Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 184

This is Episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Catharine Rice from The Coalition for Local Internet Choice joins the show again to discuss North Carolina's restrictive laws and the lack of broadband connectivity throughout the state. Listen to this episode here.

 

Catharine Rice: All options need to be on the table and that's what local net choice is all about. 

Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening to episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Rural areas across the US struggle with adequate internet access, and North Carolina is no exception. Unfortunately, North Carolina is also one of the states with state barriers in place, making it nearly impossible for rural communities to serve themselves. If you're one of our regular listeners, you know that the SEC overturned that barrier and that the state is challenging that decision in court. 

In this interview, Chris talks with Catharine Rice, project director for The Coalition for Local Internet Choice, also known as CLIC. Catharine was also instrumental in organizing the first local chapter of CLIC which is located in North Carolina. CLIC-NC. Catharine provides some close up perspective on how the lack of broadband affects the people of North Carolina and how CLIC-NC is attacking this problem. Now here are Chris and Catharine Rice, project director for The Coalition of Local Internet Choice, talking about the situation in North Carolina.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of The Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Catharine Rice, the project director for CLIC, The Coalition for Local Internet Choice. Welcome to the show.

Catharine Rice: Hi, Chris. Always a pleasure to be on your podcast.

Chris Mitchell: Well it's great to have you back. You were one of our early guests as we were kicking this show off, and to that we were very grateful. It's great that you have some new news that we'll be talking about today which is The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter. Let me just remind people if you're not aware, there's sort of a minor ... I have a hat that I wear that is related to CLIC as well. I'm a senior advisor to the project. This is me interviewing an organization that I am fully supportive of. But Catharine, can you tell us, what is CLIC?

Catharine Rice: CLIC, as you said, is The Coalition for Local Internet Choice. We were founded or formed around April of 2014 basically to give voice to the wide range of public and private interests who support the authority of local communities to make their own broadband and internet choices. CLIC actually believes that having this authority is essential for local economic competitiveness or democratic discourse and basically our quality of life in the 21st century. As you know, Chris, we embody three different principles. The first one is that the internet is essential 21st century infrastructure and that access to modern broadband infrastructure is vital in ensuring that all communities whether rural or tribal or urban connect this opportunity and participate fully in community life. Our second principle is that local communities are the life blood of America. This is because we all know that America is built on great communities. Towns, counties, and cities. These are the places where economic activity and civic engagement live. 

Communities recognize that modern broadband internet infrastructure is essential to enable economic and democratic activity and what is now unquestionably a global knowledge economy, an important point. Third, communities must be able to make their own choices and I think Chris, you at ILSR get this completely. Local choice enables local self-reliance and accountability. Local choice enables innovation, investment, and competition. We believe that local communities, through their elected officials, must have the right and opportunity to choose for themselves the best broadband internet infrastructure for their businesses, for their institutions, and for their residents. We think that all options must be on the table. We believe that federal and state broadband policies must prioritize local choice and provide local communities full and unhindered authority to choose their own broadband and economic future.

Our first focus basically was to support Chattanooga and Wilson's SEC petition to preempt state laws that were preventing the kind of broadband investment and competition that's so important for our country. 

Chris Mitchell: Right. I think it's worth giving a reminder to people that it was ... Jim Baller and Joanne Hovis were essential in the founding of it. You and I have helped out but it was in many ways something that they poured themselves into.

Catharine Rice: We owe a lot of gratitude to both of them.

Chris Mitchell: Let me ask you. I'm not sure that there would be a Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter without you. You've been a driving force in North Carolina for Local Choice before we started calling it that, Local Internet Choice specifically, obviously. Tell me, what is the North Carolina chapter, how is it distinct from CLIC?

Catharine Rice: CLINC-NC or CLIC and C as we playfully like to make fun of is CLIC's North Carolina chapter, as you said. I believe it's CLIC's first chapter. It is actually the outgrowth of a coming together at the Broadband Community Conference in Austin this year in April. A group of North Carolina community representatives came together over coffee. It was actually their idea. They kind of found me, said, "We've got to sit down, and we need to do something so that everyone in North Carolina has access to modern broadband infrastructure." Basically, Chris, what we're all seeing is that North Carolina will soon become the state of urban gigabit haves and we're all gigabit have-nots. That's simply not acceptable.

Chris Mitchell: Yes. We've been looking at the investment patterns, both the announce patterns and where we've already seen investment. It's pretty clear that North Carolina has some very famous urban areas. You've got Charlotte, you've got the triangle, the areas around Greensboro. We've got a couple of different regions that have plans or there have been announcements that there will be next generation networks, but outside of those areas and outside of places like Wilson and Salisbury where they have built it themselves, there's only a few co-ops that are able to invest. Most of the areas that are served by AT&T and Century Link and others, there's no real hope for them to have even slow broadband, let alone real broadband.

Catharine Rice: Exactly. We're all seeing this on the ground in North Carolina that the cities who are being served by ... Or with the promise of servers for gigabit symmetrical service, like you've mentioned, Rowley, Charlotte, Northville, Cary. They're going to have the service other communities that have the poll, that household income, the higher densities and the willingness to go after or try to go after private sector partners like Holly Springs, they're going to have symmetrical gigabit service. But if you're a community like Stanley County that's located between Charlotte and Rowley, you're getting pretty darn worried at this point that your local businesses and more so your young people are going to move. They're going to go to Rowley or Charlotte. I mean, why not? What our rural areas are facing is a digital have-not status, and it's just something that I think is what brought North Carolina people together, to form CLIC North Carolina. 

Chris Mitchell: It's worth noting for those who aren't long-time listeners that we have covered in great depth the barrier in North Carolina that stops municipalities from being able to invest currently. We discussed the challenge of the FCC, the way that the FCC has taken a real leadership role in trying to remove it, and that case is currently pending in the sixth circuit of appeals. Hey, I saw some breaking news, Catharine. As we're recording this, Roy Cooper, the gentleman, the attorney general who is defending North Carolina and arguing that the FCC should not overturn the rule has just officially said that the rule is itself bad. Can you just give a little bit more context and tell me what's going on there?

Catharine Rice: Well, sure. Roy Cooper is North Carolina's attorney general and in late May, he filed a lawsuit against the SCC for preempting H129. Like you said, that lawsuit is making its way through the sixth circuit judicial process. What's interesting though is that Roy Cooper is also running for governorship. A month ago in early November to his credit, he candidly acknowledged that he thinks that H129 is basically bad law. He was asked by a local Wilson newspaper why he filed the lawsuit, which attempt to overturn the SCC's authorization to finally let North Carolina's municipality serve their rural neighbors, and his answer was basically, "The legislature has cast a lot of bad laws, and it's the job of the attorney general to dissent state laws. I wish the governor and the attorney general would stop passing so many bad laws like H129." 

This is just another situation, he said, where the attorney general is duty bound to defend state law. He's in a state again where half the population live in rural areas and he gets it. As governor, if he was elected, I think he might do something about it.

Chris Mitchell: Right. Well, it's great to see different segments of multiple levels of government understanding that this is the decision that should be made at the local level.

Catharine Rice: All options need to be on the table, and that's what Local Net Choice is all about. It's local communities. It's local elected officials who are the closest to the people, to the local businesses. It should be up to them to decide how they want local resources to be invested, including whether or not they go with the private partnership for broadband, they go private only, they go public public. But it's genuinely a local issue.

Chris Mitchell: This click and see, I think will help so that North Carolina itself could remove the barrier. But I actually have interrupted you, and I wanted to make sure that you had a chance to finish off telling us what your goals were.

Catharine Rice: Well the other thing that brought us together, Chris, is that a lot of us saw the tsunami that will hit soon, thanks to H44. H44 is a law passed by the North Carolina legislature in 2013 that expressed their intention to stop funding printed schoolbooks after 2016. Families with children in rural North Carolina without sufficient internet access will be faced with a really hard decision, whether they should literally move away from their homes to other areas to obtain sufficient internet access, that is if they can afford to consider that alternative. In that environment, in the environment where H129 is stopping the rural areas from getting the service that could potentially be offered to them, it's just time to ... I think people felt it was time to come together and to try to educate each other on how to deploy fiber, what is some financial options for them to provide fiber, and then to educate our legislature and our legislators because a lot of there's a lot of misinformation out there.

Chris Mitchell: Yes. There certainly is. Some people get paid a lot of money to put that misinformation out there.

Catharine Rice: Part of education is based on providing better data. Sadly, the NCIA broadband data collected in North Carolina by NC Broadband was done using certain rules that wildly exaggerate broadband access in the state. The reason this is is because first, this is industry-reported data. The data is collected by census block. If one home in the census block receives internet service, the entire census block can be reported as having internet service. If a company can convince itself that it could deploy internet to that one home within 7 to 10 business days, it can report that the home has internet access and if that one home has internet access, the company gets to report that the entire census block has internet access when in truth, none have it.

We've ended up with entire census blocks being reported as having internet access when there isn't any. That's a problem, when so much funding is based on that data. We've gone out and we've found a speed data collection app, via M-Labs Sascha Meinrath have been kind enough to let us use it.

Chris Mitchell: I think M-Labs is short for Measurement Labs, for people who might be interested in Googling it. I think Googling Measurement Labs would give you a better result than just M-Labs. But please continue.

Catharine Rice: M-Labs is an app which allows you to collect broadband data from the consumers themselves, from the trenches. One of CLIC-NC's 2016 goals will be to get that app distributed and start getting real data together.

Chris Mitchell: That's wonderful. So you have some grass roots-type goals as well as a goal of changing the policy of the state. I think that's smart to be working on multiple levels at the same time. I think the way that you started the group is fascinating in terms of having a bunch of people stick their heads together for a short meeting. I hope that we'll see that in other states. But Catharine, as we get to the end of our call, I definitely wanted to ask you as someone who has been working on this so hard for so long in multiple different capacities, why is it so motivating for you?

Catharine Rice: Well you know, Chris, it's funny because I saw a program on Netflix the other day and it was about how our DNA is pre-wired. The show was a study on various animal DNA structures including human animals and how similar they were across animal types, and how animals who cooperated, who helped each other, actually were the ones that survive, not the animals who only take care of themselves. It was a study discrediting the notion of "survival of the fittest." Basically the program's message was that our DNA is wired to cooperate, to share and to help each other. To me, the internet represents a technology that can let us connect to each other, to put that inherent good DNA on steroids, so to speak and let us share and understand each other ultimately for a better world. To me, the internet lets us reach out and discover that we're really not different. We're basically the same. We are, in fact, inherently social animals and we're meant to connect. 

But as far as my passion for North Carolina, my childhood memories were built on a life on a dairy farm. My heart is basically rural. Our rural areas are being left behind in this new economy, and they're totally dying from it. Access to modern broadband, in my opinion, represents the chance to be part of a knowledge economy but still allowing us to wake up in the morning, thanks to the rooster, to live with our cows, fresh air, and fresh eggs and pancakes on the flowered kitchen tables. Right? Internet could make our rural areas in fact the ultimate creative class nirvana. Right? I believe it can save them and my opinion is no one's future should be determined simply by where they live. We all have something to give.

Chris Mitchell: Right. Well, that's certainly the history of the United States, is one of making sure that we had roads out in rural areas that people could use to build markets. We brought electricity out to everyone I think not as an act of charity but because we recognized that we would all do better if everyone has electricity. People in those rural areas can be more productive. They can contribute more to the goods that we want in cities and they can now with high-quality internet access, we'll have more to their really good ideas. I think there's too many people who haven't been out in rural areas, who don't know people from rural areas but they have every bit as good ideas and fascinating ideas for innovation as people in urban areas. I just spend a lot of time in rural areas so for me it's not an act of charity. It's that I know that I, as someone who lives in a city, will benefit from everyone being connected.

Catharine Rice: Yes, and that's how CLIC-NC came together because we feel that all broadband boats, all city boats need to rise with the tide and it's unacceptable and hurts not only our cities, our region, our state, but our country for everyone not to have access to modern broadband. It's noteworthy to kind of repeat an important SEC factoid which is that 53 percent of rural areas do not have access to the level of modern broadband required to participate in our life versus only 8 percent of urban areas and half of North Carolina's population lives in a rural area. We're in trouble in North Carolina if nothing is done about this rural digital side.

Chris Mitchell: Right. We also should note when this airs, it will have been some time. It's already been a little bit of time since Wally Bowen's passing, but Wally Bowen did so much for rural and Western North Carolina that I would like to honor his passing once again by just thanking him for all the work he put into bringing higher quality internet access to everyone. Catharine, one final note. Where can people get more information about CLIC-NC?

Catharine Rice: Well Chris, to be a member of CLIC-NC is free. All you need to do is go to CLIC's website at www.localnetchoice.org. Go to the membership button, and sign up. That information will filter through to our database and you will be connected. 

Chris Mitchell: Well Catharine, thank you so much for coming back on the show. It's wonderful to have you as a repeat guest.

Catharine Rice: Yes, Chris. Thank you so much for all the work that you do on this cause.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Catharine Rice, project director for The Coalition for Local Internet Choice talking with Chris about the lack of broadband in rural North Carolina and the North Carolina chapter of CLIC. Remember to sign up as a member at localnetchoice.org. Membership is free. We also share news about and by CLIC at MuniNetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @muninetworks. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed under Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 184 of The Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

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