A Cornucopia of Policy Opportunities in the New Year — Episode 115 of Building Local Power

Date: 25 Nov 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power, Energy, Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband initiative; Katie Kienbaum, Senior Researcher with ILSR’s Energy Democracy initiative; and Kennedy Smith, Senior Researcher with ILSR’s Independent Business initiative. The four discuss upcoming policy opportunities in each sector, the solutions ILSR will be advocating for, and political support (or barriers) these ideas are likely to encounter.

  • Kennedy reports on the status of small businesses across the country, the challenges they are facing, and the creative solutions some communities have implemented to keep them going.
  • Katie shares some details on ILSR’s 30 Million Solar Homes proposal and the wide-ranging benefits communities would see from a federal distributed solar stimulus.
  • Christopher explains why nonprofit approaches are the most reliable solution we have for closing the digital divide.
  • Everyone shares their thoughts on shopping locally for the holidays. (Check out the resources section below for links!)

“I’ve spoken to a number of people who were administering and managing these local relief programs. They’ve learned things they never would have known before, about the level of sophistication or lack thereof of some other business sectors, the strength of business sectors that they hadn’t really appreciated. I think we’re taking a lot of important lessons out of this into the future.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast, dedicated to thought-provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. Good morning, everybody. Today I’m here with my colleagues, Christopher Mitchell, who directs our broadband program, Kennedy Smith, who’s a Senior Researcher for our independent business program, and Katie Kienbaum, who is a Senior Researcher for our energy program. Welcome to the show, guys.
Kennedy Smith: Hi.
Christopher Mit…: Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: In our last episode, if you heard that one, we were still waiting for election results to be finalized. We were looking back at what’s happened, but we’re going to shift gears this time around, now that we know a little bit more about what the future might hold and talk about what we are working towards in 2021 and beyond and what we might expect to happen. Let’s start with Kennedy if you’re good with that. You have had your eye on small businesses throughout the country, many of which, or perhaps all of which are suffering through the pandemic. Can you talk about where they’re at right now? I know in the Twin Cities, we’re about to shut down again, I think this evening and close a lot of retail businesses. I guess what’s happening? Who’s been hardest hit. We’ll start there. Go ahead.
Kennedy Smith: It’s not good. It’s not pretty out there. As you know, as you’re seeing on the ground, there are a lot of states that are now starting to shut down again, so that means a lot of hardship. The good news I would say is that this time around with this round of shutdowns, local and state governments know a little bit more than they did the first time around and so states are already doing things like clamping down on big-box stores and saying that big-box stores have to close off their non-essential departments so that they’re not having a competitive edge over independent businesses. If you have a shoe store downtown and you’re independently owned, you’re shut down.
Kennedy Smith: That’s it. You have to do curbside pickup and delivery and that’s all, but somebody who had a big-box store, while they’re buying the groceries, also buy shoes. States are clamping down on that. Many more communities and states are enacting delivery fee caps so that the big delivery companies, Grubhub, Postmates, Uber Eats DoorDash aren’t hurting them, hurting the locally-owned restaurants. There’s a little bit more savviness going into it, but we’re also about to fall off this cliff in that businesses that were able to scrape by with a paycheck protection program, loans, and economic injury, disaster loans are now out of money. Winter is coming and they can’t do business like they could in the summer and spring.
Kennedy Smith: I think we’re going to see … We’ve already seen some businesses close permanently and those were the ones where maybe they were on the edge anyway. Maybe their owners were getting ready to retire. They just made the decision to close. These have fought their way through the summer and fall. I think we’re going to now lose a big chunk of businesses for really silly reasons. If Congress would just get its act together and pass a new relief package, these businesses, especially restaurants, which are really struggling, we could get them through the next couple of months, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Jess Del Fiacco: I just wanted to clarify that I made it sound like they’re only suffering because they’re shutting down again, but I know that my favorite place … I love movie theaters. I love restaurants. Even when they’ve been open, I’m not going to hang out in a restaurant for a couple of hours. That’s just not … Most people aren’t doing that, so they’ve been limited, even as they’re trying to be flexible and continue throughout the summer.
Christopher Mit…: One of the things I think it’s worth reminding people is some states never shut down and it’s not like their local businesses are doing well in that situation. Kennedy, I’m actually curious. Based on what you were saying about how states are adjusting, have you seen any examples of states that are using more like a scalpel approach? I’ll just say I got an email recently from a rock-climbing gym that I have been a member of and they’re furious because they’re part of the gyms that have been closed down.
Christopher Mit…: They included numbers and some all-caps sentences showing a lot of emotion, suggesting that through the precautions that they have taken, they have been responsible for zero cases. They’re really frustrated that they’re not able to remain open, despite being very successful. I assume states just don’t have the capacity to be able to go through those sorts of numbers to make those kinds of distinctions, but I’m just curious if you’ve seen anything that’s interesting along those lines.
Kennedy Smith: I think you’re right. States really don’t have the capacity or communities. They’re just completely overwhelmed and administering all these relief programs too over the spring and summer has completely overwhelmed them and they just don’t have the capacity to do anything. I think that they’re having to take these draconian, one-size-fits-all measures in some cases. The only scalpel thing I’ve seen or things like the communities that are imposing restrictions on big-box stores. That, I think is a very wise thing. I wish that more places would do that, but I’m beginning to see them pop up every day. Something else that is looming is that the deadline for communities that have gotten allocations from the CARES Act, from the coronavirus relief fund, have to use that money by December 30th.
Kennedy Smith: All of a sudden, places are scrambling because they don’t use it, it reverts back to the federal government. Most states and places that got direct allocations, places that are over 500,000 in populations and large counties, and cities got their own allocations. I think they all put aside a chunk of money in reserve to see where the greatest need might be towards the end of the calendar year, whether it was in health or first responders or whatever it might be. Now they’re saying they need it in a small business relief, so states like Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota have just in the past week suddenly allocated tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars towards a new wave of relief here at the end of the year, which is really, really needed.
Kennedy Smith: Washington DC just two days ago announced another $100 million. They’re putting it into mostly restaurants and hotels to help get them through. That’s a good sign. I’m also seeing some places that have inadvertently shot themselves in the foot with the programs that they’ve created, which I think is, again another sign of communities not having the capacity to do this. I came across a woman who has an interior design shop and a studio in Honolulu the other day. I literally came across her. Of course, I’m not going anywhere, but-
Christopher Mit…: Explain that tan.
Kennedy Smith: She was thinking her business has dropped off a cliff. What customers have been asking her for is if she has a kiln because they’re at home doing pottery and they need a place to fire it. Hawaii has this cool business pivot grant program where businesses can get a grant of 10,000 bucks to pivot in some ways, to add a new product line or something like that. The catch is it’s a reimbursable grant, so she has to spend the money upfront and then apply to be reimbursed for it. She doesn’t have the money to buy it upfront, so she’s SOL. I’m seeing places like that where some states have large amounts of money that are going to go back into the Department of Treasury because they can’t get it out the door because they’ve created their own little regulatory nest.
Christopher Mit…: I would just quickly jump on that to say that we’ve seen townships in Minnesota, I know this is true, and many places that are giving money back to the state because they were not able to spend it on broadband like they’d like to because of the strict requirements around the CARES Act that are not really in line with what it takes to build a broadband network. It is very hard to do it in a few months. Money that had been allocated that way will be going back to the federal treasury likely.
Kennedy Smith: There’s still some questions out there too, on what CARES Act money can and cannot be used for. I’ve come across two communities here in Virginia, where I live. One of whom used a lot of its CARES Act money to buy gift cards and local restaurants and then just mail them literally to everybody in town. It helped the restaurants and it also helped the people who maybe were laid off or furloughed or something and could get good meals that way. The town literally next door, their city attorney decided that that was not a legitimate use of CARES Act money. One’s doing it. One’s not. There are lots of things nobody knows.
Jess Del Fiacco: I know it sounds like it’s not likely we’re going to see a real relief coming from the federal government in the immediate future, but is there anything that they could …? What needs to happen there in order for us to avoid just a complete disaster for small businesses? Is there anything that they could mimic or take from these local programs, that would help?
Kennedy Smith: Yeah. Well, a really and actually easy thing that they could do if they chose to do so would be simply to extend the deadline for places to use their CARES Act money because then communities could stretch it through over the next few months instead of having this hard close on December 30th. They could also take some of the money that is not being used in the Main Street Lending Program. It was a $650 billion program, of which only about seven billion has been spent so far. They could take 600 billion of that and make that available. That would be a really nice thing to do. It’s really important that the federal government take action too because states and local governments at this point, their budgets are just completely wiped out. They have had to spend so much money on so many unexpected things throughout the pandemic that they’re going to be in deficit for years. It really has to come from the feds.
Christopher Mit…: I think, just to quickly illustrate that, there was this discussion at the beginning of the pandemic, that I saw on one of our listservs of dealing with politics. There was this question of why doesn’t the state do more? A quick back of the envelope calculation showed that if the state tried to give out money, even just $200 per person, it would blow through the entire rainy-day fund immediately because states just don’t have the capacity. Even a state that is in a very good financial position like Minnesota was coming into this situation. When you say, “Only the federal government can do it,” it’s literally the case. It’s not just a matter of being like, “Oh, they have more resources.” They literally are the only entity that has the capacity to be able to move the needle in any way.
Kennedy Smith: That’s very true. I think it’s also important that … If the feds do get their acts together and issue another relief package of some kind. I think the one thing that has worked well is getting that money into the hands of local leaders pretty quickly because they’re the ones who really can figure out what the greatest needs are, locally. Is it restaurants? Is it retail businesses? Is it hotels? Is it businesses owned by women and minorities, and veterans? Who is it? Who needs it? Is it landlords? Community leaders are learning a lot about how businesses operate in their community throughout this pandemic.
Kennedy Smith: I’ve spoken to a number of people who were administering and managing these local relief programs. They’ve learned things they never would have known before, about the level of sophistication or lack thereof of some other business sectors, the strength of business sectors that they hadn’t really appreciated. I think we’re taking a lot of important lessons out of this into the future. We’re just going to need to spend some time sifting through them all and making sense of it, and documenting it, and turning it into shoe leather, as they say.
Jess Del Fiacco: Is there anything else you want to say, Kennedy, or any questions for Kennedy before we move on?
Kennedy Smith: I’m pretty excited about some of the things that are happening at the local level with restaurant meal deliveries. I am seeing all of a sudden a huge number of local delivery services pop up. They’re locally owned. They’re completely committed to supporting locally-owned restaurants. They’re charging a fraction of the fees that the big delivery services are. They’re coming up with these amazingly creative business models that work in all kinds of different ways. They’re really, really succeeding very quickly. They’re ramping up and hiring 50, 60, 70 people in little tiny towns. I’ve seen two or three that are basically co-ops, that are owned by restaurants themselves who’ve banded together and collectively hired a few delivery staff. Lots of innovation and lots of creative thinking coming out of this too and that’s cool to watch.
Christopher Mit…: Kennedy, I’m curious. It seems distasteful to do this, but I’m quite curious. Let’s just say, for instance, a lot of salons are about to go bankrupt and I certainly think that’s unfair. I think we should have done more to help them. Frankly, the numbers in Minnesota suggests the salon owners have been very responsible in the guidelines provided by government, have really prevented the pandemic from exploding in salons.
Jess Del Fiacco: This is just going to be a dig at my homemade bangs here, Chris?
Christopher Mit…: Not at all. I actually think they look great. It’s more that I can’t get out from my normal monthly cut. Obviously, you can tell from looking at me that I take great pride in my hair. The question is … You have a bunch of salons. They go bankrupt. Now, those salon owners, presumably, it will be harder for them to go into new lines of business because banks will worry about them with the background that they have, but would new entrepreneurs then be able to buy this stuff on the cheap and re-establish like mammals? We’re having this niche that then after the extinction of the dinosaurs, they were able to come out. What is the situation? Like I said, it’s distasteful because we would like to preserve those businesses, but is it possible that parts of this will lead to a resurgence because of the lower cost to buy durable, equipment and things like that?
Kennedy Smith: There’s a couple of different things embedded in your question there. One is that, well, it’s just the reality, we’re seeing this happen to an extent with commercial real estate where businesses are going belly up. The spaces are vacant. Their value therefore is plummeting because there’s a supply and oversupply of commercial space. There are some real estate investment trusts, even some opportunity funds, some venture capitalists who are coming along and snapping up that property because they can get it on the cheap. On the other, on the good side of the dark force, there are some communities that are using a community land trust model to buy the land themselves, the commercial space, and be able to then hold it and lease it at a more affordable rate to independent businesses in the future.
Kennedy Smith: It’s a bad and a good thing happening there at the same time. In terms of the businesses, one of the things I’m beginning to hear a lot of buzz about is the need over the next six months to have some pro bono bankruptcy assistance for small businesses to help them work out the disposition of their existing business, but then to help them get back on their feet and reopen a business, whether it’s the same one that they just reorganized or a new business that they can bring things they’ve learned from this experience into and launch it again. I’m already beginning to see some financial assistance programs, there’s one in Florida that I saw the other day, pop up to help exactly with that. There’s some opportunism happening out there, but also, I think a lot of goodwill for helping business owners get back on their feet and back in business if their businesses folded.
Christopher Mit…: Good. See, it was a brilliant question, despite being distasteful.
Kennedy Smith: It was. I think that’s what’s going on with small businesses. Lots of speculation going on out there, about what product lines are going to survive? What kinds of service lines are going to survive? We were talking a little while ago about casual clothing. I do think that that’s a trend that is going to stay for good. In fact, some of the chain retailers that we’ve seen folding over the past a month or two tend to be ones that sell higher-end dressier clothing. Men’s warehouse, things like that, gone.
Katie Kienbaum: Are you telling us to start investing in sweatpants startups?
Kennedy Smith: Sweat pants are soaring. Let me tell you. There’s some interesting business pivots and twist. The whole ghost kitchen thing is transforming the restaurant industry. I think that’s going to stay. I think that’s not really a good change necessarily, but I think it’s going to stick around. Lots more fluidity in business models. Businesses are learning to sell things and meet customer’s needs in many, many different ways as a result of this. We’ve had a big jolt of creativity, I think, that has been born by necessity, that is really rattling small businesses across the country right now, shaking things up.
Jess Del Fiacco: It’ll be a long and strange, and busy winter for you, I’m sure, as you try to keep track of all those things.
Kennedy Smith: It will, indeed.
Jess Del Fiacco: Next, we’re going to hear about our proposal for 30 million solar homes across the US, but first, let’s take a short break. This Thanksgiving week, we’re thankful for your support of this show and your interest in ILSR’s work. We rely on your help to produce the resources necessary to push back against concentrated corporate power and build strong local communities. If you’re able, we hope you’ll consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate to contribute today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated.
Jess Del Fiacco: Hey, even if you can’t do so right now, we’re happy you’re here and we hope you have a fun and safe holiday this week. Now let’s go back to my conversation with my colleagues, Christopher Mitchell, Kennedy Smith, and Katie Kienbaum. Let’s switch over to Katie. Our energy program has this interesting policy concept that you’re working on, I know, and it would be wrapped into some kind of COVID recovery efforts at the federal level. Can you talk about this idea to create 30 million solar homes across the country?
Katie Kienbaum: Of course. As you said, the idea of the proposal is to bring solar to the equivalent of 30 million homes across the country. That’s about one in four American households. That would be in the form of rooftop solar and locally-owned community solar, and perhaps some solar on small businesses, local community centers, that kind of thing. We originally envisioned this proposal as a way to take a really strong stab at an economic recovery effort and to do it in a way that also reinforces the urgency of attacking the climate crisis.
Katie Kienbaum: Also, trying to ensure that folks who have traditionally been the most impacted by dirty energy are the ones that are going to benefit from this, so low-income folks, communities of color, and environmental justice communities, that kind of thing. We’ve been working with partners to work on a series of policy proposals or recommendations that would leverage existing federal programs and efforts to get us to this point of rapidly ramping up our solar capacity across the country.
Jess Del Fiacco: Could you break down those benefits a little bit more? The difference between having, I don’t know, giant solar farms versus having these at the community level, what kinds of benefits does that bring to a particular family?
Katie Kienbaum: As opposed to utility-scale solar, what you might think of when you think of giant rows and rows of solar panels in the field and a desert somewhere, having locally-cited solar, maybe solar on your family’s home or solar on your favorite rec center or a smaller solar array that’s somewhere in the community, it means that a lot of those benefits accrue locally. Folks have to install that solar. That means the jobs stay local. If it’s something that you have ownership over, you’re taking more of that economic benefit from the solar energy that is produced in the form of, for example, bill credits. It’s also very important to shift some of the control over our energy system from these large utilities to the folks like you, me, all of us folks listening to this podcast, what we see in our communities. We have more decisions over our energy future and we’re able to be the ones who benefit, not shareholders, for an investor-owned utility.
Christopher Mit…: Katie, you might remember from your ancient history working on broadband that reliability was the big issue. I’m curious. Is there any sort of impact in terms of microgrids for reliability and those sorts of benefits for folks?
Katie Kienbaum: Yeah. It can be. It depends on how you structure it at. We’ve seen a lot with many recent disasters, hurricanes, forest fires, that sometimes those can impact the electric grid and take out energy and folks’ homes, and businesses, and the hospitals, urgent places, for weeks, months at a time. You can develop it. If you have locally-cited solar, you can pair that with energy storage or, like Chris said, microgrids to maintain some of that resiliency. You aren’t fully at the risk of losing all sources of power if the local electric grid is impacted by a natural disaster of that sort.
Jess Del Fiacco: It sounds to me like this is a good idea all around. We have a president-elect who has promised stronger action around climate change/any action around climate change. We have this national crisis and the pandemic that we need to recover from. Do you think that this …? Are there any political barriers to this or do you feel like it’s something that could be received well and have a good potential to be enacted?
Katie Kienbaum: Like you said, Biden has proposed spending, I think it’s two trillion on climate change mitigation efforts, so things like solar, which is massive. We are definitely much more optimistic about the future of this proposal with a Biden presidency compared to a continuation of the Trump administration. However, it does depend on what can happen in Congress for a lot of these actions. We haven’t solidified our policy approach, but we’re looking at a lot of different programs and approaches. For example, anything that requires new funding, new laws, that’ll have to go through Congress, which at this point is undecided.
Katie Kienbaum: If we do end up with a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate, it may be a little bit more difficult to pass some of this bold legislation that we really believe the country needs in this time, both with the economic crisis, the climate crisis, the continued national conversation around racism. There’s an avenue, but there will be some challenges, especially since there are so many competing priorities right now. Obviously, we need funding for small businesses. We need all these other things, but generally, a lot of the things we’re looking at, even some bi-partisan support conservatives, do often enjoy clean energy as well.
Katie Kienbaum: There’s some hope. We are looking at potentially regulatory changes or changes in agency policy that would only require the executive branch which will be controlled by Biden. There are some challenges. Of course, we anticipate that investor-owned utilities will not agree with a lot of our proposals because it would not give them control over the new solar energy, but it would keep the control in the hands of their customers, which is not always what utilities want because they don’t … Again, it just takes the control out of their hands and they don’t get to bring as much economic proceeds from that as possible.
Kennedy Smith: Katie, to what extent can some of this be funded by the private sector too, by ESG, investment funds, and things like that? Is there opportunities there? Can we just bypass Congress?
Katie Kienbaum: Yeah. Definitely, possibly. We have been focusing most of our thinking around this, around federal actions that the government can take, just because the scale of what we’re proposing is just honestly massive. It’s hard to coordinate enough forces without, some type of federal action, but there’s definitely opportunities. We are looking into some options for ways we can leverage private funding to fund some of these types of projects.
Kennedy Smith: Jeff Bezos is handing out lots of money to environmental groups this week. Maybe he can invest in putting solar roofs on 30 million homes.
Jess Del Fiacco: I’m sure he’d love to hear from us.
Kennedy Smith: I’m sure he will. Let’s have Stacy comment.
Katie Kienbaum: I wouldn’t turn him away, but I think it would be difficult since Stacy is frequently referred to as a noted critic of Amazon when she is interviewed or mentioned in the press.
Christopher Mit…: Much like doctors are noted critics of COVID-19.
Jess Del Fiacco: It sounds to me, at least, that there is potential for a lot of avenues to make this happen, just because it has such wide-ranging benefits from the economic to environmental justice veins.
Katie Kienbaum: We’re definitely trying to approach it from all of the above, every avenue we can use to try and push this because like I said, it would be a massive undertaking, a massive achievement. We really need to think creatively in each and every way we can push forward this kind of future that we’re looking for.
Jess Del Fiacco: This might be a too-far-down-the-road question, but do you have any sense of the logistics of this? Is this a project that would happen over five years? All of this building, do you have any sense of that at all, right now?
Katie Kienbaum: It’s hard to say exactly because everything builds on itself. How quickly can you ramp up a solar workforce? How quickly can we increase production and manufacturing? I think we hope to see a really strong showing in the next five years. I’m not sure that’s really our timeline for the full 30 million solar homes equivalent, but I’d hoped to see something significant in the next five years.
Kennedy Smith: Why not? We put somebody on the moon, so why can’t we put 30 million solar panels on 3 million houses? It sounds-
Katie Kienbaum: We don’t have to take them to the moon.
Kennedy Smith: That’s right.
Katie Kienbaum: It’s a shorter trip
Jess Del Fiacco: It’s something we already know how to do. We do know how to put panels on houses, as far as I know.
Kennedy Smith: I hear there’s a lot of Americans who are going to be looking for jobs, so you can have an army of installers.
Katie Kienbaum: Definitely. The economic impact is a really, really strong component of this idea, this concept.
Kennedy Smith: When you think about how much money communities spend on economic incentives to lure big-box stores and ridiculous kinds of projects that ultimately don’t really help the community at all, think if that money were routed instead into something really productive like this.
Jess Del Fiacco: Speaking of wasting money on programs that don’t actually solve the problem that we’re talking about.
Christopher Mit…: I don’t know anything about a quarter of a billion dollars given to AT&T in Mississippi for better broadband that not a single person experienced. Katie, what could you do with $250 million?
Katie Kienbaum: Oh, let me pull up my policy proposals. A lot of solar.
Jess Del Fiacco: Moving on to you, Chris, then, do you want to talk about some of the approaches that could work in solving our nation’s broadband problems?
Christopher Mit…: Yes, but I would like to, I think preface it with one solution that I’m a little bit worried about and that is one that relies on the existing big cable and telephone monopolies. If your goal is just to get as many people online as fast as possible and ignore all the other benefits, the long-term costs of such a thing, then it can certainly make sense to just ask Comcast, Charter Spectrum, AT&T to do more. I think the long-term impacts are really bad and in part, because these companies just don’t want to do that. I wrote an article in Nonprofit Quarterly, that I’m guessing will show up in a link on the page here. I just want to talk about that a little bit. The analogy that I use is I feel like people look at this issue of tens of millions of Americans who are not connected, either because of a lack of infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, or a lack of ability to pay high prices in urban areas.
Christopher Mit…: They say, “Well, AT&T, and Comcast, Charter Spectrum, they do a lot of Internet. Probably they can solve it.” When we look at, whether it’s the school lunch program or whether it’s international efforts to fight hunger, not very many people say, “You know who should solve this? Archer-Daniels-Midland, or Land O’Lakes.” Those companies are assumed to be very good at supply chains and they’re assumed to know what’s going on with the cereals and things like that, the things that go into the processed foods that we eat, but we rationally do not expect them to solve the problem and yet we somehow think that Comcast, AT&T are the natural ones to solve these challenges of connecting people, that have been left behind by the existing markets.
Jess Del Fiacco: Your article focuses on not just one model. We’re not just talking about electric co-ops getting into broadband, but there’s a lot of different models, all of which are non-profit, or non-profit adjacent that could be used to solve this, right?
Christopher Mit…: Yes. I think that’s one of the goals, is that the entities that we want to solve this problem are probably often nonprofit-motivated. The key thing is that at the end of the year, they evaluate themselves based on how many people have they connected and not just connected, but have actually driven value from the connections? How many people have a higher quality of life because of an intervention from that organization? That not only brought them Internet access, but also made sure they were able to use it, made sure that they had telehealth opportunities on it, made sure that their kids were able to use it during the school day if they’re schooling remotely or in the evening when they’re maybe doing their homework.
Christopher Mit…: AT&T, Comcast, even local private companies which have much better business models that are in line with local community values, that’s not their goal at the end of the year. As we talk about connecting more and more people that have been historically disadvantaged, historically marginalized, they often have greater needs. It’s not even enough just to make sure they may have a $10 a month connection. They need some kind of training to make sure they’re able to use it safely. Our colleague, Michelle, was just telling me today about an instance when she was working on this. A person she was working with was applying for jobs online.
Christopher Mit…: I think Michelle was there, helping to do this. The person had a pop-up that was asking for information, including Social Security number. This person’s not very sophisticated in the Internet. It may have been a recent immigrant who doesn’t speak English as well. Naturally, they’re sitting there filling out forms. They see another form pop up. Boom. They’re going to fill it out. You or I don’t even see that. We destroy, erase that box so quickly. These are people that need training and they need some kind of ongoing help and non-profit business models are the ones, I think to do it. We need, again, federal support.
Christopher Mit…: We need state support. We need local support. Chicago is actually a good model of this, for digital literacy training, but I think ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s making sure that we have business models, non-profit business models most likely that are aligned with driving value, not just trying to figure out, okay, maybe I’ll make a smaller margin, but my focus is still on that margin per customer. We can do this with our business models. My argument is that that will lead to more productivity, higher quality of life in ways that will ultimately lead to much more value, even if over the next several years it costs a little bit more upfront.
Jess Del Fiacco: I’m just thinking a lot of those people who might need that extra help are also the people who need to unlock the door or could benefit most from unlocking that door to what that offers, even if it’s being able to take a class online at home, in the evenings and then move into a higher paying job, that kind of thing. It’s similar-
Christopher Mit…: Yes.
Jess Del Fiacco: To Katie’s program. The benefits are many when you have that.
Christopher Mit…: They are. And actually, let me take an example. Here we are, close to Thanksgiving and unfortunately, many of us won’t be seeing our uncles, the mythical uncle, who’s the angry, knee-jerk reactionary type who says, “Why should I care if anyone else has Internet access? Why is a dollar of my taxpayer money going to help them out?” One of the answers is that by making sure people can have adequate telehealth, we’ll have lower rates of Emergency Room visits.
Christopher Mit…: They have to be covered by the public. I think we’ll see much slower rates of expansion. In a world in which we rapidly get everyone using telehealth, perhaps even a decline in the amount of Medicaid, Medicare, and Department of Veteran Affairs spending on health. There’s so much waste in health. Getting people online and providing access for them on an ongoing basis is practically nothing compared to the money that can be saved by just delivering healthcare more efficiently.
Jess Del Fiacco: Maybe this is getting into the weeds, but are healthcare institutions aware of that and the switch just hasn’t happened yet? Or are they yet …? I don’t know. I’m thinking insurance companies. Do they still need to be convinced of that potential in order to put some funding behind these efforts?
Christopher Mit…: I think this is a classic market failure in that I think the health insurance folks, they don’t have the capacity to figure out how people are connected at home. They don’t have a background in that. They can’t even assume in their business model that most people are connected. I think if we have effective government intervention to make sure people are connected to healthcare system, it would then change their business models to build on that assumption if it could assume that everyone was connected. Similarly, if schools could assume that everyone was connected, then they have incentives to start changing their processes to take advantage of that.
Christopher Mit…: To some extent, it’s one of those issues in which the direct benefits to healthcare are probably tenuous enough that they don’t want to get involved in something they’re not historically involved in, even if we could show in a mathematical model that they would benefit directly from it. That’s why this is literally a problem for why we have government. There’s all these benefits that really diffuse and don’t immediately result in money and so a private market will naturally under-invest in it because nobody can capture those gains, but there’s enough gains that if government were to do it, we would expect the economy to grow faster and people to just lead healthier lives in ways that would really benefit everyone more than the cost of making sure everyone had that Internet access.
Katie Kienbaum: Chris, would you say that the pandemic that we’re currently in has really emphasized the importance of these kinds of technologies to healthcare providers and others?
Christopher Mit…: Yes. Six months of the pandemic, maybe even three months of the pandemic resulted in many more telehealth innovations from healthcare providers and insurance companies, to deal with facilitating healthcare delivery and checkups and that sort of thing remotely. We may see healthcare facilities that have closed locations never go back to as big of a footprint, even if they are delivering more care, but I think the most important thing is that I do not think it is a serious argument anymore for anyone to say the library or the McDonald’s is good enough. We very clearly need high-quality Internet access inside everyone’s living quarters.
Jess Del Fiacco: We’ve seen that that argument is just more obvious and I think more, I don’t know, acceptable in rural areas where you might have areas where there’s literally no Internet access. Could you talk about how the strategy differs, what we need to do for broadband access in urban areas instead of rural areas, which certainly do need the help? We know that. That’s very obvious, but as you said, digital literacy, affordability, everything in urban areas is a whole different set of problems.
Christopher Mit…: Yes. I would say that we often talk about this as urban and rural as being different, but it’s really a continuum between the two. There are different places on the continuum because there are many people in rural areas for whom a $50 a month great service is not going to solve their problem because they cannot afford that. There’s an affordability issue in rural America. In urban America, there’s people who just cannot have high-quality networks because they live on a block that, for whatever reason, has been not served by the cable company and the telephone company hasn’t invested. The situation is basically one in which the federal government making one-time investments can solve both of these in slightly different ways, but by having networks that are run appropriately for the environment, that have the right incentives.
Christopher Mit…: In rural areas, it’s probably more cooperatives. In urban areas, it’s probably more like a nonprofit, but most often, I would say a municipality would probably be best, that operates the network on an open-access basis, which means it doesn’t directly provide services. It’s more like a road that companies can use to connect their customers. For old people like me that were on the Internet in the 90s, we were used to this because you had a dial-up modem and you could call one of multiple numbers in a metro area. You could pick your service provider. We had 7,500 of them in a period of a few short years.
Christopher Mit…: It was a business model that exploded and provided all kinds of opportunities. By building these kinds of networks again and making it so that companies can create local business models without having to spend $1,000 per customer connected, if they only have to spend a few tens of dollars to get new customers on back in the old days with the modems, we’ll create lots of new business opportunities. The innovation, I think will be remarkable. I don’t think this is something we’ll suddenly see a major wave of. What we’d like to see as a few test areas to prove this out in a few areas and then build on it from there. It’s something that’s pretty exciting. I think in the next few years, we’ll see it start to happen a little bit at a time. Fingers crossed.
Jess Del Fiacco: In five years, I expect to have solar on the rooftop of my house and an excellent community broadband option for me to take in my home. I’m looking forward to that.
Katie Kienbaum: Where you can order from a locally-owned delivery service to get your favorite local restaurant’s meal.
Kennedy Smith: That’s right. Don’t forget that these small businesses need really great broadband too.
Christopher Mit…: That’s absolutely true. Small businesses often have more options, but they’re also often … It’s a market in which everyone’s offering a higher price that might be appropriate, that might be the minimum possible. We see a tremendous range of what local businesses are paying across different cities and even within different cities. With smart public investments, we would bring those costs down probably for almost everyone and result in a lot of pressure taken off of those business owners, make them more competitive too.
Jess Del Fiacco: I just want to say I do hope that I’m able to go in-person to a local restaurant instead of staying in my home to get it delivered, five years from now. Fingers crossed.
Katie Kienbaum: Another pandemic. Sounds like it’s about time for a second one right after that.
Jess Del Fiacco: Ending on a hopeful note here, but we are running out of time. My final question was about, how is everyone’s local holiday shopping plans going? I’ve been super excited and so I’ve already started shopping, but maybe others are not quite there yet, but if you have a favorite local business that you want to shout-out, I thought we could end on that.
Christopher Mit…: I can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving. I just did not-
Katie Kienbaum: I’m pretty sure it’s just a cold August right now.
Jess Del Fiacco: Is it not still March?
Kennedy Smith: This year has been five years long. It’s amazing. There’s some great locally-owned businesses around me. I’m really enjoying some things about this new way of shopping. There’s a kids’ toy and game store not far from me called One Two Kangaroo. You can just call them and say, “I have a five-year-old niece. What do five-year-old kids want right now? What’s the hot thing.” They tell you, “These five things are the hot things and you can choose one.” You drive by and they put it in your trunk. I like it. It’s nice.
Christopher Mit…: That’s cool. One of the things I enjoy doing is for my young son, I like to go to the local bookstore on Grand Avenue. There’s actually two adjacent. I’m just trying to get a sense from them. What are some of the books I may not have heard of? Because it’s been a while since I was looking for kindergarten books. I don’t track that market as much as the historical biography market.
Jess Del Fiacco: I know. I am ordering a lot of stuff from Moon Palace Books, not in St. Paul, but in Minneapolis, still pretty close, because I love their pickup window. It’s so cute. It’s so great. I don’t know. I just walk up and get my stack of books.
Christopher Mit…: I’m not familiar with it.
Jess Del Fiacco: No?
Christopher Mit…: No. I don’t know it.
Katie Kienbaum: Chris the store?
Jess Del Fiacco: You’re a failure.
Katie Kienbaum: At all?
Christopher Mit…: Yes. Well, we know this.
Katie Kienbaum: It’s right down the street from our office.
Christopher Mit…: It’s a drive-through window?
Jess Del Fiacco: No. You have to walk up to it.
Katie Kienbaum: Not if you are on a scooter.
Jess Del Fiacco: You can bike up to it, but you can just knock. They’re already there. They open it and they give you your stack of books, and then you go.
Christopher Mit…: Cool. All right.
Katie Kienbaum: They ask for a password when you knock.
Jess Del Fiacco: I’m sure you could put that in the notes for your order and they would take that.
Christopher Mit…: I miss the bookstore days. So much of my reading now comes from e-books, from the library, which is possibly my favorite thing in the world, but it does lead to spending less time in the bookstores.
Katie Kienbaum: That’s a downside. There’s some fun things happening. There’s a cheese restaurant and retail store not far from me called Cheesetique. If you are a cheese head, it is the place you want to be. They have a little grocery and then a great restaurant. They have taken over a driveway adjacent to them and put down green AstroTurf and put a big fiberglass cow in it and they call it their pasture. They have outdoor seating in the pasture, which is delightful. They’re doing-
Jess Del Fiacco: Inside of the cow?
Kennedy Smith: No. The cow is just standing there for atmosphere, so you can feel like you’re really out in the pasture. Freshly-made cheese is right there. Then they have Friday night cheese classes. You can pick up your cheese class packaged during the week. Again, curbside pickup. Then on Friday night, the owner of the store, Jill Erber, does this class where she teaches you all about stinky cheese or blue cheese or cheese made by women-own dairies, all these different variations. She teaches you how to pair it with wine and salami. It’s just delightful.
Katie Kienbaum: Well, I never thought I’d say this, but I am considering moving back to Northern Virginia now. That sounds amazing.
Christopher Mit…: You are all used to my brain hiccups probably from staff meetings, but one that I will never forget was, I spent four months in the Middle East in college, I was on a kibbutz at the time. I traveled all around Israel, Palestine, and then Lebanon, and Jordan. I’ve never been as cultured as the rest of you. Someone was talking about goat cheese and I gave him this look and I said, “What part of the goat does it come from?” There was just silence.
Jess Del Fiacco: Incredible.
Katie Kienbaum: It makes me uncomfortable.
Jess Del Fiacco: Well, I think everyone heard me talk about my cheese CSA, which I had throughout the summer. That was basically every conversation I had with another human being for five, six months, was about my cheese CSA. I’m a big fan of goat cheese and otherwise. On that note, I think we are out of time. I’d love to continue talking about cheese varieties with you guys, but we might want to wrap up. Any final comments or thoughts?
Christopher Mit…: American cheese is clearly the best.
Jess Del Fiacco: For cheeseburgers. I’ll give you that.
Katie Kienbaum: I won’t even get into that.
Christopher Mit…: It’s really good to see you all.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you, all. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast.
Jess Del Fiacco: It supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: iStock.com

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