Fairlawn, Ohio – There is a recent story out of Fairlawn, Ohio that perfectly illustrates the future of Internet access in this country. For years, the small town was at the whims of large, incumbent Internet providers. The Internet was so slow and unreliable that businesses threatened to relocate, jeopardizing the economic vitality of the area. The mayor, alongside city leaders and council members, realized that the various incumbent providers were not going to cooperate, and to save their city, they would need to build their own city-wide fiber-to-the-home network.
On this episode of Building Local Power, Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, and Sean Gonsalves, Senior Reporter and Editor, explain how, in the 5-plus years since the deployment of its city-wide network, “Fairlawn is doing so well [that] they are now boosting speeds and slashing prices.” As Chris goes on to explain, the question shouldn’t be: how could Fairlawn afford to make this sizable investment? But rather: what’s taking other cities so long to join them?
But Chris and Sean are optimistic that more stories like Fairlawn’s are coming in 2023. They talk about the progress they’ve seen that gives them hope, and the work that immediately lies ahead for the broad array of communities seeking to free themselves from the unbridled power of monopolistic Internet providers.
Sean Gonsalves: I don’t think that we’ve reached the point where there’s this broad idea in the public imagination of the connection between broadband and all of these various telehealth applications and all of the potential benefits that could come from it. Because I keep asking the question, given the approved health outcomes and the cost savings that could come from telehealth, why is it like every hospital administrator in America screaming this from the rooftops?
Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance dedicated to challenging corporate monopolies and expanding the power of people to shape their own future. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and on this episode, as we wrap up our tour de force, looking at the really incredible progress we’ve seen this year in our anti-monopoly work across the spectrum and ways in which the building of local power has weakened the grip of corporate monopolies on our lives, even if ever so slightly.
We are delighted to welcome Chris Mitchell who leads the Community Broadband Networks initiative onto the show for the first time, since at least since I’ve been a part of the show and a familiar voice, we’re always excited to have back Sean Gonzalez but I can’t go any further without introducing you to the Batman to my Robin, the Shuri to my T’Challa, Luke Gannon. What’s up Luke?
Luke Gannon: Thanks, Reggie. I have to add a Black Panther line here. This is actually one of my favorite lines from Shuri in the first movie. It’s this very dramatic moment. It goes, “The Black Panther lives and when he fights for the fate of Wakanda, I will be right beside him.” So we are talking about a little bit of a different fight today, the fight for internet affordability and accessibility. Today on the show, Chris and Sean explain how whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, a Wakandan, or a Talokan, when it comes to broadband, our goals are broadly similar. We want good service, a reasonable price, and for it to be workable. First and foremost, welcome to the show, Chris and Sean.
All right. So the midterms are now a month out but I want to start off by having our listeners get an idea of what broadband looked like on the ballot. So Sean, I want to pass this over to you first. Can you highlight a couple of states where broadband may have been more of a focus?
Sean Gonsalves: Alabama and New Mexico. So they both have in their constitutions a provision that essentially would prevent them from taking the federal funds for broadband from the rescue plan and the forthcoming money from the infrastructure bill and then allocating grants to either communities or private internet service providers. There was a ballot question in each of those states actually to alter their state constitution to allow them to do that. Not surprisingly, both Alabama and New Mexico, it was passed overwhelmingly in both cases. So that happened in those two states.
And then over in Colorado, there’s a preemption law, essentially known as SB 152 that prevents municipalities from getting into broadband, building broadband networks, offering service. Although there is an opt out where communities by way of referendum can opt out something on the order of 119 now, communities have done that in Colorado. And so, there were several communities in Colorado, in Pueblo County, the city of Pueblo, and also the city of Lone Tree opted out.
Now by opting out, it doesn’t commit them to building a broadband network, it just puts them in a position to pursue that possibility or to pursue a public-private partnership which is what one of the cities is intending to do. So those were some of the things on the ballot for folks that obviously didn’t draw as much of attention as what was happening with the Senate and the House and so forth but important measures nevertheless. All of which passed by huge margins which, again, isn’t very surprising, particularly in Colorado. I think anytime that referendum has come up, something on the order of 80% to 90% of voters say yes to that question.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. I wanted to jump in on the SB 152. It’s also known as the Quest Law because in 2005, the company that was then known as Quest put it through the telephone company, the big telephone company. It’s just a little bit funny at this point because the company that is now Lumen had been CenturyLink, had been Quest, had been US West, and I think I might have even missed a name in between there somewhere that they also were. But these companies, they just keep changing their names but the laws that they passed when they had a lot of political power, they stay and they keep limiting communities and making them jump through unnecessary hoops and things like that. I think that’s one of the lessons of the unrestrained corporate power is that they can make these changes. I mean, we still have to deal with hassles in dealing with the railroads that the railroad monopolies got in the 18 hundreds so some of this stuff never dies.
Reggie Rucker: So Chris, I’d actually love to come right back to you because I hear you talk about Alabama and we talk about Colorado and we talk about New Mexico, and these are all states that are very different politically, yet they’re very much aligned when it comes to their approach to ensuring that all the constituents in their state have access to quality, affordable broadband.
So if you could look at states like these that are so different politically, I’m just fascinated by this idea that on Capitol Hill there’s this raging political fight over Gigi Sohn, the FCC nominee that some just will not consider putting up for a vote. What’s happening here? Why is there this big political fight on the hill when there’s not a big political fight around broadband access in most places in the country?
Chris Mitchell: Oh, there’s a lot of different things that are happening but one of the key things is that the broadcast companies, the Hollywood industry, and Comcast are funding a big campaign against Gigi Sohn who is one of the most qualified and will be, I think, one of the best FCC commissioners once she finally gets confirmed. I say that knowing that this show could well post where she’s still in limbo, where she might have been confirmed, we have high hopes so without knowing exactly where things are going. But Gigi has a history of working in the public interest and she has a history of being very thoughtful and I say that because I don’t always agree with her. I fully expect that if she is on the FCC, she will have to cut deals and do things that I will rage about on Twitter but I believe that she has tremendous integrity and will be very well suited to the position.
But there’s a number of industries that even though the lobbyists individually respect her and recognize that she has great personal character and has more knowledge than anyone else on the commission right now, frankly, that they still are paid to oppose her and to try to stop her from being confirmed. Comcast actually hired former top advisor to Manchin, Senator Manchin from West Virginia, and specifically, basically, to try and block her nomination and they have held it up for more than a year.
President Biden will be going into January, his term half finished, without ever having a majority on the Federal Communications Commission because he waited too long to nominate someone. And then, we just got hung up in this fight and Chuck Schumer has been on the order of spineless when it comes to pushing her through. It’s one of the issues with the 50-50 Senates, they’ve had to pick their battles and the industry is so frustrated with the possibility of Gigi actually being an independent-minded commissioner that they have made it a high price to get her through.
Luke Gannon: I want to follow up on that, Chris. So because the FCC is in this deadlock, how has that really impacted the policy landscape that we have seen in the US?
Chris Mitchell: Well, we have several things that are moving forward much more slowly than they should. One is this idea of broadband labels which I’m not going to spend a lot of time on but our colleague, Emma, currently on the Community Broadband Networks Team has just done great work leading our work on this. The idea being that people should clearly see what they’re paying for, what they’re advertised for, what they’re going to be charged, and they should be reminded of that each month on their bill with the same kind of informative display that you have when you’re shopping for an automobile. So that’s one thing that is just sitting there and we may actually get a weakened version of that because we have a 2-2 FCC split between Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats are, I would say, broadly good on this in terms of wanting people to be more informed. Whereas Republicans generally feel like, “Eh. Let the marketplace work it out. People will figure out what they want, whatever,” and that’s how it’s split right now. There’s an issue right now with digital discrimination in trying to figure out what is the historic present and future of communities that have been historically marginalized. Typically, Black Brown communities where they haven’t had an investment and what can we do about that from a legal perspective? That is moving forward along similar track because there’s not a lot of interest from the Republican votes to do anything serious on that. So those are two major things right now and the other one is that we haven’t done anything on net neutrality which is a major issue for a lot of people and I’m sure we will be a short FCC procedure followed by a lot more court wrangling when that comes up again but that’ll only be after we get a third vote for the Democrats on the commission.
Sean Gonsalves: When Chris was talking about the different approaches on the broadband label as it relates to Democrats and the Republicans. At the congressional level, what’s interesting, of course that’s their approaches but once you get out of Congress and out of DC and that zone when you get to the state and the local level, it’s not as clean of a division as it relates to broadband policy with Democrats and Republicans. I mean, looking at some of the races from the midterms, we’ve entered into a period where now broadband being in favor of universal access to broadband is now this bipartisan issue. Now, of course, there’s different variations and flavors to that but there were many candidates who were either re-elected or elected where expanding access to broadband was a major part of their campaign. And so, oftentimes in states and at the local level, it’s a little less ideological.
Chris Mitchell: Oh, it’s a lot less, a lot.
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah.
Chris Mitchell: I mean, I know that you know that, Sean, you’re just using that as a term. But yeah, it’s worth noting. I mean, we’ve seen very conservative areas raise their taxes to pay for broadband infrastructure. If you thought the Wall Street Journal editorial page was any kind of indication of what conservative thinkers think about broadband outside of the East Coast, you’d be totally wrong. People want good internet access and the way conservatives think about it, the way liberals think about it, the way independents think about it at the local level is broadly similar which is, “What will it take to get me good service, a reasonable price, something that works, and then I won’t think about it anymore?”
Reggie Rucker: Those are all incredible points. So there’s clearly a lot of issues on the table that need to be addressed, wanting to try to pull back and see if we can identify like, “What’s the big issue? What’s the biggest thing that we need to be trying to tackle in the near term in the space of broadband?”
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. Let me take a quick shot at this and I’ll see if Sean agrees with me or not. But I think the big thing is this $42.5 billion that the federal government is putting out there for mostly rural infrastructure and I’m never not surprised. I’m constantly surprised by local officials in more urban areas who are saying, “How are we going to position ourselves to get this money?” and they’re not. There is money out there that is from other pots that could be used in more urban and suburban areas but almost all the money that is in the news and people are focusing on is going to go on the order of 10 to 20 million households in mostly rural areas and most people haven’t figured that out yet. Congress and the Federal Government more generally haven’t done a lot to really reform the broken market that most of us deal with but we are going to see massive investment in rural areas and that’s still going to take some time to roll out. I feel like that’s what everyone’s talking about at the events that we go to.
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah. Well, maybe I should get my Powerball ticket. I disagree with Chris about a number of things but not that, I think that’s exactly right. It actually concerns me quite a bit because there are a lot of folks in urban communities that are being left in the dust, being left on the wrong side of the digital divide and it’s a real question as we get closer to or as the NTIA, I should say, gets closer to sending hundreds of millions to each state, several states will probably get a billion or more and it would be a real shame for this opportunity to pass.
Because we say this a lot in this space about this being a once in a generation investment but we can’t say it enough. It is. And so, it would be a real shame to blow this opportunity where you have this unprecedented federal investment to deploy broadband infrastructure and if this moment passes and that money goes away or is allocated to areas and leaves a lot of urban areas behind, then it’s probably not going to happen again in our generation where we’re going to see this kind of investment.
Reggie Rucker: And then Sean, real quick, I wanted to, for our listeners, because I don’t need this information, I know everything, not. But for our listeners, NTIA, what is this organization that’s given out hundreds of millions to the states?
Sean Gonsalves: I’m so used to calling it the NTIA that I can’t remember what it stands for. The National-
Chris Mitchell: It’s not a pretty one. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, I think. It’s brutal.
Sean Gonsalves: Right.
Chris Mitchell: It’s part of the Department of Commerce.
Sean Gonsalves: Which is in and of itself with a bit of a change in… Historically, the Federal Government has administered broadband money mostly through the USDA and then the FCC with RDOF-
Chris Mitchell: Which is the Federal Communications Commission for people who are tracking that.
Sean Gonsalves: Right. And so now, with the infrastructure money, this is all being overseen and administered by the NTIA.
Chris Mitchell: In part because people like Sean and me, Sean wrote a really great brief talking about what a disaster the FCC has been at distributing money historically and how it has ineffectively spent billions upon billions of dollars and Congress listened. I don’t think we expected that, Sean. I mean, I think we talked about this once or twice but I still think, I remember when you started, you were writing about how Congress was going to give $100 billion to the FCC for a reverse auction and then six months later we’re like, “Don’t do that. That’s a really bad idea.”
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah. It’s a good point. I mean, you have to celebrate those kind of victories. We live in an imperfect world and with all the sausage making that goes on to eke out certain victories like that are important to just take a moment to recognize and celebrate.
Luke Gannon: So on the independent business team, we talk a lot about this large political shift that has happened in the last year in terms of our thinking on big tech and our thinking on the consumer welfare standard and antitrust. I’ve been asking this question, in the broadband sector, a lot has gone on this year. I’m curious, has there been a larger political shift in the broadband sector? What has that looked like given that Gigi Sohn has not been confirmed but that there has still been all of this federal investment? Chris, I guess I’ll throw that to you first.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. The plates are shifting and they’re shifting rapidly. One of the things when I was starting off in the policy space for ILSR, I don’t think I appreciated, was how one could be tuned in and still not have any idea where things are ending up. Where the real power lies, right? I mean, this is one of the things that you hear in DC is whenever you talk to someone, they’ll say, “What are you hearing?” Because everyone recognizes that things were shifting and you don’t really know what to expect. I mean, the midterms are a perfect example where even a few hours before the polls closed, we didn’t really have a sense of exactly what was happening.
So when the pandemic started, the cable and telephone companies had just immense power in the state capitals and in Washington DC. They still have significant power. Although, I think one of the reasons Gigi has been held up is because it’s not just the cable and telephone companies and it’s not even all of them. It’s really Comcast and a few others but it’s the broadcasters and the folks in Hollywood who are deeply worried that because they want to have massive cross ownership of everything and Gigi believes in local businesses and not having all power centralized.
Anyway, the point is just that we don’t really know what the new rules are but we are seeing that local governments feel more emboldened in some cases. Frankly, we are limited only by our lack of local leadership and local activism on this. There is money available. We live in relatively good times for government budgets where if they wanted to prioritize connecting public housing, if they wanted to prioritize neighborhoods that have been left behind, there’s federal dollars to do so. Not a lot but some, and they could use their own money. We’ve seen this in several places where they’re starting to do that but we need local people to step up and demand it because local elected leaders aren’t going to make this a number 1, 2, or 3 issue out of the 10 or 20 that they’re focused on without that kind of local issue. So I feel like we have more available to us but we are not taking full advantage of it yet.
Reggie Rucker: And then, Chris, I know one of the things that you mentioned and this is common thought probably at this point, is that the pandemic was just this very clear dividing line that helped shift the way that we thought about a lot of policy options, a lot of policy choices. Of course, during the pandemic, one of those was how we approach healthcare and how we’re making sure that people get access to the proper timely healthcare and we don’t overburden our systems in a certain way. So I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about how broadband is important to the healthcare conversation and whether it’s at the local level or the state level where there’s a lot of healthcare dollars being spent by county governments and state governments and what the impetus for improving our healthcare delivery, how that intertwines with the way that we’re thinking about providing broadband to constituents.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. This continues to be super important and the policy on how we deal with telehealth moving forward is not clear because there are some cases in which we may see policies that encourage telehealth rolling back a little bit as they were pushed out quickly during the pandemic and now, there’s interests that want to preserve the status quo. And so, we want to make sure that we’ve preserved that ability to do telehealth and to encourage telehealth. But the issue is that in healthcare, we spend so much money, an unbelievable amount of money, a number that’s so large I haven’t bothered to remember it because I think it would take up too much of my memory.
Sean Gonsalves: I think it’s up to something like $9 trillion annually.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, that sounds right. It’s crazy. And so, when I talk to people in healthcare, which I do frequently now, one of the things I’ll often lead off with is I’ll say, “You all have heard broadband is expensive. You should laugh whenever you hear people say that because when they say it’s expensive,” and I’ll just pick some examples that, Reggie, you probably know more about than me in California because I’m having more of these conversations in California where there’s more progressive on a lot of these issues with the hospitals and whatnot. I’ll say, in Fresno, it might cost $1,000 or $1,500 of one time cost to connect a home and then it will cost $10 to $15 a month ongoing to keep them connected of just rough costs basically and that’s what we call expensive in the broadband world.
They’ll look at me and be like, “That’s insane. We don’t have anything that’s $1,500 in the healthcare industry. That’s a rounding error on a bandaid, right?” I mean, it’s so expensive in healthcare. And so, the idea that we are foregoing billions upon billions of dollars on savings in not just avoided costs of going to the emergency room unnecessarily but the cost of people having unnecessary amputations in Mississippi. We’re talking about all kinds of loss of quality of life because we haven’t figured out how to use a little bit. I mean, we’re talking about a fraction of the savings from effective telehealth to just spend it on broadband, to build the networks, and make sure people have them available in their homes.
Depending on where you are, an avoided ER trip could pay for between one and seven years of broadband access depending on what assumptions you make. And so, when we’re talking about particularly people that have been left behind, the money is there in the healthcare industry to just connect people with broadband. And then, even if we don’t use it super effectively, if we just use it a little bit effectively, we will have more money left over. But this is a classic problem of why we need government and policy because the hospitals don’t just spend that money on the broadband and then get it back, someone else has to spend the money and we have to figure out how to redivide the savings and that’s difficult.
I mean, frankly, we could do similar things in electricity if we were able to use electricity more effectively. That’s the problem with broadband is that it helps everything out a bit but nothing wants to pay for that broadband expansion really. Although, when it comes to rural areas, the federal government’s taking care of that, we will need some kind of program like that for more urban and suburban areas for all the areas that are left behind after that money is spent.
Reggie Rucker: Okay. So I hate to interrupt this wonderful conversation but we need to take a quick break and we’ll be right back.
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Yeah. So Sean, I know you have some experience leading the work that we partnered with AARP to try to get their membership more aware of this issue and how important broadband is to the healthcare conversation. Can you talk a little bit about that work?
Sean Gonsalves: You’re right. So earlier this year, we essentially partnered with AARP which began first with creating a series of fact sheets. We had some help as well from NDIA, National Digital Inclusion Alliance. This is something that Deanne Coyar on our team, our outreach coordinator, has really been the lead on in just trying to provide materials that the AARP can share with their vast membership. I mean, the AARP is probably the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the entire country.
And so, it’s heartening that they’re very much interested in educating and sharing resources with their members. So we created a series of fact sheets that really just explain what broadband is and what are some of the problems that are associated with it, why is it so expensive, what kind of digital skills and devices that you need just to essentially demystify this area, particularly as it relates to some of the technology sometimes, as mentioned and involved, can be intimidating not just to older Americans, but to anyone who doesn’t really have a technical background, it can be extremely intimidating.
So we put together a series of fact sheets and then something else that we’ve been doing and will be continuing to do is meeting with various state AARP offices and their membership and presenting on, I guess you could say Broadband 101 and some of the things that folks might think about with the hopes that folks have the resources that they need to take advantage of connectivity, particularly obviously, as it relates to telehealth.
One of the aspects of telehealth too is if we had that kind of robust ubiquitous access to broadband in every home, it allows for older Americans to age in place or to get that monitoring of chronic health conditions at home. And so, there’s all of these possibilities and we were talking a little while ago about the pandemic and how it made it obvious the essential utility nature of high-speed internet access but that was mostly around going to school, working from home, and things like that.
I don’t think that we’ve reached the point where there’s this broad idea in the public imagination of the connection between broadband and all of these various telehealth applications and all of the potential benefits that could come from it. I don’t think we’ve got there yet. In part, it’s probably because of what Chris alluded to is that there are forces out there that would like to see the status quo. Because I keep asking the question, given the improved health outcomes and the cost savings that could come from telehealth, why is it like every hospital administrator in America screaming this from the rooftops? It may have something to do with liking the way things are and not wanting to tip over the apple cart too much.
Chris Mitchell: One of the things to recognize is that older Americans are among the least connected, right? I mean, I think when we think about broadband divides, we think about rural areas and then we think about urban poverty. When I think about urban poverty, I don’t immediately think of retired folks and people who are living on that fixed income who are struggling to get by particularly in the age right now. And so, AARP has really been a leader in this and it’s really great to work with them on it. They’re really focused on a lot of these people that have been left behind and we’re really fortunate to have DeAnn who came to us after years of working with older Americans on these issues.
And so, we’re trying to make sure that we’re making a dent there. AARP has been a real leader in recognizing people need to have these connections and that has led them to be really supportive of community networks. I think it’s just worth the 62nd reminder of what we do at the Community Broadband Networks team. It’s weird that we call ourselves Community Broadband Network when we’re like this serious shop dealing with policy on all matters of broadband.
But it really was crystallized for me when Connect Humanity, a group that we work with frequently, they put out a report about what we call community networks. They have a different, more complicated name for them, but they said their mission is to connect all of humanity across the globe. They said the second half of humanity will not be connected the way the first half was connected. This was on the order of 4.5, 5 billion people that have internet access right now, and the rest of the folks are, whether they’re in the United States or whether they’re in Indonesia or Qatar or whatever, where they’re in the lower half of society, they don’t have the money to be fixing around with a cable connection and things like that.
We need community-based providers that are going to provide affordable solutions and that are going to be there with training, with devices to help pick up all of the problems around poverty. I think that’s worth just remembering because it’s not the case that we need to crush Comcast to win. Screw Comcast. Comcast can take care of my neighborhood, right? Fine. Whatever, but I would like to have another option but it’s not holding me back that much. But the idea that we need community networks to get the people that are always going to fall through the cracks of the market system, that is, I think, a very strong vision that we have.
Luke Gannon: I would like to pivot this latter part of the conversation and really look at, despite all of the challenges that we face, that there is still hope. We’ve been talking a lot on these episodes on how success begets success. And so, Sean, I’m going to turn this to you. Despite the many-
Chris Mitchell: If you want to hope, you are going in the wrong direction, Luke.
Luke Gannon: Oh god.
Sean Gonsalves: Serious optimists.
Chris Mitchell: No. We tease Sean because he is always reminding us of the odds that we face.
Sean Gonsalves: All the ways that things will go off the rails or go wrong, yes.
Luke Gannon: I guess we’ll go to Chris first-
Chris Mitchell: No, no. We should go to Sean. This is great. I want to hear what he says.
Luke Gannon: Okay. So Sean, what is a success story of a city building their own network?
Sean Gonsalves: Well, the first one that comes to mind honestly is Fairlawn, Ohio. FairlawnGig, they’re doing amazing things there. It’s a city. It’s a relatively small city. I think about 7,500 people live there but it’s a city that did not have a municipal electric utility where a lot of municipal networks are. They are in communities that have an existing municipal electric utility. Fairlawn didn’t and Fairlawn spent a number of years essentially going to the big incumbent providers. After hearing from lots of folks in the business community who were saying like, “Listen, the internet service here is so bad that we’re going to have to relocate and not just out of Fairlawn, probably out of the state of Ohio.”
And so, the leaders there in Fairlawn, the city leaders, the mayor and city councilors, they went to the various incumbents and said, “Listen, we’ve got some real needs and we’re worried about the impact that this is going to have on the local economy and companies are threatening to move.” So they wanted to partner with the bigger internet service providers, all of whom basically said, “Eh. No, we’re not interested.” And so, Fairlawn was put in a situation where they realized, “You know what? We’re going to have to build it ourselves,” and they did.
They built a citywide fiber to the home, a network, that’s completely owned and operated by the city. You hear a lot of opponents of municipal broadband saying, “Oh, this is much too complicated for cities to handle.” And then, there’s Fairlawn as a shining example. And then just recently, I wrote a story that we published a few days ago where Fairlawn actually is doing so well that they are now boosting speeds and slashing prices. So the bulk of their subscribers… By the way, I should mention that the city of Fairlawn has a 68% take rate. That means that 68% of the population in town that could potentially get internet service in a market that has three of the big internet service providers, I think Spectrum and I forget the two others off the top of my head.
They have a 68% take rate and they’ve done so well that they just recently announced that every one of their subscribers that were getting a 300 symmetrical connection is now going to get gig speed service for $55 a month and that the folks who previously had that gig service that had been paying $75, were going to see their bills dropped to $55 a month. And then, they also have a 2.5GB Symmetrical package that they were automatically upgrading everyone in that package to 5GB. Instead of paying what I think was $150 a month, their bill is dropping to $100 a month. So there’s FairlawnGig that is this tremendous success story and it goes back to what Chris was saying earlier about the real issue about just the local leadership in jumping in and seizing.
By the way, Fairlawn built this. They financed this network on their own, completely on their own without any state grants or infrastructure money or rescue plan money. Here they are humming along and not only do they have this high satisfaction rate, I think PCMag has them as one of the fastest networks in the country. They’re also in this era where everybody is concerned about inflation and seeing it everywhere, here’s FairlawnGig saying, “We’re going to give you more for less.” So that, to me, is an example and an inspiring one that I think a lot of communities could look to. Every community is different in terms of the challenges that they may face, etc., but it is an example of, “Look, if Fairlawn can do this without a municipal electricity, without relying on millions of dollars in federal grants, then certainly it can be done elsewhere.”
Reggie Rucker: I love that. Chris, I want to turn to you and I’m going to try to still keep it positive here because I like the vibes that we were going with. Several weeks back, we had Alejandro work here from the FCC and we were talking about the affordable connectivity program, how that was a solution to bringing down prices for internet access. Here we have Fairlawn on the other side where it’s like you could go the coupon route or you could do this community broadband and actually get even more affordable prices. So I wanted to open that up to you, Chris, and talk about these different approaches to bringing down the cost of broadband and how we might be able to take some savings where they’re given to us in the short term but how we think about it long-term and more long-term solutions.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. I think this is a major conversation that is going to continue to play out but the ACP, the Affordable Connectivity Plan, $30 bucks a month for… I mean, it’s like on the order of one out of three families qualify. If you’re earning within 200% of the poverty line or you’re in a number of other programs that are eligible, it knocks $30 off your broadband plan and I feel like that’s a reasonable thing to do. I mean, it took Fairlawn two or three years to build their network up. You can’t do this overnight. And so, if you’re trying to solve a problem overnight, trying to work with the existing providers to buy down that cost, it’s a good plan. But if you’re looking at like if you’re on the Comcast internet essentials plan or the Charter Spectrum plan that is similar but also is far worse in terms of how they administer it, then you could get that service for free.
It’s all right but it’ll last as long as Comcast wants to make it last. It’ll have the bureaucratic barriers that Comcast decides to put on it and that sort of a thing. But what we need is, frankly, a working market and that working market may involve multiple wires in the community. If we’re going to have a working market, it probably means at least one of those wires has to let multiple competitors on it and this is something called open access. This is what Baltimore and Detroit are looking at as they’re using their federal dollars and local money in smart ways, which is to say, “Look, AT&T can build a line and Comcast can build a line and each of them will use it but what if we built a line and we let anyone use it and created competition that way?” That’s really sharp. These are the things that we need to do to lower everyone’s prices.
But at the end of the day, if we get that in places and we see that in some places like Utopia Cities, there’s 20 cities in Utah that have this via network called Utopia which really struggled in the early years and has really pulled it back together over the past 10 years. The prices will be more affordable for a family that has a consistent income but I think we will continue to need some kind of subsidy for the 10% or 20% of families that have the lowest or no income. That’s where we could have a sustainable program, I hope. $30 a month for one out of three American households is going to be too much of a price tag, I think, for Congress to continually re-authorize and to spend money on. We’re talking about on the order of multiple billions of dollars per year.
I think that actually will be a worthy investment in that it makes sure that families are using that money in other ways. It’s going to benefit our economy more than if we cut that line item from the budget but we need to just make sure we have programs that are more elegant, that don’t require a lot of bureaucratic steps of having to go through a big cable company in every few months calling to be online on hold for two hours to try to work through some weird problem that developed. We need plans that’ll just work at the local level. That’s where I’m really looking to Baltimore and Detroit, I’m looking to Los Angeles County where they’re trying to develop these programs at the local level and make them work.
Chattanooga has already done it, right? I mean, Chattanooga is off the chart successful. They have done this for thousands of children. More than 10,000 families in the public schools have free internet access that they don’t have to pay for, for 10 years because they fundraised around it and they had the control of the cost. They could choose to do that. That’s where we need to be going. Now, Fairlawn isn’t doing that today. Maybe Fairlawn will be doing that in a few years when they have still more revenues coming in but that’s what we have to be pushing toward and that’s the gold standard, I would say, at that point.
Luke Gannon: I want to go back to the Fairlawn example. I’m curious what the breaking point was. Was it because the market conditions were so bad? At what point did they decide, without federal investment, without any investment, we’re going to do this on our own?
Sean Gonsalves: It’s a great question and Chris might actually know better than I do. It seemed to me that it really was essentially all of the above. Just the level of poor connectivity in town and city leaders were very perceptive in terms of hearing complaints from folks. But I think, really, what was a big push was they were really concerned about the impact that poor connectivity would have on their prospects for economic development. That so many folks in the business community were saying, “We’re going to move because the internet here sucks.” When the business community in a local community comes together and tells city leaders, that tends to get folks’ attention. And then, when you spend two years beating your head against the wall and begging the large providers to partner to do something to provide citywide service and they all shrug their shoulders or tell you no, then the answer becomes pretty clear which is we need to figure out how to do this on our own.
Chris Mitchell: If I could jump in on that too, it’s a really good question. Fairlawn had strong leadership among staff and elected leadership that recognized the value of this. But the question is really not how did Fairlawn make this difficult, challenging investment and the question is, why aren’t other cities making easier investments? I was just in Holland, Michigan where I was working on a video documentary that we’ll be releasing a month or two after this comes out. [foreign language 00:38:42], we’ll see what happens. But Holland, they’re investing in a broadband network that’ll be on the order of $20, $24 million.
Now, they are a city with a municipal electric utility, and they had previously invested 10 years ago in a combined cycle gas plant because they generate their own electricity. That was $240 million to build it and finance it. I’ll just say that before John gets upset with us, they are among the most efficient of that gas. They run multiple turbines and then with the waste heat, they run a third turbine that generates still more energy, and then they take the waste heat from the waste heat and they actually use that as a snow melt system throughout the downtown area which generates economic activity and prevents the use of salt which would go into Lake Michigan.
So it’s a pretty cool system and we’re going to talk about it some in our video but that’s just one example of a town. We’re talking about 10 times more money on the electric side. In Fort Dodge, Iowa, they’re building a municipal broadband network and I think they’re looking at $20 or $30 million, maybe it’s $30 million for that. They just put $100 million into a water plant. Cities make big investments all the time that are much more expensive than fiber. It’s just that you don’t have powerful global companies lobbying against those other decisions and trying to make it scary.
Now, it is true that it is more risky to invest in a broadband system but it’s not really as expensive as people think. When you look at the cost of building roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike trails, it costs more to build a bike trail in a rural area than it does to build a fiber network per mile. We had this idea that it’s expensive without checking the context of it. So I think we need to see more cities just recognizing the importance in doing it. It’s not to take anything away from Fairlawn but it shouldn’t be this rare occurrence that someone recognizes the opportunity. And then, the most important thing that I would be negligent not to note is that it needs to be executed well. Cities that have a good idea but don’t take it seriously and don’t do their homework, aren’t doing anyone any favors. These things can go bad and then they need to be rescued or they need to be sold at a loss and cities need to be very serious in doing their homework to make sure that they’re getting it right.
Reggie Rucker: And so, I’m really looking forward to this Holland video. One of the things that our broadband team does incredibly well is tell stories about how more access to better internet services can change communities. I know we’ve talked about this before but one of the projects I love most from your team is the tribal broadband bootcamps and just the impact that that’s having in tribal nations, tribal communities. Can you give us an update on what’s happening there? What’s next? But yeah, just give our listeners an update and maybe for those who are tuning in for the first time or aren’t familiar with the program, how that came about.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. Tribes have finally money available to them from the federal government to build broadband networks after decades of being ignored, not having support effectively, and watching as commercial companies either took advantage of them or ignored them. The challenge has been that they need to figure out how to build at a small scale and they often don’t have a lot of extra people or training materials. And so, we teamed up with my good friend Matt Rantanin who’s worked running a network in Indian country for more than 20 years and we developed a training program in 2021 that we called the Broadband Bootcamp, actually the Tribal Wireless Bootcamp.
And then, with help from philanthropy, from people that pitched in from actually an organization called Merit in Michigan and other wonderful individuals that helped us out, we expanded the curriculum to include fiber optic training and wireless training additionally. This year, we did four more camps. We have several more on the horizon. You can go to tribalbroadbandbootcamp.com to see some of the videos that we’ve produced based on what we were doing. But the single biggest thing that really made us excited is that some of the people that were with us from the beginning, from Hoopa Valley and from Yurok, which are both in Northern California, not because of us but we were with them on this journey and they have really exciting awards that they’ve received from NTIA for tens of millions of dollars each to build broadband networks in their communities.
The fact that we are able to help them be a little bit more effective in what they’re doing and that they are now still with us and they’re still learning from us and they’re teaching others what they’ve gone through as we move forward and we’re just building these great cohorts. One of the most exciting things is that in northern California, these tribes might live an hour or two from each other, which in Northern California terms, I mean real northern California not this San Francisco garbage, like Northern Northern California, proper northern, an hour away from someone is a neighbor, the way their geography works, and they actually came to Southern California to meet each other and work together and then they went back home and now they’re collaborating regularly.
And so, we’re trying to help that happen in Oregon and Washington and other places too. Sometimes, you need someone to bring you together and just then you get over that inertia and you’re able to work together. That’s what seems to be happening and we’re excited to do more of that as long as we have funding support. I’ll be straight with you. With the success that we’ve seen, I thought we would see higher levels of support and right now, I’m a little bit worried that we will have fewer boot camps than are demanded because we might run out of money next year depending on who steps up.
Luke Gannon: Speaking of next year, what do you all foresee happening in the broadband sector next year and what are some of your big wants?
Sean Gonsalves: Well, I think next year the focus is really going to be on the rollout of the BEAD Program which is part of the infrastructure bill and how that money gets allocated, how much each states are getting, and what various state broadband offices do with it in terms of the rules. One thing in particular that we’re starting to see, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone, is some of the big incumbent providers are really focusing their energies on making it impossible or as difficult as possible for municipal broadband projects to get access to any of that money. We’re seeing grant challenges. The mapping is going to be key. The FCC map, we won’t get into all the details on that. The maps are notoriously inaccurate. There’s some new maps that will be coming out that are supposed to be better. They might be a little better but that’s important because that map will essentially determine what each state’s gets from the BEAD Program. But generally, within states… Oh, Chris is shaking his head.
Chris Mitchell: No, Sean, we don’t have any problems anymore. 5G solved everything. I don’t know if you’ve heard that.
Sean Gonsalves: Oh yeah.
Chris Mitchell: 5G solved everything in 2022. We have no problems. I just plan on driving around town in automated vehicles having robot surgery over the Verizon 5G network.
Sean Gonsalves: Right. And then, right after that, there’ll be 6G and then 7G. Again, I just think the focus is going to be on what state broadband officers are doing and what kind of rules they set up as there will be a real fight as to who gets access to that grant money. Right now, we’re seeing states that are having some issues. In Louisiana, most recently, East Carroll Parish projects have been delayed because one of the incumbents there, Sparklight issued a challenge saying, “No, no, no. We already served that area,” and everybody in that area is like, “No, you don’t. Actually, your service is absolutely horrible and almost none of the addresses that you say provide this wonderful service. Can you get it?” So we’re seeing that there’s a couple of states, Minnesota and Colorado that have rules in place that serve as a disincentive for fraudulent claims. So I think most of the action is going to be at the state level and around how the BEAD money gets spent.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. I would totally echo that. That’s where I think we’re going to be spending our focus.
Reggie Rucker: I really could have this conversation for another couple of hours. I’ve loved this. Good news is you do this on a regular basis. You have your Connect This programming, Community Broadband Bits-
Chris Mitchell: Excuse me. I think you mean Connect This.
Reggie Rucker: Correction, Connect This.
Chris Mitchell: It’s the worst name because you can’t say it in a sentence. No, you got it exactly right there.
Reggie Rucker: So we will make sure to link to those programs, those shows to get more of Chris and Sean. But yeah, this was incredible conversation. Thank you so much. Last thing before we go, Sean, we’ve already had you answer this one. We’re putting together a library for all of our guests who have submitted, told us their favorite books that have really inspired their work, and it’s an ode to the local bookstores that we like to support in the community. So Chris, we haven’t had you on yet, so give us a book that you’ve read. It could be recent, it can be not so recent, but a book that you’ve read that’s really changed the way that you think about the work of connectivity.
Chris Mitchell: Oh, the work of connectivity. You’re going to pull it in pretty tight.
Reggie Rucker: Actually, you can open it up. Yeah. You go-
Chris Mitchell: No, I think that’s a good challenge.
Sean Gonsalves: Chris doesn’t read too much as you can tell by his bookshelf back there.
Chris Mitchell: That’s mostly fiction and stuff. It is fiction on one side and non-fiction on the other. Let me say that the book that opened my eyes to connectivity is a book that was written before almost anyone knew what the internet was. It is a book called Electricity for Rural America: The Fight for the REA by D. Clayton Brown. It covers the fight to establish the rural electrification administration and wow, the parallels to what we’re dealing with, with rural broadband are strong.
I’ll say that I was reading that book at the same time I was reading one of the Lee Child Reacher novels and those are fantastically suspenseful. There was a moment where I was on my couch and I was looking at both books and I was thinking, “I don’t know which one I’m more excited to get into right now,” because some of these fights in the legislature and just what was going on. Do you know that the private electric monopolies built spite lines, these lines to try and kill electric co-ops where they would just build a line that they would lose money on to try and take the biggest source of demand away from the co-op to make it economically fail?
I mean, stuff like that. This book is hard to find but it is wonderful. But let me say that I feel like people always pick on non-fiction, I did want to say Ry suggested to me this great science fiction book, Red Rising, and there’s five of them out and everyone that I’ve recommended them to is blown away. It’s an incredible series and I loved it. It’s very action-packed and if you like sci-fi, give that a ride.
Reggie Rucker: Love it. Love it. Thanks for those contributions to our ILSR library. So again, great conversation. Thank you both so much.
Sean Gonsalves: It was fun.
Chris Mitchell: All right. Take care.
Reggie Rucker: All right. Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to resources, references to transcript, everything from this episode by going to ilsr.org, finding Building Local Power under the podcast tab, and clicking on the show page for this episode. That is ilsr.org.
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This podcast is produced by the phenomenal Reggie Rucker and me, Luke Gannon. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction Al. This is Building Local Power. Thanks for listening.