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H.R. Trostle On Co-ops, Munis, Connectivity In North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 224

In June, North Carolina released a report pronouncing that 93 percent of the state has access to broadband speeds. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, our Research Associate H.R. Trostle, who has been examining reporting data in North Carolina for the past year, came to some very different conclusions. In episode 224, she and Christopher talk about the report they co-authored, which gives a different perspective on the connectivity situation in the Tar Heel State.

In their report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Trostle discovered that, while urban areas have been well served by the big private providers, those same national companies have shunned rural areas. Instead, rural cooperatives and municipal networks are attempting to serve their residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. It isn’t easy, however, when state laws discourage investment and access to federal funding.

Trostle gets into her analysis of the data, its limitations, and what we can learn from both. She and Chris go through some of the recommendations they provide to the state of North Carolina as it moves forward. The obvious first step is to repeal the state’s barrier on municipal network expansion, which has caused real harm in Pinetops, North Carolina. They also offer advice on how to facilitate telephone and electric cooperative investment and what that could mean for rural North Carolina.

For more, take a few minutes to download the report, which offers useful maps of where to find various connection speeds in the state.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Authors Discuss NC Report On PRX

We have extensively studied the connectivity situation in North Carolina and just released our report, “North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Now you can hear from the report authors, H.R. Trostle and Christopher Mitchell, in our most recent PRX coverage.

We spoke with both authors who gave us a recap of the situation in urban and rural North Carolina. They explained how they examined the data and came to the conclusion that, while urban areas are served relatively well by big private providers, the same cannot be said in rural areas. Unless a muni or rural telephone or electric cooperative offers Internet access in a rural region, odds are rural residents and businesses just don’t have access to FCC defined broadband speeds. Audio coverage runs 5:22.

Listen to the story on PRX…

You can also download the report to dig into the details and learn more about connectivity in North Carolina.

North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2016
H. R. Trostle
Christopher Mitchell

North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.

Download the Report

The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.

The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers. 

In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.

"It's not as if these communities have a choice as to what they're able to do to improve their Internet service," says report co-author Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "There's a demonstrated need for high-quality Internet service in rural North Carolina, but the state literally refuses to let people help themselves."

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks. You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

From The Report:

  • Despite significant tax subsidies from the state and federal government, North Carolina's private providers are building their fiber-optic networks only in certain metro areas and none in rural regions.
  • Only 12 percent of North Carolina's rural population has a choice for their broadband access, the rest are stuck with only one option and no control over their Internet prospects.
  • All of North Carolina's telephone cooperatives are investing in fiber for members in their service territory, some have entirely replaced their copper lines with fiber-optic. 
  • While North Carolina has 26 electric cooperatives capable of bringing fiber-to-the-home to rural residents, a 1999 state law (N.C. Gen. Stat § 117-18.1) limits the co-ops' access to capital for telecommunications projects.

Download the Report

Broadband Communities Regional Conference Fast Approaching: Oct. 18 - 20

As you say good-bye to September, consider making your way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to attend the 2016 Broadband Communities Mag Annual Conference at the downtown Radisson Blu. The event is scheduled for October 18 - 20 and you can still register online.

The Economic Development Conference Series brings Fiber For The New Economy to the "City of Lakes" as part of its Community Toolkit Program. The conference is full of information you can use if your community is looking for ways to improve local connectivity through fiber. There will be presentations on economic development, financing, and smart policies that help lay the groundwork for future fiber investment. There are also some special sessions that deal specifically with rural issues and a number of other specialized presentations and panel discussions.

Christopher will be presenting twice on Wednesday, October 19th at 10:00 a.m. and again at 11:15 a.m. with several other community broadband leaders on the Blue Ribbon panel. They will address questions and discuss important updates, review helpful resources, and describe where we need to go next.

Next Century Cities will present a special Mayor’s Panel on October 20th and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) will arrive on October 18th for a special day-long program.

Check out the full agenda online.

Key facts on the Broadband Communities’ Conference

What: “Fiber for The New Economy”

Where: Radisson Blu Downtown Hotel, 35 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402.

When: Oct. 18-20, 2016


Photo of Lake Harriet and the Minneapolis skyline courtesy of Baseball Bugs

In The Hopper: Community Broadband Bill of 2016 From Rep. Eshoo

In order to allow local governments to help communities get the connectivity they need to compete, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (Dem.-CA) introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2016 on September 13. The bill is designed to preserve local authority for municipalities, tribal, and local governments that wish to serve community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents with advanced telecommunications capability.

From Rep. Eshoo’s official statement:

“I’m disappointed that a recent court ruling blocked the FCC’s efforts to allow local communities to decide for themselves how best to ensure that their residents have broadband access. This legislation clears the way for local communities to make their own decisions instead of powerful special interests in state capitals.”

“Rather than restricting local communities in need of broadband, we should be empowering them to make the decisions they determine are in the best interests of their constituents. Too many Americans still lack access to quality, affordable broadband and community broadband projects are an important way to bring this critical service to more citizens.”

Rep. Eshoo introduced “dig once” legislation last fall and has long advocated for federal legislation to support Internet network deployment and increase universal access. This legislation would pair with Senator Cory Booker's 2015 Community Broadband Act.

When Christopher spoke with Sam Gustin for Motherboard about the bill, he said:

[He’s]“excited to see Rep. Eshoo's bill that would restore local authority to communities. Local governments need to be empowered to decide how to improve internet access rather than leaving their businesses and residents at the mercy of a few big monopolies.”

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also responded positively:

CLIC applauds Congresswoman Eshoo for her efforts to protect local Internet choice and the options of all local communities to deploy critical broadband infrastructure.

Introducing a bill at the federal level, however, is only the first tentative step in restoring local authority. As Christopher told Gustin, the devil is in the details:

“However,” Mitchell added, “the big cable and telephone companies are so influential, with campaign contributions especially, that the path for this bill is quite challenging.” He warned of potential unintended consequences if lobbyists for AT&T, Comcast, and Charter are able to insert language that “could make investment and competition more difficult.”

Read the text of Rep. Eshoo's Community Broadband Act of 2016.

Examining Connectivity Alternatives: Op-Ed In Rochester

When the Rochester Post-Bulletin published Christopher Mitchell’s opinion piece in August, it wasn’t only because he is an expert on municipal networks. Christopher’s interest in all things geeky started in Rochester - he went to Rochester Mayo High School.

A Budding Idea

For the past few years, various elected officials, and member of the community-at-large have expressed dissatisfaction for services offered by incumbent Charter Communications. In addition to poor services, City Council members have faced complaints from constituents about awful customer service. Over the past year, the community began showing that they will not abandon the idea of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The city, home to the world-class Mayo Clinic, is a hub of healthcare discovery. As medical technology becomes more intertwined with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, Rochester’s expensive and lackluster incumbent Internet providers are showing that they just aren’t cutting it.

Local Support And Early Analysis

In June, the Post Bulletin Editorial Board published their support for a review of the options:

We'd encourage the council and Rochester Utilities Board (RPU) board to make every effort to explore the costs and benefits of installing municipal broadband Internet services as a way of ensuring our community stays effectively connected to the world around it.

Considering Rochester's economic dependence on science and technology, having access to the highest speeds possible is crucial to the city's future. Unfortunately, existing services lag behind those being offered in other cities, putting Rochester's businesses and residents at a competitive disadvantage.

Many questions and concerns remain, but finding answers is the best way for the city to make sure it is serving the needs of its constituents to the fullest.

RPU staff consulted experts as it investigated options and presented their estimates to the City Council and the RPU Board in July. They concluded the city would need to invest approximately $53 million in capital to build a fiber-optic network. With the cost of bonding, staff estimates the total cost for a citywide municipal fiber-optic network would be $67 million.

Smart Move


Soon after the city heard RPU staff’s findings, the Post Bulletin published Christopher's piece. He points out that the city makes a smart move in evaluating the options. Businesses and residents are lacking choice and the community’s economic foundation is likely at risk unless connectivity improves:

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 3 out of 4 Americans only have one choice of high-speed Internet provider. If you hear claims that Rochester has many providers, dig deeper. Those statistics are aggregated, which means that while you could have four different providers in a single neighborhood, most homes probably only have access to one or two of them.

Another challenge that Rochester faces is that some nearby communities like St Charles have HBC, a private provider from Winona with an excellent reputation, that is expanding a gigabit fiber-optic network throughout smaller towns in the region. Those communities will increasingly draw high-tech people out of Rochester, trading a commute for far better Internet access.

Christopher points out that there are a number of possibilities and that the city is already ahead because they have an electric utility. He reminds them that they need to consider the future of the community and that the greatest peril comes from inertia:

None of these approaches comes without risk — but then, many communities have found that doing nothing is an even greater risk. Just don't let anyone fool you into thinking the choice is between borrowing $67 million and doing nothing.

Rochester should continue examining its options and decide on the best step forward for it as a whole for the long term. We all want a solution to meet our needs in the near term, but as RPU demonstrates, smart investments can continue benefiting the community decades upon decades later.

Unanimous Dissent Radio On Munis, The FCC Decision, And State Barriers

Last week, Christopher was a guest on the Unanimous Dissent Radio Show. Sam Sacks and Sam Knight asked him to share information about the details on state barriers around the country.

The guys get into the nitty gritty on state level lobbying and anti-muni legislation. They also discuss how a growing number of communities are interested in the local accountability, better services, and improved quality of life that follows publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The show is now posted on SoundCloud and available for review. Christopher’s interview starts around 17:00 and runs for about 15 minutes. Check it out:


Community Connections - Anne Schweiger, Boston, Massachusetts

In this week's Community Connections, Christopher chats with Anne Schweiger, Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate for the city of Boston. Schweiger talks about the challenges that Boston faces, including a lack of competition and adoption of broadband in the home. She talks about the importance of "baking good broadband practice" into building codes for cities.

In February, 2016 the Boston Globe editorial board came out in support of a municipal network. 

Boston has its own conduit network and significant fiber assets, but residents and businesses must seek service from large private providers. 

Major Media Outlets Cover 6th Circuit Decision Limiting Local Authority

Various Sources, August 10-11, 2016

A circuit court decision this week means the digital divide in Tennessee and North Carolina will be allowed to continue. This week, the 6th Circuit Court of appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment by restricting local authority to build competitive Internet networks. In February, ILSR and Next Century Cities filed an Amicus Brief in support of the FCC's position. Here is a selection of media stories which cite ILSR.

MEDIA COVERAGE - "Court of Appeals Overrules FCC Decision"

Cities looking to compete with large Internet providers just suffered a big defeat by Brian Fung: The Washington Post, August 10

There are signs, however, that municipal broadband proponents were anticipating Wednesday's outcome — and are already moving to adapt. One approach? Focus on improving cities' abilities to lay fiber optic cables that then any Internet provider can lease; so far, only one state, Nebraska, has banned this so-called "dark fiber" plan, said Christopher Mitchell, who directs the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

"We're pursuing strategies that are harder for the cable and telephone companies to defeat," said Mitchell.

Circuit court nixes FCC’s effort to overturn North Carolina, Tennessee anti-municipal broadband laws by Sean Buckley: Fierce Telecom, August 10, 2016


However, pro-municipal broadband groups like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which filed an amicus brief in support of the FCC's position, said they are "disappointed that the FCC's efforts to ensure local Internet choice have been struck down.”

Court Deals FCC a Big Blow in Municipal Broadband Ruling by Alex Byers: PoliticoPro August 10, 2016 (subscription needed)

For now, proponents of the FCC’s order said they would work state-by-state to change laws restricting municipal broadband networks. Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute For Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks program, said the FCC order highlighted the issue and inspired other communities. “The FCC may have lost the case but they’ve still done a service for America,” Mitchell said. “In making the decision that was later overturned, they certainly elevated the issue.”

Analysis: The government just lost a big court battle over public Internet service by Brian Fung: Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2016

Congress Should Support Community Broadband Networks, Advocates Say by Sam Gustin: Motherboard Vice, August 11, 2016

“I would love to see renewed enthusiasm around this bill, and I would love to see it pass,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Motherboard. But with Republicans currently in control of both the House and the Senate, Booker’s bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, especially given the tremendous amount of political influence wielded by the likes of Comcast and AT&T, Mitchell said. He warned that even if the legislation moved forward, industry-friendly lawmakers could try to weaken the bill or insert anti-community broadband provisions... “With the GOP in control, Marsha Blackburn would crush this legislation,” Mitchell said. “That’s why she gets more money from the cable and telecom industry than anyone else. She would make sure it doesn’t go anywhere.”

U.S. court rules FCC lacks authority to upend state bans on community-run broadband by Aaron Sankin: Daily Dot, August 11, 2016


Last year, the FCC made a bold push to let cities and counties around the county make significant investments in their high-speed internet infrastructure. On Wednesday, a trio of federal judges dealt that effort a major setback... “We thank the FCC for working so hard to fight for local authority and we hope that states themselves will recognize the folly of defending big cable and telephone monopolies and remove these barriers to local investment,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Communities desperately need these connections and must be able to decide for themselves how to ensure residents and businesses have high quality Internet access.”

Federal court blocks FCC efforts to protect municipal broadband expansion by Alex Koma: StateScoop, August 11, 2016

Indeed, Chris Mitchell — director of the community broadband initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — argues that “states have gotten away with pulling a fast one in terms of lying about their intentions,” claiming that the matter isn’t so easily dismissed as a question of federalism. “The challenge is understanding whether these states are regulating their cities or regulating interstate commerce, as the FCC argued, and I think that these states are clearly trying to regulate internet access, as opposed to just what these cities could do,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think the court really got that.”

Next Steps Pondered After Muni Cable Ruling by Gary Arlen: Broadcasting and Cable, August 11, 2016


"Once there's light shined on those laws, enough state legislators will decide it's time to stand up to the incumbents," said Mark C. Del Bianco, an attorney who represented Next Century Cities and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, two advocacy groups that supported the efforts of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to build competitive high-speed networks for their citizens."

Court Says FCC Can't Stop States from Blocking City Broadband Efforts by Shirley Siluk: NewsFactor Network August 11, 2016

"We're in a better place now that we had been [before] the FCC order," Mitchell told us today. "More communities have been inspired. We've seen a remarkable increase in the number of municipalities promoting access."

Mitchell said FCC commissioners who supported the order deserve a lot of credit for such developments. Mitchell said that outside of efforts in Tennessee and North Carolina, his organization's work to promote local broadband development will continue uninterrupted.

Photo of the newspaper stack courtesy of Globalimmigrantnews through Wikimedia Commons. 

Press Release: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to dismiss the FCC's decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina

Minneapolis, MN - The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided today to dismiss the FCC's February 2015 decision to encourage Internet investment in Tennessee and North Carolina. Tennessee and North Carolina had both restricted local authority to build competitive networks.

"We're disappointed that the FCC's efforts to ensure local Internet choice have been struck down," says Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "We thank the FCC for working so hard to fight for local authority and we hope that states themselves will recognize the folly of defending big cable and telephone monopolies and remove these barriers to local investment. Communities desperately need these connections and must be able to decide for themselves how to ensure residents and businesses have high quality Internet access."

ILSR and Next Century Cities filed an Amicus brief in support of the FCC's position. View the Court's Opinion here.


Rebecca Toews