Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 460

This is the transcript for episode 460 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. We're joined by ILSR senior reporter and editor, Sean Gonsalves and Nate Benson, a reporter with WGRZ in Buffalo, New York, about his approach to reporting on connectivity issues afflicting the Western part of the state. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Nate Benson: Nobody on a local level really has dug into it. And that's where I found the opportunity. Okay, nobody's talking about this, but it's a problem that within the industry people know about, but nobody's talking about it. Somebody should be. I guess I'll do it.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 460 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ryan Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Nate Benson, a reporter with WGRZ in Buffalo, New York, along with ILSR senior reporter and editor, Sean Gonsalves. Nate joins us to talk about all of the broadband reporting he's done on connectivity issues in the Western part of the state over the last two-and-a-half years. He shares the origins and results of his fall 2019 investigation into monopoly service and what the lack of competition has done to prices and availability in the city. And how he approaches producing stories on internet access that have resonated with citizens and galvanized local policymakers in the community. Christopher and Sean also talk with Nate about his continuing coverage of issues like the charter merger and its consequences, the company's lobbying power in the state, and an ongoing audit of the state's broadband grant program. Now here's Christopher and Sean talking with Nate.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. And today, I'm speaking with Nate Benson, a journalist with WGRZ in Buffalo. Welcome to the show.

Nate Benson: Christopher, it's great to be here. And as a fan of the show, you will not need to lecture me on the subscribers versus users argument. So I'm already prepared.

Christopher Mitchell: You have no idea how happy I am to hear this. I go months without people noticing that, and today I've received two comments from people who have noticed the importance of talking about subscribers versus consumers. So I'm very appreciative.

Nate Benson: I try to be prepared.

Christopher Mitchell: We also have Sean Gonsalves, a person who I brought onto my staff from a reporting background who is rapidly rising through the ranks and is probably going to take over this show at some point. I'm just looking at the expression on his face. He's like, "No. No, I don't want to do that."

2:27

Sean Gonsalves: I'm hungry.

Christopher Mitchell: Sean, welcome back.

Sean Gonsalves: Thank you, thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: So we're going to start off by talking about kind of why we brought you on, Nate, which is that you're doing really good reporting on broadband, and we don't often see that from local news stations, which is not to say that I'm trying to like insult any local news stations. It's just that this is a hard topic and often it's not something that gets a lot of coverage. And so I want to start off by asking you kind of did you get bit by the broadband bug? What made you really want to lean into reporting on these stories so frequently?

Nate Benson: Well, I appreciate the comments regarding the reporting we've been doing. And to answer your question, I got to go back into my background a little bit. So I got into the TV business in 2010, joined a new station in 2013, worked there actually at WGRZ between 2013 and 2017. Then made a change, went to marketing. Full disclosure, I did not like the dark side, as we call it. Marketing was not my forte. Too many meetings. In news, you got to power through the day and that 4:00 deadline comes on and you got to get on the air. So I had an opportunity to come back to WGRZ in August of 2019. And one of my first conversations with my news director, Athan Kompos was, "I keep getting emails about internet access and I don't know how to answer them, so you figure it out."

Nate Benson: And I said, "Okay, great." And I had done, my previous stint at [inaudible 00:03:57], I had done a segment called Innovate Western New York, where I talked with startups, research at University of Buffalo, and just kind of innovation type things. So I'm always the de facto tech guy. Whenever there's a tech story in our region, they always assign it to me and that still continues to this day. So this was kind of in the wheelhouse of technology. And when my news director asked me that, I just kind of started digging in and looked at the city of Buffalo. We only had one carrier, the second biggest city in the entire state, and we just had Spectrum. Why was that? So then you're going back and looking at two or three decades worth of franchise agreements and figuring out what were the complexities of that were.

Nate Benson: And our first report on kind of a broadband related issue was about why is there one carrier in the city of Buffalo? And that reporting in October of 2019 led to the city council changing their policies. And by December, it was announced a new fiber carrier was coming to Buffalo. And I'm not patting myself on the back, but nobody had done an extensive report on that issue about Buffalo's issues before and all of a sudden we started doing it and then policies change. Okay, great, that's a great win, but it didn't stop there, because simultaneously I was looking at the New York State Broadband Program. I was looking at access issues in Niagara, Orleans counties, the Southern tier counties, which are very rural.

5:15

Nate Benson: I mean, Western New York's very unique, because we're about the size of Massachusetts and we've got everything from cities to very rural, low density populations living throughout our viewing area. And then as I dug into these stories, it's kind of like at the end of the movie, Chinatown. Forget it, Nate. It's broadband. As I peel the onion, it's just becomes more complex and fascinating. And yeah, I guess you could say I did get bit by the broadband bug and now they pretty much know I'm going to pitch a broadband or digital gap story whenever I bring up a pitch. And they just say, "Just go do it and don't bother wasting our time with the pitch, because we know what you're working on."

Sean Gonsalves: Nate, it's interesting to hear your background. I can relate having come from print journalism and then went to the dark side, as folks in the newsroom call it, for a few years. And then when this opportunity had come up to get back to reporting, it was great. So I can really relate. It's also very fascinating to hear you talk about kind of the emails that you got and that kind of providing sort of an entree into reporting on this topic. And I noticed in one of your recent stories that you were talking about kind of the challenges of reporting on broadband, it took you two years to get an interview from an official with the New York State Broadband Program Office. And I am dying to hear the behind the scenes kind of back and forth that you might've gone through and to hear obviously why you think they were so reluctant, I have an idea, but I'd love to hear you talk about that.

Nate Benson: As I started looking in the broadband, obviously Governor Cuomo had a very ambitious program that he announced in 2015, which was the Broadband for All program. At the time in 2015, I actually went to Albany. I convinced my boss at the time to let me go. And I talked to David Salway, who at the time was the director of that program. He has now since moved on to a different administration. And I believe Jeffrey Nordhaus took over the broadband office and now Scott Rasmussen is in charge of it. So they've had several leaders turn it over. Really the issue was I just started asking questions and nobody had looked into the program before. I think everybody kind of forgot that the project was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018. At the time I started asking questions it was October of 2019.

7:45

Nate Benson: So they were, at that time, less than a year overdue. It's interesting, because again, nobody was really asking the question. So I think they weren't prepared for somebody to be talking about digging into the data. And to the state's credit, they published a lot of the data. How many passings that they claimed to have connected. All the money that they had pledged and what the total investments were for everything we're talking about, over half a billion dollars. But when you look at the data, the story really started to unfold. And the biggest thing that still remains a mystery to me was, even though only $15 million of the money allocated for the project went to satellite providers, about 30% of the people connected were connected to satellite.

Nate Benson: And that still stands out to me to this day that a program that was designed to bring broadband, 100 megs to everybody, 30% of the program only got satellite, which the state continues to claim can provide the minimum of 25. I think anybody in the industry who's talked to anyone who uses satellite knows that 25 would be a godsend for any satellite user. And it's not the reality.

Christopher Mitchell: There's a joke or sort of like a statement, people have attributed to Netflix over the years and different things, but like over a certain timeframe, I can deliver 25/3 by a truck. I just put a bunch of hard drives in a truck and drive it around. And like on average, I'm delivering 25 megabits a second. If I get that truck to you like every other day or something like that with like just zetabytes of data. I mean, like this 25/3 fixation does not describe broadband. This is clearly not good enough.

Nate Benson: And I think anyone who follows it knows that that's going to be changed and the pandemic has certainly played into that as well. But going back, and I asked for an interview spring of 2019. I said, "Listen, I think you've made some claims, but me talking to the boots on the ground, so to speak people who you've said you've connected tell me otherwise." Now they wanted to provide statements and the statements were always, "98% of the state's connected. And it's the first in the nation," and touting Governor Cuomo. The State Broadband Office is not a... It's a government office, but it's within a corporation called Empire State Development. Empire State Development controls a lot of projects across the state.

10:05

Nate Benson: And it's a way for essentially the governor's office to control what the project is doing, what information gets out. And it's a developmental tool. And a lot of states, not just New York, have similar type programs, but ESD as we call it is a tightly controlled entity within Governor Cuomo's administration. So it's not run like a Public Service Commission or a Department of Transportation where you've got to set leaders and people were kind of appointed. And the state forgot that I went and talked to David Salway at the beginning of this and they made a lot of promises. And at the time when they announced the program, I mean the broadband definition I believe was 10 megs. They changed it, I believe in 2016 or '17 to 25/3. So-

Christopher Mitchell: I think it was 2015, but yeah.

Nate Benson: Well, yeah, it was within the time of the program being announced kind of the yard sticks moved, so to speak. So I was just persistent. I said, "We need to hear from somebody. Statements are not going to cut it." And we do the same thing with any type of politician. The job of a journalist is to hold people accountable. And it's not necessarily to negatively hold them accountable, but we have to verify the claims that are made especially with the claim that 98% of the state has broadband. It's a pretty, if you know the industry, and I'm not saying I'm an expert, but if you just read enough about the industry, you know that that's a very high mark to try to hit.

Nate Benson: And one state senator continuously tells me, "If the Governor's claim is true, then all 2% live in my district, because we're very negatively impacted." So it took persistence and there was some changeover with the public information officer for the office. I heard secondhand, so I can't verify that they finally got tired of hearing from me on a weekly basis and they just had to move to a different office. Whether that's true, I don't know, I think that's interoffice gossip. But the person I've been dealing with now, I said, "Listen, you've told me you feel my reporting is unfair. That might be true. Let me talk to somebody and let's talk this out. I could be entirely wrong, and if I'm wrong, I'll go in there and correct it." And they finally agreed to a conversation and we just published that article two weeks.

Nate Benson: Props to Scott Rasmussen, he answered all my questions. The office did ask me to give them the questions in advance, which, Sean as you know, journalistically, you tend not to do something like that, but I felt... Scott was added to this program in 2019, so the project should have been done. And he was kind of brought in way after the deadline had passed. So out of fairness to him, I have no beef with him. He's just the official in the chair at the time. So I kind of set aside the standards of journalism for a moment to give them those questions, because I thought it was the fair thing to do.

12:56

Christopher Mitchell: I have to say I have mixed feelings about this story, because I'm very glad you're out there tracking this down and making them accountable. At the same time, New York really has done more than many other states. And at the same other, other time, I really hate that they allowed satellite to get any kind of money, because I just feel like that was probably a political decision at the time just to avoid saying, "We're not doing anything for those people, because we're not creative enough to come up with a solution or bold enough to do something that would really be precedent setting to actually get them a real solution." And so I'm really glad that you're out there. I wish, even here in Minnesota where I think our program works really well, I wish we had someone who was really digging into it and asking those hard questions.

Nate Benson: It's interesting, because the program did do quite a bit for some areas. And I'm not a statewide reporter, I only report on the things that are impacting the community I serve. And while it's a large community, it is a large section of the state. And unfortunately, the program didn't didn't have the impact like it claimed it did in our region. A good example was when the Governor was announcing the phase two awards or was announcing the initial awards, he said, "Erie County is going to be prioritized in the first year. And we're going to get you guys connected up 100% by the end of 2018." And we actually were on the bottom percentile of the dollars allocated for this program in total. I asked Scott that directly and he couldn't speak with the Governor, because that happened way before he even joined the program.

Nate Benson: So, he provided a fair answer to that. I mean, there is some things on the record from the governor. The Charter/Time Warner merger did play a big impact in the New York State Broadband Program. And that's been a separate fight, me trying to get the data on that issue as well. But at the end of the day, that merger really impacted Western New York's standing within that program, because promises were made to Western New York by Charter, I believe to the states. And we don't necessarily know if there was any follow through on those promises.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you feel that like reporting on Charter in New York is almost like reporting on the mob? Charter to me seems more powerful than the state. The elected officials feel comfortable criticizing them and threatening them up to a point. But as far as I can tell, there's not a single person in power that takes seriously that New York would do anything to hurt Charter, no matter what Charter does to New York.

15:32

Nate Benson: I think a perfect example of just the complexity of the Charter standing within the state is this new $15 bill mandate, and how it's going to impact other providers versus how it's going to really impact Charter. There's a new provider coming to Buffalo, as I mentioned from the reporting we did, Greenlight Networks and they're based out of Rochester right now and they're slowly expanding towards Western New York. And they provide, on paper, a pretty interesting service, $50 for 500 megs. And whether they hit that target, even if they hit a third of that, that's still really good for our region. They're not a billion dollar company. They're a smaller well-funded, but albeit smaller provider, and they only provide one service, 500 for $50 versus Spectrum, which has many tiers, can offer a variety of things.

Nate Benson: In my conversations with folks there, they're very concerned about this mandate. They think it's the right thing to do, but it's going to impact the smaller players versus the Verizons, the AT&Ts, and the Charters. And when the Governor singled out Charter in a recent speech saying they don't have the God-given right to operate in New York state, well we saw how that played out before with the Time Warner merger. And promises were made and I've been trying to get the plan of record for that expansion Charter promise was going to happen. They've been filing with the Public Service Commission to each quarter as a requirement of that merger saying, "We've done 12,000 passings this quarter or 15,000... We're so close to the goal."

Nate Benson: But always follow up with that, "Filing is a confidentiality." We don't know where they're actually connecting. And part of my investigating, whether it has been, "What are you doing in the Erie County, Western New York? Because we were supposed to get broadband funding. We didn't, because you said you were going to connect us. And I don't see any evidence of you actually doing that." I'll stop short of saying it's reporting on the mob. I do have a decent relationship with some of their folks over there in terms of a typical report or PIO type relationship where they usually answer my questions. It's pretty much near the boiler plate statements, but they tell me things I do need to know about the scene, but it's a complicated relationship between Charter and I think the Governor. I mean, one of the Governor's special advisors is now one of the top people in the government affairs department at Charter. So, I mean, clearly conversations are easily had between Charter and the Governor's office.

17:59

Sean Gonsalves: Yep. And let me, I'm going to show my bias here, coming from a print journalism background, but my experience as a consumer or a viewer of local television news, and I think this speaks well to WGRZ's commitment to covering this topic is my experience as a viewer is fire, fire, car accident, some violent incident. If we can't find one locally, we'll go to one of our affiliates in New Hampshire, or Florida, or something like that, sports weather, and then acute warm, fuzzy thing. Goodnight. Rinse, wash, repeat. Not a lot of type of coverage like this. And so I'm fascinated that your coverage has been what it has been and that you've been given the bandwidth, pun intended, to cover this topic.

Christopher Mitchell: And that he's done it better than most print journalists, just to be very clear.

Sean Gonsalves: Amen. Amen.

Nate Benson: Thank you. Thank you.

Sean Gonsalves: Amen. But I was actually interested to hear... You obviously are reporting in a very visual medium, and I'm wondering is it a challenge reporting on this particular topic, with all the complexities and so many parts of this that are unfamiliar to most folks? Is that a challenge in reporting on this or how do you... What kind of aides do you use to try to tell the story in a visually compelling way?

Nate Benson: Well, first I'll talk about kind of your assessment of local news and that is a fair criticism across the nation of local news. And just like print journalism, the stations are getting gutted left and right with staffing cuts. The pandemic has obviously played into complexities. And Western New York in particular, we get a lot of snow in the winter months. And sometimes we go all in on a snow storm. And I think fairly people can criticize that, but I also will answer our ratings are never higher when it's snowing. People tune in for the snow. One of the most popular stories that I was ever a part of was the Bethlehem Steel fire.

20:06

Nate Benson: And it was the day after the 2016 election. So everybody's, they're reacting to the 2016 election and who won that. And then the next morning, the old Bethlehem Steel plant in Buffalo somehow caught on fire that was being used for storage at the time. And they never actually determined what caused it. But I came over what's called the skyway and you could look down Route 5 and see what looked like a bomb had gone off in the town of Lackawanna, just the blackest smoke I've ever seen in my life and flames shooting up in the sky. And it's stories like that that immediately draw a whole community in unfortunately. That being said, I'll tip my hat to not only my station, but several stations in our market put in a lot of resources for investigative journalism. And we partner with a nonprofit called Investigative Post who works with us as well, but the other stations, I'll give them credit too.

Nate Benson: They do a lot of good investigative work. Another station did a lot of the work on the Catholic church scandal, sex scandal several years ago. We did as well. We were all kind of on top of that. But we invest a lot into investigative journalism. So to answer your second question, it is hard. It's very hard to make broadband visually interesting. I try to rely a lot on graphics and explaining the data in graphic form. I've gone to pretty much every corner of my viewing area to get signs that I see on the side of the road, "Internet. New internet, $99." Excuse me, I've called those numbers before and it's just satellite. They're always in rural countries and I'm sure Minnesota has them in other markets out of them too.

Nate Benson: You go out into the sticks and you'll see a sign tacked to a telephone pole, and that's when you know you're in an area that does not have really any internet access. So it's certainly a challenge. I'm fortunate I've been doing this a long enough. I started editing video when I was in high school. My high school had a TV station and we produced basketball games and football games. We had a morning show that was probably the worst thing in the world, but at the time it was the coolest. So I got a leg up in doing all that. And I've just kind of honed my skills to be able to quickly create graphics, looks for this story. And I just saved those templates to be able to just quickly churn out graphics and you just have to find a creative way to tell that story.

22:26

Nate Benson: And we try our best, I've got a lot of video of just wires, and cell towers, and little hubs that I know have internet on them, but it's absolutely a challenge. But I think people responded to it locally because a lot of people have said, "It didn't feel like a boring data story, so thank you." Those are been some of the comments that... Because investigative journalism, and this story is not necessarily investigative, it's just digging in deeper to a degree. But any investigative story can be hard to sell on TV, because it can sometimes be very in the weeds. And obviously broadband is very much in the weeds.

Christopher Mitchell: Have you found that those stories are more popular than the story that they might be replaced by if they weren't around that day?

Nate Benson: And that's hard to tell. Unless I pitch it, if they don't go with the pitch I've done that day, I might get assigned to what we call a Celebrate Western New York story now to which Sean was saying, "What's the feel good story of the day?" And you've got to have a mix. And there is certainly enough happening, I think, statewide and especially in our region where I could probably produce one or two stories a week. And it does get oversaturated and I recognize that. And I make the joke, every single time I pitch it, it's like, "I've got another broadband story and we don't need to do it today, but I'm going to need to tell it soon." It can be challenging, but they've been popular because they've been getting results, especially those first few stories we did where it led to actual policy change.

Nate Benson: They were the most popular stories of the day at the time. And fairly regularly when there's news, when the Governor was in town to officially sign the $15 bill, I was working nights that night, but I came in early to assist the team with that coverage and kind of coach them up on what this actually meant. My own station, interviewed me for the story. I didn't tell the story, so it was kind of a unique experience, because I've kind of become that expert. And again, I'm not necessarily... I have no industry experience, I've just read a lot of documents and followed websites like yours to keep my finger on the pulse of what's happening.

Sean Gonsalves: I'd like to actually go back to one thing in particular that you recently reported about this audit that the state controller's office is conducting of the Broadband Program in New York. I think your reporting said it should be really soon. And so I'm curious to know, well, first of all do you know when that will be released? And what do you expect it will reveal?

24:54

Nate Benson: Unbeknownst to me, when I first reported on that, I believe it was October or November, the audit actually started after some of our initial reporting last February. They started the audit in March, which audits are never really a news item unless a controller really wants to... Everything's political. So usually the controllers and the governors are usually butting heads even if they're both Democrats. There was no initial release on this. So when I kind of caught wind of it, because I just happened to randomly ask them like, "By chance are you guys auditing the program?" "Oh yeah, well, we've been auditing it since March." I'm like, "Oh, well, great." They said it would be done soon at that point and that was back in October or November. And I followed up every month.

Nate Benson: And basically at this point, I'm like, "Hey, it's me question mark? Do you have anything for me yet?" And I get it, audits are complex. And obviously with the pandemic, it's a lot harder. And also audits require cooperation, and I'm not necessarily alluding to nobody's not cooperating, and we're past a year now where that audit has started. And I'm very curious when we'll get that. As for what we expect that's going to say, it's hard to say. They're looking at the dollars committed and the dollars spent, and what the results were. And I don't think it's going to be too surprising if you've seen some of the reporting we've done what's going to come out from that audit. There wasn't the dollar for dollar match that was promised.

Nate Benson: And in some instances, weren't even close. I can understand a little close, but when we were talking, sometimes the state would put in tens of millions and the private match was only one or two. I think it's just going to break down that a lot more. And in terms of the timing of when it will be put out, like I said, everything's political, November's coming up, people want to get reelected. Who knows? I'm anticipating it soon, but I know the office knows I want it. They said they'll get it to me as soon as they have it available. Because again, and I'm not patting myself on the back, but I've been looking at this closely. I don't think anyone besides me, at least in New York state is actually interested in the audit.

Nate Benson: I don't even know the controller's office is really looking forward to it. I don't know. But it's going to be interesting what that break down is, because it's probably not going to be too surprising just based on what I've been looking at for now over almost two years. But perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps there's some gross misconduct and that's just going to keep the story going. And whenever government's in any project, I mean there's the potential where everything was promised and not delivered. I mean, the big thing for our viewing area is the Armstrong Communications Project in the Southern tier. And the one thing I've been digging into is they applied for RDOF money. And I looked at the census blocks that they applied for RDO and there are hundreds of census blocks that they were awarded funds from the state program that they've now done RDOF funding for.

27:52

Nate Benson: And I can't get them to answer my question as to why. It could be completely justified, completely reasonable and again I'm not an industry expert. But at least on the surface, you're asking for money for funding for census blocks you should have already completed. And to me, there's smoke in that hay bale fire.

Sean Gonsalves: So you expect this audit to be mostly sort of a financial audit, not so much a data audit, because I know one of the things that you've reported frequently is about this claim that the Governor continues to make about this 98% coverage, which is likely to be not true, but-

Nate Benson: I don't anticipate it being a data audit. I could be completely surprised and maybe that is part of their investigation. They've told me some things and a lot of the things they've told me kind of line up to the things I've already reported. If they were to do an audit like that, that would be very surprising and very newsworthy, mainly because Senator Sean Ryan, who's a Western New York legislator, just got a bill passed through the budget and through the assembly and legislature to have the PASC do a complete audit, so to speak, on its own of broadband availability. I've dubbed it the Broadband Study Bill. And it was initially pocket vetoed by the Governor, because at the time he said it was an unfunded mandate and they wouldn't be able to fund it.

Nate Benson: It was $3 million at the time. And if anyone knows anything like New York state, we do that all the time as does California. That's pretty much those states operate with just money coming from anywhere. So that was very surprising. But that bill has now come through and the PSC is supposed to start that audit of broadband accessibility, within the next month or so. So I doubt the controller's office has done that, but if they did, that that'll be the story.

Christopher Mitchell: Have there been oftentimes where you were like in the middle of the story and were like, "Oh, this is interesting, but man, the audience is just not going to go for this?"

Nate Benson: Yeah, quite a bit. The things people tend to latch on to the most was the way the data's collected for broadband and mapping. An it's well-documented the way the FC-

Christopher Mitchell: Wait, you're breaking news here. If there's data being collected for broadband mapping, I'd like to know about it, because from what I can see, it's mostly invented along the way, not collected. Sorry.

Nate Benson: The most surprising thing to me has been just how evident that is and just how I'm working at a story, because Western New York has some tribal land on it, the Seneca Nation takes up some significant parts of our viewing area. And I'm working at a story right now where somebody lives on the line of the Seneca Nation, his next door neighbor has Spectrum. There's other houses on the Seneca Nation down the road that are just as dense as the neighbors who have it. And it's a clear digital redlining story. They don't want to go into tribal lands. Okay, they made that decision, but again you're looking at why. You're passing up a couple thousand customers, I don't know why. And of course getting answers is always challenging, but there's a lot of in the weeds stuff with this. And my editors and news director often they're taking the axe to my stories. They're like, "That's great, but there's no time for that."

31:07

Nate Benson: The most recent example was my state broadband story had a whole minute-and-a-half section about satellite. And at the end of the day, we couldn't have a seven minute story on the Friday night news. I'm a reasonable reporter, I'm not going to have a monopoly on the whole half hour. So we decided, okay, that's going to be its own breakout story, because it's important, but it's not... The important story at the time was we got this interview we've been asking for for a year. So we'll get into the satellite thing, because that is a complicated topic that you need to set up, you need to explain, and go on from there. But the one story people have really latched onto is the when I explain what data is available and who is providing it and why. And that has led to several people saying, "I've typed in my address on this provider's website, and they said they can provide it. But then I call them and they said, oh, they can't."

Nate Benson: And when you just look at examples of that, oh, they'll run a line for $20,000 or $50,000, or even $75,000 to running 800 feet of cable. It's frustrating, because you don't have an answer for them and you just get the same boilerplate statements from whatever provider you're asking about. Digging into those types of stories has led to some changes. For example, in the town of Boston, which is just south of Buffalo, there was a whole neighborhood that was promised Spectrum cable, never delivered. I asked around, "Oh, well, we're going to be connecting that by the end of the year." But the person was told in writing, "We're not connecting this street." So it took our phone call to get that progress made. So it wasn't widespread, but it was a win for that street. And I've often said, "Okay, well, if I have to do a story about every street in Western New York, I'll do it if I have to, just to get them connected."

Christopher Mitchell: Sean, we're about out of time, did you have a final question that you wanted to ask him to answer quickly?

Sean Gonsalves: Well, not really. Well, yeah. You know what, one last thing. Have you gotten any pushback on the reporting that you've gotten? I don't necessarily mean internally, but just in the community or from maybe some of the big providers or anything like that?

Christopher Mitchell: Anyone burn your house down? I'm just kidding.

Nate Benson: Right? Yeah. Yes, I have gotten pushed back from the providers, rightfully so. Anytime-

Christopher Mitchell: All in the course of business.

33:26

Nate Benson: Exactly. And they've gone a long time without anybody, not even looking under a microscope, but just asking questions. I mean, local news on a whole tend to only talk about internet when a bunch of people get a letter saying, "Your bill's going up." And then you have the day turn story of, "The bills are going up and everybody's mad," and then it's forgotten about right. Nobody on a local level really has dug into it and that's where I found the opportunity. Okay, nobody's talking about this, but it's a problem that within the industry people know about, but nobody's talking about it. Somebody should be. I guess, I'll do it. And the pushback, it really hasn't been anything... It's usually just public information officers or public relations people going, "That wasn't fair. You didn't talk to Verizon or AT&T, you only talked to me," or the typical type of stuff.

Nate Benson: And sometimes it's warranted, sometimes I can't prevent it. I can't help who calls me back and who doesn't, but I still have to turn a story. And that's the one thing about local news is we got to turn stuff on a daily basis. Sometimes I wish I had the print journalism job where I can maybe dig in a little bit more, but printer journalists too still have to turn stuff on a daily basis. It's just our stories require graphics, and video, interview, all that kind of stuff. So it just takes longer. The one thing during the pandemic I've loved is people have been more accessible because of Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, whatever.

Nate Benson: And I've been able to churn out a lot more quickly and people have been made available to be able to tell these stories. So, we're going to keep digging into it. We're going to try to get answers. Obviously there's still questions that remain with the state program. There's a huge multimillion dollar project in our area that still isn't complete. We want answers on that. And basically it boils down to, from what I gather so far is it's your typical, smaller ISP dealing with utility companies for access. And talk about a story that's in the weeds, why would somebody who has maybe Fios at their house or high-speed at their house in the suburbs care about a utility dispute in Alma, New York that has a population of 400 people? Well, they probably don't. So we have to find a creative way to tell that story. And that's the exciting and challenging part about this type of reporting for local news.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much, Nate. It's been fun talking about this from a different perspective. Really appreciate your time today.

Sean Gonsalves: Thanks, Nate. Write on, W-R-I-T-E.

35:53

Nate Benson: Yeah, happy to be here. Thank you so much for the work you guys do and just highlighting a lot of issues that are not only happening in New York, but elsewheres too.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher and Sean talking with Nate Benson. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcasts@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 and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 460 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.

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