Rethinking Rural Connectivity with Christopher Ali — Episode 134 of Building Local Power

Date: 2 Sep 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken and Sean Gonsalves, Senior Researchers with ILSR’s Community Broadband initiative, as well as Christopher Ali, an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Christopher discusses his new book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity and recent news in the broadband policy space.

Highlights of the conversation include:

  • The communities Christopher visited while writing his book, and some of the local success stories he heard.
  • Why the concept of “rural” deserves a more nuanced definition than it is usually afforded.
  • How high quality, affordable broadband access can revitalize rural economic development in direct and indirect ways.
  • Where (and why) federal efforts to improve rural broadband infrastructure have fallen short, and how local solutions have shown the way forward.

“Cooperatives to me are the unsung heroes of broadband, particularly in rural communities. They operate… on a different mindset, because they are not driven by quarterly profit returns to investors and shareholders. They can take a much longer view in terms of return on investment. I also think that because they’re local, the accountability is different. I mean, when you run into folks in the grocery store or walking your dog down the street, that level of accountability, when someone says, ‘Hey, why don’t I have broadband yet?’ Or ‘Why has my Internet been out for two days?’ Or ‘Why is my bill so high?’ That level of accountability is so different that you don’t see with Comcast or Charter, or Verizon, AT&T, Century Link. I mean, that’s accountability from afar. This local accountability, and community service mindset of the cooperative, has been so important. And I think this is why we’re seeing so many… electric cooperatives move into broadband, willing to take that long-term return on investment.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought 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 hello, today I am joined by my colleagues, Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, and Sean Gonsalves who are senior researchers with LSR’s community broadband team. Welcome to the show guys.
Sean Gonsalves: Thanks for having us.
Ry Marcattilio-…: Thanks Jess, good to be here.
Jess Del Fiacco: And Sean has been on the show before, but Ry is this your Building Local Power debut?
Ry Marcattilio-…: It is, yep.
Jess Del Fiacco: Very exciting. All right. That means we have to haze you just a little bit. And we are joined by Christopher Ali, who is an associate professor in the department of media studies at the university of Virginia. Welcome to the show, Chris.
Christopher Ali: Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Jess Del Fiacco: Listeners might remember you from an episode you were on earlier this year, where we did mention that you would have a book coming out in a little while, and the book is now here, it’s called Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity, which is very exciting. And I think we can just start there. So do you want to talk a little bit about the writing process for this book? How did you approach doing the research for it? Who did you talk to?
Christopher Ali: Yeah, so this is a book about five years in the making. And when I started it, I mean, I think everyone on this podcast and probably all of the listeners know that when you start thinking and learning about broadband, that learning curve is huge. So I didn’t even tell anyone I was writing a book about broadband for about a year, so I could just kind of get myself up to speed with all of the technical and technological aspects of broadband deployment. I started off originally, this was going to be a book, well, the book is about policy. It’s about the failure of policy to provide broadband in rural America. So I did about two or three years of really deep policy dives, really wonky stuff, which is kind of the stuff I love doing, but in about 2018, I started realizing that maybe there’s a chance that not everyone thinks policy is as exciting as I think it is.
Christopher Ali: So I might need to humanize my policy work. And, with the help of some amazing colleagues and some amazing organizations, my hound dog, Tuna, and I embarked on a 4,000 mile road trip across the United States, mainly in the Midwest, we called it the rural broadband road trip, to put a human face on rural broadband, both the kind of failure of policy to provide rural broadband, but then also how communities were connecting themselves in the absence of a lot of federal leadership in this space. And of course so much has changed since I began this book five years ago, and so much has changed since the rural broadband road trip. But really the book is a combination of policy analysis, and then also that human face, that human story, and those community stories that are so important to this conversation about broadband.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thinking about the human face of broadband issues, could you just point to a couple of things you saw in communities that illustrate either what broadband has done to change people’s lives in that community or what the lack is and what could change if there was better connectivity for folks?
Christopher Ali: Yeah. Chapter four of the book is entirely dedicated to a place called Rock County, Minnesota. I spent a bunch of time in Rock County located in the Southwest pocket of the state. Rock County has 99.93% fiber to the home pass-by, maybe not take right, but one of the most connected counties in Minnesota and certainly one of the least populated. So it was a really interesting case study for me. How did this happen? And some of the vital things that, I mean, they have this amazing county administrator named Kyle Oldre, who became this digital champion and he recruited members of his board, supervisors, they got together. And it also demonstrates how vital it is for communities to understand themselves. What the digital champions in Rock County wanted, was they realized everyone wanted fiber to the home and they weren’t going to compromise on maybe kind of a fiber to the tower situation or a fixed wireless network or kind of a ring.
Christopher Ali: They really were invested in fiber to the home. So they actually passed up some opportunities that came their way early in 2009, 2010. And they were waiting for what I call them the look at dance partner who would actually provide the fiber to the home. They found that in a cooperative, a telephone cooperative out of South Dakota, Advanced Communications, and they got a $5 million grant from the state of Minnesota through the amazing broadband office that they all have in Minnesota. And then they actually also bonded themselves for a million dollars to their wind turbine tax, which allowed them to then offer up 6 million, then plus another 6 million from Advanced Communications. And now they are one of the most connected communities in Minnesota. And not only that, but it’s attracted businesses, it certainly lowered prices. I mean, I think we’ve all heard stories of folks who have to Jostle between various cell phone subscriptions and satellite subscriptions.
Christopher Ali: I heard of one radio station there who is in Luverne which is the county seat, that was paying thousands of dollars a month for broadband. Now their bill is 80 bucks a month. There was talk of some major economic development going on there as well. And so I think Rock County really demonstrates both the importance of digital champions, the importance of communities kind of understanding for themselves their own needs, their own digital and communicatory needs, and then working with an amazing state like Minnesota and a cooperative to make it happen. So the importance of partnerships as well. So it really is this great story that I hope I do justice to in the fourth chapter of Farm Fresh Broadband.
Ry Marcattilio-…: I lived in Marshall, Minnesota for about four years, which is just a little ways north east of Rock County. And we had wireline broadband from Vast and I think Charter, and it was expensive and it was slow and it was pretty unreliable. I would think it would go out relatively regularly. And I didn’t even know this project in Rock County existed. And it brings me to this question, which is one of the kind of high level arguments you have going on in the book, and this idea of the network effect and why it’s important, not only to connect everyone, but to connect everyone with equal service. And I’m wondering if you could speak to that a little bit.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean, I think this is one of the major struggles going on with federal policy right now, is it just about getting the unconnected and under connected something? Or is it about getting them where we’re at the place where we all take for granted? High performance, high speed broadband, ideally low cost, although my internet bill certainly is not low cost. The idea being that everybody deserves and that, in my opinion, in my research, high performance affordable broadband. I think we all agree with that on this call. Because we can’t start creating, and what we have right now is kind of the second class, second tier of digital connectivity, where maybe you’ve got geosynchronous satellite internet, or you’re working from an old DSL connection. You can’t possibly participate in what we all take for granted, a zoom call like this, or when I teach and my students go out to their rural homes, they can’t participate in class.
Christopher Ali: They might have an internet connection. And I think something that I’ve been talking a lot about is that not all broadband is created equal. And despite the fact that in federal policy, it is all equal, right? Just as long as it can get you to 25-3 it’s considered broadband, which is a another major point of critique of the book. But this idea that we really need to think about what connectivity will be like 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the future and not what connectivity is now or what connectivity was 5, 6, 7 years ago when we created that 25-3 threshold. So, everybody needs the ability to participate in this digital world that we all take for granted. And the more people who are on the network, the better. That’s the network effect, right? The network improves when we’ve got people, when we’ve got everybody connected,
Sean Gonsalves: You know, Chris, you mentioned satellite and, and, and the various technologies. And I think anyone that works in this space knows that fiber connectivity is the gold standard, but there’s all of this talk and hype about 5G. You talk about that in the book. And there’s been quite a bit of talk and hype and great marketing, I guess, around the Starlink, connecting rural America. And so I can imagine there’s folks out there that say, well, Starlink is here or is coming, so why worry about investing in broadband infrastructure in rural America, et cetera? So it Starlink the answer?
Christopher Ali: Yes and no. And that was kind of the easy way out. But here’s my concern. I mean, you’re absolutely right. Both 5G and Starlink, and I think we can lump them together because the hype around 5G and Starlink. Two, three years ago when I was working with some counties, all I was hearing is well, maybe we’ll pause our connectivity plans because 5G is just around the corner. Now the conversation is, well, maybe we’ll pause our connectivity plans because Starlink is just around the corner. I think Starlink sounds like it’s a viable option, particularly for remote communities. And I’m learning more and more about how Elon Musk has kind of pivoted away from saying, we’re going to provide broadband for everybody. Then it became, we’re going to provide broadband for rural. And now it’s, we’re going to provide broadband for remote.
Christopher Ali: So, either the eligibility or the goal of Starlink is shrinking. But I mean, you know what, quite frankly, if Starlink can provide the connectivity in rural Appalachia, that would be fantastic. But I think that Starlink is just one possibility in a spectrum of possibilities that we have now. What worries me is when counties and communities and municipalities pause their digital strategies, because they think Starlink is just around the corner because of the hype. And it may be, but it also may not be, I mean, they’re still in beta, right? They’re still rolling things out. They’re still application only. It is also still expensive. That initial customer outlay a couple of hundred dollars may not be feasible for a lot of folks. Again, I’m thinking rural Appalachian, or like the islands of Maine or in Washington, those was really hard to reach communities.
Christopher Ali: And so I think Starlink should be considered as a possibility, but we can’t sacrifice all of this great planning that the communities are doing in the hopes of Starlink coming and being this great savior. In the book, I kind of likened it to the play Waiting For Godot. You might just end up waiting forever for nothing because Starlink may not be there. So, I think communities need to empower themselves to keep moving forward with their digital connectivity plans and maybe keeping Starlink in mind as a possibility.
Ry Marcattilio-…: Yeah. One of the things I liked about the book is that it’s got a great high-level of history of federal policy and programs for anyone who’s interested.
Christopher Ali: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-…: And you say that federal dollars on rural broadband aren’t being spent either efficiently or democratically. And I’m wondering if you can speak to one or both of those things with an example of how that plays out?
Christopher Ali: For sure. Part of the main kind of high-level question of the book is that how is it that we, the federal government has subsidized broadband for at least eight years at about $8 billion a year, between the FCCS high cost fund and the USDA money, and then even more, if you include the billions of dollars that the recovery act allocated for broadband through and BIP through NTIA’s work, and USDA’s work, so billions and billions and billions of dollars have been spent. And yet the digital divide still exists. It’s still worrisome. And in some cases might be growing as we kind of have some folks on DSL and satellite and others who are moving up to fiber. So we’ve got this greater divide here. So what I mean is that it hasn’t the money hasn’t been spent efficiently.
Christopher Ali: And is that traditionally, particularly at the FCC, the money has just gone to the largest and the loudest providers, right? If you look at the connect America fund phase one and phase two, several billion dollars, I mean, it just went to the 10 largest companies. They just said, here, we trust you to connect to this country. That’s not efficient. That’s not an efficient way to deal with billions of dollars. Nor is it democratic, when we know, we know that local providers be, they co-ops be, they small regional providers, be they municipal broadband providers, are the ones who are actually doing the on the ground connecting way more than the Century Links, or the Verizons, or the AT&T. So that’s what I mean, that it hasn’t been efficient because it’s been just going to these 10 largest companies. It also hasn’t been efficient because the standards have been so low.
Christopher Ali: I mean, this 25-3 threshold has basically allowed the existence of DSL. Why do we have so much copper in the ground? Why aren’t we incentivizing providers to rip up that copper and move to fiber, or at the very least fiber to the node? And we’re just not seeing that because these policy thresholds have been so low that we’ve kind of grandfathered in all of these inadequate technologies. So that’s where it hasn’t been efficient. Then it hasn’t been democratic because we just gave money to the 10 largest providers without really thinking, I think very carefully about who is actually doing a lot of the connecting. And a lot of the times, even back in 2015, it was municipal providers were working through and of course, cooperatives were working through this. And they’ve really been shut out up until 2018, they were shut out of a lot of federal money, particularly FCC universal service fund money. They were a little bit better at USDA, but yeah, really shut out of that process. So absolutely hasn’t been efficient. Hasn’t been democratic.
Ry Marcattilio-…: Another of the consequences that you track throughout the book is that with these huge providers, Frontier, and Century Link, taking hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies a year, and then years down the road, reporting that they have been unable to meet their broadband build out requirements, leaving those communities stranded for connectivity options for more years to come.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean, that to me is one of the more vexing things and is a lack of accountability of where so much of this money has gone. And again, Century Link kind of becomes one of the main antagonists, I guess you could say in the book, where they have received over $500 million a year through the Connect America Fund, 2018, 2019, possibly even 2020, they have reported to the FCC that they have not met their build out requirements. And not only have they not been punished or sanctioned, or even a slap on the wrist, they were still eligible for more money through RDOF. So where’s the accountability going here at the federal communications commission? And hopefully we’re seeing maybe some more accountability measures through RDOF, through asking winners to hand back some of their money, some other ways, so maybe we’re starting to see some of that accountability.
Christopher Ali: But I’ve got to be honest, even if you read the broadband component of the infrastructure plan, there’s not a lot of accountability measures written in the law. So it’s really going to be up to FCC, NTAA, USDA to enforce very stringent requirements. Otherwise, again, we run the risk of companies gobbling up tons of money, and then just saying, well, listen, we can’t do what we promised. I’m sorry? Sorry about that. And then moving on.
Sean Gonsalves: Actually you just said two things in the last few minutes that I wanted to hit on. One of the things you mentioned were cooperatives. And one of the things that I find fascinating about your book is you get into the history of the rural electrification act and how the federal government really intervened to bring electricity to rural America. And we’re sort of in this moment of, this question of the broadband-ification of rural America. And one of the things I think that both Ry and I have written quite a bit about and seen, are just how well positioned electric and telephone cooperatives are to tackle these issues just in terms of their experience of building and maintaining infrastructure. They’ve got the poles and the crews, but they also have a different motive than the private markets. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of electric and telephone co-ops in solving the digital divide?
Christopher Ali: Sure thing. And I would thank you first of all, both for your writing, because I don’t know if you noticed in the work cited, but I cite you both a lot. So it’s great to have this conversation. I mean, the cooperatives to me are the unsung heroes of broadband, particularly in rural communities. They operate, Sean, just like you said, on a different mindset, because they are not driven by quarterly profit returns to investors and shareholders. They can take a much longer view in terms of return on investment. I also think that because they’re local, the accountability is different. I mean, when you run into folks in the grocery store or walking your dog down the street, that level of accountability, when someone says, Hey, why don’t I have broadband yet? Or why is my internet been out for two days?
Christopher Ali: Or why is my bill so high? That that level of accountability is so different that you don’t see with Comcast or Charter or, Verizon, AT&T, Century Link. I mean, that’s accountability from afar. This local accountability, and community service mindset of the cooperative, has been so important. And I think this is why we’re seeing so many, I mean, telephone cooperatives were kind of a natural inclination into broadband, but we’re seeing also so many more electric cooperatives move into broadband, willing to take that long-term return on investment.
Christopher Ali: And I don’t want to put words into their mouth, but thinking as an investment in the community, rather than necessarily investment just for shareholders or investors. And this is what makes me so excited about talking about cooperatives, because we’re really able to feel, and to see that long-term investment in rural communities play out in real time. Just like happened in the 1930s with electrification and cooperatives, the 1940s and 1950s telephone cooperatives. I mean, they got the job done when AT&T failed, when big power failed in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. So again, unsung heroes of rural broadband. Absolutely.
Jess Del Fiacco: All right, we’ll get to the next question 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 with Chris Ali, I hope you consider heading over to to help support us. Your donation makes this podcast possible, as well as all the work we do here at ILSR. You can visit to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. I also want to take a moment to plug Chris’s new book. Farm Fresh Broadband, go check it out. And with that, let’s go back to the conversation.
Sean Gonsalves: One other thing that you mentioned also is the infrastructure bill, bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate. It contains the $65 billion for the expansion of broadband access, I guess, because 42 billion of it is going to be, as it’s currently written, shipped to the states and for broadband networks, the deployment, and then there’s money in there for various other things, digital inclusion and what have you. I got to say that one of the things in your book is important because it makes the case for why connecting rural America is important. One of the disappointments, I think for myself and others, with the broadband infrastructure bill among other things, and there’s a lot in there, it’s a mixed bag. Well, that one of the good things is that instead of the FCC where there’s no accountability handing out the money, that it’s one step closer to the localities who have the best sense of where broadband needs exist.
Sean Gonsalves: And so this money will be given to the states, but it talks about defining unserved as areas that lack access to 25-3. And the bill basically says, that this money should be exclusively spent on those areas, and only until you can prove that every area in your state has at least 25-3 only, then can you spend money on underserved areas, et cetera. And so it seems like it’s a major investment that’s going to focus most of the infrastructure investment in rural regions, because pretty much everybody has access to 25-3, theoretically, networks. And so I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the infrastructure bill, if you see this as a watershed moment for investing, particularly in rural America in infrastructure there?
Christopher Ali: I think you hit it on the nose of when you said it’s a mixed bag. I’m certainly not going to stop at 65 billion. I was disappointed that there was compromise, the original promise, of course, being a hundred billion. I for one was kind of onboard with the SCC’s 2017 report that said we need 80 billion to connect the country with high-speed broadband. When I testified before the Senate, that’s what I said we needed. And that’s the best report I cited. I’m certainly not going to scoff at 42 billion for deployment. Couple of things, yeah, I was disappointed that unserved was defined as 25-3. I was also a little disappointed that underserved was 100-20. I think that asymmetry reflects or is potentially reflective of the cable lobby, because cable can’t provide symmetric coverage. I’m a big proponent of 100-100 as kind of baseline.
Jess Del Fiacco: Sorry. I just want to jump in for a second to explain why symmetric is important to people just in case.
Christopher Ali: Right. Yeah. So when we’re throwing out all these numbers, we’re talking about megabits per second. And right now we have an asymmetric definition of broadband with 25 megabits per second download, three megabits per second to upload. As it was described to me, and how I talk about it in the book, is that download is really about consumption. It’s about benching your Netflix, it’s about streaming, it’s about social media. All the things that we kind of do on a daily basis. Upload is about production. Upload is about business. At three megabits per second, you’re struggling for a zoom conversation, let alone if you need to update upload terabytes worth of data. Doctors, for instance, can’t upload high resolution x-rays at three megabits per second. So we really need to be thinking about a much higher upload speed.
Christopher Ali: The 100-20 gets us there, but the question is not, what can we do today? It’s, what could we possibly in five or 10 years? What will upload speeds need? And if we’re kind of stuck at the asymmetric, this 100-20, what are we missing out on? And that’s one of the hard things to predict is what’s the future going to hold? But if we liken it to electricity, my mind is like, well, we didn’t just say, well, a house can have one light bulb. You’ve got electricity, you’ve got one light bulb. We connected a house. And the same thing here. It’s like, we’re not just saying, well, you can have one computer connected to just enough internet to get through your daily work, but we need that high-performance broadband.
Christopher Ali: And that’s why I was a big proponent of 100-100. Back to the infrastructure package. I like the idea of that going to states. One of my, through NTIA, of course, but one of my concerns is not every state has a broadband office. Not every state has a robust broadband office. I would have loved to have seen language in there that says for states to get money, they need to establish a broadband office. I have found, I mean, Pew Foundation found this as well, the importance of state broadband offices, and y’all know this in Minnesota. I don’t think can be understated, the importance of state broadband offices well-funded, well-staffed state broadband office. So I would like to see that, is this a potential watershed moment for rural broadband? Yes. I don’t think we’re going to be able to connect everybody at 42 billion.
Christopher Ali: It’s just not enough, but a lot of people will get connected with this. A lot of good will hopefully happen with this money. So I’m not going to let’s say expression to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we’re going to have to see when the rules come out because the allocation of the money was a little vague. There’s not a lot of rulemaking around there. So we got to see what NTAA is going to propose in terms of actual rulemaking. But again, I would love to see more robust state broadband offices that act as information clearing houses, that act as grants, because we’re going to have a lot of money coming down the pipe, so we need to make sure that money is spent well. The other thing I might add is in the recovery act when NTAA and USDA got those billions of dollars, one of the main concerns was do they actually have the staff at those offices to be able to administer such money?
Christopher Ali: That was one of the major critiques, particularly of the rural utility service is that they just didn’t have the personnel. And so people were making super fast decisions and sometimes bad decisions. Sometimes money went to failed projects. We also need to make sure that NTAA is well staffed and well equipped to be able to handle $42 billion passing through its doors. I got a little nervous when I saw NTAA call for volunteers for program review. I’d love to see that staffed and staffed appropriately rather than relying on outside volunteers. So there’s a lot of good that can happen, but there’s a lot of scaffolding that needs to happen, I think, before this money gets out. And of course the other thing is mapping we need to improve.
Christopher Ali: The other thing that I was glad to see, and yet disappointed at the same time, 14 billion for affordability is fantastic. I would have liked the subsidy number to remain at $50 a month, rather than the reduction to $30 a month. And maybe this is something the FCC can tackle if we bring back net neutrality or entitled to regulation, which is a, do we need to mandate that providers have a low cost option that meets the $30? So it was less than $30? To me it goes, if that should go hand in hand, whatever how much we’re going to subsidize should be the mandated low cost option. That’s a question for the FCC, of course, because it wasn’t in the legislation.
Sean Gonsalves: We could spend hours on this. But one of the things too, that I thought was a bit disappointing about the Senate passing this bipartisan infrastructure bill, is that it has been quite watered down from what, we were initially excited when Biden announced that he wanted to do this, as it related to broadband, there was a lot of talk about how localities and municipalities and cooperatives were going to be given a funding preferences, and that is missing in this particular infrastructure bill. So that is a bit disappointing. I think Chris would probably agree.
Christopher Ali: Definitely. I would definitely agree. I was just, I was so excited when it was that White House fact sheet, right on the American jobs plan. Holy smokes, local, nonprofit, cooperatives, a hundred billion dollars, future-proof. Yes. That’s the kind of ambition we need. And then we see it get kind of watered down through compromise political compromise into kind of 65 billion for nondescript entities. I mean, I certainly noted the language that has said municipalities were not excluded and cooperatives were not excluded, so that was good, but definitely it took a little wind out of my sales intentionally. It sounds like it took a little wind out of your sails to, to see the final text.
Sean Gonsalves: Yes. Indeed.
Jess Del Fiacco: It does seem like that’s a huge change to even see that kind of language coming from the White House in first place. I mean, obviously these federal politics things are going to get watered down, but do you feel like there has been a significant shift just in the sense that there’s a tension on these local projects and different ways of thinking about policy rather than just complete domination from the big monopolies? Has that actually shifted or are we still very much kind of in Comcast’s thrall?
Christopher Ali: A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B. I think that you’re quite right, Jess, for the president to have included cooperatives, localities, non-profits even within its original messaging was a big win, it’s a big acknowledgment. I think time and time again, municipalities, nonprofits, cooperatives have proven that they can make the connections and the connectivity possible where the traditional private investor driven market has absolutely failed in doing it. So I think who’s ever advising the president on these matters has done a good job, but this is not a time for those of us who champion local, non-profit, cooperative to get complacent. There’s still a lot of work to do, particularly around the rules. Big telco, big cable has, has this kind of insidious way of gobbling up a lot of well-intentioned money yet. I think we need to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
Christopher Ali: And again, going back to Ry, your question about efficiency and democratically distributed funding, this is where we really need to stay on top of things or else we’re just going to see big money go to big cable and big telco without that kind of accountability that we all that we all hope for. So I’m optimistic, maybe this is the Canadian in me, but I’m optimistic that we’re seeing a little bit of the tide change in terms of towards one part where alternative providers to the big players. But it’s definitely still going to be a fight. I also think that like MTCA, and the NRDC has done a great job in working with their members, particularly, I think they’ve also done a good job in instilling the value of retail broadband to maybe some electrical utility cooperatives that were hesitant at first. I’m seeing a lot more movement there and I think that’s great. And they’ve proven, like I’ve said time and time again, that they can get the job done. So now we just got to fight for their right for money.
Ry Marcattilio-…: This is a book that’s about local success in the face of federal policy failures or shortcomings, when stakeholders get together and local officials roll up their sleeves and start getting to work. I’m wondering if you can just take a couple of minutes and tell us about Rock County and the cooperative and what happened with the county seat of Blue Vern and the results of that endeavor that started unfolding in the last 10 years?
Christopher Ali: Yeah, for sure. So Rock County knew back in the late, is the expression ‘naughts’? 2008, 2009, that they understood again through the county administrator, Kyle Oldre, that broadband was kind of the way of the future for economic development, for education, for health in their county. They also had an opportunity to get on board with some recovery act money that didn’t work, unfortunately, and then they really pivoted to wanting fiber to the home and weren’t going to compromise on anything less that’s what their community said they wanted. And that’s what their digital champion said they needed. So they were going with that. The hardest thing for them was finding that provider to do it for them. And this is something I’m seeing time and time, again, particularly in Virginia, where there might be some money available and there’s certainly the will available, but the dance partner, finding that provider, was and remains incredibly difficult.
Christopher Ali: And again, this is where cooperatives can step up and do that provision. So Rock County found Advanced Communications, which is in South Dakota, which was already operating in a couple of towns in the county, kind of just right on the border. And they created an entity known as Rock County Alliance. There’s literally a rock and engraved rock in the county seat of Luverne in the courthouse commemorating the Rock County Alliance, and there’s a picture of it in the book. And so they formed a Minnesota based company. And by doing that, they were able to tap into Minnesota grants. They won the largest grant, I think it might be ever awarded for broadband in Minnesota, $5 million. I think the riskiest thing, or at least when I was hearing the story, the riskiest thing they did was bond themselves for a million dollars. And this is a county of 10,000 people.
Christopher Ali: So to bond yourself for a million dollars, that’s a huge gamble on your future. And then advanced communications put up the rest of the money. So I think the entire project cost 12 million. They came in right on budget and then, Luverne, because it was already served technically with two cable providers, it actually had to get left out of the provision. So Luverne kind of became this island in a sea of fiber, this island without fiber in the sea of fiber. And the last time I talked to general manager of Advanced Communications, they were going to roll out into Luverne on their own dime because of course they would be a competitor. So they can’t get a subsidy for that. I use the word competitor and not the word overbuilder because I hate the word overbuilder, but they were a competitor in Luverne. And so they’ve moved in now and are just offering retail as competition on kind of un-subsidized.
Christopher Ali: And again, I think this is really great about cooperatives is that they saw, they didn’t wait for that subsidy. They knew they wouldn’t be able to get subsidized for Luverne, but they saw a need and they filled it kind of this wall to wall coverage. And again, now you’ve got Rock County being one of, it was when I was doing my research, the most connected county in the state of Minnesota, I haven’t looked at recent Minnesota maps. I don’t know if that’s still true, but back in 2019, 2020, they were absolutely the most connected county. And then they got a grant from the Blandin Foundation to do digital equity, digital inclusion work, and that was done through the library. So what an amazing local story here and everything about it was local from the local digital champions to the provider, to the people, to the library. I mean, it’s broadband localism at its finest.
Sean Gonsalves: I know we’re probably running out of time. One of the things I’m just going to say, and you don’t necessarily need to speak on, I was totally fascinated by the part of your book that talks about precision agriculture and the various technologies that really require this kind of reliable high speed, high performing internet connectivity. It’s fascinating. But the other thing that I found really fascinating, and maybe this is maybe something that you want to speak to is you have a very nuanced discussion in the book about what is rural America and what isn’t rural America and the tendency to sort of romanticize certain things, et cetera. And just how important though it is to connect rural America, not the least of which, because of things like precision agriculture and things of that nature and the importance of these things to the rural economy.
Sean Gonsalves: But just kind of maybe pulling that lens back. This book does focus on connecting rural America, but the analysis and the discussion that you have made me think so much about my own, made me question my own assumptions about what I considered to be rural America and who makes it up and the kind of issues that they’re dealing with in rural America. So I don’t know that might be, I guess just sort of invite you to maybe talk to us a little bit about what is rural America, who’s in it?
Christopher Ali: Sure. And that’s such a great question, Sean, because I think so many of us who don’t live in rural American, I’m kind of like halfway, I live at a town of 40,000 people, but it is not that you call farm pasture, necessarily these open spaces, right? It is so much more diverse. It is so much more eclectic. It’s so much more dynamic. And I think by kind of reducing rural entirely, and that’s what I say in the book, if we reduce real entirely to like an agricultural community, we’re really doing it a disservice. It is a lot more diverse. It has a lot more unique challenges. It’s also, I will say, I think we also might have a tendency and this was certainly true I think during the Trump administration to reduce rural America to a place of whiteness, whereas rural America is in fact more diverse, the highest immigration rates were into rural communities.
Christopher Ali: And so we’re seeing the changing face of rural America, literally the changing face of rural America and the diversification of rural America. I also think that it’s not a zero sum game to write a book, and I’m going on a tangent here, about rural America and about rural broadband does not negate the importance of urban broadband, tribal broadband, low cost broadband, broadband for education. I mean, this was just one piece of a much larger, broadband ecosystem that we need to tackle simultaneously. But I was really surprised in 2019, I wrote a piece for the New York times talking about the need for broadband in rural America, and amidst a bunch of emails of people who liked the piece also quite a lot of people complaining of why I would champion rural America, well aren’t they just, well, a bunch of Republicans, people who chose to live in rural America, it’s their fault for living in rural America.
Christopher Ali: So I was getting a lot of complaints, a lot of criticism for you’re saying this, but again, if we reduce rural America to these kinds of false essential qualities we’re doing such a disservice to these really amazing communities. And so hopefully what the book does is kind of dispel some of these myths and maybe encourage people to go to rural America. We’ve certainly seen during the pandemic, people are moving outside of cities into more rural communities. But one thing they’re not thinking about asking about is broadband because we just assume there’s connectivity. I’m going a little all over the place here, but suffice it to say that the part of the point of the book is to dispel some of these myths and decentralization that we might have about rural communities. And hopefully it’s done that job at least a little bit maybe.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you so much, Christopher. That’s really great. And I would encourage all listeners to check out the book again, it’s called Farm Fresh Broadband. Chris, if there’s anything else you want to say about the book, where can folks find it, or if there’s any other resources you want to point people towards?
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean the book can be found online with most book retailers, including, Amazon, MIT press, Penguin, Random House, Barnes and Noble. I mean, they’ll all carry it. It probably won’t be found in a lot of local bookstores. Although if any local bookstores are listening to this podcast, they can certainly stock the book and people can also find me on Twitter or feel free to reach out on email. I love hearing people’s stories about broadband. I love it. I love getting emails. I love getting tweets about this. So who’s ever listening, please don’t be shy to share your story and we’d love to keep this conversation going.
Jess Del Fiacco: Great. Thank you so much. Thank you to you, Christopher. And thanks Sean and Ry for joining us today.
Christopher Ali: Thanks so much for having me here.
Ry Marcattilio-…: Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: 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 everything discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s I-L-S-R-dot-org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope they’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, Jess 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 Jess Del Fiacco, and I hope you 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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