Can We Be Local in a Digital World? — Episode 123 of Building Local Power

Date: 1 Apr 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband initiative, and Christopher Ali, Associate Professor in the department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Their conversation focuses around the idea of what it means to be local during a time when more and more pieces of our lives are shifting online. Other highlights of the discussion include:

  • Ali’s recent Congressional testimony around rural broadband issues.
  • Where federal broadband data is falling short.
  • A rundown of recent and upcoming federal funding programs earmarked for broadband projects.
  • How physical and virtual spaces can overlap, and the heightened importance of virtual community in rural areas.
  • The case for connecting everyone to Internet access that goes beyond “good enough.”

 

“I also think when we talk about local broadband networks there’s also this idea of return on investment that can’t be measured by the quarter, as in quarterly shareholder returns. It’s measured in communities and people connected, it’s measured in the longterm — decades, sometimes. It’s a very different way of thinking about broadband deployment — much less as a commodity, much more as a service and a utility. And that’s why you’ll see me and read me say over and over again, the best broadband is local broadband.”

 

Jessica Del Fia…: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to stop provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. And today we’re going to have a discussion about what it means to be local in a time when so much of our lives is virtual, including this podcast recording itself. So welcome to the show, Christopher Ali, who is an Associate Professor at department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, as well as Christopher Mitchell, who’s the Director of the Community Broadband Initiative here at ILSR here at ILSR. Welcome to the show.
Christopher Ali: Thank you very much.
Christopher Mit…: You, you missed the other important part, which is Chris, has the best pipeline of people who come out of college ready to do important work on broadband. I’ve worked with many of his former students and I mean, Kat Blake, Katie Jordan, and then also, I didn’t want to forget Anna Higgins because she works with Katie Jordan and the work that they’re doing at Internet Society is so important. I shouldn’t have started naming names because I won’t get through them all. But now Jericho is on our staff currently just a lot of really great people who I think were inspired to do this work, Chris, so thank you for that.
Christopher Ali: Well, thank you. And, yeah, those are some amazing young people doing amazing work and I love being able to follow their careers and the impact they are making specifically in this place or space of broadband deployment and the importance of kind of evangelizing the importance of community networks, local networks, broadband networks, more generally, I could not be more proud of them.
Christopher Mit…: This is important. We desperately need more of these people.
Jessica Del Fia…: That’s actually a call for recruits, sort of broadcasters.
Christopher Mit…: Right. If you’re listening to these words and you have any interest in this, please come work.
Jessica Del Fia…: All right, Chris, our guest, you recently testified before the Senate on Rural Broadband Policy generally, is there anything you want to share, like a few highlights from what you shared there, anything that like surprised you or that you want to share with us about that?
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean, it was kind of a surreal experience. I did it in person because I wanted the whole pomp and ceremony of it and had some great one-on-ones particularly with Senator Klobuchar about some awesome developments in Minnesota. I think one of the, I guess, two things that I took away is that we are still having a debate over minimum broadband speeds. The speeds that Americans need in order to go through their daily lives, and we are still waffling on whether or not we should be using the speed and said back in 2015, which is 25 megabits per second, download three megabits per second upload and there was different perspectives on whether or not that an adequate speed. I, for one, do not believe that’s anywhere close to an adequate speed specifically when we’re talking about households of more than one person where the bandwidth, it’s not like this Zoom call is five megabits and another Zoom call is five megabits and therefore you can have five Zoom calls using 25 megabits, that’s not how broadband works.
Christopher Ali: And it just kind of baffled me that we’re still having this conversation. I know there’s a number of folks who would join me in saying that we’d prefer what’s called a symmetric definition. So maybe like 100/100, which would mean that everybody in a household, let’s say, four people, six people, could be on a Zoom call, could be watching high definition Netflix, but could also be uploading data quickly, which is so very important for businesses, especially farmers. So I was surprised that that was, maybe assumed a bit, but that garnered so much attention in the testimony and the back and forth yesterday.
Christopher Mit…: It is frustrating to say the least. And one of the things I’ve found is that the people who are defending the lower standards almost always live in areas where they’re never going to encounter them because the vast majority of Americans live in areas where there are cable networks and if you can afford their prices, which are going up next year, because they go up every year, basically. If you can afford those prices, then you are getting speeds that are radically in excess of that standard. And I do find it frustrating to have people defending that when they themselves would not raise their family on that standard.
Christopher Ali: Yeah, absolutely. And it is also, this is something I said yesterday to the Senate, that oftentimes we think about 25/3 as a ceiling, right? As if that’s something providers need to meet, especially the larger providers like to think about that. But oftentimes 25/3 becomes like theoretical speed where maybe when no one else is on the network and it’s brand new copper wires for DSL networks, and you’re really close to the network node then yeah, you can get 25/3, but the 25/3 is an advertised speed as well. I mean, so you qualify for some big money from the FCC, but really that 25/3 becomes 5/1 or 10/1 very quickly. And that’s something that I think the proponents of keeping the speed low don’t really think about it. And I’ve called it the politics of good enough, right? It’s good enough for rural people, it’s good enough because you have no choices and it’s fine, don’t worry about it, but good is the enemy of great here and that’s what I tried to tell the Senate yesterday.
Christopher Mit…: I’ve gone on a rant before on this show so I won’t do the long version of it about how the Federal Communications Commission is really good at making sure that electronic devices do not emit harmful radiation either for health or for interfering with other devices. A lot of things, almost any device you buy has like a little thing that is inspected and improved by the FCC. Meanwhile, it almost could not be worse at mapping. And I think that came up yesterday. I mean, that the speed definition is bad, but the mapping, the Federal Communications Commission has no idea where there is broadband in the United States with the exception of where cable networks are and even then you might have massive reliability issues.
Christopher Ali: Absolutely. And this is something that at those of us in the public interest community, we’ve been talking about this for years, right? And the FCC was even ordered by Congress last year to improve its maps because for those listening to this who don’t know what we’re talking about, the FCC asks the providers to tell them about their broadband deployment twice a year and they really let the providers call the shots. So it’s measured by the census block level, which means that so long as one building in a census block is served or can be served in tenders and stays, that whole census block is considered served with broadband, which means we have grossly overestimated the number of Americans who are un and under connected, which is just absolutely agregious. So, yeah, that was a major talking point yesterday.
Christopher Ali: I’ve been really excited by what I’ve been reading about the Georgia map though, and kind of these innovative partnerships at the more local or state level to map out communities, map out broadband deployment in communities. Georgia has partnered with a real estate data provider to go address by address, to figure out who has broadband in the state and they noticed some major discrepancies. I’m doing some work right now in the State of Virginia where I’ve asked counties to self-report their broadband speeds. And in one County, there is a 90% difference between what the FCC says and what the county says. The FCC says they’re 100% served, the County says they are 10% served. And quite frankly, I’m going to trust the County more than I’m going to trust the FCC on that point.
Christopher Mit…: Yes. But I think it is important to note something that is just really frustrating. The FCC, as you noted, the Congress ordered the FCC to improve their broadband maps and the administration, the Trump administration, Ajit Pai, refused until the last day. And then they pass the rules so that they could structure it to make sure that even though they refuse to collect the appropriate data, that they would make sure it was harder for Democrats to collect data in the way that the Democrats would like to under the Biden administration. This is why things don’t work in this country. Just nuts.
Christopher Ali: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, we could certainly talk about the need to do some major FCC reform so it doesn’t flip flop back and forth all the time. I’m a big fan of acting chair Rosenworcel, I’m excited to see what’s coming up this task force. And I appreciate that this is a difficult job because you’re pushing against the ocean and that ocean is big teleco and big cable who do not want to share maps, who say it’s proprietary or that they just don’t have the data. They absolutely have the data. So it’s an uphill battle, but Congress has at least started to pay attention to the battle
Jessica Del Fia…: Can either or both of you give just like a very brief snapshot of what’s happening at the federal level in regards to broadband policy right now, I feel like we haven’t really given that overview.
Christopher Mit…: I haven’t written books about it so I’m going to defer to Chris.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. So, I mean, you could almost divide it between everything that’s happened before six months ago and everything that’s happening in this six months because it’s been bananas and I’m actually giving a presentation to Odessa Texas tomorrow on this. So just off the top of my head, Congress has finally woken up to the idea that broadband is a necessity, which means you have to start putting some public money behind it because we have massive broadbanders in this country. In the CARES Act, CARES Act didn’t do great, less than 1% of the CARES Act went to broadband, although there was some wiggle room in how the States could use their CARES Act money and a number of States as the Shelby coalition just released a great job, post this week on how States used CARES Act and kind of this innovative way to get broadband out.
Christopher Ali: We have the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which gave $7.1 billion to broadband, including a $3.2 billion broadband benefit package, is going to make broadband more affordable for low-income families, it also gave a billion dollars to Tribal Broadband if I’m not mistaken to connectivity there and to broadband provision amongst HBC use and also 300 million to broadband in rural areas. Now we’ve got the American Rescue Plan Act, which gave 7 billion this time for schools, hospitals and libraries, and another 10 billion for State infrastructure projects that’s supposed to be used towards broadband. Last but not least, The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act was reintroduced in the house and in the Senate by James Cliburn and Amy Klobuchar respectively, that’s promising 94 billion for broadband, including $80 billion for broadband deployment. And the reason that number is so important is that that is the number of the FCC itself gave in 2017 to get 100% of Americans or close to it as possible connected with fiber to the premises.
Christopher Ali: So that number is as the young people might say clutch. And the rest of it would be moved towards the important aspects of digital inclusion work, digital literacy work, and continuing the need to subsidize broadband for low income families. So I’m really excited about Congress finally putting big money where the talk is, where its mouth is, because if we do it piecemeal, which is what we’ve done in the past 15 years, we will never close the digital divide. So we’ll see about what happens with The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, but I’m pretty excited about things to come.
Christopher Mit…: So I want to highlight, you had a really great rundown, particularly off the top of your head.
Christopher Ali: Thank you.
Christopher Mit…: That was impressive. The amount of money flowing to local governments right now because of the American Rescue Plan is particularly unprecedented in terms of the lack of strings attached to it. Regarding the Accessible, Affordable Internet Act with the 80 billion that you’re talking about, let me just offer a counterpoint. Congress is taking it serious. I want to give them credit to that. And it’s the Democrats, Republicans are not supportive of it. I’m worried that the Democrats won’t even be supportive of it in coming months. The first thing to note is that the $80 billion is like you said, to get fiber to everyone, but the program is structured in a way that right now would put a lot of that money into networks that will be built in areas where there’s already a cable provider.
Christopher Mit…: And I’m very curious to see if the Democrats stick to that or if the Democrats themselves water that down. And if they do that, then I don’t know that there’ll be able to spend the $80 billion. And we might see a lot of press releases, but we might see a whole bunch of money that just can’t be spent because there’s no eligible areas left as hard as that might be to think. And the real danger is not so much the rural areas, it’s the population centers in rural regions that have crappy cable that might not work very well. That might look pretty good on paper in D.C, but really isn’t that effective. And even in more urban areas where you might have effective cable, but it’s still very expensive. And so I’m kind of worried that even though Congress is treating this more seriously that we might be getting our hopes up a little bit too high right now.
Christopher Ali: That’s a great point, Chris, and thank you. I think I’m excited by big numbers, but I think this is also a tethering back to our earlier conversation why we need to raise the speed definition of broadband because suddenly a lot of these underserved, but pushing the limit of the definition, like for instance, a lot of those County seats that you mentioned that have crappy cable service who are currently considered served, but if we raised that definition, they would now be unserved or underserved which would hopefully, I agree, make them eligible for upgrades because I think, one of the problems about keeping the definition of broadband so low is that we’ve created a lot of underserved communities that are served on the map, right?
Christopher Ali: So you go down to, and this happens a lot with rural County seats, where there’s a cable provider that has an upgraded their network in decades, the speeds aren’t much better than 25/3 if that, but they are considered served and therefore ineligible for any type of federal or state support. And we need to help these communities as well, because they’re kind of stuck in like a broadband purgatory where you don’t have good broadband, but you don’t have no broadband and so you’re just ignored and people are frustrated, absolutely.
Christopher Mit…: Yeah. Fully agree with that.
Jessica Del Fia…: Thank you for that rundown of the federal level stuff. That’s, I think, really helpful context to have. Just to switch tracks a little bit. I’m really curious to get to the local half of this conversation, and I’d love to hear Chris, what does it mean to you for something to be local or for someone to be local in this day and age when people might have a more homes, in quotes, in virtual communities rather than their physical community where they live or other aspects of that.
Christopher Ali: That is a great question. And I actually wrote a whole book on this idea of what does it mean to be a local in the digital age. I think it depends so much on what we’re talking about. I mean, obviously when we’re talking about voting, we still vote locally. And I would actually argue when we talk about broadband, broadband is local, broadband is fundamentally local and the best broadband service is local service. When we start talking about things like communities of interest or I’ve been particularly interested in like linguistic communities, it becomes a lot more subjective, right? I am local in the space, I am most comfortable. I teach a course at the University of Virginia called what does it mean to be local in the digital age. And I start the chorus asking my students just to write down a reflection. What does it mean to be local? And most of them will point to a particular geographic neighborhood or community. I am local there. And then by the end of the semester, we talked about, well, where do you feel local?
Christopher Ali: So you might feel local at a Starbucks, but doesn’t have to be any Starbucks, or it can be any Starbuck, you just feel local in that environment or at a library for instance or playing World of Warcraft, right? So I think we’re starting to maybe untether that definition in theory between local and places, but on the flip side, I think when we talk about policy, particularly when we’re talking about broadband policy, that geographic component becomes absolutely crucial. Because it becomes about local accountability.
Christopher Ali: If you’ve got one of the big providers, I don’t know if I should name big providers, but if you’ve, let’s say, you’ve got Comcast or you’ve got CenturyLink there, I just did it. You don’t know the owner of that network, you don’t know who to complain to if it goes down, you’re calling a customer service line, if you have a local cooperative or a municipal broadband provider, you’re more than likely to see the person at the grocery store, they might be your neighbor, you probably got their phone number. And when I talk to local broadband providers, that’s what they tell me. Like when someone’s network goes down, they get phone calls to their house.
Christopher Ali: So there’s this element of local accountability. But I also think when we talk about local broadband networks there’s also this idea of return on investment can’t be measured by the quarter, as in quarterly shareholder returns, it’s measured in communities and people connected, it’s measured in the longterm decades sometimes, it’s a very different way of thinking about broadband deployment, much less as a commodity, much more as a service and a utility. And that’s why you’ll see me and read me say over and over again, the best broadband is local broadband.
Christopher Mit…: Is nice, but I mean, in talking to someone, a U.S rep staff, he told me we’re never going to actually get broadband, like high quality fiber optics across the entire prairie though. And I don’t know, there’s a corner of Southwestern, Minnesota that is pretty remote and we can’t really expect that everyone there is going to have fiber optics, can we?
Christopher Ali: Well, you’re talking about my favorite piece of Minnesota, Rock County, Minnesota. Rock County, Minnesota population, roughly 10,000 has 99.93% pass through broadband to the home. [crosstalk 00:18:16].
Christopher Mit…: Did you mean the 17 families? It’s like what? 17 families that probably don’t have access. [crosstalk 00:18:22].
Christopher Ali: It’s an amazing success story of a public private partnership between the state of Minnesota, which is in my mind, the leader, the statewide leader in kind of broadband thinking, you had an amazingly proactive County administrator and you had a board of supervisors that supported that County administrator. And then you have a cooperative, a Telephone Cooperative Alliance Communication. You bring all these things together you’ve got a great recipe for 99.93% broadband to the home.
Christopher Mit…: Five, you said.
Christopher Ali: Five, oh, sorry, five or 10 of them, yeah. It is incredible. And I absolutely agree that we can’t… You’ve seen one broadband network, you’ve seen one broadband network, but there are lessons to be learned. There’s lessons to be learned at the state level, which means empowering local communities, there’s lessons to be learned at the local level, meaning you need a local digital champion and you need to understand what you want out of your network, in this case in Rock County, they were offered fixed wireless networks, but they wanted fiber and they were going to hold out for a fiber dance partner. And then you’ve got this local cooperative. Now, it’s local in South Dakota, but they drove there, the County administrator drove there, had a meeting and basically on our handshake, maybe not that easy to contract, but said they would invest $6 million in Rock County. I mean, local, local, local, local, all the way down the pipeline. And in one year they did this, including at Minnesota winter.
Christopher Mit…: Yes. And I’ve met some of the folks from Alliance, they’re great. And there’s a lot of… The upper Midwest, we have a lot of really great local cooperatives, we’ve got some great independent family companies that do similar things and there’s a lot of those partnerships. It seems like, again, to reinforce that local, what needs to happen is you need to have local folks that are organizing around it. It might be members of the County staff, might be independent business owners, it might just be residents who are themselves making sure this is a priority and having those conversations to make sure that if grant money becomes available, they can quickly put a project together.
Christopher Ali: Absolutely. And that’s what we saw the avenue. I mean, I think, everyone would agree that in a community broadband toolkit you have to have digital champions who are going to keep pushing for this and be ready to act when there is an opportunity to act and in Minnesota, they have quite a great that border to border broadband program really does open up a lot of opportunities for communities like Rock County, which might be passed by communities in terms of broadband deployment because it’s difficult to find what they told me with a dance partner. But if you’ve got a state like Minnesota that’s willing to put some money behind it, suddenly you’d be able to attract a provider. And that’s something that we’re struggling with here in Virginia actually. The state has finally realized that they need to put some a little bit more serious money behind County projects so that these counties can attract a provider. In Virginia it is difficult for municipal broadband projects, not impossible, it’s not prohibited, but certainly inhibited. And the State definitely prefers public private partnerships.
Christopher Mit…: Yes. And I think it’s just worth knowing there’s been a conversation and people have run for office in terms of getting the State out of the way and the legislature has decided after conferring with lobbyists, that it should not get further out of the way the current enrollment.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely frustrated here in Virginia. I work with a number of counties, I speak with a number of counties doing this County project right now, and what I’m hearing from a lot of counties is we’re excited, we have a plan, we can’t find a partner and we don’t have enough money and enough political sway to do it on our own. And so they’re stuck and it’s not fair because they’ve done everything right. And they still can’t find a provider. We need to figure out ways, policy mechanisms at the state level, at the federal level to make it easier for these counties to get connected.
Jessica Del Fia…: This conversation also makes me think about how these physical and virtual spaces really overlap. I mean, in terms of like community organizing, where you might have local businesses or residents in a community neighborhood Facebook group that are talking about what their problems in regard to broadband are and how to organize around it, so they can influence each other, right? Same with like local media.
Christopher Ali: Right. Right. But, of course it does depend on having broadband in the first place-
Jessica Del Fia…: Exactly.
Christopher Ali: … to organize online, this summer I did a study with my colleague Nicholas Matthews at the University of Minnesota and we studied Surry County, Virginia, which is one of the least connected counties in the state. It is also what’s called a news desert. It does not have a local news outlet. So it was a broadband desert on top of a news desert. And we were trying to figure out like, how do you get information? And particularly, how do you get local information? And we talked to a lot of people who were spending hundreds of dollars a month because they needed a cell phone, a mobile hotspot, they were trying to do whatever they could with satellite internet which we all know is garbage. But a lot of times they were still depending on word of mouth conversations and the dollar general store became this amazing news ecosystem in and of itself. But hearing firsthand the frustrations of people who don’t have access to what so many of us take for granted, it definitely makes you think that something better needs to happen.
Jessica Del Fia…: We’ll continue with our conversation in just a minute, but first we’re going to take a short break. Thanks for listening to Building Local Power. If you’re enjoying our conversation, I hope you’ll consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate to help support our work. With your help, we can continue advocating for the kinds of local solutions that Christopher has been discussing with us today. We sincerely appreciate anything you can contribute. Thanks so much. Now let’s go back to my conversation with Christopher Ali and Christopher Mitchell. Could you talk about the importance for people in those communities who might feel disconnected with the neighbors that they have, or like outcasts in this community and how broadband access can help them?
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great point. And I think particularly when we think about the way that LGBTQ youth use the internet as a space, actually to be local, to feel comfortable, to be themselves. We often think about broadband access in terms of like the big things, like economic development, education and healthcare, right? Civic life, these kind of big democratic and capitalist ideals, but it’s also an opportunity to live your life or to make inquiries about yourself. And we can’t discount that when we have conversations about the importance of broadband, because you’re absolutely right. You may not feel at home, just because you live somewhere it doesn’t make it home, right? And I think particularly of, again, LGBTQ youth, who have used the internet such innovative ways to find a community where they feel supported and loved.
Jessica Del Fia…: Yeah. So Chris, you have a book coming out in a few months at the end of the summer called Farm Fresh Broadband. Could you tell us a little bit about that and the process of researching and writing it?
Christopher Ali: Yeah. The book will be out early September, that’s first week of September, from MIT Press, the full title is Farm Fresh Broadband The Politics of Rural Connectivity, it’s based on five years of research including reading a lot of policy documents, doing a lot of interviews. Chris, I know I interviewed you for the book. I also went on what I called the rural broadband road trip. I drove throughout the Midwest with my hound dog, Tuna, trying to humanize broadband policy, trying to really make the connection between what’s going on at the federal level at the FCC and USDA and what’s actually being lived on the ground. So it an analysis trying to answer, an easy question to ask, a very hard question to answer, which is we spend, we being, let’s say the United States federal governments spends in various capacities between six and $10 billion a year on broadband deployment, not affordability issues, just deployment, getting wires in the ground or strung up in the air, to solve the rural urban digital divide. That rural, urban digital divide, as we just talked about is not solved.
Christopher Ali: In fact, by a lot of measurements, it’s getting bigger because going back to an earlier conversation, you’ve got these communities stuck with like crappy DSL, and you’ve got a lot more urban wealthy areas moving to five, or just not even worrying about this because they have a good updated cable system. So how is it that we spend all this money and where’s it going? And what solutions, what are communities doing to connect themselves in the wake of what I call policy failure? So I like to say, it’s a story about success and failure, failure of policy, success of communities, spoiler alert for way too long all of this money just went to the 10 largest providers and for very little, in terms of built out, that’s me being a little cynical.
Christopher Mit…: I would say that, that’s absolutely correct, although some money has gone to local, the monopolies, the local independence. They’re not technically monopolies, but I just say, they often feel left out of these conversations. And so there has been money that’s been wisely spent-
Christopher Ali: Yes.
Christopher Mit…: … on the internet, but the vast majority of the money that you’re talking about does go to those Big Ten biggest customers.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. Right. I look at the difference between, to get really wonky here, the called The Connect America Fund Phase II which was 1.5 billion a year that was just given away to the 10 largest companies. And then you had a smaller fund called the Alternative Connect America Model, which I’m kind of a big fan of. And that was also a billion dollars a year, but it had to be split between 173 small providers. And Chris, I think these are the providers that you’re thinking about. They had much higher standards to meet and you know what? A lot of them met it. So a lot of them were using that billion dollars a year or do use it to put fiber in the ground or have fiber field fixed wireless network whereas the 10 big companies were using it just to upgrade their DSL networks. Again, I’m generalizing here, but local providers-
Christopher Mit…: Yes, I’m sorry. You’re generalizing because those big companies didn’t actually upgrade their DSL networks for the [crosstalk 00:28:45].
Christopher Ali: Yeah. Yeah. They connected a lot of suburbs and excerpts though and still continue to abandon or leave abandoned rural communities. The local providers, including just small regional mum-pop providers, electric cooperatives, telephone cooperatives, they ended up being the big heroes of the book. Again, this idea that local broadband is the best broadband and yeah, the book has introduced me to an amazing number of people and passionate, deeply passionate digital champions and just everyday folks wanting broadband or how they’re using broadband. So again, it’s a story of success and failure when I hope that will resonate with a lot of people and it will be out in September.
Jessica Del Fia…: I would love a picture of Tuna on that road trip to add to our posts [crosstalk 00:29:32].
Christopher Ali: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Christopher Mit…: Did you prearrange or did you just like stop and get gas and talk to folks about broadband serendipitously?
Christopher Ali: Little bit of column, A, a little bit of column B. I had a few stops mapped out along the way, but other than that, I just chatted with people. And this is where having a dog as your research assistant becomes amazing because people want to pet your dog when you go for walks. And then you say, “Yeah, totally you can pet my dog,” And while Tuna is working his magic, I say, “Hey, can you tell me about your internet connection? Like I’m doing this research, I’m just trying to figure things out.”
Christopher Ali: One of my favorite stories was that I was at a grocery store in Missouri, and it turns out that a grocery store is in Missouri you can drink beer while grocery shopping. So I was waiting in line at the grocery store bar and I started chatting to this young couple, certainly younger than me and they were asking what I was doing, it’s like, I’m writing this book and doing this research. And they’re like, “Oh, you have to talk to our friend who just bought a farm and didn’t realize that it didn’t have broadband and then paid for a fiber connection.”
Christopher Ali: So these kind of like serendipitous conversations so it’s really ended up, again, putting such a human face on a very wonky and some of very technological issue and I really want to humanize broadband policy because I think that’s where you can really start to make some changes.
Christopher Mit…: Well, I’m glad that Tuna didn’t eat your book.
Christopher Ali: You know.
Christopher Mit…: Speaking of your book, I feel like you have not used the requisite number of answering questions saying, as I write in my book, to just remind people constantly that you have a book that they should pre-order at a local independent bookstore. I want to come back to where we started a little bit with your testimony and we didn’t touch on overbuilding yet. This idea that we should be very wary that in general, the biggest problem we face in broadband is that we won’t have too much competition and it might be unfair for the government to give one entity a subsidy to build in an area where it has previously given other people some subsidies. And so I’m curious if you want to address that and preface it by saying, as you discuss in your book.
Christopher Ali: As I discussed in my book, I am not a fan of the idea and, again, I started writing my book this idea of like, again, the politics of good enough, that one provider is good enough. Even if that provider received government money. Because as we just talked about, sometimes that provider did a really bad job using government money. So it might’ve connected community, let’s say, to 10/1, which was the standard that these large providers needed to meet. So why shouldn’t we fund another provider who’s going to actually deliver meaningful connections to those communities? Why shouldn’t we? And because we also know that competition drives down prices and drives up innovation, right? And we’ve seen this in a number of instances when a municipality decides to fund its own network, we see a lot of shady politicking as well in terms of lobbying, but we have seen meaningful competition even in small communities.
Christopher Ali: So this idea that one provider is good enough when we exist in this capitalist system that shouldn’t endorse competition, I don’t know. I think competition can’t be a bad thing. And so this idea that overbuilding becomes as boogeyman, that we should just always avoid, really just privileges incumbents. You can continue to do a bad job. Now, some of the companies are doing a great job, but for those who aren’t doing a good job, why not have a competitor? And I also think about things like there’s this program, The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which says, if you got money from the State or you got money from USDA, you can’t dip into this money because we don’t want, again, using that over overbuilding we want to do the most unserved areas. I don’t know, I just feel that a lot of this is done at the behest of big incumbents who have the ear of lawmakers and regulators.
Christopher Mit…: Yes. I think it’s classic penny wise pound foolish where they are… We should probably update the penny-wise dollar foolish, I guess, I don’t know.
Jessica Del Fia…: I honestly, don’t know what those words mean. So as an idiom I should know.
Christopher Mit…: Well it’s the idea you go around saving pennies while you’re throwing dollars away. Like you’re so focused, you don’t really understand where the value is, where the bottlenecks are. And in this case, it’s to say that, that we end up with a system in which we overpay for poor outcomes and those are outcomes in which then residents and businesses have to overpay for rather than just getting it right. And this is an odd situation in which I feel like there’s a lot of people, Chris, who their work is to try and convince the American public to change their mind on things. Like what you and I are doing, it’s like 85% popular.
Jessica Del Fia…: That’s exactly it, how can you be against this?
Christopher Mit…: It’s weird because we still have to figure out how to be strategic because most of the elected officials don’t want to do what 85% of their constituents want them to do.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. It’s amazing. It is. Yeah, it is amazing. And it is frustrating and it is vexing, but we’ll just keep fighting the good fight.
Jessica Del Fia…: I just wanted to end this conversation with Chris. Do you have any reading recommendations? I also accept watching recommendations and it doesn’t have to be related to this topic and it could be your book if you [crosstalk 00:34:52].
Christopher Ali: I mean, I’m not going to be vexating, Although people can buy either my first book or my new book, it’s available for pre-order. But one of the books I found, I came back to a lot for researching my book is a book by my friend, Roberto Gallardo called Responsive Countryside. A very similar book to mine, but maybe a much more community toolkit driven, a lot more solutions at the community level whereas mine looks at federal policy. He’s also a great writer.
Christopher Mit…: Sorry, let me interrupt for a second. He’s also in the Big Ten, which is a big deal. Like we don’t want any of that focus from the ACC schools, he’s at Purdue, which is inherently superior to other schools.
Christopher Ali: Are we talking about sports now?
Christopher Mit…: Yes we are. I am. No one else is.
Christopher Ali: The sports, I got nothing. Unless we talk about figure skating, Winnipeg hockey or curling, I’m really at a loss for sure.
Christopher Mit…: So let me say, you have a deep history of figure skating. I got into skating a little bit last winter and really this winter, I mean, skating is the coolest thing ever. So that can be-
Christopher Ali: I agree.
Christopher Mit…: … the sports segment. Yeah. Skating is great.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. There you go. Skating is great. What else can I recommend? I’m going to look around my room just very quickly to see what I’m reading and what I’m really into. Jason Farman’s book, Delayed Response, which is about the history of being bored and the history of waiting for things is outstanding. Jason’s at the University of Maryland, I don’t know where they rank on the sporting.
Christopher Mit…: Big Ten.
Christopher Ali: There you go. I read a lot of Big Ten don’t I? I like reading, I mean, don’t reading informative books I read for my job, but like when someone is in good writer as an academic, it is a magical, magical thing. And Jason Farman is a fantastic writer. So his book is called Delayed Response.
Christopher Mit…: Those are great recommendations.
Jessica Del Fia…: Well, thanks for joining us today, Christopher, this has been a great conversation, Christopher and Christopher. Great to have you.
Christopher Ali: Thanks so much for having me.
Christopher Mit…: Thank you.
Jessica Del Fia…: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jessica Del Fiacco and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction Al. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jessica Del Fiacco and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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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.

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Jess Del Fiacco is ILSR’s Communications Manager. In this role, she works closely with program staff to develop and implement communications strategy that supports ILSR’s mission. She promotes ILSR’s work through the organization’s newsletters, website, social media, events, and more. Jess also hosts the Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jess for media inquiries.