Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 334

This is the transcript for episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In this episode, Christopher Mitchell speaks with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna, board members of the Municpal Broadband Coalition of America, about Municipal Broadband PDX, an initiative to develop a publicly owned broadband network in the Portland, Oregon, region. View the transcript below, or listen to the episode here.

 

 

Michael Hanna: Once it's explained that a publicly owned, not-for-profit Internet utility is an option, people's eyes light up.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Internet access in Portland, Oregon isn't as good as it could be. For years, the city and various citizens groups have grappled with ways to improve connectivity. This week's guests are Russell Senior and Michael Hanna. They're involved in the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America. The nonprofit organization is working on the Municipal Broadband PDX project, an initiative to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in Portland and across Multnomah County. Christopher, Russell, and Michael spend some time discussing past efforts, including Russell's work with the Personal Telco Project. Michael and Russell describe the way the Municipal Broadband PDX project moved from a centralized Portland initiative to a broader, county-wide project. They also discuss how they're organizing a large number of people across the county and in the metro area and the possible tensions that might arise as they move forward. Russell and Michael offer tips for others and share their visions of success for the Municipal Broadband PDX project. Now, here's Christopher with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna discussing the Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, Municipal Broadband PDX initiative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. We have a fresh little blanket of snow on the ground, but today I'm talking to folks where I suspect the weather's a bit nicer. Russell Senior, the president of the Personal Telco Project and a member of the board of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America, welcome to the show.

Russel Senior: Thanks.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Michael Hanna, a data engineer at Multnomah County IT and — [laughs] I was going to say, "and spends his nights also on the board of Municipal Broadband Coalition of America." Welcome to the show.

Michael Hanna: Great. Thanks for having us on.

Christopher Mitchell: Russel, you and I go back quite a ways. Michael, we met when I was in Portland recently — Portland, Oregon — which is the focus of a project of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America. But let me ask Russell, let me ask you first to tell me a little bit about Municipal Broadband PDX, and then I'll ask Michael to tell us more about the coalition more largely. So Russell, what's happening in Portland?

Russel Senior: Municipal Broadband PDX is an effort to get a publicly owned, telecommunication utility started in the Portland area. This is something we've been thinking about here for quite a while. The city of Portland did a feasibility study back in 2007, and for a cavalcade of reasons that never quite got traction. Basically, kind of initiated by the recent FCC actions with the rescinding of the net neutrality rules, it was injected with a lot of new energy and so a new effort kind of got launched to get something moving again.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, there's a proud history throughout Portland's history of fighting for better Internet, back to the Brand X decision and even before then.

Russel Senior: Right. Yeah, we had the fight for open access when the cable utility here started offering Internet back in the late 1990s. Following on that, it was the effort with the city of Portland in about 2006-7 or so. The group that I was involved in at that time was — well, I'm still involved with that — was the Personal Telco Project, that just had its 18th birthday. We basically build free, public access Wi-Fi networks in the Portland area, but we really started out as an effort to build alternative infrastructure to route around what we saw as dysfunctional telecommunications options in the area.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I saw that on Twitter, and happy birthday to the Personal Telco Project.

Russel Senior: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: So, Michael, tell us a little bit more about the organization that is kind of really organizing this effort in the Portland region.

Michael Hanna: The Municpal Broadband Coalition of America, we formed it as a 501(c)(4) organization so we can do political advocacy. And the purpose was, our first campaign is focused on the Portland metro area, as Russell mentioned, but in the broader purpose of our nonprofit is to create templates or an open source toolkit — a lot of different ways we could call it — but the fundamental idea is to make it easier for other grassroots organizations or elected officials in other jurisdictions to move forward with a municipal broadband project themselves. So rather than creating something from whole cloth each time, you know, can we create some templates and some patterns, design patterns if you're thinking in the software world, to be able to do this in a more turnkey fashion in other jurisdictions?

Christopher Mitchell: Great, and both of you have a fair amount of technical expertise. Michael, you've been with Multnomah County in IT for awhile, and Russell, I forget what your background is, but you're quite technical as well, right?

Russel Senior: I call myself a Linux nerd. With Personal Telco Project, I spend most of my time building router firmware.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. That's more technical than — that puts you in the top one percent.

Russel Senior: We have a kit of software that we install on our networks, so I spend most of my time doing that.

Michael Hanna: I would say that I jokingly call myself a data geek. And so, you know, not as much on the hardware side, but definitely I've been working with data my entire IT career, technology career. But for about a decade now, I've been involved in local political campaigns outside of work, and one of them was a successful effort to secure permanent, stable funding for the Multnomah County library system, which has the second highest circulation in the United States after New York library system. And so my day job versus, you know, outside work volunteer efforts, it's a mix of day job being much more technical and data driven and then nonwork kind of volunteer efforts are all around political organizing and trying to move innovative things forward in the Portland metro area.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that political organizing experience really showed up in the launch event for Municipal Broadband PDX. And I'm wondering if maybe you can just briefly describe the video, that we will have on our page, that you did for the launch and what role it plays in terms of driving enthusiasm for your effort.

Michael Hanna: So we developed this short video. The theme is basically the people rising up against the evil telcos, you know. There's kind of an opening scene of men in suits with cash flying everywhere and the logos of the large telcos, like Comcast, CenturyLink, etc., and basically, ordinary people turned superheroes to rise up and fight back is kind of the theme. But it really gets to the core of how we're trying to organize the community around this, which is that, you know, whether you're a resident or you're a business owner, there's broad dissatisfaction with the high cost and a crappy service provided by the monopolistic telcos. And you know, there's just a lot of interest among people — ordinary people — to have something different, and they know. Once it's explained that a publicly owned, not-for-profit Internet utility is an option, people's eyes light up. They go, "Wow!" You know, a lot of them never even imagined that something like that would be possible.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I think a little bit of background — I mean, Russell's not the only Linux hacker out there. There's a very high proportion, a high number of people at least, in the Portland region who work for high tech companies, and yet you're mostly stuck with CenturyLink, which has DSL and a mix of Fiber-to-the-Home in some places, and then, you know, Comcast for the rest of them. And you don't really have a lot of other options for what I can tell. Is that right Russell?

Russel Senior: Going back to the early days of the Internet here, we had many, many dial-up ISP options. You know, there was probably 100 in the Portland area, and then in the early days of DSL, there was open access on DSL and you had a broad range of options. You know, this was all before cable came along. You had many, many options to choose from, which meant you could shop for price or you could shop for terms of service. And it was actually kind of wonderful from a market point of view. And then cable came along, and of course the phone company was not investing in infrastructure. The access to DSL was a little wobbly. There was large sections of Portland that could not get DSL at all and did not have that option, you know, from a market point of view. And increasingly, your only option was the cable company if you needed viable bandwidth. As things progressed, we had Google, which was quite interested in deploying here for two or three years. It totally looked like they were going to come build here, and then, you know, two or three years ago, they just pulled the plug on that. But the one nice thing about that is they finally got CenturyLink off the dime, and CenturyLink started deploying fiber. There are kind of a horrible company to deal with. You know, we've sort of evolved into a duopoly, but they don't compete against each other on price very much and they're both kind of horrible to deal with.

Christopher Mitchell: On that note, I'll just note that we finally received a power supply for a phone. We wrote about this saga back on Halloween. I think it took on the order of four to six months, and we talked to between 10 and 15 CenturyLink employees. In the end, we actually just kept doing it to see if we would ever actually get the power supply for the phone that they forgot to send us. So yeah, I fully agree.

Russel Senior: Either intentionally or unintentionally, they seem to have a serious internal communication problems. So the sales people will tell you one thing and the billing people will tell you a completely different thing.

Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that's interesting about your effort is that right away you were looking at an area outside of just Portland though. I mean in Portland, pretty much anyone who has the money can get broadband I would guess, but you have people that are a part of this effort for Municipal Broadband PDX that are living in parts of Multnomah county that do not have any broadband at any price, I think. Is that right, Michael?

Michael Hanna: Yes. So within the Portland Metro area, there's three primary counties. Multnomah County is the one obviously where I live and work and Russell as well, but then there's Clackamas County and Washington County. Then there's cities and unincorporated areas within those three counties. And you're right. Very early on, I reached out to a contact out in east Multnomah county, which is outside of the city of Portland city limits, and found that the situation for people living outside of the Portland city core is even worse. And so that really shifted our thinking to be much more focused on county-wide so that we could address the gaps in the these outlying areas.

Christopher Mitchell: And how is that going? I mean, in terms of the organizing principle, you're well aware that the largest municipal network that we have in existence in Chattanooga would be, I think, less than half of the population that you're talking about, so this is something wholly different. How is the effort going to organize on such a large basis?

Michael Hanna: So yeah, interestingly, we had much more interest — you know, we started our efforts right after the repeal of net neutrality last year by focusing on city of Portland elected officials and really thinking that. But very quickly that pivoted to Multnomah County government and then the east county cities. And Multnomah County jumped on board and allocated funds for the feasibility study very quickly, and then we got the four east county cities to join as well. So what's interesting is that it's actually everything other than the city of Portland who has really jumped on board. And in Washington County where the city of Hillsboro is, the city of Hillsboro has already moved forward and is already laying fiber cables for their broadband network. There's discussions underway with the city of Beaverton in Washington county. Similarly in Clackamas County, there's efforts underway. There's discussions in the city of Milwaukie, which is in Clackamas County. So really, most areas in the Portland metro region are either exploring this, thinking about it, or have already kind of committed to move forward. Really the one outlier is the city of Portland, and that's where we've focused all of our recent lobbying and organizing efforts is to get the city of Portland to agree to fund their portion of the feasibility study so that we can move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: And is there a deadline on that?

Michael Hanna: We submitted a grant proposal to the city of Portland. It's called the Special Appropriations Grant; it's a pool of money. And they've told us that in January we will hear something — you know, we'll get a response of whether our grant has been approved or not. The grant is the most straightforward way to get the funds. There are other ways to get funds from the city of Portland, but that's the most straightforward way, so we're focusing our efforts on securing that so that the rest of the jurisdictions can move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk about how you're organizing. And Russell, I'm curious because this has been something that I think has been a dream for you. You've recognized the potential that this could do for [the] digital divide, for entrepreneurs, for all the benefits that a well-run municipal network can bring to a community. How are you organizing this time in order to try to make it happen?

Russel Senior: In the Pacific northwest, we have a large public utility called the Bonneville Power Administration, which is back from the same era as the Tennessee Valley Authority. FDR basically built a bunch of a large federal hydro projects on the main stem of the Columbia river and then marketed power to the region to provide very low-cost hydro power, which had, you know, what I like to call immense economic benefits for the entire region.

Christopher Mitchell: Also, I think it helped to win World War II, so the world is thankful for that.

Russel Senior: Absolutely. When I was growing up as a young person, my father worked for the Bonneville Power Administration. I was well aware of the existence of that and its impact. [I had] become well educated in all the benefits of that. In fact, I grew up in a house that was built with all electric heat because electricity was so cheap here. You know, people will quibble sometimes about the prices, but they actually get a pretty sweet deal. The water is excellent. And so, I approached all of this knowing that there was a publicly owned utility model that could deliver these kinds of services, and what I saw in telecommunications — I got a modem, you know, back in 1986 or '87 or something and was communicating with people on the Internet all the time. I was watching computing capacities shoot upwards at Moore's Law rates, and I saw telecommunications not growing very fast. I saw that problem and I saw the solutions that public utilities could provide. So I've been a big advocate for saying, "Hey, look, people, here's a model that can actually deliver the services that you want on much better terms and in a way that really focus[es] on the needs of the user rather than just you as a resource to be exploited by the big companies who just have you over a barrel."

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Russel Senior: So that's where my energy comes from, is seeing the gap between what could be and what is.

Christopher Mitchell: So that gives you energy and vision. How are you going to achieve the vision?

Russel Senior: I've been engaged with the city of Portland on and off for pretty much the entire time I've been involved with the Personal Telco Project. There has been — the bureaucracy in the city of Portland actually recognizes this problem pretty clearly and has been an advocate over the years for doing something. The issue has been very much that the city council has been skeptical about it. Going back to the 2007 era, basically there was a lot of internal energy in the city of Portland, and they got this feasibility study going, and it got to city council, and for a bunch of reasons, mostly some fear about the risks involved, they kind of pulled the plug on it. And the person who was overseeing it at the time kind of had cold feet, and he felt like he'd spent a lot of effort on this and it didn't seem like it was somewhere that he wanted to go. And that's kind of put the damper on the enthusiasm inside city hall. So our efforts have been focused on letting the public know that this is an option that they can consider and that this actually might be very much in their interest to pursue. You know, in the midst of many, many other issues that the city is facing, primarily homelessness, we kind of get their attention and say, "Hey, this is something that can generate large benefits for all of your constituents and by the way, your internal operations and that this is something worthy of making initially a very small investment in doing a feasibility study." Our organizing efforts have been around mobilizing the public to let the city council know that we need the city council to come up with some money to help fund the feasibility study. We managed to get Multnomah County initially willing to spend a little money and they allocated some money but that money is insufficient to cover the cost of the feasibility study, so we need the participation of the various constituent cities.

Michael Hanna: In terms of Multnomah County, one of the core reasons that Multnomah County recognized the value of this relates back to Multnomah County's core mission. In addition to the library, Multnomah County's core missions is being the safety net for our community and really providing services for the neediest in our communities. And so we know because we're part of this digital inclusion network, also with the city of Portland, that knows the data, where 30 percent of Latinx households lack broadband access in Multnomah County and I believe 25 percent of African American households. 28 percent of households over age 65 lack broadband. We know that there are these huge gaps in terms of, you know, certain demographics in Multnomah County that do not have access to broadband, which is a core equity issue. It really hinders their ability to participate in society fully. And then if we look at households with students, you know, that's just a whole other level with the homework gap and the inability to have online access. So for Multnomah County, immediately the primary driver was that municipal broadband aligns with our mission as a county around serving the neediest in our communities and really bridging the digital divide and addressing that directly. And so that was the core reason of why Multnomah County jumped in to lead on this issue. And similarly with east county, the cities, some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the entire state of Oregon are in east Multnomah County. And so again, there's these low income households, there's this gap, and that's really what's driving a lot of this. And it's also part of the organizing where we've reached out to community organizations who focus on those populations and addressing the needs of those populations, and really so that they are partners with us in moving this forward. And I do think that's really one of the unique things about what we're doing here in the Portland metro area is not just looking from a technology lens or a market lens, but also really including this equity and inclusion lens so that we're really sticking — our values are core to this effort from day one.

Christopher Mitchell: Although, I have to say I was very impressed with the launch party and with the amount of support, both in the number of people and the way that those people represented different interest groups and parts of the community. It seems unlikely that, you know, three or four years from now, that Multnomah County would be able to build a fiber to connect everyone's home immediately, which I think would kind of be the dream goal. But, what's success, you know, in terms of a realistic approach for a community the size of Multnomah and given the resistance of Portland historically?

Michael Hanna: In the short term, the success is getting the remaining funding for the feasibility study and getting that underway because as we know, something of this scale, we really need to crunch the numbers and do a hard look at the technical, economic, and other aspects of municipal broadband. So that's really core in the short term. We just have to get that underway. But in the medium term, we want to continue to organize, continue to build a very broad coalition because once the feasibility study comes back, the results come back, and you know, if there is a viable path forward, we still need to have either the elected officials agreeing to move forward or some sort of ballot measure. So either way, there's kind of a political aspect to this. One of the things you touched on is the timeframe and the build out. You know, there's definitely going to be a tension between those who want this as quickly as possible and those who want to do this in a more measured, gradual approach. So for example, the city of Hillsboro, has decided that they're going to build out their network over a 10 year period, and that's a very conservative, gradual, lower-risk approach. For Multnomah County, you know, until we get the feasibility study back, it's really hard to say, but a lot of people have been thinking more along the five year build out. But I think no matter what, there's going to be this balance between building out in a timely manner because there's high demand for residents and businesses, and then just doing it in a measured approach. Ultimately it's going to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We do want to do it in phases so that we're learning iteratively through each phase and reducing the risks.

Christopher Mitchell: Russell, do you want to add any additional goals?

Russel Senior: Over the summer, I was traveling and visited some existing municipal fiber projects. One of which was in Longmont, Colorado, and I had a nice conversation with them. Some of the practical issues is that they had designed their rollout in a way that, you know, stepped their way around their geographic footprint. One of their challenges was the demand for the service that they were providing was not nicely focused in the areas that they were just starting to build on. Everybody wanted it at the same time. So certainly, there are tensions there because there are people that will be very excited about getting access [and] some people who don't quite understand what it is we're doing because it completely breaks the mold of what they've been trained to understand what was possible, you know, in America.

Michael Hanna: Just another note about that is that our campaign here in Portland metro has been picked as one of Neighborly's 18 Broadband Accelerator cities around the country. [Editor's note: the Community Broadband Accelerator actually includes 35 communities in 18 states.] One of the efforts is around marketing and educating the public and possibly doing pre-signups of residents and businesses to demonstrate the demand. And I think, just kind of piggybacking on what Russell was saying, is that there's this tension between the residents and then the elected officials. I think if we can really demonstrate broad interest and excitement around it, I think that will accelerate the build out. And the city of Hillsboro said the same thing. You know, they have their kind of 10 year, very conservative build out plan. But if residents and businesses really want to step up and demand that that speed up, then it can be a partnership. And that's really what I'm hoping, from my grassroots organizer hat on, is really developing enough grassroots push to kind of hold the elected officials', the government agencies' feet to the fire and really accelerate this, you know, reasonably. Obviously we want, we don't want to do it recklessly, but we want to do it [in a way] that balances those tensions.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's really a key point that some people miss in terms of the promise of the incremental effort is that it can create political will that was not there before and lead to a much more rapid build out than one may have thought in year one when you're getting started. And that also depends on cities making sure that they're doing it right, you know, executing it well because if you start to stumble and make mistakes and don't correct them quickly, then political support can evaporate, and so that's the problem. But I think that those are some good things that other people should be keeping in mind when they're thinking about this in their own communities. What other things should people keep in mind when they're trying to build an organizing campaign like you're doing here in the Portland area?

Michael Hanna: We're trying to learn from other efforts in other cities for municipal broadband, and one of the reasons that efforts stalled in other cities was that it was often driven by an enthusiastic elected official or government bureaucrat of some kind and didn't have the corresponding grassroots coalition to support it. And so if that person left, let's say they were voted out of office or they left the jurisdiction, then the effort quickly could fall apart. And so I think learning from that, I think that that building as broad of a coalition as possible that is really separate from the elected officials or any one administration or any one set of bureaucrats is really key. And so that's where we've got — unions have endorsed this. We have hundreds of businesses that have endorsed it. We have community organizations that have endorsed it. And I think really trying to build that broad coalition is key, so that's definitely something I would say. And I think secondarily is that for groups, grassroots groups, to be really clear about what their asks are going to be of the elected officials before they approach the elected official. So if the ask is we want you to allocate funds for a feasibility study, for example, then just be really clear about what are you asking the elected officials. Because when you go meet with elected officials, you're lobbying them, you need to be succinct and clear about what you're asking them to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Michael, you glossed over something that I think some people would be interested in. You know, you just sort of candidly mentioned, oh, we've got a bunch of businesses and unions that have supported us. Could you just give us a sense of how you did that. I mean, did you show up in the union hall or, you know, go just walk into businesses and talk to them about it. Like, how did you go about getting that interest and demonstrating it?

Michael Hanna: Because I had been involved in a lot of other political campaigns, I already had a lot of connections with unions. And so, for example, AFSCME, which is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, I've already worked with them for many, many years. Similarly with IBEW — electrical workers. So I had connections, but ultimately it really was getting on their agenda, going to their meeting, and making an ask. And the way that we did it was first round we explained what this campaign was and what municipal broadband was and asked for their support, their endorsement, and then we came back a month or two later and then asked for some funding to help support the campaign. So there was that, and then with the businesses, a lot of it has — we did some canvassing, like you would do canvassing of residents' homes. We did some canvassing of businesses — you know, literally going in to talk to managers and owners of businesses and found a lot of support. And just from the minimal amount of canvassing we did, we found a lot of support. And with businesses, there's many reasons for them to support this. At a very direct way, it would be likely lower cost, much better service than what they're receiving today, but there is — among the local businesses for sure — there's also this sense of civic duty or civic engagement, and so they really also resonate with the values and vision of what this could do in terms of equity and bridging the digital divide. So I think it's a relatively easy ask for businesses, and then I think community organizations similarly. It just aligns with their existing mission. So I think a lot of community organizations already have within their mission bridging the digital divide, and so when I reached out to them, similarly to unions, just going to one of their meetings and say[ing], "Hey, this is municipal broadband, this is how it could work, and this is how it aligns with what you value and what you want to see in the community."

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask a similar question for you, Russell, but I'll rephrase it in the Linux world: what would you put in your how-to, or you got any tips and tricks for us?

Russel Senior: One thing I want to just add on frosting on what Michael just said: there are two larger organizations in the Portland metro area and of course across the country that have been doing marketing for this project for decades, and that's Comcast and CenturyLink and the way that they treat —

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs]

Russel Senior: So, you know, I've been saying for years to people that there are gas fumes everywhere, that people are starving for an alternative, an option that really serves their needs. And you know, because of the abuse that's been heaped upon them by the telcos, that's there and all somebody needs to do is show them that there's an alternative, that it will be better, and it will make their lives fulfilled in a way that feels much better about how they're participating as effectively as an owner of the infrastructure that's serving their needs — just like the streets and the water system and the sewer system and a bunch of other things that are intended to serve their needs and not just generate profit for somebody far, far away. So I think that atmosphere is here, and it's our job to exploit that, to take advantage of that latent feeling that people have and show them a path that can take them to where they want to go.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's a good way to wrap it up. Thank you both for coming on, and thank you especially for your organizing efforts in the Portland area. I think, you know, in 10 years we could see a tremendous number of municipal broadband connections throughout the Tri-County region, I guess.

Russel Senior: I certainly hope so.

Michael Hanna: Yep. Yep, that's the goal, and nationwide.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna on the Municipal Broadband PDX initiative. Be sure to check out their website, MunicipalBroadbandPDX.org for details. They also have a Facebook presence and are on Twitter so you can follow their progress. 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 podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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