This is the transcript for episode 303 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell and Lisa Gonzalez discuss recent state action to improve broadband access and increase local control. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello everybody, this is Lisa Gonzalez. I have booted Christopher out of the host chair. You're listening to episode 303 of the community broadband networks, pi---
Christopher Mitchell: Podcast. We're going to talk about pies today. Strawberry Rhubarb.
Lisa Gonzalez: Cherry Pie. Anyhow, what we're going to talk about today involves state legislation. We've got quite a bit to cover some not so great, some good and bad, and some that we really like a lot.
Christopher Mitchell: But the trends are in the upward positive direction.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is true. This is true. It's a good thing to hear. Let's start with something that's not so great we can eliminate the things that we don't like and end with the things we do like.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. We're talking about two pretty significantly different states that have done things that we strongly disapprove of. Wyoming, Minnesota has not done something we strongly disapprove of, but there is something on the table that would be really dumb,
Lisa Gonzalez: Right? Let's start with the really down the thing in Minnesota here where we are,
Christopher Mitchell: The person who is the chair of a, of a relevant committee that broadband related things have to go through in Minnesota to get into law, happens to be a Republican who serves my parents' district. My parents live in his district, I should say. And we find him really, really painful to deal with. He's what -- he drives a Tesla. He thinks he's super advanced, but he makes all these crazy claims and so he's carrying a bill that he wants to push into law that would allow Minnesota's broadband program, which has been subsidizing high quality broadband connections to start subsidizing slow satellite connections that are unreliable and very high cost.
Lisa Gonzalez: Very, very dumb.
Christopher Mitchell: Incredibly dumb. One of the best parts of Minnesota's Border-to-Border Broadband Fund is that it can only be used on, on infrastructure that will have a long life and be very useful. Not some kind of just like paying someone's monthly bills, but putting high quality infrastructure that will be used for many years into the ground or into the air. You know, the -- the -- it has to be technology that is scalable to 100 Mbps symmetrical to make sure that taxpayers are getting a good return on their money. He wants to take that and take taxpayer dollars and just throw them at a few satellite companies that have a miserable track record. I think it's as bad of an idea as you can get. And the frustrating thing is, is that he probably will not pay a price for it. And this is something that I have to say, I have yet to hear of a legislator across the country in which we can credibly say, this person lost or this party lost seats because they stood in the way of better broadband for rural America.
Christopher Mitchell: From what I can tell, if you're representing rural America, you can just go out there and say you want better broadband for everyone and then you can vote against it consistently. I mean, the Republican Party in Minnesota has had some people on the rank and file who have been on the side of angels for trying to improve rural broadband. But the leadership of both parties has been largely against spending real money on it. And the actual, um, speaker of the house who's a Republican is on record in a public event saying, Hey, my mom has satellite service, it works great for her. What's the problem with that? So you have rural areas represented largely by Republicans who are basically saying, hey, satellite is good enough, why don't you just suck it up? And I don't think a single one of them will pay any political price for just stopping broadband, which is one of the highest priorities of rural America, we hear over and over again. So I just, I find it incredibly frustrating and it touches all these different points for me where you have someone who's just year after year saying, ah, you know, if these people need something, we'll just give them some satellite and I'm going to ignore the economics of what a waste of money that'll be year after year. But there's no price to be paid by anyone in this caucus for these kinds of actions.
Lisa Gonzalez: It is frustrating and I wish that people would get over this false impression that things without wire are the future.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, you're so right. It's like it has. It doesn't have a wire. How could it not be the future? Well, let's just look at one thing for this, right? One of the things that is great about the Minnesota investment is that we make an investment and you know maybe a few hundred people or a few thousand people get high quality Internet access. The state does not have to make additional investments to improve service for those people. Those people have access Pat Garofalo wants to give money to the satellite companies to -- what you're going to give him money this year and then what happens next year? You have to subsidize them again. It's the classic give a mouse a cookie kind of situation that we should be avoiding if we care at all about fiscal responsibility, but. But no, and then we have to hope that more sensible people will stop this from happening in the watering down of what is a pretty good rural broadband expansion program.
Lisa Gonzalez: Maybe we should do a fact sheet based on give a mouse a cookie?
Christopher Mitchell: I think there will be very popular. There's also give a moose a muffin and give a pig a pancake. I believe those are ones that my son enjoys reading.
Lisa Gonzalez: Shall we move onto another dumb idea?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. The other, the other thing that really sort of, you know, was disappointing was Wyoming where there was a bill to try to improve access in Wyoming.
Lisa Gonzalez: I believe that was Senate File 100, correct?
Christopher Mitchell: I actually don't know. What I know is what happened and that was that a rather reasonable bill to try and get money to localities to improve service was rewritten by CenturyLink, a major provider in the west, the big telephone company, the third largest telephone company in the United States, and the author of the bill who actually cares about getting money to improve broadband service, not just throwing money at CenturyLink. That author was very disappointed and frustrated because there was no role in the process for anyone except for CenturyLink. Apparently CenturyLink just said, no, we have a better idea. They wrote it and it got to the governor, governor signed it. And that's basically how that works in Wyoming. I guess the, the big incumbent providers who have failed the state over and over and over again are still writing policy for the state. It's incredibly disappointing. But, I can get over that because of the great news that came out of Colorado.
Lisa Gonzalez: The great news that came out of Colorado, so that news was limiting this power of the big incumbents.
Christopher Mitchell: And I would actually just say that if we're going to talk about this trend, which, which we should do a little bit. The trend in some ways started for me in Virginia. Virginia where for years, the state of Virginia -- Virginia took its marching orders from first Verizon, and then Frontier. And this is a state that has very poor broadband access. It's a very difficult state to serve, but nonetheless, they, you know, they, they threw their lot in with the big incumbent that had very little interest in actually serving the state. And last year, the state finally said, no, Frontier, we're not going to listen to you anymore. We're going to do our own thing and we're going to figure out ways of incenting broadband that will be better and will not involve you because we've given up the thought that you would actually do something positive for our state.
Christopher Mitchell: Now Colorado has said something very similar to CenturyLink where CenturyLink had been gaming some of the broadband subsidy funds, so that places that could have had a high quality network that would have been subsidized by the state instead ended up with the state giving CenturyLink some money to do slightly better DSL, which was a very bad investment for state money. So in Colorado, they basically again told CenturyLink, hey, we don't, we don't work for you. We work for the people of the state and that's a conversation that we have not seen in very many states.
Lisa Gonzalez: So they did that by eliminating the right of first refusal.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, so Lisa, if CenturyLink, and I am an upstart provider,
Lisa Gonzalez: Hey, get out of here, upstart provider!
Christopher Mitchell: I go to the state and I say, Hey, I have a great plan to serve this, this town that has very poor service from CenturyLink. And previously what could you do as CenturyLink to stop that?
Lisa Gonzalez: We'll take care of it. We're going to take care of it,
Christopher Mitchell: Right? And maybe you would, maybe you wouldn't. Maybe you would get some money from the state to -- to do it in terms of you stopped my proposal and you probably wouldn't get as much money as I did, but you'd probably get some money from the state to do those improvements. Now everything's different if you -- if you want to stop me, CenturyLink. if I'm a new provider and I want to serve a small town in Colorado or even a larger town in Colorado, you have to meet the specifications that I was planning to build to. You don't just have to build a higher quality network like I was going to, offering very high speeds. You also have to meet my pricing points. So there's much more of a cost now associated with an incumbent provider trying to stop someone from investing in a high quality network in an area that they had been serving poorly.
Lisa Gonzalez: Right. And another advantage to
this is: it raises the bar. So even if an incumbent does decide to go ahead and end deploy in that area, they have to deploy something better than they were probably planning to deploy in the first place.
Christopher Mitchell: Exactly. And in fact, it would be, in many cases, this would be areas that CenturyLink has never deployed fiber and before, right? I mean CenturyLink has no history of deploying fiber to rural America, whereas many local companies and cooperatives, and municipalities certainly have built fiber out to rural America because they've recognized it's an important economic development tool. There's a good business case for it if you're not a, a big blundering incumbent that's trying to, you know, make all the money in the world. This is a much better right of first refusal in terms of requiring what's best for the community rather than just what's best for the big company that has all of the lobbyists in Denver.
Lisa Gonzalez: Right? And there was another bill in Colorado that did something else that considers what's best for the community.
Christopher Mitchell: So Governor Hickenlooper just recently signed several bills about broadband and one of them tightened the a right of first refusal. I believe that was 10-99 and there was another 02 that also had some major benefits, but the thing that I really love about it is how they defined broadband, but I mean, let me take that back. They got one piece of how to find broadband really good. You know, if you or I were to define broadband, we would say it is a measurable speed and that's the part the Colorado got right. Not just some advertising crap that anyone can claim, but that it is a measurable speed, using technology that actually can deliver the speeds and I think you and I would peg the definition to the FCC even though we don't know that the FCC always gets it right. The fact that states don't always update these laws as frequently as the FCC means that I think that the state is best served by referencing a definition from the federal communications commission rather than making up its own thing.
Christopher Mitchell: There's two components that we'd like to see, and Colorado got one of them which was measurable speeds. Unfortunately, they stuck by 10 megabits down by one megabit up, which is a much slower definition, and I think is inappropriate for the, you know, the country that we want to live in, where everyone has adequate access to modern applications, but the fact that it's measurable will do a lot to improve the definition of broadband in Colorado. Now, Lisa, I've been talking about most of these because I'm --
Lisa Gonzalez: Talk Talk.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm the one with a big mouth and I'm the one that-- that has been out sort of talking to people about this a little bit more, although frankly you do a lot of the research. There's one that I know very little about, so I'm not going to pretend to know more than you on it as I have these other issues. It's Washington where they have done something to encourage a rural ports to be able to build networks.
Lisa Gonzalez: Well, I have to correct you there because now it's not only rural ports, it's just ports in general.
Christopher Mitchell: Ports is ports.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was the thing about the bill that was one of the issue is they took out the word rural. Ports, have used fiber optic infrastructure in their areas and they even have fiber optics outside of their districts to connect facilities and things like that.
Christopher Mitchell: Well let's just step back for one second. That's, you're absolutely right. But I have always had this issue of what the heck is a port like, like I just think of it as a physical place where you unload goods but, but obviously ports have more significance than that,
Lisa Gonzalez: Right? Well, in Washington they have these port districts and what they are is they're like an economic development corporation almost. And it does involve places to unload big ships, but they also use funding to encourage business in other ways. And one of the things that they have often is fiber optic infrastructure because of the geography in Washington. It's one of the places where they have a lot of these port districts,
Christopher Mitchell: Right? They've got a big river or two that runs right up through the state.
Lisa Gonzalez: Right? I mean there's even ports in Idaho, you know, it goes all the way across Washington. So these ports use their fiber optic infrastructure to provide their own connectivity in districts and also outside the district, that geographic location, and they've been limited that way in the past will now, because of this change in the law, they're able to use that fiber optic infrastructure to work with a private sector partner in order to offer connectivity in areas outside their port district. So that had a lot of people excited, especially in places like Bellingham, you know, they have Comcast I believe, and they felt like the connectivity was expensive and they've also felt like their customer service was really bad and so they've wanted some options and they feel like this will give them the ability to have other providers come in and use the existing fiber optic infrastructure and possibly even build off it.
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's a, it's a good deal because one of the things that we've long worried about is that state legislatures would be limiting investment. I mean this is something we've been arguing about year after year after year, is watching states go backward. I think it's exciting to be talking about states like Washington where they're moving forward. It may not be a giant leap forward. It would be really great to see, like for instance, Kitsap Public Utility District be able to invest in a rural network. You're looking at me like I should know something.
Lisa Gonzalez: There's something that I just discovered that maybe you already know about Kitsap. is there was a bill that was passed in March that allows Kitsap to offer retail services when they cannot get a private provider to use their infrastructure.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow. Well, hey, that's the sort of thing that I'm talking about. I mean that's, I was not aware of that. I knew that it was proposed.
Lisa Gonzalez: I wasn't either until today. I saw that.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me just, let me point out to listeners. Listeners might think from listening to this show and reading your writing, Lisa, that we know everything in the world, but
Lisa Gonzalez: we do Christopher, we just pretend that we don't.
Christopher Mitchell: But we can always use tips to make sure we're not missing these things. And to be fair, someone may have already given me a tip and I might have missed it, but, but that's what I'm talking about. This is exciting. I mean, you know to have some of these ports. That's going to be several communities that will be able to move forward with better networks, you know, it's not going to solve the whole state's problem and no single one solution will solve all the problems of estate. But it's exciting to be talking mostly about positive things. I mean, even the things that I'm frustrated about that we started off the show with aren't, you know, nearly as bad as the things we've seen in previous years, you know, it is worth revisiting predictions show four or five months ago, whenever the, whenever the new year was and you know, we're talking about whether we'd see a number of bills that would try to limit local authority.
Christopher Mitchell: I haven't seen any.
Lisa Gonzalez: Isn't that amazing? We've been seeing bills that put money in broadband,
Christopher Mitchell: Right? I just wanted to knock on my formica desk. You know, hopefully we won't see any bills that limit authority. But it's been a pretty good year. There is a new bill that we just learned about this morning in New Hampshire and the fact that that is going to the governor for signature and I suspect will be signed. So Lisa, maybe you can just remind us what the situation is in New Hampshire and why there are few municipal networks there today.
Lisa Gonzalez: Well a local communities in New Hampshire have been able to invest in Internet infrastructure but they haven't been able to bond for it. So finding financing has always been a problem.
Christopher Mitchell: Right? It's like you're allowed to spend money, you're just not allowed to raise money.
Lisa Gonzalez: Exactly. So this new bill, supposedly, hopefully, we think, will help with that.
Christopher Mitchell: Right? So this bill is quite limited and we've covered on the MuniNetworks.org. Many times all of the fights in New Hampshire recent history to allow cities and towns to bond for open access networks. The argument being that they felt that it was a more politically realistic to try and get the authority to bond for open access if they weren't providing direct retail service. But the big incumbent providers have stopped that year after year, this year it looks like a bill has gone through and will be signed into law that will allow cities and towns to bond for networks that can only be used in areas that are unserved by the federal broadband definition. So that's 25 / 3 and there's a process that cities and towns will have to go through in order to use that bonding. But it appears to be kind of like Michigan where there's a set of rules that they have to do an RFP, they have to try and get buy in from the local providers, but at the end of the day, if they feel that the local providers aren't giving them what they need, they can do it themselves, how they wish.
Lisa Gonzalez: So we are cautiously optimistic.
Christopher Mitchell: We are, and we're also not experts in New Hampshire law. So. So there's possible that we've misread parts of this.
Lisa Gonzalez: Again you're telling people that we don't know everything, Christopher.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I like to-- I like to feign arrogance and admit to being very limited in my actual knowledge. But the trend is good. The trend that we're seeing in states is good. And I think part of this is from the furor over net neutrality, I think the big providers, the big monopolies are a bit freaked out at just how angry people are and how states like Washington and Oregon are passing laws about net neutrality. California may be about to pass one, New York, Montana, New Jersey have done executive actions on this
Lisa Gonzalez: Also Vermont. Hawaii
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. Are there any others?
Lisa Gonzalez: I think there's a total of five.
Christopher Mitchell: So there's a lot of actual motion here and I think the providers are a little bit freaked out at the fact that they're losing control, that they don't get to write the legislation automatically in state after state. Sometimes they actually have to compromise, sometimes they don't get what they want much at all.
Christopher Mitchell: Although that's still pretty rare and that's exciting. It's because of the pressure people are putting on their elected officials. And I hope that this only increases that people really need to make sure that they're holding their elected officials accountable because those lobbyists are going to be there and in greater numbers year after year. And if people aren't sort of keeping attention on this issue and making sure it's a high priority. Then we'll go back to the status quo ante, let's throw in some Latin, we'll go back to where the incumbents are, are writing all the legislation again, just one last thing. And this isn't quite there yet, but it's another promising sign. That's Ohio. What's happening in Ohio
Lisa Gonzalez: They have introduced a bill that was modeled after the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband program. I believe it's $100 million over the next two years.
Christopher Mitchell: Right? It's a good chunk of change, but I think we, when you say they introduced, it's actually in some it passed the house.
Christopher Mitchell: And what's interesting is it passed the house. It's in the Senate, but nearly the entire house sponsored it in the end. I mean it had a lot of hearings I give -- I want to give incredible respect to the people in Ohio that had been organizing around this. I believe it's the Connect. Ohio group has been quite active in pushing this. The incumbents I think didn't take it very seriously, but ultimately when you have so many in the house having sponsored it, it's really moving. And, and again, this is one of those things where, you know, I can understand how someone listening at the beginning of the show might think I was overly partisan against the Republicans, but in, in Ohio, it really seems like it's, this is something that both parties are moving forward and that's ultimately what I'm looking for. I'm never telling anyone you should vote for Republican or you should vote for a democrat. I'm telling people you should demand better from whoever is elected, whoever, whoever is representing you,
Lisa Gonzalez: But you should vote regardless of who you vote for.
Christopher Mitchell: If you want to vote libertarian or if you want to vote blah blah, blah. Like, I'm not going to, again, I'm not telling people how to vote. You need to be active. But this is turning into a civics lecture I guess. But my main thought is that, you know, there's a lot of people who desperately wish that they had the small amount of power that we have in terms of holding our elected officials responsible and we need to do the best we can with that power. You should be organizing outside of the vote. You certainly shouldn't be thinking that that's enough to just vote. You need to be involved with your, your fellow citizens and whatnot, and many businesses or trade groups or churches that you're involved with should be involved in trying to ensure that you know, we have government that's representing us
Lisa Gonzalez: And if you want to make broadband an issue that you want to be active on, which you should, which you probably already are because you're listening to this podcast at our website because we have tons and tons of resources.
Christopher Mitchell: Right? And if you're in Ohio, let's get this thing through the Senate. I mean, you know, I'm sure there's going to be a continuing fight, but the important thing is that it gets passed by the end of the year. At the end of the year, um, you lose the option of being able to carry it on. A lot of that work will have been, you know, I wouldn't say for not because people were more educated. The incumbents are going to be trying to kill this thing. I think. You know, it's a bill that again, it has the right of first refusal that I think is not strong enough, but anything the incumbents can do to preserve the status quo they're trying to do.
Lisa Gonzalez: And then as far as the status quo goes, I think we're done.
Lisa Gonzalez: I think we are. So then we'll end this on a status quo.
Christopher Mitchell: The Latin just for me, I remember a Latin teacher I had, he always loved the term Ecce which was Hark. I could be remembering that incorrectly. I'm sorry, Mr Grasso if I am, but --
Lisa Gonzalez: Do you think Mr Grasso listens to our podcast?
Christopher Mitchell: That would be a lovely surprise. I'm thinking he's probably not one of the tens of people we have regularly tuning.
Lisa Gonzalez: You're gonna get an email from him though.
Christopher Mitchell: Um, you know, you never know. I think, I'm sure that he cares a lot about broadband so that people can learn all about Latin on their own. So thanks for tuning in. We wanted to cover some of these state issues because there's a lot of things that have been happening and we just thought it'd be worth rounding it up. Always feel free to let us know if you liked. This was a good use of our time, your time, you know, maybe we'll do this again. Maybe we won't. Kind of depends on what happens in the states.