This is the transcript for episode 486 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode, Christopher Mitchell invites the Community Broadband Networks Initiative staff onto the show to talk about what they believe were some of the biggest broadband stories of 2021. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.
DeAnne Cuellar: This work takes a long time, the gains are small and few and far between and the fights are hard.
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 it's the end of the year, and I didn't have an interview. We're going to do a show, I'm just kidding, we actually scheduled this weeks ago. We're going to do a show with staff about what we thought was really cool stories over the course of the year.
Christopher Mitchell: And then in another week or two, you will also see a story with us talking about predictions for the next year and reflecting on how our predictions from last year did. I think Sean's going to be claiming some victories and we'll be trying to evaluate whether or not that's accurate.
Sean Gonsalves: Almost.
Christopher Mitchell: To join me, we have, that was Sean. Sean Gonsalves. Welcome back.
Sean Gonsalves: Hey.
Christopher Mitchell: And we also have DeAnne Cuellar, who is making her debut as a member of ILSR, but has been on the podcast recently talking about her work in San Antonio. Welcome DeAnne.
DeAnne Cuellar: Howdy.
Christopher Mitchell: It's super exciting to have you on the team and already joining us in the booth and by the booth, I mean, the Zoom room. I actually wrote down a bunch of things, almost everyone else just got to choose one. I told DeAnne that she could choose others, but she hasn't seen that message yet, but we're going to chat with different members of the staff about top stories that they wanted.
Christopher Mitchell: Not everyone has time, a lot of people are trying to finish up their work so that Santa will be good to them. And I thought I would just start with my biggest one before we bring on [Dozlie 00:01:52] who's going to be our first guest. But before he comes on, I am going to throw out my big story of the year, my most exciting one, which is two states reverse preemption.
Christopher Mitchell: I mean, I've been waiting for years to say one state had reverse preemption, two states; Arkansas unanimously, Washington; big fight, did not expect it to go through there. They got rid of preemption. And then in Ohio, Charter Spectrum was like, "Well, we're going to bring one back on the board." In Ohio Republicans joined with everyone else in the state to say, "No, this is a terrible idea, we need to keep Ohio able to invest in their communities, to make sure that they have high quality access."
Christopher Mitchell: That's huge, Sean, this is something that we'll talk about in a little bit more depth because you predicted a number of states would do this. And I was, I think, not as supportive. Well, we'll go back and look at the tape, but-
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah, let's look at the tape.
Christopher Mitchell: What's reaction to my top story?
Sean Gonsalves: I mean, well, first of all, of course, it's great news and not because I think it made me close to being right on the prediction, not quite right. But it's amazing that these laws still exist, especially now. This kind of movement is good, but the other thing too that I think is interesting about the rollback is how bipartisan it was in Arkansas, you mentioned Washington, there was a fight, but still Community Broadband prevailed.
Sean Gonsalves: And then in Ohio, I thought it was interesting too, again like a bipartisan pushback on the effort to institute a municipal broadband band there. The closer you get to a problem, the more sense that you have. And I think elected officials, the closer they are to constituents, have a better sense of these things and probably are a bit more attentive to constituents than federal lawmakers are in a lot of instances. I think it just underscores where the Institute for Local Self-Reliance the closer you get to the locality at the heart of problems, the more likely they are to be resolved in a way that works for folks.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and if they don't there's consequences and people know who to get upset with, which is good. I think Sean, on your point there does make me bring a little bit more, which is like, I mean, we're going to have the third year of the pandemic here in a few months starting and just still have limitations on communities being able to solve this dang problem is maybe not worth cheering, but DeAnne, any additional thoughts on these states getting rid of their preemption?
DeAnne Cuellar: I just wonder how long can they keep up the strength for the fight? I always worry about momentum and fortitude. Can they keep it going and can other states join in? That's my only thing I worry about is, it seems like states and allies have the strength in them to start the fight that leads to some of them getting elected and then it wains. So I just worry about how long can we keep up the fight?
Christopher Mitchell: Spoken like someone who spent a lot of years trying not to get burned out.
DeAnne Cuellar: Right.
Sean Gonsalves: The other thing too is I think that we're familiar with this issue, but I would wager that even in those states that where these parancial laws exist, there's probably a lot of people in those states that aren't even aware that those laws exist.
Christopher Mitchell: No, I think that's right. I mean, I think like South Carolina, probably a lot of people there don't have a sense that it's an option and don't have a sense that the state won't let them do it. Well in the interest of time though, we're going to move on, let's jump into Doz Lee, outreach coordinator. Doz, what is the item that you wanted to talk about as a big story of the year?
Dozmen Lee: Well, I don't really have a story per se, since a lot of my work focuses on engaging with people rather than just specific incidences. I'm going to actually talk about the digital divide, its importance. And after almost a little bit over half of the year here at ILSR, my thoughts and opinions on what it looks like the importance of it, why everyone should care about it.
Christopher Mitchell: Cool. I'm just going to say your story is basically the infrastructure investment and jobs act, which for the first time ever is a major piece of federal legislation. That includes digital divide. So Doz, why is that important?
Dozmen Lee: Thinking back for myself here about, again, a little bit over six months ago, I had no idea what broadband really was. I looked at it as if it was just I've heard the word, I thought it was just a fancy word used for super fast Internet and it's not, it covers everything from accessibility, availability, affordability and being able to do the things that the Internet was meant to do.
Dozmen Lee: I looked back now on some of my experiences in life with, let's say, my education, having access to good broadband that can be linked to better grades, better performance, because rather than relying on a janky connection, I've got some little bit more stable and reliable. Even things such as healthcare or looking for different resources within my community like mental health services, telehealth, everything in hindsight now I realize a lot of the things that have impacted my life are broadband. It impacts everyone's everything, and modern society you can't really do too much of anything without accessing the Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure, let me just ask you, because I feel like a lot of our audience is on the same page and a lot of our audience already understands why that's important, but let me ask you if I'm someone who's sitting there thinking I got mine, I got a good connection, I can afford it. What do I care for other people use the Internet or not? Why should I care?
Dozmen Lee: Well, when you say you have yours, I guess, my retort would be does your community? You look at local anchor institutes and local areas such as libraries, public schools, those places, the Internet broadband that they have or don't have, are going to impact the community as a whole, whether new businesses want to come into the area, whether people want to set up there for jobs. When you say you have yours and yours alone, keep in mind that your entire... I mean, broadband affects entire communities, one person having great Internet it's good, but it's not enough to really invigorate or empower some of these cities that are trying to move forward into the modern society with the tools available that are brought to you by broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: I think you're in the right organization.
Dozmen Lee: Appreciate that.
Christopher Mitchell: DeAnne, Sean, any comments as we discuss the digital divide and the need to work on it?
DeAnne Cuellar: Yeah, I mean, I have a bunch of thoughts about this, it was the one I was talking to Doz about this, he and I were texting about how do we talk to people outside of our organization about the issue? What would we want to tell them? And I think that we do an excellent job because I'm biased, right? I think all of us on the podcast did an excellent job talking about this issue, but I still feel that there's still rocks to turn over, there's still carpets to look under on this issue.
DeAnne Cuellar: I don't know what they are yet, but I am excited to be a part of an organization that works on a list of issues, because I've been thinking as a communicator and a community builder, how do we get from here to talking about clean connectivity? Or is that the phrase, is that the term, is that the goal? Because we do have a bigger table now, right? Chris, you and I, and Sean, maybe others on this podcast, 10 years ago, there were so few of us, right? We could maybe fit in a boardroom and now there's national conferences going on and people going to school for this.
Christopher Mitchell: 10 years ago, I think I was literally circulating the job description that brought Lisa Gonzalez onto the staff, because she started at the end of February. I think I might have interviewed her in either January or late December, but probably we circulated the job description right now and 10 years ago. And then we settled on her in January and she started at the end of in February, I believe. And very much to the point, I mean, we have like 12 people that come to our meetings regularly now internally with our two fellows.
DeAnne Cuellar: Right, I mean, seriously, there's like maybe 30 people in the whole country. I think I sat around a bonfire with Harold Feld, one winter in the snow. And there was maybe like four or five other people there. Just like what research are we not doing yet? I want to make a new list, I want new goals, I want new challenges because I want to get to the optimal outcome is what I'm trying to say.
Dozmen Lee: Oh, and one thing I also wanted to add is that I've learned from my various meetings. Again, in talking and hearing Chris, and so my other colleagues here explain the importance of broadband to different communities is that, meet people where they're at. Broadband doesn't mean the same thing to every community every time, for some people it means bridging the gap to wealth disparity. For some people it helps education, for some people it's about the telehealth or racial inequalities. It's all about meeting people where they are and connecting to them and finding what it is this service can do for them and explaining to them why it's such important necessity.
Sean Gonsalves: Meeting people where they are, and to me that's what's cool about what Dean and Doz are doing, that outreach and talking to folks in communities that are interested in organizing around these things. A few minutes ago, I was saying that there's probably a lot of people out there that aren't aware of some of in the weeds issues like state parancial laws. But one thing I think people are very aware of is, they're sick and tired of not having the reliable connectivity that they need or at affordable prices.
Sean Gonsalves: And folks are really in communities you're seeing across the country are really starting to question, whether or not monopoly providers are going to do the right thing or have any real incentive to build better networks or for there to be competition. And so the work that we're doing it's important because communities or the work, I should say, that Dozmen and DeAnne are doing is important because there communities out there really searching for resources.
Sean Gonsalves: And now we've got the list serve and all kinds of other cool things coming down the pike where communities that are beginning to think about these issues can tap into. I think what Doz and DeAnne are doing is super important.
Christopher Mitchell: Sean, you have for your item that you want to review the fact that not only do communities have this interest, but now they got some money, they got some money to put toward this work and actually get some stuff done. What do you want to reflect on, I should say?
Sean Gonsalves: Well, to me, I think 2021, is like a banner year for broadband. I keep calling it the broadband edification of America and this is a watershed moment. The Infrastructure Bill passed, there's a lot of excitement and talk about this unprecedented federal investment in expanding broadband access, the 65 billion contained in the Infrastructure Pack Bill.
Christopher Mitchell: You wrote about the potential for $100 billion being spent last year, before this year even began. Did you think it was going to happen? Were you right there?
Sean Gonsalves: No, I didn't, not at all.
Christopher Mitchell: You were like, this is cool, but it's not going to happen?
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah, absolutely. I thought it was a pipe dream for sure. And 65 billion it's a historic investment in broadband. But for me, the bigger story in terms of federal investment this year is the American Rescue Plan Act. I mean, the money and the infrastructure bill hasn't even been allocated yet and probably won't get to states into communities for, I don't know, another year or so, maybe even a year and a half.
Sean Gonsalves: But the American Rescue Plan Act is something that we have been tracking and state that money's already been allocated. There was what 350 billion that states could spend on water, sewer and broadband. Although most of that went to other non broadband projects, but then there was that specific $10 billion pot of money specifically for broadband called the Capital Projects Fund. That could be well, mostly used to expand access to broadband.
Sean Gonsalves: And the rules associated with CPF are really good, it gives communities a lot of flexibility in terms of determining what areas are unserved and underserved and to deal with issues of affordability and that money's already making its way into states and in directly into communities. And so 18 states have announced plans of how much of their rescue plan funds they're using towards broadband.
Sean Gonsalves: It's a mixed bag, some states are essentially going to probably hand the money over to the big incumbent providers, but there're states like Maryland and Maine and Vermont that are doing some really interesting things, where community broadband solutions, local Internet choices at the forefront of those plan. And so I think that's really cool and 10 billion of course is a fraction of what's in the Infrastructure Bill, but that's still a significant amount of money in some real significant projects can be done with it. That's pretty exciting.
Christopher Mitchell: That is super exciting. And we're going to be tracking where that goes.
Sean Gonsalves: Insurers keeping us busy. Tracking it on the big list.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm super excited about our big list and that we're trying to track that. I think that's really important. DeAnne, any thoughts on that?
DeAnne Cuellar: I don't, I love hearing where we are this year. Again, it's the end of an era in the beginning of a new one. And thanks for Sean, people like Sean who are documenting it with us.
Christopher Mitchell: Christine is relatively new to our team, our new GIS and data visualization person already coming in and bringing in some interesting new ideas for us to work on. What was your reflection on the year? I mean, I'm sure you spent a lot of time thinking about broadband before November or October. As you go back now and reflect on it, what's your big story for the year?
Christine Parker: I guess, mine, wasn't exactly a story per se. Like you said, because I'm kind of new to, I guess, the profession of broadband. I was really interested in chatting about the FCC Form 477 data and the proposed changes they're going to make to making this more address specific in what that is going to be moving forward when it actually happens.
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's a terrific thing to talk about, because this is a really big story. I mean, it's so much of the money that we're talking about can't actually be allocated until they have some better maps. And I'm curious, because one of the things that's nice about census blocks, I mean, 477 has tons of deficiencies, but it makes it easier to study. Doesn't it? To combine it with other datasets. Now we're going to have this dataset in which we might have individual household data and whatnot, and you'll have part of this block and part of that block. Is that going to be more difficult for you or is that something that you're excited about and see how we can deal with it?
Christine Parker: I guess, it kind of depends if from what I was reading, it sounds like they'll continue to include census block information in the form. And if that's the case, then it shouldn't change things too much on my end, but it'll certainly make the information more interesting in terms of giving down to that smaller granular level of understanding where broadband is available and where it's not.
DeAnne Cuellar: Yeah, Christine, I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about just really quickly explain that form and why that form keeps coming up. And we talked a lot about the community outreach and the money that's coming down to local communities, but can you explain a little bit more about how without a good map, how difficult it's going to be for leaders to make good decisions?
Christine Parker: The 477 data are linked at the smallest level of a census block, Internet service providers report, where they provide service based on these blocks. And as long they serve or provide access to service to at least one household in a census block, that whole block is considered served, whether or not the other households in that block actually have access to that service.
Christine Parker: Ultimately, when we look at estimates of service from the 477 data, it's generally going to be an overestimation because of how that service is defined on census block. By asking the service providers to identify down to the address level, and we'll be able to really tell where service is available and where it's not. And estimates of service provided in certain areas will be much more accurate moving forward.
Christopher Mitchell: And there's going to be a whole challenge process around this, which will be somewhat interesting as anyone who has followed over the years of stories, of some of these people who have bought homes, where the maps said that there would be broadband. And the cable company said, "Yes, we can serve that house with broadband." And then you buy a house and then you try to sign up and they say, "Oh, you know what? We made a mistake, but it's cool. If you just write us a check for $38,000, we'll totally connect you."
Christopher Mitchell: And I can't imagine, I mean, one person I talked to was just like, I mean, it ruined their life for years. I mean, they had to go to the library in order to do basic things. And that was not their intention as they're trying to figure out, how do I do this? I mean, not everyone is independently wealthy like me, which is not true at all. The idea of buying the wrong house is not like I can just be like, "Oh, just go out and buy a different one." That's cool, I can't afford-
Christine Parker: Yeah, no, it's really true. And that actually reliable Internet access is kind of what guided our house search here in Maine when we moved last year. And then the housing market started to explode here. And a lot of people started buying home site unseen and most likely without checking to see if they'd actually have Internet access, once they moved presumably to work from home. And we've seen a lot of reports of people being astonished that they don't have access, now that they're here, it's definitely an issue.
DeAnne Cuellar: It's not just the wired access, right? Chris, it's wired and wireless, where there's discrepancies in the mapping. So there's the articles of people paying 38 to $150,000 to pull fiber to their home. And then there's stories of people just personal safety. Like I think I can go on a bike ride by myself. And then here in San Antonio, there's this famous story of an individual that went on a bike ride. They phone provider said there was bars in that area, got out just a half a mile out too far on a bike ride, which is not far, hurt themselves and had to walk half a mile. And before they could push 911, that's astonishing in 2021.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, it absolutely is. Sean.
Sean Gonsalves: Well, I'm always interested in the political machinations behind this, because I mean, obviously the mapping data is so important, but I'm always asking the question of who does it serve to have inaccurate data? Who does it serve to create this illusion that there's this almost everybody's has access to broadband and don't worry, this whole area is already served, don't worry about building new networks there or overbuilding and air quotes and all that kind of stuff.
Sean Gonsalves: And so I look at this and then I'm thinking about Biden's nominee for FCC chair and the troubled road ahead, it seems like to get her nominated and what that might mean for the work that the FCC does in pertaining to having better mapping data. I'm always constantly thinking about the political machinations behind all of this stuff and who it serves to for the status quo remain.
Christopher Mitchell: So two things, one, Jessica Rosenworcel is the FCC chair, she's been confirmed now as of this recording. Gigi Sohn is the other commissioner who's been appointed, but we're waiting on that confirmation process. And the piece about the mapping and who it serves. I just think this goes to such a larger issue that we're facing in the United States of America. I don't think people appreciate how important accurate data is for everything and Michael Lewis's book, the fifth risk, highly recommended.
Christopher Mitchell: It talks a lot and people really focus on the fact that the department of energy is super important at making sure people don't develop nuclear weapons or steal nuclear weapons around the world and turn them into bombs that could kill hundreds of thousands of people. But the federal government in that book, he also talks about other things that federal government does, including the weather service and all of this data that federal government does allows our economy to be so much stronger than it would be otherwise, having accurate broadband data would help our economy to grow.
Christopher Mitchell: It would help us to learn where to prioritize investments and things like that. I think some of the mapping is overstated. Some of it is done as a stall tactic by the incumbents. And so I don't want to just sort of ignore that part of it, but ultimately the federal government and is getting worse and worse at collecting and distributing accurate data so that the economy and businesses in the marketplaces can all function. That's a real problem.
Christopher Mitchell: And it's something that I feel like people don't see, and they won't even know why the economy is slower than it should be, because it's not there, because the federal government isn't doing its job. And that's the sort of thing that we need these agency is to do a good job. Anyway, quick hobby horse of mine. Let's go to Emma, to talk about a project that we recently published. It took probably six months of Emma's life. So definitely a big story for you, Emma.
Emma Gautier: Yeah, I mean, this is kind of related to the Infrastructure Bill, obviously, but more specifically, the legislation related to Internet transparency, that's included in the bill. And as you mentioned, Chris, last month we published a report. And what that report did was score 50 of the nation's largest providers based on how well they were disclosing basic service information. And in that report, I had two discoveries or discoveries that everyone already knew probably.
Christopher Mitchell: You nailed down evidence for things that we all suspected, but now we can refer to something definitive.
Emma Gautier: Exactly, exactly. The first one is that the transparency rule isn't really enforced at all, which is demonstrated by the fact that there's a lot of missing information out there, but that's not the only problem. Number two is that many providers technically disclose the information that they're supposed to, but variant in fine print statements that make it really hard to find.
Emma Gautier: The solution that we talk about in the report is this thing called the broadband nutrition label, which is based off of the nutrition label that you see on the back of packaged food and grocery stores. And what that does is basically standardize service and pricing information. So it's easier to find and easier to understand. And I was putting together that report as the Infrastructure Bill was held up in the house and it actually passed right before we published, which was more work for me, but it was great for every other possible reason, because it contained the broadband nutrition label and a few other things that were good for transparency.
Emma Gautier: I'll start with the broadband nutrition label. And I want to give one caveat, which we discussed in the report, but that is that the broadband nutrition label is only going to be useful to the extent that it's enforced. If it's just some format that providers feel like is optional for them to comply with, it's not actually going to make a difference in the way that customers are experiencing shopping for broadband access.
Emma Gautier: But there's definitely hope there, obviously and it's great that the label was included in the Infrastructure Bill. And the other exciting transparency related thing that's included in the bill are some plans around data collection, good data, obviously something that we talked a lot about, we've brought up already in this conversation and there isn't a dataset right now that can really tell us what broadband costs around the country in a comprehensive or accurate way.
Emma Gautier: Supposedly the data from the broadband nutrition label is going to be used to compile a dataset that'll help us get a more accurate sense of what broadband access really costs. And just the last thing that I wanted to bring up is the bill also mentions in this area, a series of hearings to, "Assess how consumers evaluate broadband Internet access."
Christopher Mitchell: You had to put consumers in quotes for me, because otherwise I would get mad at you for using that word.
Emma Gautier: We use customers, but the language of the bill is consumers. It's actually called consumer broadband label.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm not calling it that, but I appreciate that. You being accurate.
Emma Gautier: Basically this hearing is supposed to figure out whether the disclosures that providers are currently making are available effective and sufficient. Basically whether they're meeting the needs of customers as those customers are shopping for broadband. So we'll see what comes out of those hearings, what comes out of the plans for better data collection as well as the extent to which the broadband nutrition label is actually enforced, but it's definitely heartening to see those things.
Christopher Mitchell: First of all, we didn't study things that were like, it wasn't a high bar, right? It was like, will a person know how much they have to pay each month clearly in the process of checking out and signing up? Will a person know what their upload speeds are going to be and will they know what their download speeds will be? And one of the things that you found is that a different dataset, which was that we were using, which was based a derivative of the 477 dataset, is how we picked the ISPs.
Christopher Mitchell: Because we didn't want to cherry pick ISPs that would not be a very effective. So we chose what we consider to be an arbitrary and neutral approach of identifying which ISPs we would study, which was the ones that covered the most, a number of people in each of the classifications. Now the wireless folks, I think it exposed how some of these wireless companies make aggressive claims about how many people they cover, despite the fact that they're actually quite small companies who don't sign people up in any of those areas.
Christopher Mitchell: And so people from the wireless industry were upset at some of the companies we included who they felt were really not representative of the wireless industry. And we're going to be releasing an updated report with a new cross selection of wireless ISPs. And that will show actually that wireless companies are actually much better than we found, which isn't too surprising. Because if a wireless company is going to lie to the federal government about where its service really is, we may not be super interested in being very clear to customers.
Christopher Mitchell: And so anyway, I want to make sure that people understand that our new updated report that includes other wireless companies will show that many wireless ISPs do a good job of being transparent. Although there's still some that I think could use some work. Any comments from Sean or DeAnne about the work around the transparency and studying that sort of thing?
DeAnne Cuellar: No, I was just giggling a little bit, because I think when aren't the service providers upset? If you're going to do excellent work, the way that Christine and Emma and Mary and everybody on this podcast is doing is to just do it because you want the best information for the best outcome. Like I said before, but not doing it because they're going be upset. I just can't remember a time when any of us as advocates ever did anything. And they were like, "Great job, thank you for that." It doesn't happen, but the community impact does happen, right? The community doesn't come to an organization like ours and say, "We're so upset about what you found." I think almost always the communities that we work with are so grateful for the work that we do.0
Christopher Mitchell: DeAnne, I don't disagree with anything that you just said, at the same time, I find it hard in doing this work to sort of straddle to realities. One is that there's so many people for whom there is no ISP that is doing a good job. And the other is some of places where people live in that area and they're like, "Well, I'm going to create an ISP and I'm going to use this technology, I'm going to do the best that I can."
Christopher Mitchell: And then they perceive someone like us coming along and being like, "You're doing a shit job." And they're like, "Well, look, I'm doing the best I can, I've got a few employees. We're investing as fast as we can." And so the challenge I think is to make it clear that I don't think we can have infrastructure that delivers the high quality service that we want. If we're going to have it delivered by people who are going to be the only ones effectively in an area they're doing the best they can.
Christopher Mitchell: At a certain point, they will see it as an insult. There's no way for it not to be insulting, but there's some things for which a small local company may not be the right answer to do. In some cases it is particularly where we can have multiple employees, but there's just this reality, which is both that those companies are really doing a community service as they see it. And yet they're just not capable perhaps, because the federal government hasn't given them the right spectrum or whatever, but it's this tension in our work and Sean, I feel that you see that.
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, fair point. And a lot of what we're doing there's nuances to it that we need to be cognizant of and honest about, but as it relates to transparency, that's like the lowest bar. I don't want to hear you're doing your best if you can't tell me what you like. I could have a hot dog stand and I work at 16 hours a day. If I can't do something basic, like tell you how much hot dogs cost, then no amount of, "Oh, this is such hard work, I'm doing the best that I can, I'm working."
Sean Gonsalves: Transparency is the bare minimum that anybody in business ought to be concerned about. And so the reason why I think Emma's report is so important is just that, is that as it relates to transparency, it should be straightforward. How much does it cost? What service am I getting? And it's frustrating that how difficult it is to get that information. I mean, Emma spent months digging through, digging for information, basic information and had trouble finding it with some providers, which is incredible.
Christopher Mitchell: DeAnne.
DeAnne Cuellar: Yeah, I was going to say there's this other uncomfortable space, is hearing directly from the consumers or the customers in the community, right? There's just that field work that I've talked to you and Doz, and people here a lot about is going out to the community and talking one-on-one with the people most impacted. That takes a long time, cities, the government, people like us, for service workers, they don't want to do that work.
DeAnne Cuellar: But almost always when you do that work, that's when you really get to the pain points in the community and you really hear what's going on. And that's what my biggest takeaway from working with seniors and older adults over the last few years, was getting to hear from them about the difference in services and the lack of service that they had in their community and really what that end product was.
Christopher Mitchell: And I wanted to close this subject out by noting, first of all, I just strongly agree with both of those points from DeAnne and Sean. The additional thing is I feel like it's impossible again, to release a report like we did with Emma's research, that Emma wrote without companies feeling embattled. But I feel like we're not saying these are bad companies, we're saying look, there's a problem here with the transparency and that's the FCCs job. The FCC should be reaching out and being like, "Hey, we have basic requirements around transparency, we don't feel that you're meeting them." And the ISP can be like, "Well, screw you." Or the ISP might say, "You know what? All right, we're going to do a better job." And I think that we'll see both those reactions, Emma.
Emma Gautier: I mean, the very, very first stage of this, originally we were going to compare private to cooperatively owned providers. And so I was looking into electric co-ops offering broadband and I would contact some of those providers if I was super confused or didn't see anything. And that provider, one of them actually was like, "Oh, we don't have this on our website. We'll add it right now, I'll go tell management to add this information right now." Hopefully that got changed, but it's not like it's unsolvable issue by any means.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, we've got a couple of stories left. Maren, let's talk about another one. You're focusing on one that was close to your heart, that you reported yourself. And I think is, is indicative of broader trends. What are you bringing to the table? I didn't say Emma, is a research associate. Had been an intern, just did terrific work and has joined the team as a research associate. Maren has been on the show in the past and people will know her as both media producer and researcher, a senior researcher with ILSR. Thanks, Maren.
Maren Machles: Thanks for the intro. I wanted to focus on the story that I recently wrote about Maine, as Sean said, 2021 has been a banner year for broadband. There's been this injection of funds. And with that comes this battle over where that money is going to go, if it's going to go to the incumbents, or if it's going to go to municipal solutions or community led solutions and municipal networks.
Maren Machles: I wanted to see it takes a lot for a community to get from just having the idea of building its own network to actually getting on a ballot. And what is the process in making that happen? What are the barriers that stand in the way? And once you get it on the ballot, how do you get people to vote for it? And so something that we saw with the November election was that there was actually an opposition campaign and out across Maine in a few different communities.
Maren Machles: And I focused in this story specifically on Leeds and Hampden. And so there were a few different issues, it wasn't clear cut what the barriers were. I think a lot of the coverage that's been done about how things unfolded in these two towns has been focused is primarily on the campaign, but there were a lot of things. And while every community is different, there's some lessons to be learned from what happened.
Maren Machles: Leeds had a robust education campaign actually, before the vote even happened. They did a survey monkey where they had... They basically collected everyone's email through the survey monkey so they could reach out to folks, but they also were able to collect data and show people this is what our community's actual access is. This is where it's lacking, this is where we need to help connect the rest of our community.
Maren Machles: Whereas Hampden, didn't really didn't do that. They did have a number of public forums, where they tried to educate the community and help answer questions, but it just wasn't as robust, I think, as Leeds was. The other thing that Leeds did was, they kept the board of selectmen abreast of everything and made sure that they were clear on any questions that they had. And that also was somewhat of an issue in Hampden.
Maren Machles: There were some members or selectmen, there were some selectmen who were on the fence and even to get it on the ballot, it passed by its tight margin through the board of selectman. There was this struggle of getting people all on the same page in Hampden. And that led to ultimately when a negative campaign came into the town, the board of selectman told the broadband committee to hold off on educating the community and correcting some of this misinformation. And the misinformation was your property taxes will be increased, you'll have less access to community resources, just absurd things.
Christopher Mitchell: I mean, this is something that, again, I think is basic communications. And I think people who take a lot of time to study things and mull over their decisions for a long time, I don't think they appreciate. Different way of saying is, people like... I changed my mind more frequently than most people, and it can really annoy people. I found when you do that.
Christopher Mitchell: A lot of people don't change their mind. And so if you're letting people marinate in rumors and untruth, it's not going to go well. And this is something my wife talks about a lot and I think it might be Brene Brown, which is a name that we haven't said enough, which is like popping up all over popular culture, it seems like. I've just wanted to say your name, my wife's a big fan.
Christopher Mitchell: And we tell stories, we are brains work by telling stories. And if you're not getting your story out there, you're in trouble. In Lafayette, Louisiana, one of the most conservative places in the entire United States, they had this massive, three year fight with the cable and telephone companies over a municipal broadband network. And they had a mayor who I just get the idea that... And I love this mayor, despite the fact that I think our politics are extremely limited in where they overlap.
Christopher Mitchell: But he just had this sense of like, if the cable and telephone company started lying in public, he said, "I'm going to have a press conference." And I get the idea that sometimes it might have been an hour later, a rumor goes out and he's on the capital steps or the city hall steps. And he is like, "listen, anyone who wants to know the truth? Here it is." In responding to it. And I mean, there's times when you want to keep your powder dry, but this is not them. You got to make sure that people know what's going on. If you're doing this sort of effort.
Maren Machles: And that was something big that Peggy Schaffer from the ConnectME Authority pointed out was that, you need to be treating this effort and this initiative like a campaign. You need to be really out there making an effort, tracking the people that are interested, that are showing any interest in making sure that they vote, making sure that they're spreading the same information and are clear on what the information is like, it needs to be a political campaign basically. And one of the things too, that I'll just mention in Hampden is that, charter spectrum actually put when they put in their offer, which is part of the reason why the selectman decided not to counter the campaign.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, They think about building a municipal broadband and charter spectrum along with TDS are both like, "Hey, how about if we just suddenly do our job and expand."
Maren Machles: Right, right, exactly. And so they put in their offer that you need to basically stop this campaign, otherwise we're not going to build out. And so that's part of the reason why they went quiet. And it's just a shame, because now they're waiting basically for these incumbents to build out and hold true to the commitment, the letters of commitment that they sign. But if history serves us that most likely won't happen unfortunately.
Christopher Mitchell: Sean.
Sean Gonsalves: I was very interested in the story, because I think it's a harbinger of things to come now that the Infrastructure Bill has passed, the fight is not going to be in Congress anymore. I think the incumbents and the big telecom and cable lobby will turn their sites to the states. And I think we'll see a lot of these type of campaigns like here in Massachusetts, where I live, there's a lot of communities that are not in the Berkshires in rural parts, but in more of the population centers in Massachusetts, that are thinking about, or making plans, serious plans, they're setting up telecommunication utilities.
Sean Gonsalves: They're looking to move into the municipal broadband space. And I think that those communities ought to be prepared to have a fight and be ready for it and to take lessons from what's going on in Maine. I mean, certainly in some communities where there are proposals to build municipal networks that maybe some of the big providers aren't really interested in, because there's not enough money to be made there than maybe not.
Sean Gonsalves: But I think in a number of communities where these companies see these municipal broadband efforts as being an existential threat. And so it makes from a sort of Machiavellian point of view, it makes sense that they'd spend $5 million or whatever on the campaign, if they feel like their market is at stake. And I think that to also to Maren's point that educating folks, sometimes I think oftentimes when people work in a particular space for a long period of time, they think the stuff that's obvious to them is obvious to everybody, but almost nothing is obvious to everybody.
Sean Gonsalves: And so you always have to be explaining things to folks, not in a condescending way because people don't fall out of the womb knowing this stuff and people's lives are busy and they be maybe focused on other really important things in life. And haven't had time to pay attention. And so we shouldn't be treating any of this stuff like it's super obvious to anyone, because it isn't.
Sean Gonsalves: And we should also be prepared or community should be prepared to really treat this like a campaign and take that seriously and not as an afterthought, not as, "Oh, let's focus all of our energies on the financing or on the feasibility and these kind of things." There needs to be a real concerted effort to keep local officials, community members informed and not treat folks like this stuff should be obvious.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. DeAnne, what was your story?
DeAnne Cuellar: Well, I was just going to say that I've shared Maren's article with people I know locally here in San Antonio and other cities. Because I think that, yes, let's move to the space of launching these projects and working with communities like it as a campaign, because at the end of the day, we are persuading people that community broadband networks are the community resource that they need to build and that what they need.
DeAnne Cuellar: The one caveat about sharing the story about Maine that always happens is that local communities will say, "Well, we're not Maine," or, "We're not Los Angeles." And it's true, every community has its unique characteristics, but the fight with companies that are always on the opposite side of us are on the upside of history. They're not that unique, we can pretty much depend on the unwillingness to work with us and we can depend on threats and we can depend on these heavy handed talking points that really do scare communities like hearing the word property taxes, that would trigger anybody, right?
DeAnne Cuellar: Anybody that's a homeowner or not. I think in that way, there are frameworks and messages that we can duplicate and use across communities. And I think if the persuasion part is the word that I always come back to saying, because I like the way Sean used the word Machiavellian, the Machiavellian, for me that perfectly explains my experience working with big ISPs is that, it's how uncomfortable can we make them before they do something? And so I think that we can re reverse that tactic. It's how can we work with communities until we get them the connectivity that they need?
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. Last story until I have just a couple of others I'll run through real quick, but DeAnne, what did you want to highlight?
DeAnne Cuellar: The one thing that I wanted to highlight was, I only had one question in my mind that I think I mentioned earlier is like, where do we go from here? And I kind wanted to like, just see if anybody had one sentence based on the work that they were doing. Because I do think that although we have a year before we see a lot of these things getting stood up off the ground, I think that that's going to go by really quickly.
DeAnne Cuellar: And I think that we're going to have to, like we do in roller derby elbow our way to the front. Christine was the first person I thought about, because of the mapping that she talked a little bit more, but I wanted to ask Christine, in a perfect world, if we had solved this issue with mapping, what does that look like?
Christine Parker: I mean, I would say it would contain things like the specific address information that we talked about earlier, but I think it would also incorporate some of what Emma was talking about in terms of cost. You can really get all of that information combined on a map and display where costs are distributed across the country and where you see peaks and valleys and how that is getting distributed across the country. We can help work towards more equitable access across, because I think that's kind of the ideal, right?
Christopher Mitchell: I have to say, I'm afraid I'm going to take a Sean attitude here. And Sean, I think it's like the most realistic/pessimistic of our group often in like internal calls. And that's one of the hardest problems that I just don't see, I don't see us having a great dataset in the future. My crystal ball doesn't have that, I feel like it would be interesting. And I feel like we could really make more efficient and smarter investments if we had that kind of dataset.
Christopher Mitchell: But I guess, one of my early predictions for next year is don't count on it, which is good, because that's why I'm really excited, Christine. I feel like your creativity and enthusiasm is going to be really important as we wrestle with the assets that we do have. Anyway, I was thinking about that as you were answering the question unfortunately.
Christine Parker: I think [crosstalk 00:49:58] that would be the ideal.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Christine Parker: It's not exactly realistic.
Christopher Mitchell: No, and I think it's really useful, because I could be wrong. I mean, we could have really great data in two or three years. It's not impossible, but-
Christine Parker: No, no, certainly not. I mean, the information is out, it's just getting people to share it.
Christopher Mitchell: That's what drives me nuts with so many of these things, right? There's things that are unknowable, but there's things that are knowable and we just don't have them. And that's where I feel like I get frustrated.
DeAnne Cuellar: This is why I asked the question, where do we go from here? And we don't have to all have answers. I think it's just a question for us to think about going into 2022, because I am also very pessimistic about this work. I just have to be happy while I'm doing it, because it's long, this is long, this work takes a long time. The gains are small and few and far between and the fights are hard.
DeAnne Cuellar: I'm considered a Pollyanna in this work, right? Because I think the sky's the limit, I want to climb to the tower and give it away for free, but that's why I just kind of want to go into the new year with what's possible, what can we do that we're not doing yet so that we can keep going?
Christopher Mitchell: See, I think about this a lot and I want to hear rash Sean's reaction is to that. And what I'm about to say, which is that I think Sean and I are both furious optimists. And you would not notice it, because we're angry a lot of the time and we might hide it in different situations. But I feel I can't help, but be optimistic. But at the same time, it's like informed by this anger of knowing how much we've already screwed up.
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah, I like how you put that, that I'm furious, I got to remember that the next time somebody says that I'm a cynic, I'm going to say no, I'm a furious optimist. To the question to DeAnne's question, what we should be doing, I think a big part of what we should be doing is more of the same in this sense, in that, I think that providing context and examples for other communities.
Sean Gonsalves: And I get that and people say this all the time. Oh yeah, but our community's different. Well, yeah, but it's oftentimes people use that as an excuse to kick the can down the road, because the flips side of that coin is, "Oh, really? The market principles, there aren't certain market principles that work everywhere or that there aren't commonalities everywhere."
Sean Gonsalves: It's like I like the idea of providing example after example, after example, after example of various communities, unique communities, finding a unique local solution. And the power of that is to first of all, showcase that it is possible and it does exist and you can do it too. And that's powerful. And I think also, I think there's a hunger for, okay, how do we take advantage of the various funding and grants that are available and how should we be planning how to move forward?
Sean Gonsalves: Those I think are I think, where we can provide the most value to communities, in terms of giving folks that knowledge, knowing that not every community's going to build a fiber to the home network, not every community's going to have an open access network, but there's all kinds of different ways of getting there and communities are unique, but there are certain basic factors that all communities are wrestling with.
Sean Gonsalves: And to the extent that we can provide information to folks that gives them the confidence, as well as some contextual knowledge and maybe even some connections with the outreach, putting folks in touch with folks in other communities so that they're to hear the stories of what happened in Maine and how that might prepare them for what their plans. That's where I think we can get the biggest bang for the buck.
Christopher Mitchell: I think about this and to some extent with Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the city administrator refuses to be like, "Wow, they're not like us, they've got two more people than us." And I like on every now and then I dip into the flash on the CWB or the CW. And it's like if storylines are constantly involving other parallel universes and I you can go into parallel universes for some of these people and be like, "Look, this is what they're doing, they got the same number of people, the same stuff's happened all there. It's exactly."
Christopher Mitchell: Nope, different universe, it's different. There's just some people who are just going to use that excuse. And at the same time it's not wrong entirely, but the point is not to be a carbon copy. Anyway, I want to wrap up with a couple of things. One is, it was a hell of a year for tribal broadband. The tribal priority window has delivered, I think more than 400 licenses to 300 tribes or something like that.
Christopher Mitchell: We have an unparalleled amount of money available in [Indian 00:54:53] country, that's going to the tribes and they will direct who gets the money and including maybe themselves in many cases to build the network. And Maren, myself, several other people helped out in the tribal broadband bootcamp. Was a wonderful success, we're going to be building on that next year.
Christopher Mitchell: The FCC nominees, no idea why it took until the end of the year to nominate the people that we knew were going to be nominated or that we hoped were going to be nominated. They just no reason for that to have taken so long and just really bad missed opportunities from the administration. That's frustrating. RDOF, the Royal Digital Opportunity Fund. Boy, I felt really depressed about that about 51 weeks ago, 50 weeks ago, something like that. It was looking real bad.
Christopher Mitchell: Some of the awards had been released, I think many of the good ones, we're going to do a story on this soon to just let people know what's going on there with an update of what money's gotten out, what hasn't. But I have high hopes that the FCC is not going to release substantial amounts of money. Let's just say, I don't think they're going to give too much money to LTD, the company that was the biggest winner that I think many of us have skepticism about its ability to scale to that level.
Christopher Mitchell: Iowa is stepping up with the public utilities commission they're saying. Yeah, Doz from Iowa is super excited that, but the Iowa PUC is a model for making sure that if LTD is going to get this money, it would be able to handle it. And LTDs not demonstrating to the PUCs comfort level that it can do that. South Dakota's Public Utility Commission is expressing some skepticism. There's some argumentation there.
Christopher Mitchell: We are not seeing the worst of all possible worlds, which is that, to my knowledge, I don't think we've seen any of the really bad awards that warned us, that we worried would lead to a community having way eight years and not getting anything. I feel like that is proceeding. It's going slower than we hoped and some sort of resolution would be great, but we're not in the worst timeline in that case. So that's pretty nice, there's a lot of other things, we're out of time.
Christopher Mitchell: I hope people enjoyed this show, we went way longer, we brought in a lot of voices that we don't always bring in. I think it's been a fun discussion. People should definitely let us know what they think about this in a private comment to me, or online, or whatever. We don't leave a lot of... We don't always remind people to leave reviews for us. If you really like the show in general, it'd be great to get some reviews on these different podcast host platforms.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you everyone, thank you everyone on ILSR, including folks who stepped aside, who were really busy, I really appreciate people making space to make sure other people had enough time to join the show and chat. It's been a heck of a year, I really appreciate all the work that folks have done. I'm really excited for next year. I'm sure I'll still be furious, but we're going to do great things. So thank you all.
Sean Gonsalves: That's right, thank you.
DeAnne Cuellar: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcastmuninetworks.org, with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handles @muninetworks. Subscribe to this another podcast from ILSR, including building local power, local energy rules and the composting for community podcast.
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