This is a transcript from a 27 minute radio interview I did with Gavin Dahl from KGNU radio’s “It’s the Economy” show.” Listen to the show here. Many thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript.
Gavin Dahl: Tonight, on “It’s the Economy,” interviews with Professor Jesse Drew, author of the book, “A Social History of Contemporary Democratic Media,” and Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m your host, Gavin Dahl. Stay tuned.
[musical interlude — “Money”]
Dahl: For the past five years, Christopher Mitchell has run the fabulous website muninetworks.org, advocating for communities across America who build their own broadband infrastructure, to insure access to reliable, affordable, fast networks. He’s the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thanks very much for joining me on “It’s the Economy,” Christopher.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for having me.
Dahl: So you were in Colorado last week for the rural Mountain Connect gathering.
[Mountain Connect Rural Broadband Conference]
Tell us what was significant about these meetings up in Vail?
Mitchell: Sure. It was an exciting time. This is a really great conference, and — in part because it’s a really regional conference. A lot of the time, I go to events — it’s more of a national group, where attendees may not know each other and have the same history; whereas, in Mountain Connect, there’s a lot of people who have a sense of — you know, if someone else in the audience is asking a question, it may be from a different community, but it’s from someone who has a similar experience. It’s in the Rockies. So, it just had a great vibe to it. It’s a lot of people who were there to try and make sure that their community had the connectivity that it needs to really take advantage of the modern technological changes.
Dahl: And so, the fastest networks in the country are built by local governments. Three Colorado communities are angling for their own locally-controlled broadband networks. What’s the latest news from Centennial, Montrose, and Longmont?
Mitchell: Yes, exactly. We have — there’s three communities in Colorado that have already passed the ballot. There’s others, too, that are thinking about it. And Boulder’s already announced that they’re going to put it on the referendum. And we’ll talk a little bit, I’m sure, about why that’s necessary. But I think the most exciting one is Longmont. They’re the furthest along. They’ve already started building their network, and they’re going to be connecting everyone with super-fast speeds of gigabit connectivity, which is only available in tens of other communities. Like you said, these networks are typically available where communities have invested in this. Or, also, Google has done it in Kansas City and a couple of other places. And there’s some small companies that have done it. But the big cable and telephone companies have really not done it, even though they’ve probably done more press releases than anyone on it.
They’ve just been all talk and no investment.
Dahl: So, I met some folks at a barbeque a few weeks ago, who live in Chattanooga. And they were gushing about their municipal broadband, which is cheaper than what I pay for slow DSL here in Colorado. And they call their hometown Gig City. So, what’s the significance of Chattanoogs’s operation? And what are the challenges faced there, in expanding the service to surrounding areas?
Mitchell: Chattanooga has a municipal electric department, which means the city itself is the electric company. This is something that over 2,000 towns across the United States still have. But Chattanooga is one of the larger ones. And so, they have been investing in some of these communications connections for their own substations, and
the sort of boring things that most people don’t care about. But they decided that they could invest, and make this network do more than just benefit the community through electricity. They could also connect people’s homes, and give them an alternative to Comcast for super-fast Internet speeds, cable television, and telephone services — each of which the city now delivers. And so this is really exciting, because people have a real choice. Most communities don’t have a second choice beyond just the cable company and the dish companies.
So, Chattanooga then went further. They basically connected everyone with a gigabit. So, if you wanted to pay extra — I mean, the starting tier was fast, faster than you can get in most places in the country. But — not everyone got the gigabit. But then, in this past year, they’ve lowered the price of the gigabit from $70 a month. Which is pretty common across the U.S., in terms of being a — it’s considered a fairly legitimate price for that super-fast connectivity.
Now, one of the amazing things — what’s happening in Colorado — Longmont has decided that they’ll be doing a gigabit — which is, to give you an idea, it’s about 50 times faster than your average connection, maybe 100 times faster than your DSL connection — but Longmont’s going to be doing it [for] only $50 a month, if you sign up early. So, this community north of Denver is really setting the stage. There’s only one or two communities in the entire country where you can get a similar service for less money.
Dahl: Yeah, we have a lot of KGNU listener-members in Longmont. So that is definitely big news around here.
You talk about one gigabit. You’re talking about a gigabit of data PER SECOND.
Mitchell: That’s right. And, you know, one of the interesting things is — not just for download speeds, which is, you know, in some places — even CenturyLink, if you live in a few areas in Omaha — you might have access to a similar service. But a lot of times, the big cable and telephone companies, even if you’re getting 10 megabits or 100 megabits or 1,000, you’re getting that in the downstream, but you’re not getting it in the upstream. So if you want to upload a bunch of videos to Facebook, or you want to send a big file if you’re working from home, you’re going to be much slower than you might anticipate from the connection you’re paying for. But if you’re getting it from a city like Longmont, or if you’re getting it from Chattanooga, then you’re getting it — it’s called a “symmetrical” connection — which means that your upload speeds are just as fast as your download speeds. And that’s really revolutionary for small businesses,
for people who are being productive at home, photographers — for all kinds of people who want to create their own content.
Dahl: Well, and it’s also exciting thinking about technologies and ideas that we haven’t even experienced yet. I mean, I read a recent piece in Al-Jazeera America, where a guy with a 3-D printing business — which is still, you know, mind-boggling to most of us — says other companies to what they do, but it can take weeks. For his business, they make precise models of hospital patients’ organs, so doctors can plan their surgeries. And he can do it in hours. He said it literally takes his competitors up to weeks.
And so, I mean, while 3-D printing might still seem like science fiction, the gigabit is making huge, huge differences for these small businesses.
Mitchell: Absolutely. We’re seeing that, as well, with a lot of diagnostic imaging, in medical fields, where a doctor may be able to do these incredibly intense — like hundreds of megabytes of data, or even gigabytes of data. And they can scan it and watch it — and they can actually read the scan in their home. And that’s a really big deal, when minutes matter, in terms of being able to get a response from a doctor.
There’s all kinds of things that are developing. And the thing is that we’re seeing, local governments — communities — have to get involved if they want to be in on the leading edge of this. In another ten years, we’ll probably see, then, a lot of big companies finally starting to deliver that. But at that point, you’d just be treading water. You’ll have to have a minimum of those sort of speeds just have any businesses that want to locate there. Whereas, cities like Longmont, Montrose, Centennial, maybe Boulder very soon — these are cities that are going to figure out how to be ahead of the curve, and make sure that the economy — the businesses of tomorrow — are locating in their towns. Compared to other big cable companies, Comcast actually runs a pretty decent network. But the issue is: you’re never going to be better than a “C” student when you’re on Comcast. They’re always just going to keep you in the middle of the pack. So
it’s something to keep in mind when you’re trying to figure out what kind of profile you want your community to have.
Dahl: We’re talking to Christopher Mitchell. He’s the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Back to Colorado. And you mentioned that Centennial, Montrose, and Longmont have already jumped through the initial hoops, in terms of starting their own broadband. And then you mentioned that Boulder will be putting an issue on the ballot as well. So what’s the background here in Colorado? SB-152 set out that municipalities in Colorado have to hold a referendum before providing cable, telecom, or broadband service, with some exceptions. So, what’s the background on that bill here?
Mitchell: Sure. You know, it goes back to about ten years ago, when the big cable and telephone companies were worried that they’d face competition from local governments. And so they went out and they started going to legislatures and working with the American Legislative Exchange Council, properly known as “ALEC,” to basically limit local authority, so that local governments would not be allowed to invest in these networks. And one of the reasons local governments invest in these networks is because the private sector alone will not result in competition.
Let’s talk a little bit about the economics of it. Which is, if you and I wanted to build a really great fiber network in Denver, we’d probably have to go out and find ourselves hundreds of millions of dollars. As soon as we did that, Comcast would lower its prices temporarily. You and I would not be able to get enough subscribers to pay or debts, and we’d go out of business. Now, for a municipality, you can structure that with long-term debt. And you can basically take longer to break even. So you don’t have to make a profit in the first two or three years. Which changes the numbers. That means, if you want competition in your community, almost the only way to do it is with local government involvement.
Recognizing that, in 2005, Qwest went and tried to buy a law that would have stopped local communities from doing this. And there was a bit of a compromise. And so, as a result, communities can have a referendum and opt out of that law. But right now, Boulder, even though it has over 100 miles of fiber optic cables for internal purposes, it cannot use those to try and attract local businesses and that sort of thing. Which is what Montrose, Centennial, and Longmont have already done, is to pass a referendum that basically says we’re going to restore our local authority.
Like you said, there’s 19 0r 20 other states that limit local authority. And each has their own fairly unique approach to it. The fact that Colorado allows municipalities to recover their right is better than most. But it’s still problematic, and it’s really limited investment in Colorado, from local companies as well as local governments.
Dahl: About ten years ago, it was Qwest that was really the power player in this. That company is now known as CenturyLink, for those of you who don’t know that connection. And I want to ask you about the latest battles for community broadband. The state legislation pushed in Utah and Kansas that was up for consideration in 2014. How did those two states fare?
Mitchell: Well, Kansas is really weird, because, basically, these cable lobbyists, they wrote a bill that — you know, they claimed it wasn’t as overreaching as many of us read it to be. Which tells me one of two things. One is, they don’t actually know how to write legislation — which is possible. But the second is, they thought that they’d be able to sneak it through. And what they tried to do is basically make it illegal in Kansas for local governments to either build networks or to even lease their infrastructure or work with a private partner to deliver Internet services. That would have stopped Google Fiber from expanding — one of the most exciting projects in all of Kansas. And when word got out about this, the switchboard of the legislature in Wichita melted, basically. They had so much opposition so quickly.
Now, we fear that next year, that bill will come back, and it won’t implicate Google. It will be written just to stop municipal networks like the small community in rural — Chanute — southeastern Kansas. That will be really upsetting, because it may be harder to stop a bill like that, that stops a really smart community, that’s not getting any private investment, from moving forward.
Dahl: The legislature knows that Google Fiber is really popular. So, of course, when that was threatened, people got upset. But there isn’t the same widespread awareness of the benefits, for example, like you said, in a small town, doing the same thing.
Mitchell: That’s exactly right. The only way a town like Chanute is going to have this kind of service is by either investing in itself or by investing in itself and then partnering with an independent company — both of which would have been made illegal under this strategy. Because the businesses in Chanute have been begging for this for more than a decade — for the cable and telephone companies that operate there to invest. These are both big national companies. And they’ve refused. You know, it’s one of those things where you gotta put up or shut up. If you want to invest in these towns, go ahead. But if you’re not going to invest, you can’t stop them from doing it.
Dahl. Get out of the way.
Mitchell: Exactly. So, in Utah, just briefly, there’s another network. And this is a network that’s really fallen on hard times. They’ve made a number of mistakes, and they’ve faced some opposition over the years. It’s called UTOPIA. And they have a new plan, with an Australian firm that’s going to invest in them, and help them to achieve their original vision. CenturyLink, working through the lobbying, has used the Utah legislature to try and sabotage that. When that failed, then the Utah — these folks in Utah from CenturyLink — they started a website and another campaign, that they’re now pushing, that they’re pretending is a grassroots-type campaign, in order to tray and get people to vote against this new deal, which they’ll be voting on this summer.
You know, to some extent, I’m sure your listeners have heard the term before for “astroturf.” But we don’t see it a lot in this way. But in Utah, it actually has shown up quite a bit.
Dahl: My guest is Christopher Mitchell, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We know that fake grassroots groups have spoken out against open Internet principles. You know, it’s not unexpected. But we haven’t seen a lot of astroturf efforts affecting the municipal broadband fight specifically. So this Utah story is one to watch.
Can you talk a little bit about municipal broadband in the context of open Internet principles? I mean, we’ve heard, for example, Verizon claimed that net neutrality is bad for the blind and deaf. You know, I mean, pretty offensive moves by the industry. But not unexpected. What do you think of these fake grassroots groups’ impact in the media policy debates?
Mitchell: Well, I think they do have a big impact. I mean, the reality is, whether we’re talking about municipal broadband or we’re talking about issues of network neutrality — which are separate issues that overlap in some occasional ways — the industry always wants to pretend that it’s a big group that opposes good government policies. So, you know, they go and they lobby. But they don’t want just have Comcast lobbying, or CenturyLink and AT&T lobbying. They want to say it’s the Cattle Growers of America. So they create these groups, and they pretend that there’s this wide constituency, when, in fact, you know, the only people who want to violate network neutrality are the big carriers. It’s not even all ISPs. It’s only a fraction of them, that have the most power.
You know, if you look at Google, or Sonic, or a lot of ISPs that are really investing, they DON’T want to violate network neutrality. They don’t think it’s necessary to get the kind of investment that they’re making. They’re just happy with the way the Internet has always run. So these astroturf groups are really necessary. Because if we all basically said, hey, should we just change the way the Internet works, to try and help Comcast and AT&T make more money, I think most people would say, no, that’s ridiculous. But if we say, oh, the Cattlemen of America — and I’m just picking a group that sounds like one that they would use, I don’t actually know if that’s one of their groups. Groups that represent minorities. Historically marginalized communities. You know, where the telecom companies will be giving these groups money that they absolutely need to achieve important ends. And in some cases, then, they adopt positions that I think may
not be consistent with the best of that community.
Dahl: But I want to talk specifically here for a minute about merger mania, and what ownership consolidation means for localism. Especially when it comes to how we access the Internet. I mean, for example, I think that most people in our listening audience are not big-time tech geeks like you, Christopher. And I mean that with all due respect.
Mitchell: Thank you.
Dahl: Ah… So, for example, the difference between — in Boulder — going with Comcast or CenturyLink, or actually spending a little bit more money to support a local Internet service provider, like Indra’s Net…. I mean, didn’t our Internet access originally route through thousands of local ISPs?
Mitchell: Yes, it did. And that’s an important point on so many different issues. From, basically, whether money is staying in the community or leaving the community to a provider like Comcast. It’s also important for issues of surveillance, which is how easy is it for the government to basically vacuum up our data, and to know everything that we’re doing. If there’s thousands of ISPs, it’s harder to monitor than if it’s just ten. It’s important in terms of making sure that when you and I have a new idea for how the web should work, that we don’t have to basically sell our idea to Comcast, as the only way to make it available. Which is what happens in cable television or on the radio today. We want to make sure the Internet doesn’t go down that path.
And so it’s incredibly important that we stop the ongoing consolidation of Internet service providers that we’ve seen — particularly in the cable and the AT&T — you know, with AT&T and DirecTV — and the DSL market as well. Consolidation is just incredibly bad news for any impact on the media, I think.
Dahl: So, some people are either getting their Internet through the cable system, like Comcast, through the phone system, digital subscriber line — DSL — most of which — most of those connections have not been upgraded to fiber. That would be CenturyLink in our case here. And occasionally people get their Internet through a satellite provider. But, of course, we’re also seeing huge growth in the wireless area, where some people now are only accessing the Internet through their mobile device.
Mitchell: Yes, that’s right. And to some extent, there’s a little bit of a difference between wireless and wireline, because there can be more scarcity with the wireless, because of how we’ve managed spectrum — some might say mismanaged spectrum, frankly. But, basically, it’s not inevitable that we would have given this incredibly valuable space to just Verizon and AT&T, basically, to monopolize. There’s some people who are claiming we don’t need more competition on the wireline side, because you could also go with a wireless carrier, because wireless speeds have gotten faster. And while it’s true that wireless speeds have gotten faster, the prices have gone up dramatically. So the situation is: if you want to try and use your wireless connections in the same way that you would use your wireline — your DSL or your cable — connection, it’s going to cost you several hundred dollars a month, because of the bandwidth caps and overage charges.
Dahl: So, let me get you on the record here, Christopher Mitchell, on the Comcast-Time Warner Cable proposed merger. What’s your specific concern there?
Mitchell: The specific concern is that Comcast already has so much power in Washington, DC, and in the state legislatures. You’re going to make it basically a much bigger, more powerful company, with more money, more ability to throw its weight around in DC, and to change the policy of the country. And it fundamentally changes the way the Internet works moving forward, because of its scale. That is not something that we should accept. Even if we thought that Comcast and Time Warner Cable, merged, would lower prices for consumers, which is not something that anyone things, that’s the only possible justification that one might have for it. And even that is not happening.
There is not good reason to allow this to happen. All of the outcomes for us, whether it’s economics, or our ability to have a democratic society, all of them run opposite to letting Comcast and Time Warner Cable merge.
Dahl: So, there’s already a lot of controversy at the Federal Communications Commission. These five commissioners have a great deal of power, even though they’re appointed and not elected. And we’ve talked a little bit about the ownership consolidation issue. The FCC will have a chance to review the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. We’ve also talked a little bit about the proposed open Internet principles, and this issue of net neutrality, which comedian John Oliver says, the only other two words more boring are, “Featuring Sting.” And Michael Copps, former FCC Commissioner, says, don’t say “net neutrality.” It is not something to be neutral about.
There’s another issue that has come up as one of the most controversial things happening in DC with telecom. And that is that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote last week, in an official FCC blog post — I’m going to quote here:
“If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition.
“I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so….
“Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition. Giving the citizens of Chattanooga and leaders like Mayor Berke the power to make these decisions for themselves is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.”
Now, when I first read that, I thought, has Christopher Mitchell taken over Tom Wheeler’s account for the FCC blog? But no, Wheeler wrote that. And Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, in DC, said Wheeler will probably NOT launch a broad initiative to attack state laws around the country. Instead, the FCC chief will probably wait for groups or individuals to file complaints about specific state laws. That’s the prediction from Harold Feld. Again, Wheeler said, “Given the opportunity, we will do so.” He didn’t say, I’m coming for the state laws. He just said, if we have the opportunity, this is my opinion of what we should do.
So, Thursday last week, a bunch of Republican members of Congress sent a letter to Tom Wheeler at the FCC, saying his agency better not meddle with state law. Now, I want to ask you, Christopher Mitchell, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is there anyone in media policy debates who takes the arguments of these congresscritters seriously? I mean, isn’t it obvious that the 20 states that made community be illegal or more difficult to establish were simply doing the bidding of corporate overlords? I feel like any member of Congress who signed onto this letter last week is basically walking around like a NASCAR driver, with corporate logos on their suit.
Mitchell: I think that you make a compelling point. And I would go one further, by saying, look at the reasoning that they used to justify saying the FCC should not take action on this. They said the FCC is located too far away from the people, and that states are a better judge of what the people want them to do. And I would say that, actually, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we would agree with that. And that’s why we support the ability of local decisions being made locally. And don’t think that these decisions should be made at the state level. They should be made at the local level. It’s really quite amazing for these elected officials who signed this — eleven senators and sixty representatives — all Republicans, in this case — that have signed it, and basically said, look, we need to trust the people, but not too much — you know, we can’t trust them too much. It’s almost as if they’re saying, we just want the
decisions to be made at the level of government where our lobbyists are the most effective….
Mitchell: And it’s very disappointing, frankly. We’re not ones to go around and say that the federal government should be telling states what to do, frankiy. I mean, my organization is one that believes very much in local democracy. But we see this are removing preemption, not encouraging preemption.
Dahl: Exactly. Well, so let’s talk about the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. It’s a new venture you’ve launched with some very “not-astroturf” partners.
Mitchell: Right. Yeah. And these are people who have been working with communities for a long time. Jim Baller, an attorney in DC that’s — he’s been working in this space longer than anyone, in terms of helping communities navigate these waters. And Joanne Hovis, who — her company, CTC, has been working with local businesses AND communities to invest in this sort of infrastructure, for a long time. And then Catharine Rice, as well, who was very involved in the 2011 battles in North Carolina. So the four of us have basically been launching this coalition, which — we’re looking for as many people to join — you know, especially businesses, trade groups, local government entities. We have a website at localnetchoice.org. We have a very simple statement of principles. It’s basically that we think these decisions should be made locally. States should not get in the way. And, as well, federal government shouldn’t get in the way
either, although we’re not anticipating that with this current administration.
Dahl: So, you’re not going so far as to call Internet access a public utility. But you’re basically saying i’s an essential 21st-century infrastructure.
Mitchell: Yes, I think that’s right. And I think — it’s problematic to say it’s a utility. A utility can mean lots of different things. We treat water utilities differently from electricity utilities, different from, you know, the utility of roads, and that sort of thing. So, we really focus on just the idea that communities themselves have different challenges. They have different assets. And they’re best poised to figure out whether a municipal network might make sense, if some form of partnership with a local company might make sense, or if it makes sense for them to just DO NOTHING, and let the private sector — you know, the existing incumbents — do what they please. That’s also an acceptable outcome. But it should be up to the community.
Dahl: So, give us the URL one more time, for the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.
Dahl: My first guest tonight has been Christopher Mitchell, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. It’s online at ilsr.org. And for folks who’d like to track updates on the battles for municipal broadband around the country, check out muninetworks.org. That’s m-u-n-i-networks. Thanks so much for joining me, Christopher Mitchell.
Mitchell: Thank you. Take care.