As the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Mitchell is a leading national expert on community networks, Internet access, and local broadband policies. He built MuniNetworks.org, the comprehensive online clearinghouse of information about local government policies to improve Internet access. Its interactive community broadband network map tracks more than 600 such networks. He also hosts audio and video shows online, including Community Broadband Bits and Connect This!, and Public Knowledge presented Christopher with its Internet Protocol award in 2021, which honors those who have made significant contributions to Internet policy.
Drew Clark: We are joined by Christopher Mitchell. Christopher is the Director of Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. A bit of a mouthful, but it rolls off the tongue once you get used to it. And ILSR has really become quite a thinker and player and dynamo of the... Like localism. If you had to put a word on it. Is why localism matters, how localism is important.
Drew: And Chris has just carved out such an incredible role for himself over the last 14th, whatever years at Institute for Local Self-Reliance as the director of this Community Broadband Networks program. Chris, it's so great to have you on the broadband.money Ask Me Anything!
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. As I told you to your face, the beard is really working for you. I love it.
Drew: Well, thank you, Chris. I had inspiration from so many people, including you. Chris, our journeys have, we've definitely intersected multiple times. I think I started going to Broadband Communities conference around the same time as you did, and you might have hassled me of some stories that we had published on Broadband Breakfast back then, but I just am so impressed by everything you've done at MuniNetworks.org as the URL goes.
Drew: Just give us a quick, your take on what brought you... I mean, you're a Minnesotan, you've gone to school in Minnesota. What led you to ILSR and to this domain of knowledge and action?
Chris: So it's a really good question, and it's not like I was hunting it out. There was a job that was available. The woman who had started the program and run it for two years had decided that she would like to move on, and so right before I graduated from the University of Minnesota Public Policy School, this job came up. I had seen what ILSR had been doing, it seemed like the kind of organization that I could work at, and so I applied.
Chris: They were looking for three things: A person that knew policy, a person that was somewhat technical, and a person that would work for a very low salary, and there was a very small number of people that fit that bill in the entire country. [chuckle] So here I am.
Drew: Well, you literally have become... I can't say you're a one-man show anymore because you've got a lot of great, great folks there, and you've built up such an incredible resource. But what does it do? What does MuniNetworks or the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, what do you do? What would you describe as the core functions that you've been up to?
Chris: I think it has to do with research and telling stories. Seeing what is working for communities out there to solve this problem, and perhaps these problems around making sure everyone has high quality internet access and they can use it. Every few years, I feel like we change our focus a little bit just based on what is needed, and the way that we do that is we're constantly talking with people that are out doing the hard work, and I appreciate that my team gets a lot of detention. I mean attention, not detention.
Chris: But I do think there's people that are doing tremendous work that people often wouldn't hear of, and the part that we do is just try to make sure people do hear of it. And then when we hear people saying, "I really need this thing," or there's this other piece that we can't figure out, and then we try to figure out, is that something that we could help with? Or do we know folks like people like you, people at Benton Institute, people in other non-profit organizations, people in banks, people in the ISP industry? How can we bring people together to solve problems?
Chris: Right now, we're making that pivot where we're doing more training than I ever thought we would be doing in terms of working with people to help them learn how to work in this industry.
Drew: We'll definitely come back to that and maybe some other pivots, but I gotta ask you, do you get asked or accused of being a journalist at times, Chris?
Chris: Yeah, I do think people are a little bit uncomfortable at times with what we are, and we try to have, I would say, standards that are like that of journalists and reporters. I think of us as reporters, as far as noting. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is not like pro-municipal network necessarily, we are pro-strong communities. We want communities that are economically and politically able to chart their own course in life, and if we have failing municipal broadband networks, that's not gonna help the community.
Chris: So we are seen as being pro-municipal network, but we're very cautious in wanting to make sure that communities are making this decision in an informed way and taking it seriously.
Drew: Well, and as a journalist at Broadband Breakfast, and of course we've worked together many times in the past, we've cross-published articles and appreciate the things you've done for us, and hopefully we've been able to do some good things for you too. What I value about what you do in this context is that you are factually straight, like you'll get the news out there and it's good and accurate information.
Drew: That's of course a threshold question. Of course, in society today, it's like so questioned like, "Oh, facts. What are those?" Right? But from your perspective, what is the value on making sure that truthful stories are told about communities?
Chris: Well, I think the value is off the charts because of the lack of local reporting expertise in this work. One of the things that we rely on is local reporters who are reporting on this, and it used to be that they might have some telecom background, but now it's more likely that they don't, and they're overworked, and we don't see as much local reporting on it.
Chris: When we do, we've learned that we have to be very careful because local reporters can even confuse WiFi and fiber optics, multiple times, even in big markets. We feel like someone needs to be out there providing a record and getting things right, and admitting when we get things wrong, and trying to just inform people to make sure that we're learning the right lessons.
Chris: We don't want... I don't want people to be going off and thinking, "We need to make this investment because this is exactly how these other people did it," and maybe that's not even how they did it.
Drew: Right. Well, let's go to one important role you play, which is a debunker of astroturf campaigns. We see this repeatedly over and over again, big telecom companies will fund groups that then go out and say, "Oh, municipal networks bad. We don't want socialism, we don't want municipal government owning broadband networks."
Drew: First off, what's wrong with that? Is it wrong or is it not wrong for municipalities to be "socialist" in their broadband? And secondly, why do you think this is such a recurring story of organization after organization coming along and making these arguments as if they were some other entity?
Chris: Yeah. It's complicated in a variety of ways.
Drew: Go for it, take some time.
Chris: I mean, the idea of whether you're socialists or not being a binary, I don't get it. If we were to say, the city that I live in, like almost all cities, builds roads that are available to anyone for free using tax payer dollars, that's socialism. Does that mean my city's socialist? No. It's just the way we do it 'cause it works. 'Cause to do it otherwise would mean that we would have to be stuck with a lower quality of life, less business activity and that sort of a thing.
Chris: There are socialists who support municipal broadband, and they see it as being something that is important for their ideology. There are people that are very open market who support municipal broadband because they see it as overcoming market failure, but most of the communities that have done something, they don't waste their time on that, I don't think.
Chris: The just think, "We have a problem and we are going to try to solve it, and the way that seems to work for us is to make this investment and choosing one of the many different models around broadband." I think the word "socialist" comes up largely from people who are just trying to discredit it, and people who they don't have a real agenda, they don't really wanna talk about what socialism is, what markets need generally, and that sort of a thing.
Chris: Or the total lack of competition, the monopoly environment, where most people have one or two choices for a real actual high quality connection. And so I'm not a socialist, I'm someone who has... I think a lot about these different issues, and there have been times where I certainly flirted in my life with various socialist ideas.
Chris: And at this point, I feel like I'm very pro-competition, very pro-market in ways that often require smart government investments to deal with the fact that bad government policy in the past has resulted in significant consolidation and the lack of choice.
Drew: Well, and I think that... Obviously, I'm throwing a scare term out there, but as soon as I threw that scare term out there, we have a comment from Corey Hauer saying the same thing, "There is a trail of carcasses from failed socialist broadband efforts in Minnesota with defaults leaving tax payers on the hook for more than 100 million. Lake County, RS Fiber, City of Monticello." Your first chance to go after a former Ask Me Anything guest, Chris.
Chris: Yeah no, so of those, if you go to RS Fiber, and I was there at the meeting in which they announced that they had not achieved the financial level of performance that they wanted to, or more specifically, that they actually had the right amount of revenue, but because they screwed up their debt, they had much higher costs than were expected on the debt side, that they were gonna have to tap into the property tax base.
Chris: And at that meeting where it was announced, I was really curious what was gonna happen, and actually I had a recorder there and I misused it, classic issue, never try to use a new piece of electronics in a live environment, so I don't have a recording of it. But it was fascinating 'cause people were saying, "Well, okay, that sucks, it's disappointing, but when do we get the fiber out?" This is so important for the community.
Chris: And if you... I don't wanna turn this into me against Corey Hauer running LTD or anything like that, but what we've seen is that there's not a lot of people who, when given the choice between RS Fiber, whether that's a wireless service, or the fiber service, which is run by HBC, which is a wonderful company that has terrific reviews in southeastern Minnesota, let's just say they're not hurting for market share, where they come up against some of the other companies that they compete against. So this is, it's actually the best example to talk about. So municipal broadband does not end up like Chattanooga often. Chattanooga puts in...
Drew: Let's take the spectrum, what's the best run city broadband and what's the worst run city broadband in your experience, of hundreds that you've looked at, hundreds?
Chris: The best is difficult. There's a different metrics. Chattanooga off the charts financial success, because the community had come together years before. Chattanooga isn't a story of fiber, it's a story of a community that has gotten a lot of things right after they were in very difficult circumstances and they came together, and so people that are making large investments in Chattanooga, it's partially 'cause of the fiber, but it's not only because of the fiber.
Chris: Wilson, North Carolina, very difficult situation, much more difficult, and economically than Chattanooga not being being brought up by the tide of other smart investments the city had made necessarily, although in Wilson's case, they had a history of making smart investments. They have done a wonderful job of trying to make sure that they have three different programs to connect low-income folks. Just off the charts, wonderful.
Chris: Longmont, Colorado launches and into a market where Comcast and CenturyLink are investing as well, and they had like 50% penetration in just... I think it was four years, five years. Off the charts. Vermont, the most rural state, as measured by people who don't live in a metropolitan area, massively embracing municipal broadband, because ECFiber has done such an amazing job.
Drew: But they certainly had ups and downs, I remember ages... So years we were there and they were kind of wrestling with the challenges. Haven't they had challenges? Who has not risen to the challenge, Chris, from your experience?
Chris: Yeah, so let's just... I wanted to make the point. Those are bunch of success stories, really off the charts ones, and then you have your middle cases, and that's more like some of these cities and I'm not gonna pick any. I feel like they might feel like this, they might feel abused if I say any specific names.
Chris: But there's a number of cities where they're barely paying the debt down, they're making all the operating expense payments, and it's hard, it is freaking hard work for the manager of the system. Because maybe they have five, 10,000 subs and it is difficult, it's definitely possible to make it work with fewer, but until you get 15-20, it doesn't really start to get any easier. So that's the middle case.
Chris: The worst case is places like Dunnellon, Florida. Dunnellon, Florida is one that isn't talked about as much. I looked into it because I was kind of curious about it. I hadn't heard about them. All of a sudden they were launching this. And as best I can tell, I'm sorry if I'm getting this wrong, someone in Dunnellon who had some power was like, "You know what would make money? Fiber. Let's build a fiber network."
Chris: And they didn't consult with anyone. They just put money into it and assumed that they would have the right number of customers, and that it would all work out and they would be able to sign people up. And they sold it on a massive loss or I don't know exactly know what happened there, but it was dumb. That is not... That happens in a few places, right?
Chris: Even if you look at Ashland, Oregon. Ashland, Oregon is one of those common stories you hear about where people are like, "Ashland, Oregon failed," and in the last year, my colleague Sean was writing a story about it. I think one of us...
Drew: Sean Gonsalves at your...
Chris: Yeah, Sean Gonsalves, who's just a... I mean my team... Boy. They're terrible to work with. Nobody should hire them.
Drew: Stop it. [chuckle]
Chris: And there was, it came up and I was doing a fact check on it because they were like, "Yeah, the network's throwing out $500,000 a year, that's helping the city to not raise other taxes. It's generating so much wealth." And I was like, "No, it doesn't sound like Ashland to me."
Chris: Ashland is the city where 12 years ago, Joe Franell had to make some significant changes to pull it out of the hole that it was in. It had been poorly managed. And other city departments were having to help pay for the debt because the network couldn't cover its own debt. But since then, they've actually turned it around quite a bit, and that's the thing, is that you can fix these mistakes when things go wrong. And there's no better example than UTOPIA. I'm not gonna spend any time on it, 'cause your audience knows it...
Drew: Go on and on, yeah. What I would like to pull out of the UTOPIA example, they're not alone, they are an open access success story, where many different ISPs, internet service providers are offering service on a single open platform, a single open network. And we'll talk a little more about open access, but let's just close out this kind of criticism point that... Both sides of the coin, right?
Chris: And we got a question from Peggy, Peggy Schaffer who has done incredible work in ConnectMaine, she asks, "How can states and advocates make sure communities are on a level playing field when it comes to grants and data versus large incumbents?" Maybe the flip side of that coin is Benjamin Cohen asks, "Critics of municipal broadband often compare state and community broadband efforts to an athlete who participates as both a referee and a player." So on the level playing field, which is it? Are cities at a disadvantage, or are they at an advantage when it comes to non-city municipal players?
Chris: It's not as easy as just picking one of those. And let me just say quickly, I keep looking down... I'm always doing too many things and I'm remodeling some parts of my house and the windows were supposed to be delivered before 10:00 AM this morning, and as soon as we started is when they texted me to be like, "It's on the way," so I was trying to coordinate with my wife to make sure she knows that these people are gonna be showing up. There's always something with me, so I don't mean to be distracted a little bit.
Chris: But the referee issue is one that I think is totally blown out of context. In general, cities are at a disadvantage relative to large companies. This isn't... We're not talking about like a city compared to a local ISP, but compared to Charter Spectrum, a Comcast, there's no city that has an advantage over those companies with the kind of scale that they have, right?
Chris: Those companies buy units in the tens of millions, and so they get price discounts, they get in front of the line, they have all kinds of capacity, their marketing is done at an incredibly low per unit cost. Now, cities have some advantages around debt, in certain ways, not always. But right now, as the interest rates are in flux, we may certainly see cities are able to finance things less than certain other private companies.
Chris: Cities have to operate in the open, whereas private companies get to do things in secret, that's both planning and also making mistakes, right? I know lots of people who are very... I'm blessed by people who are open with me about the businesses that they run, and they make mistakes all the time, like "Man, I'm... " They don't wanna be the front page news that they screwed up this investment and then they fixed it. That's the nature of working in the edge in a field like this.
Chris: Cities do that though, and it can be blown out of proportion. Even networks that are a success may see someone who has political ambitions wanting to just lie about it in order to try to advance themselves. I think that's sort of what happened in Sun Prairie in Wisconsin. So these things, they're hard to compare.
Chris: But I do wanna say that there's also no such thing as the private sector, like a small scrappy company is very different from a large multinational company, and a small scrappy company could be run by someone who is duplicitous, who's just basically trying to figure out how to flip that company and sell it before it all implodes. Or it can be run by someone who has a strong dedication to the community that's doing everything they can to try to help their community out.
Drew: Right. Let's make sure we transition into the discussion about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which of course is the large $65 billion funds for broadband, the bulk of them, vast bulk of them going to the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program. Two questions on this.
Drew: The first is, what... Kind of the question of the day or the week is, the maps and the apparent news, I am not willing to accept defeat just yet, but many people are saying the FCC has made speed tests redundant in terms of allowing local governments, local communities to effectively independently verify some ISP's claims. This is a question that Sarah Lai Stirland here at broadband.money asks. That's one part I wanna ask you about. How is this mapping and roll-out process going?
Drew: And secondly, I wanna get your take on the fiber versus wireless. You're very much associated with fiber is important and good, but I know you're not an absolutist, so talk to me about where you see the best use of this 42.5 billion when it comes to the technologies deployed?
Chris: Well first, do we answer Peggy's question? I feel like we kind of skipped...
Drew: No, go ahead. Finish Peggy's question first.
Chris: Okay. I would say that a lot of communities, if they're not gonna create their own ISP, they're gonna not have a real say over the state funds, except for they could preference, hopefully most states will probably have a local letter of support, kind of thing, and so cities need to be paying attention to that. Not cities so much as rural communities, more likely.
Chris: But rural communities that wanna build their own ISPs have to I think put together a credible plan, because when a state's evaluating it, if it doesn't look like a community knows what they're doing with some sort of community-led ISP, then they're not gonna be preferenced, even if they get a few extra points here or there for being community-owned.
Drew: Let's make sure we're fully understanding this and digesting, 'cause there's a couple of pieces. Peggy asks, "How can states and advocates support community applications in data collection?" And then Jase Wilson of Broadband Money adds, "How can communities and states that tend to ignore them, advocate for their proposals?"
Drew: And then Peggy asks another follow-up, which is, "When grants require community engagement, what evidence of that should grant reviewers look for?" So let's kind of make sure we've gotten everything in this bundle here.
Chris: So the first thing is, I hope that NTIA takes this very seriously, and I think there's some signs that they will, and holds states to the fire to make sure they are doing consultations with local governments as well as tribal governments. I think that's gonna be really important because there's many different needs there.
Chris: I think that there should be some mechanism for the states to be not the one saying, "Yes, we did our consultations," but actually that there's some kind of check-up or ability for local governments to appeal. Not that one local government could stop an entire state by saying there wasn't a consultation, but if you have a bunch of local governments all saying, "We weren't consulted, we don't feel like we had an opportunity," there should be some process for that. And like so many things, like speed tests especially.
Chris: A few speed tests don't tell you anything, but thousands of them do. You see patterns emerging. And that's where it's important to know how to use this sort of data that has to be collected. When it comes down to the FCC's decisions, I think a number of states are gonna be using their own data much more than the FCC data, so...
Drew: Let's stop and back up on data. Okay, so moving to data. What we're basically talking about, of course, so that everyone knows, that the Federal Communications Commission is charged with getting an updated map, not that they haven't had a few years to do this already, and an address level or location by location level address of where broadband is and isn't, and what levels it is.
Drew: And the word on the street is, well, how do we test? How do we prove when a provider claims, "Oh yeah, we've got gigabit fiber there," and there's no speed test that comes even close to that? We had a demonstration of this on Broadband Breakfast Webcast on Wednesday, about lots of speed tests not showing anything close to what's claimed. So Chris, what's your take on the FCC's failures and what remedies might be available?
Chris: I'm at a loss of what to say about the FCC. There's a lot of good people who are trying to do good things there. There is a history of mistakes that were made, that have left a lot of things to be done. So I don't wanna sit here and say that someone's a bad person at the FCC in whatever position, but I feel like there's a reason that a lot of people have lost faith in it.
Chris: I'm sympathetic to the idea that they don't wanna sort through a bunch of speed tests, some of which may have been done over a Wi-Fi router that was built 15 years ago and may be at the extent of its limit, I understand all of that. But the reason the FCC exists is that it's an expert agency.
Chris: The whole point is that, Congress and others were like, "We can't just decide these things, we need someone that knows what they're talking about," and I don't feel like there's a lot of credibility coming from the FCC on that, and I would like to see that restored. So what that means in my mind is continuing to collect data rigorously, using robust standards.
Chris: There's a whole fight right now, about speed tests and the cable industry particularly saying that the M-Lab NDT test is inappropriate. And I would agree. If you're trying to see, "I'm on a gigabit DOCSIS 3.1 connection. Am I gonna... Is the NDT test gonna be the appropriate way to measure that?" No, it is not.
Chris: But if you're on a DSL connection that's delivering 7 megabits and it's claiming 30, that NDT test is the right test to be checking that out and seeing whether or not it works. So this is all super complicated, but this is where we need an agency that takes it seriously and comes out with it.
Chris: It's not to say it's easy, but it's literally though, why the FCC exists. Now tell me, did I... I sort of went off on that rant a little bit, but what... Redirect me if you want.
Drew: Well, let's take a slightly different take on mapping. What's the point of this, Chris? We've talked about this before. You sometimes have the view, or at least maybe I'm imagining it from decades old conversation. What we need is a map showing whether there's fiber, yes or no, and then if there's not fiber, let's figure out a plan to get something there.
Chris: Yeah. That's... It would be a better way of moving forward. But also, I'll just... I just got a note from Travis, because we saw that a certain company had started building fiber in a certain area, and he had asked me...
Drew: Who is Travis? Tell us who's Travis is.
Chris: Travis Carter, my frequent partner and frenemy.
Drew: On the Connect This webcast that you do?
Chris: On the Connect This webcast, but also, real life. Travis and I, we joke that I teach him kind of how government works, and he teaches me how ISPs really work from the inside. And Travis and I, I just, I love working with him. We disagree on plenty of things. But he's constantly of the mind of, "Show me. Let's test it," and that sort of thing.
Chris: But anyway, he was just making the point to me last night after the episode ended that not all fiber is the same. You can have fiber companies that are doing a poor job. Much like... So in St. Paul, cable... Comcast does a pretty good job in my neighborhood. I have high reliability, I have decent speeds, a lot of my neighbors probably aren't using it, which helps. But on other parts of St. Paul, it's bad.
Chris: In parts of Eastern North Carolina, for instance, and lots of other places where you've got Cable One, Suddenlink, some of these... These companies have been famous for just having networks that don't work significant percentages of the time. And so it's not enough to just focus on the technology. It's a good start, but some of the cable networks work better than others and there has to be some way of measuring that.
Chris: We have the whole SamKnows system, and I was pretty frustrated with that, but it would be better to have that and actually using that for reliability data, for testing jitter and other things that are becoming more important, as moving from 100 megabits to 500 megabits is less important than having a low-latency connection, than having a connection that has a very continuous high-quality experience. So I'm off...
Drew: And just so everyone knows, SamKnows is a British company that does tests under the Measuring Broadband America program of the Federal Communications Commission. It's basically a way to get kind of actual tests on boxes that are designated. So I sometimes liken normal speed tests to speed tests in the wild, whereas these Measuring Broadband America tests that SamKnows is doing and feeding back to the FCC are specific. And a lot of them... There was...
Drew: Just last weekend, there was the Telecommunication Policy Research Conference. I was there, it was a great session. There were like six or seven or eight papers on broadband labels or broadband speed tests, because this is such a hot and important topic. And I don't think we can let this go, Chris. I don't think that the FCC's, whatever, failures not...
Chris: But the reason that we need mapping is 'cause we don't trust local communities to know what they need. And there's both good and bad reasons for that. 'Cause you and I both can name communities where we would say, "I absolutely trust this community. The map looks like they have good data. There is... Every address is served by this company. That company claims to offer this level of service." And the map is not gonna capture what's going on there.
Chris: But there's actually probably, you and I would probably still agree, more communities where they just don't have that level of sophistication. But ultimately, you're talking to someone from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, mapping is always gonna be flawed, especially as long as we're not collecting pricing data attached to it. And so it's really a question of kinda what are we specifically trying to do, and is this good enough to get there? It's not gonna be great.
Chris: What we need is communities that take this seriously. If you go into a Public Works department and you ask them the difference between a blacktop road and a concrete road, and they can't tell you, something's gone horribly wrong. But local governments haven't yet developed that sophistication around broadband. I think they will over time.
Drew: Well, and this is kinda the way I was led to this, Chris, is I'm obviously the furthest thing from a socialist. [chuckle] We haven't had many one-on-one political talks, but I'm the opposite of that. And yet, the argument that I hear these astroturf groups make is so absurd, because here's the bottom line. The cities are the custodians of their rights of way. They need to be. They must be. We have a public good, it's called roads. You made the point, we're not gonna have competing networks of roads.
Drew: So because you have that underlying infrastructure that's a public or even just the right-of-way, that doesn't mean the city needs to own everything. And this is kinda where UTOPIA Fiber and Ammon, Utah and others... Ammon, Idaho, excuse me, come in. Which is that there's a thing called Open Access where there's different tiers. And one tier or one layer can own... Can be the ownership layer. The city can own it.
Drew: And Detroit is, as I understand it, kind of on this pathway, I'd love for you to add a little more, where the city would be the owner, but then someone else, another private entity would operate it, and then still other entities offer service. So let's talk a little bit about Open Access and maybe some of the appealing or also the drawbacks of Open Access as a broadband method?
Chris: Yes. Open Access, I think is terrific. As you know, and people that follow me will probably know, I tend to really support Open Access. Not to the exclusion of other models. I fundamentally believe that there are correct models for some places. And in some places, hoping for the best from an incumbent is possibly the best model if a local government has a history of corruption.
Chris: So there's all kinds of different models. Open Access is one that I desperately want to see continue to grow, because I love the internet, and I really... So let's just, for a second, go back. I was blessed in that my father went back to college when I was young, and so he got into computers at the right time in the '80s and '90s. I grew up with a computer in a way that most kids, especially kids in my circumstance, did not. And I happened to get on the internet in the early '90s.
Chris: I was on Prodigy in the late '80s or early '90s even. And I had a sense of this, and I could always do what I wanted to do. I had websites with dumb 15-year-old opinions. And permission-less innovation is something that I've always cherished, and when I look around, I think it's really great.
Chris: And I worry even that... I'll say that whether you're talking about a utility mindset, like Cedar Falls. Longmont, Colorado. Chattanooga. Brilliant networks that are terrific and absolutely willing to work with local entrepreneurs. But at the same time those entrepreneurs have to go there and kinda present their case to them and they're gonna get a fair hearing.
Chris: But the idea that you can go to Ammon, Idaho, and some other places in time, to be able to engage in using the software to find networking and trying to experiment, that's just so important, I think. We need to have millions, ideally tens of millions, of Americans in thriving areas that have open access, to kind of see what we can do with networks.
Chris: Maybe a lot of those ideas won't work out, but I think we don't wanna foreclose that path because we have too many networks being owned by people that are nervous about change and don't see a value in having this permission-less environment. So I see open access... It's not about lowering the price, it's a nice side effect. The idea that we can have innovation in different ways, I think is really important.
Drew: So how do you see this playing out with the BEAD funding? What changes could we see in the American telecommunications landscape because of BEAD? And what can communities, cities, do to be best positioned to take advantage of BEAD funds?
Chris: Nothing. [chuckle] Let's be clear, BEAD is going to on the order of 10 million US households. $42.5 billion is mostly gonna go to rural areas. Not just rural areas, but rural areas were AT&T and CenturyLink and Frontier already got billions of dollars to improve their networks there, and they kind of forgot to do it over the six or seven years they were supposed to do it. So we're putting more money into those areas.
Chris: But this this money is not going largely to Detroit. Detroit is using rescue plan funds, a different bucket of money, which is important and Congress really did a great job of doing that. The Department of the Treasury got those rules right to enable this. But Bead's mostly not going to cities where there's a tremendous need, both for low income and I think there's potential for the innovation where open access could be very interesting to see in larger cities. Not to say anything about West Valley, which I know is probably the largest municipal open access network.
Chris: So I feel like when it comes to BEAD, we have to remember the Biden administration keeps using this talking point, Internet for All, and the people there, they truly believe that they wanna get there. BEAD is not that vehicle. BEAD is about connecting the 10 million households that were screwed by the big telephone companies.
Drew: Alright. Well, that's a downer. But what will happen in the marketplace? Could open access get a new life from this or not? Or will there be new opportunities for rural co-ops? That's electric co-ops.
Chris: There are some. And there are some rural co-ops and rural applications that will be Open Access. I don't know that we'll have 100,000, 200,000 homes that are connected to Open Access because of BEAD. It could be and that would be a substantial growth of Open Access homes, but I think the answer is that cities need to prioritize this. Not in a way that you need to...
Chris: I was just talking to people from Baltimore last night in the Digital Equity Learning Lab, which is an amazing program for helping educate people about what their communities could do around broadband. And the question was, what would it cost to build everywhere in Baltimore? What more than Baltimore is going to willing... More than able and willing to put into it. And so the question is, what can you do?
Chris: And I feel like this has been a candid conversation so I'll just keep saying things that I've said more quietly and I've been less public about. I'm deeply disappointed we didn't do more in Seattle in terms of the Community Broadband Movement. I felt like there was a push in Seattle to do city-wide municipal fiber, and I respect that that was what people that were leading that push in Seattle wanted to do.
Chris: I think there was a real opportunity there to have said, "Let's spend $10 or $30 million over the period of one to three years, and really have an interesting connection focused on the lowest income neighborhoods that have been left behind." I feel like that's the level of support you could have shaken loose from Seattle.
Chris: They chose not to do that, they chose to try to get on the order of many hundreds of millions of dollars for municipal broadband. I think that was unrealistic. But Open Access can grow... One of the things I love about Open Access is that you can grow it incrementally.
Drew: Right. I'm gonna shape one more point on this before we move to some others, which is this being BEAD and BEAD funding for areas that might be more "urban, suburban fringe". Alan Davidson, in the interview that we did together in Keystone, Colorado. He emphasized how important it is to NTIA that there is 100 by 20 access and that it's affordable. Isn't there some way to show... Again, even if the FCC is not gonna pay attention, the states may pay attention.
Drew: The states may have the ability, the state broadband offices to say, "Well, we want some of this money to go to this area, like in this part of Denver or this part of Washington, that has really bad results in our actual speed results." Do you see any hope for that? Or what is the best way to get that result?
Chris: I think it varies state by state. For instance, I think Maryland, Maryland's governor is a totally reasonable person. I think we'll all agree that there are some unreasonable people out there running different states. And at the same time that state is not gonna prioritize Baltimore. Even though there's really important things that could be done, and the federal government has put enough money in. That the state could really make a big difference in Baltimore or Annapolis, some of the places, but there's political dynamics in all of these places.
Chris: In my own Minnesota, we just see a freaking $9 billion surplus, and broadband's super important, except maybe we won't spend very much of that on that, we would rather argue about it and wait for the election to pass. This is the reality of what happens. And so when it comes to this issue, what I see happening is...
Chris: A potential future is, there's this talk about how we're putting all this money into broadband on the order of $60, 70 billion into broadband infrastructure when you total up the CPF and all the different stuff. And there's a sense of, "We're really gonna fix broadband, we're putting all this money into it."
Chris: And yes, for people that are living in exurbs and in the more rural areas, I think they're gonna see dramatic differences. But I think most voters in the next presidential administration are gonna be like, "How come my prices have gone up twice? I don't see any new providers really being available here." And the question is what happens then?
Chris: Is it less of an issue because we don't have dramatic stories about rural families not having access? We're still gonna have the kids at the Taco Bell, that's gonna keep happening, because we haven't really dealt with that in any kind of systematic way. So there might be in different areas, political pressure to actually try to resolve that.
Chris: And as long as we have people like Josh Edmonds who are stepping up and building trust in the community, and then in making smart investments to say, "We're gonna try and do this in a way that really doesn't just do the bare minimum, but actually provides unique benefits to populations." And in this case, an open access fiber network in Hope Village in Detroit, that's gonna be a big difference.
Drew: So there's a question from Dan Growte, which I think is a really good one. "Many incumbents have seen the error of their ways in the past couple of years and are committed for real," says Dan, "to building fiber to the home. This time it is more than just talk, they know that their continued existence depends on it, they have re-capitalized by committing to investors, they will build out fiber to the home and get good ROI. Why should communities not consider these kind of partnerships with an incumbent?" is Dan's question.
Chris: Well, not only are cities considering them, cities are giving them tremendous amounts of money. There's a... Telecompetitor I think had an article about Windstream and Frontier have captured $200 million for upgrades. These are companies that recently came out of bankruptcy. Frontier's been fined by just about every state it's operated in, it's been sued, it's just... As a company, I can't imagine one that you'd trust less and yet they still keep racking in all of this money from state, federal and local partners, public entities that give them the money.
Chris: So it's on the table, and I wouldn't say that it should be off the table, but if I'm in a community, it would be a very hard decision to say, "Yes, let's use our hard-earned tax payer dollars to give more money to AT&T," or even to Comcast, a company that I'm on the record as saying, operates pretty well, particularly in comparison to its rivals in the cable industry.
Chris: But they're doing a $10 billion stock buyback. You're telling me that we should be giving taxpayer dollars that are scarce to companies that's basically telling their shareholders they don't have any productive use of investments, so they're just gonna buy shares back with their billions of dollars in profit?
Chris: I think that's a sign of how broken the system is. AT&T, Frontier, these companies have a history of failing to meet community needs. And people get so caught up in the fiber and saying, "Yeah, what we need is fiber." Well, I don't know, if I had a choice in North Carolina between open broadband, fixed wireless and fiber from AT&T, I'd be really checking it out. And I think AT&T fiber gets a pretty good... A pretty good marketplace review.
Chris: But this is a company that will sell your data at the first opportunity, it's a company that's gonna raise your bill every chance it gets. You know, we're in a unique place right now where Wall Street is pouring money in private equity into fiber networks, and we're gonna... It's gonna look like there's a lot of competition and we're gonna look like AT&T and these companies are gonna be more competitive and have to deal in a more competitive environment.
Chris: But it's a mirage. It's all gonna get sorted back into monopolies, so there's gonna be a year or two where we see massive consolidation again, and it's all gonna disappear unless there's some sort of local stake in it.
Drew: Alright. So let's get at that. What's the way to avoid that bad result you've just laid out? What's the local engagement?
Chris: Having... So it's not just owning it, that is a preferable approach, and you don't necessarily have to operate it, but there's other situations where... Like in places or... There's in New Hampshire and Maine, Consolidated, an incumbent that was hated, is now a trusted partner among some of these communities. And the communities own the network as a... And Consolidated basically makes the debt payments on it.
Chris: So there are a variety of approaches. A different one would be a community that has a right of first refusal, so... Yeah, no worries. I get distracted too. A community that has a right of first refusal in terms of...
Drew: I just wanted some light back on. [chuckle]
Chris: Yeah. In terms of a change of ownership. So communities might say, "I wanna partner. I don't even wanna own it, I want this partner to own it," and two years later that partner gets bought by someone. Well, do you have... Are you having a seat at the table for that discussion? You can set up a contract that does. UC2B the Urbana-Champaign folks that you know...
Drew: No, I was about to ask for specific examples and you're giving one. UC2B, what did they do in this contract, so to speak?
Chris: They had a right of first refusal, I believe, to get the accent, to get the... To buy the network, if it was gonna be sold.
Drew: Network if it's being sold or something like that.
Chris: Yeah, and even in that case, they were like, "We don't wanna buy it," but they still had to sit at the table because they had a stake. And so there's contractual things like that that can be done. If you're contracting with someone, like this has come up with certain wireless providers, who I fear are overstating what the technology can do, and wireless technology does keep getting better. We kind of skipped over the fiber wireless talk.
Drew: Yeah, no, we'll come back to that too. We just...
Chris: So if you're working with a company that you feel like you may not have the faith that... They don't have a track record like CTC in Minnesota does, and CTC has worked with tons of communities, it's a co-op, they're trusted, right? But you have someone you think, "These people might do a good job."
Chris: You wanna have a performance-based contract where it says, "Alright, you're agreeing then in year two, you will be passing this number of homes with this level of speed, and if you are not doing that, then you will either forfeit the money or you won't get the money, or there's some penalty," right? You wanna make sure this is specific, so... Hey, windows were delivered. I just got the text. I don't have to worry about it.
Drew: Hey, windows arriving. Well, my last question is actually from Ben Cohen, "Short of launching their own municipal broadband efforts, what are some of the most effective actions communities can take?" And you kind of answered this in terms of infrastructure, but he then asks, "To bridge the digital divide in their area? Which programs have you observed the greatest impact for, again, not just infrastructure, but the application, the use, the digital equity?" What are some of your thoughts on that, Chris?
Chris: So I'll say that I think this is tremendously important, and I have not put as much time into it because I think the National Digital Inclusion Alliance does a really great job, and if they weren't there, I feel like we would have made it a bigger priority. So I don't have as many examples out of the gate, but what we see is the need to build trust. So there are people...
Chris: Let's talk about the lower 10% of income folks who may not even have an income at that level, but the people who are the most hard up, largely in cities, but this happens in rural areas too, there are places that they go and they trust. It might be a food shelf, it might be social services place, it might be a faith group.
Chris: Those are the entities that need to be involved in this. They need to be involved in having the digital trainings and doing device distribution and things like that. We need to engage them. Not just so they could do an introduction, but so that they can make this a part of the services. We need to basically have trust in order to get this accomplished.
Chris: And this isn't a thing where, "Alright, we got the devices out and we did two years of trainings. We're done." There needs to be groups that are continuing to work on this, not because of the problem's gonna get worse every year, it's gonna get easier 'cause as people grow up into digital natives and whatnot, but it's still an ongoing issue.
Chris: So we need communities to take it seriously, to form a group or to have existing groups that take this on as a part of their mission and do it. And not saying, "Alright, AARP is gonna handle it." AARP is doing a tremendous job. [chuckle] We work with them regularly. They have courses, the Senior Planet. I'm missing... I didn't prepare for that, so.
Chris: They have a variety of courses. They're terrific, but they need to be plugged into local groups that are reaching a different part of the community. There's people out there who are doing this. This is more about building connections now than it is trying to figure out a new curriculum.
Drew: So we've got a little bit more than 10 minutes. I wanna make sure to get three areas, and we could handle 'em in any order you want. I wanna talk about the Tribal Broadband Bootcamp that you've been doing, I wanna talk about wireless and fiber. We chatted around this, but let's kind of come back to this.
Drew: And we got a really great question from Anoop Nagendra. I hope I have that name right. He's with Connectivity Capital, and he says, "Thank you for your time," and he wants to focus on emerging markets. "We haven't seen municipal broadband really take off in Africa or Asia, and community networks are struggling to scale beyond around 100 households. How do you envision broadband infrastructure gets built for the rest of the world?" So let's tackle those three, tribal, wireless fiber, and global. Global broadband.
Chris: Let's do global first, 'cause I have the less knowledge about this. There's groups like a APC and others that work in Africa and around the world on this issue. South Africa has community networks that are somewhat different. Brazil has some community networks. But he's right, the United States and Sweden have the vast majority of Municipal networks, and in part it's a legal structure.
Chris: Not every country, and in fact I think most countries don't have the level of autonomy that states and cities do from the federal government, and also, it may not make sense in places that are smaller and are more homogenous than the United States are. So I feel like what is needed is locally rooted companies, and we need to make sure that the political and legal systems do not disadvantage local community networks. And so what that means is networks that are operating in the scale of 50-100,000 users probably.
Chris: As you get to a million users, it's much harder to actually care about the communities you're serving, I think. So scale is a major issue, and I think we should be prioritizing overlapping networks that are small enough that they're responsive to local needs. Which is a little bit of a kumbaya. I don't know how you do that in different places, so.
Drew: Alright. Well, so tell us about training. You mentioned how ILSR has reinvented itself several times. Would you consider the training you've been doing and the Tribal Broadband Bootcamp part of that? Tell us a little bit about how that came to be?
Chris: Sure, and I should say this is from the Oregon Tribal Broadband Bootcamp. The University of Oregon hosted a wonderful event. We had a lot of people that came out. These have been three-day events, three hard day events. We did the first one, we called it the Tribal Wireless Bootcamp, in 2021. And the focus is bringing people on from tribal lands who are interested in building their own networks.
Chris: And in three days, we can't give people a certification. Even if I was 10 times better at what we do, and the instructors that we have, there's so much you can do. So it's focused on helping people become less intimidated, demystifying the technology. And so, we called it Tribal Broadband Bootcamp now because although we started with a focus on 2.5 gigahertz, because of all the hard work that was done to make sure those licenses were available to many in Indian country.
Chris: And some people were really focused on that. And so in a subsequent one, we had people that had fiber expertise come in and we did fusion splicing, and talked a lot about how one goes about it, where you get more information, what are the key things you have to worry about.
Chris: A number of people were like, "I thought fiber was super difficult and would be beyond our skill set, but I'm learning that with the right teachers and the right sort of like starting in the right direction, we can do it." And so some of the people that we work with are now building fiber optic networks and usually hybrid fiber optic and wireless networks. So, our goal is to basically say, "This stuff is not impossible to learn."
Chris: You need to know the right people, people like Travis, who I have yet to get to one of these events, but has done some virtual presentations to say, "Yeah, it can be hard, and it can be easy once you get the hang of it, but if you take it seriously, you can learn it." And that's what we are focused on.
Chris: And that's both for people who are doing technical work, people who are doing administrative work, but basically saying, "Here's a bunch of experts," we're gonna be very humble, and "humble" is not the right word, but it's an open environment where anyone can ask any question.
Chris: Anyone that comes in and says, "I know how to do everything right and everyone else is a fool," they get kicked out. And that's where it's nice that Matt Rantanen who I work closely with this, for people who don't know him, just do a Google image search on Matt Rantanen and you'll see that it's very easy for us to set the cultural tone of like, "We're not gonna take any crap from people."
Chris: We've had the most amazing groups of people come together and everyone has something to contribute, everyone learns something, and it's just been a really magical experience and I feel totally, again, blessed by funders that have stepped up. Schmidt Futures, Google actually, other funders that have stepped up, philanthropy, even some private companies who have given money to support one thing, and then that money got redirected to us that it might have been surprise that I was involved in something they funded.
Chris: It's one of those things that even people who disagree with me and may not like me, they might say, "You know what, this Tribal Broadband Bootcamp thing, it's a piece of the solution and we wanna help support it," so that's been terrific.
Drew: Well, and that's a great pivot to the wireless versus fiber question. Look, my motto, my personal motto is "better broadband, better lives". You've heard that a million times, Chris. And to me, that's really just a way of saying, yes, we need better higher capacity internet, but we also need it to be useful for our people, and there are some situations where you need wireless.
Drew: Talk about this fiber versus wireless, and what's the future of this, in my opinion, very vibrant industry of wireless internet service providers, if just they could get out of their own way and decide they're gonna build fiber in those places that it makes sense to do so?
Chris: Yeah, one of the things I love about wireless is that you can do it at small scale, and I think that people that wanna do that should be able to do it. I don't wanna dismiss those efforts, I think that there's certain people who, they don't wanna run a 100-person operation, and they think they can do a good job with that technology, they can do that. It's hard to run a fiber network to 50 people, although there's a couple of examples.
Chris: So wireless is important for a variety of reasons, and one is, and I feel like this is one of the things people never listen to me on, but we need overlapping networks. We don't need one network to rule them all, we need overlapping networks for a variety of reasons, from redundancy, for political reasons to...
Chris: There's all kinds of different reasons that we wanna have overlapping networks rather than some sort of planning and engineering genius of like, "We're just gonna have one fiber network and it's gonna do everything for everyone." I don't like that idea.
Chris: The thing about wireless is that when the pandemic hit, if we had said, "You know what we need to do? We need to build fiber as rapidly as possible." Now Star, Texas, which is rolling out to 70,000 people, fiber to the home in 18 months has kind of blown my mind, but that doesn't happen in very many places, there are special circumstances there.
Chris: If we'd said we're gonna do fiber to a bunch of places when the pandemic hit, there'd be a bunch of people still waiting for fiber, it takes time to deploy. Whereas, we're able to deploy wireless networks. We weren't able to deploy wireless connectivity inside the home in many cases, but lots of communities came together, like Providence built a pretty cool network that rapidly could deliver health-related services to people in different areas of the most hard-hit part of Providence in Rhode Island. And so wireless can do that.
Chris: There are places where wireless may be less costly than rural, although I keep hearing these reductive analogies that I don't think are accurate. I'm curious to see what we can do in the longer term with delivering high quality speeds. I'm sorry, not high quality speeds, I wanted to say not speeds. High quality performance that involves good speeds, but also reliability 24 hours a day out into rural areas. I'm not convinced that we have a lot of evidence that you can do that.
Chris: Yes, you can do that to two homes, can you do that to every home in the area, is the big question. And so I don't wanna foreclose that. I would say seven or eight years ago, I was pretty smart and I knew that wireless was not gonna be able to do a lot of this stuff. But we're constantly re-evaluating. It's a running joke that we're going through.
Chris: Tarana is up on Travis's Tower in a part of Minneapolis, or the suburb of Minneapolis, and I'd taken that evidence seriously from what I hear from people about Tarana. At the same time, it's not gonna solve all the problems. So fiber optics brings the opportunity to have that low recurring cost, and so this is something we talk about with the tribes particularly, where don't just look at what can get the job done fastest, don't look at what's the cheapest to build.
Chris: But particularly for tribes where you have a very, a very challenged community in terms of resources, what is gonna be sustainable over the long term? And a wireless network may turn out to have too high operating costs to work over five or 10 or 15 years. On the other hand, wireless could be great to say, "We're gonna build wireless today, we're gonna get people a connection, and over the next four years, we're gonna see what kind of models we can develop to build fiber out to some of those folks, and we're gonna do the next generation of wireless for those we can't reach." Fine, that's great. Let's do it that way.
Drew: Yeah. Well, our hour has sped by. Before we go though, I've got one final question for you, and it involves you tilting your camera or your view upwards here.
Drew: So these are some of Chris's photographs. Tell us a little bit about your photography business, your passion for photography, and how it relates to broadband, Chris?
Chris: The relationship to broadband is not very, very great. It's so bad, I'm so compartmentalized in my life that... I went to an event yesterday, my organization was hosting a different part of ILSR, and I didn't even think to bring my camera, and so I called my wife and asked her to bring it to me so I could take some photos of it, because in my mind, like I'm doing one job or the other job.
Chris: Before I went to grad school, I started a sports photography company. I worked for colleges and universities as well as youth sports teams mostly, the occasional other clients. I haven't done a wedding in years, and I hope I can keep that up. And I just love sports photography. I like getting out there, and I have these long relationships with clients. I've shot National Championships, I've shot some professional NFL games and other professional games.
Chris: That's not my favorite thing to do. I prefer, I really love division three sports. I love the Gophers, so I was actually up this morning shooting cross-country for that.
Drew: What's your favorite sport to take pictures of, Chris?
Chris: Time of the year. So soccer is my favorite, hands down, but there's nothing as much fun on an April day on a blue sky, shooting baseball. Women's volleyball, the sort of 6v6 volleyball. Yeah, I shot the National Championship for that for Stanford, and that may have been the best sporting experience of my life. It's just it's an amazing environment where you have the crowds coming out.
Chris: Women's softball has the best cheers and just enthusiasm from the dugouts. If you have a game that's going to extra innings, it's just, your heart's beating. It's thrilling. I love men's college basketball, particularly. I like the women's game too, but the men's game, getting above the rim and just trying to get those photos, it's terrific.
Chris: I'm not a Minnesota native. I've been here long enough, I'm figuring out hockey, but like everyone else is a better hockey photographer than I am, so I just... I'm gonna shoot a regatta for the first time next weekend, so wish me luck.
Drew: Cool. Well, again, our time has sped by. We will have our next Ask Me Anything two weeks from now with Deborah Simpier, who I know you know, Chris.
Drew: Of Alitha...
Drew: Althea. Boy, I'm flubbing up my names today. But keep watching and make sure to join the broadband.money community. It's free. Go to discuss.broadband.money and you can find a wealth of resources, including Ask Me Anything such as the one we've just concluded, but much, much more that will help you in putting together your application for the IIJA programs. On behalf of Chris Mitchell, I'm Drew Clark with Broadband Breakfast. We'll see you next time.