Broadband is Good for Your Health

Kay Eady, a lifelong Georgian, fondly recalls spending her childhood playing baseball with her siblings, reading at the library, and admiring her mother and grandmother. As she embarked on her adult educational journey, Kay learned that despite her individual blessings, there was an abundance of disparities for low-income communities and communities of color, particularly in the rural South. This was especially true for access to healthcare, and Kay devoted herself to bridging this gap. One such opportunity to bridge the gap is increasing broadband service to rural communities, opening the door for greater telehealth access. Her work at the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, empowering communities to speak up for their needs and advocating for broadband infrastructure, has paved the way for improved healthcare access and quality of life.

In the second half of the episode, Ry Marcattilio, the Associate Director for Research at ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, highlights how investments in broadband in the rural south can improve access to healthcare, education, economic development, and community engagement. Ry emphasizes that broadband service is a crucial social determinant of health and discusses the advantages of telehealth in improving patient outcomes and healthcare delivery. One of the biggest obstacles, Ry explains, is monopolistic telecom companies that put profit over service, and largely neglect rural areas. However, Ry notes that electric and telephone cooperatives can bridge the connectivity gap.

Ry Marcattilio: Broadband service is what we call a super social determinant of health, so it underpins all of those other things that impact our lives and create healthy and viable households and individuals and communities.
Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power. I am your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and we are back with episode eight of this season, where we are highlighting frontline stories in the fight against monopoly power by talking with people from all over the country who are actively engaging in building more equitable, thriving local economies. On our last episode, we talked to Rose Thelan, who worked for years to retire coal plants in Northern Minnesota, in large part because of the significant health effects the operation of these plants have on nearby communities. Today, we dive deeper into the topic of healthy communities.
We take a trip to the rural South, where investing in universal broadband promises, significant returns to the physical and economic health of these communities that are currently without quality, affordable broadband service, which would open the door to expanded telehealth services and economic development. To get into it, let me pass it to my co-host who is still trying to convince me that getting sick is the best way to not get sick. Make it make sense to me, people. Luke “Immunity” Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Okay, so to put this into context for our listeners, I have been around people who have had all kinds of long, two week sicknesses in the last few months, and somehow I haven’t gotten sick, which is just so unlike me, and I just feel incredibly lucky to have recently developed this immunity. So, that’s all I’m saying.
But anyway, let’s get to the show. So today on the show, we are so thrilled to be joined by Kay Edie, who is an educator and community-based researcher for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. Let’s start with her story from the beginning.
Kay Eady: I am a Georgia girl, born and bred right here in Georgia. Little small town called Thomaston, Georgia, about two hours south of Atlanta, very small town. We lived on Daniel Street in Thomaston, Georgia. It was the inner city, and actually there was a small apartment complex, I want to say maybe four or five apartments in that little complex, there were all …. It was shaped like a U, believe it or not. So there were one, two, three families to a unit. So, I think there were four units.
And so in that little circle, we’d always play our games there. And if you can get a picture of this, apartments were a bright yellow and everyone had a green door. So, believe it or not, those are not my favorite colors now. So, we all played in that little circle sometimes from baseball, and we didn’t have bats, so we would often find a piece of wood or something, and then we would roll up a piece of aluminum foil and use that as our ball. Or if we really, really got creative, we would use a piece of … remember the fake fruit that would sit on the table? We would use the orange or something like that as a ball. So, we would use those and we would play softball in that little circle. And that was a lot of fun. Those are some of my best memories.
I am the fifth child of seven, five boys, two girls. I went to elementary school, high school, all in the same town. And believe it or not, I was actually a loner. I was the one that no one really wanted to play with when I was growing up, or wanted to talk to. So, as a result, I spent a lot of time by myself, but because of that, I actually sought out the library and read everything I could possibly get my hands on, from Laura Ingall Wilder to [inaudible 00:04:01], you name it, I read everybody. And so, that was my solace, that was my quiet place.
But things I actually enjoyed doing then was playing outside, playing games with some of the children in the neighborhood, helping my mother cook quite a bit, doing things that were always with my grandmother or my mom. I was always near them. But other than that, the library, that was my passion. I love to read and I still read a lot to this day, averaging maybe at least two books a week, at least. That’s a good week, when you put that together with family and everything else. So, if I get in two books a week, I’m doing well
Luke Gannon: After high school, Kay left Thomson, but she didn’t leave the books.
Kay Eady: I went on to college in a little town called Milledgeville, Georgia, which I’m sure you all may not have heard. It’s the home of Flannery O’Connor, another author. And you knew I was really in heaven when I got there because I got a chance to see everything that she’d ever written and read and lived. So, I did that, got my bachelor’s there, and then went on to Georgia Southwestern Americas to get my master’s degree, and then further on to Minnesota to get my doctorate. Married a military guy, traveled the world quite a bit. And we finally retired here in Georgia. And my husband is a farmer, so we grow peanuts and soybeans and have animals, things like that.
And that’s how we came to this area, which is Albany, Georgia. It’s about three hours south of Atlanta, about an hour from Tallahassee. So, we live in pretty much a rural area, where we have goats and cows and chickens and things like that. So, that’s my noisy quiet life most of the time.
Luke Gannon: Kay was surrounded by amazing women throughout her childhood and looked up to them for guidance and wisdom.
Kay Eady: There were three women that were very, very important in my life. Of course, my mom and she died when I was 11, I believe. And then there’s my grandmother who was very, very close to, and then there was one teacher that I had actually established a great relationship with, starting from the time I was sixth grade, up until her death at about 83. We remain really close, and they taught me so much about life, how to be a woman, how to carry yourself, how to be respectful, how to achieve your goals, and how to do what’s right even though everybody else around you is not doing the right thing. And how to step away when your instinct tells you, “This is not what you’re supposed to be doing.” And I’ve always tried to live by those principles and give that to my daughter, even though you’re going to stand in a circle and everyone else is doing it and they like it, it feels good, it’s great. There’s a sense inside of you that says it’s wrong, then you need to walk away. And those were the values that they all taught me, and I really hang on to those.
And being an African-American woman, they were really, really key when we were growing up, because they were the ones who were at home actually raising the kids and telling them what to do and things like that. So, respect was probably one of the biggest things that I got from all of them all the time, to respect each other and respect yourself.
Luke Gannon: In many places in the rural South, like Georgia, low income communities and communities of color have little broadband in infrastructure. With the mass exodus of hospitals in the South and historical disinvestment, many communities faced difficulty accessing healthcare. Kay started to realize this after she left her hometown.
Kay Eady: We all lived in the apartments, so I thought everybody was the same. We all had the same thing. So actually, in my mind, I thought, “This is the way it’s supposed to be.” So, it wasn’t until after I actually left home and went off to college and started seeing things differently that I knew there’s a brave new world out there, and there’s some changes that are supposed to happen, and I’m supposed to be a part of that change. And I always wanted to help people. So, I knew that if they didn’t have, the people next to me didn’t have, and I had, something was wrong. They should have had the same opportunities. If I had money, then for some reason, they should have had. So, I knew there was some disparities there, but at that particular point, I didn’t know what to do to correct them.
So, the further I that I went along in my education and started to see things differently, I realized that there were organizations and people out there to help make those changes, but I knew I wanted to be a part, so that’s why I decided to continue my education, go to school, try to encourage others to do the same. And then after I finished my education and became a teacher, then I got an opportunity to see, “Well, oh, there are a lot of people don’t have opportunities that I have.”
So, my students actually gave me an education to let me know … because everybody came into that classroom each day, didn’t mean that they were all the same and they didn’t have all the same opportunities. They came from different backgrounds and different challenges. So, I had to teach myself how to address each one of those challenges, which was another stepping stone for me to become a community organizer. But I didn’t know that at the time.
It’s interesting how you’re placed in a position to do something and you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing until it comes along later. So, that was probably my stepping stone to become a community organizer, being an educator.
So, once that happened, I did that for 29.9 years as an educator, and I retired and became a manager for the East Baker Historical Society here in Georgia. But it’s not a historical society in the sense of the word, meaning history. Their purpose was just to preserve the culture of the community. And I think I need to clarify that I came into this community because of my husband, not that I was bred here, so I was a transplant because of marriage. So, I had to get to know the people in that little community, and they are the people that are very, very hesitant and resistant to change. So I had to really, really stepped very, very lightly with them to try to get them to change and see that there’s something else out there that we can be doing to make your lives better.
Luke Gannon: As a lifelong educator and community organizer, Kay has spent hundreds of hours teaching and being taught. In one of her undertakings, Kay worked alongside colleagues to interview 148 people, mostly Black women, in rural counties in Georgia, about healthcare disparities and access to healthcare.
Kay Eady: Women there did not have access to healthcare because of the area that they live in. There was no hospital there. They had issues with transportation. Some of them had no Medicaid, no money, no transportation, no way to get to their appointments. And they also had the mentality on, “Well, if I have cervical cancer or health issue, I have no way to get to the doctor. So there’s really no point in going. If he gave me medicine, I wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway.” So, as a result, they just put it to the side, tucked it away, and just didn’t go.
And then of course, the illness manifested itself and got bigger and bigger, and in some cases, death. But after several conversations with them from this report, I told them that you can get healthcare, you can get … through telehealth. And they were … “Well, what is that?”
So, then there was another introduction about telehealth, you can do it on the phone with your doctor. And they were very, very hesitant because there was a change and they were reluctant to do that. And then we’re talking about an area where there’s no broadband, so they didn’t have access to broadband, to use the telehealth. So there were a lot of different barriers, a lot of things that held them back. In Georgia, we have Highway 75, which runs north and south through the state. The county that I’m talking about, Baker County sits over in the far left corner, which is about 30 minutes away from I75. So, there’s no traffic, no highway traffic that comes into that area, flanked by plantations around it. And then this county sits in this center, so no one wants to come in and bring in businesses, or trade, or anything. So, the people are really just sitting there. I think they have one gas station and maybe, I think there’s a Dollar General now, but that’s it. No hospital, no … Well, they have a clinic with doctor once a week. So, it’s just so many barriers around them, and no one’s really open to speaking out. So, a lot of things go undone.
Luke Gannon: Now, working as a community organizer for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, Kay spends her time talking to residents, helping community members get involved in local action, and teaching about the importance of telehealth and broadband.
Kay Eady: I was working with the East Baker Historical Society, and they have an organization within that society called Southern Journeys, which is … one of the smaller organizations is SRBWI. And the lady that was in charge of Southern Journeys, who’s my colleague now, actually asked me to join SRBWI. She said she thought I’d be a great fit, and so I pursued it, and sure enough, they hired me.
And then I became the community organizer for Doherty, Mitchell Worth and Baker County, which is the four county area. So, my main job as the organizer is to go out into the community, make sure that they know about all the resources that are available to them, make sure they know about the reports that we have, make sure they know about broadband, ACP, make sure they know that ARPA’s money is coming to their neighborhoods, things like that.
That’s how I got got involved with SRBWI. And I actually had to go to the people because they weren’t coming to me. So, I would go to their churches, any local events, they were having, PTA meetings, anywhere I can find them. And I still do that now.
So, one of the proudest things that I’ve done is broadband, and we were able to get, even though it was a slow process, we’ve actually been able to work with the EMCs, electric membership corporations here in Georgia, to get broadband to these areas, particularly Baker, the counties that I’m working with. But Baker is the main one right now. So, those residents will have broadband, even though they’re really, really rural communities. And so, having broadband will give them more access to jobs, they’re able to surf the internet, they have those telehealth visits, so that will improve their quality of life.
And that’s coming. As a matter of fact, they’re laying the foundations right now for the pipelines, and that I notice that some of their attitudes are changing. So, now they formed their own little coalitions where they get together with focus groups and they talk about issues in the community, and then they no longer fear going to the commissioners meeting within the county and speaking out. As before, go in there and no one’s in there but the commissioner, so they’re making all the decisions. And so, I would tell them, “As a citizen, you need to make sure that your voices are being heard. If you don’t agree with something, express it. And you don’t have to do it in an ugly way, but just express your opinion and let them know how you feel, because if you don’t, you’re not going to ever get changed in the community.” So, they’re going to the meetings now. So I’m proud of that. And so, change is coming. It’s slow, it’s gradual, but it’s coming.
Luke Gannon: Kay has been successful in working to provide broadband infrastructure to rural communities in Georgia, but along the way, she has faced challenges.
Kay Eady: Everybody’s not going to be on board. Some people don’t think that the work that we do is important. So, I started by working on my own little circle. A lot of people I knew because I was an educator for so long, so I had already established a rapport with some of the commissioners and local leaders here in town. So, I would reach out to them and get them to ask me to come to one of their meetings, maybe to present, just to talk about SRBWI, just for a second. I didn’t want to overwhelm anybody, but just to let them know that we are here and we want to help.
Some people fought because they didn’t see the need for it, they didn’t see why we were doing it. Some people were on board right away, but I just had to be persistent. And then sometimes, it’s just the way you present things.
Luke Gannon: It takes a lot of work to create a vision, but if you can see it, visualize it and build a coalition of people that want that vision, I believe you can make it happen. If all of rural Georgia had access to universal broadband, this is what it would look like to Kay.
Kay Eady: It would look a thriving community with businesses and internet cafes, or internet at every home, businesses going into towns, just in and out. Hospitals, clinics with doctors and nurses and medicines that would be available to people, for them not to have to go 20 miles to the next county just to get care. A community where specialists would come in at least once a week to see someone who has an issue. And even to see a town hall meeting with citizens in there, talking about things going on in their community. People on the internet, surfing for whatever they need, from shopping, to reading a book, to just whatever they wanted, and just to see a larger amount of traffic coming to the community, bringing dollars in there to help people.
And for the last thing, for Georgia to expand Medicaid so that the people in those community can thrive, so they can thrive. That that would be my dream. I would be just be sleeping well, if that could happen.
Luke Gannon: Kay and her colleagues at the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative are working diligently to achieve this vision. They will. Since Kay reads two books a week, it wasn’t hard for her to give us some excellent recommendations.
Kay Eady: Well, I actually have two. First one would be my book. Actually, I wrote a book in 2020. It’s called From My Window. And it actually is loaded with perspective, my perspective as a classroom teacher, after those years of teaching. And so, my goal was to try to help other teachers to get through that process, but not just necessarily for teachers. I think anyone can benefit from it. So, that would be a quick, easy read, I think that would be beneficial to everyone else.
But another book that I read that I think would be really, really helpful, I’m not sure if, have you ever heard of Deleterious O’Neil? He has a book that he … it’s called A Greater Calling, and actually he relates all of his experiences as a motorcycle rider to achieving success and his dreams. But he takes it step by step, and it’s really, really a a simple read. It goes from simple to complex. And that would be one I would probably recommend that everyone read. It tells you how to get a business, how to start your own business, how to believe in yourself, but most importantly, he emphasizes that nothing happens overnight. Change and persistence, they’re going to be your key things there.
Luke Gannon: Everyone, please head to your local bookstore or bookshop.org to buy Kay Edie’s book, From My Window. It was truly inspirational hearing your story today, Kay. Thank you so much for joining us on the show. I love how Kay’s journey in so many ways is about what it means to teach and to be taught. And I have had the great pleasure of working with someone who has been my teacher, a mentor, and a guide. Thank you, Reggie Rucker, I’m throwing it to you.
Reggie Rucker: Thank you so much, Luke. It truly, truly has been my pleasure and know that I learn just as much from you every day. And that’s really the beautiful thing about this work and this life we get, if we do it right. There’s this natural reciprocity sharing of energy and ideas that happens when you share experiences and a journey together. And that is ultimately, truly what community is about. And those are the stories we’ve been sharing with you this season that embody that giving to community and that sharing for the common good.
So, this is that time in the episode when we ask you to share for the common good. Right now, think about someone who would enjoy this episode of Building Local Power and send it to them, and then watch as that person shares, and then that person shares. And eventually you will see a community being built of people with shared ideas, energy, and purpose, that will consistently come together for the common good. So, go ahead right now, pause this episode, send that share, then come back for our interview with Ry Marcattilio, who’s going to break down why broadband infrastructure in the rural south is so important for health outcomes in the region. We’ll see you on the other side.
Luke Gannon: Ry Marcattilio is an associate director for research with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, and played a leading role in writing a new report alongside the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative about how investments in broadband in the rural south would open up access to healthcare, educational opportunities, economic development, and community engagement. It’s great to have you on the show today, Ry. Welcome.
Ry Marcattilio: Great to be here. Good to talk to you guys.
Luke Gannon: So ILSR’s recent telehealth report illustrates the potential that telehealth has to significantly increase healthcare accessibility, especially in rural areas. Ry, first, can you just talk about your focus on southern rural areas?
Ry Marcattilio: Sure. So, this report looks at 10 rural counties across three states, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. We’re talking about a quarter million people with rough annual healthcare spending of about $3 billion. And so, just to give you a quick sense of need here, in two of these counties in this report, not a single household had access to what we would consider to be basic broadband service, equivalent to what you could get in any regular sized town or city today. And so, in this report, we’re looking specifically at rural areas because we thought that the benefits of deploying telehealth could possibly be out-sized in these areas.
Reggie Rucker: So actually, Ry, I just want to stay right here and have you say a little bit more. Can you expand on this idea of why the lack of broadband access or even better, the availability of broadband service, is so important to the health of a community?
Ry Marcattilio: Sure. So, I guess I would start by saying that broadband service is what we call a super social determinant of health, so it underpins all of those other things that impact our lives and create healthy and viable households and individuals and communities. Broadband service is a prerequisite, and I should clarify that by saying fast and affordable and universally available broadband service, is a prerequisite to everything from education, whether you happen to be in the middle of a pandemic and students are stuck at home and have to learn that way, to being able to engage in the civic process and get access about public healthcare or what’s going on with their local government.
Two things that are as directly correlated to how healthy we are as, I don’t have any more sick days at my job, but I need to visit the doctor and get a prescription for something that’s going on. So, broadband services underpins all of those things. And so, that’s why we talk about it as a super social determinant of health.
Reggie Rucker: And then can you keep going with that and help us understand a little bit more some of the advantages of telehealth in terms of patient outcomes and healthcare delivery?
Ry Marcattilio: Sure. So, telehealth is critical to every part of the country, but especially in rural areas. And there are a couple of reasons that this is worth mentioning. The first is that rural parts of the country have been hit the hardest by the exodus of things like clinics and hospitals that are disappearing from rural areas at a disproportionate rate. So, if any listeners have lived in a small community or in a rural area, they know that not only is primary care harder to get ahold of, but if you need specialty service of some sort, you often have to travel an incredible distance in order to get that care, from a nearby major metro area or something.
And the second is that broadband service and the struggles that these households face, get compounded by other socioeconomic challenges that exist in rural areas, but are not … and exist in the areas in this report, but are not necessarily unique to any particular part of the country. In this particular area, about one in five households across the 10 counties that we looked at, both bring in less than 25,000 a year in annual household income and don’t have health insurance. And so, you can imagine how access to healthcare, if we can increase their access to care, if we can lower the cost of the care that they can get, that’s going to have all sorts of benefits for those households.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a perfect segue. I’m curious, what disparities or inequalities did the report uncover in the access to telehealth services across different populations, including low income communities and communities of color?
Ry Marcattilio: Yeah, so this is a great question. I should also add that the communities of color, the households in this region, also benefit from the kind of holistic effects that more access or universal access to telehealth brings. Some of those benefits are direct and economic and related to the wellbeing of that household. Some of them are more related to our community at large. So, I should say at the most basic level, telehealth saves money in two ways. It means more efficient care, so residents can … if they’re allowed to do telehealth visits over their computer or over the phone, that means a larger region than they could reasonably drive around to get care, which means a larger marketplace and theoretically lower prices.
And the second is that telehealth saves money by avoiding system costs. So, avoiding a single ER visit can save something like 10 years of home internet service costs. And avoidable ER visits happen all the time. It also applies to avoidable hospital admissions, avoidable hospital readmissions after you’ve gone into the ER for something.
In terms of patient outcomes at the individual level, telehealth increases the number of touches that your healthcare team can give you, and gives them and you access to better communication in both ways. And so, if you can increase the number of times that your healthcare team can reach out to you and see how you’re doing after a clinic visit, or after a hospitalization, and you decrease the barriers that exist for you to reach back out to your care team and ask questions about medication, or a symptom that’s arising, or something that might be a complication of that regular care, then that the dramatically increases healthiness outcomes all across the board.
So, in terms of the inequalities that exist in this particular study region for this report, it looks at 10 counties that are set in what we call the Black rural South. This is where the population is at least 35% African American. And these households face all sorts of systemic challenges socioeconomic across the board, but also including things like lower numbers of access to home computers and access to affordable and fast broadband. In many of them, more than three quarters of all households don’t have access to the home connections that they need to do telehealth visits. And because infrastructure comes before skills, they’re even further behind in knowing how to use that internet connection and make the most of their home internet connection.
Reggie Rucker: Actually, I want to pick up right there Ry, it’s really perfect. So, the report makes it incredibly clear why there is net cost savings if you were to invest in broadband to provide greater telehealth services for these communities. And you just laid out the need for the infrastructure to come first, and then that’s how you get a population that’s more comfortable and consistently using this technology. So, if everything points to, we should provide these rural communities greater access, universal access to broadbands such that they can get this access to telehealth services, what’s the problem? What’s getting in the way of making this happen?
Ry Marcattilio: Yeah, it’s a great question. So money first, these are … In some places, they’re among the more rural parts of the country. And so, broadband service has not been made available to them over the last 25 years. They’re the areas where, especially the large for-profit monopoly providers, have been the most reluctant to invest in. Not because there are not profits to be made there. People, if you talk to anybody in a rural area, they’re desperate to pay for a quality internet connection, but because there are not enough profits to be made there. And so, into that marketplace gap, that failure of a marketplace, has stepped the electric and the telephone cooperatives. We’re seeing a lot of electric cooperatives who have historically provided electric service to member owners in some of the most rural and far flung parts of this country, realizing that broadband access is a critical part of the lives of their member owners, and they’re deciding to build out. So, we’re seeing record numbers of electric cooperatives decide to invest and then go after also state and federal money to bring future-proof access out to the households of their member owners.
Reggie Rucker: So, I think Ry, you’re clearly pointing to the insanity of relying on these telecom monopolies to provide broadband service to these communities. I mean, they’re sitting here saying they can’t make any money, but meanwhile, you have community broadband, municipal broadband providers that are making it penciled out and work. You’ve got these other utility service providers finding a way to … and cooperatives, finding a way to make it work. So, what is it about these giant telecom private entities, that are having such a problem figuring out how to make this thing profitable and make it work for them so they can serve the entirety of communities like they’re supposed to?
Ry Marcattilio: So, it’s not that there are no profits to be made in these areas. It’s that Wall Street typically rewards, especially the large private companies, for increasing their profits year over year. So, not just returning a steady and predictable amount of return on that investment every single year. And these are areas that are more expensive to build in. But Wall Street, especially over the last generation or so, has typically pushed the largest providers to return more and more of a profit every single year, which means that when they’re making decisions about whether to invest $100 million here or $100 million there, they’re going to go for the place where there are more people concentrated and they can show a quick return on that investment to their investors.
Luke Gannon: So Ry, moving away from these telecom companies having the power and leaving a lot of these communities without access, the access that they need, are federal, state and local policies contributing to this broadband desert as well?
Ry Marcattilio: So, there has been typically some federal money to be invested in rural areas. There have been a number of programs over the last 20 years to try and solve this, what we call a connectivity gap. And oftentimes, they have been aimed at rural areas, although as anybody who lives in a city knows, we’ve got a connectivity problem in our urban areas as well. But for sure, there have been federal programs to try and solve this problem. There is an historic amount of funding out there available to go after households that have no future-proof access today. The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Act has allocated $42.5 billion, which will go to I think, largely solve this problem in many rural areas. The rules for that program are still being written and none of the money has gone out yet, but we’re likely to see some of those households see good connections for the first time for time ever. And that’s a good thing.
Absent the BEAD Program and what’s happening, what’s going on right now, there have been some modest federal subsidy programs. The one that jumps to mind is one that’s run by the USDA, it’s called ReConnect, and it lets companies submit grants for rural areas where there is poor or no service. And the ReConnect program is now in, its either fourth or fifth round of handing out money. And that’s where a lot of the electric cooperatives that I mentioned earlier have gotten some of the funds they needed to connect households. And so, in rural areas, the electric and telephone co-ops have certainly stepped up to fill the gap left by the broken broadband marketplace. But the injection of funds that’s going to come from BEAD is a welcome one.
Reggie Rucker: I’ve been thinking a lot about what Sean, these communications team lead for the broadband team, has talked about on the podcast before. And I know he’s done some writing in Colorado specifically, where they’ve had laws on the books that goes back some time, that actually bars local communities from doing community broadband, investing in local solutions to broadband infrastructure. But recently they’ve actually started to repeal some of those laws, to allow greater access and greater infrastructure investment if local communities decide that’s their approach that they want to go with.
In both directions, have you seen other states, local communities that have that sort of obstruction to community broadband and investing in local solutions? And then on the flip side of that, are you seeing more of those laws restrictions being overturned as more people see that community-driven broadband solutions is a viable path towards creating greater access to local broadband?
Ry Marcattilio: Yeah, so the reality is that many communities would love to step up and solve this problem. They know where the connectivity gaps are in their community because their people tell their local government all the time, “We can’t get good internet access or internet service.” Or, “The internet service we have from X provider is too slow or it’s constantly out, or their customer service reps never pick up the phone.” And so, there are plenty of communities around this country that would love to step up and solve this problem, and they need to be given the widest and most flexible toolbox that is available to us as a country, in order to do that.
Unfortunately, there are 17 states across the United States that still restrict cities’ ability to solve this problem for their communities. They are largely the result of lobbying efforts by the large internet service providers, who are not used to facing real competition and have no desire to do it because it cuts into their profits. And so, there are a couple of states that have made positive moves in recent years. Washington recently relaxed the restrictions that allow communities to solve this problem for themselves, and Arkansas has done the same. And so those are two wins for cities across the country in recent years. We haven’t seen anything yet in 2023, but fingers crossed.
Reggie Rucker: And actually, we’re almost done here, but I’m going to follow up with that quickly, which is, how do we get more of the successes? What do you know about the political environment, the sort of the energy that exists on the ground, the arguments that people were making? What is it that you’ve seen that leads to bringing more of these policy wins in the broadband space?
Ry Marcattilio: So on the telephone electric cooperative side, it’s when member owners band together and tell their boards that this is an essential service. And they know that those electric and telephone cooperatives have been trusted local partners in bringing critical infrastructure for decades. And they say, “We want to add broadband.” And so, it’s activism by member owners there.
And in the same vein, it’s when enough people to get together in a community or a city and tell their local government, “Our internet service is too expensive,” or, “It leaves out this entire neighborhood over here.” Or, “It’s constantly going out and there’s nothing that the company will do to fix it.” It’s when local broadband champions band together, educate themselves and collect the resources, of which we have many, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. If you go to www.community nets.org, we collect the stories of hundreds of cities that have built out many, many hundreds of networks to many hundreds of communities in rural places, in urban places on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and in the South, who have gotten tired of the broken broadband marketplace and educated themselves and begun the process of convincing their local elected leaders that they need to step up and begin to solve this problem at the local level because it’s not going to happen anywhere else.
Reggie Rucker: That’s perfect, Ry. We’ve been having a lot of these conversations recently, and Luke and I are still trying to figure out what we’re going to focus on for our next season of BLP, but everybody stay tuned. But one of the concepts that’s floating around is this exact question of how do we get more people involved, showing up at local commissioner meetings, or just getting involved the citizen engagement element, to how we create change. And so, yeah, what you just described as another really good example of that.
Final question we have for you, which is the final question we ask all of our guests. We want to give people an opportunity who are interested in this topic and want more than just a 40-minute conversation on it. What is a book that you recommend that has either influenced the way that you think about this work, the way you do this work? Yeah, is there a good recommended read specifically related to this topic, or maybe just something else that got you interested in broadband, community solutions, things of that nature. What would you recommend for the folks out there?
Ry Marcattilio: So a really good, and also a recent book, on all of these things and much, much more is by Christopher Ali. It’s called Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity. And it’s about not only the failed federal policies that have created this broken broadband marketplace, but what we need to do at the local level, at the state level, and at the national level, to come together and begin to build new policies that give cities the tools that they need to solve the problems for the residents that live there.
Reggie Rucker: That literally sounds like the perfect read. So, thank you for that recommendation, and thank you for the insight.
Luke Gannon: Well, thank you so much Ry, for an excellent conversation and for joining us on the show today. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to everything discussed today, by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That is ilsr.org.
Reggie Rucker: And if you liked this podcast, please share with your family, your friends, the random people that follow you on social media because you’re such a great follow. We mean it, everyone. And remember, all of your reviews and likes on your favorite streaming platform really does help with the fancy algorithms to get this podcast in front of more people.
And your donations are essential to help us keep this podcast going and support the research and resources that we make available on our website for free. You truly welcome and appreciate it all.
One last thing, if you want to send us an email, let us know what you think of the show, maybe share with us a story of your favorite teacher or mentor, you can do that at blp@ilsr.org. This show is produced by Luke Gannon, and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon. Our theme music for the season is composed by Andrew Frank. Thank you for listening to Building Local Power.

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Music Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Photo Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.

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