How to Bring High-Speed Internet Access to Public Housing (Episode 73)

Date: 30 May 2019 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

This week we’re rebroadcasting an episode of our Community Broadband Bits podcast that details our recent report on San Francisco’s innovative efforts to close the digital divide in public housing. Host Chris Mitchell is joined by former ILSR intern and report co-author, Hannah Rank, to discuss how this model can be used as a blueprint by other cities. You’ll also hear commentary from Chris and Lisa Gonzalez, Senior Researcher at ILSR, as they chime in to clarify some details of the report. The trio also cover:

  • How cities can make smart one time investments to make sure buildings are able to connect to Internet infrastructure.
  • How the local Internet Service Provider, Monkey Brains, was able to get funding for the project and potential sources of funding cities can tap into.
  • How a smart digital inclusion program can help lower-income households and keep overall costs down.
  • What having 1 gig enables residents to do including applying to jobs, completing homework, and creating content online.

The Internet can be a tool to participate in the economy, whether it’s going on a job board or starting a small business. All of those make you feel like a participant in one of the most powerful forms of connection, the Internet.


Lisa Gonzalez: Chris, why are you so out of breath?
Chris Mitchell: I’ve just been so busy building local power, Lisa.
Lisa Gonzalez: And that makes you out of breath?
Chris Mitchell: It’s a lot of work, you know, and you really gotta put your whole body and mind into it.
Lisa Gonzalez: All that building, building, building.
Chris Mitchell: You know, my three year old son, I read a lot about building, building, building.
Lisa Gonzalez: So what kind of building does he like to do?
Chris Mitchell: He likes to do different building than we do here. He likes the Legos, he likes the, the big machines, building big buildings and things like that.
Lisa Gonzalez: Speaking of big buildings.
Chris Mitchell: Oh yeah. That’s a great, great intro to what we’re gonna be talking about here. Buildings that house lots of people.
Lisa Gonzalez: Yeah. People who might not necessarily be able to afford Internet access that you and I can afford.
Chris Mitchell: Right. Because in many ways for people who are of very limited income, the market is broken. In fact, it’s so broken that we would say there’s no market for it, particularly in the larger urban areas. Those people are just left behind.
Lisa Gonzalez: And we actually released a report recently about that. People who live in San Francisco.
Chris Mitchell: We did, and it has one of the best names of any of our reports because it includes the word Monkey Brains. Yes, which is the name of an Internet Service Provider in San Francisco that’s been around for like 20 years. They are quite irreverent, but they’re also very good at their job and they’re very dedicated to improving Internet access for everyone. They have a business model in which they serve, I would guess thousands of people in businesses in San Francisco. I don’t know what the exact number is. They’re doing great things, and you remember this because you’ve already edited a podcast about it.
Lisa Gonzalez: I do remember that interview. It was with Hannah Rank and I think it was a really good interview.
Chris Mitchell: Hannah, I remember her because she wrote the report that I put my name on. She was the first author, I helped out with it.
Lisa Gonzalez: Yeah. In fact, we are going to play that interview again, but we decided that since this audience is a little different than the Community Broadband Bits podcast, we’d go ahead and offer a little extra explanation for this audience just to help explain things a little bit more clearly. So the report came out in May, the beginning of May, and at the time that we did the interview, which was wow, that was about a year ago, I think.
Chris Mitchell: I hope it was in September of last year.
Lisa Gonzalez: Well, no, I think we had planned on releasing a report in September of last year, but we didn’t get the report actually released and perfected until May of this year.
Chris Mitchell: This is totally a commentary on my ability to finish things.
Lisa Gonzalez: No, I think what it is, it’s a commentary on how much work that we do.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah, I like that explanation way better. So what do we want to talk about? I think we’ve described a little bit how one of … The key partners in this, and I think the group that came up with it is this ISP called Monkey Brains, an Internet Service Provider. Now they have a specific way of delivering service in which they use both wireless and wires.

You look at it from the point of view of the customer. You’re living in an apartment building, perhaps. You have a wire that runs from the wall that goes to your router, well from the wall, it may go to the roof and there’s wireless transmitters on the roof. And that’ll bounce around maybe one or two places in San Francisco and then hop on a fiber optic cable to an exchange in San Francisco, and then it will go to the rest of the Internet, wherever it’s headed off to most likely.

And so that’s different from many of us have a wired ISP, a cable company, or a fiber optic company. And our access is not … It doesn’t touch a wire wireless network at all. In this case, they use both wires and wireless. And so they have fiber optics, they’ve got wireless, they sort of do whatever it takes to get their signal around. And they do it very well.

Welcome to the show, Hannah.

Hannah Rank: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Chris Mitchell: We’re going to talk about San Francisco.
Hannah Rank: Sounds good.
Chris Mitchell: So you have been spending a lot of your time this summer working on a report about what Monkey Brains is doing in San Francisco. Who are Monkey Brains?
Hannah Rank: Monkey Brains is a local San Francisco ISP. They offer wireless Internet service.
Chris Mitchell: Right. I think they might be the largest wireless Internet Service Provider in an urban area, but I’m not totally sure about that.
Hannah Rank: That very well could be. They certainly service a lot of San Francisco, which is a large urban center, so I wouldn’t be surprised. And they’ve been operating since 1998 and just recently in the last couple of years have been providing free or low cost internet, well free for residents, at a couple of low income housing complexes in the city of San Francisco, in the Bay View neighborhood and the neighborhood of Western Addition.
Chris Mitchell: We talked with Preston Ray and Mason Carol from Monkey Brains back in episode 264, about 50 episodes ago, about some of this stuff and just more generally about the technology they use, but you’ve really been zeroing in on how they’re really at the forefront of what I think will ultimately be the solution we see in public housing, in many cases, both from a technological side and also a pricing side.
Hannah Rank: Yeah, definitely. They really took the reigns in talking to a lot of different stakeholders, both the housing providers and the city of San Francisco to try to really zero in on how can we do this well, how can we do this easily and efficiently. And so I think they really worked hard to try to make this a sustainable model for the future.
Chris Mitchell: And you’ve written a report, you’ve written a strong draft of a report that we’re still tweaking and learning what mistakes we’ve made and things like that. But you’re going to be gone soon. So we’re doing a preview of it. I’m going to have to finish up the work and inject my own errors into your error freed writing, I’m sure. And so we wanted to do a preview because we’ll be releasing this in September, we hope. And it’s really interesting, we talked about it a little bit in that previous podcast with Mason and Preston, but there’s a couple of things that I think we’ve learned since then that we want to get down.

One of them that I think is really important is in 2018, I feel crazy saying this, we still have people building buildings. I mean we’re not even just low income housing but all kinds of buildings without proper wiring. That blows my mind. You don’t spend as much time fretting about things like this but was that surprising to you?

Hannah Rank: Yeah, definitely. So the housing complexes names are Hunters Point East and West. And that’s a series of clusters on an east and west side. And Robert Pits, which is a separate housing complex that was in Western Addition. And both of them were undergoing major remodels. And we can talk a little bit about where the remodeling aspect came from. The impetus behind that.

But yeah, so they were undergoing major remodels and that included rewiring of all the units. And so during that process, before Monkey Brains and other ISPs or the Department of Technology of the city of San Francisco got involved. They were wiring for category 5e, which is a type of Ethernet wire that supports …

Chris Mitchell: Right, we always call it Cat 5e.
Hannah Rank: Cat 5e, the industry peeps, but I’m not really part of that. I say the full name, but yeah, so that wiring supports telephone or telephone and a fiber connection, but the fiber connection would be slower. The way that they were doing it was they were offering just the telephone jack. But Monkey Brain stepped in and said, “No.” And they put in a very simple change order and actually got them to jack for both the landline and for Ethernet. But that only supports about a hundred megabits per second of speed, of symmetrical speed, which is fast. But fiber can easily support a Gig.
Chris Mitchell: Well it’s worth noting, I mean just for people conceptually to think about when we say Cat 5e, what that means is four twisted pairs, typically, which means you have actually eight wires in the sheath. I think two of them would support telephone, which would then leave you with with six. But I think probably just really four to be able to use for data, the way that it … Because I don’t know if you can actually use six, and this isn’t an area that I know quite a lot about, I’m sort of wandering out on a …
Hannah Rank: And certainly me, neither.
Chris Mitchell: Right. Wandering out on a branch.
Hannah Rank: Can’t throw you much of a bone.
Chris Mitchell: The fundamental point is is that if they could do it all over again, it would’ve been great to have two Cat 5e wires to every unit so that you could have one dedicated for broadband and another one for voice services.
Hannah Rank: Exactly. And that’s what Preston was saying in our conversations about this report is that if they had gotten to this sooner, if perhaps the building housing providers had consulted somebody who works in this industry, they would know that just a simple, to pull two instead of one wires into each unit, would have made certainly a lot more flexibility in the future depending on what they wanted, what the residents themselves wanted to do with those wirings.
Chris Mitchell: Right. And that’s a, it’s a very low cost at the time.
Hannah Rank: Right. And so now they’re kind of, they’re being smart about it and they did a workaround and pulled a new jack right in the nick of time. But it would have certainly given them a lot more flexibility to, if they wanted gig service, to have it.
Chris Mitchell: Hey Lisa, let’s jump in here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Now, why would we want to do that?
Chris Mitchell: I just want to know how much younger I sound in that audio recording.
Lisa Gonzalez: Yeah. Actually you do sound a lot younger.
Chris Mitchell: I’m more distinguished now. I have more gray hairs.
Lisa Gonzalez: That’s what it is.
Chris Mitchell: We wanted to just talk a little bit more about this and make sure people had a sense of what we’re talking about. So when these buildings, it’s sort of a campus of buildings that have a small number of units per building, but it’s a public housing campus. I mean technically it’s they use different terms for it now because it’s owned by the Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit. But the point is is that they were fixing it all up, improving it, and they ran a Cat 5e cable to each building. Now Cat 5e is a capable of very fast transmissions.

I mean we’re talking about, I think definitely a gig, possibly 10 gigs under the right circumstances over short distances of like well under a hundred meters. That’s the issue that we’re talking about is that they have one of these cables to each unit. And they were planning on using it just for the phone. And then Monkey Brains came in and said, “Hey, if you use the right attachment, termination point in the wall, we can have a jack that will allow you to use both a phone cord and 100 megabits of internet access.” If they used it entirely for internet access, they could do a gig or they could use it only for phone. But because Monkey Brains intervened when they did, they were able to make sure every unit could get a hundred megabits and have phone service as well.

Lisa Gonzalez: So the lesson learned here is consult the right people.
Chris Mitchell: Well, absolutely. I mean I think this is one of those things where I talked about it with Travis Carter. Hey, Travis! Who is rapidly becoming the most mentioned person on the podcast.
Lisa Gonzalez: Travis is the president and CEO of USI.
Chris Mitchell: Right. I don’t even know if he’s the president, but he’s definitely the CEO.
Lisa Gonzalez: US Internet.
Chris Mitchell: US Internet. A private company doing fiber optic Internet service to most of the homes in Minneapolis and eventually all of them. And I mentioned them this issue and I said, “If you have this ability to get into public housing with this kind of wiring, would you be able to do really interesting things to make very low cost access affordable?” And he said, yes, that’s what they need. And too few of these public housing units or even apartment buildings in general have this kind of wiring. So if you’re building a home or if you’re building a large unit condo buildings or whatever
Lisa Gonzalez: Multifamily dwellings.
Chris Mitchell: Right. You want to make sure that every unit, or if it’s just your home, you know all the places you’re going to have a TV or other, like your computer and stuff, you want to wire that properly and you want to send all of those wires back to a common point. Like we sometimes call it a telco closet, but fundamentally you want to make it easy so that if you want to have an Internet service provider come into your home to offer you service, they don’t have to run around your house attaching wires to things. They just go to one room in your house or one room in your multifamily building and they can connect everything from there, they don’t have to go into an apartment, they don’t have to do anything else. That’s what we’re talking about. And too few places realize that.

If you wanted to go crazy you could have conduit and then you could make it more complicated. But at a minimum you want to make sure that each unit has, I would say, at least two of these cables running to it. One for phone, one for high capacity internet access. And fundamentally you may want to have multiple cords if you want to do … Leave yourself room for expansion in the future. But I think too many places just think, “Well Comcast will run their cords or AT&T will run their cords, and that’s the problem solved.” And that’s actually problem created.

Lisa Gonzalez: Okay, well let’s go on with the rest of the earlier podcast.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah, I want to hear more of me, too.

So if we step back for a second, I mean these were areas of the city that have been significantly rehabilitated under a specific program that you wanted to tell us a little bit about. And I think it’s relevant for making sure that other cities that are looking at these opportunities get it right the first time.

Hannah Rank: Right. So Rental Assistance Demonstration is a, we’re going to throw a lot of acronyms, but it’s a federal program that is run by the Office of Housing and Urban Development, which is a federal agency. It’s a process by which public housing run by the public housing authorities of cities and municipalities gets converted into section eight eligible housing. So that means it becomes owned by a private entity. Whether that’d be like a nonprofit housing developer or just regular housing developer.
Chris Mitchell: And let me just say that that makes me nervous. I haven’t looked into it enough to get a sense. Like I wouldn’t say I wanna have a knee jerk reaction, but it makes me nervous. But it is a reality and so need to make sure that whatever kind of low income housing stock we have is ready to support these kinds of services.
Hannah Rank: Right. Not to go too far down that road, but I think a lot of housing advocates would just say better funding for public housing instead of transferring that onto the private entities. But the reality is it’s a popular program at least in the federal government because it’s debt neutral for them. They just transfer the public housing and that, it makes the actual housing eligible for debt financing, which it can’t be if it’s a public housing unit. And other types of financing, which … And basically it, it lightens the load for public housing authorities, to be quite frank.

But section eight housing basically is … Well, section eight is actually a voucher where individuals who are low income that need rental assistance can apply and get that funding to basically reduce their costs to just, I think it’s about 30% of their income. In San Francisco, there’s a minimum amount that they have to pay for rent, which is, I believe, $25.

Chris Mitchell: Right. We’re getting a little bit off of subject, but while we’re here, Matthew Desmond’s book evicted is incredible. It got a lot of really good reviews for good reasons. For people who are interested in what it’s like to be on section eight housing in different … on particularly in Milwaukee, but also more generally, that is just a fantastic read. The point here I think is, is that where you have these kinds of big clusters, centralized public housing, you have an opportunity to do relatively insignificant onetime costs to really solve this problem. That’s what Monkeybrains is demonstrating.

That’s what your case study is really going to talk about, is that when these properties are being redeveloped, you can get the wiring internally right. You can make it easy for an ISP, a for-profit ISP, or a nonprofit ISP, to come in, offer good services that will work for them. Now in this case, Monkeybrains also had the benefit of a program from the California Public Utilities Commission, what we often called CPC. Specifically a program within there called the California Event Services Fund, which people and often referred to as CASF.

Hannah Rank: The California Advanced Services Fund is a more specific type of funding for renovations that have to do with increasing broadband access.
Chris Mitchell: Well, the entire CASF fund, I actually, you know, just as you were saying that, I was thinking, I’ve long lamented that states are pretty much only putting money into rural areas, and not putting money into urban areas. But, California is the a rare state, and possibly the only state I know of, in which the California Events Services Fund can be used for both rural or urban needs.
Hannah Rank: Yeah. Basically, they define the funding eligibility based on un-served, or underserved. That is basically whether you have access to a certain threshold of what they determined to be broadband. Which we can talk about.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah, that was infuriating.
Hannah Rank: The most recent re-up of the funding that the legislature passed, changed, or lower the threshold from the FCC’s definition of broadband to California’s own definition of broadband. Which is unfortunate, but for a different time to talk about.
Chris Mitchell: Sure
Hannah Rank: Yeah. Basically depending, I can’t remember exactly what the …
Chris Mitchell: Six one.
Hannah Rank: Six one. Okay, so a lot lower. Still, regardless, there are people in San Francisco proper who don’t have six one capability or access. Certainly, I think probably in this case it’s just out of reach financially. Maybe infrastructure wise in some parts, but certainly financially.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. In this case, Comcast had bid to serve the buildings, and Monkeybrains decided that they could do better. Then, they got this money from the CASF, which really helped enable them to really do an incredible job of providing the highest, the service that we see in public housing anywhere that’s available ,at no charge to residents.
Hannah Rank: Yeah, definitely. Comcast’s bid was much higher, I don’t know semantics of how much it was, but basically Monkeybrains both committed to offering really low internet service. Also, found different funding resources that would help them along. The CASF being a huge one. Then, the rental assistance demonstration.

It’s kind of like putting pieces of the puzzle together for financing. Also, you have to have a city that’s looking to renovate and update its public housing, which as we’ve seen everywhere, is kind of the case where it needs a lot of updating in a lot of major cities. It’s not like it wouldn’t be able to be possible. Yeah, just finding those pieces of financing to get it going.

Chris Mitchell: Yeah, we think this is broadly replicable, which is why we’re both talking about it, and writing about it.

Hey Lisa, can we jump in again?

Lisa Gonzalez: You and Hannah had a discussion about the difference between fixed wireless, and wired connections in the home. Especially when it came to working in public housing. I think we should elaborate a little bit.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah, and I think we’ve learned a lot more since we finished the report. Exactly what was going on there. What’s important to know, first of all, the city of San Francisco has a lot of fiber. Looking at Hunter’s Point, East and West is instructive. San Francisco has a ton of fiber.

When Monkeybrains was first connecting Hunter’s Point East and West, I believe both of them, perhaps it was just half of it, but the point is that they wanted to bring it online very quickly. They threw some wireless on the roof, and they were able to just connect it to the rest of the Monkeybrains network. Over a over the next year, I think, San Francisco brought its municipal fiber network to connect Hunter’s Point. Now, Hunter’s Point is connected entirely by fiber, but the wireless allowed them to move quickly, and it’s still offered a super high capacity network.

I’ve looked at some of the network logs, and you can see the traffic, and their wireless network can handle it just fine. Now again, to make sure people are understanding this, you may have in an apartment building you may have a wireless router, and people have their devices, a laptop, a tablet, whatever, on that. From there, it goes to the router, and it probably runs on the copper wire, which is Cat5e, to the building, a basement, a telco closet might be near the roof. There, it’ll either jump on fiber to go across San Francisco’s municipal network to the main data center in San Francisco, or it may travel wirelessly for some part of the way, and then get on a fiber network to go to that data center.

The way the data moves in this case is actually kind of irrelevant to the user, because they get a high capacity approach. It gives Monkeybrains flexibility to be able to build a network quickly, and have it be resilient.

Lisa Gonzalez: Right. I think also though, they have wired connections in their units.
Chris Mitchell: Right.
Lisa Gonzalez: Let’s discuss a little bit about how that serves the people who get those connections.
Chris Mitchell: This is your gentle way of saying, Chris, you misunderstood. This wasn’t a technical question, it’s a question of why do we care that they have a wire to their unit, rather than sharing Wifi with their neighbors. You know, the important point here for our perspective, and what Monkeybrains core reason for getting into this is, that if you just share Wifi on the floor, and you have five different units, 10 different units sharing that Wifi, you’re going to have a different range of quality experiences.

Some people that are far away from the access point, it’s not going to be as good. On the other hand, you also have like, maybe you have some teenagers that are like screwing around, and they’re thinking, yeah if we do this thing technologically, we could sort of spy on some of the neighbors. Right. That is the sort of thing that when each home is individually connected, you have more privacy and protection. Now, if you’re a sophisticated person on a shared Wifi, you could still be very protected. I think there’s just less room for error, and there’s a much higher quality when each person, each household has their own connection. Rather than having to share a connection with others on their floor.

Lisa Gonzalez: Also, I was wondering about the number of devices. Especially because there are a lot of people who are low income who use mobile devices. I think that there would probably be more dependence on that Wifi in the buildings, because so many people are using mobile devices, and they’re hooking into the Wifi.
Chris Mitchell: Right, now I think it’s worth noting that if it was Monkeybrains doing this versus a company like Comcast, I think you’d have different results. I could imagine a company is trying to cut corners and keep the prices as low as possible. The internal cost to them of doing it, they may use a solution in which people would not be able to connect as many devices, but you would be possible to build a Wifi network in a building that was able to support a sufficient number of devices. There wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem with congestion, but that would really depend on the motivations of whoever was building it.

These are mostly one time investments, so they can provide service on an ongoing basis at a very low cost. If you get the one time investments right. Whereas, I think too many public housing facilities settle for having Wifi in the hallways, which doesn’t deliver a good service to everyone. It’s certainly not an even service. I think there’s security concerns about it. Although, there are practices that could remedy a number of those. The challenge fundamentally is that I believe we should be striving to have Internet access to everyone in their home that is not interfered with by their neighbors. That’s something that I believe Monkeybrains is really getting right.

Hannah Rank Yeah. I think this fits into Monkeybrains’ belief that practices that involve digital inclusion is necessary to get everybody up to speed for digital equity. I mean, quite literally building Wifi is maybe easier to install. It’s maybe less labor intensive, but it definitely does not get people up to the standard of Internet access, that they need to be creators on the Internet, to be participants of the Internet. In-unit Ethernet is not that hard, but it takes some coordination, and it takes some planning. It’s not just like popping in a Wifi connection at the last minute and calling it a day.
Chris Mitchell: I think probably some of this just comes from, I mean the people who run public housing are very busy. They’re very specialized, they’re overworked. Many of them probably were just thinking, oh, wireless is the future. Wireless will be good enough. Something that we’ve mentioned before is that, you know, Monkeybrains is itself a wireless ISP. Now, they’re very deliberate, as many wisps have become, in terms of recognizing where wires are better, where wireless is better. They may actually have a network which is wired from point A to B, wireless from B to C, and then wired again from C to D. Then, it may even be wireless at that point from D to the device E. As you go from different hops in the network. They basically pick the lower cost option. Not just lower cost of one time, but lower lifetime costs of how it’s gonna work out I think.
Lisa Gonzalez: At the time when you interviewed Hannah, she wasn’t sure if the Robert E Pitts building had a hundred megabits, or gigabit access yet, but I think that’s been resolved.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. Robert E Pitts does have a gigabit to every unit, because they were able to drag an extra ethernet cord, because they intervene fast enough. This is much more common now. In San Francisco, as we discussed in our paper, it took some years of coordination to figure out how to make sure the different agencies, and parts of San Francisco that were involved in these remodels and rehabilitations of these different facilities. There’s actually many more of them now than there were when we started working on this paper. They really have their act together. There’s none of this last second change order stuff. From the beginning they do it, and it can be very low cost.

Let’s just briefly talk about this a little bit. The services, depending on the wiring of the home, they’re getting 100 megabits or a gigabit. Right?

Hannah Rank: Right. I believe in Robert Pitts, which we’ve talked about less, because it was a little bit more of a streamlined effort. I believe they have a gigabit there, because the project just was more coordinated. It was after Hunter Point East and West. At Hunters Point East and West, they have 100 megabits per second already. If they want more, they can coordinate that with the Monkeybrains.
Chris Mitchell: One of the benefits of doing this recording now, and getting things on the record when we haven’t nailed everything down, is that any mistakes we’re making now will be corrected in the paper. Which will have more detail.

Hannah Rank:

Preston, listen to this. If it’s not right, let me know please.
Chris Mitchell: We should just note Preston, Mason, the folks at Monkeybrains have been incredible. We would not be able to do this podcast without them, the report without them. They have been very open in sharing a lot of this information. I just give them tremendous respect. I just wanted to ask you, you went to grad school. You know, you started grad school, you got an internship studying, doing broadband policy. Did you expect that you would say Monkeybrains more than the entire cast of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom?

Hannah Rank:

No, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Let me tell you. Sometimes I’m talking about it in staff meetings, and I think people hold back giggles because they are doing really great work. They just have an awesome name.
Chris Mitchell: Right? Well, I constantly tell people, particularly when I’m out on the West Coast. I start talking about the project, and then I’m going to say Monkeybrains and I say, so I’m about to say the name of the ISP. You have to understand that these people are very serious, they’re very good at what they do, their name is Monkeybrains.

Hannah Rank:

Yup. Yup. You can’t blame them for it. They also have an awesome logo of like a very crazy looking monkey. It’s awesome.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah, well, probably a very smart monkey.

Hannah Rank:

Chris Mitchell: I wanted to ask you who’s paying for what? This is something that just, we’re really going to nail down very clearly in the report, but in general right now, people are getting 100 megabits, a gigabit depending on which building they’re in. How much they paying?

Hannah Rank:

Yeah. This is one of the best parts about this, is that the residents are not paying for anything right now. Monkeybrains has worked out a really good, I think offer that they are getting a little bit of funding for it. At the end of the day the residents aren’t paying anything, and that’s really important. Even for service calls I believe. That’s like something that really promotes buy-in, if they know that there’s no little nickel and diming happening. It’s free, and they just really want you to get involved, and they want you to get you to that fast Internet service.
Chris Mitchell: Right, over time there will be some charges. Presumably we don’t know, and no one knows yet, it hasn’t been settled, how they might be allocated. Over time as we see more public housing agencies do this, we might see some of them paying for it, you know, just as they may other kinds of services, or they may pass through a charge. One of the points that we want to make is that any charge that will go through, no matter who pays it, will be reasonable. It’s not going to be $50 per household unit or something like that.
Lisa Gonzalez: There’s some confusion I think, let’s just-
Chris Mitchell: Wait, are we interrupting again, Lisa?
Lisa Gonzalez: Yes, of course. You know, I love to interrupt. No matter who it is, no matter where it is, no matter what it is. There is confusion about who pays what for how much Internet access. Let’s clear that up.
Chris Mitchell: Sure. Yeah, let’s be very clear about this, because it can be a little bit confusing. It actually varies in different buildings. In the buildings that we’re talking about, Monkeybrains receives $10 per household using the network, I believe. Now, the the people who own the units don’t actually pay that directly. The authority, or the owner of the building pays it to Monkeybrains. The $10 is actually, is enough to recover the costs of what they’ve put in overtime, and the ongoing costs of the bandwidth. The bandwidth is actually very low cost. It’s not as much of a problem. The real challenge tends to be customer service. And so that’s why we’re even talking about a cost at all is because if something goes wrong, you need a company that’s monitoring it, can fix it, and that sort of a thing. And so it’s not enough just to say we’re going to do this and we’ll find an ISP to do it for free. You want to make sure a company like Monkey Brains is able to recover its cost and even have a thin margin to be motivated to do it. And so that’s what the $10 covers. I don’t believe anywhere in San Francisco do residents pay that directly. But there are a number of buildings in which the owner of the building pays the cost of $10 per household to Monkey Brains.

Another, a piece of that that actually is, we discussed in the report quite a bit that’s important, is that Monkey Brains takes questions and problems, technical support questions from residents of these buildings in the same way that they do their other customers. A piece of it that we were very clear on in the report is that the Community Tech Network, a local nonprofit group, and actually some other nonprofits as well, have all helped to help educate people, get devices in their hands, make sure that they have the literacy to know how to use these devices well, and also help answer their technical support questions that may not be related to the network, so that Monkey Brains is not constantly fielding calls from someone who says, my browser is not working because of a user error that they’re having. One of the challenges-

Hannah Rank: Triage.
Chris Mitchell: Exactly, triage, that’s a great word for it, is trying to make sure that people are contacting Monkey Brains for problems that are related to Monkey Brains and not related to the devices itself.
Hannah Rank: So it’s a community effort.
Chris Mitchell: right. And so I think that this is a … I love this model, and I think it’s appropriate to put a price on it. I mean, I think there’s, in a different world, maybe everything could be free that people rely upon. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect households to contribute $10 a month for high quality access to the Internet. I think that it can be challenging for them to come up with that money. And that’s the problem we need to resolve because we need to make sure people have the resources to get the things they need. And I realize some of our audience may be strongly disagreeing, but in my mind, if we can find ways to have ISPs delivering service and making a small margin at $10 a month, it’s going to be far easier to solve the low income digital divide then if we’re just trying to figure out how to do it at no cost to end users.
Hannah Rank: The key here is that Monkey Brains is a for profit business. They have costs that they have to control. But their goal is not at all just to find another place to get money from. It’s definitely always been a priority of theirs to get these folks to have fast internet by any means possible, if that’s finding funding from other sources, or coordinating really strong relationships with the housing providers to get them to believe that it’s important too, to then maybe think about investing in this in the future. That’s always been their tactic.
Chris Mitchell: This is one of the reasons that I sometimes yell at people. I think more often I don’t yell, but sometimes i-
Hannah Rank: Do you need a reason?
Chris Mitchell: More insights from Chris’s management style.
Hannah Rank: Just kidding, everybody.
Chris Mitchell: Is that sometimes people, when they’re thinking about Comcast or the big companies, they just generalize for profit companies.
Hannah Rank: Yeah
Chris Mitchell: and it is worth noting, I mean we had many companies on here that are for profit companies that have had a larger impact than nonprofits have had. And so it is worth remembering that for profit can mean a lot of different things.
Hannah Rank: Absolutely
Chris Mitchell: And it often depends on the scale of the firm and who’s running it. The last thing that we want to make sure we touched on with some of the digital inclusion pieces, and I think this is one of the pieces that has to fall into place nationally, because one of the biggest costs that Monkey Brains could face would be these service calls, particularly among populations that do not have very good Internet access skills, computer literacy. So having a digital inclusion component can take some of the pressure off of an ISP, and allow them to keep their costs down if they’re not the front line of answering questions about why a computer might not be working.
Hannah Rank: Right. One of the people, the organizations rather that we haven’t really talked about as much that we’re, peripherally involved in this whole effort is-
Chris Mitchell: Well, yeah, they certainly, I would say we wouldn’t want to minimize their role in making it happen, but …
Hannah Rank: No, but just in terms of this actual process, they were integral in getting Monkey Brains involved, is Community Tech Network, run by Cammie Griffiths. We’ve talked with her about this.
Chris Mitchell: And I think her sort of … I was going to say partner in crime, Mike McCarthy, who had worked for the city, and has been an incredible resource for me over the years, both in terms of San Francisco and also just thinking about these issues more generally.
Hannah Rank: Yeah, definitely, he’s been helping us along with this too. So CTN, Preston Ras was, I don’t believe he still is, but if I’m wrong, Preston.
Chris Mitchell: Will know
Hannah Rank: Let me know. Was on the board of CTN, which is, if you guys haven’t heard of it, it’s a digital literacy and inclusion nonprofit. And basically their main focus right now is doing training programs in places where there are populations that don’t have adequate access to the internet or are not versed in the Internet. They mainly focus on the, what they call the three legs of the stool. I never get that right. Which is adequate and affordable internet access.
Chris Mitchell: One stool.
Chris Mitchell: One leg.
Hannah Rank: One leg. See? You do it too. And the second leg is getting a device that they prefer to use and can use well. And then the third one is, yeah, just getting them versed in how to use the internet. I think a lot of times with getting people involved is that they’re wary of using the internet. They’ve never used it before or had spotty access and they just don’t think it’s a really powerful tool tool for them. And so Cammie and CTN, they work with generally older populations, maybe populations with disabilities or folks whose language, first language isn’t English. And then also communities of lower income who don’t maybe have as much access regularly to the internet. The ISP Monkey Brains who took care of the fast, adequate internet access, affordable being the main component. And then the other two is just getting that buy in.

If you have a device that you know how to use and you like using it, that’s half the battle. But also just feeling safe and comfortable on the internet, knowing that it can be a great tool to connect with your friends and family and also a tool to participate in the economy. Whether it’s even just going on a job board and finding a job to starting a small business. There’s lots of shades to that. But all of those make you feel like a participant in one of the most powerful forms of connection, the internet.

Chris Mitchell: So Hannah, as you’ve been doing this work, what have you found in terms of what are the limits of some of these folks having, taking advantage of access to the internet, the low income populations?
Hannah Rank: The thing that Cammy brought up that was one of the main ones is affordability. The prohibitive costs of the Internet. A really recent Pew Report showed that about, I think, I want to say it’s 20% of Internet users are smartphone only users, which, you could just say that people use their smartphones more, but when paired with another statistic, it shows that it’s really about affordability, which is that people making less than $30,000 a year, you know, a good portion of those are only smartphone users. And so that tells us that something that you guys have talked about constantly at ILSR and the Community Broadband Initiative is that it’s a lot about affordability.

When you think about how expensive it can be to have a wireless internet plan, I’m sorry, an internet plan rather. And to have a smartphone service, the pairing of those two can be prohibitive for people. So they just choose, you know, I need to call people, I need text people, I’ll just use my internet on my phone and try to work with that. But if anyone’s tried to edit a paper or look something more in depth up online, it’s just, on a smart phone, very hard to do. So it’s much better to have a device where you can have all the options for using the internet.

Chris Mitchell: Right. And so as we’re talking about how to keep those costs low, I think it’s worth just going over exactly what some of the costs and the technology are to do this. Let’s just say that you have a new low income housing building going in or complex, because a lot of times these are a campus of multiple buildings. We’re not seeing giant high rises being built anymore. That’s not a particularly good way of dealing with concentrated poverty. So you have that. So you have a couple of costs. One of those … You have a couple of one time costs to really focus on. And it’s worth noting that it is often the debt from these one time costs that makes these projects more challenging. And so if you can find one time sources of capital, then your operating costs can be quite low.

But those one time costs you might think of as, one, wiring the individual unit, and that should be, I mean, well under $100 per unit to do, particularly when the walls are up and everything else. I mean, well under $100 to get all that wiring to each unit to Cat 5 wires or a fiber too. At that point when the walls are open, it’s really cheap to put a lot of things in it. Running conduit would be nice. In some cases it may be impractical. And then typically just for people to see conceptually you want to run each unit to a closet on that floor maybe, or down to a basement, a room. You just want to make it very easy for someone to come in and just by going to one or two rooms in your building, be able to connect home any unit anywhere basically.

That’s one of the onetime costs. And then the other which is more significant would be getting high quality internet access to the building, either through a fiber network that could be very costly if the city does not already have one nearby. Or you can use a what Monkey Brains uses in many cases in its business, which is a high capacity fixed wireless link, where you might be looking at on the order of $3,000 per radio I think to do that. I’m not as good yet at remembering if it’s per pair or per radio. But those are one time costs that that, again, if you can just take care of them and not have any debt associated with them, then your operating costs are very low to be able to deliver high quality Internet access, whether from a nonprofit or from a for profit company to those units.

Again, then your largest cost is going to be your help desk is what we call it, but if you have a digital inclusion program, which is something that you probably really need anyway for other benefits, and they can really help take some of the pressure off of the ISP, then at a relatively low charge you could have a very good ISP taking care of a lot of that rather than doing it yourself. Certainly no problem doing it yourself in many cases. But in my experience people would rather have a specialized company doing that anyway.

Monkey Brains is showing that this can all work, and you’re explaining to the world how, how that works.

Hannah Rank: Yeah. I think what you touched on is really important. If you have buildings that have the capacity for really easy, fast internet connectivity, that’s really half the battle, and then people, organizations like CTN helping get that buy in on the resident’s side is also a huge effort.
Chris Mitchell: Hey Lisa, before we do the credits, and this is once again future Chris, not past Chris, I just wanted to say that the folks at Monkey Brains, particularly Mason and Preston, they were terrific. We couldn’t have done this report without them. They were very patient with the amount of time that I took and doing it.
Lisa Gonzalez: Anyone who works with us has to be patient.
Chris Mitchell: The folks working for, the city of San Francisco were incredibly helpful. And one of the things I want to note is that this came about because of the people who are out there doing their jobs, working in the trenches. They developed interesting ways of getting this stuff done. And eventually the people who run the departments have swooped in, I think, and done good things to make sure that it becomes official policy. Sometimes I think looking back, we look at these things and we think, oh, how did the CIO or CTO, how did they come up with this great idea? And often they didn’t. They get credit for it, and we don’t notice that it’s people who are doing the job every day in the streets that are coming up with really good ideas that are fixing these kinds of problems. So I just want to make sure that we give credit where it’s due.

There’s a lot of credit to the city of San Francisco for making this happen. There’s a lot of credit for Monkey Brains, and for people working in the nonprofit for community tech network and stuff like that.

Lisa Gonzalez: Sometimes it takes a lot of effort just to recognize that you need to talk to those people who are in the trenches. And sometimes in big organizations, big entities, that’s hard to do.
Chris Mitchell: Right. It absolutely is. And I I hope that things like this lead to more breaking down of silos and a recognition that there’s a lot of wisdom from people who are actually out there doing these things.
Lisa Gonzalez: Yeah. So with that, we want to thank everyone for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power.
Chris Mitchell: I feel like we built some local power today.
Lisa Gonzalez: You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website,, and clicking on the show page for this episode.
Chris Mitchell: And you can find links to everything else by going on the internet, generally.
Lisa Gonzalez: That’s with a capital I.
Chris Mitchell: It is absolutely with a capital I. The Internet. We’re not talking about some other thing. I’m not going to get-
Lisa Gonzalez: Oh my god. While you’re at, sign up for one of our newsletters, and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.
Chris Mitchell: Those newsletters are great.
Lisa Gonzalez: If you like podcast, please consider sharing it with your friends and leaving us a rating on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Chris Mitchell: And as they say at the Brave New Workshop, which is a brilliant improv here in Minneapolis with a long tradition, if you didn’t like this show, share it with your enemies.
Lisa Gonzalez: I edit the show myself, and I produce it with Hibba Meraay and Zach Freed.
Chris Mitchell: And you do a great job. So do they.
Lisa Gonzalez: Why thank you. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Disfunction Al. For the Institute For Local Self Reliance, I’m Lisa Gonzalez.
Chris Mitchell: Thanks Mr. Dysfunction Al. This is Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: Please join us in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.
Chris Mitchell:
Chris Mitchell:
Chris Mitchell:
Chris Mitchell:


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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