Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 264

This is the transcript for episode 264 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Mason Carroll and Preston Rhea join Christopher Mitchell on the show to talk about their work at Monkeybrains, an urban wireless Internet Service Provider. Listen to the audio here.

Mason Carroll: Every single person needs to have their own Internet connection. This is not just like, "Oh, I can sort of get the building-wide Wi-Fi as I stand near my front door." No. You should have your own Internet connection that you can plug in, and watch TV, or set up a computer, or to do your work. That's really what digital quality is.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 264 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Episode 264 takes us to San Francisco, home to the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, and Monkeybrains. Preston Rhea and Mason Carroll from the Internet service provider are here to tell us about the local company, the services they provide in the Bay Area, and the work they're doing to chip away at the digital divide. Learn more about the company at Monkeybrains.net. As a reminder, this conversation with Preston and Mason is commercial free, but our work at ILSR requires funding. Please take a moment to contribute at ILSR.org. If you have already contributed, thank you. Now, here's Christopher with Preston Rhea and Mason Carroll, from Monkeybrains.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Joining me today is Preston Rhea, Senior Field Engineer for Monkeybrains, an ISP in California. Welcome to the show.

Preston Rhea: Thanks Chris, a pleasure to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Mason Carroll, Lead Engineer for Monkeybrains. Welcome to the show as well.

Mason Carroll: Yeah, thanks a lot.

Christopher Mitchell: So, I think the first question is, monkey brains, I remember running into those in a Harrison Ford movie a long time ago. What is Monkeybrains in San Francisco?

Preston Rhea: Monkeybrains is a local Internet service provider. We're a wireless ISP, or WISP, and we're basically entirely within the city of San Francisco just providing Internet for everyone from residences to businesses to large buildings.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say wireless ISP, does that mean you're delivering things over Wi-Fi? Or, how exactly does it work, Preston?

Preston Rhea: Our primary mode of delivering the Internet is through wireless point-to-point, and point-to-multipoint rooftop antennas, so that's terrestrial point-to-point and we'll go up on a rooftop and set up a dish, and align it to a dish that's somewhere else, and then ultimately everything, of course, goes back to fiber and to the greater Internet, but those wireless links allow us to be really flexible and they do quite a bit of bandwidth as well.

Christopher Mitchell: We've previously interviewed people from netBlazr which is a similar effort in Boston, and Webpass, which is a competitor of yours in San Francisco. Is there anything really different about Monkeybrains, Mason, that other WISPs may not be doing?

Mason Carroll: I think traditionally, WISP is generally a solution for people in rural areas. In rural areas generally there has not been a lot of, maybe is not high-capacity infrastructure, so you can deploy a radio link over any distance and get connectivity. Monkeybrains is a little bit different where we're an urban WISP so we're only in the city of San Francisco. We actually have a few links in Oakland. The value that wireless provides in San Francisco, for example, is that it's quite challenging to add fiber in the streets due to permitting issues and just the fact that it's a dense city so you can't just dig up the street to add fiber. So you have an economy like San Francisco where the economy is booming, and if someone moves into a warehouse building, there's no high speed Internet available. Or maybe they have a DSL capability there but they need a full gigabit per second. So what's nice about the wireless technology of what Monkeybrains can do is in a matter of 48 hours if necessary we can come out, install a licensed radio link, in a point-to-point topology, and we can deliver full gigabit speed really, really quickly. It's a great solution if pulling fiber to the building isn't really feasible. Also, our customers tend to find that -- a lot of times we have customers who, say, "Oh, we're ordering fiber to our building, we're just going to get Monkeybrains for three months until the fiber comes in." We deliver the Internet and then three months later their fiber's not in. Six months later they're -- hit more delays, and then a year later, they're like, "Actually, this service that Monkeybrains has been providing is extremely reliable. This fiber contract is exorbitant and they've been missing deadlines, so we're actually just going to stick with Monkeybrains as our primary uplink."

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I've certainly heard a lot of good stories over the years about Monkeybrains, but the reason that we wanted to have you on now, finally, what pushed me over the edge, was seeing Preston, your name, as someone I'm familiar with from having been with the Open Technology Institute at New America, and seeing this really interesting project in Hunters Point with the low-income housing units. Preston, can you tell us what's going on there?

Preston Rhea: Sure, there has been a lot of redevelopment of public and affordable housing throughout the city and county of San Francisco, and a program called RAD, and this program has sort of opened up some possibilities for reassessing how services are provided at publicly supported housing. So, the Hunters Point East/West Apartments, which is spread across two sites in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, came to our attention a little over a year ago in February of 2016 thanks to Kami Griffiths, the Community Technology Network who pointed out that the Housing Authority there, the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, was looking to use some grant money they got from the mayor's office to provide Internet, basically. They wanted Wi-Fi at these, at the housing that they were renovating. When we got wind of it we decided to do something really interesting and different, because just like a lot of providers, if the Internet is an afterthought because they think of the Internet of course as something that another provider will come in and provide, and oftentimes privately in some way, or they think that we'll just throw up some Wi-Fi access points and everyone's going to have service and it's going to be great, we decided to do something that utilizes our expertise and hooking up direct end customers and saying, well actually, if the infrastructure is right we could provide extremely high speed Internet directly to each unit of Hunters Point without managing access points you could actually provide just a plug in your own router and you could get a gigabit of Internet just like that. So we worked out what that would look like, and we've been doing that work for some time now. There's like phase redevelopment that's occurring across the 27 buildings at Hunters Point, so just the other week, finally after a lot of wrangling of the infrastructure and working with the folks who are doing the reconstruction there, we managed to light up the first several dozen units in Hunters Point, and that's really exciting to see those really fast Internet speeds coming out of their walls.

Christopher Mitchell: I saw in an article about it that you'll ultimately be doing 212 units, which is more than 300 people in just this kind of phase, but that in time you're going to be actually servicing more than 1000 units.

Preston Rhea: Yeah, that's right. So at Hunters Point East/West there's 212 units, but we also managed to get in on a grant series called the California Advanced Services Fund that the state Public Utilities Commission offered, in order to work with a couple other housing providers to provide very high speed Internet to a bunch of other properties in the city. So I think we've already completed a couple of those properties, a couple of women's shelters, and we've got a whole bunch coming online through the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, which has property throughout the Mission and through the Civic Center and Tenderloin area in San Francisco.

Mason Carroll: What's really different about those, Preston kind of hit on it but I wanted to just bring it home, is that a lot of times in these public housing projects, they want to set up wireless access points, but we really believe that in order to properly address digital right issues, every single person needs to have their own Internet connection. This is not just like, "Oh, I can sort of get Wi-Fi, the building-wide Wi-Fi, if I stand near my front door." No. You should have your own Internet connection that you can plug in and watch TV or set up a computer to do your work. That's really what digital quality is, especially in the low-income housing, there's building-wide Wi-Fi but some of -- no matter what kind of wireless solution you deploy, there's going to be dead areas. If you can deliver proper broadband you actually give people the ability to cancel their expensive cable TV packages and whatnot. If the people that live there, if they can save 100 dollars a month and not order a cable connection, that 100 dollars a month makes a really big impact on that communities.

Christopher Mitchell: To remind people, you're running very high-capacity links to the roof and then using the structured wiring to deliver individual circuits to each person so that if you had that shared campus Wi-Fi as you're discussing, a neighbor that may have three kids that are all streaming could really put a dent into that Wi-Fi capacity whereas the approach that you're discussing, you would not have that problem because the congestion would be occurring basically, if it did at all, on the highest capacity links where I'm guessing you'd want it to occur.

Mason Carroll: Yeah, and I think generally, when people are having problems with getting on the Internet, I think a lot of times they say, "Oh, my neighbor is using up all the bandwidth." Then in reality the issue is more likely to be just based on their location and their proximity to the wireless access point and other noise factors and whatnot. They just have a bad connection to the wireless access point and those kind of problems are just extremely hard to troubleshoot. I mean, everyone probably has had problems, just bizarre problems with Wi-Fi in their own homes or in their offices that they work at, and it's really as much an art as a science, setting up Wi-Fi and if you actually have your own ethernet connection, your own ethernet port, you actually have the ability to, if you're having connectivity issues, you actually have the ability to work on it yourself, and at the end of the day, if you could plug your computer directly into it.

Christopher Mitchell: How much is Monkeybrains charging the people in these units for service?

Mason Carroll: It's going to be zero dollars per month for all residents.

Christopher Mitchell: And, Mason, how long is that going to last? Is that kind of forever kind of thing? Or is this a trial basis, or what's the expectation?

Mason Carroll: Well, for the Hunters Point East/West, the property management company is committed to paying us ten dollars per month per unit for I think, a couple years, and then after that we may end up just donating bandwidth. I'm not really sure about the financial aspect of that. Maybe Preston remembers that better.

Preston Rhea: Yeah, to speak to that, that's right, and also because we got to upgrade the -- we were originally just going to do Hunters Point sort of on our own contract using that grant money from the mayor's office that SFHDC has, but thanks to getting a CAFS grant from the state, they're able to extend more of that money into paying for service for more years, but it will be charged at that rate to the housing provider for five years, which is the term that the CAFS grant requires. It has to be the same cost, basically, to residents, for five years, and then after that, a lot changes in five years but I think that we definitely have, as a company, a commitment to providing an affordable housing rate, and we're targeting that rate depending on the situation, at 10 dollars, or free, per unit per month.

Mason Carroll: Yeah, I mean, really, Monkeybrains is prepared to do it for free but we're hoping to continue to try to apply for some grant money to help fund it. Obviously we're not really making any money on this project be we really think it's important to be good citizens and also, we're hoping to, moving forward, just get a seat at the table in the discussion about broadband in the future of San Francisco and I think we're getting a lot of attention and good will.

Christopher Mitchell: I've never built or run a network like this, but I've been trying to get a better sense of the costs involved and my impression is, and I'd just like you to correct anything that I get wrong, but my impression is, is that when you do have this kind of one-time grant funding that 10 dollars a month is going to basically cover your costs, and so Monkeybrains would be able to do this at a loss, as you said, if you charge nothing, but if you're able to recover a reasonable fee per household, then this is something that could work and is not going to really be a drain on your business such that it would be unsustainable, and that's always my fear. I mean, I'd love it if we could do it for free, but my concern is always, can we make this work indefinitely, and at 10 dollars a month, if you can get some grant money to build the up-front infrastructure and perhaps some amounts to refresh it. I'm curious if that works out.

Mason Carroll: Well, also, yeah, and what's really important for the success of these projects is, we call it in the industry, uniformity of service. If we're managing 1000 Internet connections you want them all to be more or less the same. So, in order to do that, it's really important for these housing authorities to go ahead and install Cat5s in every single unit, so there's a cat, there's a RJ45, a little ethernet port in the unit, and that wire runs to a panel in the telecenter of the building where we can just install an ethernet switch. It's easy to understand, it's easy to troubleshoot. It's reliable. If the housing authorities invest in that infrastructure when they're renovating the building, it actually enables us to deliver the service for really cheaply, whereas we work at a lot of older buildings where for example, there's no modern wiring, so we have a lot of tricks up our sleeves to deliver Internet over old wiring but, I mean, to be honest, it's not as reliable and easy to manage and there's a lot more cost and hassle with supporting it, so, if they invest the money up-front to build the modern wiring, it allows us to provide a phenomenal gigabit Internet product for very low cost, regardless of who pays for it.

Christopher Mitchell: I think the Housing and Urban Development folks under the Obama administration in 2016, I think they just recently, toward the end of the administration, made that a requirement, and I think that still stands. Let's hope so 'cause the more we can make it easy for ISPs to solve this problem, the less we would need to do in terms of public funding. Now, I'm curious, Preston, have there been any surprises? When you talk about Hunters Point being an area that's being redeveloped, are these new units that are being built, or are they rehabbed, or has there been any issue in terms of any challenges that were unexpected?

Preston Rhea: They're rehab units, Chris. I think that originally the Hunters Point East/West Apartments were built as Navy housing because there was a big naval base in that area. They were turned into public housing afterwards, so what's happening is that basically folks that have lived there for a while, and then they are relocated while the renovation is done, which takes us to maybe less than six months, and then they're moved right back in. There's not like a new building's going up. The same buildings that have been there are being redone, which is also sort of gotten us to look at exactly these infrastructural nuances that Mason was talking about, like, what is the level of service, and what is the level of infrastructure that makes it feasible for an ISP to provide a regular level of service like that, at that sort of lower cost.

Christopher Mitchell: That is very interesting, and it's really great to hear that these decisions are being made, that we're giving really high quality service for people who we want to make sure have all the educational opportunities, abilities to apply for jobs, and access government services. I want to turn now, though, to what San Francisco is discussing openly, which is perhaps building a significant amount of fiber that would be ideally open to multiple ISPs such as yourself, around the city, and I'm curious if you have anything you'd like to share in terms of thoughts about that process.

Preston Rhea: Yeah, I know that there is sort of several efforts happening right now to discuss, once again, the question of publicly funded or publicly supported broadband network. Of course, San Francisco infamously had an effort through Earthlink back about 10 years ago that did not work out so well. But they're looking at it again, both the supervisors and the Department of Technology and I think that we don't know what final form their work is going to take, or their recommendations are going to take, but I believe that from our perspective it is good to have more infrastructure. It is good for the city to have more modern and well-managed infrastructure and fiber, of course, certainly closer to the core, is the right thing. I would personally think it's great for residents when there is more effective ways for them to get service, because it improves choice and can lower costs as we of course saw in Chattanooga when eventually incumbent providers after the city offered gigabit fiber, started saying, "Well, we'll, give us the fiber," and then that, that's kind of a virtuous thing. But I believe that ultimately what we would like to see for Monkeybrains as well as for residents, is an opportunity for existing providers like Monkeybrains to plug in with a publicly supported fiber network that will improve our ability to sort of do what we do best, which is the last mile, end-customer management, going directly to people, managing the relationship with them, providing them a hand-off right at their house or at their business, and using really well-supported public infrastructure in order to do ultimately the connection back to the Internet from some point in the neighborhood or on the block.

Christopher Mitchell: You want to add anything, Mason?

Mason Carroll: I think the city basically has a lot of fiber assets. They're not really utilized for the public use. So they basically have a decision. They're like, okay, are we going to go with option one, essentially just create an ISP and just sell Internet to individual customers and businesses and institutions, or, since they already have the fiber, they've already been managing it for public safety, do they just lease that fiber to local ISPs and then you maybe have only seven or eight customers all leasing fiber from the city of San Francisco. It might be a little bit easier for them to manage a project like that without having to deal with supporting thousands of individual customers. It's essentially a little business within the Department of Technology, so either way they go, I think it's great. If they build all the fiber and never do anything with it then it's money poorly spent. But if you can provide cheap service to residents either directly or by lowering the costs for ISPs and increasing competition for ISPs, I think that's only going to benefit residents in the long term. So, we support whatever effort, in whatever form they decide to go with on it.

Preston Rhea: I want to jump on something that Mason just said as well, like when he pointed out that all these fiber assets -- and of course we saw a letter from Supervisor Mark Farrell, that he requested sort of an analysis maybe about a year ago of what the city's fiber assets are, and of course, you've heard this story before across cities, across political entities that manage infrastructure like fiber. It turns out it's hundreds of miles that are spread across many difference departments own, in some way, or are responsible for that fiber, and all of them don't necessarily know at the moment exactly where it is, where it goes, because maybe even a lot of it was pulled decades ago, and where that fiber is, sits in some deep archival vault. It hasn't been digitized where it is, so I want to also emphasize that there's sort of a parallel issue here, like, who was the infrastructure for? This is at the crux of why I'm really excited about what Monkeybrains is doing at Hunters Point and trying to in, also at these other public housing projects, in trying to expand our work for residents who live in affordable housing. If there's an amount of money to be spent, especially in the public interest, when that money is being spent it's an investment in the way that that infrastructure's going to be used for a very long time. If that money is spent of fiber that will go nowhere, or that will go a lot of places but never gets lit up, never actually serves people, or maybe say, only serves businesses and certain city functions but doesn't serve the 15 percent of San Franciscans that don't have a regular access to an Internet connection, then that hardens the digital divide. There was an investment made in hardening the digital divide, and the same is true if the infrastructure that is being redeveloped at these public housing sites or really in any sort of place where people live and work and play, if the investment is made in such a way that the infrastructure is not modernized with an eye at enabling everybody, especially those who lack access now, to have a meaningful top of the line and affordable or free at the point of use access to a free and open Internet, than that has also hardened the digital divide. What we're trying to do here, and we are really lucky to be able to do this in the San Francisco broadband infrastructure market, we are trying to influence the development and the investment of these funds into making sure that modern infrastructure is built so that we think of the people that live in affordable housings at the same level, or even primarily above the people who have some means of getting fast Internet access right now. In businesses and in private homes.

Christopher Mitchell: It's really great to hear you saying that, because that's the kind of spirit we want to have in terms of being focused on solving the ultimate problems. I think for people who are listening from other areas, it is important to know San Francisco has more ISPs than almost any other city in terms of really credible ISPs that are making important investments. This discussion about San Francisco may not apply to all other cities, but I'm very glad to hear that you're in the mix and I certainly hope that the investments will be well-made and enable firms like yours to do well. Preston, I just wanted to ask a totally unrelated question, which is you -- I became aware of you when you were working with OTI, the Open Technology Institute. A program that I was fascinated by, because one of the things that I wondered if it was doing was basically giving an opportunity to people who wanted to figure out how to use their technical skills to really make the world a better place, and giving them a place to sort of meet other people and then expand. And I'm just curious if you can say, did OTI have an important role in terms of moving you into a place where you're able to do these kinds of investments and work for a company like Monkeybrains?

Preston Rhea: I'm really pleased you asked that question, Chris, because I've thought about that a lot as we've been doing this work at Monkeybrains, and I think the answer is absolutely. I feel like I gained through the work that we did at the Open Technology Institute, and we did a lot of work directly with communities who were eager to build their own infrastructure and Detroit, and in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and with a lot of BTOP grants in Philadelphia, to be present developing a pedagogical approach to understanding, building and controlling infrastructure, and recognizing what's important to people at those points, so the Internet is not thought of something that like, I'm going to pay somebody some money just like that and it's there, but like a deeper question of like what is my relationship to this infrastructure and what do I want to get out of it? I'm really thankful that I was able to take a route of gaining that perspective in education doing that organizing and then take that to a place where the infrastructure gets built every single day. Like, quite a bit of it gets built every single day. I really am just thankful that I'm able to be at a place like Monkeybrains where we can take those values and sort of apply them to the built environment. I hope that we continue to do that and at greater scale as time goes on.

Christopher Mitchell: Great, well, thank you both for taking the time and for this work. I think we'll hopefully see a lot of other ISPs seeing that you can make this work, and making it happen. Thank you both.

Preston Rhea: Thank you so much.

Mason Carroll: Thank you, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Preston Rhea and Mason Carroll from Monkeybrains, a San Francisco based Internet service provider. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org's stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power, and the Local Energy Rules podcast. Access them on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to Episode 264 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.