Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Doubling the Number of Municipal Networks in the Next Five Years - Episode 563 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
May 2022 witnessed something remarkable: the birth of a new nonprofit advocacy organization whose sole purpose was to speak up for the hundreds of communities that have built municipal broadband networks, and the thousands more that want to but don't know where to start. Now, the American Association for Public Broadband has named as its Executive Director as Gigi Sohn, former Biden nominee to the Federal Communications Commission. And she's ready to get to work.
Gigi joins Christopher on the podcast this week to talk about standing up support systems to promote and defend community-driven models to double the number of municipal systems in the next five years - including providing resources and countering dark-money astroturf campaigns - while also making sure the Internet stays as open and equitable as possible, and not squandering the promise of BEAD.
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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.
Gigi Sohn (00:07):
There is no organization up until now that has been solely focused on the community broadband models.
Christopher Mitchell (00:15):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I'm sitting up here in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I'm choking on the wildfires from Canada. Thanks a lot, guys. But I have a really fun conversation in store today. We are talking with Gigi Sohn, who is someone who I'm guessing everyone knows you know, something about your background, Gigi but you are currently juggling two major tasks Benton Senior Fellow, where you're a public advocate, and you're the executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband. Welcome.
Gigi Sohn (00:54):
It's great to be here, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell (00:56):
It's really great to to be talking to you. I am, I'm excited to talk about a couple different topics. A lot about how municipal networks are under attack and public networks are are something that have, have been prioritized in legislation, but perhaps not in actual deed. And we'll get into that. But we'll start by just talking a little bit about what you're up to with these two organizations and what they are. We're gonna talk about Benton first, 'cause we're gonna talk about at least. So, Benton wonderful organization, Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, if I remember correctly. Yeah. So what are you doing with Benton?
Gigi Sohn (01:35):
So, I am working with a bunch of folks in three states in Missouri, in Arizona, and in Pennsylvania. And we have a state coordinator in each state, all happen to be women. And they are basically building statewide coalitions to not over, not only oversee the spending of the, you know, of the money that came outta the infrastructure bill or the BEAD money, money. I assume that folks that listen to your podcast know all about the BEAD money. But it's more than that. I mean, that's sort of the initial kind of, that's the entry drug, is the BEAD money, rebuild state interest and con state constituency interests in broadband and broadband policy in an effort to get the states more engaged. So, starting with the pandemic, the states realized that they could no longer just leave broadband policy and broadband funding to the feds.
Right? They found they found themselves with kids who couldn't go to school, and people who couldn't go to work. So they started to pick up the mantle because the federal government had given that authority away, if you remember you know the Trump F c C. So you really start to get engaged in the policy. Unfortunately, in the early part of this century, the big telecoms and cable comms went to the states and said, you don't need to worry about this broadband nonsense. The Feds will take care of it. So a lot of them gave up their authority. So ultimately, what I'd like to see once we, you know, get past the BEAD funding issues, which is gonna take a while, it'll take a couple years, is for, you know, organizations of all kinds to ask the state to reinstate its authority, to oversight authority over broadband. So I'm excited to work at the state level. Missouri is actually unbelievably well in advance of the other two. But we've got, like I said, great state coordinators, and I'm, I'm very, very high in this project.
Christopher Mitchell (03:33):
Yeah. And you mentioned multiple occasions that the local and state are where it's at. That's where the action is now.
Gigi Sohn (03:40):
Christopher Mitchell (03:41):
So, just just for, for people who aren't as familiar why, why is that the case?
Gigi Sohn (03:46):
Number one, the Communications Act anticipates the states being involved. Okay. But the feds basically at the behest, really, of a lot of the you know, big cable and telecoms, they were sort of preeminent for about 20, 30 years. And and the states got out of it again, at the behest of these big companies. So again, now the states realize, and, and remember, the infrastructure bill gives all the money to the states. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So they have no <laugh>, they don't have a choice. They have to be engaged, they have to care. But my idea is I've built coalitions like this at the federal level, but now it's time to build up at the state level. And it's much more, it's much more time intensive. And again, I can't just walk into Missouri and Arizona and Pennsylvania and say, oh, Gigi Sohn's here. I'm gonna build you a coalition. That's why we're, we're working with folks who actually live in those states and know this issue to build a coalitions.
Christopher Mitchell (04:47):
Yes. And that's what, that's what I agree we need, because that's where the accountability will come from. And that's one of the things that has been sorely lacking is is accountability on where money has gone and, and who's regulating and that sort of a thing. But we could talk about that a whole lot. But let's jump over to the American Association for Public Broadband. What, what is this group for people who haven't been listening to my past shows? People who just saw your name in the podcast feed and decided to listen for the first time in a while?
Gigi Sohn (05:16):
So, AAPB is the only trade organization that is 100% dedicated to the promotion and defense of community broadband. So there are other trade associations that focus on getting fiber out there. Fantastic. You know, they focus on, you know, ensuring that, you know, rural communities and tribal communities get connected. This is all great, but there is no organization up until now that has been solely focused on the community broadband models. And that's my goal. So the three things I wanna do with this organization quite simply is, number one, I wanna grow the field. So now there's, what about 700 municipal community broadband systems? I wanna double that amount in five years. I wanna defend against the attacks like we just saw in Bountiful City, Utah, which I'm more than happy to talk about. And third, I wanna provide a place where, so there's a lot of interest now among vendors who never cared one wit about community broadband, you know, accounting firms, law firms, equipment builders, you know, software builders. They all see that this is a model whose time has come mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and particularly with all the money floating out there, see great opportunities for it. I mean, I want to give them an opportunity to talk to communities about working with them. And, and similarly, if there's a community thinking about building and don't, you know, don't have the slightest idea, I wanna provide them the resources. But the, the main two things really are to, to promote, promote, promote, and defend, defend, defend.
Christopher Mitchell (06:56):
And you said, thinking about, right, these don't have to be communities where they've already voted to put money into it. This is AAPB is an organization that fits almost any local government that wants to take an interest in solving these issues, is my impression.
Gigi Sohn (07:11):
Yes. And I will tell you, now that we've had our first victory in Bountiful City I'm moving towards doing something that I'm hearing from a lot of communities that are thinking about, it's like, it sounds great. I see all these successful models by having the slightest idea how to start. So I wanna create a toolkit, a primer, and a series of webinars that basically walk community officials through this is how you do it. And following on that, start a mentorship program. So, you know, you've got all these communities in Utah and Colorado and Tennessee and North Carolina that have done it and done it successfully. Pair them with, I know there are communities in New Jersey who are itching to do this. And, and, and, you know, communities like all over the country, Penn, well, Pennsylvania has a very bad barrier, but there are folks all over the country who are really seriously thinking about doing this, but don't know where to start. And it would be great to sort of pair them with a community that has not only started, is finished and done so successfully.
Christopher Mitchell (08:15):
Now, hearing you say that, I, I just have to say, like, I've been in this business for 16 years and, and I think of you as someone who led on the net neutrality fight on title two, you know, big national issues. You you know, municipal broadband has been a loud niche, but it seems to me like you're seeing a very strong future for this well beyond what it's done in the past, which is, you know, and despite very high profile successes, you noted there's 700 out of, like, tens of thousands of municipalities,
Gigi Sohn (08:48):
Right? I mean, it's still a very small niche. Right? Look, when I, I was at the FCC under Tom Wheeler, we tried to preempt the laws of the states of Tennessee and, and North Carolina, which prohibited community broadband systems from growing, going beyond their footprint. We didn't succeed. And the federal government, frankly, has very limited power unless Congress would like to pass a law, which let's not, let's not put that any money on that, right? <Laugh>. But, you know, people always say, well, you know, you were involved in these big federal issues. Like, why do you care about this niche issue? Well, first of all, I've always been passionate about it. Like, you know, I would travel to all these places that had just built like Westminster, Maryland, right? I would, I would go and give speeches at openings. And, and I also just love the people because it's not a partisan issue.
Like, I'll re, I remember when I went to the Westminster, Maryland Grand opening, these Republican county council members came up to me and they said, Gigi, we begged Verizon and Comcast to build, and Westminster and Westminster's about 75 miles west of Baltimore. And it's nothing but cornfields. It's beautiful, but it's, it, it's like, it's really rural, not that far from a major urban area. We begged them to come build and they wouldn't do it. And this is, this is what we had to do. And I just love that. Right? I love that, that it wasn't like, you know, it wasn't a partisan issue at all. It was about, we have this community. It's a vibrant community. There's a college there, but we can't, we can't attract young people to our community unless we do this. I, I just, I just felt a lot of joy.
And I, I I announced that I was gonna be doing this job at the broadband communities conference. You were there in Houston. And I just loved hanging out with the local folks. I mean, they, they really care, again, about, about serving their citizens. Like, I don't wanna get into details about my nominations process, but what you see a lot in Washington DC is you have these people who are elected representatives, and they don't give a rat about what their constituents want. Right? All, all they care about is, you know, where's my next next check coming from? And that's, its polar opposite of state and local that I find is what they care about is how do I serve my people? Because they're not happy if they can't get really fast broadband that maybe their relatives have in a city. So it's just, it's a, it's a different level of, of com. It's community, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But it's a different level of, of comradery. And I really enjoy it a lot.
Christopher Mitchell (11:18):
Well, before we get into the, the more depressing and, and, and more of an area of conflict around the attacks against municipal networks and, and what's happening there. I didn't wanna, I wanna put this in context. 'cause I feel like too many people think of this the Internet as something that's baked. Like, we kind of like, it's, it's done, it's mature, and here's someone that has worked on radio and television, and you have a perspective, I think, of those industries in knowing that the Internet is still developing. And we could lose it. Like, we could, we could lose it, kind of like we lost cable TV and, and broadcast radio. So just a word on that, if you don't mind.
Gigi Sohn (11:53):
No, absolutely. I wouldn't call it mature. I'd call it immature <laugh> <laugh>. I mean, we really are in an inflection point. I mean, first of all, like the federal government is throwing tens of billions of dollars to get everybody connected. And we have to make sure that that's successful because the federal government between 2010 and 2020 spent about, depending on who you talk to, 50 and $75 billion to get everybody connected. And they failed, and they failed miserably. So just the fact that money is getting thrown and making sure everybody's connected is no guarantee of everything, anything. And everybody is admitting, even, you know, folks in the government that, that kind of money, 45 billion, or it's 47 billion, if you look at the middle mile money, the tribal money is not gonna do the trick. There's gotta be other investment. So we are at a critical time for making sure everybody gets connected.
And that's just the connection. And there's a whole nother conversation to be had about, you know, the, you know, the content and the services that, you know, I, I, I saw my Twitter feed turn into X, and I just didn't, I just was so discouraged, you know, <laugh>. So, but, you know, look, even the, the access part, there's still a terrible risk. And, and particularly I think we'll talk about, you know, how this, how this program, this $47 billion program could go awry of just giving it all to the same gatekeepers who, you know, made net neutrality necessary and who, you know who are charging still ridiculously high prices for something that's should be practically a commodity at this point. So yeah, we are in a very tenuous time, I would say, both on broadband access, which is really what I focus on, but also just on the future of the Internet as a tool for democracy, as opposed to a tool for just hate and trolling and just, you know, and, and, and, and bad health. There's so much that broadband enables. That's good. We can't let it be captured by the, the, the folks that are bad.
Christopher Mitchell (14:03):
Yeah. No, I'm, I'm sharing that vision. And what's nice is, as you know, through your career, is that there are voices on all sides who share our vision for a vibrant democratic medium, not just the one that's controlled by the people that can write the biggest checks. Correct. so the the attacks on the municipal networks are coming fast and furious. You, you started at AAPB, right? Right. As Bountiful Utah was, was a suffering one. So tell us what was happening there.
Gigi Sohn (14:31):
I'll tell you all about the road to Bountiful. It's bountiful city. The city went through like a three year process to, you know, to figure out how to own its own network. And they went to the incumbents who were CenturyLink and Comcast first and said, okay, this is the network we want. Would you like to work with us? And they said, nah, nah, not really interested. We're, we're, we're cool with what we're doing, you know, delivering slow and expensive broadband. We're, we're, we're cool with that. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So they un underwent a feasibility study, and they had an R F P process, which again, the incumbents were invited to apply to. And in May of this year, the city council voted by a five zero unanimous decision to partner with UTOPIA Fiber, which provides network services throughout open access services throughout the state of Utah and also in Bozeman, Montana.
And I think they're also probably going into Canada. They decided to contract with them again, no controversy supported by the community. And in June, a group called the Utah Taxpayers Association, which, you know, is very vague as ma many dark money groups are. Like, you don't know who runs them. You don't know who's on their board. You don't know who funds them. Hired a group called Gather Utah to gather signatures to put the decision whether to move forward with this network, which would already been decided by the city council to a vote on the November ballot. Okay. And these are signature gatherers that only get paid if they get, get a signature. So they're going around to homes. And by testimony in front of the city council, many of them said, oh, well, we represent the government. Many of them said, we support the Fiber Broadband project.
So, you know, people, you've probably done it. I've done it where, oh, it sounds great, you know, set the signature. And had they succeeded, which they did not, we found out last week, yay. They didn't have enough signatures of registered voters to put this to the ballot, but they did at one point. But the city council really pushed very, very hard to get people to remove their signatures from the ballot. And I did have this op-ed and the Salt Lake Tribune, which I hope raised the profile. I will tell you, I heard from a lot of friends who live in the area, including a former mayor of Salt Lake City, a guy named Ralph Becker all said, oh, we saw this. It was great. So hopefully I had a role in raising the profile and just saying, okay, these are deceitful tactics. You don't know who's behind them.
We can guess who's behind them. But in any event, this is not what they say it is. And in fact, many, many, many people took their names off the petition. So the petitions fell short. And had they succeeded pushing the question to November, well, first of all, shovels were supposed to go into the ground this month, July. Well, obviously, you know, it's not gonna happen. It's not gonna happen in August. But had they succeeded in pushing it to November, given construction schedules mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and the, and the weather and everything, it probably wouldn't have been started network probably wouldn't have been started till next April. And Utopia would've had to reprice a lot of things, right? 'cause Prices go up. So it would've cost, you know, by some estimates, would've cost the city another million or two to complete the project. This is assuming it got over the finish line, which it probably would have, right? That I, I think the members of the community would've voted for it, but it would've, it just would've, you know put in so much delay. And, you know, look, the companies would've had four more months to try to convince people to vote against it. They'd make up some nonsense reason why they should vote against it. So this was a huge victory for bountiful city. It's a huge victory for community broadband. And I, I consider a victory for AAPB as well.
Christopher Mitchell (18:19):
Yes. I, I absolutely think so, because without a coordinated response, then people would not have been out there taking their names off of it. And it wouldn't have been raised to that level of visibility. We saw this before in Longmont, Colorado, when they, in 2009 had an election. And Comcast via the, the Colorado Cable Association dropped at that point a record amount of money on the election. And and, and what we heard was that, you know, people voted no, like 60, 65%. And then afterward we're like, wait, what did I vote no on? You know? And that's when they did the research, and they immediately started gonna city council and saying, we wanna redo, like, we wanna do it over again. So these tactics work, right? Longmont would've been built two years earlier, if not for that. So there's a real history of these things working. This is not this is them throwing sand in the gears delaying the time in which they would lose a monopoly. And that's what we see. You know, and, and you mentioned the taxpayers group. I don't think you've ever been approached by a taxpayers group on all the work that you've done that said, you know what? We're really concerned about this money going to at and t, right? Like, <laugh>, it's not something that happens <laugh>.
Gigi Sohn (19:29):
No, no. It really does not. And, and again, this wasn't gonna affect the taxpayers 'cause they weren't, they weren't u using tax bonds. So it's just a bunch of nonsense. And again, it's, it's, it's companies hiding behind dark money groups, hiding behind a second dark money group, like the Gather, Utah mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, you couldn't figure mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, they didn't even have a website, couldn't even figure out who they were either. And, you know, part of the role I see for AAPB is to what I say, send the bat signal when this kind of thing is happening. So if, if any folks in communities who are starting to build or looking to build or have already built, 'cause I don't think it, it matters whether or not you already have a <laugh> a network up. They're still gonna try to screw you up. Let me know, g gss o atb.us. Let me know if this is happening, and I will do my level best to raise the alarm. And it's, it is nice to have a, a, a first win. I've only been doing this for six weeks, and it's, it's good to, to start off at the out of the box this way.
Christopher Mitchell (20:30):
Yes. And it's also good as a reminder. I mean, this is you know, Utah is not known as being a a haven for even sewer socialists, let alone the, the proper people who would call themselves socialists. So <laugh> like, it's a, it's a reminder, once again, a theme that you and I have hit on a couple of times that this is not a partisan issue.
Gigi Sohn (20:49):
I mean, what, what mayor, what governor doesn't want to, you know, run for reelection on, I got fast, broad, affordable broadband to everybody, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I mean, this is, again, it's like if your grid goes down, you don't have electricity or water, like you have lousy water. I mean, you know, for all intents and purposes, it's the same thing. I was just actually in Okra K Island, North Carolina, where I had a, a vacation. Although this guy who has a, a public radio show recognized me <laugh>. So I had to do this public radio show on my way out. And I was describing it like they've been having all kinds of problems with the ferry. You can only get to Okra Oak Island by ferry. It's the southern most island in the outer banks of North Carolina. I said, it's just like the ferry, right?
Yep. I mean, if, if it doesn't work, people are not going to stay for any length of time on Okracoke Island because it, it can't tell you can't. And, and by the way, the only way you get medical care for more than a cold in okra, crook Island is if you either have telehealth or you get medevaced out of there. So having rural, you know, real strong rural healthcare is, is, is really, really important. So you're starting to, I'm sorry to just hear from these small communities saying places like New Jersey, the state of New Jersey saying we're, you know, we're so dissatisfied with the service we have. This has gotta be better if we're gonna attract business, if we're gonna attract tourists, if we're gonna attract residents, young residents. So it's, it's pretty universal. But now, again, my challenge is to get the tools in people's hands and get them to overcome whatever fear they might have about doing this.
'cause It's not a small thing, you know, that, you know this Chris, right? Yep. It's not a small thing to build this network. It's, it takes foresight, it takes money, and it takes a thick skin. And this is what was amazing, the bountiful city, city council, you kind of look at them, and they're mostly young, and, you know, they punch back, you know, they had a special town hall, which was either seen or attended by 1600 people. It's not a big city, okay. On this, on the whole issue of the, of the, of the petition and the, and, and the broadband network. So people care deeply about it, and they were like, no, we're not just gonna, we made this decision. We spent three years doing all these studies and doing this. Right. And we are not gonna be waylaid by, you know, some industry backed dark money group. And so I give them all the credit in the world.
Christopher Mitchell (23:11):
Yes. And I would, I would highlight a couple of things. There is where we're gonna move into BEAD in a second. BEAD BEAD is primarily for folks that don't have anything. But if you're talking about bountiful, and if you're talking about most cities in New Jersey where, and similar with other areas that Utopia has expanded into, these are areas where there is a level of service that the F c C maps would show are totally served, right? There's some level of cable, and sometimes even in New Jersey, fiber optic service, because Verizon has built so much of that. But in many cases, it's not getting the job done, whether that's affordability or something else. And so that's something that AAPB will be working on, is both areas that have no service, but increasingly areas that have something, but it's not getting the job done.
Gigi Sohn (23:58):
Yeah. And you and I have talked about this, right? You know, about whether community broadband is probably gonna be more in those, you know, in those gap areas, or are filling the gaps as opposed to going out to far out rural areas. I, I hope it could be both, but I think, I think you're right. It's probably gonna be more the former than the latter.
Christopher Mitchell (24:17):
Yeah. So BEAD came about the, the Biden administration to its immense credit came out and said, we wanna fix all the markets. We want to do all this. We're gonna put a hundred billion dollars into it. And Congress disagreed but still kept a lot of the, the, the idea that, that this would be it would, it would have to be eligible to all cities and public entities and tribes. And then they also put a lot of other rules that I've spent a lot of time complaining about <laugh>. I'm not gonna rehash those here. But I, I think you, as you've been dealing, dealing with this, are starting to get more and more concerned about whether cities truly are gonna have a shot at this money.
Gigi Sohn (24:57):
Yeah. I am concerned, and I don't wanna put blame on, I, I think what happened here is a, a combination of things is number one, you know, the, the infrastructure bill was passed, what, in September of 2021. Right. And at very short timelines and, you know, the head of N T I A, Alan Davidson is a great guy, and I think is, you know, doing a really good job, did get on board till January. At that point, he had, what, like four months to sort of do the initial role rules. So everything's been, you know, fast, fast, fast. A lot of the, the things that I'm concerned about, or at least one in particular, was borrowed from the F C C, and I think it was misguided. I'll talk about that. That's the requirement that a, a sub-grantee have a letter of credit mm-hmm.
<Affirmative>. so I think things were, you know, because of the rush, rush rush, things were kind of borrowed quickly without maybe fully thinking about how they might impact the folks that you know, that, that might wanna go for these grants. And then there's just the political expediency, and we saw this with the R D O, right? Where at, you know, right before the, the 2020 election as <INAUDIBLE> pushes out, you know, $9 billion of the, or was it $16 billion, excuse me, of the R D O F and gives it to a whole bunch of entities that couldn't build, and they should have known, couldn't build and they went ahead and, you know, pushed out the money anyway because they wanted, you know, then President Trump to be able to say, oh, look at all this money I gave to rural areas. Look rural folks, I'm serving you. Even though a lot of those grants we're not really serving rural folks. So they, I, I think there's a similar desire among the Biden administration. It's understandable, but it concerns me because I don't think speed makes necessarily good policy in this space.
Christopher Mitchell (26:49):
Right? We don't want to go too slow. We don't wanna go too fast. There's a middle ground we need to be hitting.
Gigi Sohn (26:53):
There's a middle ground we need to be hitting. And, you know, look, the money is not gonna go out by 2024 anyway, right. The timelines. But I think they wanna be able to say it's just about here. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, like they did the, they, the White House had a huge gathering when it announced the allocations to the different states. And, you know, the numbers were kind of mind boggling, right? I mean, what Texas got $3 billion? I mean, Missouri, which I'm working in, got 1.8 billion. So, you know, they want more of those kind of moments where they could say, look at what President Biden has brought to your state. But again, you know, sometimes rushing things allows for things not to get fixed that maybe need to get fixed. So I don't know if there's any way to slow things down, but I'm hoping that all the concern that I'm hearing from a lot of folks at the state and local level, even at the federal level to get some of these problems fixed, will, it will still happen. I mean, again, it's, I, I understand N t I is feeling overwhelmed. You know, the F C C has a role to play in this as well, but if you don't do it right, then we're just gonna repeat the same mistakes that we made between 2010 and 2020, and who wants that,
Christopher Mitchell (28:07):
Right? We're not gonna get into it. I have perhaps over ranted on the the data that we, we still don't have <laugh> that's accurate. But but let's talk about that letter of credit. And for people who are interested I feel like connect humanity put out a recent blog post that, that goes over some of the numbers to help people get an appreciation of, of just what a hassle it is for both local private companies as well as there's additional hurdles for public entities. So, so when you say letter of credit is a, is one of your big concerns, why is that?
Gigi Sohn (28:39):
Well, because you, you have to put aside so much money to get the letter of credit. A a a small local community doesn't have that. A small business, a minority owned business, a woman owned business is unlikely to have that kind of money to just stick in the bank until you're done in four years. Right. The big guys, even though I'll tell you, they're complaining about it, they hate it too, but they can do it, right? I mean, you know, you've gotta put aside 25% of whatever your grant is, that's gonna be, you know, maybe tens of millions of dollars in a lot of cases, you know, the small entity, they don't have any money until they get the grant. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, right? So where are they gonna get money for cashflow and that sort of thing. Where are they gonna find this money? Look, I am not unsympathetic to the desire of the federal government to make sure that its investment is a good investment, right?
That make sure that the networks are being built and that there's some accountability. But there are other ways to do this with smaller entities. You can have performance bonds, you can have insurance, you can have some other guarantor other than a bank. And what's interesting is, I was on a phone call, if anybody's interested in getting more involved in this issue, there is light reading just had a, a story about a new coalition that A A P B is part of. And I think Benton will probably be part of too, I hope that is pushing back on the letter of co credit requirement, but also proposing alternatives. It's not enough to crab. You have to have a, you have to have an alternative. If anybody's interested, again, they could just email me firstname.lastname@example.org if people are interested in joining the coalition, they should let me know.
But one of the things, I was on a, a call that actually already had two dozen people on it. And there were bankers. A lot of bankers were on that call mm-hmm. <Affirmative> because they know they would be able to issue these le, which I, I found actually somewhat surprising. 'cause I think they wanna back, they wanna back these programs, but, you know, they know these entities can't get letters of credit. So this is the big one, I think, I think of, of, of, I've got four concerns. But of all the concerns, I think this one is, is the biggest one. And again, it affects Muni, obviously, but also affects the other kind of diverse networks that we want. Right? If we wanna just throw it all to, you know, to the, the big cable comms and telecoms, then this works just fine. But, you know, that wasn't the purpose. If you recall, very early on in the conversations about broadband policy and the infrastructure bill, the Biden administration actually wanted to give a leg up to community broadband.
Christopher Mitchell (31:25):
Yes. They wanted competition. Yes, exactly. Right.
Gigi Sohn (31:27):
Exactly. That was, that was, you know, all part of the big competition agenda that my friend Tim Wu put together. And that got pushed aside, you know in, and instead it says, well, you can't exclude these non-traditional broadband providers. Okay, that's fine. But when you have rules like this that just by effect disadvantage them, then you're going in the exact opposite direction from where you started.
Christopher Mitchell (31:53):
Yeah. Doug Dawson has outlawed some of the labor ones as well. So I don't know if those are on your list of four, but I think one of the other things on your list is that states may still not really give a actual shot to public entities to get the money.
Gigi Sohn (32:08):
Yeah. So even though the law, I'm a lawyer, I haven't really practiced it in a long time, but, you know, one of the things I learned as a baby lawyer working for a guy named Andy Schwartzman, the media access project, was if the law's clear, then that's the end of the matter. Okay? The law says that you cannot exclude nontraditional broadband provider is yet the N tia's notice of funding opportunity. The NOFO says, well, you just have to tell us if you're gonna screw them. And I just, I don't understand that there was, you know, there was an opportunity. I understand the pressure, but you have a law that says this, all you need to do is recite it. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Okay. Now, do I expect that in the states where, you know, the law says no way, no how over our dead bodies, you will have a, you know, community broadband sys network.
There's no community broadband network there to favor or disfavor. But there's a lot of states, as you know, Chris, where there are limitations, but there are plenty of community broadband providers, North Carolina and Tennessee being, you know, two of the most well known Utah being another. Well, can those states, can they exclude them? Could they prejudice them in any way or in any state, whether you have a restriction or not. And yeah, I, I, you know, understand N T I A doesn't wanna preempt any law, but you know, that there's a, there's a lot of space there between disfavor community broadband and preempting the law. So I think the caution is, it's a little too much caution for my taste. Again, if they can't clear up the ambiguity, that at least acted in a way that makes it very, very clear. Like when they're going over these state grant applications, like, no, no, no, you can't do this.
Christopher Mitchell (33:51):
Nancy Warner went over this with me in episode 4 98 of the community Broadband Bits podcast. And I highly recommend that because like you, she's a lawyer. I'm not. And so, you know, I, I offered a little bit of the sort of like the pushback that I've been dealing with internally, which is that, can I imagine a situation in which N T I A withholds money from North Carolina for some period of time? Like, it's a little hard to believe in an election year, but that is also their job, and that is what the law says. And they should at least act like they're going to do that <laugh>.
Gigi Sohn (34:23):
Yeah. Well, we'll see. You know, look, there's gonna be a lot of pressure. But that's, you know, again, that's what the law says. And that's, again, if there was ambiguity in the law, I might not be happy, but I'd give them a little bit more rope. But there's no ambiguity in the law mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And at a certain point, you've gotta kind of put your foot down and say, look, we want competition. We want di a diversity of sub-grantees. We don't just want the big guys to win everything. And that, you know, this is what the administration wants, you know, and this is what we're gonna get. So, you know, maybe they purposefully were vague just to not invite any controversy at the get go. But I'm hoping by the time it gets to, and, and I will be talking to them once, once it gets down to brass tax mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and are you gonna get your money or not? I hope they are very, very, very careful about what the, what the state is, is intending to do.
Christopher Mitchell (35:19):
Yes. So you listed four concerns, and I wanna hold you to that. And so with letter of credit whether or not the states are able to deny sub cities to be sub-grantees what are other top concerns? So
Gigi Sohn (35:34):
The, the other two are not just concerns of community broadband, but there also concerns, I think of a lot of others is this new requirement that within one year of approving the initial grant application, so when the final grant application is submitted, it has to have all the sub-grantees figured out. And Doug, I just
Christopher Mitchell (35:53):
Learned about this. This is crazy to me. I I don't understand how you could justify that <laugh>.
Gigi Sohn (35:58):
Well, Doug Dawson did write a really, really good piece about how, actually, how long it actually takes to figure this all out. And it's just, again, it just seems like a recipe to throw the money to the big guys.
Christopher Mitchell (36:10):
Yeah. Right. Yeah. I mean, because as Doug has explored in other areas as well I can imagine that many sub-grantees are wrestling with whether or not they can actually comply with so many different requirements that are so poorly spelled out, some of which directly conflict with, with how the industry does business. And I'm not talking about having to buy something from the United States that cost 25% more. I'm talking about the fundamental ways in which specialized labor works. Right. Like a small I s P doesn't need a horizontal boring team necessarily if they're not doing it very often. Right. And so, like, it's just, it's very, it's very complicated. And I am deeply concerned on the, the show that I do with Doug called Connect This you know, we've been joking about whether it was 60% or 90% of the money that's going to the big companies. And every week that goes by, I'm like, oh, man, it's getting closer to 90 in my mind, unless there's some serious changes in how N T I A plans to actually enforce these rules.
Gigi Sohn (37:09):
Yeah. Yeah. I, I, like I said, I hope that good policy wins over political expediency, and they take a step back and say, okay, or they're hearing from enough people. And I think it's critically important that, you know, folks weigh in with N T I A and, and express their concern because the last, you know, look, the what was the name of the program under Obama? I, I, it's b o btop.
Christopher Mitchell (37:37):
Yep. I thought,
Gigi Sohn (37:37):
I, I thought Btop generally went very, very well. But it, I think if you ask, you know, the, the average person who knows anything about Btop, whether it's success, they would say no and hell no.
Christopher Mitchell (37:47):
Right? There was a few awards that were demagogued but you know, there was a lot of successful ones that continued to provide significant gains to communities. And frankly, I mean, one of the things that I've seen is that the ones, some of the ones that were initial successes have gone on to be less successful because they were captured. And the, and the bigger companies that took them over did not adhere to the rules. And N T I A never bothered following up to enforce its rules on openness and things like that.
Gigi Sohn (38:14):
I mean, I think enforcement is critical. Right. Enforcement accountability, which leads me to my last point. Yeah. point of concern, and that is the fact that those areas who've gotten R D O F and CALF awards, like, does anybody remember the C Connect America Fund? That was a long time ago, <laugh> but they got 10 years to build a network. So it's still live that those areas, even though those areas are likely to go into a default, the the, the networks are likely to default on, on their promises are still considered served. So I was on a call with an equipment manufacturer, I don't remember which one who told me that in southern Mississippi alone, there's 25,000 census blocks that are covered by R D O F winners that are likely to default small. Now, Mississippi is, was one of the biggest grant recipients, right? Right. I mean, it's, it's got some serious connectivity issues
Christopher Mitchell (39:08):
Despite at and t getting think $300 million all told from the Connect America Fund. Right. which I just, you know, just you were, you were there seeing those conversations. I'm sure you remember O'Reilly saying that we need to get people a Chevy before we got them a, a Ferrari or whatever he was saying at the time. And they didn't even get the dang Chevy. Like, just, just, I mean, it's just, it's so infuriating. So I'm sorry to jump in with that, but like, Mississippi's, one of my, my hotbeds, 'cause it's like, you know, it's a third of a billion dollars, went to deliver nothing to people in Mississippi, and now they're R D O, which may not deliver. And just the promises that have been made and not kept, I mean, that's why I'm hoping cities in Mississippi are hearing this and, and joining to try and get their voice heard. Because in many cases they don't feel like they're heard in the, in the state legislature. I mean, that's one of the dynamics that we see there. No one's listening to those cities.
Gigi Sohn (40:00):
Well, it's interesting because their senators Wicker and Hyde Smith sent the letter to chairwoman Rwl saying, you know, what could be done about this? And she just kind of pun, I don't know if you saw the if you saw her response, it was just like, well, you know, we expect people to keep to their promises. <Laugh>, it was a total punt. Right? it was a total punt. And what's been also interesting in the letter of credit the group that I met with last week is a lot of the folks were from Mississippi and Senator Wicker is very, very interested in trying to do something about it. So, you know, what could be done, you know, one idea I've heard thrown around by a number of people, including some state broadband office leaders, is if you, if you know you're on the road to default, you get a get outta jail free card, you know, you don't suffer.
You just basically say, look, I can't, I can't do this. So it puts the right, it puts those areas back on the map. Is it ideal? No, but again, this is sometimes you gotta compromise in order to get good policy. And what is not good policy is that these areas that are unserved, which is the whole point of this program, right, is this areas that are unserved or continue to be unserved because of grants made years ago and networks not built, right? So how do, how do we find a way to get those areas back on the unserved map on back on the BEAD map? And it's, it's gonna take a little bit of the government saying, okay, well, you know, maybe things didn't work out here, but we have a whole nother tranche of money and here's how we, you know, here's how we do it. And certainly the f CCC knows who's not keeping up to their construction schedules. They know who's in trouble. So give them the pass and let's get those areas served. But the, the letter was not heartening.
Christopher Mitchell (41:50):
I'll say one other thing, which I don't know. You track this, you know much better than I do. If we want a business model that works in Mississippi, we need an A C P that is funded into the future <laugh>. We don't have time to get into that, but I hope Senator Wicker recognizes that and will be fighting to make sure that the, a CCP has the funds necessary because of that deep poverty that you see across Mississippi.
Gigi Sohn (42:12):
Well, I, I have to address that. I'm sorry, Chris. Oh,
Christopher Mitchell (42:15):
Please. I, I wouldn't, I wouldn't deny that.
Gigi Sohn (42:17):
Well, what's in been interesting is, you know, eight, eight Republican senators, including Senator Wicker, sent a letter to the president saying, you have to re-fund this. And, you know, I know there are some democrats that care, but nobody is pounding the table. I've complained to high level staffers. I said, why is your boss not like putting out statements like one member of the house put a statement about rip and replace, which is this is, you know, ripping out the Chinese equipment for Right. Rural wireless carriers are putting in American equipment. And, and I said, okay, you put out a statement about that. Where's your statement in a c p? Well, he mentioned it at a hearing. He asked a question about it. I'm like, that's not, somebody needs to wake up every single day and say, how do we get this program refunded if I, if it's happening? I don't see it. I don't know if you see it, but I haven't seen it.
Christopher Mitchell (43:05):
No, no. I think it is disheartening the, the lack of attention we see from people that want to issue press releases about how great it is that we're building broadband with money they voted against, but <laugh> <laugh> otherwise. So, Gigi it is, is wonderful. I wanna recap though, for people you know AAPB is the American Association for Public Broadband. It's an organization that has been around for about a year looking for someone vibrant to to really get it going. You're here now. I hope people will encourage their cities to join it. We really need to, to do this because this is not something that's gonna be solved anytime soon. Like I don't think in 10 years you're not thinking, you know, you're gonna be either retired or working on a different telecom issue. Like broadband is something we'll be working on for a long time.
Gigi Sohn (43:56):
Yeah. I do wanna encourage and not just, you know, public officials and cities, you know, vendors, anybody who wants to work with this community and anybody who just loves the idea of community broadband. I am, that is part of my job. In addition to writing op-eds and, and, and doing, you know, toolkits, I'm also trying to grow the membership because again, the more we have, I think it just creates like a rolling stone and it becomes inevitable that communities that wanna do this will do it and they won't be stopped. So I wanna be a force to be reckoned with, not just individually, but as an organization. And I'm really excited. Like I said, I love the local communities. I love working with local legislatures and mayors and such. And so I'm looking forward to building this community in a big way.
Christopher Mitchell (44:43):
Excellent. Thank you so much for your time today.
Gigi Sohn (44:45):
Of course. Thanks so much, Chris.
Ry Marcattilio (44:46):
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