment. We want to see capable communities address the digital divide with force and conviction.

Local coverage from WDEF:

What Does It Mean to Be A Gigabit City? Sharing Positive Outcomes Together (SPOT)

In North Carolina, Wilson’s Greenlight gigabit fiber network is doing everything it can to ensure everyone benefits from this important municipal investment. The city-owned network is a key partner in a digital inclusion program, Sharing Positive Outcomes Together (SPOT), which focuses on the children least likely to have high quality Internet access in their homes.

Though the digital divide remains a serious policy challenge, Wilson Greenlight and SPOT demonstrate s that solutions can be inspiring and fun. 

Training With a 4-Dimensional Approach

SPOT is an after-hours educational program focused on children ages 5 to 18 and attracts youth from all backgrounds, including those who are homeless or fostered to those with professional parents burdened by demanding work schedules. Among other components, its mission is to promote an atmosphere of accountability, confidence, and self-esteem. SPOT invites its children to dream, be “ambitious, inspired, high school graduates,” while “addressing and closing society's darker cracks that way too many young lives fall into.” “Leave it at the door and come grow” is part of its motto.

To reach such lofty goals, SPOT uses a four-dimensional approach called “project-based learning.” This New Tech School method requires that all elements of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, math and the arts) are part of the program and must utilize technology. According to SPOT’s Executive Director, Matt Edwards, “Learning is activity-based. Kids learn by seeing, touching, doing, and  incorporating technology into their program … and everything is interactive and Internet oriented with kids.”  Embodying this approach, SPOT recently won a $53,000 grant from the state of North Carolina to realize its 21st Century Learning Initiative. The initiative  will hinge on access to high capacity bandwidth and wireless access throughout its 30,000 square foot former Tabernacle church building. 

SPOT Kids at computers

The  Kids Are Teaching Us

“Let’s be honest,” explained Edwards, 
“When it comes to technology, the kids are teaching us.” Adults can now be a hurdle  to closing the technology side of the digital divide. “We put our kids in a box and think they can’t learn this because they are kindergarteners. I can tell you now. My kindergarteners and first graders probably know more about computers than my high schoolers.” A first grader or kindergartener will be stumped on a project, and “you’ll have another one go over there and show them how to look something up. You just sit back and watch. I mean, it is awesome.” This means in the computer lab, SPOT only needs an advisor or a volunteer, not a computer teacher. 

Putting the World in their Hands and Guiding Them

SPOT’s Executive Director described how his experience in closing the digital divide is on a whole new level. “The kindergartner today, they are going to be able to look at their computer and say ‘Find me (the game) Roadblocks’  and the computer will find it. You don’t need to teach the kids how to use the computers and the keyboards and the mouse, you just need to get them access and guide them on how to learn and utilize them in different ways...Get them the iPad. Put the protections on it and let them go. Our role is to guide.” With high capacity broadband, the world is in their hands. “We make sure they go to the best part of the world.” 

Overall, for SPOT, closing the digital divide is about teaching critical thinking, team work, and providing the bandwidth to keep up with the speed of their young minds. Wilson’s Greenlight community owned fiber network is part of that process by providing SPOT no-cost, 75 Mbps upstream and downstream broadband speeds. 

“Five years ago my grants would talk about the technology component needed to combat the technology divide. I don’t use that terminology anymore. It has changed to how do you use technology properly for advancement of our students and kids to enhance critical thinking … and teamwork. When you go out into the work place, very seldom are you an individual worker. You are going to have to get along with different people, work in groups, and solve difficult problems.”

SPOT’s activity-based, STEAM dimension locks into that teamwork. So the program’s focus is not as much on obtaining one to one computers, but having the children work in teams on whatever the project is. 

Greenlight Logo

And Then, of course, There’s Video

Closing the digital divide also means incorporating video, because “theirs is a world of daily Youtubes.” SPOT gives its children access to Kindle HDs where they can push a button, step back and do a video recording. “We teach them how to do it and work with the teenagers to control the uploading...They love watching themselves run in sports...dancing to music...discussing topics, like elections.”  

According to Jeff Fox, volunteer and IT Director, SPOT’s new 21st century classroom will allow students to beam images from their smart phones and tablets spontaneously to flat screens circling the room. The old divide between teachers and students dissolves. With the devices and the speed, everyone becomes a teacher. “It’s such an opportunity,” said Fox. “I’m hooked.” 

But video, especially uploading, requires much more bandwidth and, according to Edwards, “a third-grader’s mind goes very fast.”

“Greenlight’s symmetrical speeds keep up... most of the time,”  he laughs.  “I mean, [on the old system] there was a time when you could walk away, have lunch, and it would still be loading when you returned. Because Greenlight’s signal is strong, it makes the program stronger in all its facets.” 

This all makes sense to the General Manager of Greenlight, Will Aycock, who notes that enhancing the quality of life in Wilson is part of their mission. “Here is yet another example, where our community-owned network, is SPOT on. We give back to the community to benefit future generations, because we are the community.”

Yolo County, California Ready for Better Broadband

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors in California voted unanimously recently to accept consultants' recommendations to take steps improve broadband in the county. Some of those recommendations included investing in infrastructure to improve both urban and rural areas in the northern county. 

The Davis Enterprise reported on the meeting from February 24th:

With its diverse mix of rural and urban areas, the county has communities where little or no broadband service is available. And even in urban areas with greater access to service and providers, many residents complain of slow and unreliable connections, according to the Yolo Broadband Strategic Plan, which also provided direction for county officials on closing the divide in the coming years.

The strategic plan, commissioned in 2013, notes that in some areas residents must rely on dial-up or satellite:

“Residents are generally limited to low-speed connections that prevent these users from accessing the majority of online content,” reported John Honker of Magellan Advisors LLC, which prepared the report.

“Using the Internet for anything but simple Web browsing is challenging in these communities,” he said.

The situation is especially critical for farming communities in the county, reports the study:

Yolo's agricultural populations are also challenged by poor access to broadband, especially in the farming and seed technology industries. Yolo farms are often unable to keep up with the technological advancements in the agricultural field that would allow them achieve greater productivity and better management of their natural resources.

In the more urban areas, such as the City of Davis (home of UC Davis), residents complain they cannot get the service they need in households with multiple devices. In those cases, the bandwidth they need is just too expensive if it is available. These same communities complain of unreliable networks.

Almost a third of Yolo County residents who responded to the study survey reported that they use satellite or dial-up for Internet access, 35 percent said they use AT&T DSL, 18 percent reported they use Frontier DSL, and 18 percent reported they use mobile Internet. Eighty-five percent of respondents reported download speeds of slower than 6 Mbps, reports the Yolo County profile from the study.

“Yolo County is on the wrong side of the digital divide,” [Honker] told county supervisors. “The more devices we’re using, we’re taxing our connections more, creating demand for the services and the networks can’t keep up.”

Public or Private Ownership? Community Broadband Bits Episode 132

Ever since the last time I spoke with Blair Levin on Episode 37, I have wanted to have him back for a friendly discussion about public or private ownership of next generation networks.

Though Blair and I entirely agree that local governments should be free to decide locally whether a community broadband network investment is a wise choice, he tends to see more promise in partnerships or other private approaches whereas we at ILSR tend to be concerned about the long term implications of private ownership of essential infrastructure.

In what may be the longest interview we have done, Blair and I discuss where we agree and how we differ. We weren't looking to prove the other wrong so much as illustrate our different points of view so listeners can evaluate our sides. Ultimately, we both believe in a United States where communities can choose between both models -- and some may even seek solutions that incorporate both.

Blair Levin was the FCC Chief of Staff when Reed Hundt was Chair and was instrumental in forming Gig.U. In between, he did a lot of things, including being Executive Director for the FCC's National Broadband Plan. He is currently with the Metropolitan Project at Brookings.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 37 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 129

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 129 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Michael Liimatta of the nonprofit Connecting for Good in Kansas City, Missouri. Listen to this episode here.

00:04:

Michael Liimatta: It's a digital world that we live in. And so, if you're not online, you're not really a fully-functioning citizen.

00:11:

Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.

This week, Chris and his guest, Michael Liimatta, discuss digital inclusion efforts in Kansas City. Michael is President of the nonprofit, Connecting for Good, an organization in the region, aiming to bring more lower-income households online. As our listeners know, Google Fiber is now deploying in the community. Chris and Michael discuss whether or not the deployment has increased rates of adoption. Michael and Chris ponder some proposed ideas for bringing lower-income households online: Charging a very low rate. Should access be free? How does home access affect adoption, as opposed to access in a library or other community space? We encourage you to visit connectingforgood.org to learn more about the organization, especially if you feel your community could benefit from a digital inclusion program.

We bring you the Community Broadband Bits Podcast advertisement-free each week. Please consider contributing to help us continue to carry on this valuable service. It's easy. Visit ILSR.org and click on the orange "donate" button.

Here are Chris and Michael.

01:26:

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today, I'm speaking with Michael Liimatta, the President of a nonprofit organization, Connecting for Good. Welcome to the show.

01:40:

Michael Liimatta: Thank you very much.

01:42:

Chris: Michael, I'm really excited to have you on this show, because I know you've been doing excellent work in Kansas City. You and I are on a -- the same LISTSERV, where we talk about a lot of these different issues. And I've always found you to have -- I think you give a lot of deep thought to these issues, deeper than perhaps other people are. So, I was excited to have you on. And I'd like to start by asking you to tell us a little bit more about Connecting for Good.

02:09:

Michael: Yeah. Well, we have been around since November of 2011. That was actually, you know, my partner, Rick Deane, and I, the cofounders, were excited when Google Fiber was coming to Kansas City. We really thought, you know, it would be a great opportunity to reach out to people who have, you know, not been connected up to this point. We had worked together on some projects because Rick had an IT company, called NPO Tech Support, and I had done a lot of consulting for nonprofits. I'm actually the acting Dean at City Vision College, an online school I started in 1998, and have been involved in working with the homeless and alcoholics and drug addicts for over 30 years. So, I'm kind of aware of the empowering, you know, nature of accessible technology. So -- and Rick, on the other hand, you know, was an installer for One Economy in Kansas City when they were active here. He brought Wi-Fi to about 16 housing projects. So he's kind of on that end of things.

03:10:

Chris: Can you tell us a little bit about Kansas City. And, you know, is there -- is Kansas City just a typical urban area that has populations that aren't really served under the current situation? Or is there something unique about Kansas City, aside from Google Fiber?

03:26:

Michael: Yeah. Well, I think Kansas City itself has got a long history of racism and intentional redlining. And, as a result, I mean, the city is almost split down the middle between majority-white, majority-black neighborhoods. And so, everything east of Troost in Kansas City, Missouri, is like 90 percent black. And, you know, we know that all of the studies of this area showed that, you know, there are neighborhoods east of Troost that have -- fewer than 20 percent of the people have home Internet connections. In the Kansas City, Missouri, school district, we know that 70 percent of the kids don't have Internet at home. So there are huge, you know, disparities between what people can do, economically, academically. And so, we really felt like, you know, this was a time, and this was an opportunity to seize a chance to go out and say, you know, let's get these people connected.

So, we actually formed our board and incorporated in 2011. And our first project was something called Rosedale Ridge, which is a 158-unit, Section 8 property in Kansas City, Kansas. And we, of course, hoped that Google Fiber would allow us to their back -- you know, their bandwidth. But it turns out, at least at the time, their fiber-to-the-home didn't allow multiple users. So, we, at that point, got hooked up with Isaac Wilder and the Free Network Foundation that learned how to do backhaul through the microwave dishes. So we kind of became our own nonprofit ISP. And today we still supply about 500 low-income households with free Internet.

The other side of our project is that we are a computer re-user. We try to rescue usable computers from the scrap dealers and refurbish them and offer them to low-income families for $75. And then we have a training component, where we're involved with, you know, teaching people how to use the Internet, how to -- computer basics. And a three-hour class is required before you can buy a computer for $75. To kind of take home a computer that's useful, we've hooked up with EveryOneOn.org and Mobile Beacon, to actually allow them to buy a $45 router that will allow them to get 4G Internet for $10 a month. No contracts. No credit checks. And we actually accept cash from people who, you know, don't have bank cards or credit cards.

06:06:

Chris: Well, that's an important point. I'm glad you raised that. And, actually, your solution at $10 a month, it's worth noting, is far superior to the Comcast solution of Internet Essentials, because your solution would allow people to use multiple devices. So if kids in the school district got a device from the school district, you know, you could have multiple people in the household connecting, whereas Comcast Internet Essentials only allows one device to use the Internet at a time.

06:34:

Michael: Right. And I think the other side of the Kansas City, Missouri, school district is that 40 percent of the kids will move during the school year. So even Google Fiber, which is, you know, to a particular residence, doesn't help them much when they're not there at the end of the school year. So, it's a device that is, you know, you can take with you wherever you go. And it's kind of the equivalent of a pay-as-you-go cell phone. So, you could give us $10 this month, you can have the service, If you don't pay it next month, you don't have the service, but if you come back again, sometime during the month, we'll turn it back on, in 30-day increments.

07:09:

Chris: Right. And I want to point that I -- just for our listeners -- when you -- we normally talk about municipal networks and things that are related. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you're working on these kind of solutions that I think can inform what people are doing with municipal networks. And one of the things that you said earlier, that I want to come back to briefly, is that you had hoped that you would be able to get connections from Google and then share them. So maybe get one or two connections from Google and then share it over multiple households -- something that the cable companies and telephone companies don't let us do. And Google decided not to let us do that. And I think many municipalities don't allow people to do that either. So I just want to put it out there as something that you saw a solution there, and it's something that we don't really see ISPs in general allowing people to do.

07:58:

Michael: Yeah, well -- and, of course, we haven't given up. Google has announced this small business plan. And, you know, we -- actually, we have used Time Warner in the past for one of our projects. It was a commercial connection. So we have hopes, maybe, that, you know, there's a ** another avenue for sharing bandwidth to a commercial connection of some sort that Google provides.

08:19:

Chris: Right. Now, one of the things that, as I understand it, Google helped to set up was the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

08:29:

Michael: Yes. Well, Connecting for Good is one of the first recipients of a fund that was actually organized by Google Fiber. And it included some other funders. Like, Sprint got involved. And J. E. Dunn. And, you know, the whole idea was to put together a million dollars and to offer $300,000 of finance a year. So, last year, we received about $35,000.from that. And used it to basically upgrade our refurbishing operations. And the other nonprofits were a couple of Hispanic groups, the public library, and another youth organization.

09:06:

Chris: Do you have any advice for other cities that are trying to set up digital inclusion funds? You know, we had an effort here in Minneapolis. And the way the contract was worded, the provider that was getting city money to build a Wi-Fi network effectively stopped making contributions to it, which was very disappointing. So my experience has been somewhat negative. You know, what advice would you give to cities that want to set up a fund like that?

09:34:

Michael: Well, I think it's an awesome thing. And the key is to really start talking to the people who are already doing the work. You know, I think that if you design any kind of fund that, you know, you don't consult the people who will actually be the beneficiaries, you're not going to get something that is really practical for them. And I think, you know, again, in Kansas City, like many other major cities, the people who are unable to connect are really left out. I mean, it's a digital world that we live in. And so if you're not online, you're not really a fully-functioning citizen. You know, people have thought that perhaps the public libraries or such could really, you know, solve part of the problem. But, at least in Kansas City, they're completely deluged. So either you wait for a couple hours to use the computer for 45 minutes. And if you had to check your e-mail every day by doing that, it would be pretty discouraging. So, you know, we just really think the gold standard is Internet in the home.

Well, we've gotten a little bit involved also with working with Free Networks, and have supported their work here in Kansas City, too. So, we're trying to do it on multiple levels. You know, our whole idea is, how do we get you connected? Are you in a Google Fiber neighborhood? Can you afford it? Is it an opportunity? You know, if you're in a public housing project that you live in, of course we provide it for free.

10:50:

Chris: Can you tell us a little bit about that? So, is the -- in the -- what happens if you're living in a public housing?

10:57:

Michael: Well, right now, we have a partnership with the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Housing Authority And they've pretty much given us open door as far as all their properties. Of course, the key is always the funding element. Last year we had a crowd funder here on a platform called Neighborly. And we raised a total of about $40,000 to bring their biggest property online, and that was called Juniper Gardens, which has about 400 households. And so, we built the Wi-Fi hotspot, using equipment that was donated by One Economy, to bring Internet to all this property. So we put about 70 radios on 40 buildings.

11:39:

Chris: And so, you took $40,000, and you were able to serve 400 housing units.

11:45:

Michael: Yes.

11:46:

Chris: And that corresponds --

11:47:

Michael: About $100 a door.

11:48:

Chris: Right. And, presumably, you have -- you know, what, two and a half, three people in each of those units?

11:54:

Michael: Yes.

11:54:

Chris: So, that's really quite remarkable impact.

11:56:

Michael: Yeah, we really think so. And, you know, we're seeing, really, like maybe about 150 gig of data being transferred a week in this particular housing project.

12:08:

Chris: Well, I want to get back to Google briefly, and just -- one of the things that enjoyed in talking with you online is the nuance. And some people are very critical of Google. And some people only want to praise Google. And I think you and I have been taking a position of, this is good, and this is challenging, or we don't really like that so much.

12:27:

Michael: Uh huh.

12:28:

Chris: Google's decided not to serve some neighborhoods. And that's obviously disappointing. Now, they gave those neighborhoods a chance to sign up. So that's different from what we've seen from other carriers. But I'm curious if you can tell me -- and maybe we'll separate it into the neighborhoods that are served by Google, and then those that are not served by Google, separately. But, how has the Google Fiber network impacted low-income neighborhoods in Kansas City?

12:57:

Michael: It brought faster Internet to people that were using fast Internet. But, really, was not any kind of significant impact upon any low-income neighborhoods at all. The -- you know, there's less than a 10 percent adoption rate in the traditionally black and low-income neighborhoods of east-of-Troost. And also in Wyandotte County, where we work -- where we have a community technology center. And that just follows pretty much the pattern of all of those neighborhoods, that, you know, like, one in five people has an Internet connection. And so, those who had it thought that Google was a great deal. Those who weren't already on line first, and didn't understand it, may not have had the money to do it -- it didn't happen.

13:40:

Chris: What IS the barrier for people who are not online where it's available?

13:47:

Michael: Well, I think there's a lot of barriers. First off, of course, is the cost of the equipment, which is something we're trying to address through refurbished computers. The cost of a subscription. There was a lot problems around renters -- that, you know, unless the landlord initially paid $300, you weren't going to -- for your unit and every unit in your building, you weren't going to get Google Fiber. So, I understand now they have changed that policy, and we'll see what the impact of that is. But, ultimately, too, is just the fact that people don't understand the Internet. They're intimidated by it. They don't see its relevance in their lives. Plus the cost, you know. Plus not owning a device. So there are some on-the-ground issues -- that a lot of Pew research studies have indicated. I guess the hopeful part for us, though, was that, you know, we did -- we've trained like two thousand people in our -- what we call our Free Digital Life Skills Class, this year already. And our profile is pretty much 80% black, because that's the neighborhoods that we're in, but also 75% $20,000 a year income or less, two-thirds women. And of the women, I mean, most of them are 50 and older, and have a child under 18 living in their home. So, in some ways, we're kind of in this motif of empowering older black women to the Internet, and they're taking computers from us home -- and connectivity home -- to where they have children in their care.

15:18:

Chris: Now, I think, one of the benefits that you had identified in a previous discussion was that Google coming in has cast more light on the issue, and really helped to galvanize a better conversation about the need of many in Kansas City for better options than they currently have.

15:37:

Michael: Yes. I would say that is THE biggest impact of Google Fiber on the low-income neighborhoods. Very simply, that they did a digital inclusion, or a digital divide, study, and, you know, it just sort of like made people aware of -- hey, wow, you know, there's a huge percentage of our people that aren't online, and aren't using the Internet. So it really created, you know, quite a thrust among ourselves, the public library and other nonprofits to figure out, well, how -- what are we going to do about this now? And so, we have actually been meeting for a couple of years. And a group got ** Kansas City Digital Inclusion Coalition. We actually sponsored a summit on the 17th of October that was very well attended. And we'll be doing a follow-up here in January of that summit. And we got a lot of, you know, think tanks and discussion and energy going. And so now, actually, we're moving to the place where our city council is about ready to pass a resolution in support of digital inclusion activities. And we're actually moving toward the city opening up more of its facilities. You know, Google Fiber is installing free connections at many of the community centers. So we're, right now, working to install computers and all of the equipment to make sure they can use that gigabit connection. And then other community organizations engage with, you know, training and things at those sites. So, we're -- you know, we're really excited for that part. You know, I guess it's a problem that's been kicking around for years, but they're actually coming to Kansas City to sort of put the spotlight on it.

17:22:

Chris: To wrap up, I'm curious if you can help me understand something, which is: Do we need to just lower the cost of connectivity, and teach people how to use computers? Or do we need to find a way of making sure there's a free connection available at every address in a given city?

17:40:

Michael: Well, you know, I think that there's an element of expecting people to pay for something. Because what they've actually invested in, I believe, they value more. So, that's why, you know, we try to offer it for ten dollars, because that's a price point practically anybody can do -- it's like two packs of cigarettes, right? -- to get Internet for a month. And with our computers for $75, we let people actually make payments -- layaway ...

18:10:

Chris: Right.

18:10:

Michael: ... before they purchase it. And so, we want them to have that investment. And because, you know, we've invested more than $75 into these computers, we don't want them in a pawn shop in a week. So people have to take the class, put their money in. So it's -- you know, there's a value proposition there. But we don't mind doing this in places that are, you know, **. The low-income, like the housing authority, right? Or Section 8, where we know people are just getting by on $10,000 a year. For them, you know, it's like, keeping food on the table and clothes on their children. And it's like, that's all they can do. So, to provide free in some cases, I think, is something that's, you know, very worthwhile. I think it -- you know, but, generally speaking, I just think a big, giant giveaway is not the way to do it.

18:54:

Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. I've really enjoyed learning a bit more about Kansas City. And I think there's a lot of cities that could benefit from all the thinking and work you've done in this area. So, thank you for sharing that.

19:07:

Michael: Thank you, sir.

19:08:

Lisa: Take a look at stored tagged "digital divide" at muninetworks.org for more on this topic. Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org . Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . Thank you to Dickey F for the music this week. His song, "Florida Mama," is licensed through Creative Commons. Have a great day.

Connecting For Good in Kansas City - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 129

We have seen a lot of claims about Kansas City - whether Google Fiber's approach is increasing digital inclusion, having no impact, or possibly even increasing the digital divide. This week on our Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are excited to have Michael Liimatta, President of a Kansas City nonprofit called Connecting for Good, that discusses what is happening in Kansas City.

Michael offers insights into the difficulty of connecting low income populations and how Google's entrance into the City has not solved the digital divide but has sparked a deeply needed conversation on how to meet those needs.

We also talk about how Connecting for Good is using a 4G Clear wireless device to help low income families connect to the Internet. This is a far superior solution than Comcast's Digital Essentials programs in that it is more responsive to the needs of low income households rather than being tailored around the least that Comcast could do.

Read the transcript for this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."