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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 229

This is episode 229 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Former head of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis Jon Chambers discusses how electric cooperatives can be the path to rural connectivity. Listen to this episode here.

Jon Chambers: There is no reason this country can't do today what our forefathers were able to do in the '30s which is delivered to rural areas the same kind of life that you can get in the rest of the country.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 229 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. More and more world telephone and electric cooperatives are offering high quality internet access to their members. Why? Rural communities are tired of waiting for national providers to bring the kind of activity they need and because the business model works. Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon and former head of the FCC Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis joins Christopher this week. They talked about the role of electric cooperatives in bringing broadband to rural America. Jonathan points out how cooperative Fiber-to-the-Home of deployments works so well in rural America where so many people need and want them. Chris and Jonathan discussed political perceptions how events in DC have sculpted the current internet access situation in rural America, and how Washington could help local communities in the future. Now, here are Chris and Jonathan Chambers on rural electric cooperatives and ways federal policy can improve rural connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm talking with Jonathan Chambers. He's a partner with Conexon and formerly the head of the FCC Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis. Welcome to the show.

Jon Chambers: Thank you, Chris. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Christopher Mitchell: I think some of the people who listened to the show may have either seen you or seen videos with you in it in which you were talking about your ideas for rural America and how you recommend the people look into those if they're able to. I wanted to start with kind of a poke at what is common knowledge Which is that it is just too expensive to build Fiber-to-the-Home in rural America. How do you react?

Jon Chambers: There's some who come to believe it's too expensive to build fiber in lots of parts of the country. People know now Google Fiber which launched a very public and very inspiring fiber effort getting the whole country involved and gigabit service has pulled back its own plans to deploy fiber. What we're seeing, my partner and I who worked with rural electric cooperatives throughout the country is that co-ops can build and are building Fiber-to-the-Home in the most remote areas of the country are doing so without any government support, are doing so profitably and in delivering services, one gigabit service, hundred megabit service at affordable prices to their members. It add then common wisdom for many, many years at the FCC and all the smart people who analyzed this that building Fiber-to-the-Home was a step too far for rural America. As it turns out, it's not at all. We're building Fiber-to-the-Home throughout the country in rural population densities of three and four and five and commonly less than ten homes per mile. It is an exciting time to be in this particular part of the business. You had mentioned I was with the FCC. I was with the FCC for four years, but I'm now back doing what I really enjoyed doing which is working with companies that build networks.

Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned your partner I think is worth pointing out. He's actually a former customer podcast, Randy Clint doing a wonderful work with Ozarks and also with Conexon formerly with Como. Can you tell us a little bit about how co-ops are able to make this work when it's like I said it's a common knowledge that there's just the business model falls apart. Why are collapse so special?

Jon Chambers: Yes. You know that every good story has a good protagonist, and the story of electric co-ops building fiber at the home, the protagonist there is Randy Clint. Randy was working at a cooperative in Central Missouri called Como. Como had applied for a grant as part of the recovery act funding to build a fiber at home project in rural Missouri. The best thing that happened for rural Missouri, for rural America was that Randy in Como were turned down by the federal government when they applied for that grant. As a consequence of having been turned down, Randy is the type of person who and if you tell him you can't do something, he just tries harder and wants to prove people wrong. He and the membership of his co-op had gotten so enthused about building a fiber network that when they were turned down, they decided to proceed anyway. They took out a loan from CoBank. They built a fiber to the network which today provide service to every availability to every single one of their members. About half of their members take service. They offer a hundred megabit per second service for $49.95, gigabit service for $79.95. They were the first company anywhere to sell gigabit service in rural America. That network is the most complete and profitable network of its kind in the country and other co-ops in the country have started to adapt the same methods. These electric cooperatives have an existing infrastructure in place so they're leveraging an existing infrastructure. They have poles and docs and conduits and rights of way and bucket trucks and alignment. They used to responding to storms and emergencies in the middle of the night. They have equity in their current electric system. They have the capacity to borrow funds to continue to build. Above everything else, they are membership organization. Some people think that the benefit of say an electric cooperative or a telephone cooperative is that they're oftentimes not for profit. They're not all not for profit. The real benefit is that it's a membership organization. As a membership organization, the members decide how they want to invest their own money, their own equity. You have a built in base of interest when you start a project like this. You're only building because the membership wants it. That doesn't mean they translate to do a 100% if the member's buying the service. Part of the arrangement here is you're planning a 100% availability. You're serving everyone because that's the ethos of the cooperative movement that started in the 30's in these rural areas and today serves 80% plus of the geography of the country. What they do today, what the dozens of electric co-ops are doing today is similar to what their grandparents or great grandparents did in the '30s which is provide a service that no else is willing to provide. In the '30s it was the investor on utilities that were unwilling to build into rural areas. Today, it's the exact same story with fiber networks. What they will offer is unique but it's consistent with the way people have thought of telecommunications networks, consistent with the way people think of networks in general which is the network is stronger if you reach everybody. The network is stronger if everybody gets on the network. When we designed these networks, when we write business plans for these networks, when we execute on the business plan, we always talk about serving every single person and serving every single person with the same level of service. Everybody gets one gigabyte service or a hundred megabit per second service. You don't offer a better service to people who live closer to in the telephone world, to a central office and a slower speed when you live further out. You don't put data caps. You don't put tricky pricing in and try to encourage people to come in for a few months and then raise the pricing. The pricing of service level, all of it is all of a piece which is to say it's a cooperative community effort. It's in the tradition, sort of been the best of American and rural traditions in this country. It's still at the early stages, but like many things in life you can see something at an early stage and recognize its potential.

Christopher Mitchell: What are the things that comes to mind as you're saying all these things? These are the sorts of things that I think a lot of people associate with more of a left wing philosophy. In fact, I think people on the left associate collapse with socialism and historically some people on the right did. Now, people on the right I think more often associate cooperatives with private organizations. You mentioned it's not about the profit or the non-profit. It's about being a membership org which I think is worth reiterating. I want to just know you're more conservative and I wanted to know, this is the time in which our country might be as divided as it's been and certainly living memory. You've pretty much are summing up incredibly important values in terms of getting everyone connected. What do you respond to those? I think it's more commonly a conservative critique that, "Hey. If you choose to live in a rural area, you get poor service." Am I wrong in thinking that's more of a conservative position?

Jon Chambers: I'm a life long Republican. I'm a conservative. People I work with in rural America tend to be Republicans. They live in the red states. They live in the red areas of the red states. I've never had a political conversation with anybody from a co-op. It doesn't come up. I mean, this isn't, and I live inside the Beltway in Washington and I have for most of my life but I travel every week. I travel several days a week in rural areas. I don't find people talk to me about politics.

Christopher Mitchell: They talk to you about solving problems.

Jon Chambers: Which is refreshing because the politics get tiring even for those of us who or maybe especially for those of us who live inside Washington. I'd say it's not a like a right, left thing but these are businesses. First and foremost, the co-ops are businesses. It's not like a do good organization or a community organization that set out to try. It's a business first and foremost. The business that was established to provide electricity service and provide other services to its members. The actual organization is as a membership organization just means that the businesses owned by its members, being owned by members, being own by shareholders, being own by a one single private entity. Those are just different business structures. In this case, the business structure is membership. I guess it's an American thing. Again this is, I guess that's the point I'd like to make sure if you understand. It's not a right, left, red, blue, conservative, liberal, rural, urban. This is an American tradition. I'll tell you one quick story about my time in government. I was at the FCC for four years. I was promoting better service for rural areas and changing the way the FCC would go about it. That is to say the FCC spends a lot of money every year $4.5 billion a year for service in rural areas. The level of service the FCC had been advocating at the time and I'm talking about, They're obligating four megabit per second service which is faulty and inadequate and sub standard. I became a very vocal critique of that level of service, of the expectation and that's all a government or a telephone companies or the internet service providers could provide in rural areas. I'm fond of a saying by Michael Gerson who worked for President Bush years ago. In a different context, he talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations. I think that's been the FCC's view of rural America for a long time. At a time when the FCC have said in a national broadband plan that the goal was a hundred megabits per second for a hundred million households. The FCC was saying explicitly was those hundred million households. Well, that's not rural America. The 116, 117 million households in the country and it wasn't just the people like round numbers of the FCC was saying. Well, a hundred megabits for hundred million household and those are nice round numbers. The FCC followed up without saying what should be expected in rural America and what they were expecting was four megabits per second at the same time. They're expecting a hundred megabits per second elsewhere. It's not just about speed because speed is what enables activity, business activity and social activity and education and learning and health care and other things that we all do on the internet today. The expectation was low and that's what I began to criticize. I was stopped in the hallway one day by somebody, a lobbyist for one of a large telephone companies who said to me, "What do you think you're doing? Don't you know we had a deal?" What this lobbyist meant was in the previous administration before I had been there.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say previous, was that under Genachowski before you were there or is that the previous admin like under the Bush administration.

Jon Chambers: I was hired by Julius Genachowski but it was the deal that was set in 2010, 2011 was the deal that this person was referring to.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. For people who weren't aware that was the Obama administration, that was the previous FCC chairman.

Jon Chambers: Yes. That's right. That's right. The deal this person I was referring to is a deal that in rural areas the large telephone companies would continue to get billions of dollars of years in public support and would have to offer only four megabits per second speed. That was the deal. I have been a critique of the FCC for a long time including when I was there. My criticism isn't that I am against the government. I've worked in government. It wouldn't be viewed as sort of a personal attack that I don't like certain people. The FCC has at times over the years been interested in deal making. They have been coming over the years who have enjoyed merger reviews because it's allowed them to cut a deal, regulatory policy, rule makings, merger review, other things in which the FCC has in a sense cut a deal for the American people but it's deal making. I've long been opposed to sort of a regulator as deal maker. I tell you something that I've learned from my rabbi which is the difference between a contract and a covenant. For a lawyer a contract is when both parties have given consideration that is both parties get something and got something in return. It's oftentimes a zero sum game. A covenant is never a zero sum game. A covenant is something which binds people together and rises and lifts all people of. What the co-ops I worked with understand is this notion of covenant. Again, it's not a right or left notion. It's an American notion. It's an historic notion. We have a covenant in this country. A covenant can be thought of in three words; we the people. The people I work with, they were in electric co-ops. They understand covenant. They understand that they are formed of their members, by their members, for their members to better the lives of their members. In the case of the internet service which is the economic issue of the day for rural America, they understand that if they don't stand up, their communities will be the worse off. All across America, rural electric co-ops are standing up. They're investing their own money. They're investing their member's money. They're borrowing money in order to build world class internet systems because they understand what it meant in the '30s and they understand that's what it will mean that the kids, their grandkids are the future of their communities.

Christopher Mitchell: A key question in my mind is, to what extent the federal government is helping these co-ops and to what extent it might be hindering the co-ops? Let's start with hindering because we're kind of on that team a little bit. Other things the federal government is doing is making life harder for the co-ops to get this done?

Jon Chambers: The federal government has just simply not helped. It has the potential to help. There are some states in which co-ops have not been permitted to offer internet services but thanks structurally, we're finding a way to offer service throughout the country. I wouldn't say the federal government I bet hasn't hindered other than out of benign neglect. The greatest hindrance that the FCC is the federal government. The greatest hindrance has been this low expectation, this notion that poor service is good enough for some parts of the country or some people in the country. There's notion that satellite service, a fixed wireless service, things that are not subscribed to in great numbers or by whole communities anywhere in the country but that somehow going to be a good enough level of service for rural America. Then along the way, again it isn't a hindrance so much as it's been a mistake that the FCC and again all the sort of smart people that's hired over the years to look at these issues have made a fundamental mistake and how they evaluated the cost of building networks in rural areas. The FCC has looked at and spend a lot of time and money and energy developing a cost model which attempted to define with great precision found to the penny and a tenth of the penny what it would cost to provide Fiber-to-the-Home service to every part of the country. That cost model is the basis upon which the FCC has spent and is committed tens of billions of dollars, over $30 billion in just the last year alone committed by the FCC. That cost model is simply inaccurate. It simply does not capture lots of aspects of building a network which already exists. That is if you have existing infrastructure in place, if you can leverage infrastructure, if your cost of building is less then the model will assume it to be. All of that has led to an over expenditure that is an allocation of resources. The places it need not go and not spending money in areas that it does need to go, and not spending money on the types of services that can and will be built. I mentioned before, the co-ops I worked with is building without any federal money. That's not to say that money doesn't help. Money can always help, but where money really helps is in the most remote areas of the country. In areas where there's two or three or five homes per mile. As odd as this will sound to anybody listening in, the FCC made a decision several years ago not to give any money to those areas. The FCC considered it too expensive. That's the very area that needs money. At the same time, the FCC has given tens of billions of dollars to areas where it needed to give any money. There's been this misallocation of resource. We can get Fiber-to-the-Home to every home today that has an electric line. That's not just a pipe dream. It's happening. If the FCC would do like two things. One, set the standards high and two, allocate resource where it's needed. It could get that job done. Leaving up the FCC does nothing, we'll still do it.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think people don't always realize is how much money is already being spent. You noted that already and to some extent just redirecting it toward loans rather than giving money away to co-ops. Loans that might be unfavorable terms or might gently subsidize the interest rate in certain areas. I think we're talking about bribe them. That's what we're talking about spending new money, if they would spend it wisely. One of the things that you recently wrote I think suggest that you know, I go back in my head whether or not this is an issue of ignorance or malice. Not really malice, but sort of neglect. You know, there's a perception among Democrats that Republicans like corporate welfare and they're going to give money to the telephone companies to keep Republicans on the hill happy. Then, a separate quote in this book posted that you said we're democrats and rural Americans are not our people. Give me a sense that let me just tell one more thing is that I feel like in a lot of issues, these groups that organize around us think. If we just had someone high up at the FCC, we could break through and we could get things done. You're that person and I think you left the FCC in a lot of frustration after trying to break through and not being able to really dent the mentality of the FCC folks.

Jon Chambers: Let me remark on one thing which is capital for building rural areas is not a problem. We borrow money, private banks, CoBank loans money, publicly the rural utility service lends money. We haven't found any problem getting capital. It would be helpful to get some of the money that's spent, a fraction of the money that's spent by the federal government every year to support telephone companies to have that spent in a competitive way where the best service could get access to the money and prevail. You made some that nice remark about me, I want it to be as clear as I can. I was in the government for a few years but I never thought any of this was about me or what I thought. I spent most of my time while I was in the government trying to reach out to people and hear their stories. It was very great compliment paid to me over the years that I got invited to speak in a lot of places and I still go speak a lot of places. I used to use a line at the end of it. I never go someplace to just speak and so I get invited to talk but I always come to listen. I always spent at least the day wherever I went to ask people to come to me and just tell me about their lives and their stories. Great people at the FCC, there's a not so great people at the FCC, it's not so much a personality thing. It's natural in federal government that people sit in these offices and they get visited by lobbyist. They get praised for what they do and they complimented for their views. It's a very insular world. I used to say that people just get out of Washington. Go out and spend as much time as you can in areas where your talking to people where your policies are affecting those people. When I talk to co-op boards and others, I would say, "Look. I've got a one rule of thumb which is you put the member's interest first. You put the member's interest first and everything else follows." As corny as that sounds and as sanctimonious maybe as it sounds, I view that as my role of the FCC that is when I've been in government, it was a privilege. I viewed as my job, my boss, the people of the country, people of the United States of America, that's who I worked for. I didn't work for any particular chairman. I didn't work for an institution. I didn't work for bureaucracy. I worked for the people. I still do. The people I work for now are members of rural electric co-ops. I get a charge out of working with people where you have a chance to affect their lives. You know, people have joked with me about how I think broadband like broadband is the answer to everything, I ain't going to eh I don't really think that but that's what I do for a living.

Christopher Mitchell: I've been there.

Jon Chambers: I walked into a colleague's office one day at the FCC and I said something like, "Half a million of our fellow Americans, kids, families, veterans are going to sleep on the streets tonight and it's cold out there." A guy looked at me and he said, "So what? Chambers here. Your answer is broadband." I said, "Well, no. You know, I --" I said, "But I don't work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I don't work in Housing field. I don't really know a solution to homelessness." I said, "But I do know is when I come to work in the morning and I drive in a certain direction, I pass by the Martin Luther King Junior Library downtown in Washington. I say, "And I don't see sometimes a line out front waiting for the library to open. And that line is for people waiting to get in so that they can use the free computers and internet access in that library." I said, "When I leave at night sometimes if I take that same route home and I pass by that same library,' I said, "I see those people are because they're homeless shelter, buses parked out in front of the library waiting to take people back to the shelters." It's not answer to everything. Sometimes, it's just enough to give people an escape. My view of broadband is it's a lot of things. It's good things, it's bad things. It's part of all our lives now. Some of the best part of it is just it's a way to reach out to people. It's a way to feel socially involved. Sometimes it's just a way to get out your own life and escape into a next one.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that maybe we'll end on this last question which is, if you have any advice for people who are served by an electric co-op and their electric co-op doesn't have an interest. Maybe management or the board is too worried about the risk of this or they just don't see the value, what advise do you give them?

Jon Chambers: It always takes in every case I know, every co-op that my partner and I worked with and we're working now with several dozen co-ops around the country which is the facts and there's over 800 electric co-ops in the country. This is still early days. It always takes somebody to take a leadership role within the co-op. It could be the CEO or general manager. It could be a member of the board. It could be the board president for us to be led and we give advise. We write business plans. We have materials relationship. We can help people get funding. We can do fiber design. We can manage a construction process. All of that is just the implementation piece. What I know to be true is every cooperative in the country can build a Fiber-to-the-Home network. The business case gets harder, the more remote you are. In those cases, we encourage co-ops to work together because if you can get some more scale, it helps the business case. I know because I've been approached sometimes by members of the co-op in the past and I talked to their CEOs. Their CEO is not interested, which is fine but this is still viewed as a risk to folks. Even though I think the risk runs the other way, I think the risk runs to not doing anything. The risk runs to not building. I know that it scares some people. I think we'll reach the point inside of a year or 18 months where we'll go from the early pioneers in this to where it becomes common. We'll reach that tipping point. I don't know if it's 100 co-ops we're building or a 150 co-ops but I think we'll reach that tipping point inside of 18 months and that it will become common place. Nobody will even wonder within a few years about it and it will be like the expectation that you can get electricity. You can get fiber and people shouldn't settle for something less than the same kind of service you get. Same kind of service I have in my home, just fiber into my home to look at by the horizon and it's great. There is no reason that this country can't do today what our forefathers were able to do in the '30s which is deliver to rural areas the same kind of economic opportunity, same kind of education opportunity, same kind of life that you can get in the rest of the country.

Christopher Mitchell: I just want to point out that based on your timeline which I fully believe we're seeing. Just incredible activity from not only electrics but also telephone cooperatives. You're not going to have kind of activity that's as good in rural areas and as cities. Frankly, the kind of activity in rural areas will far exceed in what many of us have because we're mostly beyond cable. In the last generation technology that probably won't significantly upgrade to offer the same capacity and another benefits one has from the next generation network. That something to really cheer I think.

Jon Chambers: Yeah. My partner Andy has a variety shows when he makes presentations about in rural Missouri in Co Mo, Central Missouri where he was from. The internet speed done by some speed test showing the fastest speeds available in the country. There in rural Missouri was his system and it was showing the third fastest internet speed available anywhere in the country. It wouldn't be a great thing if people had a reason to move after rural areas. One thing that folks in rural areas know is that population is declining. For the first time in this country between the 2000 and 2010 census, population decline in a part of the country. Population decline in rural America. I'm not saying this turns it all around but you're right. You have a better level of service where these networks are being built. Wouldn't it be great part of the reason to move out into the wide open spaces and still have access to everything, to all of the information and attainment and social connection that anybody has anywhere. It's not a pipe dream. It's happening today. All you have to do is look at Co Mo in Missouri, in mid west in Michigan or part in Virginia or Ozarks in Arkansas.

Christopher Mitchell: North Georgia Network. Yeah. You get --

Jon Chambers: North Georgia Network, Habersham Electric. All across the country, people are proving this out.

Christopher Mitchell: -- Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about this. It's something we're going to keep covering certainly. I like to check it back in with you as you move forward with more companies you're working with, more the co-ops.

Jon Chambers: Thank you. It's been great talking to you as always, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon and former head of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis at the FCC. As electric cooperatives makes strides across rural America, we will continue to share their stories on MuniNetworks.org. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcast available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetwork.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter also where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all the podcast in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you get your podcast. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank the group mojo monkeys for their song "Bodacious" licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening to episode 229 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Colorado Conversation: New ILSR Podcast!

In early November, voters in 26 additional Colorado communities chose to opt out of SB 152. The state’s restrictive law took away local telecommunications authority in 2005. The results in many of the towns and counties were overwhelming majorities - loud and clear in favor of local authority. Now, 95 local communities across the state have reclaimed local authority.

We covered the election results in detail on MuniNetworks.org and what those results say about local communities’ desire for better connectivity. We spoke with local community leaders. As part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Building Local Power podcast, episode #5, Christopher and I also discussed what those results say about the desire to make connectivity choices at the local level.

Beyond Colorado...

In addition to Colorado, we also talked about local publicly owned networks in other parts of the nation and how they are changing the expectations for Internet users in urban and rural America.

We also discussed the general election results that brought Donald Trump to the presidency, specifically noting the impact that his ascension brings to local communities’ ability to provide Internet connectivity to their residents. We pondered the implications of a Trump presidency on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s mission of working across partisan lines in local communities.

We invite you to check out episode 5 of the Building Local Power podcast and check out other episodes, all highlighting the work we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Rural Electrics Solve Rural Internet Access Problems - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 229

Rural electric co-ops have started delivering high quality Internet access to their member-owners and our guest this week on Community Broadband Bits episode 229 is dedicated to helping these co-ops to build fiber-optic networks throughout their territories. Jon Chambers is a partner at Conexon and was previously the head of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.

Jon is a strong proponent for ensuring rural residents and businesses have at least the same quality Internet access as urban areas. We talk about his experience and frustration at the FCC, which was content to shovel money at telcos for the most basic infrastructure rather than setting higher expectations to ensure everyone had decent Internet access. We talk about how Co-Mo rolled out fiber to its members without federal assistance, inspiring electric cooperatives around the nation to follow suit.

In our discussion, I reference Jon's blog post "FCC to Rural America: Drop Dead." In it, he cites some of the reactions in the FCC from his advocacy for real rural solutions rather than signing big checks to big telcos for delivering slow and unreliable Internet access. One of quotes from a Democrat: "Republicans like corporate welfare, so we’re going to give money to the telephone companies to keep the Republicans on the Hill happy."

Neither political party comes off looking very good when it comes to rural connectivity, which fits with our impression. But Jon confirms another of our experiences when he says that when he works with rural communities, politics doesn't come up. They just focus on solutions.

Read the transcript of the show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Blair Levin Urges Repeal of North Carolina's Restrictive HB129

At a recent WRAL TechWire event, former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief of staff Blair Levin urged North Carolina communities to seek a repeal of a state law that restricts local telecommunications authority, reports WRAL TechWire.

“When the new General Assembly returns to Raleigh, tell the assembly to tear down the law that prevents faster, cheaper broadband,” Levin said in a keynote address at the WRAL TechWire Executive Exchange in Wilson, N.C. Wilson's municipal Greenlight network is among the first in the nation to offer high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access.  

Currently, North Carolina law HB 129 prevents Wilson from expanding its Internet access service area beyond Wilson County and discourages other communities from investing in similar infrastructure. HB 129 was the subject of a legal battle when the city of Wilson (pop. 50,000) wanted to provide Internet access to neighboring Pinetops (pop. 1,400) and other communities beyond the limitations of the state law. They challenged the law, as did Chattanooga, which faced slightly different restrictions in Tennessee.

In February of 2015, the FCC ordered that Wilson could serve communities beyond the county borders, but both states appealed, challenging the agency's authority. The federal appeals court reversed that ruling in August 2016.

Under the provisions of the North Carolina law, Wilson could lose it's exemption to offer service at all, but by temporarily providing free telephone and Internet access to Pinetops, they protect their exemption. Two state legislators have vowed to take action and try to get the state law changed during the next legislative session.

Levin Praises Wilson

TechWire reported:

Levin credited Wilson with being the bright city on hill, when eight years ago it built a broadband infrastructure because private companies weren’t interested in doing it. Wilson’s success inspired other rural areas to want to duplicate their success, but state regulations now prevent that.

Levin also praised Wilson for not accepting the status quo but finding a way to get high-speed Internet connectivity to its community.

Besides Levin’s keynote speech, the TechWire program included a live "fireside chat" about Greenlight with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings and panel discussions.  WRAL TechWire’s Executive Exchange event was titled “Building a gigabit ecosystem.” WRAL TechWire serves the North Carolina Triangle region that includes the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. 

Levin has also been a guest on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, visiting us for episode #132 to discuss private vs. public ownership and episode #37 to talk about GigU.

The Only Way To Greatness

Levin knows that the future depends on connecting everyone. From his speech:

I do not want to suggest that having a gigabit network will solve all our problems. Addressing other challenges —from climate change to quality of education to the ability to attract an educated and diverse workforce—must be part of the mix.

But at some point in the near future the kind of network you have today, one that thousands of communities wish they had, will be the new table stakes for addressing both the challenges and opportunities of this century to build a better life for ourselves, our children, and the generations to follow.

And when those generations arrive, I hope that America is still great. I hope its residents and the world will see it as a shining city on the hill that we have aspired to be since our earliest days, that Reagan so eloquently described.

Predictions about the future, as Yogi Berra usefully reminded us, are always tricky. But this prediction is safe: America will not be great if it does not have great broadband. 

Read the full text of Levin's speech, titled: "Make America Great - with Great Broadband."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 226

This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Joining Christopher Mitchell are Will Aycock and Suzanne Coker Craig. They discuss the situation in Greenlight and Pinetops as well as the importance of connectivity during the recent hurricane. Listen to this episode here.

Suzanne Coker Craig: We just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. As many of our listeners know, in February 2015, the FCC issued an order that preempted restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. The FCC's order allowed Greenlight, the municipal network developed by Wilson's electric utility, to expand its Internet access, telephone and video services outside of Wilson County. Pinetops, a small community of about 1300 residents, was connected soon after the FCC ruling and the community, its businesses and residents, finally received the high quality connectivity they needed to step into the 21st century. This last August, the order was reversed by the 6th Circuit for the US Court of Appeals. Wilson had to stop offering service to Pinetops or risk losing the exemption to the state law. In other words, stop serving Pinetops or the state would shut them down completely. In this interview, Chris talks with Will Aycock, Greenlight's General Manager, and later, Suzanne Coker Craig, a Pinetops business owner and town commissioner. Will describes a situation in the area, especially since the onset of Hurricane Matthew, which has hit Pinetops hard, and how Wilson found a way to continue to help its neighbor. Suzanne describes what it was like before the community had high quality services from Greenlight. She also describes how important the services are for the town, and how Greenlight has gone above and beyond to help the people of Pinetops. Now, here's Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm starting off today talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, the municipal fiber network in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Will Aycock: Thank you, Chris. Happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: It's great to have you back. I think a lot of people are aware that you have had a state law in the past that has prohibited you from building your network outside of the county, though you have many neighbors that would like to have it. For a period of time, the FCC preempted that law and made it so that you could expand. What did you do during that period?

Will Aycock: During that period, we offered our service to the residents of the town of Pinetops, North Carolina, over in Edgecombe County. Pinetops is a wholesale power customer of our electric utility, so we actually had fiber all the way into the community and had been helping them with building fiber even before the change in the law that allowed us to provide our broadband services. Since we already had fiber access in the community and we'd actually been working back in 2009 and 10 with the town officials down in Pinetops, to basically do the engineering studies required to go ahead and bring broadband into their community, so all that legwork had been done. When the window of opportunity presented itself, we went ahead and began providing our broadband service to their residents.

Christopher Mitchell: You guys are about 50,000 people. Pinetops is what? 1,800? It's a pretty small city.

Will Aycock: Yes, it's a very small, eastern North Carolina typical town.

Christopher Mitchell: That's very complicated, because the 6th Circuit has reinstated the law. What does that mean for Pinetops?

Will Aycock: In effect, it means that we are no longer allowed to provide telecommunications services for a fee outside of Wilson County, which puts us in the position of potentially having to disconnect or withdraw our broadband services from that community. However, as you may know, we have uncovered at least a temporary solution that hopefully will allow us to find a permanent solution to the issue.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, under the law, you have 30 days basically to stop serving them, although I think it's not really clear when that 30 days started from. In any event, you had scheduled basically the end of October to cut them off, and just last week, or as this is airing the week before, you decided to offer free service because that is allowed under the law. What made the Wilson City Council decide to do that?

Will Aycock: First and foremost, we've been working and trying to uncover essentially any opportunity to avoid withdrawing service, especially right now during this critical time for that community. As you may be aware, we're barely two weeks out from Hurricane Matthew, one of the most devastating hurricanes that's happened to this part of the world since really Floyd back in the late 1990s. Obviously, there was already an effort underway to try to figure out how to not withdraw this critical infrastructure from the residents of Pinetops. They sort of layer on this natural disaster with many of their residents living in emergency shelters, relief organizations coming in to the community, helping to get people back on their feet, all of those operations relying on the broadband network really for the essential communications behind those efforts. That really put an increased amount of weight on trying to find a solution. Our attorneys came to the realization that there was this sort of potential loophole that would allow us to at least temporarily provide broadband and voice service in the community at no charge. Obviously it's not a permanent solution, and it wouldn't be a solution at all if it were not for our private sector partners. We've actually had two of our wholesale providers that we purchase the bandwidth and dial tone from step up and they are actually offering us services for free for a limited period of time to essentially help us to bridge this gap in the community, both to give them opportunity to get back on their feet after this natural disaster, and from a broader sense, hopefully allowing us in partnership with some of our state legislators to find a permanent solution.

Christopher Mitchell: First of all, I just want to say it's really great to hear that there's multiple entities coming together to make sure that Pinetops is not left out. It's also worth noting that you were the only broadband provider in Pinetops. There is no cable. There is DSL provider, but I know a person in Pinetops and he has assured me that no one could get more than 10 megabit service, which is not broadband access and certainly would be very hard to run a business on. You pulling out would be a significant hardship. I'm just curious, if you could just briefly tell us some of the important ways that the broadband service has been essential dealing with this emergency situation.

Will Aycock: Right. One of the first things is simple communication with family members. As these residents were evacuated from their homes and they were moved into this emergency shelter there in the community, they have relative and family and friends across the nation and across the globe who want to know that they're okay. There's been some lack of communications services that we fielded the call basically saying, "Can you guys come down and set up wireless in the shelter, so that these people's devices will work and it will allow them to communicate with their family and friends across the globe, letting them know that they're okay?"

Christopher Mitchell: You noted broadband and telephone services, but there will be no cable services. This is a lifeline type of service really that you're going to be providing while we hope that the North Carolina legislature, at the very least, exempts Pinetops from the law or ideally reconsiders the entire limitation that you have to deal with.

Will Aycock: Right. Certainly our immediately priority is extending these lifeline services during this transition period, hopefully allowing the legislators to, at a minimum, as you said, provide a fix for the residents there in Pinetops and our other customers outside of Wilson County, although our goal certainly is to have all communities in this state have the option to be able to meet their own infrastructure needs as their elected officials deem appropriate.

Christopher Mitchell: I'd just like to ask you one other thing as we finish up, and that's just so people are aware, in the middle of this almost existential crisis for Pinetops with this devastation from the hurricane, you still have them prioritizing, getting down to Raleigh to argue for some relief from the state in the form of this law. I think that, just to me, it shows me how incredibly important this issue is. This isn't just about downloading Netflix. This is about the survival of a community in the modern era.

Will Aycock: Absolutely. It's been very moving to see what's going on in the community and to watch their elected leaders, their mayor and commissioners, trade duty between working at the shelters, helping to serve their citizens there, and then sort of ferrying back and forth almost a relay at Raleigh to meet with various state officials to try to advocate on behalf of their community for long term access to this infrastructure. I think seeing that play out has really highlighted for me and for many others the importance of this infrastructure in these communities.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you very much, Will, both for the call today and also for setting an example of how communities should be helping each other out to make sure that we can all thrive in this country.

Will Aycock: I appreciate it, Chris. It was great talking with you.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm speaking with Suzanne Coker Craig, a town commissioner and small business owner in Pinetops, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. I appreciate being here.

Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you taking the time. I know that there's a lot going on there. I'm curious, if we could start just with a sense of what it was like to be a small business owner prior to getting the Wilson Internet service in Pinetops.

Suzanne Coker Craig: You kind of make do with what you have, so we were very used to dealing with slow Internet, but we didn't have any options. We made the best of it, but our Internet was pretty slow and unreliable. I spent almost 20 years living in Raleigh in the triangle before I moved back home, so I was used to a little more modern approach and still have lots of friends and family who live in Raleigh. I go up there and realize how much faster real Internet was. Customer service was terrible. You got the feeling that we were the small town dealing with the large company who really didn't care about us at all, and go through all kinds of mazes to get through to a person to talk with them if you had a problem. Generally, you were told the problem must be on your end. It was frustrating and it was slow and it was unreliable.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say unreliable, I think there's a number of people who might think, "Well, yes, my cable Internet cuts out every few months or so." I'm guessing it's significantly more unreliable for you.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. There would be periods during every day when more than one of us were online down here at my shop, we'd both be waiting and it would be dragging. Sometimes it would just drop off. When you say people are used to that kind of thing once every couple of months, this would be about once a week that it would just drop off for no reason. It may not be off long, but just enough to interrupt what you were doing and really just got aggravating. There would be times, honestly, with a light rain, that it would just disappear for a few minutes. It was constantly your connection would drop off on your computer, and it would have to be searching for the connection again. It was much more common than I think anyone would really be used to or expect.

Christopher Mitchell: How did things change when Wilson began offering the service, the much faster Internet service?

Suzanne Coker Craig: Oh, my goodness, it was night and day. The difference with the Internet services was it was incredibly fast, and I've actually tested. I will be honest and say that I did not have a chance to hook up my business with Greenlight, I had Greenlight at my house, which is about a block away. I have it in my home but not in my business yet because I was in line to be hooked up when the court ruling came down. I'm kind of on the waiting list for my business, but I had tested my service at home versus my service here at work, and the Internet at home is five times faster. The speed was very noticeable and the service is seamless. I don't think I've had any interruptions other than probably for about 45 minutes during the hurricane a couple weeks ago.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's somewhat understandable.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Yes. That I don't complain about. It was noteworthy that's all the time we lost it. It's fast enough that I will routinely leave my business if I have a large file to upload or something like that and will run home and upload files and do things that I need fast, reliable Internet. I will walk a block to my house with my laptop. It's very noticeable, and people here have been incredibly excited about it. Everybody that's gotten it has loved it and has commented on how much more efficient it is, and just really, really excited about it. The fact that they had an option was also noteworthy for all of us here. We don't have to choose the only one. We have an option.

Christopher Mitchell: I have the impression that now that the town has had it and it is possibly about to be taken away that people are fighting harder than they would be if it was just a hypothetical issue, because obviously people could've been upset about this law two and three years ago, but now that they've tasted it, it seems like something's different.

Suzanne Coker Craig: It's entirely different idea because, yes, I guess when you live in a small, rural town, you get used to being left behind in things. I'm sure when the law was passed in 2011, it was one of those, "Well, they wouldn't let us get this anyway, I'm sure." That was five years ago and it wasn't quite as common for areas to have that kind of speed of Internet. Honestly, our economy has gotten even more dependent on good Internet service since then. I think the combination of those things, and yes, when you get it and you realize how good it is and then somebody wants to take it away, yes, our folks are extremely upset about this.

Christopher Mitchell: Just turning to Hurricane Matthew, can you briefly tell us the lasting impact that you've had from the storm?

Suzanne Coker Craig: Our little town of Pinetops, which is about 1300, similar to when Hurricane Floyd came through, we are almost like a little island and I'm not exaggerating this, within a half a mile of our town's borders, just about on all sides, we have significant flooding. People within our community, quite a few people lost their homes. We had others who had significant damage to their homes and were displaced for a couple of weeks at least. There's obviously still a lot of rebuilding going on and a lot of recovery efforts and those kinds of things. That situation also brought about how important it was to have good Internet. One of our churches here set up an impromptu shelter because all of this was pretty unexpected as far as the level of the flooding. One of our local churches set up a shelter and within a couple of hours of them doing that, the folks from Greenlight and Wilson were at the shelter hooking up the fellowship hall, where they had about 100 people housed, for the Wi-Fi connection. They had Wi-Fi already at the church, but it wasn't strong enough to reach the area. The folks from Greenlight hooked it up and we had quite a few people in the shelter who were Hispanic. They immediately were able to get on their phones and let people know, let their families know, that they were okay. That was a tremendous relief to a lot of folks and really made a difference. We saw immediate impact from that. Like I said, the folks from Greenlight had been here, they had serviced us very well, very quickly, and we know that we are a priority with them in the service they have given us, even through this disaster situation. There have been several situations. Especially considering that they may have to take their service away from us, and they have gone above and beyond with service calls and those kinds of things given that situation that it would be easy for them to brush us off and say, "Well, we're going to have to cut them off anyway." But they haven't and that's been a tremendous difference in the attitudes of the folks in this town as well.

Christopher Mitchell: I've met a number of people from Greenlight over the years and I've always been impressed with their character, so I'm very happy to hear that. One of the reasons I wanted to ask you about the hurricane is because I found it really powerful learning from Will that your town's leadership, in the midst of dealing with all this, was still having to go to Raleigh to plead your case to be exempted from the law that's preventing Wilson from expanding. To me, it just showed how seriously this is being taken by your town's leadership.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. It's one of those things -- We had a meeting that Friday. The hurricane basically came in late Friday and Saturday. We had a meeting Raleigh. We thought the folks in Raleigh might call it off because of the weather but they didn't, so we got all trooped up there. Everyone, with time to go, went to Raleigh. It's that important for us. Our entire area, really, in eastern North Carolina, the small, rural areas really struggle economically and we're in one of the poorest counties in the state. It is very hard for us to attract business. It's hard for us to attract population here. This Greenlight service really gives us a considerable economic boost, and we just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town. We think it's that important.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to thank you for taking time out while you're in the middle of these two important issues and running a business and running a town and everything else. I think people are really going to be interested in what you have to say, so thank you for taking the time.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure, and we will keep fighting.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner. We have plenty of coverage of Pinetops, Wilson, and Greenlight at MuniNetworks.org and we'll continue to follow developments there. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stores on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR Podcasts family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank the group Mojo Monkeys for their song Bodacious, licensed through Creative Commons, and we want to thank you for listening to episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Jamming At DAPL Protest? Ask The FCC To Investigate

According to a 2014 Enforcement Advisory, cell phone and Wi-Fi jamming by state and local law enforcement is illegal by federal law. And yet, persistent allegations of jamming are coming from Water Protectors at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota. Any jamming by law enforcement to monitor protestor cell phone communications is a serious breach of their Fourth Amendment rights as it amounts to unreasonable search and seizure. First Amendment rights of freedom of speech are also compromised when the method of transmitting reports is purposely blocked.

In order to pressure the FCC to determine whether jamming is happening in North Dakota, MoveOn.org has posted an online petition. From the petition:

Proving or disproving allegations about jamming is very difficult for anyone except the Federal Communications Commission [FCC]. Only the FCC can work with wireless providers, protesters, and local law enforcement to find out definitively what’s going on. The FCC is the only expert agency with authority to require law enforcement to disclose their use of any wireless devices and the only agency with the expertise to assess what is actually happening. If the FCC investigates and finds that there is no illegal jamming happening, then it can settle this concern. If the FCC discovers that there is illegal jamming happening, it has an obligation to expose the jamming and use its power under federal law to order local law enforcement to stop interfering with First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

As Harold Feld writes in his recent blog article, that the presence of IMSI catchers or Stingrays, leaves signs that the Water Protectors are experiencing at Standing Rock - sudden loss of a strong signal at inopportune times, cell phone batteries depleting quickly and inexplicably. Cell phones not only allow them to communicate with each other, but allow them to document law enforcement reaction:

In particular, the ability to upload streaming media documenting confrontations with authorities has been critical in proving whether local authorities have reacted with disproportionate violence or have acted appropriately. As a result, some law enforcement folks really hate that protesters use cell phones. Rather than solve the problem by modifying their own behavior, some law enforcement folks would much rather prevent protesters from using cell phones effectively.

Feld points out that the FCC is the only agency with the expertise and ability to resolve the allegations. If there is no jamming taking place, only they can restore confidence in the belief that local law enforcement is not breaking the law in that respect. If they are acting illegally, it is up to the FCC to stop it and to hold them accountable:

It falls to the FCC to protect that right and ensure the trust we put in our democracy. The FCC should not hesitate to send Enforcement Bureau staff to Standing Rock to find out what is really happening to wireless at #NoDAPL.

Sign the MoveOn.org petition.

FCC's New Privacy Rules Irk Big ISPs, Munis Mellow

Consumers should be able to expect a certain amount of privacy and recent rules adopted by the FCC are a step in the right direction. That step has also revealed some key differences between profit-driven national Internet service providers, smaller ISPs, and municipal networks. The different attitudes correspond with the different cultures, proving once again that small ISPs and munis have more than just profit in mind.

On October 27th, the FCC adopted an Order to allow ISP customers to determine how their data will be collected and used. According to the FCC, they made the decision in response to public comments about the concern for personal data protection.

The New Rules

Over the past few years, consumers have become savvy to the fact that ISPs have access to personal data and that they often sell that data to other companies for marketing purposes. Under Section 222 of Title II of the Communications Act, telecommunications carriers are bound to protect their subscribers’ private information. Because those rule are designed to change as technology changes, says the FCC and Congress, this same authority applies to private data collected by ISPs. 

The FCC decided to divide the permission of use of personal information based on type, categorizing information into “sensitive” and “non-sensitive.”

Sensitive information will require ISPs to obtain “opt-in” consent from subscribers, which will allow them to use and and share this type of information:

logo-xmission.jpg

  • Precise geo-location 
  • Children’s information
  • Health information 
  • Financial information
  • Social Security numbers
  • Web browsing history
  • App usage history
  • The content of communication 

Non-sensitive information would include all other information and customers would need to "opt-out" in order to prevent their ISPs from collecting such data. Examples of non-sensitive personal information include service tier information.

The new rules also require providers to follow “up-to-date and relevant industry best practices” in reference to managing security risks, take care to provide accountability and oversight regarding security, and dispose of personal data properly. These are only a sampling of the rules, which are not complicated but add another layer of undertaking to the role of provider. Check out this Fact Sheet from the FCC for more on the new rules.

Not All ISPs Are Big ISPs - Thank Goodness!

At first, we were concerned that these new rules might create more work for munis and small ISPs that are already heavily burdened with reporting requirements. For municipal utilities that provide other services as well, such as electric, gas, or water, another round of administrative requirements seemed especially taxing.

While national providers with thousands on their payrolls may have entire departments to deal with paperwork, municipal networks often exist in small communities and employ small staff. Regardless of the number of employees, they still must submit the same amount of information to the FCC. But we didn't hear any of them complaining about the new privacy protections.

Large providers began complaining about the new rules as soon as they were released, including David Cohen from Comcast, who said the new rules “will likely do more harm than good for consumers, competition, and innovation in the all-important internet ecosystem.” AT&T senior vice president described the rules as “illogical.” The rules, according to the big national providers are just too tough.

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Small ISPs and municipal networks are not known to sell customer data the way Comcast, AT&T, or CenturyLink do. In fact, we know of at least one, Xmission serving customers via the UTOPIA open access network, that has no problem telling the NSA to bugger off when they improperly ask for private data. On the other hand, AT&T is cozy in the NSA pocket, no warrant required. Local providers and munis are close to their customers, creating a higher level of accountability, which contributes to high scores in customer service.

We reached out to Xmission to get their opinion on the new privacy protections. Would they be difficult to implement? A burden? The company’s founder, Pete Ashdown told us it is “high time the government allowed individuals to take back their privacy” and that he supports the FCC ruling. We also talked with municipal networks in Iowa and Utah, but they did not report any potential problems with the rules.

If small providers have no problem respecting subscribers' privacy, why do big corporations like AT&T and Comcast complain so much? AT&T and Comcast see subscribers as numbers on a page to be transformed into dollar signs. Local providers and municipal networks consider them customers, community members, and neighbors.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 224

This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and MuniNetworks.org writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.


H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on MuniNetworks.org, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.

H.R. Trostle: Hi.

Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.

H.R. Trostle: The report covered everything from electric coops to municipalities and included telephone coops. It involved a lot of digging through a lot of FCC data.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of data? What were we looking for?

H.R. Trostle: I looked at the FCC form 477, which is deployment data. It also includes maximum advertised upload speeds and download speeds, but it doesn't include things like pricing information.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. This has been long one of the issues that we have found infuriating is that the carriers can just say what they're offering. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. To some extent, it's very difficult for CenturyLink to know what it can offer in rural areas, because the DSL is so poor. It varies from house to house, but they never have to disclose what they're charging for it, which really makes it difficult to make good policy around this.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, they also don't differentiate between different tiers, so it literally only tells me the maximum advertised. They may advertise that they offer 15-20 megabits a second, when in actuality you get maybe two.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. We know that that situation in Pinetops, just outside of Wilson, which we'll cover here in a few minutes, but I think one of the things that I found most interesting was that basic broadband access, which is overstated. You know, actually, why don't you just give us the numbers and facts that we're going to use from 477 data, from the FCC. Is that super accurate?

H.R. Trostle: It's not the greatest amount of accuracy. I could wish for more.

Christopher Mitchell: Is it randomly inaccurate, or is consistently inaccurate in one direction?

H.R. Trostle: It's mostly inaccurate in rural areas, because the census blocks are so large. The way the FCC's 477 is set up is each provider notes what they offer by census block. Rural areas tend to have very giant census blocks, with very few people.

Christopher Mitchell: That means that if a few people have access, maybe it's like the census block in which you have the edge of a town and you have a few people who have access, but the rest of the census block has no access. The form 477 data would suggest that everyone has access on that block.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly, even if two people have access, all twenty some people in the census block are considered as having access.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's imagine one other thing, which is to say that you have a census block in which, in the North side you have one provider's that's offering a service. In the South side, you have a different provider that's offering a service. In the middle, nobody can get anything, but we can't tell. As far as we know, I think about how that data is often interpreted. People might think there is competition in universal service in that block.

H.R. Trostle: It's actually pretty great. The FCC's form 477 specifically says that you should not try to use it to generate competition data, but everyone tries to use it to generate competition data for exactly that problem.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we can have a sense of at least -- The report, and the numbers in the report are a best case scenario.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, absolute best case.

Christopher Mitchell: I find it interesting, I actually thought that North Carolina has better basic broadband access than I expected. What's basic broadband access and who has access to it there?

H.R. Trostle: Basic broadband access is the FCC definition of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Advertised.

H.R. Trostle: Just advertised, obviously. You might not actually get that. In fact, some areas, you can get 20 megabytes per second as a normal, affordable speed tier. Then they also offer 100 megabytes per second at some absurd price. You can't actually get broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Because even though you could get a decent connection, maybe from a coop, I think that's what you're talking about here. You have the coop that has a plan. It's one of the rare cases in which we have an understatement of who has decent access.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: In general, 4 out of 5 people in rural North Carolina, approximately -- There's a little bit of an overstatement there, but still most people seem to have basic broadband access from one provider.

H.R. Trostle: 4 out of 5 rural residents for sure, do. Supposedly according to the data, 93% of all of North Carolina has basic broadband access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was that I think, when you look at the state's reaction, the state of North Carolina did their own report a few months ago. We were not really impressed with it. I think their conclusion was, "Wow, we're doing really well. Sure, we got to figure out some way of doing better, but we're doing really well." Our conclusion was that North Carolina's really not doing that well. In fact, I found interesting that when you look at their access to higher quality Internet access, you often find it's utterly lacking. You have that basic broadband tier as the maximum in a number of these rural regions, but there's nothing above that level.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, it's very, very frustrating. Especially looking at where fiber is actually available. It tends to be available in urban areas or from coops.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so there's not a lot of what we would call private sector or private company investment in fiber in rural North Carolina.

H.R. Trostle: Not at all.

Christopher Mitchell: Which I find very interesting, because their urban areas seem to be getting more investment, on average. None of those big companies are building out to everyone, but parts of their triangle, parts of Charlotte, parts of the suburbs around there, are getting fiber optic access from Google, from AT&T, from CenturyLink. At the very least they've announced it and made it available in a few partner buildings, but there's been a lot of announcements.

H.R. Trostle: There have been a lot of announcements but there's, from what I can tell, very little actually been done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, they might just be on their way to doing it. It might be a charitable way of reading. In part, it does seem to me, and you and I both follow these things closely. It seems to me that there is some more investment in fiber optics in urban North Carolina areas than in your average metro regions around the United States.

H.R. Trostle: For sure, I've been looking at Minnesota and Tennessee as well. Doing something similar. There is so little actual private investment in those urban areas of Tennessee and Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Let's move on to talking about some of the subsidies, because what I'm confused about is AT&T and CenturyLink seem to be getting a king's ransom from the Connect America fund, and yet they're not investing significantly in these areas, from what I can tell. How much are they getting?

H.R. Trostle: From the Connect America fund, AT&T's accepted about three and a half million dollars each year, to serve about 13,000 people by 2020 with not a broadband connection, but a connection of 10 megabytes per second, download speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's unpack this for a second, all right. Three million dollars per year for four years. Twelve million dollars?

H.R. Trostle: Just about.

Christopher Mitchell: To connect how many homes?

H.R. Trostle: To connect 13,000 in rural and under-served areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Specific areas where they do not have, according to the map, broadband access. By 2020, they will deliver a connection that's 10 megabytes down and 1 megabyte up, at a minimum.

H.R. Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, in some areas, and we'll talk about CenturyLink's numbers in a second. In some areas, I think we'll see them exceed that. I think CenturyLink will only provide that basic connection to some of their homes, but some of their homes will probably get a 40 by 5 connection or, occasionally, maybe, a gigabyte. I really doubt that, frankly, but they'll probably -- Homes that are close to the DSLAM, which, I always call it the magical device that turns your copper phone lines into an Internet provisioning system. People that are close enough will get higher speeds than 10 by 1, but AT&T seems to be really going for that minimum speed. They're just doing this wireless only product. This news really came out after our report was put to rest, but it's worth noting that AT&T seems to be really taking it seriously that they do not have to out-perform 10 by 1.

H.R. Trostle: That's what they want to do. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is getting about 10 million per year. They're going to serve 36,000 people with that same baseline.

Christopher Mitchell: I can only imagine what these coops in North Carolina could be doing with 40 million dollars a year. I find it infuriating that Uncle Sam is throwing away here, in just two companies, 52 million dollars to provide connection that would have been obsolete last year. It's really, really frustrating. Let's move on to what the coops are doing. What did you find in terms of, let's talk about the telephone cooperatives first. What are they doing in North Carolina?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, so there are eight telephone cooperatives in North Carolina. All of them are deploying some sort of fiber for Internet service. Six have committed to serving their entire service areas, several have actually completed those projects. The map is looking so much nicer.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's remarkable when you see the map that you've prepared, of where fiber exists in rural North Carolina. You see these areas in the central northern part of the state, you have this big block. In the northeastern part of the state, you have this big block where it seems that every last person has access because they're served by a telephone cooperative.

H.R. Trostle: Yes, and the telephone cooperatives are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Christopher Mitchell: I was actually talking with a reporter and I made that exact point. The reporter was saying, "Is it surprising to you that the private sector is not getting this job done in rural North Carolina?" I was thinking, "No, it is not surprising." These are people who are served by co-ops because, for 100 years, we understand that the private sector does not do a good job providing the essential infrastructure for rural communities. The business model does not work for the way that they want it to. We have telephone coops and we have electric coops. It shouldn't be surprising that these approaches are the ones that are best serving North Carolina's rural communities.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, and North Carolina has 26 electric coops. Several have already taken steps to providing Fiber-to-the-Home or Fiber-to-the-Business. Lumbee River, Blue Ridge Mountain, they are in possibly even more sparsely populated areas than the telephone cooperatives.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and that's not very surprising, frankly. The electric coops serve so much of the state that, on average, I can imagine -- Not even average. The electric coops serve such a large part of the state that there's just so many more opportunities for them to be serving the least dense areas. The areas that are the hardest to reach, but these electric coops have, historically, I feel like, resisted getting involved. Are you seeing that changing in your conversations with North Carolina's electric coops or, as they call them, EMCs?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah. EMCs is electric membership corporation. That conversation is really changing and part of that is the electric cooperatives are deploying fiber to communicate with their substations. They already had that as a growing part of their electrical infrastructure. Now they can actually use that for telecommunications. Previously, their infrastructure that would have been good for broadband access would have been just the poles.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say communicate with the substations, I always imagine them, "Hello substation, how are you doing today?"

H.R. Trostle: "Hello world."

Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, if I'm the state of North Carolina, I should be really excited about these coops investing and trying to promote that and doing everything I can to say, "Hey, how can we make this happen more quickly?" How is North Carolina reacting? You read the report. I skimmed it, I read some sections in-depth, but the state of North Carolina's report, did they really actually recognize the way that the coops are already doing this?

H.R. Trostle: They did not recognize the growing role of coops. Not at all. The state of North Carolina didn't even really address one of the barriers to electric cooperatives. Getting involved in telecommunications. There are some restrictions how an electric cooperative can access capital from the Rural Utility Service funds and from the USDA. It's rather discouraging to investment.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so the state of North Carolina says, if you're an EMC. If you're a rural electric coop, you can not get telecom loans or grants from the Rural Utility Service to distribute those. You also can't form a subsidiary. Now there may be other ways for these EMCs to find of accessing capital and to be able to build these networks, but I just find it stunning that the state wants to say, "We're going to officially discourage you from accessing the USDA," which is the main system that has built our cooperative infrastructure system around the country. All of the electrical coops, the telephone coops, they've all depended on our rural utility service funding. North Carolina says, "Hey, you know what? You guys are investing in rural communities, but we're going to make it harder on you." It's the exact opposite of what you'd want.

H.R. Trostle: It is the complete opposite of what you want. That's not all -- Other states also discourage electric cooperative's investment. Tennessee, New Mexico, but there are work-arounds.

Christopher Mitchell: Where there's a will, there's a way, right?

H.R. Trostle: Pretty much.

Christopher Mitchell: That may not be true with some forms of municipal broadband investment, though. We've saved the biggest hot button issue for us last, which is HB129, or just H.129, depending on the system that you use in referencing it, but this is a law from 2011. We've talked about it so many times. The FCC repealed it, it came back through the 6th circuit, reinstated it, but basically North Carolina tells local governments, "You can not build broadband networks."

H.R. Trostle: North Carolina does not support municipalities building their own networks. H129 is sort of a zombie law in that it came back and has now ruined things for Highlands and Pine Tops and a few family farms that really were depending on that connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, let's talk about that. The City of Wilson, incredibly successful municipal fiber network. We've talked about them many times because they were, with Chattanooga, the two of them went to the FCC to roll back these laws. Wilson, during that period when the law was not in effect, built out to some of its neighbors that desperately needed access but did not have broadband access. This family farm in Nash County, they could not even basically run their IT systems, they couldn't be a modern packing facility because they didn't have the Internet access they needed. Wilson comes along, provides it to them, the state of North Carolina challenges the law, goes to the 6th circuit. The 6th circuit says, "The FCC does not have the authority to change that law, so the law's reinstated." Wilson's going to have to disconnect its fiber optics networks from the small community and the nearby family farms.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, Wilson had to vote to do that. They could have tried to continue service, but it would have just led to an even greater mess.

Christopher Mitchell: They would have had to shut down their entire system, ultimately. Wilson City has universal access. Wilson County has significant access, but it all would have been at risk if they tried to continue under their current laws. As this goes to air, there will be one week left, basically, of service that Wilson will be providing nearby. Then it will have to turn them off. Now, this is the part that kills me, though. The fiber optics cables, the optical network terminal devices will be on the side of the house still. I find it incredibly frustrating that people are going to have all of the things that they need to have world class Internet service in their home, but the state will say, "You can't use it for that." Wilson can use it to monitor the electrical system, to say, "Hey, how you doing?" To the substations, to communicate with the substations. It's there, but they won't be able to deliver Internet service.

H.R. Trostle: I would say it's a quirk of the law, but it's actually the entire point.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly. Here's a question then, as we head toward the end and I'm done ranting about the injustice in Wilson and Pine Tops and altitude in Highlands. What is the next step? What can North Carolina do if it actually has leadership that cares about promoting rural connectivity, rather than just lining the pockets of powerful CenturyLink and AT&T, their lobbyists and their interests?

H.R. Trostle: Well, it would be really simple to repeal H129, but I don't know if that's actually ever going to happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's go a step further and say, let's assume that that got rid of it. You have some towns that move forward, more importantly, perhaps, you have the existing networks able to expand and serve their neighbors. You still have a lot of areas, I mean what do you see in terms of the electrical -- Is it feasible to think that electric coops could solve most of North Carolina's problem? A way that partnerships with the telephone coops expanding outside of their areas? I mean, is this a pipe dream or is this something that could happen?

H.R. Trostle: No, this is entirely possible. The electric coops can work with the telephone coops to provide better connectivity. They don't have to actually worry about providing the telecommunication services themselves, they can simply partner with someone who already has experience in doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're starting to get a sense, from some of the reaction to the report, is that this is starting to happen. There is hope, I think.

H.R. Trostle: There is. It would be a little bit nicer if they could get rid of some of the restrictions on the electrical cooperatives access to capital.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I also think, as you have the electric coops and the telephone coops doing this expansion. It must be incredibly frustrating. Let's imagine that you're just outside of the Wilkes cooperative area and the Riverfront Networks.

H.R. Trostle: RiverStreet.

Christopher Mitchell: RiverStreet Networks. You are right outside of there and you're not getting service from them. They're working with a couple of other areas nearby, but they can't build everywhere at once. North Carolina says, "Too bad, you can't get do it yourself. You have to wait until they come to you." Or something like that. I just, I think that the H129 restrictions are such a slap in the face to communities. To say, "Yeah, you're losing property value, you're losing businesses, people don't want to move in there, but you can't solve the problem yourself. You have to just hope that someone else is going to come along and solve it for you."

H.R. Trostle: Yep, even if you have the technical expertise, you're just not allowed to.

Christopher Mitchell: It runs totally contrary to everything that we believe in at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what people and communities should be empowered to do.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: I hope that people have a chance to check out this report. I think we're going to be seeing more maps, more exciting stuff coming from Hannah, from the work that you're doing. You already prove it a little bit, Tennessee and Minnesota are in the works. I hope people stay tuned to your work.

H.R. Trostle: I hope so too.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with H.R. Trostle, our colleague and one of the authors of our recent report on connectivity in North Carolina. You can download the report at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org to learn about the urban/rural digital divide and how coops and muni networks are finding ways to close the gap. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song, "Bodacious", licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Wilson To Offer Greenlight To Pinetops At No Charge

The town of Pinetops, North Carolina, has a six-month reprieve.

On October 20, the Wilson City Council voted to continue to provide telephone and Internet access to customers outside of Wilson County, which includes Pinetops, for an additional six months at no charge. As we reported earlier, the City Council had been backed into a corner by state law, which would force them to discontinue Wilson’s municipal Greenlight service, or risk losing their exemption entirely.

In August, the Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the FCC decision to preempt North Carolina’s state law that prevented Greenlight from serving nearby Pinetops. When Hurricane Matthew struck Pinetops, however, the Wilson community could not fathom piling yet another burden - lack of high-quality Internet access - on the struggling rural community.

"We Cannot Imagine..."

After examining the law and reaching out to state leaders, Wilson’s elected officials chose to provide services at no charge while state legislators work to change the current harmful state law. Once again, a community that offers publicly owned connectivity proves that there is more to the venture than profit. From a Wilson press release:

"Our broadband utility has always been about bringing critical infrastructure to people, improving lives and communities,” said Grant Goings, Wilson City Manager. “We cannot imagine being forced to disconnect people and businesses that need our services. We are thankful that, in partnership with our phone service provider, we have identified a way to keep folks connected while Rep. Martin and Sen. Brown work to fix this broken State law."

For more on the situation in Pinetops, read about how high-quality Internet has improved economic development and how the Vick Family Farm, a large local employer, depends on Greenlight for operations. You can also hear from Suzanne Coker Craig, a local elected official and business owner, who described for us how the community quickly came to depend the service and how the state’s draconian law is sending them back in time.

More Time To Make A Change

The situation is not permanent, say Wilson's leaders, but it will give the community of Pinetops a chance to recover from Hurricane Matthew. It will also give Pinetops and Wilson the opportunity to organize local residents and businesses and to work with Sen. Brown and Rep. Martin who will pursue legislative changes in Raleigh.

The community has already started to get organized with a Facebook page and an online petition you can sign to show your support.

Read the rest of the Wilson Press release on the City Council decision here.

Midwest Energy Cooperative Connects Rural Michigan - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 225

Telephone and electric cooperatives are making strides in bringing high-quality connectivity to rural areas while national providers stay in the city. This week we speak with two gentlemen from rural southwest Michigan’s Midwest Energy Cooperative: President and CEO Bob Hance and Vice President of Regulatory Compliance Dave Allen.

The electric cooperative has embarked on a project to bring fiber-optic connectivity to its members within its electric distribution grid. The multi-year project will bring better functionality to electric services and high-speed Internet access to areas of the state struggling with yesterday’s technologies. Bob and Dave describe the cooperative’s commitment to it’s members and discuss the deep roots of the cooperative in the region. They also touch on how the project is already improving lives in the areas that are being served.

Bob, Dave, and Chris, also spend some time discussing the difficulties that face rural cooperatives, especially regarding federal funding and its distribution. Serving sparsely populated areas is a challenge. Federal funding is often distributed more favorably to big corporate providers that promise to deliver much slower speeds than cooperatives like Midwest Energy. Co-ops are delivering better services, and building better networks with less federal funding; they also face higher hurdles to obtain that funding.

Why do they do it? Because they are invested in the future of their communities.

Read more about the project at the Midwest Connections Team Fiber website.

Read the transcript of the show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."