Transcript: Bonus Community Broadband Bits Episode 15

This is the transcript for episode 15 of our bonus series, “Why NC Broadband Matters.” On this episode, Christopher Mitchell is joined by Catharine Rice (Co-founder of NC Broadband Matters and  Project Manager at the Coalition for Local Internet Choice) and Doug Dawson (Owner and President of CCG Consulting) dig into what all these different pots of federal funding mean communities across the country. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Catharine Rice: Why undermine yourself before you've even started? Go for it.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another bonus episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. And today I'm coming to you once again, as part of our partnership with NC Broadband Matters, a organization focused on North Carolina broadband, talking about how to make sure we get high quality broadband Internet access out to everyone. This episode is going to be focused on what all of the giant federal piles of money mean from a practical perspective. We've all talked about all the money that's out there. What does that really mean? And we're bringing on two return guests to talk with about this. We've got Catharine Rice, co-founder and board member of NC Broadband Matters as well as a general broadband related consultant. Welcome back to the show, Catharine.

Catharine Rice: Always a pleasure, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: And then we have Doug Dawson, a guy that I've seen once or twice on the Zoom screen. He's a founder, owner, chief bottle washer at CCG, which is a company that's working with more than 1,000 clients on building broadband networks. He's also a board member of NC Broadband Matters. Welcome back, Doug.

Doug Dawson: Good morning, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: How are you guys?

Doug Dawson: We're just peachy, awesome, because there's really not all that much to do these days.

Catharine Rice: Just painting my nails.

Christopher Mitchell: So we're talking about all of this money. Let me ask you Catharine, what made this be a key topic for you, just before we jump into the agenda? Why is this so important?

Catharine Rice: For a million reasons, Chris. I think probably because in my lifetime, this seems very much historical. It's something that I think we've all been working for our whole careers to happen for folks to recognize why broadband infrastructure is critical to every aspect of life and to try to get some really healthy funding behind it. So for me, and I'm sure it's the same for Doug, it's an extraordinary time to be alive and we hope that it can be done right.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So let's start with good news then. What is the good news, Catharine?


Catharine Rice: The good news is that we no longer have to educate on why broadband is important. I remember like 20 years ago trying to explain why Fiber-to-the-Home was the infrastructure that everybody should be funding. So it only took a pandemic. It only took a pandemic and everybody gets it now. And so that part of the lifting is off our backs. But there's bad news that comes with that.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm shocked that in the year 2021, which we're recording in 2021. I don't know if we're actually going to air this in 2022 or not depending on the holiday schedule. But shocking, anyway, that this time we could have bad news to think about. What is the bad news?

Catharine Rice: I think the bad news is, is that we have so much federal money coming through, but most of it looks like it's all going to funnel through the States. And it also looks like most of the access will be through a competitive process.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And in some ways I think this is good, medium or bad, depending on which state you happen to find yourself in.

Catharine Rice: Yeah. I think what it really means is, and I always tend to see things through the benefit or the disadvantage for local communities. It's a really clear message that local communities need to do their homework. Figure out what areas in your community have less than 10/1, less than 25/3, less than 100/20 because these are the standards that are going to be used for you to compete for those funds. And I really think you need to think about hiring somebody. I think the consultants are pretty much swamped. So if there are funds there, think about bringing somebody on full time and this will be their job every day they wake up to think about how can we ensure that there's digital equity in our community.

Christopher Mitchell: You might think of someone that has broadband expertise as being like a leprechaun. You want to grab that person and you don't want to let him go. You really don't want to just say, "Hey cool. I saw a leprechaun today." You want to say, "Get this person on my staff so we can make sure we do some good things here."


Catharine Rice: Yeah. But since we see so much of it coming through the States, introduce yourself to the people in your state who are going to be in charge of these programs. Make sure they know your name, they have your mobile phone number, they know every way to contact you. Talk to your state elected representatives. That's super important. They're a big asset for you. They can help you put you in touch with people in the state who will be responsible, the ones behind the closed doors. They can help you get support. They can write letters of support. And they also need to know that in all these funds that are coming through, they really need to issue funds for planning grants for the very reason I said is because now is the time for local communities to get out there and understand who has broadband and who doesn't.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And what are the options available in your area? Different areas may lean in different directions in terms of who they might partner with and whatnot. Let me ask for a quick interlude from Doug. I know that we have a number of more points from you, Catharine. But Doug, do you have any advice for how someone might say, "Well, sure. I'd love to talk to the people who are in charge of the program. Who are they?"

Doug Dawson: Well, interestingly, all 50 states are going to do that. Maybe a little over half, actually have a state broadband office of some sort. About a third don't really have one. There's some states where we don't know who that is today, which is a little bit scary with the amount of money that's coming down the hill. Some of the states are still deciding whether they're going to actually open a broadband office or put it in the governor's office. The problem is if they don't get their act together soon, these grants, as Catharine said, are complicated and there won't be enough bodies there who know what they're doing to review these grants. So the real of fear is if you're in a state who's never gotten gone before last year, you're probably already way behind the eight ball. So the first question might be, do we even have somebody to talk to?

Christopher Mitchell: And in North Carolina, you do now. The office is in flux a little bit, but it has been a pretty good office in terms of the initiatives that it's pursued and things like that. So that's a good sign for people that are in North Carolina.

Catharine Rice: Yeah. We have Nate Denning now in charge, who's very bright, young, energetic, well read, really cares. And it looks like he's going to try to tap into Angie Bailey for a while, at least, who's been a part of a broadband since way back when there was something called E&C, and Jane Patterson was doing all this work, trying to get broadband to rural areas. So there's some really good talent there and I think we need to help them as much as we can to be creative.


Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. So we're going to introduce ourselves to the people in the state. You also, I think, have a recommendation that people talk to the elected state officials.

Catharine Rice: Yeah. It's funny. So many people think that they're not allowed to talk to their elected representatives. It's a funny inhibition.

Christopher Mitchell: Only lobbyists get to do that, the ones that do it 24/7.

Catharine Rice: Yeah. But I remember some kind of wise old elected official saying if it's a call between a lobbyist and somebody who's voting for him, of course he's a politician saying this, he's going to take the call from the person who is voting for him first. And I just think that people should not be inhibited. They're there to help you. They're there to help you and they know how the systems work and you should not hesitate at all to call or email.

Christopher Mitchell: I think sometimes people make assumptions too. I actually just recently got a note from someone in North Carolina who was asking for advice, because they were frustrated that the Democrats representing them in the state legislature in that case were anti-municipal broadband. And they were kind of surprised. And similarly, people might think, well, maybe I vote Democrat and I'm represented by a Republican in Raleigh, so why would I even bother telling them what I think, they're not going to listen to me? Well, actually, first of all, that person may agree with you on broadband. And second of all, no matter whether they agree with you or disagree, you have to tell them to try to nudge them in the direction that you want them to go. So absolutely, you have to reach out and talk to these people.

Catharine Rice: Yeah. Because it really isn't a partisan issue. As we've seen thanks to COVID, it is a essential utility service now. And whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you're hearing that from your constituents. And particularly in North Carolina, where there are so many rural areas that have voted majority Republican, they need to talk to their representatives. You kind of look at things and you say, well, there are good states and bad states. And by that, I mean bad states, what we're seeing is that the legislatures are trying to pinch off the use of the funds, limit them from the broad birth of use that you have under the Treasury rules. And the good states are the ones that are going to go for it. But if you are in a bad state, there are still ways for you to apply directly to the NTIA to try to get access to the funds, and just go around your state.


Christopher Mitchell: Right. If your state doesn't take any action, then communities themselves will have an opportunity to apply for funds. And you just mentioned the Treasury funds for people who are a little bit confused, it's just worth noting that there are different buckets of funds. And several of those buckets that came through the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, have gone through Treasury or are going through Treasury and others are going through NTIA, which is a different department in the federal government. So these different buckets will have different rules associated with them.

Catharine Rice: The American rescue funds, the use of them has been interpreted by the Treasury Department. So you should be looking at the interim final rules and the FAQs on that. The Infrastructure Act, most of that money is going to go through the NTIA and to the states. But Doug has some really good advice about using that, the ARPA funds, as we say.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And we've covered some of this on some previous shows. But Doug, there's always new listeners and our advice changes as we learn new things and see what's going on. So what are some of your top line pieces of advice?

Doug Dawson: Well, first off, what I'm finding, and this has just become apparent maybe the last six or eight weeks, there's a lot of very bad advice out there. We're finding that lobbyists-

Christopher Mitchell: I do multiple hours of shows a week on it.

Doug Dawson: Yes. Lobbyists are starting to show up at city and county councils and telling them what they can and can't do with this money because they don't want them to build anything that competes with them. We see a lot of very conservative city and county attorneys who don't do their homework and don't talk to anybody else. The Treasury rules, which I'll talk about in a second, are very open and they still interpret them as closed, which by the way, industry folks do too. Because I remember Catharine's first reading of those rules and yours, were both very pessimistic. But the fact is, and I'll talk about that more in second, but those rules are actually incredibly open. But there's folks who are hitting this for the first time who don't know anything about broadband, who are turning around to their elected at officials and going, "You can't do what you want."

Doug Dawson: My first advice is don't listen to the naysayers, go talk to other communities who are doing it, because it's not hard to go look at your website or to call somebody like me or to just start calling other communities you know. And when you find someone else who's doing it, find out why they think it's okay to do it because it is okay to use this money. That's the purpose of it is. And so that's the very first thing. Right now I'm seeing entire communities who are almost going to give up on it. And so that's terrible.


Christopher Mitchell: We are maintaining, what we call the big list. And so if you search our site for the big lists rescue a plan or something like that, you'll find it. I think we actually have a link in the left sidebar and we'll soon have a site that is more intuitive. We've been working behind the scenes on an updated interface and everything. But the point is we're tracking well over 100 and maybe over 200 communities now and we're tracking them in two different groups. One is where they have already sort of committed and they're moving forward and the other is where they floated an idea about how they may use them. We also have, in different posts on, about different states, like some 17 states I think have announced how they plan to use some of the money. And so we're trying to track that as well. But states to look at certainly California, Maryland, Vermont, putting a lot of money into community networks and devolving a lot of authority down to the local level in terms of how they use this money.

Doug Dawson: Next door to a state where Catharine happens to live, who's probably ready to tackle this too, is Virginia. They are doing it the right way.

Catharine Rice: I feel like the listeners need to understand with the American Rescue Act funds, there's two parts. There's the local recovery funds, which went to the local communities directly, except for a small subclass, and then there's the state American Rescue Act recovery funds. And even though both are controlled by the Treasury guidelines, they're both subject to the Treasury guidelines, some of the states have been lobbied. And so they've decided to pair back or pinch off, as I say, the use of those funds. But the local recovery funds again, are guided by the Treasury rules. They give you a lot more room. Doug, you want to talk about that?

Doug Dawson: I've spent 40 years reading regulatory declarations and all these dockets and stuff. And this is an amazing set of rules from Treasury because the entire thing doesn't have the word shall anywhere in it. Regulatory rules always have shall, you shall this, you shall that, you shall that. And those are ironclad rules. There's usually no way around those. The Treasury rules say, "We suggest you look at this. We recommend that you think about this." They are inviting you to use this money creatively. And the Treasury ran a very interesting gauntlet because they had the White House telling them to be as open as possible. They had the industry telling them to be as restrictive possible. And that's why local lawyers are getting confused. Some of the language sounds restrictive until you realize there's no shalls in it.


Christopher Mitchell: I think that's where it gets down to this issue of whether you're willing to say, "Well, we appreciate that advice, but that's not what we're doing with this money you gave us."

Doug Dawson: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: Which is like, since we're around Christmas time, it's like, "I appreciate that you gave me $50. I'm going to spend it on something that you may not support, but it's my money. Thank you for that."

Doug Dawson: Right. There is only one or two rules that do matter. The money has to be spent for something that has some tangential reason, problem caused by the pandemic. Well, there's almost no broadband problem that can't fall under that category. But that is a rule. So you're going to have to be able to come back and defend that. But other than that, you're kind of free to do it.

Christopher Mitchell: I think of this as this issue of Treasury is not full of broadband experts. Their heart was kind of in the right place in that they wanted to make sure the money wasn't used to build fiber dimensions. They wanted to focus on folks that didn't have good access. But I think they misunderstood what that meant for low income urban populations. And so, if you decide to build out to areas in which there is cable access, and there might be access if you have $70 a month, but very few people in those areas can afford it. That is very much in spirit with what this was meant to be. But that's one thing.

Christopher Mitchell: The other thing was, I should have got this back in the moment, but Doug, I feel like legislation would be way better if they use shan't more. If they're going to use shall, I feel like they also should say shan't and that would just make reading legislation much better.

Doug Dawson: It certainly would, because then it's like, okay, you don't want me to do that. I get it. Right. You hit what I think is a very important point. I think the rules are very different for cities and for rural areas. So cities, almost all of them have something that could be considered as good broadband. It's very rare. Every once in a while I find one who still has only DSL, but the issue there is to find places in the city that still fit under these rules. And so those are the places that are sharp on your list. Build broadband to public housing, build broadband to low income neighborhoods and both cases give free or very inexpensive broadband.


Doug Dawson: And of course, comments are saying, wait, but we have this very nice new plan. It's going to give $30 a month off every broadband customer. But broadband for Comcast, they just announced their newest rate increase. Next year, standalone broadband for a hundred megabits will be $93. $30 off of that is still very expensive. And so if cities want to come in and bring $20 or $10 or free broadband to folks, this is an opportunity to do it.

Christopher Mitchell: Especially if they don't have to wait in line or go through-

Doug Dawson: And they don't wait in line. They don't have to ask anyone's permission. We see cities building city networks to get their entire, all the bankers institutions, government places, nonprofits, all those folks onto a private network so they don't have to keep paying big broadband bills. We think that's a wonderful use. A really good use for it, because probably even the one that may be the most pointed at the pandemic is to bring broadband to business districts and industrial parks who are devastated by the pandemic. And these smaller towns, if they don't get their business districts back, the towns are in big trouble.

Christopher Mitchell: And a particular note for North Carolina regarding the either low charge or free access is that the restrictions that North Carolina has on cities offering Internet access is based around a charge. And so there is no limitation on cities building a network offer free Internet access.

Doug Dawson: Right. One last category. I see a lot of folks actually building CBRS wireless networks to reach out directly to students, that sort of thing. Again, don't worry about the ISPs. Let's just make sure every student has at least one connection in their house. There's a lot of really creative ideas out there. Your website has a bunch of them on there.

Catharine Rice: There's a really important FAQ update that happened on June, I think it was June 17th, where the Treasury Department came out and said, as long as you're using the funds to build a network that reaches some unserved homes, you're allowed to serve served homes. That's absolutely huge. And they even went on to explain that the reason that they are guiding in that direction, are allowing in that direction is because they understand that the economies are so much better if that provider can serve the more dense areas as they go along to serve the less dense areas.


Catharine Rice: And it's also huge because it means you can use public funds to basically stimulate competition. To me, this is like such an area for the local communities to really take advantage of their local recovery funds. Because they get to decide what the definition of unserved is. What does it mean to have reliable wire line access of less than 25/3. There's a whole lot you can unpack there. There's a whole lot to be interpreted versus if you go through the state, the state is not going to allow that kind of overbuilding and the state, well at least in North Carolina right now, they're going to pinch off the funds to only be used in the areas that either don't have 10/1, believe it or not, or don't have 25/3. So if you hand your local funds to the state right now, you're going to lose a lot of control.

Doug Dawson: Well, let me just give you an example of what Catharine's talking about. It's really very routine that public housing is not served by the cable company because they didn't see any money in it. They may have a wire there, but nobody's buying it. So that's an unserved little community. That's all you need. It's like they're unserved, I got an unserved area. Boom, let's go. And there's always places like that. There's always very low income rental places where the cable company never came to. And so once you go out and knock on a few doors, you find out the cable company doesn't serve everybody. And all of a sudden, you've got your justification to do this. That was Catharine's very first point, do your homework. You have to have a justification for this. It's almost impossible that that justification isn't sitting right in front of you. You just got to go look for it.

Catharine Rice: And that's the beauty of the interim guidelines by the Treasury. They are like, here's a million different ways you can do this. You are not stuck with the FCC maps. You can talk to households, you can do your own surveys, you can do your own speed tests. Just figure it out for yourselves.

Doug Dawson: Now to go back to my original thing, that's cities. I think cities have a interesting path and that's where the most of the bad advice is coming from. That's where people are trying to talk cities out of using their money to do anything. And that's Comcast and Charter, and those guys. They're very heavily lobbying rural, are much more clear because if you have people who are still on DSL or on three megabit fixed wireless, you meet all the tests. And so most of those kind of counties are simply partnering with ISPs in very creative ways. Some of them are actually just going ahead and building infrastructure and hand it to an ISP. The most creative ones I think are matching state and federal grants with the local grants to really get the hardest to serve places done. But the money is going from the local communities and ISPs.


Doug Dawson: I have yet to find a rural care who wants to be an ISP and I've worked with a couple hundred of them now. They want the ISPs to do this. And so they're simply taking this money and they're going to hand it off to them only if that ISP has a good plan, obviously. And so there's a whole lot of that negotiating and looking for partners going on right now.

Doug Dawson: The biggest problem we have is actually a lack of ISPs. All the little ISPs look around them at 10 opportunities and they simply only can handle two or three or four of them. And so they're going like, "I can't do these 10 things around me." The State of West Virginia only has like three CLECs, three IPS. There's not enough people there that the partner with. I was on the phone with three counties in West Virginia yesterday and we're like, "Oh, I hope the one who's anywhere close to here will do it." If not, we're going to have to get very creative in finding them a partner, because they're going to do something, but they're really having a hard time with it. So the rural areas have a much easier path because they meet the traditional 25/3 rule. It's very easy for them to find people who have no broadband usually. And so that's an easy path.

Christopher Mitchell: And just a quick note is that those areas are the ones where the infrastructure dollars would be the most useful because in those areas, we want to spend the inflexible money. And the infrastructure dollars are the least flexible compared to the rescue plan dollars. Unfortunately, then you're asking people in rural areas to wait another year or two while that program gets sorted out, whereas they could start building today with rescue plan dollars. So it's really unfortunate, but also be really too bad if you have states that spend all of their are flexible dollars in the inflexible areas.

Doug Dawson: And there is one interesting little niche, what I see a lot of counties considering is they're going to build that middle mile. They're going to get to every corner of the county. They've already got an ISP lined up who's going to go after the bigger grants. And so that's the partnership, but it doesn't happen all at once. ARPA money now, get it built, let's not wait for the fiber to not be available, as Travis always tells us, our friend. So get it built now knowing that those ISPs will find that other big funding. So middle mile's a really good way to use it as well. Because your point is let's not wait for three or four years. I was very disheartened yesterday when the White House said, "We're going to get this all achieved by 2030. Boy, that's a long time from now for folks who don't have broadband. That's really a bit of a disheartening thing.


Christopher Mitchell: There's children growing up without an opportunity to ever get an education.

Doug Dawson: Right.

Catharine Rice: I think that's why you're hearing Doug and I say really focus on your ARPA funds now. Focus on your local recovery ARPA funds because you actually have to have those obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of December, 2026. And what we're going to see with the Infrastructure and Jobs Act is that's going to take probably a solid year and a half to get everything in place. And because it's going through the States again, it could probably fold on top of what you're already doing.

Christopher Mitchell: So Doug, you just mentioned something that I wanted to plug quick, which is I know that people who listen to this are all over the place. Vermont just got a delivery, I think of 2000 miles of fiber. The state ordered it to make sure to be available for projects. And so I just wanted to note that for people who are out there might be in a position to aggregate a lot of local orders and get those orders in might not be a bad idea.

Doug Dawson: I thought that was really creative because they're like, let's get in front of the demand curve. And I'm assuming they used their ARPA money to do that. Rather than hand it out as grants, they're going to hand fiber out as grants. How smart. They saved people a year right there on projects.

Catharine Rice: There's another thing NC Broadband Matters, I think we had a Zoom cast, was it last month, Doug, where we tried to kind of introduce North Carolina's broadband folks to Virginia's because one of the ways that the legislature has decided to pinch off the use of funds in North Carolina is to declare that any area that is earmarked for state or federal broadband funds is ineligible for any of the state's wanting upwards of a billion dollars.

Catharine Rice: And so what Virginia's decided to do is to layer. They're like great, there's folks out there who have won the RDOF grants, there's folks who have won these other money, come to us and layer it. We aren't going to chastise you because you've already won funds, we want you to build faster. And so we will add our funds to the federal funds you've already won and we'll get there. And I think that has been such a key for Virginia to really just blow it out, to just really get folks to the table. Whereas in North Carolina, I really don't know how they're going to figure out any area that hasn't already been given an RDOF grant, except maybe with new maps.


Doug Dawson: I want to add one point at that point then. Not only layer, because Virginia's going to state, local and federal grants. Put them in a pile, it doesn't matter if they were last year's grants, next year's grants. We can't forget that there's also money for schools and libraries, there's money for rural healthcare. There's money for electric co-ops now. I'm working with communities who are putting all of those into the broadband pile and they're going to be the ones who get a true fiber everywhere solution because they're not messing around. Even if they only get 1% of the project funded by the schools and libraries program, that's 1%. So this makes a difference.

Catharine Rice: Which is to Doug's point about go to the places where you can apply directly. I remember I think during [inaudible 00:28:39] and there are other kinds of grants. But Chattanooga, they got that huge smart grade grant, the energy grant, and they used that to build out their network. Don't just focus, don't just do a word search on broadband because the infrastructure is so universal now.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. They got that money, changed it from a 10 year build to a three year build, I think was the dynamic.

Catharine Rice: And there are funds there. There are funds in the Infrastructure Act that are-

Christopher Mitchell: There's some. And that's what I wanted to note. It's hard for me to keep track of this. And so I pity people who aren't paid to do it. But the Build Back Better is sometimes confused with the Infrastructure bill. The Build Back Better is a companion piece that has not passed, but that does not have much in the way of direct broadband money, but it's got its ton of money for smart grid and electric utilities to improve their facilities.

Doug Dawson: Yeah. The current bill has something in the range of 14 billion of grants, which is not going to go very far.

Catharine Rice: In the Infrastructure Act?

Doug Dawson: The Infrastructure bill, for electric stuff. That's still a start, but the big, big money is in the Build Back Better, including there's a huge second pile of money for alternate energy, which can also feed right into this as well. But if that doesn't pass, then it doesn't matter. But if that passes, that's just a really new, interesting source of putting this all together.


Catharine Rice: Think about it because if you can be more creative, if you could say, build the network for smart meter reading, and then since the same network you would use to bring Internet into the house, could you figure out what the financing would be so that maybe you can offer a basic package of free Internet service into the home and you funded this whole thing with the smart grid application.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that, we're a little bit off topic, but hey the people listen to me, they listen to me in part because I go off topic, but we had tornadoes in Minnesota last night in the middle of December, never happened before. Kentucky just got hit hard, Iowa got hit hard. And I saw that in Iowa, the co-op sent out a note telling people that if they didn't have power to call in to help the electric co-op know where the power was out. Well, in Chattanooga, we know that when the power goes out, they know where it's out because that's the point of their network. And that's where we should all be in the future. The electric operators need to have this kind of granular information. To have that kind of information, they need to build the kind of systems that they could deliver really high quality broadband on as well.

Catharine Rice: It's just another packet. It's just another packet going into the home, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So Doug, where are we on your list of the advice that you're dispensing?

Doug Dawson: Actually, I'm down to my conclusion. Ignore all the bad advice, listen to Catharine and I and get done. It really is usable money. The ARPA money is there to use. If anyone tells you it's not usable, they're telling you a non-truth here. So do not listen to that.

Christopher Mitchell: Now that said, North Carolina law still prevails in North Carolina where cities are still restricted. Even if the federal government says you could use this money for this, if they don't have a state authorization, I'm guessing that they have to do some complicated work in order to try to do something.

Catharine Rice: This is where you need to have your local lawyers look at the bill. I've seen all kinds of misinformation surrounding the Level Playing Act, the H129. There is language in there that let's any community build a network and provide service for free or build a network that can be used for smart, any kind of metering that's not prohibited. So I just think that you need to do your homework if you're a local community and you really need to focus where you have the most control, which in my thinking is, is there a program where I don't have to compete against the rest of the country? Try to limit that. Is there a program I don't even have to compete at all? Which would be things like the CDBG funds, or my own local ARPA recovery funds.


Christopher Mitchell: That is a wonderful point and I think that one of the things that we see in all kinds of states is that issue that you're describing, Catharine, of people making assumptions that they can't do anything. Sometimes it's motivated reasoning to say, it seems like a lot of work to do something. It'd be really convenient if I was isn't allowed to do it. So people really do need to take responsibility at this time to get this stuff done.

Catharine Rice: Last night, I heard a guy was speaking from a pretty rural county in North Carolina, a farming county. He loved technology, and he was in his forties I think. And he said, "I think I'll be lucky if I ever see 100 megabit upload in my lifetime." And I just felt like, why aren't you worthy of more? And I wanted to stop and say, "Look, we just sat in on a pre-vendor call and there to been three or four Fiber-to-the-Home providers on the call. And they were all saying, "A hundred symmetrical, are you crazy? That's such a no brainer." We don't even offer that. I think our lowest package is 200 by 200 because it's Fiber-to-the-Home because they're offering symmetrical gigabit. But here's this guy in this rural county, in North Carolina, feeling like all he really deserved was maybe a little bit more than 25/3 in his lifetime. So it's like, why undermine yourself before you've even started? Go for it.

Christopher Mitchell: I despair for communities where we sometimes hear from people that live in those communities who say, "People don't listen to me. They don't believe that Fiber-to-the-Home is feasible or worth it and they think wireless is the future. And so we're going to give all this money to this wireless provider. What should I do?" And my answer lately has been, and I'm really curious how Doug reacts to this, is structure a performance contract to say, if that wireless provider is telling you that they're going to deliver 200 megabits per second to every address, schedule a contract that says in two years, if you are not delivering this speed to all of these addresses, then you have to give the money back, or there's some massive penalty. But don't just say, "Here's the money, good luck." Structure some kind of performance contract.


Doug Dawson: Gee, just like they did with CAF II, the FCC. Right?

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. But you actually enforce it. Yeah.

Doug Dawson: Yeah. But actually enforce it.

Christopher Mitchell: Actually enforce it, crazy idea.

Doug Dawson: No, no, no. If we don't do that right now, then we're going end up with a lot of inferior networks built. And if all this funding comes down and you build an inferior network, you're going to regret that for the next 40 years. No one's going to come behind that and build fiber because the money already came.

Catharine Rice: And another important point that Doug has been making and through our Zoom cast is upstream. It's like another part of, I don't deserve it. In fact, this guy was saying, "Well, I have 100 Meg down, but I only have like three Meg up." And I was like, "Three Meg up?" You're gone on that. The Treasury Department actually talked about this and said during COVID, a family of four, two parents working, and two kids trying to do school needed on an average of about 100 Meg upstream in order to not have any problem whatsoever, because everybody's Zoom calling and that's just now. So don't underestimate the importance of the upstream in these networks.

Doug Dawson: Particularly for farmers. They are now uploading terabyte sized files. It's amazing what they want to upload.

Christopher Mitchell: And I'll just note something that we've talked about before on some of the shows, which is that don't get caught up on what we need today because some of this money won't be available for a year or two, it won't be built for three or four years. And so, what are you going to need then? And we're going to expect it to operate well into the future, beyond that. So we're talking not about what speeds do we need in 2022, we're talking about what speeds do we expect that we might need in 2028? That's what people need to be focused on and thinking more about. And that's where 120 starts to seem like, geez, if we're subsidizing something that's doing 120 in eight years, that might be a pretty unwise investment.

Doug Dawson: It'll be a completely stupid investment. I use more Anglo-Saxons words than you do.

Christopher Mitchell: It's me just trying to hedge.

Doug Dawson: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate this conversation. Thank you both for taking the time to share this wisdom and to have a little bit of fun this morning.

Doug Dawson: And you want to give a last pitch for NC Broadband Matters, Catharine?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Catharine Rice: Check out our website, We love gigabit in North Carolina and we're going to get there. Check out our videos. We have some fantastic Zoom casts with Doug talking about the importance of all these different issues, including upstream.

Christopher Mitchell: And if you're another state who's trying to figure out how to create an organization that will make a difference, definitely take a look at how these folks have done it. Thank you all, and let's hope for that in 2022, we see more progress.