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Crazy Talk Rears Its Head Again - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 377
Hey, Community Broadband Bits fans, it's time for Crazy Talk again! This time, our Communications Specialist Jess Del Fiacco joins Christopher and I to address recent insanity attacking municipal networks.
"What IS Crazy Talk," you say?
Every once in awhile, anti-municipal network initiatives get wind of particular projects in local communities and make extra efforts to spread misinformation. They usually rely on the same tired old talking points and refer to the same incorrect data from old reports that have been called out for inaccuracies.
This time is no different. Lately, the community of Lakeland, Florida, has discussed the possibility of building off their existing fiber optic infrastructure in order to offer services to residents. Reliably, anti-municipal soundbites have appeared in the local press which quote past research that we showed as based on faulty data. Nevertheless, a corrected version of the report was never published and it continues to be quoted in order to sway public opinion against local efforts to improve connectivity.
We also discuss other recent crazy publications that try to show local networks that residents love as outliers. In reality, a majority of the 500+ communities served by publicly owned networks get high marks from locals.
Jess, Christopher, and I also review a new report that attacks the positive economic development potential of municipal networks. All in all, it appears to be another report that's based on inaccurate data in order to paint municipal networks in a negative light. Junk in, junk out.
Be sure to check out the Community Fiber Fallacies page, where you can pick up tips on addressing the most common negative attacks on community network projects.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
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: I don't know who's funding the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, but whoever it is, you could do better.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 377 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Every once in awhile we find it necessary to sit down and talk about some of the misinformation about municipal broadband networks that seems to make its way into the media on a pretty regular basis. Typically, local communities that are considering an investment in fiber optic infrastructure to improve connectivity spur a rash of reports, letters to the editor, and other opinion pieces. Those articles and reports are almost always based on poor data and the same old arguments we see again and again. That's why we call these occasional podcasts our crazy talk episodes. In this crazy talk episode, we discuss a couple of articles and reports from the usual cast of characters: the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the Mackinac Center, and a new report we haven't seen before which uses questionable data. We talk about competition, economic development, and the argument that fiber could become obsolete, and we address other points that anti-muni groups always bring up. For a more comprehensive review of how to address the faulty arguments from these and other groups, take a look at our correcting community fiber fallacies page on muninetworks.org. We're trying to learn more about how communities are using their municipal networks to develop local digital inclusion programs. If you know of any communities doing this, drop us a line at email@example.com. As a reminder, this is digital inclusion week. Check out muninetworks.org or the National Digital Inclusion alliance at digitalinclusion.org. You can learn how you can show your support for digital inclusion. Now, here's Christopher, our communications specialist Jess Del Fiacco, and me for our latest edition of crazy talk.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Lisa Gonzalez: Wait, wait, wait.
Christopher Mitchell: Wait, wait?
Lisa Gonzalez: I think that — isn't Jess going to be hosting?
Jess Del Fiacco: I think this is really a shared hosting experience today.
Christopher Mitchell: That was just Lisa sticking her nose into this introduction where it doesn't belong.
Lisa Gonzalez: Stick, stick.
Christopher Mitchell: Lisa, who you probably heard a few seconds ago introducing the show. Lisa Gonzalez runs muninetworks.org. She's a senior researcher here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Chris Mitchell. I run the broadband program and host this Community Broadband Bits podcast and —
Jess Del Fiacco: Everyone will be shocked to learn that.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And Jess is back in the interviewer seat as we do some crazy talk. Jess is our communications specialist and veteran of maybe four or five podcasts now.
Jess Del Fiacco: Getting up there. Basically a pro.
Christopher Mitchell: Definitely.
Jess Del Fiacco: So I've got a few — rounded up a few of the craziest things we've seen recently in the news —.
Christopher Mitchell: That we can talk about publicly.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yes, and the first thing I want to look at is things that are happening in Lakeland, Florida.
Christopher Mitchell: Florida. Not going to pick too much on Florida in general, but there's definitely some people who are — just, season three of Big Mouth just came out and they had an entire episode on Florida. It's a wonderful show on Netflix that you should not let your children watch, and it took some shots at Florida so I'm feeling it right now.
Jess Del Fiacco: Isn't this where you say "Florida Man . . ."?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, Florida man. Yeah, so Lakeland — I mean, I'll just just jump in for a second to note Lakeland is actually the area of Florida that gets picked on in the episode of Big Mouth that I'm thinking of.
Lisa Gonzalez: Is it really?
Jess Del Fiacco: By name?
Christopher Mitchell: By name.
Jess Del Fiacco: Sorry, Lakeland.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Lakeland — everyone I've met from Lakeland are wonderful people, and I have no doubt that there are some residents there who are wonderful too. And I'm just kidding. I'm sure that they're filled with wonderful people.
Jess Del Fiacco: We're not picking on them today.
Christopher Mitchell: We're going to pick on a few specific people who have written letters to the editor, maybe.
Lisa Gonzalez: Letters to the city hall illuminati?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's what I was thinking of.
Jess Del Fiacco: One recent article about their efforts to build this broadband network cites Christopher Yoo, a supposed expert.
Christopher Mitchell: Christopher who?
Jess Del Fiacco: Christopher Yoo, one of our favorite guys. And it says that city commissioners should be skeptical of investing in municipal broadband. Do you have any thoughts about Christopher Yoo's recent work?
Christopher Mitchell: Christopher Yoo is the Comcast chair of the Comcast technology policy center. I'm just making up those terms, but that's effectively what he really is at the University of Pennsylvania, a school that, as we'll note in a few seconds, does not have any academic standards from what I can tell given the stuff that he's published, the errors he's made and hasn't bothered to correct in the multiple years he's had to do it even though he's admitted the errors. So this is a study that is probably the single most cited study suggesting that municipal networks are a bad investment despite the fact that it doesn't really say that. So Lisa, I'm just curious. You have a rotten look on your face, the same rotten look I have in my gut whenever I think about this study. I'm sure that he's gonna update it soon with more cherry picked or just flat out made up data. But what are your thoughts on the Christopher Yoo study? It's like a zombie study that just keeps coming back over and over again.
Lisa Gonzalez: That's right. And as I was saying earlier, I wish that we could turn back time to when the study hadn't been written so that we could stop the study from being written because it uses data incorrectly and it uses bad data incorrectly and it has been cited so many times and it's been cited by people who use it — weaponize it basically — and it gets used as misinformation by people don't know any better.
Christopher Mitchell: I don't know about going back in time to stop it. If there's one thing that I've learned from innumerable short stories, books, and television shows, movies, et cetera, popular culture, it's that going back in time does not end well. We may end up with donuts raining from the sky or something like that as it happened in an episode of the Simpsons, I believe. But it's worth noting, this is a study that — there's many other studies that have done similar things in terms of making municipal networks look like bad investments while actually ignoring all of the reasons that they are reasonable or smart investments. And I say that because my response to you is not to say that every municipal network is a success and that everyone should go out and build municipal networks. It's that these things are complicated. And I think there's a strong reason why the majority, the vast majority of places that have made these investments are happy with it. And when you have a study that comes out and says, well, we took 20 networks and we looked at their financial documents and then we massage the data in ways that nobody can understand and we came up with this idea that it's going to take Chattanooga 400 years to break even, you know, which is basically one of the things that I think he came out with. He certainly said many of these networks will never break even, even ones that have since broken even. You know, there's something that's that's really wrong there, but he made a really egregious error —this is the one I referenced earlier that I just, I cannot believe he's never bothered to correct his paper despite giving us a press release admitting that he just totally screwed up something. So when he published the paper, he said that Chattanooga, Lafayette, Wilson, North Carolina, all had these balloon payments at the end of their debt term and that that was one of the reasons that they were really not going to work out. And when it was pointed out to him by numerous parties, including myself, that they do not in fact have balloon payments at the end of their debt terms, he was kind of like, "Oh, I just misread the documents," which should give all of us a really good reason for concern because like, I don't know, I'm not a financial wizard. I would say that Chris Yoo knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, and I know how to read those bond documents. There's only like a few pages that are even relevant for this sort of thing. The rest of it is all legalese. And so, the fact that he got such a basic thing wrong is one thing. But then the second thing is he admitted to it, gave us a press release in which he said, "Yep, I got that wrong," and here we sit more than two years later — I think it's two and a half years after he published it, he's never bothered to correct the paper. And so, if you go and download his paper today, you will get the same wrong information that he's admitted is wrong. I mean, he hasn't corrected a lot of other errors, but this is something that I just cannot believe that someone that would make such an obvious mistake wouldn't bother to correct the paper, which gives you a real sense of his academic credibility.
Lisa Gonzalez: If I remember correctly, he gave us a press release saying that he made a mistake, but then he sort of walked back on that as well saying—
Christopher Mitchell: Oh yeah.
Lisa Gonzalez: Yeah, yeah, which to me is even worse.
Christopher Mitchell: What he was saying was that like the rest of his methodology was still sound and he stood by the conclusions, you know, despite the fact that at this point for all of these things, I would say that it really comes down to, for most of us, who are you going to listen to? Because most of us don't have the kind of accounting chops to go into these different budgets of different cities to have a sense of how things are working out. And so, we rely on proxies, and right now we have to choose between the city, which is saying one thing — and it's actually reinforced by the market that's purchasing the bonds, it's reinforced by the bond rating agencies, it's reinforced by the people in the community who all agree that these networks are smart investments — or this guy who's funded by Comcast effectively. You know, I'm sure there's other big companies that give his center a lot of money, but he's long seemed to just take all the positions Comcast likes. And so we have to choose between him and all of this independent evidence that lines up, that these networks are actually financially succeeding. To me, it's a pretty obvious choice
Lisa Gonzalez: And this is one of the reasons why I would like to be able to go back in time because we spent a ton of time creating the correcting community fiber fallacies page, which we wouldn't have had to do and we could have concentrated on other things if this report hadn't come out. And it is available on muninetworks.org.
Christopher Mitchell: We might have had to spend more time on the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, and I'll say this about Chris Yoo — I'm not going to be too insulting. I'm tired and cranky today. So let's just say that he is a step above the liars at the Taxpayer Protection Alliance.
Lisa Gonzalez: That's true. They have certainly embraced this idea that say what you want, when you want, and you don't have to worry about it being fact checked.
Jess Del Fiacco: Actually that's a whole other issue. Jess, I'm curious about this. You're a communications person and think about this a lot. If I write that, I don't know, the grass is purple, should I be able to publish that in any op ed page anywhere in the world without them bothering to say, "Hey, that's actually not true"?
Jess Del Fiacco: Personally, you know, I might say questionable, but the reality is the world today that we live in, you absolutely could do that without anyone blinking an eye. Okay. So we've talked I think enough about Chris Yoo for this podcas.
Christopher Mitchell: And yet we're not done. He'll be back at some point in the future.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, he is actually I think referenced — his study is referenced in every other article that we'll be talking about today. But just regarding Lakeland, I wanted to bring up again something Lisa alluded to earlier, which is the city hall illuminati — a recent letter to the editor in the Lakeland Ledger that's speaking out against municipal broadband as an investment the city should make. And I'm curious from you guys, is this the normal level of public debate that we see sparked when cities try to invest in broadband networks or is a little bit of extra ruckus Lakeland special?
Lisa Gonzalez: Sounds like something on a diner menu.
Christopher Mitchell: So for those who weren't in the room here with the three of us, which is everyone, I just walked over to the bulletin board to pull off one of my favorite opinion letters to the editor ever, which is from Longmont, Colorado. And Patricia Cullen wrote, among other things, that she doesn't think fiber optic high-speed Internet would help their lives. It may actually cripple us because we'll spend even more time downloading nonsense off the internet. This was 2014. She was probably right on that point, more right than I gave her credit for at the time. But she says, "I see no advantage in more speed or bandwidth. I can download 200 page patents very quickly with my current system. Do I really need to download a million page tomes and read them? In fact, no, I want to slow down and use the Internet less. It's not that much fun to use the Internet or even useful." And that was my favorite part was "or even useful." Yeah, there's a lot of cranky folks out there and a lot of them write letters to the editor. So, you know, I would say that this is pretty much par for the course, and any community that's working on this should expect these sorts of folks. I was just talking with some folks who I think were talking about Utah, and they said a lot of people have heard this before — they call them CAVE people, the citizens against virtually everything. Speaker 1: Do you think that Patricia has access to NextLight from her cabin in the mountains now?
Christopher Mitchell: You know, it's an interesting question.
Lisa Gonzalez: I bet she does.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I mean, she could certainly just throttle herself using her gateway or her modems and routers internally, but she's probably enjoying lower prices regardless of whether she took NextLight service or not.
Lisa Gonzalez: I bet she does have NextLight service.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I think it's worth noting that, you know, if you go back and you look at the networks that today we view as absolutely successful, ones that aren't even in doubt, like Longmont being one of them, there was a lot of people who are naysayers at the time. And they were very much empowered by Comcast, you know, CenturyLink at the time, and those companies that are just looking for anyone to come out in opposition, so, you know, we're gonna run into this. The Illuminati is a newer one for me. You know, I was always more of a Bilderberger kind of guy, but . . .
Jess Del Fiacco: Okay, so I think we can move on to our next piece then, which actually is from the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, and it's in Maryland.
Christopher Mitchell: My favorite.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. Our faves. And this one talking the city of Hogan and claims that publicly funded broadband plans are usually duds that cover a few residents at astronomical costs.
Christopher Mitchell: You know, I mean, this is the sort of thing that comes down to — this is why I slag on the Taxpayer Protection Alliance is they'll say things like, "Well nobody even subscribes to these networks." Chattanooga picked up its 100,000th subscriber. You know, Cedar Falls, another target of the Taxpayer Protection Alliance from good old Chip in Iowa who runs their efforts down there, you know, they have like, like 90 percent or 85 percent of the market. These municipal networks, they're actually picking up speed frankly from what we can tell. Some of the ones that we are concerned about where they were just barely breaking even and taking a lot of effort to do that five or six years ago are now, you know, running away with the market effectively with well over half of the community subscribing, which generally means that the other two providers in the area are splitting the remainder, a minority of the folks. So, it's not even really worth spending a lot of time on this, but people will see this and I think it's very easy to respond that even where municipal networks have a plurality of people, 35-40 percent, it changes the entire market in ways that are beneficial. And so, the mark of success for a municipal network is not to be Chattanooga or Cedar Falls, where you're generating millions of dollars for the community in excess revenues — I try to avoid the word profit because they're not profit entities, so the money does stay in the community. But the point is is that these networks often have different metrics for success: creating local jobs, stabilizing prices, or even creating new competition that can lower prices, you know, giving the community a real, modern network where that's not available already. You know, there's all kinds of reasons they build them and then responding to this trash just makes an entertaining podcast, I hope.
Lisa Gonzalez: One of the things that I wanted to mention, as far as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, is what I wonder sometimes if the motivation for them to actually put these opinion pieces in the local paper is to sway public opinion because not so much that they think that they're going to stop a network, but to sway public opinion to oppose it because the main thing they're concerned about is having to lower their own prices.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I mean I think the Taxpayer Protection Alliance has some different goals, but I think that they use those sorts of strategies to get people concerned. And they know that most people aren't going to go and do the independent research. They're going to say, "Oh, I saw this thing, and even though in general, I'm excited about my local community doing something to improve Internet access, well, maybe this isn't it. Maybe, I don't know, like I'm concerned about it." And so I think there's something called "fear, uncertainty and doubt," a FUD campaign, and I think that's what it's about.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. And I think the more of these you published, I mean no matter how trash they might be, the more opportunity you give other people to cite these and cross reference these and you're just building up this network of nonsense. But it's still a network of information that people can go to.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right. Now, my personal theory about the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, which I've said to some people elsewhere and I don't know if I've put on the podcast before, is that it's possible — like, I don't know any facts related to this, so I'm just going to throw it out there being 2019 and that's where we live. I think it's possible this is a group of people who looked around and said, "You know what? We could get a big check from people who hate government by opposing municipal broadband," or as they call it, "government owned broadband. And you know, we'll get like the Koch network or one of these groups that really hates government, we'll convince them to give us, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars. We'll do $10,000 worth of work. It'll be embarrassing and lame and we're not really going to put our hearts into it, but we're going to get a big payday and we'll do that." And I think that the Koch network, which frankly, like some of the stuff that we do like and they're not entirely wrong on all issues — I have my disagreements with them on many issues, but they deserve better. I don't know who's funding the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, but whoever it is, you could do better. You could give Chris Yoo money. Like, actually make us work to respond to it. You know, there's people out there who can be much better at being corrupt because you could be corrupt and intelligent. And I would say that I'm using corrupt in the sense of just the way our founders used it in terms of not being fundamentally honest, being corrupted. But you can do a better job is what I'm trying to say.
Lisa Gonzalez: But a lot of these guys are — well I shouldn't say a lot of these guys.
Christopher Mitchell: A lot of them are guys, too.
Lisa Gonzalez: Yes, I know. But a lot of these guys are legislators, former legislators, and there's a reason for that. So, you know, you get what you pay for.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, for at least one of them in Iowa, it's apparently — I mean, unless there's another Chip by his name who was a former lawmaker who was arrested for drunk driving with a weapon under the front seat, yeah, I think there's plenty of good reasons why he's no longer in the legislature and now he's writing these ridiculous letters. By the way, some of the folks in Iowa who are targeted by this guy who accuses them of being high priced consultants, like, I know them. Curtis Dean is a former guest of the show. He's a weekend wedding DJ, and I'd like to imagine him, you know, taking a Maserati to his gigs with his high price consulting fees.
Jess Del Fiacco: So I think we can move on to our next point, which is really similar article published from the Mackinac Center of Public Policy.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh yes, Michigan.
Jess Del Fiacco: What are your thoughts on if communities are conspiring against private investment?
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think it's a very interesting conspiracy.
Lisa Gonzalez: In all their spare time . . .
Christopher Mitchell: Right? Yeah, the local leaders are like, "Oh, let's not solve these problems we were elected to solve. Let's conspire against private investment." Like, because secretly — and this is where you have to understand, like, their motivation is that they really like the Comcast or the Charter monopoly or they really like only having AT&T crap DSL available to themselves in their homes or their relatives and their families, so they're conspiring against private investment. I . . . it's Looney tunes.
Lisa Gonzalez: So one of the articles that we had looked at was by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and it was about Marshall. And I thought that was interesting how the article is actually not necessarily glowing but quite positive about Marshall and their network, but they still found a way to sort of twist it into an anti-municipal network article. That was pretty clever. So that was one of them doing a good job, Christopher.
Jess Del Fiacco: There's really a line in it that's like, Marshall is a good example and therefore a bad example of municipal networks, which is — what a statement.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, this reminds me of criticism that we responded to in depth, which you can find on our correcting community fiber fallacies page, that . . . oh, my old friend, one of my first people I debated on this issue, I'm missing his name, but he wrote an article or an in depth case study for Reason magazine in which he just trashed Lafayette. And people who read it came away with this conclusion that Lafayette was in real trouble. If you read it closely, it said, well, if they don't fix these issues, which is basically being in the startup phase, if they don't graduate to being out of the startup phase and being a normal running network where you're dealing with more reasonable costs than the startup costs, then they're going to be in a lot of trouble. Well, lo and behold, as we predicted, they have well emerged from that and also relatively within the timeframe they expected to. And so, a lot of these networks that have been accused of being failures in the past, are strong successes now. But you know, if we just go back to this idea of, like, they're conspiring against private investment, I actually think they're trampling on their better talking point, and their better talking point is —
Jess Del Fiacco: Don't give it away to them, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, you know, I mean, I feel like people should be prepared. I mean, I think the better argument is that local — it's not true, but that local officials are unintentionally driving away private investment. And I think that that's something in which there are isolated cases in which some local have policies that should be updated. Now, the simple fact is that we see those policies get updated roundabout the time that a company, for instance, Metronet, which I have very mixed feelings about lately, you know, they come into a town and they say, "Well, we'd like to bring fiber everywhere, but this is making it hard." And I'm actually just talking to someone from Illinois, a place in which a provider has been making investments and said, you know, we could invest more if you can update this part of the statute, which is a little bit out of sync with a lot of other ones. And local officials really want to make those fixes in my experience. And frankly, I don't always — like, I have mixed feelings about that because we believe cities would be better off if they have some form of ownership. And so, the simple fact is that I deal with local officials all the time who are desperate to get private investment so they don't have to build their own network because they don't want to, which I think is wrong. And so here we — like, this is all kinds of mixed up in terms of the talking points around here, but that's the reality that we see.
Jess Del Fiacco: One other point that the Mackinac Center makes in this particular article is that the technology cities are investing in to build these networks will soon be obsolete and therefore they should not invest in them.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Our flying rocket cars will deliver USB drives from location to location, dropping off the Internet's information. You know, this is one that will probably never go away. It's not too long ago that we saw some of the dim bulbs at one of these places. I think they just forgot to edit their old talking points, and they mentioned that WiMAX is still coming, which is like eight years too late. But I remember that talking point back in the day. I mean, in fact, you know, we've been saying for years that 5G is not going to connect to everyone. I don't want to turn this into a 5G crazy talk show because we've talked so much about 5G. It has made remarkable strides. It covers parts of some NFL stadiums now, so believe for them. But the simple fact is that a 5G — I suspect what we'll see from 5G is that we'll deliver some competition to people who already have competition, you know, the well-off neighborhoods in which you may have fiber optics competing with a good cable system or something like that. So, yeah, I mean, this idea, people are always going to say it. It feels intuitively true. Like, "Oh, something might just come about tomorrow," but the simple fact is that for 15 years we've been saying fiber optics is the core. It remains the core. I would bet a lot of my retirement savings — which is, you know, as a high priced consultant, I would say probably in the tens of millions of dollars. I don't even check it anymore because I'm so wealthy from the consulting fees. But yeah, I would bet that fiber optics remains in 10 years still an investment we're seeing new entities making on a regular basis.
Lisa Gonzalez: You know, this is one of the things that really irks me because I feel —.
Christopher Mitchell: One of everything.
Lisa Gonzalez: That's why I said one of the things — because I feel like places like the Mackinac Center really take advantage of people's misunderstanding of technology when they start talking about 5G because I think there's so many people who don't understand the fiber requirements that are needed for 5g, and I think that there are a lot of people who'd believe that 5G doesn't require any fiber. And they just take advantage of that, and they say that fiber is going to be obsolete. You know, it's all going to be magically sent to you through the air.
Christopher Mitchell: And it's gonna cure your cancer along the way. That's the part I'm excited about.
Lisa Gonzalez: Right. Exactly. And it's just — you know, it just irks me.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I find it irksome too, but in some ways that's why we exist, that's why local officials have a hard job to do. I mean, I think there's a valuable service in that if there was not places like the Mackinac Center pushing back on us, you know, it's possible you could see too much investment, in the sense that — I've said before, I don't think every municipality should build this. I think there are real cautions. And so, I think local officials should spend their time welcoming that opportunity because if somebody writes an op ed or a letter to the editor in the paper that says, you know, the earth is flat, it gives you an opportunity to go out and correct the record in ways that if you just went to the paper and said, "Hey, I want to tell everyone that the earth is round," they're going to say no. But if there's a controversy, local media will eat it up, and that gives you the opportunity to educate people. And so, even if Lisa's right about that — which is something that I say often, "even if Lisa's right" —.
Lisa Gonzalez: Who are you?
Christopher Mitchell: We still should take that opportunity and view it as an opportunity to use that to get our education efforts out there.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, so the last thing I wanted to talk about today was this recent report from the Technology Policy Institute. So the report finds that there's no conclusive economic benefits from municipal broadband, and this again cites Yoo's study as part of its background research. And I'm not a stats expert. There's some questionable methodology I think that's used, but doyou guys want to dig in a little bit to maybe some of the flaws in this report?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when I looked at this, it looked to me like it was an effort, again, not to honestly get a sense of what's happening out there, but to discredit municipal networks. If this was a study that said, you know, we find no discernible impact on lower taxes and improving economic development, I don't think it gets published. You know, I think the only reason this gets published and gets promoted is because it's slagging on municipal networks, and I say that because I think it's probably correct. I think the methodology is sloppy. I don't think the methodology at all tells us anything except for the fact that this is a person who wanted to try to say economic development is not discernible after you do these different equations and stuff like that. But when you start with, you know, like a small number of networks — I think it's on the order of 20 again here, isn't it?
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, I think it is 20.
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's actually fewer than 20. I think they have like a little bit more than 20 —.
Jess Del Fiacco: Or 14 networks in 22 communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. But I think even the 22 communities, I think that then to develop the model just uses a fraction of those. Our colleague Michelle went over this in some depth to get a better sense of it, but the simple fact is that there's too few examples. And this is what we've run into. I mean, I would say that when we've looked at it and when people who even devoted a lot more resources to it have looked at it, we've found that there are simply too many variables at play to understand the role of municipal fiber networks in terms of economic development. Because there's all kinds of issues from interest rates to localother policies to like, whether, you know, if you're looking at just the employment rate, um, you know, a municipal network results in a few hundred extra jobs in a large community. You can't really tell that against the background, uh, layoffs and, and the business cycles and things like that. So, the first thing I would say is that we do not know what role municipal networks play in economic development because we have too few municipal networks with too few years of data about them and there's too many variables that impact the economic development of a community. But what we do know is that local businesses clamor for municipal networks. Local businesses seem to do well with the networks, and these networks have often attracted large employers to town. We have yet to run across anyone who says, "Yeah, you know, I left that town because the telecom market was too competitive. I really prefer to go someplace where I only have one choice for business connectivity." So I find it a total non-story. I mean this is not even dog bites man. It's like dog sniffs dog story.
Lisa Gonzalez: We also know that there are more than 500 communities that are served by these networks and that more and more communities are interested in them for economic development purposes. And they come to those decisions after talking to other communities who have them and say yes because they helped our economic development. And also we know that when places like the Mackinac Center and places like Taxpayer Protection Alliance choose communities to dis on, it's always the same five or six communities. And why is that? Because there are only five or six communities —
Christopher Mitchell: No, it's because they haven't bothered to look at these ones. There's a few others.
Lisa Gonzalez: Ok, well there's not that many when you compare it to how many there are that have done well.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Lisa Gonzalez: So that's what we know. And that is, you know, I mean that is a good starting point.
Christopher Mitchell: Will Rinehart talked about this. He's at the American Action Forum. He's someone that I enjoy disagreeing with on many different issues. I think he's very honest in trying to find these trends. But you know, there's people who I think are empirical to an extent beyond the point at which we have data that can satisfy a rational process to figure out what's really happening. And so I would try to construct the model in my head, which is like, okay, is more broadband competition better or worse for local businesses? It's clearly better. I can't imagine any scenario in which having additional choices in the market is worse unless in the longer term it where to drive out choices. Like, if for instance — I mean this is a criticism that some have used illegitimately against municipal networks. If a city built a municipal network and sold its services for $1 for the purpose of driving out the existing providers, that would be bad. That would result in the longer term bad for businesses. But we don't see that. There's no evidence that there are fewer providers in cities that have municipal networks. There's evidence that there are more providers in places that have municipal networks. And so, you know, if you improve the business environment, I have to think it's good for the businesses, even if the simple fact is that there are a hundred variables that are impacting businesses, that that changed their rates of success. If you improve a few of those, you're going to be better on average I have to think. I mean, it's just sort of the way it works. And so, you know, I'm not gonna spend a lot of time or dollars trying to like figure out like, "Oh, if you build a municipal network, if you hold, hold all other things constant, do your businesses do like 1.3% better?" I'm glad that there are people out there who are trying to figure that out. It's not my role, and frankly, I don't think that that's where we're at in this particular field to move us forward.
Lisa Gonzalez: Agreed.
Jess Del Fiacco: So that's all I have today for crazy talk broadband articles. Is there anything else you guys wanted to talk about?
Christopher Mitchell: Are there any states that we haven't properly insulted? As we close the episode, I would just like to note that we are working on trying to collect examples of municipal digital inclusion programs where there's a municipal network, and so I would like to encourage people, if you have examples of what municipal networks are doing to improve the digital divide specifically — some of the most recent announcements of networks where they're just starting to build, including Fort Collins, Colorado, and Hillsboro, Oregon, they're really aggressive and making sure that low income folks can be connected. Gou know, we've talked a lot about Wilson. We know that all of the communities in Tennessee are constrained by state law in terms of how they price their services from doing these sorts of things, but we'd really like to dig into the different programs that municipal networks have in part because I think we want to challenge them to do more. And that's something that I feel like it can be difficult in the early years of a network when you're just trying to make sure it all cashflows and everything else, but it's an important piece of municipal networks that I think we can start to benchmark and talk about who's doing it really well. So that's something we're going to be working on over the next several months and we encourage people to reach out to us if they'd have any interest in sharing information or telling us how we should do it.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was our communication specialist, Jess Del Fiacco, Christopher, and myself covering some of the misinformation that's been in the news lately. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 anywhere 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 377 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.