Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 463

This is the transcript for episode 463 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We're joined by Douglas Adams, the CMO of Think Marketing (the firm which handles the marketing operations for the municipal network FairlawnGig in Ohio), Ernie Staten, Director of Public Service for the city of Fairlawn, and Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The topic of the day is the amendment attached to the upcoming budget for the state of Ohio which, if included in the final version, would make Ohio the first state in a decade to erect barriers to the establishment, expansion, and continuing operation of publicly owned and operation broadband networks. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Ernie Staten: For the state of Ohio, I mean, in all seriousness, we're talking about going backwards here. We're not talking about going forward. 10 and one is backwards, that's the irritation here.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with three folks that are going to help us understand what exactly is going on in Ohio. We've got actually two repeat guests, and then we have someone who's often been involved in inspiring us and getting us guests for the show, who's making his first actual appearance, and I'll introduce him first, Doug Adams, the CMO of Think, which handles the marketing for FairlawnGig and is someone who's always helping out at Mountain Connect and around a bunch of other places, helping broadband get its legs. Welcome to the show, Doug.

Doug Adams: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: And then we have Ernie Staten, the Director of Public Service in the city of Fairlawn, which runs FairlawnGig. Welcome back, Ernie.

Ernie Staten: Thanks for having me, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: And we have our audience favorite, Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome to the show.

Angela Siefer: Audience favorite because I often make fun of Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Travis is in the audience and he loves you. Let me just be very clear here when I say he loves you, it's because you're awesome on Connect This, which is our sister show, and you've been on multiple times. Ernie, can you tell us what exactly happened last week? And this possibly came so much out of the blue that none of us had any expectation that it was coming?

Ernie Staten: Yes. So Health Bill 110, which is actually the budget bill for the State of Ohio, was passed by the house. It was sent to the Senate. The Senate did, they call it an omnibus meeting, to go over amendments to the house bill, and one of the amendments that they placed in was, it practically says that all community broadband would cease to exist. It does allow for you serving a municipal broadband to serve areas that are unserved, which is anyone that is below 10 meg download and one meg upload. So basically in the State of Ohio, you'll find that we have it right down to the exact, 1.72% of the entire state fits within this realm that they're saying can do municipal broadband. The areas that they're showing that can do it are not set up to do something like this anyways, as a municipal broadband. It just wouldn't make sense.

3:07

Ernie Staten: So then along with that, in that bill, they went as far as to limit how you could spend the money, if it's given to you federally, or if it's state funds, or even if you receive service funds from the service that you supply, then you're no longer allowed to use those for your municipal broadband. So in effect, it basically eliminates municipal broadband here in Ohio. Obviously you already know that FairlawnGig has been a huge success, and what it would do is it would just completely shut off all competition here in the state and especially in our area. So in our area, one time I talked to everyone about the fact that we had multiple providers here in the Fairlawn area when we decided to do this, and really, the reason why we did it is the incumbents had no ambition to give us any better service to the residents or businesses here in Fairlawn.

Ernie Staten: Well, since we've come full circle and we have a business off the ground and it's doing well, we've seen Frontier stop giving service in our area, and we're really down to Spectrum and a small area for AT&T. So effectively, if this went through, there would be no competition in Fairlawn, it would be one provider, which is probably what will happen throughout the state from the looks of it. So, it would just kill the idea that the citizens of Fairlawn wanted something better, needed something better for us to compete in the world, for us to learn at a high level, for business to take off in any direction that they'd want to take off. It would kill that here in Fairlawn. We would go back to 25 meg by three, just barely the national standard. And by the way, I can't believe the national standard is as low as it is. I mean, that's bad enough and then the State of Ohio to say 10 and one is effective, we all know 10 and one is not effective. That's back in the dial-up days, or even beyond dial-up where you just can't conduct business. Matter of fact, we couldn't Zoom this if I was on a 10 and one here, I would not be able to talk to you guys in an effective way.

5:34

Christopher Mitchell: Well, in the past, where we've dealt with the state legislation, what we've often seen is a bill that then gets debated in public, and really a lot of the action happens out of the public eyes, but nonetheless, it's like a process and it goes through and it's subjected to some oversight, at least. This just comes in with no discussion, no debate, no sense that the senators that voted on and actually have a sense of what the impact will be on the state's businesses. And it's not even limited to municipal broadband. It actually goes much further, which is why we brought Angela in, in part, not just because she's from Ohio, but because you're looking at this and talking to people who are recognizing this will be awful in so many, even more ways than Ernie suggested.

Angela Siefer: Yeah. It's also awful in that it impacts the efforts to address affordability. So the efforts to address affordability sometimes include what assets do we have. Some cities have their own fiber, state has fiber. Maybe we can use those things to provide a cheaper service to our low income residents. This would be like, "Nope, can't do that. Guess you just have to pay full price." For Ohioans, who just don't have service right now because they can't afford it, and we're all just going to shrug their shoulders at that?

Angela Siefer: I think the fact that it was included in the dark of night kind of thing, it's telling and that the push against it has been instant and intense. I would like to hear Ernie or Doug's thoughts on the response to this is, I suspect and Chris, you may also have experience in this, the response that we've seen in other states pre-pandemic. but so many people get the issue now, that pushing something through in the dark of night is less possible than it was pre-pandemic, I would say.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, but I mean, before I get Doug's reaction, which I want to get, and I have a spiffy funny line to introduce Doug, that's a little bit insulting that he'll love. Angela, this is something that it's not just saying you can't do municipal broadband. They cut out like $200 million of broadband subsidies to try to expand didn't they?

7:53

Angela Siefer: Yeah, they did, those were all infrastructure deployment in rural areas. So yeah, so at the same time that they said no municipal ... No, actually it went even broader than that, it was like no support at all for anything that involves any kind of public infrastructure, which is incredibly wide-ranging. But yeah, at the same time, they also said, "You know what, we're just going to take out all the money that we had in there." So it doesn't make any sense and we've had such great progress in Ohio. Really, that's what's astounding that there's so many people talking about it. There's so many people working on it and they're just like, "We're just going to line this out real quick nobody will notice." Yeah, totally people noticed.

Christopher Mitchell: So Doug, you're taking this so seriously, I'm guessing you haven't slept in five or six days.

Doug Adams: Well, I've been quite busy and it's funny because Ernie says that you couldn't use 10/one and I wonder if you can do even 25/3 today because of ... and the pandemic, here we are post-pandemic. The irony of all this is post-pandemic, you have a couple of things happening and everybody's-

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, post-pandemic for some us. It is definitely very much still the pandemic for a lot of people. So, let's hope we're through most of it.

Doug Adams: Sure, I guess I'm being too optimistic, but let's say that we were post at a time when we were shown how important Internet service is to maintain our lives, even during the pandemic FairlawnGig's take rate went all the way up to 61 or so percent. We've been communicating to our customers who, all of them are a bit outraged. They are reaching out to their state representatives and they want to express, not only do they want, want FairlawnGig to stay, but they don't really understand the non-competitive nature of the legislation.

9:57

Doug Adams: One of the things that Ernie didn't mention and nor did Angela is there's actual language in this that says federal dollars that are given to a state, or a region, or a city, by the federal government cannot be used for broadband. So what the state is saying is, "You, town X in Ohio, if the feds decided to give you $25 million to actually provide your citizens and businesses with decent broadband service, because no one else is doing it, you can't do that. You can't do that." So it feels a little bit more egregious than I can even express.

Christopher Mitchell: I think a lot of people have a sense of what the impact is for the individual person. So, Ernie was discussing the impact on people that don't have a choice in broadband service and also on some businesses. But one of the things that FairlawnGig has done really well is market itself, internationally to bring businesses to Ohio and you all have done a good job of keeping up with them, talking about where they are on the business parks. How many of the businesses in the business parks are using your fiber and things like that. So, as you've done those surveys over the years, just give us a sense of how much these businesses have come to rely on the services that Fairlawn provides?

Doug Adams: Sure. So, we have surveyed, on a regular annual basis, we survey both businesses and residential customers. Our survey this year, we were really, really proud of the fact that our satisfaction actually went up in spite of what could have been seen as a very challenging year. 100% of our businesses say that FairlawnGig, the service, the additional service that FairlawnGig gives them isn't important to them to being Fairlawn. 33% of those who answered said that all of the jobs that they have at their facility are due to FairlawnGig. Our satisfaction levels are at 95%, through the roof. I could get a little bit dorkier with market research terms like Net Promoter Score. We're at 84 for an NPS. Usually an NPS for an ISP is lucky to see 40. It's just amazing how it's been recognized and embraced and, how it's attracting businesses. About 20 businesses have moved to Fairlawn just because of FairlawnGig, which is an amazing. The hospital's being built in Fairlawn right now due in large parts of FairlawnGig.

12:47

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Ernie, if you want to pick up on that, one of the things that I've been watching is Fairlawn inevitably, is likely to expand. You have a lot of communities around you that would like to see this level of service in their communities. Just give us a sense of that. Because again, trying to get a sense that some of these people are saying, "Oh well, municipal networks are always a failure," some lines along those lines. What are you hearing from neighbors as you're looking at where you can invest?

Ernie Staten: Just before all this came about, this bill came about, we were in discussions with Summit County to build a ring that would connect all 31 communities here in Summit County. Now, we intend to still go forward with that idea, but it will be more of a safety network until this gets worked out in Columbus. But out of those 31 communities, 12 of them have already contacted us to say, "Would you come in and manage an ISP in our area so that we could have FairlawnGig?" So, I mean, I think that that speaks volumes. What Doug was talking about earlier, that hospital, they were given free land in another community and they decided to stay in Fairlawn. That planning commission stood up, turned around and looked at me and said, "We're here because of you and we're going to pay $4 million for the land rather than taking free land."

Ernie Staten: So, I can't tell you how important this has been. I've got a little story for you because I think it's important to what we're talking about here, that the people at Fairlawn have reached out so much to the senators and representatives. I received an email today from the senator's office that said, "We've heard your people." Good. If it's irritating enough for them to give us an email that says, they've heard us, they're hearing us. This is fantastic.

Christopher Mitchell: The senator voted to shut you down, basically.

14:47

Ernie Staten: Well, you're correct. According to her email, it was that she came in with the idea that she was going to help expand FairlawnGig and it blew up on her. Now she still voted. She still voted against us, so it doesn't matter what her intentions were. She voted to say that it's okay. As Angela said, being done in the dark of night, not giving us the opportunity to talk about it. anyone else here in the State of Ohio, I see a lot of stuff going around in Colorado, some places out west, but there is a lot of municipal work being done right here in Ohio that I don't think everyone completely understands.

Ernie Staten: I think it's because a lot of places are doing just small pieces. They're trying to get their feet wet, but there's a lot. Right now I have 31, 32 communities that I know of that have joined us with saying, "This is wrong." 32 communities in the state. I think that's a lot to me.

Christopher Mitchell: Over a weekend.

Ernie Staten: I understand why [crosstalk 00:15:53] might be upset, right. They're starting to realize that the business that they've created, that they've held everyone back on is starting to backfire on them.

Doug Adams: Yeah. I think one of the important things to say is when we were talking about that senator, she voted yes on the budget. This has been placed in the budget bill for, I'm not sure what reason, maybe it's because it's harder to vote no, on a budget than it is-

Christopher Mitchell: Oh yeah, it's very hard to vote no on budget. Let's be clear.

Doug Adams: ... when there's something like this. Yeah, so this does not belong in that bill. If they want to separate this out and they want to have public hearings and debate this, then that's great. We're happy to win that debate. But what they've done is they've folded this into the budget so that it's easy to say, "Well, I was voting yes on the budget. I wasn't voting no on broadband." No, you're doing both. You're doing both.

Christopher Mitchell: Angela?

Angela Siefer: I wonder about Ernie's question of there's so much going on in Ohio that's not, I don't know if under the radar is the right term, but the Internet service providers had such a hold for so long that those who want to create new solutions to the digital divide, feel like they have to do it without gathering a bunch of attention. So, no press releases. Let's just do the work, let's just do it.

17:22

Angela Siefer: But now we're in a situation where we need the press releases. We need to know that that work is happening. So there are some projects in Ohio where there's been an effort to figure out, okay, who best should talk about the project, because we want to make sure that the ISPs don't, the Internet service providers, don't have some influence and can then come back on the person who was ... and have some kind of political pressure put on them.

Angela Siefer: So, I really think that that's the pandemic shift, where folks want to do the work, that we didn't really have ... we had Fairlawn, but I wouldn't say there was a whole lot pre-pandemic, but now we have a lot of efforts. I think it's noteworthy that the efforts aren't just bill broadband, the efforts are address affordability. The state, the governor would use their own funds to support a wireless network in East Cleveland. They have Internet in East Cleveland, it's crappy. I mean, I think the fact that the governor did that and now this bill would be like, "No, no, governor, you can't use state resources."

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. We've seen these sorts of turnarounds before, unfortunately, so it's not entirely unprecedented, but Angela, one of the things I'm curious about is that I get the sense that some of the groups that you are in coordination with, you would have expected them to be upset at this change, but they seem to be much more upset than you expected and more motivated to fix this. I want to talk about that for a minute.

Angela Siefer: Yeah, let's talk about that because it was awesome. The response was incredible. So in Ohio, there's multiple coalitions that have developed during the pandemic, for the most part. There's a strong coalition in Northeast Ohio, based in Cleveland, there's one for Franklin County, which is Columbus' County. And then there's Buckeye Hills has a strong, collaborative effort going on. So, there's different places where people are talking to each other and they meet and they talk about this. I can tell you, I was in that Columbus meeting and people were like, "What? What happened?" And they're mad, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.

Angela Siefer: Like, "These are the representatives that represent us? And they're not representing us. We didn't even get a chance to tell them what we thought." It was anger.

19:57

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and this is something that I've seen, which Ernie, I don't want to attribute this to you. I always feel bad when I have someone who's representing a city and I want to say something bad about a cable ISP, because I don't want you to have to deal with the brunt of that. But frankly, I deal with people who are Comcast customers. I deal with people who are Charter customers, I deal what people who are customers of other cable companies. The amount of anger I see from Charter Spectrum customers is remarkable, given that their network tends to be better than those smaller cable companies like Suddenlink, which is objective early bad in most places.

Christopher Mitchell: But yet when I deal people with Southern California who are on that Charter Spectrum, they're so frustrated with the quality of the network and this and that. So I think Ohio having so many Charter Spectrum people that don't have another choice, I feel like there's been more of a desire to find escapes from that in Ohio than we see, for instance in Pennsylvania, which is mostly served by Comcast.

Ernie Staten: We see that every day, Chris. Generally, Doug talked about 61% of the customers or addresses in Fairlawn are actually customers. I would tell you that the 39% probably are still using cable TV, is the only reason why they haven't switched over. There's some value there and we're not actually trying to compete with that situation. We're really just trying to make things for the greater good. I say it all the time, everyone thinks it's a little corny, but it's about the greater good of our residents, or our area, or what they're able to accomplish.

Ernie Staten: Throughout this, just had a gentleman email us and say he teaches classes in Singapore and he couldn't do it before. Now he lives in Fairlawn and he teaches in Singapore, he now can do it with FairlawnGig. If he had to go back, he said that he would quit teaching in Singapore. That seems absurd. If you have that ability, why wouldn't you come up with that?

Ernie Staten: As far as the cable companies, we've met with them. So Chris, I've been really, as Angela said, I've been hands-off with ... I haven't gone after anything up to this point. I've been, I think really good about all this. I've worked with them well. I handle the permits here. I make sure their permits go really fast. I don't do anything to them to keep their business down. But we met with them and sat them down and said, "We don't really want to get in the business of being an ISP. We think you can do it better than we can. We'll write you a check." They laughed at us. They said, "No, your people aren't unhappy."

22:43

Ernie Staten: Well, Doug just said 95% of the people like what we're doing. So our people must have been unhappy. So yeah, it's terrible that it's gone to this level. We certainly don't want to see that happen ... go backwards here in Fairlawn. And by the way, for the state of Ohio, I mean, in all seriousness, we're talking about going backwards here. We're not talking about going forward. 10 and one is backwards, that's the irritation here.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, that's the issue. That's what I think the issue is. I think Doug, you were confused why when I saw this, I've phrased it as being a shot across the bow of Columbus. Because when I look at this, my sense of the long-term frustration is, you look at Franklin County there, I'm totally doubting myself, I got that right, right? It's Franklin County that we're talking about? So Franklin County is about to make historic investments to connect low-income folks solely. They're just interested in the people who've been left behind, that the big cable and telephone companies have not adequately connected. And I think that's the right thing to do, no amount of subsidy ...

Christopher Mitchell: I mean, heck. If I want to get real angry, I'm not going to get too far down it, but the way in which EBB, the Emergency Broadband Benefit, has been ripped off by certain national carriers who are trying to figure out how to pick it clean rather than actually connect people. We've seen what happens now. We can't bribe them into doing good service. So the city of Columbus says, and then the city of Columbus County also say, "We're going to make investments and we're going to start serving the low income folks that no one else will serve." But the cable companies knows what's knows what's next.

Christopher Mitchell: The next thing is, everyone sees that the county and the city are doing a good job of serving low-income people. They start saying, "Well, wait, I want that. I want to have an option to." So this is the threat and they feel like they have to throttle it. They know that if they go through a public process of weeks long with public hearings and things like that, it will get shot down. So in the dead of night, they go through, I just don't know what their long-term gain is because this is not going to be popular in the next election. If the Democrats have any sanity, that's their best hope, I mean.

Doug Adams: Well, yeah and not only in the dead of night, but again, on the budget bill and I, as sometimes am wont to do, I took it maybe a little bit more personally, because while yes, Franklin County in Columbus is doing this, as Ernie mentioned a few minutes ago, Summit County in FairlawnGig was talking about doing the same thing. So I think it's bigger than Franklin County, but yes, I would agree that Franklin County had an impact.

25:13

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, you're right. I don't in any means mean to demean the fact that you all-

Doug Adams: No, it's all about me, Chris. It's all about me.

Christopher Mitchell: ... have been worked on this for many years and I don't mean to demean that at all. I live in St. Paul, Minnesota, capital city of the state. The cable companies treat us differently for some ... they view us as premier cities and they react a little bit differently in my experience when larger cities do it. I don't think that's smart on their part because I actually think that Fairlawn's example is the one to be worried about because you all are crushing it.

Christopher Mitchell: What comments do we have to close? I don't want to go on too long about this as horrifying. Ernie, can you give us a sense of what's coming next after Angela makes the point she just leaned into the camera to make.

Angela Siefer: Can I offer a uniqueness about this Franklin County, digital equity coalition? So NEIA works nationally, we've interacted with variety of coalitions across the US. This one, the Internet service providers are considered partners, not members of the coalition, so that's a different way to look at it and that is new. I was astounded when the group even headed that direction, I promise you, I was not the one behind it, but I was fascinated by that because it was them saying, "Yes, we want to partner with the providers, it's important, but we don't want them to dictate what this coalition does and how we make decisions and things like having a response."

Doug Adams: I'm going to jump in, in front of Ernie here, because I'm going to let him have the last word. But he mentioned that this is going backwards. This is going backwards because they're threatening to take away FairlawnGig from happy, very happy customers, who have gotten to the point where they can't ... and they say that they cannot live without it. I think Ernie has said to me, probably no less than a hundred times in the past five days, we made a commitment to these people. We built this network. We made a commitment to these people, and we're not going anywhere.

27:17

Ernie Staten: Chris, one thing I was going to say for sure, is what Doug said. We put that out to all of our people. We intend to do it. If the bill passes, we are still going to go to work every single day, and we're going to let the courts weigh in and hopefully that's where it gets settled if it does pass. We're hoping, at the moment with the groundswell that we're getting here in Summit County and in Fairlawn, and we're hearing that Franklin County is a big groundswell. We're also getting it from Medina. We're hoping that there'll be cooler heads here, and this whole thing will be thrown out. Then, Doug said it earlier, I do believe that there is a point where this needs to be a bill on its own so that everyone can weigh in, and we're good with that.

Ernie Staten: I mean, I think that's the fair way to go about it. Budget bills are not made for policy. That's exactly what Doug was trying to get to there. It's not a policymaker, it's a money spender, is what a budget bill does. So, they shouldn't use it for policy. Lastly, there's a lot of support here. I hope that all the communities, we gain together. I know the coalitions are really starting to form where everyone's talking to everyone. My lobbyists have been talking to so many different cities, it's been great. This actually might at the end of the day, propel Ohio into something that is much bigger than we all thought it could ever be. So, I think, stay tuned for what could happen here in Ohio.

Christopher Mitchell: Angela, it looks like you agree with that?

Angela Siefer: I'm very excited about that possibility because I know it's true for myself. Do something that I think is terrible, I'm going to get all riled up about it and then I'm going to take some action. They did something that lots of people think is terrible and now we're all riled up about it. What do they think the response is going to be? This may have been the best thing to happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, with that, hopefully we will know soon. I understand that the process is that the house will have to decide what its budget will be. Oh no, the house already did it. The Senate came back, the house rejected the Senate. Now they're going to conference committee. And that could take as long as two weeks. But I think most people are thinking it's not going to take that long.

Ernie Staten: Our lobbyists today are hearing that it probably will go to a week from Friday. They'll probably vote on it on the 27th, that's what we're hearing. Normally they vote on this kind of stuff on a Friday because the weekend, hopefully they don't get too much going on. So, that's what we're hearing and that's what we're gearing towards, that we'll hit a lot of social media. I'm sure we'll be in touch with Angela at some point. I know we're going to be involved in the coalitions. So, stay tuned. As I said, hopefully cooler heads prevail here.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you all.

Angela Siefer: Chris.

Doug Adams: Thank you, Chris.

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