Sparking a Community Broadband Revolution

In many places across the country, broadband communications provider, Sparklight, has a monopoly in rural towns where they price gouge their customers and deliver poor service. It has significantly expanded its presence across the U.S. through acquisitions and investments in broadband companies in recent years, and East Carroll Parrish leaders Wanda Manning and Laura Arvin have experienced the consequences of this consolidation firsthand. The two journey through their experience fending off Sparklight in their small Southern town, building a task force to create a fiber-to-the-home network so historically marginalized populations could have fast and affordable Internet access, addressing the challenges faced by communities left out of the digital landscape.

Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and on today’s show we have the privilege of hearing from two guests who stared down monopoly giants that basically gave them the middle finger when all they asked was for reliable, affordable internet service to connect to and take care of their community. And in keeping with this season’s theme, How to Get Away with Merger, we look at how this need to even ask monopoly giants for connectivity to community and health and opportunity is only necessary because of the concentration allowed through large mergers and acquisitions. Today we look at Cable One, which now goes by Sparklight, and how a series of acquisitions in recent years helped to make them a dominant player in the southern region with the power to pick and choose who they provide service to and how this requires communities to make heroic efforts just to get what so many are able to take for granted. To tell more of this story, I’m going to pass it over to my co-host who has not once given me the middle finger, at least not to my face, and that’s Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Reggie, I would never give you the middle finger. So before we jump into hearing from our guests today, I’m going to provide some background on Sparklight and its history. Sparklight, as Reggie mentioned, is a part of Cable One’s family of brands, and it’s a broadband communications provider that serves more than 1 million residential and business customers in 24 states. So a few years ago, Cable One changed its name to Sparklight to transition to a broadband-first strategy because they saw that so many people were turning to digital video content on their mobile devices or to social media. So as a part of this rebranding strategy and shifting their focus on broadband, they are now trying to acquire and grow.
Reggie Rucker: So, Luke, what did you notice as you looked at the pattern of these acquisitions?
Luke Gannon: To me, it seems like Sparklight has been conducting a series of smaller acquisitions over the last few years, slowly growing its footprint across the United States. In 2019, Sparklight acquired Fidelity Communications, which expanded its footprint by 190,000 homes across primarily Southern and Midwestern states. Then in 2020, Sparklight bought a 45% stake in Mega Broadband Investments’ holdings, which is a private equity firm, for $574 million. And then in 2021, Sparklight announced that it would be acquiring equity interests in Hargray Communications, which is a telecommunications provider.
Reggie Rucker: So, Luke, explain the equity interest. What does that look like in this case?
Luke Gannon: So Sparklight will represent 85% of Hargray. Its stake in Hargray will expand their footprint in the Southeastern US. So really just over the last few years we’ve seen Sparklight inching its way across the United States, becoming larger and larger and, as I’ve read oftentimes, providing poor and expensive service.
Reggie Rucker: So, Luke, what is Sparklight, Cable One, what are they saying as they buy up all of these telecommunications, broadband companies? What are they sort of professing is going to be sort of the positive outcome of these acquisitions?
Luke Gannon: In most of the articles I’ve read about these acquisitions, Sparklight has said that by acquiring X company, it will create a “superior experience for customers and increase value for shareholders.” But unfortunately, as the East Carroll Parish story that you’ll hear next so clearly illustrates, the customer experience is really bad. And that’s why all this organizing happened, to build something that actually worked for the community in East Carroll Parish. And that was led by the community, not some outside massive corporation coming in and deciding who to serve and then leaving out a huge part of the population. So in East Carroll Parish, Sparklight and AT&T were really the only two providers in town. And in many places across the country, Sparklight has a monopoly in rural towns where they are price gouging their customers, which basically means that because there is no one else to compete with, they increase their rates. And then on top of that, due to this lack of competition, they can also provide terrible service because there is really no incentive to do better.
Reggie Rucker: Such a great intro, Luke. Thank you so much for that. Okay, so tell us what’s coming up next on the show.
Luke Gannon: So on the show today, Wanda Manning and Laura Arvin are going to detail their story working with Delta Interfaith and organizing a task force around building their own fiber to the home network where everyone in East Carroll Parish could have access to affordable, fast broadband. Without further ado, we are going to start from the beginning of Wanda’s story.
Wanda Manning: Well, I grew up here in Lake Providence. Lake Providence is a small agricultural town. The lake, we were named after of it, it’s like a oxbow. And the town is a beautiful little plain town in northeast Louisiana, right at the tip-top of the boot, in the northeast corner, far, far northeast corner. Well, it’s always been a beautiful town to me, and yes, we have our own issues here in East Carroll Parish, like any other town. East Carroll Parish is the parish, and I live in Lake Providence, and that’s our town. So I grew up in a large family, nine of us, five sisters and three brothers, and it was always something going on in the house. We lived next door to my grandmother. We call her Mama Lena. And for many years my family pushed education. And as my grandmother taught us that old adage, “If you give a man a fish, you can feed him for one day, but if you teach him how to fish, you could feed him for a lifetime,” and was always work.
And I chopped cotton… We’re in the south… as a child coming up. So with education being pushed all the time, I knew I didn’t want to chop cotton all my life, right? So it was hot. It was really hot. But it served its purpose, and there was a lot of life lessons in it. But although I grew up in a large family, I spent a lot of time reading books. I spent a lot of time by myself. I was always up to something, creating stuff. I wanted to be a fashion designer. I made my own fashion paper dolls. I loved watching my family and my friends get together to have fun. And my father loved sports, so we played lots of touch football, or they call it setback. And to this very day, I can throw a football better than most guys. But my daddy didn’t allow the girls to be tackled, and the boys were just furious. And although I’m a little rusty, I can still throw that football.
So, well, with everything said about my family and stuff and education was the main thing pushed, I became a teacher, and I taught for 32 plus years. And my parents were always assisting in the community in one form or fashion. So one of the stories I recall from my childhood is what my father did. One night a family came to our house. And it was a knock on the door, and we heard the commotion. We’re all seated getting ready for supper, and all of a sudden my dad came in at the table. He took half of my food off my plate, half of my sister’s them food off of their plates, and we were just sitting around looking like… So it was years down the road that I figured out that it was a family outside of that door. They didn’t ask for money. They asked for food. So my father made a way to give them food. So I learned in life that whatever you have to share, you share because in my spiritual upbringing, in my church upbringing is if you are blessed, you are created to be a blessing.
So sharing was a part of what we did. My mom took for funerals throughout the town of Lake Providence and all around Lake Providence, always serving somebody, so many funerals that she served at and cook for, I can’t put a number to it, not to this day. So we were always sent to somebody’s house, some elderly person’s house to clean up or run errands. And I didn’t realize just how much of my childhood was spent in the community.
Luke Gannon: Today Wanda remains actively engaged in the community. After dedicating 32 years to teaching in East Carroll Parish, in 2020 Wanda, like the rest of the world, experienced a profound wake-up call.
Wanda Manning: 2020 forced me out the classroom with underlining conditions behind COVID, right? The pandemic just ripped the bandage off of everything. So I was in the classroom teaching, and one of my former students, I thought the kid was just playing in and out of his virtual class. And I was infuriated. And so I did not know at that time dial-up was still a thing. You all, it was so frustrating to have a child not stay in that virtual class. So during that particular time, when I came out in November of 2020, I went out and I got a chance to talk to Nathan and his mother, Tabitha. So I found out in our conversation this kid was on dial-up in a virtual class. Dial-up can’t sustain a [inaudible 00:11:30] call, less long a virtual class. So I told Nathan, I said, “Baby, I apologize for fussing at you so because I didn’t know you had such poor connection.” So I said, “If I don’t do anything, I’m going to make sure you get some good internet out here.” And that’s how my journey got started, with a former student and just dirt poor connection.
Luke Gannon: As a teacher, when COVID struck, Wanda quickly recognized the significant lack of internet access that many of her students faced. In 2020, she became actively involved in Delta Interfaith, a broad-based coalition of congregations and organizations dedicated to addressing problems large and small. It was there that she crossed paths with Laura Arvin. Here’s Laura.
Laura Arvin: I got involved in Delta Interfaith because I wanted to get more involved in the community. I grew up here myself and moved back to help take care of my mother. And when she passed, I was looking for some way to get involved into the community. And so it was perfect because I was able to meet people from all walks of life.
Luke Gannon: Laura became a member of Delta Interfaith when the pandemic struck. Soon after, she along with a group of volunteers formed a task force dedicated to organizing initiatives aimed at bridging the digital divide.
Laura Arvin: The task force met with AT&T, who is the old guard incumbent here, pretending to offer internet. AT&T and Sparklight were the two entities in town that offered internet. We had those choices. And if you looked at what was needed from the pandemic, the AT&T service was not viable. So basically, we had one choice if you wanted to do online school, and that’s Sparklight, which is expensive and therefore not affordable for a lot of people.
Luke Gannon: As children transitioned from in-person to remote schooling, Laura and Wanda recognized that the available options for internet providers were inadequate. They embarked on a lengthy journey of research, meetings with representatives, securing funding and forming alliances with electric cooperatives. Their goal was to build a compelling case for ensuring that every individual in East Carroll Parish had access to reliable internet connectivity.
Laura Arvin: We met with AT&T representatives. We met with Sparklight representatives online. We met with all kinds of local industries. How were they working to get their internet? We worked with the school system, finding all these things. The task force ended up fighting off this company that came in and wanted to build a magic entity. They were going to solve all our broadband problems to the tune of $50 million in bonds that they were going to sell, that if the network failed, the town would’ve been on the hook for, the town and the parish. So by that time, we had researched and we were beginning to get our organizing chops, so to speak. So we were able to fend them off, and we identified a partner who had won the RDOF money for our parish, who was also building networks for the electric co-op next door to us and also had some customers in East Carroll. So Delta Interfaith Broadband Committee worked with them to help them gather information to submit a GUMBO grant application.
And we worked hard. We helped them gather the information. And after a lot of waiting, the grant was awarded. And so we celebrated, but there was a protest process in place that we were aware of, but at the 11th hour, literally Sparklight comes in and says, “Nope, we serve those people already,” or, “We serve the majority of them, so you can’t give money to serve those people.” And the GUMBO grant is the granting unserved municipalities broadband opportunities. So they might have technically had AT&T, but there were some standards there that they had to reach, and so AT&T couldn’t. So basically, they were unserved, but with Sparklight’s protests, it pretty much put a halt in things. And at that point, Delta Interfaith pivoted. We started going out and doing press conferences. We’d traveled to Baton Rouge and spoke in front of the office of administration that ran the broadband grant program. We did media interviews. We chatted with Chris Mitchell on the ILSR Community Broadband bits and did a lot of print interviews and reached out to public officials.
And then we also met with Sparklight directly. We went over to Monroe to their regional office and met on Zoom. And by the way, they had internet problems hooking into their Arizona and Florida offices, where these big wigs were. We were sitting with the regional manager, who we had spoken with way back in 2020. That was who we talked with, saying, “Can you extend your network further out into the parish?” And at that time they said, “No, it’s not a good return on investment for us. We can’t do this.” And AT&T had told us, “Be happy with what you have.” So when we met them a second time, we had a little bit of a fire in our bellies.
Luke Gannon: The flames of that fire were fanned out one day when a Sparklight general manager, Charlie Oaks, made Wanda an offer he hoped she wouldn’t refuse.
Wanda Manning: So Charlie Oaks called me and said, “Well, Wanda, well, I’m going to do this and that for you on your bill so it could come down, and you’ll have great service and all of this cool stuff.” I said, “Oh really?” I said, “That’s awesome.” I said, “But are you going to do that for everybody else too?” You don’t just do it for one person. There’s a whole community of people coming up short with poor services. And we pay big money for Sparklight for their services and get poor freaking services.
Luke Gannon: But because Wanda wouldn’t be bought and kept advocating for all of her community alongside Laura and the rest of Delta Interfaith, today residents of East Carroll Parish are celebrating Louisiana’s Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity’s decision to uphold a $4 million GUMBO grant to bring fiber to the home internet service to over 2,500 households in one of the most poorly connected parts of the state. Community building is power building.
Wanda Manning: My standpoint is that as a community-based organization built with community churches and people that are interested in the betterment of our town, we wanted change. We even had two great assemblies to gather people up to create power, because as a young person during the early 70s, late 80s, trying to organize some stuff in school, power can be one person, but you struggle so hard with it. But when you got organized people with the same mindset and growing a thing or a situation, you get great strategies and some great ideas. And that’s what has happened in Delta Interfaith. We strive for the betterment of our town. We want our children to have better, and the only way that we can have better for them is that we lay the foundation.
Laura Arvin: And it is about those relationships, reaching across all of these possible, probable divides, real issues that have been struggled with to learn together about how to do things. I mean, we’re learning as a group all the time.
Wanda Manning: This fight, it’s pertinent to me as an educator. With technology as an ongoing entity, we need to stay abreast. To stay abreast, it need to be affordable, reliable and sustainable. There’s no connection to other entities outside of East Carroll Parish if we can’t sustain a connection. This fight is so important because I know that there are homes that do remote jobs. Telehealth is very crucial in East Carroll Parish because even I myself have to drive 72 plus miles for a doctor appointment [inaudible 00:21:26]. So some of the things that we can carve out using the internet, it takes the strain off our pockets, off our time and put things back in the order that it’s supposed to be, especially concerning all children. Everybody don’t have the necessary means to travel to be educated at ULM, Grambling Southern or any other university. So with good, sustainable internet, it meets the need. And we have to have this fight and this discussion about not being left behind.
Luke Gannon: It’s that time of the episode for Wanda and Laura to share their book recommendations. Here’s Laura.
Laura Arvin: One of my most favorite poets is Wendell Berry. There’s a poem called Manifesto of the Mad Farmer. And every now and then when I get frustrated, I go back and read that poem, and it’s just awesome.
Wanda Manning: The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves and Slow Down Growth and Increase Inequality by Brink Lindsey and Steve Teles a interesting read, very interesting. You learn some stuff about the economy and big companies, how they just steady do the wrong thing. And that scripture, or part of scripture says, “The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer,” and that comes to mind. And one of them is a hard read. You can’t be faint of heart With Charles Dickens, right? The Tale of Two Cities is what I relate to. And even coming up, the first line, “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times,” and I’ve always equated that with East Carroll Parish because of the struggles and the parallelisms between the two situations that was battling out in the book.
Luke Gannon: Well, thank you so much, Wanda and Laura, for joining us on the show today. You all have accomplished an amazing feat in East Carroll Parish and really shown the world what is possible for bridging the digital divide. Now passing it over to the incredible Reggie Rucker to close us out.
Reggie Rucker: Thank you, Luke. Again, what a great job on this episode. And, again, Laura and Wanda, thank you for telling such an inspiring and empowering story. It truly is moving to hear about all the great work that you’re doing down in East Carroll Parish. And for all of you listening, thanks for sticking with us until the end. I assume that means you like this episode, so please share with even just one person you think will enjoy it too. We have a goal of 10,000 listens for this episode, so help us get there. And if you’re not a subscriber to the podcast yet, make sure to hit that subscribe button so you know when every new episode drops. And, of course, your donations are essential to help us keep this podcast going and support the research and resources that we make available on our website for free. We truly welcome and appreciate it all.
And last, if you have feedback for us or want to share a story about how your community approaches this issue, send us an email to buildinglocalpower@ilsr.org. We’d love to share these on a special mailbag episode one day. We’ll definitely keep an eye out. This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank. The music for this season is also composed by Andrew Frank. Thank you so much for listening to Building Local Power.

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Music Credit: Andrew Frank

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank

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

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

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

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