Connecting Indian Country to the Benefits of Broadband — Episode 119 of Building Local Power

Date: 4 Feb 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by three members of ILSR’s broadband team: Christopher Mitchell, Program Director; H. Trostle, Project Manager; and Sean Gonsalves, Senior Reporter, Editor, and Researcher. The first half of the discussion is focused on new ILSR resources on tribal broadband projects and the second half features an overview of an upcoming report on municipal broadband projects throughout the country. Highlights of the conversation include:

  • The diverse benefits increased connectivity can bring to tribal lands, including increased local economic development.
  • The importance of spectrum sovereignty, which treats spectrum like a natural resource and respects tribes’ right to manage spectrum on their land.
  • How the road to success can differ greatly between different municipal broadband projects.
  • The progress we’ve seen on municipal broadband projects throughout the U.S. over the last 10 years. 

“They thought if they just kept asking for small amounts of money for some of their community need, that that would eventually be enough. It turns out that [the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe] needed to dream big, be clear about their community needs, and then the federal government was able to fund their network in a way that actually works for the longterm.”

 

Jessica Del Fia…: 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 am Jessica Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For 45 years, ILSR has worked to build driving equitable communities where power, wealth and accountability remain in local hands. And, Hello. Today I’m here with a few of my ILSR colleagues. First up is Christopher Mitchell who you have heard on the show before, more likely than not.
Christopher Mit…: I’m ready to provoke some thought.
Jessica Del Fia…: That’s what we try to do here. And we also have two other members of the broadband team, H. Trostle, who is our Project Manager on the Broadband team.
H. Trostle: Yes, I am a Project Manager.
Jessica Del Fia…: And we have Sean Gonsalves, who is a… oh my God, what are you, Sean? Reporter, researcher, writer?
Sean Gonsalves: All of that.
Jessica Del Fia…: Senior reporter.
Christopher Mit…: All of that-
Sean Gonsalves: It’s a terrible title, and then some.
Jessica Del Fia…: You guys, we’ve got to standardize these. They are going to talk about some exciting new research that they’ve been working on, and I think, unless Chris you want to say anything to set us off here, we will start with our Native Networks report.
Christopher Mit…: Just that this is an exciting time. I think I’ve said before, I’ve been disappointed at the level of government response to the pandemic, and we’re going to talk about some things that we’ve been seeing happening. But I will say, I feel like government’s catching up now, local, state, federal. I’m hopeful that we will see more seriousness, and there’s a lot of good stuff happening out there at the local level.
Jessica Del Fia…: 2021, a year for seriousness. H, do you want to start us off by explaining why did you decide to do a report on Broadband projects and tribal lands across the United States?
H. Trostle: Yeah. This is an area that requires so much more information sharing. So, you know how Muni Networks is the clearinghouse for information on municipal networks. Well, there isn’t the same thing for our tribally owned networks. And this is just like a huge gap in the research. This is a huge gap for policy makers who are trying to figure out what to do about the continual lack of access in Indian country. And so, what we decided to do was write a report, and do basically a census of all the tribally owned networks in the US. This report features four of my favorite little case studies about specific tribally owned networks, and really brings forward this model of tribal ownership of internet infrastructure, the infrastructure of the future.
Jessica Del Fia…: Right. And then so along with this, you also have that new research or resource page which is basically a census of all the projects that are happening right now, correct?
H. Trostle: Yes. I went through all of the federally recognized tribes in the US and tried to figure out who is doing some sort of broadband project, who is thinking about a broadband project? Who is applying to the FCC for licenses, for a spectrum? Who is trying to work in partnerships with the local co-ops, like what is happening in Indian country around broadband is huge, and it hasn’t been clearly answered. And we don’t even have very good data.
Jessica Del Fia…: Yeah, I was just going to ask. So it’s not even that this is all kind of new information to bring together in one place. But do you think policymakers even had a good idea what internet access is like on tribal lands, like at all?
H. Trostle: They’ve been trying to track that for a while. And by they, I mean, the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC has released every year, where they think broadband is. And every year it completely overstate the case. To be clear, tribal lands generally across the US, at the end of 2018 they had only 72% coverage with broadband. So it was like 30% of people on tribal lands couldn’t get access to decent internet service. And that is one of the best case scenarios. And it’s actually even worse if you look only at the lower 48 states. When you look at the lower 48 states, you find out that only about 57% have access to broadband.
H. Trostle: And this is supposed to be the best case scenario, and this is what we have. And it’s just not very useful for policy makers trying to figure out how to improve things. And it’s also not reflective of what’s actually happening on the ground, what the Native nations can see in their own communities. And so, we were trying to keep track of all the different ways that people have tried to tackle this problem.
Christopher Mit…: There’s a couple of points I wanted to add on. One is to get a sense that, when the FCC says 57% of these tribal lands have internet access in the lower 48 states, there was people in those communities who were looking at the areas that supposedly had access. And they’re saying, “What? There’s no access here.” And so, I mean, we know that there’s a major problem there. To give it a sense, I mean the FCC would say that the number of Americans that have broadband access is in the 90%s. And that is considered a significant overstatement. So you can imagine that 57% is just really a problem, and something that really needs to be solved. This is a major challenge. And one of the challenges that H faced in doing this research is that, they had to look at all of these online markers, to try to figure out if a tribe was connected.
Christopher Mit…: But you can imagine that if a tribe has no internet access, they may not have much of a web presence. One of the things we found is, that there’s a significant lack of middle mile access. And so that’s to say, some of these tribal lands in Indian country, they might be tens or even 100 miles away from a place where they could get that high quality internet access, that they would have to first bring to one spot in the land, and then be able to start connecting homes and businesses with it. So, it’s a major problem. It’s one that has largely been overlooked. But we’ll talk a little bit I’m sure about some signs of hope there as well, and the fact that some people are taking this seriously.
Jessica Del Fia…: The thing, when I think about this huge digital divide, especially on tribal lands is just like geographically this means people… there’s already a struggle to get good healthcare, access to the hospitals, it’s just a long drive to get there. And obviously high quality internet access would make telehealth more easily accessible, same with education. But in this report you talked a lot about how important it would be to economic development. So is there anything you just want to touch on there a little bit, before we get into the more specific projects?
H. Trostle: Yeah, definitely. Improving internet access in Indian country just… it opens up new markets. It allows for more expansion of microenterprises of all these little businesses selling arts and crafts. And previously they were restricted to people who lived nearby. And with the introduction of more internet service, you’re seeing them enter into business on Etsy, you’re seeing more business opportunities available. And that’s just like one small section of the economic development potential there. Chris, I don’t know if you want to say a little bit more about it from the more government institution perspective.
Christopher Mit…: Actually, a direction I would like to take it is one I’m quite excited about because of what I learned for the Indigenous Connectivity Summit from the Internet Society. Which by the way, Internet Society made this research possible. So I definitely want to thank them. And Internet Society is an organization that treats this very seriously, and is working to try to connect Indian country all over North America. But when I went to the Indigenous Connectivity Summit, one of the things I saw was just incredible applications that local entrepreneurs were creating to preserve culture, to help teach languages that are in danger of disappearing. And so there’s a lot happening out there that can really be done, that go beyond just economic development and even education, but actually preserving culture before it’s potentially lost forever.
Sean Gonsalves: That’s an important point. Because at the heart of the concerns of Indian country of course are all about sovereignty and to be able to be self-sustaining communities. And the whole history of… One thing I like about this particular report is that, even though it doesn’t give any sort of definitive history of the relationship between Native nations and the United States Government, it does provide some valuable context in terms of what the United States sort of fiduciary and moral responsibility is to support these communities and the history and the historical debt that we owe Native nations in this country, and that economic development piece.
Sean Gonsalves: Particularly at a time when Native nations are trying to diversify their economies, and not be wholly reliant on their ability to build a casino. This is important infrastructure. We’re not talking about Native nations being able to enjoy Netflix on reservations. We’re talking about essential infrastructure that’s important for economic development, for access to healthcare and things of that nature. So, the report really puts all of that into that context, and then gets into specific examples. So it’s a great product I think.
Christopher Mit…: Although many of them also do enjoy Netflix.
Jessica Del Fia…: I was just going to say, I think that could be essential too, you know?
Sean Gonsalves: For sure.
H. Trostle: Netflix is essential during this pandemic. We need to get a little bit of joy every day from different areas as much as we can.
Christopher Mit…: Yeah. I mean, I think for many of us… I get a little annoyed sometimes. Not at someone like Sean of course, who I find endlessly endearing. But like, Netflix is I think… people don’t appreciate it. There’s a lot of art on Netflix. And whether you want to disagree with me about my favorite kinds of movies and about lots of explosions, whether they’re art or not. There’s a lot of really good documentaries. There’s all kinds of stuff on streaming services that we should not pretend are not important. We often really don’t value art and culture enough. And I think it is important to make sure everyone has access to that.
Jessica Del Fia…: I just want to go back to jump off what Sean was saying, which is spectrum sovereignty is a word that comes up a few times throughout this report. And I think both of those words can confuse people. So, H, could you unpack that a little bit? Like, what is spectrum, and what do we mean when we say it should be treated like a natural resource?
H. Trostle: Thank you for asking that clarifying question. Spectrum sovereignty is a term that comes up a few times during the report. And let’s just unpack that a little with, spectrum is all around us. It is a natural resource. It is how we get radio waves. It is how we get television service.
Christopher Mit…: I think it’s how midi-chlorians are distributed.
Jessica Del Fia…: I’m thinking about that… you know, in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie, the kid who gets sent through the TV. Like when you say spectrum, that’s what I’m thinking about. Is that right?
H. Trostle: Yes, that’s is a great explanation of spectrum. It is the electromagnetic spectrum. The way sometimes that scientists like magic is very much spectrum. And specifically the FCC is in charge of managing spectrum for the United States. And one of the things that has happened because of this is that Native nations are no longer in charge of the spectrum over their lands. It is all running through the FCC. And the FCC has partitioned it in such a way, that sometimes it is like dividing reservations in half. It is very difficult for our Native nations to form radio companies and get those particular licenses that they need. And spectrum is also now increasingly used to provide wireless service.
Christopher Mit…: And it may come as a surprise to listeners of this show, but the Federal Communications Commission has often distributed spectrum on favorable terms to very large corporations that do not have very much interest in building out over Indian country. And they may have exclusive control. So even if they don’t do it, others may not be able to use that spectrum in those areas.
H. Trostle: Exactly. And then you also have this term, sovereignty. And sovereignty comes up a lot. This is about the importance of being able to have that self-determination to decide for yourself what the future is going to be, like to be able to make choices and to be able to function separately from the Federal Government in some ways. And it really comes down to recognizing that there’s that government-to-government relationships between Native nations and the Federal Government itself. And it doesn’t run through states. It doesn’t necessarily run through the Federal Communications Commission. That is just like one small section of our Federal Government. Like, this is… Sovereignty is much, much bigger than that. And so it really comes down to who is determining the future.
Jessica Del Fia…: Thanks for clarifying that. I think that’s super helpful. Has anything changed recently? I mean, is the Federal Government doing anything to change things around spectrum sovereignty?
H. Trostle: There are a couple of things that have happened recently. One of them is, the FCC is trying to prioritize tribal lands for certain licenses and windows within their programs. But there is also a bill that was introduced by now interior secretary Holland, and Senator Warren, called the Digital Reservations Act, that would fully recognize spectrum sovereignty, the rights of Native nations to manage their own spectrum over their own lands. So, it’s an exciting space.
Jessica Del Fia…: And it doesn’t have to scare people with two big words. So I want to get into the fun stuff here. There’s four different case studies in this report. Could you just give a very brief overview of what Native nations you were working with on this? And then maybe pick one to go a little bit deeper into sharing their story?
H. Trostle: Sure. I spoke with folks at Fond du Lac, folks at St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, people at Nez Perce and folks over at Coeur d’Alene. So there were two Native nations out in Idaho, one that splits the US Canadian border out in New York, and one that is here in Minnesota where I’m from. And I just really want to recognize that these are stories that they shared with me for this report to get this information out there. For more Native nations to learn from, from their particular experiences. And the one that really struck me was Fond du Lac. I interviewed Jason Holliday out there from their planning department. And he talked about how they kept applying for grants. And they kept not getting the grants because they weren’t dreaming big enough.
H. Trostle: They kept applying for grants specific for wireless networks that would serve only a portion of their reservation, that would not fully meet their needs, but they felt like this was a stopgap solution. And once they were like, “Okay, we need to take a step back. We need to reevaluate the market. We need to reevaluate our whole approach and actually identify what the community needs are, and what would best serve us longterm in the future.” They ended up putting together a really great application, and worked with the Blandin Foundation here in Minnesota to get a Next-Generation fiber network out to all the homes on their res.
H. Trostle: And they’re slowly still expanding that. But they just needed to dream a little bigger than what they had initially thought. Because they thought if they just kept asking for small amounts of money for some of their community need, that that would eventually be enough. It turns to that Fond du Lac needed to dream big, be clear about their community needs, and then the Federal Government was able to fund their network in a way that actually works for the longterm.
Jessica Del Fia…: So, they build the network. Does this mean, do most homes have high quality internet access? Are there any benefits you could point to now?
H. Trostle: There are quite a few benefits from the network. It serves about 1500 to 2000 people on the reservation. And they were able to actually use this better connectivity to create programs for use to learn how to build apps for phones and websites. And a lot of these apps are focused on cultural content. So that the youths are interacting with their elders and learning more from them about the tribe and it’s history, and it’s language. And then they are able to use this great fiber network to actually build the content and fun sort of games that other youth on the res can also use. It’s really great. It’s a hard to quantify benefit is what I’m getting at.
Christopher Mit…: And I don’t remember if we actually named the title of the case studies, but it is Building Indigenous Future Zones for Tribal Broadband Case Studies.
Jessica Del Fia…: and we will definitely link that into the post for this podcast. So if you’re looking for it, you can go there, on ILSR.org. Were there any big takeaways, either for other Native nations, or for policymakers in general, that you would want people to walk away with? After reading this report, what are you hoping people takeaway?
H. Trostle: I’m hoping that people recognize the need for internet access in Indian country. And I’m hoping that policymakers takeaway from this, that there is a need for a centralized location for funding, that we need better access to the capital necessary to build these networks in Indian country. A lot of these case studies are people trying to put together different grants, different loans, trying to work with the USDA, trying to work with their state government to figure out a solution that works for their community. And they have to be very creative with their financing. And it is so important to be able to have a one-stop-shop, where Native nations can go and look to see what funding programs are out there. What do they qualify for?
H. Trostle: Are there programs where they don’t have to necessarily compete with co-ops, or compete with the private providers like CenturyLink for funding? And this comes back to recognizing sovereignty, recognizing that it is so important to know who is in charge of the infrastructure, and what that means on a day-to-day basis. Like, people over at Red Spectrum Communications are just constantly working to try to improve the wireless and fiber infrastructure there, to meet the needs of the pandemic. And because community needs are changing, it is better to have a local company or the tribal government, or someone who is on the ground there who recognizes how the needs are changing and can modify the network to meet that.
Jessica Del Fia…: I have a feeling that theme might come up again. But is there anything else that you wanted to add, either H or Chris, before we move on?
H. Trostle: I feel like you usually have a very good short summary of incentives, Chris.
Christopher Mit…: I think it is important to really reflect on who owns the network, really will depend on how well it meets their needs. The fastest thing to do might be to figure out how to get AT&T to deploy some kind of wireless service in these areas. But they’re never going to really do a good job of trying to make sure people are connected. They’re not going to offer low prices. They’re not going to manage the network in a way that will maximize benefits in Indian country.
Christopher Mit…: And so, by making sure that however we build these networks, that the actual tribes involved are involved, that they take ownership of it, means that, when people are paying their bills… We’re talking about 1000 people paying $50 a month, you’re talking about a half a million dollars, more than that, per year. Is that going to leave the reservation, or is it going to stay on the res? And so, it’s really important to get this right. This is money that’s going to be spent year-after-year for the next 100 years I’m guessing. And the decisions we make right now will determine several decades worth of where that money goes.
Jessica Del Fia…: Thank you, guys. Before we hear about Sean’s latest research, let’s take a short break.
Christopher Mit…: Yes. I think we should take a short break, and just recognize that this show is sponsored by the inefficient local companies all around the United States, the local businesses that do this work, and people that are around me lately, know that I’ve been insufferable on this, because I’m really annoyed at certain people, maybe on Twitter and other places that talk about larger, more efficient chains and things like that. And I’d just like to know that that kind of businesses, the local businesses that make the backbone of our economies, the ones that support our work in many cases, they’re inefficient. What that means is, that if you have a problem, they solve it quickly.
Christopher Mit…: You don’t wait on the phone for an hour to talk to someone, waiting on the phone for an hour. That is efficiency that the Comcast Call Center gets. And that’s considered a good thing by a lot of the people that tell us how we should structure our economy. And so, I wanted to suggest that we are being sponsored by the inefficient companies that are doing the work, the companies that you like to deal with. Those are the ones that are behind us. But, you can support us too by going to ILSR.org/donate. We do a lot of interesting and important things. We have a growing staff that is frankly really excited to do a lot of really great work. And you can help us to get it done by going to ILSR.org/donate.
Jessica Del Fia…: Thanks, Chris. You really handled that whole thing for me.
Christopher Mit…: You know, I also just want to say, we try to make it easy on you. I’m not going to sit up here and say anything about www or http:// none of that. We’re just straight up, ILSR.org/donate.
Jessica Del Fia…: All right. Let’s move on with our conversation and go back to Chris actually.
Christopher Mit…: Sean’s about to come on real strong though.
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah, yeah.
Jessica Del Fia…: He has the whole rest of the show. So, there’s this big undertaking to document all of America’s municipal broadband networks, right? And what we’re calling the municipal broadband compendium at this point, we might come up with a flashier name at some point. But we’re going to say compendium a lot in this show. Chris, why have you decided to do this?
Christopher Mit…: Well, we started muninetworks.org with a goal of documenting what’s happening out there. And it turns out that at this point with, I don’t know, maybe 5000 pieces of content, when somebody says, “What’s happening with municipal networks across the United States?” If you tell them to go read 5000 pieces of content about it, they don’t do that. So we decided that it might be helpful to have a one document that has information about a lot of these networks in one place that’s just nicely indexed. So it’s something that Sean has been working hard on, and we’re trying to get out the door.
Sean Gonsalves: Exactly. Yeah, we haven’t come up with a great name for it yet. I think of it as sort of like a muni-pedia, a muni-net-pedia, like a one-stop-shop. But I think that will be a valuable resource. Because you need that place where you can go to and easily find what’s going on in various parts of the country with these community networks. As communities across the country are contemplating building their own, or in the process of building their own, it can be a handy reference and resource.
Jessica Del Fia…: So how have you been putting this together? I mean, some of it is maybe research we had in our archives. But you’ve been hopping on the phone with people all across the country, right? Who have built these networks, who are running these networks?
Sean Gonsalves: Exactly. I mean, Chris thankfully really built a strong foundation. And I have essentially just been adding to it. As we identified various communities that have come online over the years. And just sort of updating, checking in with these various communities, local officials, folks on the ground. Getting a sense of where things were, how far along they were, or what the take rates are, what kind of services are being offered, what the feel is on the ground. And so, the challenge of course is really to… and this is important for this as well as that. We didn’t want it to be unwieldy. So each of the entries, we’re trying to keep to consider to be a snapshot of at a point in time. And this is also a document that will be an evolving document as we continue to add communities even after we are ready to unveil this to the world.
Jessica Del Fia…: So can you share… I mean, do you have any favorites that you could point to? Or if not favorites, particularly interesting community stories you could share here?
Sean Gonsalves: I mean, obviously the most well-known story is Chattanooga of course, and what they’ve done down there. And recently, there’s been this study that was released this week, it’s out of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. An independent study that found that $2.7 billion in the decade that’s it’s been in operation, you can attribute to these… has delivered these economic and social benefits worth $2.7 billion. And that comes in the form of jobs that have been created. I think the report says that somewhere in the neighborhood of 9500 jobs have been created, which is about 40% of all the jobs in that county. And then there’s other additional benefits.
Sean Gonsalves: Because of this fiber network they’ve been able to do things to their Smart Grid that’s translated into $30 million almost worth of savings in customer’s electric bills. So there’s all of these sort of economic and social benefits that come with these community-owned networks. Where the money and the resources aren’t being extracted from a community and going elsewhere. They’re staying and circulating within that community. So Chattanooga is certainly one of the more well-known examples. But you know, ECFiber which is in East Central Vermont is interesting. And actually what they’re doing in Vermont is pretty interesting.
Sean Gonsalves: So, Vermont like many states, there’s these various obstacles for municipalities to get into building broadband networks. And in Vermont what they’ve done is, they’ve established these what they call CUDs, which stands for Communication Union Districts. And really it’s a way for multiple municipalities to come together, kind of in an consortium as a municipality essentially, and operate similar to like a sewer district or a school district, that allows them to build these networks. And ECFiber was really the first of these to come online. And they right now, have a very robust fiber to the home network that as of October 2020, we’re talking 5200 customers across 31,500 premises.
Sean Gonsalves: And we’re talking, if folks aren’t familiar, this is a very rural part of Vermont that actually for city folks, all of Vermont is very rural. So in rural areas, building these kind of networks can be a challenge because of the lack of density, and the cost of construction and so forth. So I think ECFiber is an interesting example of how multiple communities can come together and build a community network which is different than Chattanooga. So, those are kind of two examples that come to mind right off hand. Chris knows this much better than I do. Chris, I don’t know if you’ve got any other examples.
Christopher Mit…: Yeah, we try to go with a variety of examples that kind of bring home again, some of the context. So it’s not just all about the take rates, which is often important for understanding the financial feasibility. But also some of those stories. I mean, Chattanooga for instance, all the kids in the school, that are in the free or reduced lunch program now have free internet access for 10 years because of that municipal network and local organizing around it. I mean, Clarksville, Tennessee is one of my favorite stories. Because you know, Chattanooga has really hit it out of the park. They’ve done a lot of great things, and they also received a significant amount of money from the Department of Energy which sped up their build.
Christopher Mit…: But Clarksville is one of these communities that is more close to the average of what we’ve seen from municipal networks. Which is that, they’re not like running away with market share. They have to scrap for every gain that they have. And they recently started offering enhanced telephone services for local businesses. So that local businesses would have more options to add telephone lines and manage them. One of the things that happened was, one of the local businesses found that their old telephone solution, they were missing a bunch of calls of potential customers. And once they got a better phone system, they were able to add more people to staff, and significantly expand their business.
Christopher Mit…: Because they were not missing easy sales. So, these are the sorts of things that make a difference. Small business owners, they’re not experts in how telephone systems work from different companies. They just want something that works for them. And we see communities trying to provide these solutions. It generally works out for the benefit of a lot of folks. So you know, we talk about Wilson, North Carolina, Chattanooga, and some of the others that are well-known. But in here, we also try to talk about other ones. And so Sean just dug into Conway, Arkansas, which has a network that basically no one really knew anything about outside of Conway, and found that they are a very interesting, very successful network over the past 20 plus years.
Christopher Mit…: They’re upgrading their network to much faster speeds, not having to borrow anything because they’ve been so responsible and quite successful. And so that’s really exciting. And then I guess, let me just say that, we’ll couple that with really great news right now. Which is that we’re seeing bills move. Bills have been introduced for years, and we always try to track them, that will get rid of state barriers to more community networks. And in Arkansas we’re seeing a bill moving. And in Washington we’re seeing a lot of attention on a bill. We’re seeing potential in Nebraska for getting rid of some of the barriers that prevent public power from making a difference there. And so, at the beginning of the show when I said there’s things to be positive about, we really are seeing a hope that we’re making cracks in the monopoly artifice that really restricts our options.
Jessica Del Fia…: Not to bring down the conversation, because there certainly are so many benefits and so many success stories here. But I’m curious if you addressed any of the not so rosy aspects of building a network like this and making it successful? I mean, are there bumps along the way that communities go through? What does failure versus success look like for projects like this?
Sean Gonsalves: For sure. I mean, I think it was important to us. Just in terms of, if this document is going to be of value, particular to communities that are considering building their own network, it’s important for us to document, not just the gloss and the shine of some of these networks like you see in Chattanooga, but also to share different struggles and challenges that different communities have faced, just in terms of lessons learned. And it’s not necessarily that they’re necessarily failures. They may be perceived failures, it sort of I think depend on kind of in part on the time frame that you look at. We’re talking about expensive capital projects on the front end.
Sean Gonsalves: And so there’s communities where there’s sticker shock in terms of how these things are funded, bond issuances and so forth. And whether or not, like for example, in Loveland, Colorado, there was a lot of debate about how that should be funded, whether or not there should be a referendum vote. In the end the city council decided that, “You know what? This is a capital project, just like building a road, or building a bridge. We don’t put that up for a referendum vote, we’re going to move forward.” They took some flack over that. They did move forward. And then there’s also sometimes people early on are very concerned about, “Oh, you know, the take rate is too low. If we don’t get to 30 or 40% quickly, this is going to end up being a boondoggle.”
Sean Gonsalves: But as Chris knows well, these things take several years usually to really start to see any type of real return on investment. And it’s obviously important that, it’s a different set of values that community broadband networks are after. They’re not after maximizing profit. They’re about providing as universal of access to broadband as possible, introducing competition in the markets, offering more affordable, more reliable networks. In Fort Collins, is another community that’s in the process of building a fiber to the home network. They’re off to a really good start. They’ve had some hiccups along the way. One of the criticisms that we’ve heard, even from supporters of the project is that they haven’t been as transparent as that they’d like to see.
Sean Gonsalves: So for example, they haven’t published maps of what areas have been completed, which ones are up next. And the reason why that can be a problem if you’re for example have a contract with Comcast, and you can’t wait to get a fiber connection because you can’t stand the service and the expense of Comcast. But you also don’t want to get locked into a longterm contract and then, oh, a week later, “Oh, they’re lighting up my neighborhood. I wish I would’ve known that ahead of time so I didn’t sign another one year or two year contract with Comcast.” So those type of things we also cover in these. And those are important to cover. Because those are valuable lessons that other communities can learn from.
Christopher Mit…: Yeah. We recently did an interview with UTOPIA network in Utah. And this is a network that’s often been considered one of the biggest flops, because it was so aggressive launching in 2004. It had this ambitious goal of building this massive network that would have multiple service providers competing on it. And one of the people that’s been involved in the project said, “If you want to know every mistake you can make, we made them all, and we made some of them twice.” I mean, it’s a humble way of noting that they’ve certainly made some bad decisions that other communities have learned from and not made again. UTOPIA also suffered from really outrageous changes in law that Comcast and CenturyLink pushed forward.
Christopher Mit…: The Federal Government actually settled a lawsuit later after pulling funding from the rural utility service for them. And it was found to have done so inappropriately. So, there were some things that were outside of UTOPIA’s control. But for a lot of years they really struggled, and they got a bad name. And for the past five years it’s been this amazing growth. And they’re one of the highest rated networks according to rankings like customer rankings on Google. They’re just growing massively now as people recognize how much better that network is than your DSL from CenturyLink, or your cable from Comcast. So, we cover those sorts of things.
Christopher Mit…: And there’s other cases where, like in the case Burlington, Vermont, it looks just like there was malfeasance in the mayor’s office and it was something that resulted in real problems for the municipal fiber network. But I don’t know that those kinds of things are related to fiber. We see those sorts of things with all kind of of public infrastructure. You do thousands of public infrastructure projects. Some percentage of them will have corrupt deals as a part of them. And we need to root those out. We really need to be serious about this. You know, if we want to promote public ownership, we need to be serious about making sure it’s good and it serves the public interest. So, we don’t want to sweep those things under the rug. We want to make sure people are looking out for them, and that we’re not accepting that.
Sean Gonsalves: On the flip side of that coin, there’s a number of things that when you start to look across multiple communities in multiple states all across the country, you start to see some kind of common things rise to the surface in terms of building these networks. First of all, these are longterm intense projects. And in successful community networks, early on you have strong community champions who are involved. You’ve got sound feasibility studies. You’ve got robust education campaigns. Because there’s so much bad information out there.
Sean Gonsalves: In various instances some of the monopoly providers, or the big telco, they’ll come in with lobbyists and try to really sow doubt and discord in terms of, as communities are trying to launch networks. And so, there’s those type of things. But you know, one of the things too that is not as easy to quantify is, you hear these stories all across the country about how satisfying it is from a customer service perspective, that you’ve got people in the local community who are doing the support work, and are who are doing the customer service. You’re not on the phone for two to three hours on hold with Comcast, or whomever. You’re getting your problems fixed. So that-
Christopher Mit…: That sounds inefficient.
Sean Gonsalves: That’s, yes from that stern economic sort of dogma that we hear about the importance of efficiencies, I’m sure ruffle some folks feathers. But when you actually talk to people, that’s one of the things that actually separates a lot of these networks from their competitors. Is just how thrilled people are with the customer service and the responsiveness.
Jessica Del Fia…: I’m conscious of the fact that we’re running out of time here. But I would like to hear, especially from Chris and from H, who’ve got like a little bit of longer term perspective on this than Sean, no offense, Sean. You’ve certainly dived in deep over the last few months. But, just your thoughts on the progress of municipal broadband over the last five years, 10 years, and how you’ve been tracking these projects.
Christopher Mit…: Yeah, I’m curious how H responds to that.
H. Trostle: Well, I am one of those people that, every time you bring me on to one of your predictions podcasts, I’m like very optimistic. I guess we’re going to see so much growth. Yes we’re going to see lifts of bands on muni networks. But I am also deeply pessimistic. But I love hearing about how this compendium has grown and changed. I’m really excited about all of the opportunities that we can finally sort of see, by putting all of these networks next to each other.
Christopher Mit…: You thought we would have conquered the world by now, and you’re disappointed that it’s 2021 and there are still cities that do not have locally owned networks.
H. Trostle: In many ways, yes. I am disappointed that local and tribal governments are not in charge of our internet infrastructure, and instead we still have Comcast, yes.
Jessica Del Fia…: But maybe these reports together, it’s going to be what changes it guys.
Christopher Mit…: Well, we’re seeing progress, right? I mean, if you step back and you look at it, in Western Massachusetts, you see very similar communities that you’ll find in Northern New York from what I can tell. I think, Sean, you probably know better than me. You’re nodding along, so it sounds like I’m not totally off. And right now, the Berkshire Towns in Massachusetts are getting fiber to the home that’s locally owned. Because they’ve been organizing around it, and the state wisely put some money into it. In New York, you’ve had this very technocratic reverse auction that spent even far more money, and boy, are people in New York livid about how bad the solution has been.
Christopher Mit…: They’re not seeing the same level, they don’t have the same level of hope in many places. So, you have like 20 municipal networks being built in Western Massachusetts. I don’t know, probably like 300,000 people are in between Fort Collins, and Loveland, and Estes Park on the front range, are looking at municipal fiber. There’s interesting studies all around the country. There’s so many things that are happening. There’s fiber networks that are popping up in Texas, which really tries to discourage it. So, there’s been a lot of progress. We have a lot of ways to go. But we see a real movement continuing to build, and it’s exciting.
Sean Gonsalves: One of the big takeaways that I hope folks takeaway from the compendium and the Native nations report is, I’m a huge believer of, if it exists it’s possible. And I think for a lot of communities across the country who are wrestling with some of these questions, be they in Indian country or in the rest of the United States, is that you see multiple examples of the possibilities. Various models, various routes to success, and that to me is very hopeful. And to be able to have a reference guide that is proof positive of that I think is something worth looking at.
Jessica Del Fia…: I think on that note, it’s time for us to wrap up. But is there any last thoughts anyone wants to share?
Christopher Mit…: I don’t know if you can have a better last thought than Sean just shared.
Jessica Del Fia…: All right. Then that’s it. And just to reiterate, all the links to these resources will be available in the show notes for this episode. And we hope you check them out.
Christopher Mit…: Not the compendium, because we have no idea when that’s-
Jessica Del Fia…: Eventually, I was going to-
Christopher Mit…: … going to be published.
Jessica Del Fia…: … specify. Eventually it’ll be there, keep an eye out for the research as it comes out. And it will be coming soon, sooner rather than later. All right, thanks everybody.
Sean Gonsalves: All right.
Jessica Del Fia…: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to ILSR.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ILSR.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media, and hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast, and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcast, or wherever you find your podcasts. This show was produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by [inaudible 00:43:49]. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_Al. For the Institute for 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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Jess Del Fiacco is ILSR’s Communications Manager. In this role, she works closely with program staff to develop and implement communications strategy that supports ILSR’s mission. She promotes ILSR’s work through the organization’s newsletters, website, social media, events, and more. Jess also hosts the Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jess for media inquiries.