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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

Buses Bring Wi-Fi So Kids Can Work At Home

When Liberty County, Georgia’s school system, began a one-to-one iPad initiative, they were making a positive impact in technology readiness for local school kids. After a year of the program, however, district officials determined that lack of Internet access at home was so prevalent, students ran the risk of falling behind. To fix the problem and allow kids to work online away from school, the school district is installing buses with Wi-Fi equipment and parking them throughout the community, creating “Homework Zones.”

Taking Internet Access To The Streets

In Liberty County, approximately 60 percent of students don’t have Internet access at home, which renders school issued iPads useless at home. Access is available in libraries, when there are extended school hours, and sometimes in other public locations, but using public Wi-Fi takes kids away from home; some kids are just too young to be out at night.

Pat Millen, Co-Founder and President of Eliminate the Digital Divide, spoke with Christopher for episode #218 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He described some of the burdens associated with finding Internet access away from home, just to complete your homework:

…[T]hink about the kid staying after school in the media center of the school until the very last second that the janitor needs to lock the door so that he can do his work. Then think about the same kid walking through all kinds of weather to get to the public library and hop on one of their computers.

Think about that same kid walking home in the dark through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the area...Then think about this very same kid going through the motions of walking through the rain and the dark or the heat and the sun to get to the library that's two miles from his house. Then think of him taking measure of his life's prospects. "I can't get this work done. I'm not going to be able to pass this class. My family is so poor, shouldn't I just go ahead and drop out and go try to find a job?" 

As textbooks and applications become increasingly available only online, high concentration of low-income students have no way to complete homework at home. Nevertheless, without the opportunity to use those online tools, they fall behind.


Liberty County’s 24 “Homework Zones” will be concentrated in areas where the most low-income families live; the Wi-Fi enabled vehicles will stay parked from 2:30 - 11:30 p.m. and will allow students to access educational, school-district approved websites for classroom work.

“The more technology we integrated into the curriculum, the greater the need for connectivity at home,” said John Lyles, director of transportation for Liberty County School District. “We want to ensure no student is left behind because he or she doesn’t have the tools for success.”

It's Not Just About Homework

This summer, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) solicited comments on a proposed rule to require Internet access infrastructure in all public housing, which would begin to address the problem. There are, however, a number of low-income people who do not live in subsidized housing who should have access to high-quality Internet access. Elderly people need good Internet access to stay connected to loved ones, obtain connections to healthcare professionals, and stay engaged when mobility is a challenge, There are also many working age adults who simply cannot afford Internet access. While there are a few programs that provide minimum speeds for families of low-income school children, disabled adults or the working poor with no children can’t qualify for those programs and fall into a black hole. Affordable, high-quality Internet access for all low-income individuals needs to be a priority for all of us.

AT&T Gets Snagged In Giant Loophole Attempting To Avoid Merger Responsibility

They're at it again. Recently, they have been called out for taking advantage of E-rate; now they are taking advantage of their own lack of infrastructure investment to worm their way out of obligations to serve low-income residents. Fortunately, a nonprofit group caught up with AT&T's shenanigans and held their feet to the fire.

"Nah, We Don't Have To Do That..."

As part of FCC-mandated conditions under which AT&T was allowed to acquire DirecTV in 2015, the telecommunications conglomerate created the "Access from AT&T" program, offering discount Internet access to low-income households. The program consists of tiered services - download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $10 per month, 5 Mbps for $10 per month, and 3 Mbps for $5 per month.

The company is required to enroll households in the fastest speeds available, but a significant amount of low-income families don't qualify because the fastest speed AT&T offered to their home is 1.5 Mbps download. The problem, created by AT&T's own lack of infrastructure investment in certain neighborhoods, allowed AT&T to dodge their responsibility under the terms of the DirecTV acquisition by simply denying enrollment to households with speeds less than 3 Mbps. Trouble is, some one noticed.

NDIA In Cleveland, Detroit

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) realized the scope of the problem when they attempted to help families in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland sign up for Access from AT&T. In addition to discovering that residents could only obtain 1.5 Mbps download speeds, NDIA found that AT&T denied these households enrollment because their speeds were too slow. The only other option for ineligible households was AT&T’s normal rate for 1.5 Mbps service, which is six times the cost of the Access program.

Loopholes: All Lawyered Up And Nowhere To Go

By diving through a cavernous loophole, AT&T cleverly manipulated the terms of the merger order and single handedly squelched the intended purpose of the program. According to the directive, AT&T “shall offer wireline Broadband Internet Access Service at speeds of at least 3 Mbps, where technically available, to qualifying households in the Company’s wireline footprint for no more than $5 per month.”

AT&T’s repeated unwillingness to invest in infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods precluded residents from living in neighborhoods where 3 Mbps download was technically possible. Yet, the corporate giant used lack of speed availability to justify denying Internet access discounts for those who need it the most. It's amazing Randall Stephenson doesn't get dizzy from all that circular reasoning.

Unfortunately, this technicality didn’t just affect a few households on the fringe of AT&T’s service area: according to data from the FCC, 21 percent of census blocks in Detroit and in Cleveland have Internet speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less. Unsurprisingly, these blocks include mostly low-income households in inner-city neighborhoods.

Don't Mistake Us For Philanthropists

Because these households can't partake in the program, NDIA asked AT&T to extend their $5 per month offer to households with 1.5 Mbps speeds. While 1.5 Mbps is considerably slower than the program’s slowest speed, and far from the FCC’s broadband goal of 25 Mbps, AT&T would not budge. It took the corporate giant a month to reply:

“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval.”


NDIA Director Angela Siefer detailed the exchange in a post, writing

“AT&T's response is very unfortunate for tens of thousands of households in the company's 21-state service territory who may need affordable Internet access the most, but who happen to live in places – both city neighborhoods and rural communities – where AT&T has failed to upgrade its residential service to provide reasonable speeds.”

Bad Press Has A Purpose Sometimes

After a significant amount of bad press, AT&T reversed its original stance. AT&T spokesman Brett Levecchio was quoted in CNN Money:

"We're currently working to expand the eligibility process of Access from AT&T to the 2 percent of our home Internet customers unable to receive Internet speed tiers of 3 Mbps and above."

Siefer replied by pointing out that 2 percent of all AT&T customers still equates to 250,000 people, typically concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where the only Internet access available is the same slow technology found in Cleveland and Detroit. She wrote in a follow-up post:

“Some are already paying AT&T full price for their slow connections, while many others can’t afford Internet at all—and still won’t be able to, unless the Access speed threshold is lowered. Both groups will benefit from AT&T’s change of heart...We look forward to learning more about AT&T’s plans to extend Access from AT&T to these households, and to working with our local affiliates to maximize the program’s contribution to digital inclusion in their communities.”

Eliminate the Digital Divide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 218

After his daughter asked how her classmates could do their school homework if they did not have a computer or Internet access at home, Pat Millen's family formed E2D - a nonprofit organization called Eliminate the Digital Divide. This week, Pat and I talk about their strategy, which was created in the footprint of North Carolina's municipal MI-Connection but is now expanding through Charlotte and working with incumbent operators.

E2D has arranged an innovative and replicable program to distribute devices, provide training, and arrange for an affordable connection. Along the way, they developed a sustainable funding model rather than merely asking people with deep pockets for a one-time donation.

An important lesson from E2D is the richness of opportunity when people take action locally. That is often among the hardest steps when success is far from assured - but these local actions are the ones that can be the most successful because they are tuned to local needs, assets, and culture.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 30 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 Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Comment Highlights: Proposed HUD Rule To Expand Low-Income Residential Internet Access

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently asked for comments about a proposed rule to expand low-income access to high-speed Internet. The regulations would require building owners to install high-speed Internet infrastructure in HUD-funded multi-family rental housing during new construction or substantial rehabilitation, improving Internet access by promoting competition. Because the Internet infrastructure is not owned by one company, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can compete to provide residents with better options.

A variety of individuals and groups provided feedback for HUD, including local governments, nonprofit advocacy groups, ISPs, and professional associations. The majority of comments support HUD’s proposed rule, with many encouraging HUD to go further in their efforts to close the digital divide.

We submitted comments with Next Century Cities to articulate the importance of having reliable Internet access in the home:

Although Internet access may be available at schools, libraries, and other locations away from home, families with children - in particular single-parent households - face barriers to accessing those facilities. There is no substitute for having high quality home Internet access, where all members of a household can use it with privacy, security, and convenience. This high quality Internet access is what our organizations work with mayors and local leaders to achieve for residents and businesses everyday, which is why we feel so strongly about the proposed steps to close the digital divide and allow more residents to connect online.  

HUD correctly notes that installing telecommunications equipment during major rehabilitations or as units are being built creates an opportunity to ensure high quality access without significantly adding cost to the project. The ongoing benefits from high quality Internet access certainly dwarf the one-time low cost of installing appropriate technology. --Next Century Cities and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Promote Competition

Google Fiber discusses the importance of infrastructure to access, suggesting that HUD could take further steps to ensure choices are available to multi-family housing residents:

...HUD should expressly prohibit the public housing agencies (PHAs) and landlords supported by its programs from unreasonably interfering with the right of any multifamily rental housing resident to request or receive installation, operation, maintenance, or removal of a broadband service from a provider.  --Google Fiber

Comments submitted by Eric Null highlight the benefits of open access networks for lower-income families who are forced to pay high rates when there is no competition. Null’s submission represents the comments of several public interest groups including New America’s Open Technology Institute, New America’s Resilient Communities Project, New America’s Education Policy Program, Benton Foundation, Center for Rural Strategies, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Public Knowledge:

Open access networks are critical in traditionally underserved areas where a dearth of choice has led to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. Allowing any internet service provider to service new and substantially renovated buildings would increase the number of competitors and lower the barriers to entry for new providers, forcing providers to compete for customers by reducing pricing and improving offerings. --Eric Null, on behalf of several public interest groups


The City of Seattle also highlights how infrastructure can support competition and discusses ways to provide quality, reasonably priced service:

Local housing providers should be enabled with options to provide the best, lowest cost service to residents as possible. The two primary means to do this are to 1) enable multiple competitive providers, or 2) enable the housing provider and residents to aggregate purchasing and delivery of service. To do this there either needs to be sufficient conduit and wiring from the entry point to each unit, or to a central distribution managed distribution system where either a single best provider can be selected or multiple providers can offer service through the building distribution system. --City of Seattle

Encourage Fiber For Future-Proof Connectivity

The National Association for County Community and Economic Development’s comments about the proposed rule suggest HUD encourage fiber service and negotiate with ISPs for service agreements:

When requiring the build-out of broadband infrastructure in HUD-funded multifamily rental housing the agency should seek methods to incentivize the highest level of broadband service, such as fiber service, to ensure the ability to keep pace with the increasing needs of connection speeds… we believe a significant opportunity exists to utilize HUD’s negotiating power to secure competitive broadband service agreements from providers. Aggregating demand among HUD-funded buildings and properties could potentially yield lower service rates for low- and moderate-income renters. --National Association for County Community and Economic Development


Comments from The National Housing Conference encourage HUD to consider broadband infrastructure to be an eligible expense for multifamily affordable housing developments:

HUD has made good strides in clarifying that broadband is an eligible expense, like the recent guidance on broadband in HOME, CDBG, and the National Housing Trust Fund. HUD should continue these efforts for all multifamily development programs. Building on these initial steps, HUD should explore treating cost-effective basic broadband as a standard operating cost for affordable housing properties... Put more simply, if use of a program requires a property to install broadband infrastructure, the funds provided by that program should also be allowed to cover the cost. --National Housing Conference

Other comments support HUD’s interest in Internet expansion, but disagree with the way in which HUD is promoting low-income access. A few Public Housing Authorities and professional associations state their concerns with HUD creating an unfunded mandate; however, the estimated cost for broadband infrastructure is only $200 per unit and the construction occurs during significant rehabilitation or new construction. 

To read full comments from organizations listed above as well as other comments, view the docket here.

Community Connections - Terry Huval from Lafayette, Louisiana

"We Speak French, Eat Crawfish, and Have the Fastest Broadband in the World." 

Terry Huval's fascination with fiber started with the fiber on his fiddle strings, so it's pretty appropriate that he regailed Christopher with his skills during this Community Connections episode. 

In the previous episode you heard from former Mayor, Joey Durel about overcoming controversy and Lafayette's LUS Fiber.

In this episode, Huval emphasizes why ownership is so important for cities to control their fiber infrastructure. He also touches on the other benefits of the public fiber network: faster response for outages, better connectivity for public safety and traffic control, and more than $13 million in cost savings for residents and businesses!

We hope you enjoy!

Community Connections - Joey Durel: Lafayette, Louisiana

The city of Lafayette, Louisiana had an export problem. For years they had seen their young people become educated and move away from the small city, but local leaders like Joey Durel listened to experts like Terry Huval when they encouraged him to look into building a citywide fiber network.

In this video Christopher Mitchell interviews Joey Durel, former City-Parish President of Lafayette, Louisiana. In 2009 Lafayette Utilities System installed infrastructure for a fiber telecommunications network called LUS Fiber. The network provides digital cable, telephone service, and high-speed Internet to all households in Lafayette.

In the video, Durel emphasizes the hidden benefit of controversy when building advanced Internet networks: controversy educates the public. When local leaders are able to "think outside the box" and encourage discussion and debate, they are much more able to educate their constituents and in turn, make change. 



Community Connections - Jason Hardebeck, Baltimore

Residents and businesses in Baltimore have been dealing with poor access for years. In 2015 the city's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named a 27-member task force to address the problem and has spoken out about the need for more investment.

In this episode of Community Connections, Christopher Mitchell caught up with Broadband Coordinator Jason Hardebeck to talk about about his city's challenges and opportunities.

Hardebeck is tasked with developing a strategy that puts his city's residents and businesses first. These challenges are familiar to many cities across the United States and this interview serves as a good illustration of why owning some conduit and dark fiber can be a big benefit to cities as they try to solve the problem of the digital divide.