This is the transcript for episode 287 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell investigates the state of telecom in Appalachian Ohio and discusses the Mobile Only challenge. Listen to this episode here.
Lilah Gagne: On a good day, I will get one bar of LTE, if I put my phone in the window for about five minutes, and that's just to get a webpage to load.
Lisa Gonzalez: You're listening to episode 287 of the "Community Broadband Bits Podcast," from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Last month, the FCC reversed network neutrality protections, a move both dreaded and disfavored by the majority of Americans. In 2017, they released a notice of proposed rulemaking that included several other proposals that caught the attention of groups pushing for universal access for high quality Internet service. The FCC is considering redefining the meaning of advanced communication services to include mobile and satellite broadband. They're also considering taking us backward by reverting to a slower speed definition. They expect to vote on the measure in February. The impact of each of these changes would especially affect local rural communities. There are people who already live in this netherworld of horrible mobile broadband, simply because big incumbent providers see no reason to invest in sparsely populated regions. You'll notice that some of the sound quality in our interview today's poor, because our guests come from an area of the country lacking good telecommunications access. In this interview, Christopher talks with two high school students who live in Appalachian, Ohio, Lilah Gagne. and Herron Linscott. They explain what it's like for those who are already caught in that very dark hole. He also speaks with Deb Socia from Next Century Cities. She describes the mobile only challenge, the organization's most recent effort to spread the word about the FCC's proposal. Several of us at ILSR will be making the mobile only challenge, including me, which I find very scary. And you can too. Choose a day to use only your Smartphone for Internet access. Tweet and post about it on social media. Let the FCC and your followers know about the experience, and challenge more people to do the same. You can learn more about it at mobileonlychallenge.com. Now here's Christopher with this week's guests.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the "Community Broadband Bits Podcast." I'm Chris Mitchell, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, up in Minneapolis. And today I have with me a very special guest some of you have heard before, Deb Socia, the Executive Director for Next Century Cities. Welcome to the show.
Deb Socia: Thanks, Chris. Great to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Deb, it's great to hear your voice again, knowing that you're going to be back on the podcast. What have you been up to? Remind us what Next Century Cities is doing.
Deb Socia: Well, we continue to work with cities, towns, and counties all over the country, who either have or want to have cost affordable, reliable broadband, and we're advocating for our cities to receive the appropriate opportunities, so that they can either build their own or ensure that every citizen has access. And there's a lot happening around that right now, so we're pretty busy.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. There is a tremendous amount happening around that. So Next Century Cities, just a quick clarification for folks, that still are a little bit confused about it. It's all kinds of cities. Some cities that have municipal networks are members, but you don't have to have a municipal network, and there's all kinds of cities, from cities that have built networks to cities that have not. What's the tiniest city that we have?
Deb Socia: I believe it's Alford, Massachusetts. And if I'm accurate in my memory here, I think it's 400 people live there.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I love hearing that, because then you go all the way across the country to the Southwest, and you've got Los Angeles, with quite a few more people, so-
Deb Socia: It's a wide range, and it's a wide range, and we do have counties as well. It's an interesting mix of municipalities. And we are anxious to have folks join if they're interested. They can check nextcenturycities.org, and it is free to join. And we're a non-profit, so it's a good mix of opportunities and unbiased information.
Christopher Mitchell: And this is an organization for city members, so what I would say to people who might be listening, who are activists, or business leaders, or just individuals in a community, who are frustrated with recent Internet policy issues, and maybe feel like their community needs better Internet access, than they can get from incumbents, is you should strongly encourage your City Council members, City Manager, Mayor, to look into Next Century Cities, and to join it to learn more about all the many options that they have, to try and make things better. Something will surely fit with their community.
Deb Socia: Absolutely. We'd love to have more communities join.
Christopher Mitchell: Deb, the reason I wanted to bring you on here was not to remind everyone how Next Century Cities is changing the country, a city at a time, but actually to talk about how the FCC is proposing to change broadband one bad rulemaking after another. The one that is happening here in January is something that we're not actually sure when it's going to get scheduled to be discussed, but it's this idea of including mobile broadband in the definition of advanced telecommunication services. And I'm curious, if you can tell me, what kind of gotchas we're looking out for, as the FCC considers this.
Deb Socia: It has not gotten as much attention, and we're concerned about that, because what the notice of inquiry said, that came out several months ago, was that, it was asking whether or not mobile service, 10. 1 mobile service would be adequate to be considered advanced telecommunications, so that, that person, that community, that rural community, if you had mobile service, could be considered as having broadband. You can't equate that with a fast wire line service. It is a complement but not a substitute, and we don't want to be lowering standards for what broadband is in this country.
Christopher Mitchell: So to be clear then, if you do not have a home connection that is 25 Megabits downstream and three Megabits upstream, you are not considered to have broadband, which is a speed that the FCC decided, after much analysis, was appropriate to be able for households to take full advantage of the modern Internet. And now, if you don't have 25, 3, but you do have a mobile device, that you can get a fraction of that speed, much slower, then suddenly you'll be considered to have broadband. I mean, that's literally what we're talking about, right?
Deb Socia: Exactly what we're talking about, which is incredibly concerning. I think the other piece of that notice of inquiry, that folks should know is that is they're also snaking that same claim around satellite service.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and so here, there's just all kinds of issues around data caps and other problems that go along with considering either slow mobile service or satellite to be satisfactory. I mean, one that pops into my head immediately is just that we don't actually know who has access to these services. I mean, I might be in a Census block, and I might have pretty decent service, but my neighbor a mile away may have terrible access, and yet we would all be considered to have broadband now suddenly. And what are some of the other concerns that you have about changing this definition in that way?
Deb Socia: Firstly, I think as a country, it should be always our goal to set a standard that's actually a standard that meets the needs of the majority of Americans. And a mobile device with, as you said, a data cap is a very expensive alternative, and in addition, it can't meet the needs of multiple users within the same household. It's a confusing thing. The way that I think about it, as a former educator, is if I had a classroom full of students, and a lot of my students were failing, I would not raise the failure mark so that I could get more kids to succeed. I would instead, change the way I'm teaching them. I would change the intervention, so that children would learn what I needed. In this case, it feels like we're taking a standard, and in order to say more of America has broadband access, we're going to change the standard, rather than change the intervention.
Christopher Mitchell: Well I think that your problem is that, as an educator, you are not getting enough money from the parents of the failing children. Let me pivot to what we're going to do about it. I mean, one of the things that people sometimes don't get is what it's like to live without a high quality access. And so what is Next Century Cities proposing, along with a number of partners, at this point?
Deb Socia: We have just started something called the mobile only challenge with a group of partners. And what we're asking people to do is go to mobileonlychallenge.com and sign up to spend one day experiencing what so many of Americans experience, and that is only using your mobile device for all of your access that day, no laptops, no tethering, and just experience and Tweet about it with the hashtag mobile only, so that we can say to the FCC, we believe as a country, we should have higher standards, and we should be helping and working with communities to improve access and not lowering those standards.
Christopher Mitchell: Deb, who are some of the people who have signed on to participate in this?
Deb Socia: We have a wide variety, from folks who are gamers, to people who work in rural communities, to people who work on issues related to the digital equity issue in this country, right? So we know that it's very expensive to own a cell phone. It's very expensive to get home access. Sometimes you have to pick one or the other. And they are not equal to one another, and that makes it very difficult to experience. And we just want to recognize how hard that is and understand that we ought to have a goal of insuring everyone has fast, affordable, reliable home access, that can actually meet the needs of today.
Christopher Mitchell: So I go to the website mobileonlychallenge.com, and I'll pick a day, and then I'll use only my mobile device for that day. And what I do next to let people know about it?
Deb Socia: We would love it if people would share this information. They would share the mobile only hashtag and talk about this, read the notice of inquiry, understand what's actually happening, comment to the FCC, let people know what's happening, and let's demand a higher standard.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I like that quite a bit. Now one of the things that I'm certainly hoping to see, as well, is that people will be maybe making a short video or something about their experience and sharing it on social media, ideally, earlier in January, to let other people know about it or even challenging people to do it, to talk about it. As somebody who uses ... I use Ting, which I've been very clear about, for a wireless service, and I pay by the bit, effectively, although because I have home wifi service, I use very little data, because I have a home cable connection that powers my wifi. One of the things I want to do is I want to see just how that would impact my monthly bill and to talk about that some.
Deb Socia: Right, and also to ... If you're making a video, how long is that taking to upload? It's definitely going to have an impact on your capacity to do your work and to engage in communication with your family and to actually enjoy entertainment. Can you livestream a video on your phone? I mean, it changes everything.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, you're running the risk now of a recursive loop, in that I will make a video, and then I'll upload it. And then I might make a video about uploading the video. And then I'll get stuck. If I disappear, come looking for me. One of the reasons that some people say we shouldn't worry about competition in the broadband space is that wireless is so capable now that it can just replace your home connection. Are these connections basically the same?
Deb Socia: They are not the same. Mobile broadband access is a great complement to wire line access. But it is not a replacement for it. I think the big issue is whether it's reliable, and whether you can have multiple users, and whether or not you have a data cap, and the cost. All of those things need to be considered. Maybe someday, mobile will be appropriately strong that we can actually consider it as a standard, but it isn't today.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you so much Deb. I'm excited about this challenge, excited to see people's creativity in showing what their life would be like if they had to rely solely on it, rather than the fixed service that they most likely have. Thanks for coming on the show again.
Deb Socia: Well, thanks for inviting me, Chris, and I appreciate your support.
Christopher Mitchell: Now I'm speaking with Lilah Ganye, from Athens Ohio. Welcome to the show.
Lilah Gagne: Hi, nice to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: And are you in high school?
Lilah Gagne: Yes, I'm a senior in high school.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk with you is that you do not have fixed broadband access in your home, right?
Lilah Gagne: No, that is correct.
Christopher Mitchell: So can you just describe for me how your life might be different from someone who does have fixed access in the home and is in high school?
Lilah Gagne: Yeah, so I mean ... Well, because in the high school ... Well, ever since middle school, actually, they had introduced Chromebooks, and all these new Google applications we had to use, especially in high school. It became more prominent my freshman year. And I guess it was just really hard, because every assignment was online, and sometimes I couldn't finish the assignment or even do it, because there's no Internet access at my house. And I didn't have a cell phone at the time, with data, so I couldn't look up anything. I mean, other students could get their work done, but I had to either stay in town really late, and it was just kind of ... It was a struggle.
Christopher Mitchell: I guess one of the things that I'm curious about is how does that impact your additional things. I mean, high school's not just about doing homework and learning. It's also about becoming a better rounded person and things like that. How did not having broadband access in the home impact those sorts of things or trying to research colleges and things like that?
Lilah Gagne: Well, I had to do ... All of my college research I did in the school, so during my study hall, I would have to research colleges. Or I would finish also all my homework at the school during my day, so I could do extracurriculars and not have to worry about staying in town super late at my mom's office doing homework. And also, I wasn't really involved in a lot of extracurriculars, because I was so worried about my academics more, because of the issue. So I didn't really get involved in anything until this year, senior year, because now I have unlimited data on my phone. And now I can use that at my house and look up everything I need to.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that leads us into an important question, which is that there are some people in Washington DC that seem to think that if you have unlimited data on your phone, that that would be good enough and that we don't have to worry about getting you a better connection in your home. How do you respond to that?
Lilah Gagne: I would say it's actually still a struggle, because we do have unlimited data, and I can use that to look up whatever I need. But I've had to type all my papers on my phone. I take college classes at Ohio University, do post-secondary, and I still have to type everything and do all my assignments on my phone, because my plan won't allow me to use the hotspot capabilities to hook it up to a computer. So it costs extra, and so I still have to use my phone, so I would say that it is still very hard, and it is not a better option.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I guess that my last question is, I mean, you seem like you are the kind of person who will persevere through many challenges to succeed. And I congratulate you for that. I'm curious if you know of other people around you who may have struggled more, because of their lack of access in their homes.
Lilah Gagne: I do. I have some friends that have no cell phone service where they are either. I'm lucky enough to have cell phone service and now unlimited data, but I have some friends that do have Internet. But they have a certain amount of Gigs they can use throughout the month, and if they use it all, then they have no Internet, and on top of it, no cell phone service. So if they do have data, they can't even use that. And some of them are homeschooled and don't go to public school, so they can't get their assignments done, because they don't have the opportunity I did to actually go to school, get work done, or look up things before they went home for their assignments.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, we really appreciate the reality check from Southeastern Ohio. And I hope that you have a good final senior year.
Lilah Gagne: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: And now I'm going to speak with Herron Linscott, the sophomore in Athens, Ohio. Herron, welcome to the show.
Herron Linscott: Hi, thanks for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: Now you're a sophomore, sophomore of what?
Herron Linscott: High school, yeah, I'm 15 years old.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. The reason we're having you on this show is to talk a little bit about what it's like to not have a fixed broadband access in your home. Is that right?
Herron Linscott: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: And so can you tell me a little bit what that's like?
Herron Linscott: I think if I could just describe it in one way, it's inconvenient. It's really challenging, especially since schools are trying to modernize and put more materials online, put more references for students on the Internet. It's a lot of technology that's involved in our education these days. And I think that not having that reliable connection, it definitely puts a damper on your ability to connect with your teachers and to your peers.
Christopher Mitchell: And many of your fellow students, they do have Internet access at home, broadband access at home, I'm guessing.
Herron Linscott: Yes. I don't know the exact numbers, but it's definitely most of them.
Christopher Mitchell: And so do you feel like you're at a disadvantage then?
Herron Linscott: I mean, I do well, because I make it a case for all of my teachers. I explain to them that I don't have Internet, so I try and do a good bit of the work that requires an Internet connection at school. The biggest issue that I run into is actually extracurriculars. I'm a member of BPA, which is Business Professionals of America. I'm on the mock trial team, and through FFA, I do a lot of things through that. And all of them require a connection, which definitely is a problem for me. Google Docs are online. Emails are online. And so being not able to access those when I need them is really inconvenient.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, how do you make up for that then?
Herron Linscott: I do a lot of it by driving into town. My grandma lives in town, and she has Internet, so I do a lot of my schoolwork at her house, and then I will do ... That's for my extracurriculars. And then I also do a good bit of work at the school.
Christopher Mitchell: Oddly enough, I was one of the first people in high school to have Internet access, and that was when we were all on dial-up, and it was remarkable in the mid-90's that we could just go anywhere and get information without going to the library, that you could get current information just on the Internet. And so one of the things that I found amazing was just that I had all of these abilities to pursue my own studies outside of what I was doing in school, and it helped to prepare me for college in some ways. Do you feel like you're missing out on that?
Herron Linscott: Both of my parents have really good jobs. And my dad actually works at a university, and so I think that my experiences are not being limited, because I'm very involved in my community, so I wouldn't say that I'm missing anything, in regards of life experience. The main thing is that it's really just inconvenient when it comes to being connected. And in an era where everyone's connected with social media, and even, like I said, our schools, we're connected through Google Classroom. It does feel a bit isolated. I will give it that.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the last things I wanted to ask you was regarding mobile broadband. Right now there's a discussion at the Federal Communications Commission about whether households like yours, that don't have fixed access but where you could use a Verizon or an AT&T broadband, is that sufficient?
Herron Linscott: It is not.
Christopher Mitchell: And do have that option, for either one of them?
Herron Linscott: We had a Jet Pack. Verizon is the only server that will work at my house. On a good day, I will get one bar of LTE if I put my phone in the window for about five minutes, and that's just to get a web page to load. Streaming is not an option. Downloading is definitely not an option. And we did, we had a Jet Pack for a while through Verizon, which is a mobile hotspot, and that did not work in any way. And so eventually we just got rid of it. We discontinued. My grandparents, my other grandparents, who live up the hill, so their service is a bit better than mine, have one, but again, the service is spotty. And I have to be sitting right next to it, out the window, to actually connect and be able to use the Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Is there anything else that you want to tell people what it's like growing up, it's sort of in this incredible information age and being locked out of it in some ways or at least being severely inconvenienced from accessing it?
Herron Linscott: Right. I think that a lot of it has to do with where we live, as well. I live in Appalachian, Ohio, and the area that I live in, specifically, is ... It's very communal, and there's a lot of connecting that goes on without the Internet, and so the fact that I'm able to still have these incredible life experiences without Internet definitely goes to say a lot about, that some things haven't changed about where I live and that it has remained the same. But I think that sometimes I do wonder. I'm like, oh wow, what if I could apply to this program and readily check my email whenever I needed to? And so I think that while it's limiting, it wouldn't complete negate chances of kids in Appalachian, but I do think that as we, as a region, are to advance, then the people around us have to be given a fair chance. And we need equal opportunities as people in urban areas.
Christopher Mitchell: I fully agree, and let's hope that before you get out of high school, we at least have hopes of achieving that goal.
Herron Linscott: That would be ideal.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Herron Linscott: Thank you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Deb Socia, from Next Century Cities, and with Lilah Gagne, and Herron Linscott from rural Ohio. Remember to sign up at mobileonlychallenge.com and let others know what it's like, so they can spread the word, that we should only be advancing, not moving backward. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, "Building Local Power" and the "Local Energy Rules" podcasts. You can 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 287 of the "Community Broadband Bits" podcast.