Transcript for Ammon Fiber Launch Event: Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks:

https://youtu.be/YvBTjaoPRuc?t=2h29m58s

Hello everyone. I'm Chris Mitchell. 

I am the policy director for Next Century Cities which I do in my capacity at the small organization out of Minneapolis called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I think I was tasked with introducing myself because nobody likes me as much as I like me. Similarly, I didn't bring any PowerPoint so I can force you all to be staring at me. 

If you recognize my voice I was the narrator on a video that we did about Ammon and the fiber network a few years ago that may have introduced some of you to it. I know that it's inspired -- I know that Ammon has inspired many other communities around the country. 

I know several in Ohio alone, where I was recently speaking, who saw that video. I think, [they] saw the leadership of Mayor Kirkham, of Bruce, of others, and thought, "we should do this too." So this is something that is traveling far and wide. I've been thrilled to kind of be a part of it. Bruce has been picking my brain occasionally for I don't know seven or eight years and I remember when he first reached out thinking, "I don't know that I can share anything with him because he's already so far advanced of what anyone else is doing." But I've been able to observe it over that, over this period of time, and one of the things that I do in my job at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is to try and think of [the] broader picture. And I think a lot about the role of government, being from a place called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we firmly believe in local control, local decision making. 

So when I think about the role of government in broadband and whether or not there is a role, the answer is absolutely yes. And that role is different from community to community. And I think I like to reach back just briefly to a couple of previous infrastructures. We, it seems like, we can't talk about broadband and particularly rural broadband without talking about electricity. And I had to become a student of electrification and it was interesting to me the role that local governments played in thousands of communities up to 4,000 communities at the height, where cities built their own grids to make sure that everyone had the benefits of electrification and helped to drive the innovation and also drive a norm that everyone should be connected to this technology. Later, states and the federal government began regulating it. 

And if I just jump forward a second if you are on Wall Street right now listening to cable analysts talk, one of the things they be talking about is how we can get Comcast to raise its prices. Get the big cable companies to raise their prices because they know that we will pay more for our Internet access. I know I will don't want to be paying more than people in this community are. But we will pay more. And that was true with electrification too. And one of the things that the government did well in different ways was to set -- to set a ceiling for the price I would pay more than a dollar a kilowatt hour for late at night in Minnesota where the sun sets at at 4:30 in the afternoon on those cold days. Refrigeration is incredibly valuable. I would pay a lot more for it. 

I think the Internet will prove to be more valuable than electricity over time, which is a weird thing to say since the Internet requires electricity. But I think the Internet will reshape our society in more ways, and one of the things we need is smart government policy which will come from different levels of government, in different ways to make sure that it is priced appropriately, and we all get benefits from it. And the final thing that I'll note about electrification is that everyone has it throughout the country because of one of the smartest most fiscally responsible government programs ever in terms of the Rural Electrification Administration and a few pioneering senators and civil servants who put that through. We haven't seen anything like that on broadband but some of us are still hoping that we can make that happen. 

Now, the other infrastructure which I think is actually more analogous to fiber is the roads and I say that because the roads are really what enable markets to work like Tri-Cities wonderful and make markets more efficient. It makes us more productive but the roads the ability to move things has really been supercharged our economy and we have an incredible road system we have had an incredible road system throughout this country. And similarly the access to the Internet is the roads of the future is not the electricity of the future it's going to enable all kinds of commerce and like the roads. I suspect that to make the Internet really live up to his potential we will need a lot of local investment. 

The federal government built behind the interstates they paid all the upfront money but it's local and state governments that maintain them vast majority of roads in this country in this country were built by local governments. And I think that's something that will ultimately see to make sure that everyone has high quality networks. One of the things that I love about the roads is that they're open to everyone. 

It would be ridiculous if Ford built their roads and General Motors built their roads and Toyota built their roads. And if they did that our markets would be far more constrained. We'd see a lot less innovation and I think many of you are familiar with this analogy so I'm not going to push it too far but we want to get to that point where where are roads for the future are open and we can have the kind of innovation where people in the garages in Ammon aren't locked out because they don't have the right roads where we have the kind of innovation coming up from the small communities. I regularly talk with people about the very first community we can identify that had citywide broadband access was Glasgow, Kentucky. I think a lot of people would not expect that to come out of a random part of Kentucky. When you look back throughout history a lot of great innovation doesn't come from our major cities there is plenty of innovation that comes from the cities and that's where a lot of the population has been. 

But it's really important that we don't leave people behind and having these open roads is really important and that's where Ammon has been different from other municipal networks. You're not going to find a person who will defend what Chattanooga did. But Wilson has done with Cookstown did cities that have built fiber networks out to everyone have more or less perfected I would say the cable model of providing high quality Internet access television service at a reasonable rate with really good customer service I celebrate that the same time what Ammon is doing is as we've noted earlier today different and fundamentally disruptive and exciting and ways because Ammon has decided to get out of the way to be able to allow a person that says I have a great service idea and just by virtue of subscribing to the Ammon network anyone on the network can take advantage of that they don't have to go to town hall and ask permission and I have the right to Comcast and ask for permission. 

This is what the internet was all about. Now the question is just whether or not enough other communities follow on that in 20 or 30 years when this is the norm for everyone. 

We can say it started here in Ammon. I think that's pretty special. 

So the question ultimately though is where are we going from here. And again I would say it was done in communities with different preferences. Here's where I want to highlight a little bit more of what Ammon's done. I think some of you might be still wondering exactly how I am and did everything with the financing how the network works and we're going to we're going to touch on that in a panel shortly. But one of the things we're going to see in different communities is different approaches. And I want to know what the Emond model has created incredibly exciting new opportunities for communities that don't have municipal electric utilities. The cities that have mostly built municipal networks to date have had existing utilities that they piggybacked on. And there's a number of crusading communities that have not had that advantage. Ammon has one of the most replicable models for how to do that in terms of the way they financed it and the way that they are growing it now. 

And I'm someone who will stand up and say in front of a community in Michigan which just decided to tax itself to build this network. I'm very glad that they decided to do that. I think it makes sense if a community says, "we want to raise our property taxes to pay for this network." OK. I'm fine with that. If another community says, "we want to raise our sales tax to pay for a network" I think they should be allowed to do that. When a community says we don't want to tax ourselves we want to find another way to build this network. Again I think that's great. And when we live in a community where we live in a country that has 330 million of us spread out 25,000 communities or so we should be able to make those choices so I don't want to. 

When I say that Ammon has done this without raising taxes is not a dig at those who have raised taxes in many ways I think it's a more challenging prospect and shows more leadership. And this is where I want to highlight someone whose name isn't mentioned enough and that's Ray Ellis the director of public works here because I meet a lot of communities that would like to follow in Ammon's footsteps and director of public works says. Now I don't think so for people who are in cities, or familiar with how cities work, that can be enough to stop a project or at the very least delay it forever. Have a city that works together in the way that Ammon does is really special. 

And this is where we want to talk about the role of government, it isn't just yes. It's smart government. It's government that works. Again I'm a proponent of municipal networks. But if someone comes to me and I'll I'll pick on Florida because it has the greatest crime novelist and Thriller. You know paperback trash novelists that are constant talking of how corrupt Florida is. Someone comes to me from Florida and says I don't trust my local government, but I really want a fiber network. I would say to them fix that trust in your local government. That's step one. Fortunately, Ammon did not have to do that. Ammon has a local government that is already working together. It's important to note that before people go off and just say "Well we're just going to do what Ammon did by finding someone like Bruce" finding someone like Bruce is incredibly important to this model, finding someone who's excited, was capable, was ambitious, self-sacrificing. These are all traits that require it to work. 

In studying public policy, one of the things that I've been a little bit stunned at and my wife works for the state of Minnesota now previously worked for the city of Minneapolis. Is that some of the people around her that got the most done were people who are the most self-sacrificing in some ways their families suffered for the way the city in this state improved because they were getting the job done and it was more than an eight hour job. And one of the things that people don't recognize about Chattanooga [Tennessee] is the role that unnamed staff play in making that a successful network. 

The guy named Larry Heinz who I love for a variety of reason. He's retired now but he had if you drew up a stereotypical Tennessee accent, he nailed it to a T. I think a lot of people from coastal cities, elites might hear a person like that and think listen just a guy who doesn't know what he's talking about. He helped design that network in ways that I that I can't describe. I'm not that technical but I do know that he was pointing out flaws in the consultant's plans and he took it upon himself to educate himself in this. And that's what communities need is not someone with degrees. Person might have degrees but that's not the important point. The point is to have someone who is capable was ambitious who was willing to get the job done and then to make that work. 

The earlier question about a job description is key. And that's something that I think in next century cities were going to be putting out a little bit of information going down that path of what one should look for because I think that's an important question as government gets involved with this. How are they going to do it. It's going to be by finding the right people. I've often said that bad people will break a good system good people can make a bad system work. So the quality of the people is incredibly important. So I wanted to say just a couple of other wrapping up notes about things to think about in terms of making this work elsewhere. And you're getting involved with this. We always talk about a champion someone who is really excited about it. 

In Lafayette, Louisiana, that was the mayor. It's usually not the mayor it's usually someone who's not even in the city council although sometimes it's usually not a staff person. But one of the things you need is a person that says this is my driving force I'm going to make this happen is my number one priority it's going to take a few years of really dedicated work. Once you have that person you need to make sure you have a person within city government a staff person at least one elected official on board and working together. Because if you don't have the community support you don't have the staff support you don't have the city council support or mayors support any one of those can block the others so you really need to work with a sort of a triangle that reinforces itself. 

You need really good political leadership. This is something that we've seen here in Amman with both Mayor Kirkham and others, Brian Paulhan, the city council, who are willing to educate themselves talk about how important it is because it is so easy for an elected official to say you know what. It would probably be great if we had that. But the risks are too great. And I know that I am not going to pay a political price for not moving forward because people will never know what opportunity was missed. And they also know if they're smart they're going to stand for re-election after they've made a decision for the benefits come in. So have a city official that recognizes that the benefits of doing nothing are much greater than the risks of doing something because all the benefits are going to come long after the people have voted the next time. 

That's something special. It should be celebrated. It's the kind of leadership we need. And I hope that we're going to be reinvigorating our local governments or state governments and our federal government with in coming years as we continue to deal with the triumph of our hope and our our pragmatic response to what I think we'd all agree right now are significant challenges of political leadership across the country no matter which side you're on. So the other thing is is that as someone who is a cheerleader for municipal networks and for local governments getting involved taking risks I've often said and at some point I'll probably stop saying it because it's going to get me in trouble. But I believe cities should be free to do stupid things. In part because I've thought things were stupid that turned out to be pretty smart investments. 

And so in general, I think cities should be free to make decisions that sometimes will be turn out to be wrong. Cities should do this with careful forethought. They should spend a significant amount of time, generally a year or two is what I see, at a minimum for considering a significant municipal investment to understand what's going on what the risks are and that sort of thing. These are all things that we've seen coming out of Ammon. I think Ammon is a wonderful example of how to make sure you're taking all these boxes as you move forward. And I'm looking forward to I'll be up here. But the panel I'm moderating the panel talking about how Ammon did all these things -- I'm looking forward to your questions as we cover it in a few minutes. 

But, I'd like to just say that I think we should give a round of applause to Ray Ellis, Bruce Patterson, the staff behind this project and the elected officials who have made it happen. And that's a convenient break. Now I'm going to introduce Michael Currie the next speaker who if he's smart is sweating a little bit because he knows me. 

Michael and I have had a long, good relationship challenging each other, and I've not always agreed with what he said. 

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