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5G Absurdity, Ammon Affordability, Speed Realities, and USF Caps - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 361
This week, Communications Specialist Jess Del Fiacco interviews Christopher about some of the many events that we’ve been following lately.
Jess and Christopher start off the show with a healthy dose of outrage as they comment on an advert from Verizon that takes the 5G hype just a little too far. Next they discuss a recent report from several authors, including Sascha Meinrath at Pennsylvania State University. We helped develop the report, which used data from Measurement Lab (M-Lab) based on real world Internet access speeds as compared to self-reported data from ISPs.
During the conversation, Jess and Christopher also talk about the recent media reports on super-affordable Internet access in Ammon, Idaho, where the city’s software defined network is creating choices for residents and businesses. They talk about Ammon’s infrastructure and other possibilities for open access, along with pros and cons. Lastly, the interview turns toward a hotly debated policy proposal that would cap the amount of funding allocated to the Universal Service Fund. Christopher explains what the funds are used for and what concerns need to be addressed with the proposal.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Jess Del Fiacco: But I think we're glossing over the takeaway, which is that 5G is going to cure cancer.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 361 of the Community Boadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Yes, it's true: the 5G hype has now reached the same level as the old timey snake oil salesmen, and Christopher has something to say about it. This week, he and our communications specialist Jess Del Fiacco tackle a questionable ad from Verizon along with several other timely topics. They discuss a recent report from M-Lab that compares real world Internet access speeds and self-reported results from ISPs. Jess and Christopher also discuss the recent news about Ammon, Idaho, where their software defined open access fiber network is creating a competitive environment where Internet access rates are incredibly affordable. Along with Ammon, they discuss the open access model and some of the pros and cons. Lastly, we hear a discussion about the possible cap on the Universal Service Fund. Christopher talks about the fund, what it does, and explains what might happen if this idea is adopted. Now, here's Jess and Christopher.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, and we're back with another of a perhaps series that we'll call perhaps either "Chris Unleashed" or Chris Unhinged," depending on your point of view. But we have Jess Del Fiacco back in the studio/office to talk about a couple of topics that are a little bit hot in the news.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, at least from my perspective. I mean, you know, national media might not be paying extremely close attention, especially to this first one, but we'll see.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, it's not like an incredible breaking news story about who has just surged one or two percentage points up among their 23 competitors for an election that won't be held until sometime in another person's lifetime, for what it seems like right now.
Jess Del Fiacco: But anyways, happy to be back. It has been awhile.
Christopher Mitchell: People usually say that like, "Oh, it's been awhile. I'm so glad I haven't seen you in that long."
Jess Del Fiacco: I guess we can kick things off with this fun commercial that I've brought you.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's actually why I'm a little bit giddy because this commercial is amazeballs. I'm talking —
Jess Del Fiacco: Maybe not what I would call it, but —
Christopher Mitchell: That's what your generation would call it. I'm pretty sure I'm 40 and I understand these things.
Jess Del Fiacco: Sure. Whatever makes you feel good.
Christopher Mitchell: So we're about to react to a 60 second advertisement from Verizon for a product that I think most of our listeners will be somewhat familiar with, at least intellectually. And it came to me out of the blue because it's a show by Mike Pesca, who does a daily show for the slate, a podcast, that's pretty eclectic. It's very interesting. I think he's a fascinating, interesting mind. He's, like, a former jeopardy contestant. The guy's quite sharp. He's had Susan Crawford on, so we know that he has pretty good choice in who he's interviewing. And there's just this ad that he read. As I was listening to it, I don't remember if I almost fell off my bike or dropped a dish when I was doing the dishwashing, but I was just like, what is going on? So I want people to hear this and then we're gonna talk a little bit about it.
Mike Pesca: Doctors are doing the best they can to fight cancer, the most challenging disease humankind has ever faced, but they're often limited by 2D images to understand a patient's 3D anatomy. What if this could be different? Dr. Christopher Morley and Dr. Osamah Choudhry created Medivis, a technology that can take two dimensional patient imaging, whether an MRI or CAT scan, and convert it into three dimensional holographic renderings. This will fundamentally change how doctors visualize cancer. Dr. Morley and Choudhry thought this technology might just not be possible because computing power just wasn't there. But Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband will give them the ability to do this. Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband will help give doctors the ability to fight cancer like never before.
Christopher Mitchell: Alright, Jess, I don't even know where to start. I want to start eight different places.
Jess Del Fiacco: I mean, the thing is that it's almost beyond parody, you know?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And, like, this is going to be an ad in the future on Idiocracy II, the sequel.
Jess Del Fiacco: And we've spent some time thinking it over. I mean, we've tried to parody it, and it's really too bad that the memes that we've made about it don't translate well into a podcast format because we've had some fun.
Christopher Mitchell: It would be like trying to make a movie parody of Scary Movie, which is itself a parody of scary movies.
Jess Del Fiacco: But I think we're glossing over the takeaway, which is that 5G is going to cure cancer,
Christopher Mitchell: 5G will cure cancer. All those people who are worried that it might cause cancer do not have to worry and we don't have to care if it does.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: Because as Lisa said, famous editor, we imagine that we'll soon see a future of people clustering under 5G nodes to smoke their cigarettes knowing that they can do it safely there.
Jess Del Fiacco: I'm really looking forward to the next in this series of ads where 5G, you know, tackles world hunger. You know, maybe it solves climate change for us.
Christopher Mitchell: I think 5G is gonna help me pick out my clothes in the morning, and I'm looking forward to that because it's one of the hardest decisions I have to make, as you can tell with the rotation of the six outfits that I wear into the office. We could just keep making fun of this, but I want to bring it back a little bit because there's literally been — I think it's more than five years — businesses that exist in places like strip malls that have fiber optics there with radiologists who interpret 3D images on fiber optics. And you know what? They don't do it on AT&T and Verizon. There's this insanity, this idea that like, "Oh wow, soon we'll be able to transmit all this stuff on 5G," as though we can't do it right now because like — okay, let's just say that the doctors are using 5G. So they're using a device, maybe a tablet, maybe some holographic display, and there's 5G for a hundred meters, 300 feet, 200 feet, and then it's fiber the whole rest of the way, I don't know, 10,000 miles around the world, 5,000 miles, 2000 miles across the U.S. — who knows? Like, the idea that we're waiting for 5G is just so ridiculous. I mean, let's just be very clear about this future that Verizon expects, which is that they're envisioning a future in which I'm, what, on the operating table perhaps and I'm expecting Verizon and AT&T to keep their network up long enough to operate on me? This is ridiculous.
Jess Del Fiacco: But this is Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband, Chris, so . . .
Christopher Mitchell: You're right. I forgot. Yeah, it's like, you know, for all the Michelob drinkers out there, you know the difference between a regular and ultra.
Jess Del Fiacco: This is next level.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right. This is Ultra Wideband from Fios, and as Katie reminds us, it's almost like Verizon forgot about that little thing called the Fios that they built in many places, some of which they sold to Frontier and Frontier's in the process of probably selling it for scrap. I don't know what Frontier's doing, but Verizon has a ton of fiber connecting places like hospitals. And the idea that they're like, let's just throw all that crap away because we can use this unreliable network of 5G where as long as there's no trees between you and your node, it's going to be great. And another thing Katie pointed out was the perplexing thing they said that it's about computing power, and 5G is about the ability to move information quickly in high volumes and to a large number of devices supposedly. Those are the advantages over the existing wireless network. And so, it's a classic muddle of "we don't know what we're talking about, but we're pretty sure you know less about what we're talking about."
Jess Del Fiacco: We're going to make it sound real good.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, Lisa was suggesting that we may see a lot of college premed folks —
Jess Del Fiacco: Jumping ship.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, they're gonna leave premed and go to Verizon. Exactly. But the final bit of thing — I would pull this back to a little bit of reality. I actually don't know if anyone has credible estimates right now. I've heard a lot of people talking about 5G and how much we're going to see deployed because it's quite costly, and I just saw an estimate — I believe it was $250 million to bring 5G to all of San Jose alone. That's an incredible amount of money considering that that's not to connect every home because we already know that 5G, with the nature of the wireless, cannot connect every home because there could be trees in the middle of it or the building house materials or any number of other factors that makes wireless not suited for this. Estimates for nationwide significant 5G coverage are like $250 billion. Wall Street is not looking to — it's not like they're like, "You know, we got a quarter of $1 trillion and we don't know where to put it. Maybe . . ."
Jess Del Fiacco: "What could we possibly do?"
Christopher Mitchell: "Is there something that has ultra in the title? Because that's pretty promising." I think there'll be less yucks in the rest of the topics that you're going to blindside me with that I'm in no way prepared for, Jessica.
Jess Del Fiacco: Well, let's hope so.
Christopher Mitchell: So what else are we talking about?
Jess Del Fiacco: Well, our next topic, you know, it's brand new news for you I'm sure, Chris, that it's possible FCC maps might not be totally accurate.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I'm very disappointed. I did not see this coming. I understand that there's gambling in Las Vegas as well. It's been a hard morning for me.
Jess Del Fiacco: But some good news is that we worked with M-Lab to kind of investigate what's happening in Pennsylvania — new report where we produced some maps.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right. So Sasha Meinrath, who's a professor at Penn State University now, is someone that I have a history of collaborating with. He had actually created the Open Technology Initiative and then the Open Technology Institute at New America, and it was under that auspices that M-Lab was created. He asked us to work with them on a project to really provide good policy advice and a good sense of what broadband was like in Pennsylvania, and so we worked with them on that. And there's some key takeaways. I mean, Sasha's goal in this, which I strongly supported, was to create a template that other states could use and we really hope that that happens. So, M-Lab had 11 million speed tests over 2018. they found that the median speeds in most areas were below broadband and there were zero counties where at least half of the populace had speed tests reflecting broadband.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. And this is pretty far off from the FCC's maps, which show right around a hundred percent broadband availability?
Christopher Mitchell: They did at different times, and that's where I want to make sure because there were times in which it's at 100 percent. I'm not sure if that's the current map because the FCC then realized that they had made a significant error in including a provider that just said, "Hey, everybody, we're doing fiber to everyone and wireless to everyone that can do a gigabit. Wonderful news!" The FCC originally included those numbers in its estimates and has since revised them, but the FCC's numbers are indeed far rosier. Now, I want to point something out, Jess, and I think that's important, which is that the M-Lab data itself is also not perfect, which is to say that we have two bounds basically. We have the self reported data, which is cherry picked and almost certainly dramatically overstates access, from the companies that are reporting it to the FCC. Now M-Lab's relies on people who are taking speed tests in their homes or from their mobile devices or whatever, and we can track it back and know which ISP and generally know their geographic area pretty closely to where they are. But, we don't know if they are hardwired into the access point. We don't know if there's a lot of congestion on the line at that moment. And so, if it was M-Lab alone, I might be a little bit concerned about the accuracy of it, but the M-Lab data lines up very strongly with data that we've seen from Microsoft and from — there's another major company that has done this aside from Netflix, which is what I was going to come to. Netflix, I don't know if they've published it officially, but they also have this kind of data and they know who gets what kind of connectivity from their hits against their website as well as their streaming. So what we see consistently is that the M-Lab data is pretty close to what multiple independent tests are using in terms of how people actually use the Internet and what their real connection is like regardless of how it's advertised.
Jess Del Fiacco: So what I thought was one of the most interesting things from this report was that the discrepancy between those FCC numbers and M-Lab's findings was growing in rural areas much faster than urban areas.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean, back when you were not yet in this amazing job that you have at ILSR —
Jess Del Fiacco: A whopping 10 months ago.
Christopher Mitchell: I would say actually back in like 2012 and earlier, the cable companies were pretty famous for advertising speeds that most people did not achieve. Especially when you got home from school or after work, the three o'clock to five o'clock and then the primetime hours, people would not get anywhere close to the advertised speeds. DOCSIS 3.0 and now DOCSIS 3.1, which are the technical names for the way that they use the cable lines to get us broadband access over our cable modems, that really solved that problem in the way they engineered it. And so I would say that in urban areas and on cable networks, there's gonna be some people who are in neighborhoods that have problems, but for the most part we see cable networks largely delivering what they promise. I think this is very true of Comcast. I think it may be less true of Mediacom, but when I look at this speed test data, it suggests to me that the cable companies in general have figured this out. They can deliver what they're promising. And in areas that are reliant on DSL, which is more rural areas, they're actually going backwards. They're going backwards because what happens is that you have a maximum throughput to your house really based on the copper line to your house and the condition of it and a number of other factors. But it used to be that that was what slowed you down. You couldn't do better than that. But now, you have congestion in a different part of the network in many cases, we think. And so you have CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream, AT&T — these companies aren't making the needed investments. And so people in rural areas are going from slow to slower rather than slow to a little bit better, and I think that's a major cause of concern. It's not surprising for those of us who have been watching it, but I don't know that many policymakers are really aware of that right now.
Jess Del Fiacco: So you made some policy recommendations in this report. Do you want to talk about some of those? What can Pennsylvania do differently?
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I mean, Pennsylvania is one of those states that limits local authority to build networks, so what do you think we recommended to them?
Jess Del Fiacco: Step one, support local broadband solutions, maybe?
Christopher Mitchell: You could even say it more broadly, which is to say, right now Pennsylvania says certain entities that are very interested, in some cases, in investing in broadband may not do so. So let's say we want more investment. Let's make the restrictions that stop some investment go away. That's one. One of the things that we did that I'm proud of is try to identify local cooperatives and private companies that are investing — well, no, I don't remember. I think Pennsylvania may not have a single telephone cooperative, but I'm suddenly doubting myself on that. They have one electric cooperative, which is moving forward aggressively, and they actually have won some of that money from the CAF II auction, the Connect America Fund auction, recently last year. So those are, you know, the kind of entities we normally support, but there's also some local telephone companies that have invested in Fiber-to-the-Home, and we wanted to highlight them. We wanted to highlight that there are companies who have been really harmed by the pole attachment process in Pennsylvania, where companies, as in the case with PPL in an area — when I grew up, PP&L at that time as they were called, People Power and Light, I believe. They were the electric company, and so I'm very familiar with them. I remember my grandparents ranting about them for no good reason. But they have been really difficult to work with for local providers like MAW, which is trying to work in a partnership with the city of Lancaster. So we wanted to make sure the state was aware of that and that there were other cases in which investor owned electric companies are really getting in the way of more investment. So we made that recommendation and we wanted to make sure they were aware that Pennsylvania is about to get more money than any other state — and you're nodding your head.
Jess Del Fiacco: You know, the Tri County Rural Electric Cooperative is getting some money from CAF II, I believe, but a majority of that funding is going to Viasat, who we have some criticisms of, possibly many criticisms, because what they're providing isn't actually broadband and them getting that funding means that these problems aren't going to be solved.
Christopher Mitchell: Exactly. And so all those areas that Viasat's getting money for also means that that Tri County cannot get money from the ReConnect fund from the United States Department of Agriculture, which is supposed to encourage rural broadband. You have a situation in north central Pennsylvania in which you have some areas that are getting Fiber-to-the-Home, the best network you can possibly get, and then just next to them are people who are getting subsidized satellite service, which is not broadband, which will result in declining economic opportunities, and which the presence of them getting that subsidy means the ReConnect fund will not fund in those areas. So that's a major cause of concern. So you know, I'm excited about this Pennsylvania report. I'm hoping that we'll see others iterate on it. I certainly hope that we're able to improve on it over time, but I think there's some really important things that we did in there that will help move the conversation forward.
Jess Del Fiacco: Definitely. And I think we're ready to switch gears to a more positive story out of Ammon, Idaho. Most of our listeners are already going to be familiar with Ammon, where they're working on an open access model in their city, and they've got some good news. And the good news is that they've got free Internet access now.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, depending on how you want to break down the costs, to be clear.
Jess Del Fiacco: Free is in quotations, and we can get into that I think.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure that, you know, for the people who haven't read my back and forth with Dane Jasper on Twitter, it's only because they haven't gotten to it yet as they religiously follow my Twitter feed on this subject of what exactly it costs. Which I really appreciate people like Dane who get involved in this because, you know, Dane Jasper runs Sonic ,a great company in California, and he's a sharp mind, and even though he and I disagreed on a couple of points, those sorts of conversations are what makes Twitter valuable, I think. So at any rate, Ammon allows multiple operators on its network. It added a new operator and it changed the competitive dynamic. And what happened was they dramatically lowered the price, and so I think gigabit went down at that time to $10 a month or so. Do you remember the first drop?
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, so they got that new provider and you know, competition changed and prices dropped a bit. So gig access was around $15, but then it dropped again down to around $10 I believe.
Christopher Mitchell: There's a couple of points here that I think are interesting. First of all, maybe just noting that this is not the total cost to the homeowner, and the way Ammon's network works, which we've described in multiple podcasts and we have a great video about, is that there's a set of fees. And so, there's a construction fee, which can be a onetime cost to the home, which might be on the order of $33,000 or so, and you could pay for that at one time if you wanted to or you could amortize it over 20 years with an assessment on your home that works out to on the order of $16-17 per month for 20 years. So that's one fee, and that fee will go away if you pay it off and you never have to pay it again. A second fee, which is assessed by the city to maintain the fiber and keep it going is $16.50 a month. That does not go away, and so if you pay that, you don't really have access to the Internet, but you may have, like, some other city-type services available and more over time. But the key is then that you can choose service providers over a portal on your home computer, and that allows you to switch among providers. And this competition is one in which we see the providers jockeying to provide lower prices, and as a result of a new provider entering, we saw a gigabit decline by roughly 30% from $15 to $10. And then, there was another sort of brief skirmish and price adjustment in which one of the original providers on the network, Fybercom, decided to start offering a 15 megabit symmetrical connection for free, no charge. You know, an interesting dynamic is, as we understand it, that may not have actually led to them having a lot more customers. Like at the time that it happened, I believe 48 hours later —
Jess Del Fiacco: No one had signed up, right? For the free version.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, exactly, but people had maybe switched over to that because they had a sense that that was the kind of company they wanted to support, that was, you know, kind of thinking in that direction. Fybercom's a local wireless ISP that operates on the network, and I found them to be pretty innovative. It's kind of fascinating to see what happens. Now, I do want to say that I am a little bit concerned. I don't think this is all good news. It is good news for those of us who are trying to figure out how to lower the price. To be clear, if you've got the free service from Fybercom, then you would be paying $16.50 a month to have a fiber that was maintained in case of problems, and you may or may not be paying for the cost of the connection if you'd paid it off already. So free in this case means $16.50 a month, which is still pretty nice.
Jess Del Fiacco: Less than what I pay.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. But the thing is a concern among some, an honest concern — there is a lot of fake concern from people who are just trying to preserve the status quo, but a real concern is that in an open access model with so few barriers to entry, the cost would decline so much that it would be hard to make money. And at that point the market becomes unstable, companies start to go bankrupt, and you have acquisitions and it's just not the kind of thing people want because people don't want their email provider or their Internet access company to suddenly disappear overnight. So, you know, there's reasons to just keep watching this experiment happening with a lot of hope. But I wanted to raise that, that over time what we're hoping for is market stability and that there are services these companies offer that allow them to make a margin and allow for new companies to come in and sort of innovate and that sort of a thing — not just that we want to think that low prices are the sole objective of these kinds of investments because it can be counterproductive.
Jess Del Fiacco: So on last week's podcast, we talked about SiFi Networks moving into Fullerton, California. What sets that network apart from Ammon? Can we talk a little bit about the differences?
Christopher Mitchell: The first thing is actually I didn't get into the technology in that interview, and so I don't think SiFi will enable people to switch with just a click of a button in 30 seconds, which is something that SiFi may add over time but their main goal is bringing choice in, you know. But what I think I see out of this news out of Amman, this news of SiFi being one of — it's certainly the largest United States-based, privately-funded open access network — is that there's still a lot of innovation to do. I think this is a model that's promising for communities to look into. I'm excited at, like, SiFi giving an opportunity to more ISPs like Ting, like Gigabit Now and others who are going to be trying to use this model and see if it works. And over time we have, I would say, you know, between 100,000 and 250,000 people that could have access to open access fiber in Washington, there's 25,000 or so in Utah maybe, there's going to be a thousand in Ammon by the end of the year with rapid growth there, Fullerton we're looking at 150,000 — but when we have 2 million, 5 million people with open access choices, you know, which will take us a few years to get there — and I should note, we also know Lit Communities with Brian Snyder is working with Medina, Ohio, and so there's a lot of opportunities to get a sense of what's happening here and I think we're going to see a lot of progress on it and this idea of giving a single network and having multiple providers competing on it. I'm excited for it. I think there's been some challenges. There's been some setbacks. We have better expectations. And I don't want to set a date on it because I am terrible at deadlines — Jess is laughing at me — but we are working on a report to try to summarize everything that's happened in open access in the United States. You have one last one before I'm totally unhinged or unleashed?
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. So one last topic for this, you know, little bit of a meandering conversation that we've had here. You have a take on the —
Christopher Mitchell: Do I ever. I don't even know what you're gonna ask me.
Jess Del Fiacco: — on the potential cap for the Universal Service Fund that, you know, other people haven't brought up yet. So could you talk a little bit about your thoughts on that?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So it's worth stepping back for a second because I may even make a mistake here and one of our astute listeners may correct me and then next week I'll have to offer an embarrassing correction. But we're talking about Universal Service Funds, [which] is basically four services that are funded with a tax on certain kinds of telecommunications services, and that money goes to offer service in places in which the market would underinvest otherwise. And so, there's like a healthcare fund, there's a high cost fund, which is the one we pay the most attention to that brings service out to low-income folks, there's the lifeline fund, and there's the one that I always forget, which is embarrassing because I'm supposed to know this sort of stuff cold . . . E-Rate! How could I forget E-Rate? It's the one I probably knew the most about earliest, one of the easier ones to grasp, which connects to schools and libraries. And so, that money comes from a pot that is not from the general treasury but from this tax. And so, certain kinds of providers to collect it and other providers don't, and that creates a lot of tension. Some of the municipals have to pay into that fund, and so from that perspective, I'm very sympathetic to the provider feeling, which is that, you know, this tax which has changed based on the amount that's used in the fund, is . . . You know, the question is that originally these programs were funded with money that came from long distance charges, and as the business models have changed, there's just ,a lot of the companies involved with say, unfairness, I think, as to how we raise this money. Now, the nice thing is that Congress doesn't have to appropriate it, so we don't have to worry that when some people inaccurately call Lifeline the "Obamaphone program," which I don't think Ronald Reagan would be very appreciative of since he started that program to make sure that everyone could have a phone, that Congress couldn't just slash that funding. It's its own funding mechanism. But the problem is that it's multiple billions of dollars per year, and there's a sense that it should be changed significantly and I think we're about to see the rate go up still further to I believe more than 20% is the expectation on these services. And so, there's concern, and there's some people who are saying that we need a cap. And their proposal is right now we have one cap for the four programs. And so, you know, maybe let's just say it's $5 billion and then you know, if Lifeline runs out of money, too bad, or if E-Rate runs out of money, too bad. The problem then is that then we have Lifeline competing against E-Rate, and so you have people who are getting $10 a month service to have phone service, which is essential to talk to their doctors. Many of us who don't use phones forget how important it is, especially if you don't have a home Internet connection. I realize that this may seem exceedingly rambly —
Jess Del Fiacco: We're getting there.
Christopher Mitchell: — but to some extent it's hard to avoid that in USF discussions. The point is, is that I think I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that like, A, this money could be spent better; B, this is not an entirely appropriate way to raise the money for important programs. But my belief is, and I believe SHLB has just made this point — the Schools, Hospitals, and Libraries Broadband coalition, which we're a member of — that we don't even know how much money Lifeline is going to use because a lot of people who are eligible don't have access to it, don't know about it. And so we're going to cap it and then turn people away who are in need. That seems wrong. I mean, if we're going to have a cap, we should have a sense of what the expectations are rather than just saying we're gonna have a cap and too bad for people who don't fit under it. And then, I think FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel memorably said that we don't want to have a hunger games between these four programs in which, you know, you don't want people on E-Rate to be dissing the Lifeline program or the rural hospitals or healthcare program. If we're going to have caps, it strikes me that it should be on a per program basis rather than just across the four and have them fight it out. So I think this is an important issue. I think it's really important that people understand, you know, how this money gets spent because then maybe there'll be some pressure to improve upon the program rather than just having this, to most people, obscure regulatory agency deciding this and having a fee show up on their bills when they get their cell phones or their home telephone service bills. So there are better ways to do it, but it's an important issue to keep an eye on because, you know, as we see these services change and the business models change, there's a status quo bias that we just end up with a program that may not be funded in a way that still make sense today and some significant problems we have to work on.
Jess Del Fiacco: So in the end, you think it's worth talking about, you know, debating whether or not there should be a cap or what kind of cap there should be, and instead maybe we should focus our energies on thinking about how these programs are funded and what we should change about that?
Christopher Mitchell: It's a hard question that I do not know how to answer, and so I'm probably going to end up weaseling out of it in the next 30 to 90 seconds.
Jess Del Fiacco: If you did have an easy answer, that might solve a lot of problems for a lot of people.
Christopher Mitchell: Washington is so broken. Like it's just — it's so broken. I mean, it's just frustrating because for instance, Lifeline, which is also increasingly used for broadband service, is $10 a month, and that made sense when when you could have telephone service at $10 a month. There's not a lot of broadband options that are worth anything that you can get for that. The broadband market is so broken that to then provide a subsidy that's gonna make a difference in people's lives, it's hard to figure out how to do that. So that's why from our perspective, I would say, I don't know what the federal solution is, and we spend our time trying to figure out how to work with motivated localities, communities and counties and cities, that can make a difference. And they can do things like they did in San Francisco and the partnership with Monkeybrains, in which they can lower the cost. And then, maybe a federal program could help people with that if there's still a cost that has to be leftover or maybe that's not even necessary. And so, I don't know what the answer is, but it's important that people hear both sides. One, that I think a cap overall is damaging. Two, that these programs, the way they're funded is not appropriate in 2019 anymore, I don't think. And that three, there is no hope.
Jess Del Fiacco: You know, according to FCC commissioner O'Rielly, one of our favorite people up there —
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, he loves us too.
Jess Del Fiacco: — you know, the biggest concern is overbuilding and avoiding wasting money on that, so as long as we can keep that out of the equation, we'll be all good, right?
Christopher Mitchell: It's remarkable how, after a hundred years of the U.S. Government basically believing monopoly — and not without good reason — believing that monopoly was the solution, that you should just suddenly say, okay, no more monopoly and we're not going to fund any competitive network, even though companies like AT&T have had a hundred years of unfair advantages over their competitors in the market. And so, it would crazy to give a dollar to a company that wants to connect some customers that AT&T has left behind if AT&T has any plausible connection to them. This whole discussion of overbuilding is frustrating because it gives you a sense of how lobbyists rule D.C. United States federal policy is competition, and it's the sense of yes, well competition just means the government doesn't do anything and AT&T rules, but in theory, Jess, you and I could start a company that would dethrone AT&T because there's no government regulations to stop us. That's not how markets work. So overbuilding's a hot button for me. Commissioner O'Rielly I think, does a disservice to what even his own goals are in talking about overbuilding in that way because I truly believe that he wants to see a competitive market, but I don't think he has a sense of how to get there at all.
Jess Del Fiacco: I'm sorry, I set you off on our last question here while we're trying to wrap up.
Christopher Mitchell: There's almost nothing you could ask me that wouldn't set me off. I mean, you could note that the Pennsylvania report both capitalizes and does not capitalize the word "Internet," and I almost pulled my hair out this morning when I noticed that. No, I'm sure that I have other hot button issues. Let's talk about my love for Vin Diesel.
Jess Del Fiacco: I don't want to get into that conversation at all. I'm sure it's lengthy.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you everyone. You know, we have an email called firstname.lastname@example.org in which you can tell me you want to hear less from me and more from guests or you want to hear Jess be able to get a few more words in because I talk too much, which is something I'm trying to work on.
Jess Del Fiacco: I just need to be a pushier host, that's all.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I think we need to get you — I actually have tomatoes in the fridge.
Jess Del Fiacco: Just things I could throw at you? Yeah, that'd be ideal.
Christopher Mitchell: It would distract me enough for you to get a word in.
Jess Del Fiacco: Okay. Well thanks, this has been a good talk.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Thank you, Jess.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was our communications specialist Jess Del Fiacco with Christopher discussing some of the issues in the news, including 5G hype; Ammon, Idaho; the M-Lab report; and a proposed cap on the Universal Service Fund. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 361 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.