Bridging Bytes: Empowering Communities Through Local Broadband Growth - Episode 586 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

In this latest episode of the podcast, Christopher is joined once again by Sean Gonsalves to delve into the expanding landscape of municipal broadband networks in the U.S. They emphasize the noteworthy surge in municipal networks, citing the establishment of 47 new networks since 2021, which has brought the total to over 400!

This discussion explores the various models and approaches taken by these networks while touching on the challenges faced by these municipal networks, such as opposition from large ISPs and the importance of community support and engagement.

Additionally, Chris and Sean emphasize the significance of data from schools and organizations in comprehending the current state of broadband access and advancing digital equity.

This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

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

Listen to other episodes or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Christopher Mitchell (00:07):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, red Eye edition. Let's see how Chris does after he doesn't sleep very much. Sean, welcome back.

Sean Gonsalves (00:23):
Thank you. Thank you. Yes. I'm not on the red eye right now.

Christopher Mitchell (00:26):
No, you're well rested and I can't see it, but I'm assuming there's a bushy [00:00:30] tail somewhere behind you. Sean Gonsalves, the associate Director for communications for the Community Broadband Networks Initiative back again, regular guest probably at this point. I mean second only to Lisa, probably.

Sean Gonsalves (00:48):
I'm starting to rack up the appearances.

Christopher Mitchell (00:50):
Yeah, so we are going to talk some about a press release that you put out and a very brief report updating people on how many municipal [00:01:00] networks there are across the United States, which is pretty cool. And then we're going to talk about some of the things that I picked up in California with the California Alliance for Digital Equity, as well as the Digital Equity Coalition of Los Angeles Digital Equity LA Della had a great two days out there talking with people, getting a sense of what they're doing. And anyway, I had some thoughts and we'll talk about that stuff today.

Sean Gonsalves (01:30):
[00:01:30] Sounds good.

Christopher Mitchell (01:31):
Maybe anything else that pops into our heads

Sean Gonsalves (01:34):
That's dangerous. Okay.

Christopher Mitchell (01:35):
Alright. So Sean, what's going on with the municipal networks in the United States? Has it barely increased?

Sean Gonsalves (01:43):
I spent some time thinking about the proper adjective to describe it and we say skyrocket, and I think that's a pretty appropriate term because we're talking about since 2021, which was the last time we did a tally, we've done a new one [00:02:00] and now we have a database in place to better track these things. And the number is 47. 47 new municipal networks. And we should also say that with a couple of caveats, just to be clear. One is that there is no requirement that any ISP report to us when they come online.

Christopher Mitchell (02:21):
Yeah, a few of them were surprises to us, nor

Sean Gonsalves (02:23):
Is there a simple way to just simply call up the FCC, say and say, Hey, tell us all the new munis who have registered [00:02:30] with you or what have you. So that number 47, there's likely probably a few more that may have slipped through the cracks, but when you jump from 400 to 47 in a two three year span, I think that's a pretty significant jump. So that's something that should be noted. And then when we say 47 new municipal networks, we're talking about a variety of full retail fiber to the home citywide municipal networks in some [00:03:00] cases talking about institutional networks, in some cases we're talking about conduit only networks in some cases, which as we highlighted, have led to some things that we'd like to see. So those municipal, new municipal broadband networks include a variety of models, so to speak, within the municipal broadband category.

Christopher Mitchell (03:22):
And we should give some credit internally. How do we know that there are 47? Who does that work?

Sean Gonsalves (03:28):
Oh, man. Yeah. Ry [00:03:30] has been leading this process for quite some time, and we should pause and give him the proper recognition because it involved going through massive numbers of spreadsheets and building a database and putting that information in there and building the database and all kinds of things that go into it. And so Ry is the one who's got his finger closest to the pulse on the numbers for [00:04:00] sure.

Christopher Mitchell (04:00):
Right. Ry, the research team probably helped out to some extent, but tracking those 47 networks over the last two years probably took five years off of R'S Life

Sean Gonsalves (04:13):
Easily. I haven't noticed any gray hairs popping out, but maybe he's hiding it.

Christopher Mitchell (04:18):
But we have a much better system now for keeping track of this stuff and even trying to go back and reconstruct some of the different records based on when network started offering service and things like that. So it's exciting. [00:04:30] So anyway, so what's the deal? 47, who caress? Why is this a big deal? Sean, you said it's a big deal. We had about 402 years ago by our count, three years ago, 20 21, 3

Sean Gonsalves (04:44):
Years ago,

Christopher Mitchell (04:44):
Two and a half years ago, technically two and

Sean Gonsalves (04:46):
A half years ago. Really

Christopher Mitchell (04:48):
That count was done. So who caress? Who cares, man?

Sean Gonsalves (04:52):
Oh man. Right, exactly. Well, besides the people that live in those communities, particularly communities [00:05:00] like Waterloo, they certainly care. But I think overall it speaks to the growing awareness that communities really can now are starting to really see that they can take their digital futures into their own hands. And I think it represents a flourishing of an alternative model after decades of relying on essentially private monopolies to solve the digital divide, to provide ubiquitous access. And many [00:05:30] communities are learning that if that's something that they want, they're going to have to do it themselves.

Christopher Mitchell (05:34):
And I would add to that just that I feel like these networks are coming post pandemic. Some of them were started during or prior to the pandemic, and it's a time when cable networks are getting better, a lot better. The cable networks were pretty awful in a lot of ways back 10 years ago for a variety of reasons, they were better than alternatives, but they still, fiber networks at that point were so much better. And I do think as fiber networks keep getting better, [00:06:00] the cable networks are closing the gap. We've talked about elsewhere. Comcast is doing the mid split, which if you're not technical, it's just Comcast can offer faster upload speeds than they used to. That was one of the big things Cable networks couldn't do. The cable networks keep getting more expensive, and that's a big issue. But in terms of quality, I feel like if you listen to industry, they'd be like, there's no reason for municipal broadband anymore. We got everyone covered. And so what's the deal? And a lot of these places are places where they got cable networks because 85% [00:06:30] of the US population has access to cable. Most of those places it's pretty good cable comparatively. And so it's pretty remarkable that we see this growth continuing, perhaps accelerating modestly in a time when the technology from the private sector has been improving.

Sean Gonsalves (06:49):
As we talk about actually pretty frequently, that it really isn't fundamentally about the technology, it's about community input. It's about specific connectivity needs, [00:07:00] it's about different incentives. It's all of these things. It's about economic development and so many more things that communities are seeing this infrastructure tied to. And frankly, there's quite a few folks who just want choice. They want competition. They want to keep their dollars in their own communities. There's a variety of factors I think, that lead to communities wanting to pursue this particular model, even in the face of, [00:07:30] as we've seen in some cities, even in the face of competition from existing cable systems or telecom companies that are offering some form of service, maybe not citywide or community-wide, but so there's more to it than just simply fiber's better than cable.

Christopher Mitchell (07:50):
And so one of the things that I look at when I see this list, and we'll go through it, just name a few of these cities just to give people a slight taste of what some of them are. [00:08:00] But one of the things I see is communities that are using rescue plan funds for this. And that was very helpful.

Sean Gonsalves (08:07):
Well, and it's something that I didn't harp on early enough in and around Massachusetts where I live, because I think Massachusetts in many ways was a state where communities and maybe even the state sort of belatedly realized that rescue plan funds that they're much more flexible. If

Christopher Mitchell (08:24):
Only someone had just said that over and over

Sean Gonsalves (08:26):
And over again

Christopher Mitchell (08:27):

Sean Gonsalves (08:28):
No, because really, I think that [00:08:30] there were, what state was it?

Christopher Mitchell (08:32):
Look up Cassandra people. Look up Cassandra and Greek mythology.

Sean Gonsalves (08:35):
That's right. I think it was the state of Wisconsin, and I don't want to say the wrong state if it was either Wisconsin or Montana, but we'll

Christopher Mitchell (08:42):
Pick on Wisconsin.

Sean Gonsalves (08:44):
But one of those states actually said, you know what? No, we're not going to fund our broadband program with any rescue plan dollars or any state funds. We're going to wait for bead. I think a number of states probably had that thought in the back of their mind. And [00:09:00] granted, I mean, states and communities have a lot of needs, competing needs, and so can't begrudge Folks are saying We'd rather spend our rescue plan dollars in other directions. But certainly a lot of communities where these networks were built used rescue plan dollars to get things started and didn't wait on bead. And I think that's actually significant.

Christopher Mitchell (09:20):
I was just in Gary, Indiana, and they have a plan for a public-private partnership, which is moving forward with rescue plans. Baltimore and Detroit had set those aside. [00:09:30] These are cities that have a lot of need and a lot of fierce competition for scarce dollars that are coming in for an opportunity like this. And so they're using it in that way. And I just wanted to point out that they're able to do that because of a coalition that made sure the rules allowed for that because, so the way it worked is Congress appropriated a bunch of money and then the Biden administration writes the rules and the [00:10:00] executive agencies, and it just so happened that for the rescue plan dollars touching broadband, it went through the treasury department. Treasury Department didn't know anything about broadband. Why would they? And they heard from a bunch of lobbyists and from the cable companies and they were like, you know what?

Rescue plant dollars should only go to places that don't have an existing connection. And it is not an unreasonable thing for someone who doesn't understand this space at all, to say, well, we should prioritize [00:10:30] areas where people don't have a good connection. They didn't realize that there's a ton of places where people have a connection, but they can't use it for a variety of reasons. Affordability being a major one. And so I was involved, ISR helped out Angelina at National League of Cities ary. She really, I think, took that on and mayor stepped up from around the United States to meet with the White House and say, if you do this this way, it's going to be terrible for all of the [00:11:00] cities that need this. Help your cities like Detroit, Gary, like Baltimore. And so we need to make sure we have flexibility to use this money in ways in neighborhoods that have major affordability issues where it looks like on the federal map, everyone's got a high quality connection from cable, but in reality, in some cases, those networks are very unreliable. There's issues with 'em because if you're a major corporation maximizing profits, you're not investing your [00:11:30] best gear in Gary, Indiana. I just saw that. I was just down there.

Sean Gonsalves (11:33):
I mean, right, exactly. And there's a certain economic rationale of that. I know. But you talk about Detroit obviously. I mean a six week Internet outage in Hope Village neighborhood, those rescue plan funds. And I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, I think one of the things that makes the rescue plan dollars much more flexible as well, is that around the rules is that things like affordability and reliability could be taken into account when it [00:12:00] comes to bead. The only thing that matters is advertise speeds.

Christopher Mitchell (12:03):
Yeah, I want to point that out because anyone who listens to me, here's me complaining constantly about the Biden FCC because they're not doing anything important. The last two weeks in particular have really heightened for me the way in which the Biden FCC has done nothing. And in part because the top goal of the person running the Biden FCC was to make sure that Gigi so was not on it, as best I could tell. That was her top priority, and she succeeded way to go. [00:12:30] So they haven't done anything but the Treasury Department, the White House, they really listened. They got it right. They nailed it. And there's other agencies who are getting it right. And I'm always worried that when I'm sitting here talking about how bad the FCC is, then I'm feeding people cynicism that government can't work when what's important is that I think local government often does a pretty good job, particularly when people are really engaged. And so I want to just point out that stuff is getting done. We're getting infrastructure. We went through four years of the running joke was [00:13:00] Infrastructure week is next week or last week or whatever, and nothing ever got done. And it feeds cynicism, but some of the folks in the Biden administration have gotten stuff done. They should get credit because hundreds of communities are making important investments because of that. Anyway, I don't want to spend too much time in the past.

So anyway, some of the networks we've seen popping up, we got Duluth, Minnesota is one up here in which they're focused on the lowest income neighborhood in the city, and they started [00:13:30] building that out. Could be a larger thing. We'll see, I think they had a mayor change that was a bit unexpected. So you never really know how that's going to go. Their sister, city Superior, the mayor there is one of the ones that stepped up in that campaign to make sure the White House allowed that because they weren't going to be able to invest in their downtown area. They were going to have to invest in the more rural rich areas where there was no service. And they were like, but our priority is the low income areas. So superiors on this list of recent ones, one that popped up was, I don't even know. [00:14:00] This is, I may not be the only one I mispronounced, but I'm going to call it El Reno in Oklahoma. That's one of the ones where Ride just got smacked across the face with it, never saw it coming. And it was like, oh, what's happening here? They built a network. You got a few in Tennessee, that's pretty cool. You got Lexington, got Cleveland moving forward. You mentioned West Des Moines. Any other ones that pop up for you?

Sean Gonsalves (14:22):
Waterloo Fiber. Well, Waterloo Fiber is interesting because

Christopher Mitchell (14:27):

Sean Gonsalves (14:28):
In Iowa, exactly, [00:14:30] the mayor, Quentin Hart has really been out front in pushing this in his administration. But this is something that was decades in the making in terms of the planning and so forth. And so they're now building out to a city of 67,000. They just started the pilot. Well, basically a test pilot with their first few subscribers. And then in February is when they plan to go full on commercial with some great offerings in terms of price. I mean, look, you get a hundred megabit symmetrical connection for 30 bucks a [00:15:00] month. So even if the ACP goes away, which it looks like it will, and we haven't dug into the particular finances, but they've got a $30 a month plan, which is relatively affordable. Now, it doesn't make up for the loss of the ACP, but certainly it's

Christopher Mitchell (15:16):
Not a hundred dollars. That's what Doug Dawson says. Comcast and Charter are charging when you actually get past all the fees and everything.

Sean Gonsalves (15:24):
And also, of course, one of the networks I highlighted in our press release was Central Vermont Communication [00:15:30] Union District, which is one of 10. But all of the communication union districts in Vermont are doing a lot with rescue plan dollars. And in fact, a good portion of the new municipal broadband networks are among those towns that are now being covered because of all of the work that's going on in Vermont.

Christopher Mitchell (15:48):
But we didn't count every individual town that would put us well over a hundred. Yeah,

Sean Gonsalves (15:52):
Yeah, exactly. Because we're talking in these communicate just in the Central Vermont Communication Union. I think there's something like 18 or 19 [00:16:00] towns in there Service. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (16:01):
Northeast Kingdom is like 50 some. I think I could be misremembering. There's a lot. But then we also got these towns in New York, the state. Yep.

Sean Gonsalves (16:10):
Sherburne Diane. Yeah, Dryden Pit Carn. What's school about? Sherburne. Which is actually interesting to me because it wasn't until I started looking at this more carefully. I mean, I knew about sherburne, but one thing that I guess I had overlooked is the fact that this being an open access network, and this is such a small community, and somehow they have two ISPs providing [00:16:30] service, and both of them have

Christopher Mitchell (16:33):
A, I think both of those are the network out of AM admin. Yes. Yeah. Entry point systems. And I think both those ISPs are kind of like they go where entry point goes to make sure that they have an initial offering. And so one of those fiber comm I believe I saw was on there. And yeah, they're popping up. I met those folks in Idaho when one of my trips out there, and they're excited about doing [00:17:00] this work. They're actually a wisp that jumped onto open access fiber as well, because they were like, well, this is kind of a no-brainer to expand our number of customers and things like that. And the margin might be low, but it's a good business

Sean Gonsalves (17:13):
From a subscriber standpoint of view. I mean, you want to talk about affordability, especially in this as we're staring down the barrel of the demise of the ACP, both of them are offering a hundred megabit symmetrical connection for 10 bucks a month.

Christopher Mitchell (17:28):
Well, although I think that then comes [00:17:30] with perhaps some additional costs that depend on whether you pay off the connection upfront or not. And so anyway, it gets a little bit complicated, but it is a wonderful departure from your annual price increases from, because I think that $10 a month, that has not gone up in 10 years, that's been stable. So we got to move on to other topic areas. But I did want to just note on the Waterloo, you were on a flow, so I didn't want to interrupt you, but people who aren't [00:18:00] aware, Waterloo is the sister city to Cedar Falls, Iowa. And if you didn't know Cedar Falls failed, they failed in the late nineties. They failed in the early two thousands. If you read the right press releases, they failed all over. I'll bet. I don't remember if they were a part of that joke study from Chris U at the University of Pennsylvania where they pretend it's an academic center, but it's one of those things where they were like, oh, this Cedar Falls is terrible, this, there's been lots of hit pieces on it.

They have like 80% market [00:18:30] share. I mean, people have had choices of private providers in that market since 1996, and the municipal network has crushed it. They're doing so well, and so they're right next to Waterloo. I certainly hope that Waterloo will have a similar level of success over time. But I just wanted to note out there that if you see these claims about failures, there are municipal networks that have failed, and we talk about them because it's important to know about them. But the universe of networks that have been accused of failing who have actually crushed it is actually larger.

Sean Gonsalves (19:00):
[00:19:00] That reminds me to say that on one of the social media platforms where I shared this, there was a comment from someone who I think was quite cynical and didn't really offer any real where he was getting these numbers from. But you're

Christopher Mitchell (19:13):
Not talking about the inimitable Brett Glass.

Sean Gonsalves (19:15):
No, no, no, no, no.

Christopher Mitchell (19:16):
You're talking about a real person. We're

Sean Gonsalves (19:18):
Talking about. Yeah, exactly. We're somebody totally different. He said something along the lines of, oh yeah, but only 10% of them pay for themselves, or I think he called it, and is it really worth spending [00:19:30] taxpayer dollars and they're not getting a 40% take rate? And it's like, I didn't respond and I haven't yet, and I don't know that I will, but I think

Christopher Mitchell (19:38):
Should, I'm a fan of responding to that number.

Sean Gonsalves (19:40):
Well, first of all, I don't know where he's getting the 10% number. That sounds

Christopher Mitchell (19:44):
Like it's a Chris U invention. I mean, this guy,

Sean Gonsalves (19:47):
He's just pulling this number out of his head, and then it just breezes over the top of my head. I mean, Faron gig, who I love and I talk about all the time, they've got a 68% take rate. I think the networks in the [00:20:00] front range region, those four municipal networks there in Fort Collins and Loveland and what have you, I'm pretty sure all of them are north of 40.

Christopher Mitchell (20:07):
No, no. Fort Collins is still, Fort Collins is so large that they're not at 40 yet. I don't think I'd have to reach check it. And I don't think Esta Park is either yet. They're also smaller and growing more modestly. But Longmont is way over. Longmont is like 56, I want to say. And Loveland, I don't know where they're, I think Loveland is across 40. Yeah, we were there and visited them, right?

Sean Gonsalves (20:30):
[00:20:30] Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (20:30):
So they're doing well. Yeah,

Sean Gonsalves (20:31):
Yeah, yeah. I think they're close to 50.

Christopher Mitchell (20:33):
I'll say the thing about Fort Collins is that they needed, I think a 22 or 25% take rate to break even or something which was way lower. Usually places need 33, 35, 40. And so Fort Collins has not had the same level of growth as Longmont, but they didn't need to. And so they're still very successful.

Sean Gonsalves (20:56):
I also kind of chafe at the idea that somehow [00:21:00] communities, what's wrong with a community if for example, a network is barely breaking even and the community decides what, it's important enough for us to provide a small subsidy because just other infrastructure in town, roads, what have you, it could very well be worth it. And so

Christopher Mitchell (21:19):
If you're going to take us there, we will spend a little more time on this. So the example I always use is Wyndham Minnesota. Wyndham Minnesota is a small town. They built their fiber network after [00:21:30] they had a referendum to build one. They didn't have anything in 2003. And at that time, the company was Quest, I think now it's CenturyLink or Lumen, depending on where you were when it all broke and whatever. Anyway, the telephone company was like, oh, no, no, we're totally going to invest in you vote no on the referendum. So people voted no in the referendum, you need to get 65% in Minnesota to have a telephone service. So they didn't get the 65%. And the next year Quest was like, ah, we're going to wait another year before we invest [00:22:00] how it is. So they had another referendum album of 2004, 2005, and they decided to move forward.

This is a town of 4,000 people. I mean, we're talking about I think 2000 1900 serviceable locations. It is hard to make that business model work. They built the network. They have a municipal electric system and everything. In 2009, 2010 period, somewhere around there, this major business fortune trucking that's still located just outside of town, [00:22:30] they're investing into IT system because trucking has suddenly become instant RFPs and bidding wars and stuff like that. And if you're out, you're losing money. And so they had this whole new system that was very expensive, and before they bought it, they checked with the telephone company to be like, Hey, y'all got us. Can you supply a level of connectivity we need? And they were like, yeah, yeah, yeah. And so they buy this system, they implement it, and they call for the hookup, and the company's like, ah, you know what?

We just looked at the map again and [00:23:00] can't hard man. It's hard out there. So they don't have it. So the general manager calls this municipal network, and now this company is not even in Wyndham, but a lot of people that work there are in Wyndham, and he's like, Hey, man, I'm at a hard spot here and I'm about to move a bunch of jobs to New Mexico if we can't figure something out. And so rather than breaking even when they were supposed to, Wyndham is like, well, all right, we're going to build the line out to you and we're going to connect you [00:23:30] and we're going to preserve all those jobs. Now, Wyndham took a loss and they actually covered some of that with some taxpayer dollars, as best I can tell. I looked into it. This stuff, you need a forensic degree to actually decipher budgets.

Unfortunately, whether we're talking about companies, public sector, whatever, budgets are complicated. It looks to me, and I don't think there's a lot of argument, they modestly subsidized the network, and when I looked at it, it looked like it was about $30,000 per job, maybe $10,000 per job. If you look at how much money the city put [00:24:00] into the network to make sure they could do this, if you're saving jobs with $10,000, any state that's creating jobs, like the programs they have, the tax incentives and stuff, you're talking about 50, $60,000 per job. It was a good investment. It was a good deal. You're talking about a different place like Fort Collins. Fort Collins has more than 200,000 people, I want to say certainly more than 160,000. I get confused, especially when I haven't slept. And so yeah, let's say that their take rate is 25% right now, you might look [00:24:30] at that and be like, wow, you're taking this major investment and only one out of four people are signing up.

The other three out of four people are getting a massive discount from Comcast and CenturyLink. You're talking about a stimulus into that town of millions of dollars per year because everyone's bills are lower because this city is offering this service everywhere, and over time, they're going to keep growing. That's what we see about municipal networks. And I've seen this, I've talked with Mike render about this, and Mike's been tracking this stuff for more than 20 years. And that's one of the things he says is You [00:25:00] don't see municipal fiber networks stop growing. People unsubscribe when they die or when they leave town. But other than that, people sign up and then they don't leave. That's what happens. So that's the trend that we see in the actual numbers as opposed to Mr. You with, oh, it's going to take Chattanooga 400 years to break even. And it's like, really? Because they did it last year and that wasn't 400 years. I dunno if it was like 400 gnat years or something.

[00:25:30] Some other measurement come on. So also I'll just say people, we don't get enough commentary feedback on the 10 people who listen to this show, but if you think I should do more shows sleep deprived, you could tell us that the Red eye edition, I'm going to have more opportunities in the next few weeks. Packed it in. There's a lot of cool stuff going on. So yeah, I mean, the comment that you're referring to, it drives me nuts [00:26:00] because it ignores the accounting that you have to do for a community network. It is not the same thing when an electric co-op builds a fiber network, and that results in people staying in town, businesses staying in town, maybe new people and businesses coming. They don't have to make money on that network. Now, with accounting rules and state laws, they often have to break even.

They can't take a loss on it. But if you just look at them from the way their business is structured, it would make sense for them to take a loss on broadband [00:26:30] Internet service over the network if it would result in higher electricity sales where the money is. Yeah, that's a great point. So these things are not this sort. You get some group here that hires some 25-year-old anti-government person who's never actually worked an honest day in their life. They don't really know how budgets work or anything like that, and they just come in and they're slinging around all this, ah, they're losing money. It's like, well, maybe if you don't know what you're talking about, it looks like that. But a lot [00:27:00] of the networks do well on the standard accounting. And then if you actually do the proper accounting from a community point of view, even more of the networks are doing well. You go from a majority to the vast majority of them are penciling out in terms of the actual benefits delivered. So that's your lecture this morning, Sean, join.

Sean Gonsalves (27:22):
I love it. I learn something every time.

Christopher Mitchell (27:25):
So a couple of things I did want to highlight, and I'm curious how you react to this, and I think you [00:27:30] knew about this. I've talked about this before about how, and I got this idea from Fresno actually originally, I think Philip Newfield, he is very involved with the Digital Equity coalition there. He's at the schools and they do speed tests on all their devices multiple times a day. And so kids that are home, they have a sense of every kid, their devices, what kind of connection, they're out at home, and one of the things they found was a shockingly high number of devices never made one connection outside of the school. And so they know [00:28:00] that information, that's good information to have. They have a sense of the speeds that people are actually getting because they do these multiple speed tests per day on the devices that they're sending home with kids. The Oakland schools, they actually ask all of the families when they're registering for school each year, what their home Internet access situation is really. So they're building a great data set. The schools could be so involved with creating good data sets. Now, [00:28:30] if I had to ask, how do you think the CPUC, the California Public Utilities Commission, what do you think they think about this data?

Sean Gonsalves (28:38):
That it's unusable?

Christopher Mitchell (28:39):
Yeah, because it doesn't come from the carriers. Sean, I don't know if you know that or

Sean Gonsalves (28:45):
Not. It's not credible or it's not. I don't know. Yeah,

Christopher Mitchell (28:49):
It's frustrating. Yeah. I mean, I'm not saying that this is the end of the story. I'm not saying, oh, you should only look at the Fresno school data and nothing else, but it's a part of the story, [00:29:00] especially when you're not talking about every now and then we randomly pop off a speed test. They, they've done it. And I had a podcast with Tom Reed from Ohio, in which we talked about how they have used speed test data in a rigorous way to take a flawed mechanism of understanding a connection to basically say, okay, across all these tests, we know some minimum things and we can work with that.

Sean Gonsalves (29:26):
Right? It's not some isolated, yeah, [00:29:30] that kind of bureaucratic inertia. I don't know what is at the root of it, but yeah, it doesn't surprise though it's disappointing.

Christopher Mitchell (29:39):
Other things I got is that Comcast and Charter are throwing their weight around. We're talking about some hard politics in terms of trying to cut some of these groups off at the knees, threatening others. One of the things I heard over and over again is just the role that Comcast [00:30:00] and charter executives and the companies play in philanthropy and how many organizations are really dependent on that money and will say what they need to say. If Comcast or Charter says, we need you to say this, we need you to be on our corner in this issue.

Sean Gonsalves (30:16):
From a Machiavellian standpoint of view, it's brilliant because it's you're supplying a real need to vulnerable communities or organizations that are trying to do really good work. And then you're also essentially [00:30:30] wink and nod, kind of capture them in terms of what's acceptable or not acceptable.

Christopher Mitchell (30:36):
And if the wink winking not doesn't work, you're having that conversation. It goes beyond subtlety.

Sean Gonsalves (30:42):
Yeah. Real quick.

Christopher Mitchell (30:44):
And we're not talking about, I mean, some of these orgs might be pulling down six figures from Comcast and Charter, and when it comes to Comcast, I'll say they fund some go organizations. It's not just about the quid pro quo when they need [00:31:00] it. It might be, but in other cases, we're talking about organizations that are shoestring budgets that are getting 15 or $20,000, and for them it is still crucial. And so we're not just talking about big money here. We're talking about little money too, and we're going to see a lot more of this in 2024. I think with those, I mean those companies, they are publicly traded for-profit organizations. They're not given philanthropy for the sake of giving philanthropy

Sean Gonsalves (31:26):
Because it's in the Bible or something. Yeah. It's unfortunate because [00:31:30] when you think about it, it is actually a pretty effective way to drive a wedge in the digital equity community.

Christopher Mitchell (31:35):
Yeah, no, especially from a racial point of view, because that's one of the things we will see is we'll see organizations that are doing important work organizations that are run black people by Hispanic folks by any number of other groups, and they're doing important work in their communities, and they're going to come out and say, the city should not have a hard digital discrimination statute. I don't think [00:32:00] they're going to say there should be no rule, but they're going to say, we think the rules should be adjusted in this way to make sure that our patrons aren't harmed. We should absolutely discourage district discrimination. But let's be clear, we never want to say that charter has done digital discrimination.

Sean Gonsalves (32:14):
Right, exactly. Exactly. How do we do it in a way that protects them and also relationships and what have you. Even though these companies operate in a certain way, they're certainly are filled with good people that work there as people.

Christopher Mitchell (32:29):
And there's also people who disagree [00:32:30] with us. I mean, let's be clear. It's not like I understand the politics of every one of those groups, but there are certain trends that you notice over time. Yes, yes. You're paying attention.

Sean Gonsalves (32:42):
Yes. So we're going to have a story about this soon. So I don't know the details, but I know that Los Angeles was working on a ordinance,

Christopher Mitchell (32:51):
Not only was working on, as we're recording this, I believe there's a pretty important hearing today. So as this podcast is aired, something will have happened that you [00:33:00] and I don't know about yet. So yeah, I believe that, I don't know if it's a final vote or what, but Los Angeles is today has on the calendar talking about this digital discrimination ordinance, which is a pretty big deal. It sets in motion. I don't want to be a hypocrite and just say the FCC is doing a terrible job the way the FCC crafted their digital discrimination order. I think, and I've been convinced of because of other people that have done smart work that cities and [00:33:30] states can use that in ways that will move forward, hopefully a process in which we'll have more investment in low-income communities and be able to demonstrate when that's not happening. None of this is going to change. At the FCC ordinance, the order was crafted specifically to make sure the FCC did not have to do any of this work, so we're not going to see any more progress at the FCC, but they did give some tools to people on the ground, and the people in Los Angeles I think have been among the first [00:34:00] to seize upon them.

Sean Gonsalves (34:02):
And I think around probably the same time that this podcast airs and the story will have been published, and it looks specifically at what different local communities are doing around digital discrimination. And in doing so, we were talking with Bill Callahan the other day, and he was just reminding us or giving us a bit of the background of in Cleveland and things that went on there with at and t and [00:34:30] kind of like how different parts of the city in terms of digital redlining, how that came about, but that through the course of that work over years at and t did respond. So even if there isn't this, oh, you're going to get in trouble with the FCC, there's still ways in which I think you can organize around some of these issues that can move the needle a bit. And that's a good thing, [00:35:00] even if it's not this one size fits all magic solution that magically or eliminates digital discrimination as it were.

Christopher Mitchell (35:09):
I would wrap up that discussion in the show by saying something that I would just, I'm not quoting but paraphrasing one of the speakers at the Digital Equity LA event, which is that we know we're making progress when we face resistance. This is not something where it's like, oh, man, it got hard. Am I doing something wrong? No. [00:35:30] We're talking about trying to fix decades of patterns of issues and some of that, and I want to be clear, like I say this all the time, I don't think it's Comcast or at t or Charter's job to fix poverty, but at the same time right now, they're the main barrier to us addressing it in broadband. And so it is hard to be like, I don't think they're the enemy in the sense that I don't think Comcast responsibility is to make sure everyone has a free Internet connection any more than I think McDonald's should be handing out [00:36:00] free food to people who are hungry. That's just not how it works. But when Comcast and Charter are the main ones that are preventing us from having a system that will connect the people who need to be connected, well, then there's a problem. And that is what is happening right now.

Sean Gonsalves (36:14):
Which is why I think Joshua Edmond's keynote at our last building for digital equity event in October was so good because he's in the thick of all of that addressing digital equity, addressing infrastructure issues and in [00:36:30] that whole political mix and it, it's difficult ground to walk.

Christopher Mitchell (36:35):
Yeah. So with that, I hope everyone has a good week. Thank you, Sean, for stepping in. We're going to have some great shows coming up with some other cool networks that are doing good work, so that'll be on the docket for upcoming shows. But thanks for stepping in, Sean.

Sean Gonsalves (36:54):
Absolutely love it.

Ry Marcattilio (36:56):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts [00:37:00] slash broadbandbits. Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important [00:37:30] research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Sby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through creative comments.