Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Hope and Change (Redux) - Episode 570 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast we bring back a fan favorite from a year ago that feels particularly relevant, especially as the FTC prepares itself to undertake landmark antitrust cases against Google and Amazon.
Christopher is joined by Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge. Feld is a staple of the field, and has been a consistent voice not only for consumers but broadband advocates of all types for more than two decades.
The show takes on a reflective nature, as they talk about theories of change in the context of doing broadband policy today. Harold shares how he thinks of the progress that gets made in the long term by aligning the corporate incentive with the public interest. He shares coming to terms with having lots of hard days, the power of fighting battles you expect to lose, and learning, getting better, and building powerful coalitions along the way. Harold and Christopher end the show by talking about some examples of the latter, including important wins like the Rural Tribal Priority Window and the expansion of community networks of all shapes and sizes.
This show is 48 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, the concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Harold Feld (00:07):
You gotta believe that we can continue to find ways to make a difference, and in similar situations, we have found ways to make a difference.
Christopher Mitchell (00:17):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota, and today I'm speaking with Harold Feld, the Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge. Welcome to the show.
Harold Feld (00:34):
Thank you very much,
Christopher Mitchell (00:35):
Harold. It's wonderful to have you here. You've been on the show many times to talk about specific policy issues, and in fact, since I have you, we are gonna talk about one. But I wanted to bring you on specifically to talk about something that I feel like I've learned a lot about from you. And I was recently reading and reflecting on current events, and I felt like this was a good time to talk about how change happens to the best of our knowledge.
Harold Feld (01:01):
<laugh>. Yeah. A as much as we try
Christopher Mitchell (01:04):
You, just a brief background, I think, like obviously you've been in, in telecom policy work I would call you a legend of it. at this point. You've been at it, which means you've been at it for much longer than me, <laugh>, and and you've had tremendous impact. but I, let's just briefly maybe like what's the 30 second bio you'd like to share? And then I wanna ask you for a slightly longer bio of, of how you've been thinking about like, hope and things like that. What brings you to think about that rather than just thinking about policy specifically?
Harold Feld (01:36):
There are a couple of things that I, I like to say. I've actually got a, a list of, you know, kind of felds rules and aphorisms that I've collected over the years. you know, some of which you would think would be fairly obvious, but some of them are, are worth repeating. some in particular, I'm, I'm gonna say first you gotta decide, is this about being effective or is this about feeling good? If it's about feeling good, then it's a hobby for me. This is my day job. So what I care about is being effective, which leads to a bunch of other rules that are kind of surprising to me that people don't understand. which is, first of all, advocacy is not about getting people to do the right thing for the right reasons. Advocacy is about getting people to do the right thing for their reason, which means you gotta understand the people who you're talking to.
You gotta understand the decision makers and figure out not why you think this is important, but what their objectives are, the things they care about. And what you want works with that. Sometimes that's not always possible, and in fact, sometimes what you're doing is going to other people to persuade them why they should oppose a particular thing. But even there, you gotta understand like, why would these people think that repeal of net neutrality is a bad thing? Not why do I think it's a bad thing, but why do businesses that folks in Washington are gonna listen to think it's a bad thing? How do I persuade members of the public, you know, for people who don't think about telecom policy in the future of the internet and you know, kind of all these things, what's gonna make them care?
Christopher Mitchell (03:26):
Right? And I think even there, you say member of the public, but I think we want to think about like member of a church group, you know, member of a civic association person who is already supporting a certain candidate, right? Like they, each may have different reasons, and if we have an audience with them, we want to talk with them about what motivates them, not what motivates us.
Harold Feld (03:46):
Exactly. The other things that are important is keep in mind, are you looking at something that is a short-term change or a long-term change? And if you're looking for something that's a long-term change, which I think most of us who are in it, you know, this long, are you gotta understand all true change is culture change, which is you have to get people thinking in a particular way. Because it's one thing to try to persuade people like, yeah okay, you know, I want this particular grant or this particular rule change, or, you know, this particular federal program. Those are kind of things that you can focus in on and have, you know, how does it fit within the existing framework? But if you're trying to solve some of the bigger problems, like we want everybody to be connected. We care about concentrations of corporate power and how we would like to see corporate power more dispersed, broken up, not have the influence that it has. H how we want to give everybody economic opportunity. These are things where you have to change the culture. Cuz I started advocacy in the late nineties, and that was kind of the height of the worship of the market by Democrats as well as Republicans when I came in, you know, and with talking about things like the New Deal and how it was important that government has a role in these things, you would be shushed by people. You're not supposed to say that stuff out loud. They'll think you're crazy.
Christopher Mitchell (05:28):
And even those are people on your side would shush you, people who agreed with you,
Harold Feld (05:31):
The people who agreed with you would shush you, the people who didn't agree with you would laugh at you. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it wasn't just a, okay, how do I frame things like broadband policy, net neutrality, which yeah, we were talking about even 20 years ago in market terms and, you know, economics and, and stuff that people will respect. but also how do I change the culture so that people actually think along the lines of, yeah, there is a thing called the public interest. And government has a role in in making these these decisions and in shaping these market forces, not simply, you know, letting market forces do whatever they want. And that's a long-term project, and that takes a lot of investment and a long time before you see any payoff. And of course, it's never gonna be just you.
part of the process is discovering the other people who feel the same way and who also want to change the culture so that you can be like, yeah, we're gonna team up, we're gonna, you know, work together. We're gonna not be kinda hiding in our, our rooms and, and being ashamed to say this stuff. We're gonna get it to where people agree, you know, nevermind that people view this as something acceptable, but agree. And that means invest in a lot of time. And frankly, getting a lot of heartbreak. I tell people all the time, the problem with working on something that you care passionately about and you feel is vitally important is it will break your heart consistently and repeatedly, but it's worth it. And it also requires this belief that yeah, I am actually gonna go out there and be able to change the world
Christopher Mitchell (07:25):
And it's gonna be scary and it's gonna hurt. And Right. And that gets back to this isn't a hobby, this is for real. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> I wanna use a specific example I think that I think works and that is you know, something that both you and I care about and a lot of people are working on, which is making sure that everyone can afford internet access. Right? That's not the only problem in broadband, but let's, if we just talk about that one in particular, you know, we have had these victories, right? We have the Affordable Connectivity Plan, we had Lifeline that kind of led into that in some ways. we have more people taking it seriously. We have the Digital Equity Act, we have affordability as an issue in multiple programs for broadband subsidy. It's on the top of people's minds and those are victories. But until multiple agencies within local governments in my mind are actually viewing this as something that's a part of their job, which I think is culture change then we're not gonna win on it because throwing money at it and having a few more people working on it is, is good. But like ultimately this is a problem that is so enmeshed with poverty that we can't have like one group of people solving this problem. It has to be a, a multi-front effort, which is the culture change I think that you mentioned.
Harold Feld (08:35):
Right? And you know that this is a great example of a problem when not just you and I, but so many people we could mention, I'm not gonna gonna start to list them because then I'm gonna leave out too many people, right? but on the one hand, it was a lot of people. On the other hand, it was possible to get all of us in a room together to try to plan things out. So it wasn't that many people who recognized that this was a critical issue. And, you know, when we started this just for everybody else, the popular conception was either, why the hell do I need it? I always like to tell the story of when I first started in, in 1999 and I was talking to a reporter and he said, well, why don't we care about this broadband, which was 200 kilobytes per second.
at the time I have a 56 K B P s modem, it does everything I need. Why would I care about this? And trying to explain that to people is hard. The other element of this was, well, but we're gonna have libraries and, you know, we, we've got this eRate program that's gonna make this available in schools and libraries, and why do you need to worry about this at home when you know, you, you, you have access to it somewhere you can check your email at the library. You know, what else are you gonna need? It took so much to change the thinking on this, including the thinking at agencies and among members of Congress who were sympathetic. but first of all, a lot of them were very seriously like, yeah, that's important, but you know, we got people who, you know, don't have clean water.
We got people who don't have enough to eat. Why should I care about your problem? And on the one hand, I understand that, but trying to explain, but this is part of that. This is gonna help you solve that problem. And not in obvious ways, but because if they don't have this access, they are not gonna have the tools that they need. They're not gonna be able to participate in society in a way that is important. I, you know, I wouldn't wanna say more important than clean water, but certainly, you know, critically important in the same way that access to electricity, access to clean water are important. And, you know, that was a tremendous shift and it took years and it took people being laughed at for saying, internet is a human right, or broadband is a utility. Now, it's also the case.
I have to say that some things actually resonate with people more than the conventional, certainly conventional. And the beltway wisdom understands. I was saying to people for a very long time, no, no, no. Public utility is only a bad word inside the beltway. When you go outside and talk to normal people, you know, they're like, well, yeah, I understand about electricity, I understand about the telephone. These are are things that I need. And, you know, if they were on board with the broadband is important, they were like, of course it was a utility mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And there was a culture change that we had to have within the advocacy community within the, the, the DC community for people to understand that the world had changed since 1999. You know, that there was in 2010 and 2015, you know, there was a much greater willingness outside of Washington DC to accept that there was a role for government to play in making sure that people had access to broadband, because broadband was a public utility, a thing that everybody needs in order to participate.
Now it's never a hundred percent I can, you know, find plenty of people today that are gonna tell me that, no, no broadband, you don't need that in the home or mm-hmm. <affirmative> broadband, you know, is not a public utility. That's just crazy talk, you know? But we have had a culture change as evidenced by the fact that you have Congress spending 45 billion to invest in building this out, and that people who run for the state house or for Congress campaign on bringing broadband to these unserved and underserved areas and making it affordable for people who couldn't afford it. Now, it's also the case that we had a huge external event that helped.
Christopher Mitchell (13:16):
Harold Feld (13:17):
Covid came along,
Christopher Mitchell (13:18):
Right? I mean, I think you remember as well from 2015 on, I regularly heard people saying, you know, we used to think it was a nicety, and now it's definitely a utility and it's essential. And then, and then, and, and during the pandemic, they said, well, now it's definitely the case. And I think, you know, for, I think the culture change did happen before the pandemic, and then that was just another nail in the the finishing product, let's
Harold Feld (13:40):
Say. We wouldn't have had the critical mass that we needed during Covid pandemic to think about things like, we're gonna take all of our classes online if we had not had a certain critical mass going into this. In fact, mm-hmm. <affirmative>, a lot of people, you know, this is the problem of broadband, and the need for broadband had become sufficiently clear to a lot of people that it was a shock to them that in their community they might have 20 or 30% of people who couldn't afford broadband in the home. Right. You know, here in the DC metro area have a lot of affluent suburbs. And it was a huge shock for people like, wait, wait a minute. You know, there are 20 or 30% of the kids in the class, you know, don't have affordable, reliable broadband at homes, so they can't just, you know, tune into the online classes, nevermind the discovery that there were areas in the country where, you know, they don't have this option of, of going online, so they
Christopher Mitchell (14:40):
Have to leave their home to do it.
Harold Feld (14:41):
Right. So, yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (14:43):
Well, let's, let's go in a specific direction of one that I feel like I do hear some people talking about, and I think we're gonna hear more people saying, which is a sense of we blew it. We, we didn't do a good enough job. Philanthropy is moving on to other hot topics. Now that the pandemic is kind of moving on. The federal government's put a bunch of money into it, A lot of that money is going to projects like at and t and Comcast, which are better than having nothing. But I think is not our vision of the kind of successes we would like to see. And if we had culture change and and so like we blew it and oh no. Like why? What am I gonna do with my life? Kind of
Harold Feld (15:20):
<laugh>? It's easy to feel that way, and Lord knows you will always have plenty of people who are there to tell you that mean, first of all, there's never a shortage of people to tell you that it's impossible. Right? One of my aphorisms is before it happens, it will be impossible. After it happens, it will have been inevitable, right? cuz people don't like to think that you can make a difference. But at the same time that we're seeing many things happening that are not happening in the way that we wanted to see them happen, we're seeing a lot of projects that are happening in the way that we would like to see them happen. We are seeing communities where they're getting connectivity, where it's not just, you know, the usual suspects you know, keeping 90% for themselves and, you know, giving, you know, basically building out 10% to everybody else.
Or we're, you know, we're dependent on corporate charity. and you're supposed to be grateful that Comcast is you know, having a particular, you know, this highly restrictive program before a c p before the current you know, government funded subsidy when it was the Comcast Essentials and, you know, they made a big deal about how they were rolling it out, but that it was very hard for people to enroll. So there's a lot of failures, there's a lot of successes, and we have to celebrate our successes when we get them. I also say, you know, one of the things I say a lot is, you know, is cultivate functional delusions because they're absolutely necessary. it's a peculiar mindset, and we have to believe that what we're capable of doing is making the culture shift. Maybe it will not be fully the culture shift that we want, but the two things I hate that I see a lot of are, number one, this idea that you can't make a difference. but number two, the idea that you only make these differences in little ways. You know, look, I helped a single person, look, I I managed this one little thing, but it, no, we are forcing the bigger companies to do better because however much they are kicking and screaming and not delivering, you know, the fact is that we've gone from programs that delivered inadequate broadband to a handful of people, to programs that are now delivering, I don't know, like 50 megabits down. Is that what some of these programs that have the government,
Christopher Mitchell (17:50):
I think it might have made a hundred in many cases now, right?
Harold Feld (17:52):
So yeah, it's true. And, and this is also where I need to keep in mind something like, look, I don't need Comcast to lose, for me to win,
Christopher Mitchell (18:00):
Right? I, I fully, I think that's so important for people to hear
Harold Feld (18:03):
The fact that, yeah, Comcast are getting 30 bucks a month to deliver a service to people who otherwise couldn't afford connectivity. And it's a strong and reliable service. And yeah, would I like it better if it were some scrappy startup or community-based program rather than a big company? But you know what? I don't care. They're delivering it. It's affordable. They're making a decent profit for delivering a good service, which is what I actually want. I mean, this is kind of, again, one of the biggest problems we have in our profession is people personalize this stuff and they're like, Ooh, that greedy Comcast, ooh, that greedy AT&T. I'm like, oh, no, you know, if I can align the corporate incentive with the public interest, great. That's what I want to see. And, you know, for Comcast to be getting 30 bucks a month for a service that actually delivers the goods to people who need it all, praise to Comcast, then good on that.
Christopher Mitchell (19:06):
Right? I think additionally, we have to be realistic about what we can do. We're building on a small base, which I think is expanding wonderfully, and we have a lot of great people doing good work. Comcast can connect a million people next year with internet essentials. Municipal networks cannot spring up and be built if, if instead of, of Biden in the Rhode Garden, celebrating the biggest ISPs for their, you know, commitments for supporting the a c P program with faster programs. If instead he had said, you know what, we're gonna, we're just gonna give like, way more money than anyone expected to municipal networks. Well, as of right now, not a single person would be connected because it takes a while to spin those up. And so this isn't the end of time. Comcast and the big companies can do a lot in the short term, and we need them right now while we try to build up alternatives that we think will be better over the next 5, 10, 50, a hundred years.
Harold Feld (19:59):
Yeah, I mean, there, there is a lot to this, which is another one of the things is, is I have to entertain the possibility that I am wrong. I think municipal networks are a great idea. I do have to entertain the possibility that maybe they're not the solution for everybody. Right? Agree. I think co-ops are a great idea. I have to entertain the possibility that they're not necessarily the solution for everybody. In talking about the various religions of economics here, I refer to myself as being a member of the, the congregation of the progressive capitalist first reform church. which is like, yeah, I, I'm, I'm all for, you know, capitalism, but in a way that recognizes the incentives, not, you know, worshiping the, the, the golden calf of the market here. and treating government intervention as something that if you use it at all, I say say, the problem is you got, this was true of Democrats for a very long time, still is to some degree folks who, who treat this like government intervention, like chemotherapy.
It's this dangerous, poisonous thing that you only use, you know, in this desperate circumstance to treat this terrible. I'm like, no, it's, it's, it's like anything else. You know, the good thing about profit maximizing firms and capitalist markets is, you know how they're gonna behave. They wanna maximize profit. So our job in public policy is to make sure that that incentive aligns with what we want to see happen. Sometimes it's through carrots like subsidies, sometimes it's through sticks, like, you know, fines and, and you know, regulations that require companies to invest in networks where they wouldn't wanna invest or for things that they don't wanna spend the money on, like resiliency. but they're old tools, you know, it's all about getting to the goal, not about punishing, you know, companies or, you know, avoiding government intervention where either one of those is necessary.
Christopher Mitchell (22:06):
And one of the things that you were just talking about was uncertainty. And I feel like I harp on that with my staff frequently, and I feel like this is where there's a quote that I love, which is when all hope is lost, there's nothing left to worry about which is, is indeed dark. But nonetheless, like uncertainty is where is where I live of not really knowing, you know, like n I don't know exactly what work will do that will make the difference, but I've seen that we've done it in the past, and I have a sense of what will help in the future. and I, and I, I've sent you some quotes as we were preparing from this. I wanted to encourage people, I feel like people who this conversation is resonating with would probably enjoy reading Rebecca Solnit, particularly a hope in a dark place. but her book paradise Built in Hell, which was one that Corey Doctoral put on my radar I highly recommend as well. and then one other one is just, you were just mentioning that your religion of the, the first church of the Reformed of Capitalism
Harold Feld (23:06):
Reform, progressive capitalism reformed Yes, yes.
Christopher Mitchell (23:10):
that I just, Mariana MazzuCato is my favorite preacher of that church. I would, I think I would put her into that camp who talks a lot about how to marry government and market incentives in ways that will be much more beneficial than we've done currently. but one of the things that I want to put back to you is you specifically have talked about martyrdom, and I feel like that's really important because Twitter is one of these places where man, you can get a lot more followers by just talking about how awful everything is and how nothing can change. You sort of touched on that earlier, but I wanna talk a little bit more about that.
Harold Feld (23:44):
I often say martyrdom is the worst trap for public policy advocates. And by martyrdom I don't mean genuinely being willing to die for a cause, genuinely willing to sacrifice for a cause when that accomplishes something. There are a lot of, you know, we were talking before we started recording here about the, the people who are dying in Iran to protest for freedom. That's inspirational martyrdom. That's, that's what I'm talking about, is when people come to see failure as inevitable, but instead of becoming like disengaged cynics, they become committed to fighting battles that they're gonna lose for no good reason. And after a while that becomes addictive. You expect to lose, but you are fighting. and you know, the fact that you lose actually helps to confirm that all of the other losses were not your fault and you didn't have anything to to learn from them.
Losses are gonna happen, but you gotta believe that you can get up and win and that you can learn from those losses and that, you know, you can decide sometimes I can't fight this battle. It doesn't advance the cause. it's always for me, you know, I think back to Thurgood Marshall who was before he was a Supreme Court, justice developed the NAACP's strategy for abolishing separate but equal, keeping in mind that when he did this in 1945 after World War ii, getting out there and saying, we're gonna get rid of separate but equal was a crazy thing to say and
Christopher Mitchell (25:31):
A dangerous thing to say, not just for him personally, but also anyone who's listening to him. Right? And you're taking other people's lives into your hands and encouraging them to do things that could end their lives or permanently, you know, injure them.
Harold Feld (25:42):
And he mapped out a legal strategy that did not start by directly challenging, separate but equal, which was settled law. It started out by challenging schools and others who were clearly not equal and saying, you're required under the law to invest in this school to pay to have these, you know, African Americans who want to be doctors, go to a medical school cuz you're not providing a negro medical school you know, in your state. All of these things that pushed the boundaries forward and pushed the boundaries forward till finally, not only had he forced millions of people to see that separate was inherently unequal, but he had established a record where even those who were trying to defend the system were saying, well, but we, we can't possibly provide these, you know, schools for black children that will be the same as the schools for white children.
That will be so expensive. And that was where we don't look at it, but it was a multi-day argument in front of the Supreme Court and, you know, and it was a five four decision, but the, the fact was they worked it in the face of all opposition, in the face of threats, you know, and they worked it within the system when everybody was gonna tell them that it was impossible to work it through the system. And I sometimes imagined the choices that he and his team had to make over which cases they were gonna take and which ones they weren't gonna take no wig. That the ones that they didn't take were condemning those people to an unjust and unequal system, but recognizing that if they took the wrong cases, they were condemning everybody.
Christopher Mitchell (27:38):
And that's where I think it's worth reminding what we're just talking about the Martin, it would've been easy to say, this system sucks, it's unfair, and we're never gonna win. And you know, as opposed to taking on that weight of determining which, which people were gonna suffer longer, depending on which cases you're, you're taking on, it's
Harold Feld (27:56):
Exactly, it would've been easy to bring the cases that weren't gonna win at the time because those were the people who were suffering and, you know, knowing you were gonna lose, but deciding like, I want to fight for these people. I want to be fighting, you know, like with my fists and, and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, challenging the injustice, but not in a way that's actually gonna win and that will confirm the cruelty and injustice of the world. And you know, instead of saying, I'm gonna make a lot of hard choices, I'm gonna make a lot of calls, you know, and, and with the added burden of, and you don't know how it's gonna turn out, it could have turned out differently. As I said, it was a five four decision at this. We, we forget now, you know, again, before it happens, it'll be impossible.
After it happens, it'll be inevitable. we get this story, you know, to the extent that they study it at all in school. Rosa Parks, you know, didn't give up her seat and then Martin Luther King happened and suddenly we're in a post-racial society and ain it great. And it's like, oh no. And it's not as if winning brown versus board of education suddenly solved all the problems. I mean, that's the other thing too, is there'll be a lot of people out there say, oh yeah, so great. So they won that, that was great for day, the next day schools were still, we have, you know, problems in our school systems with, you know, schools that are essentially desegregated, you know, segregated to this day. and yeah, it's true, but it was so much worse.
Christopher Mitchell (29:32):
Right. And I think to, as we draw this to a close, just cuz of time, I mean this is something we could, you and I are both very interested in discussing. Yeah. We could
Harold Feld (29:40):
Talk about this
Christopher Mitchell (29:41):
Recently. Something I did, I did not know, which was after the legal victories with the, the lunch counter desegregation the demonstrators, and I think this was sncc would call the restaurant the next day and say, we're planning on coming in tomorrow. You are legally required now to serve us. We want to know what time will work for you. And, and they would try to cooperate with the business owners that had been beating them just perhaps days or weeks before and saying, you know, we know that to live together, we want to put that behind us and work with you proactively rather than dancing and celebrating and spiking the football that we won.
Harold Feld (30:22):
Right. As you know, I've got a couple of things I say here, which is, number one, always make it as easy as possible for people to do what you want to do. The objective wasn't just to win a case, the objective was to make a world in which, you know, you could walk into those restaurants as a black person and you know, actually be served as a customer. and so yeah, that meant we wanna make it easy for you to do that. We wanna make it, you know, we wanna coordinate with you, get, get into the habit of this. The other is when somebody does what you want, you say thank you. You don't rub their noses in the fact that they lost you. Don't ask them what took so long, no matter how frustrated and angry you may feel about that personally. Part of making it easier for somebody to do what you want is to, once they give in, you say thank you. Yeah. And we're glad to be moving on. Doesn't mean you have to treat them like a hero or anything, but you shouldn't make them feel bad for giving you what you want.
Christopher Mitchell (31:24):
Right. This is a perfect segue, I think, because I did not expect and I I asked if we would talk about the tribal priority window. I did not expect that. And my understanding of it, you could correct me, is that this very much came down to Ajit Pie deciding to do it. Someone who I've disagreed with on most issues. Someone who, you know, I feel a lot of anger toward on a variety of things. And, and I've always tried to just remind people he he did, without him, it's not clear that we would've had the tribal priority window. and that, you know, he pushed it across the finish line. just briefly, the tribal priority window for people who aren't familiar with it is the idea that when some spectrum comes up for being auctioned off release areas that are under tribal territories would become first available to them without at no cost. And they would be able to take advantage of that. this is something that was advanced for decades. I think you know, people
Harold Feld (32:22):
Like the, about a decade about a decade because we didn't have the wireless networks. maybe more like 15 years, but yeah. Yeah, I mean, cuz first we needed the technology to do it.
Christopher Mitchell (32:32):
And then, I mean, I would've said that if I, if I went back in time 15 years ago and I said, we're gonna do this thing and we're gonna have 400 tribes applying, or like, and 300 more than 300 tribes getting, getting approved on this, I feel like I'd be like, really? What <laugh>, like, I mean, you wanna talk about something that has really helped to move the needle. Yeah. and that, and this I think plays into some of the things like the uncertainty back in the day we knew that this would be a good idea, but this is so big and I just, I I wonder if you can just reflect a little bit on the early years of that and, and anything that you think about that
Harold Feld (33:03):
First and most important was this was something that a number of innovators on tribal land did. so important lesson that came up from within the community. Now that doesn't mean that there was any kind of uniformity about it at all. well, I'll mention Jeff Blackwell and Matt ran tannin as two major trollings innovators. Terrible people in this. Yeah. Well, and, and my organization Public Knowledge gave them an award for this two years ago. So Jeff was a lawyer at the FCC and who became the, the, the first head of their office of tribal Native American affairs. and Matt started out as somebody who was saying that, Hey, you know, we can take this new wifi stuff and use it in an innovative way to bring basic connectivity to the reservation where he lived. and you know, they went, they proselytized around this stuff.
They worked in coalition with others and not just folks who were interested in tribal, you know, also rural broadband. It came to a hook for pie, which is, we start with, you know, AJU PI had initially been not somebody who you would've thought of as an ally on this. In fact, you know, previously he had made some changes to the funding for the Universal Service Fund program that had been quite harmful to tribes in the way, you know, tribes were, were getting their connectivity. So it's not like he started as somebody who was a big tribal ally. And this is again, kind of an example of you find what people want. And he was interested in number one, showing that he was doing stuff on closing the rural digital divide. and number two, the window was in a particular band of spectrum where he was taking stuff that had been reserved for non-commercial organizations.
and shifting that over to commercial use to provide more spectrum for 5g. the 2.5 gigahertz band for those who are are familiar with this, the Democrats who were in the minority at the time had pressed to include in the notice of proposed rulemaking. Before we do that, should we have a window for non-commercial organizations? And for Indian tribes, for all non-commercial educational organizations or non-commercial organizations was too far a stretch. The folks and the tribes made a strong case of this is something that you can do. It is consistent with your goals. It is not going to deprive the private sector, wireless companies of the spectrum that they want. Since the whole point of the exercise from PI's point of view was to get more spectrum to the private companies that he saw as being the primer way to get 5G out.
And he became persuaded that this would be something that was feasible that fit within his goals. It's cynical to say that this was all about just making him look good. And part of my answer is, yeah, it is about making you look good. That's an incentive when you're running the FCC and the fact that you had not only Democrats but Republican senators from rural states with large native American populations, you know, folks from Alaska, a number of other states who were saying, yeah, you oughta do this. And he was like, okay, let's do this. Let's see if it works. and that was, you know, all credit to him. And then when it was clear that because of covid a lot of tribes were not gonna be able to finish on time, a number of us were lobbying very hard for an extension of the deadline.
We did not get the extension that we wanted. So that was disappointing. But we got an extension that allowed something like 400 tribes to apply for this window. And not only did that do something incredible for the tribes in question to give them access to the one thing that you can't build on your own or cuz this is the thing when you're trying to set up a wireless network, you can, you know, you've, you've run a bootcamp, you know, that helps folks figure out how to buy the equipment, set up the equipment, make the network happen. But unless you have access to the spectrum, it doesn't do any good. This was a way to get what they needed. Game changing for the tribes that are able to take advantage of this and game changing politically, because now we're pushing, this shouldn't be a one time thing.
Anytime you do these spectrum auctions, you ought to be able to have a tribal window first. And now we can talk about it in terms of tribal sovereignty and how that's important. If you just started with the tribal sovereignty point and just made the argument, this is a tribal sovereignty issue that would not have helped. But saying this is gonna help you on your goal of closing the rural digital divide because this is the least connected rural folks. Oh, and by the way, it'll, it's also good under the federal trust relationship with the tribes and tribal sovereignty, but you don't care about that. That's what got us in the door. And now we have a much more vibrant conversation. We have, you know, a letter from the Senate to the FCC talking about how they ought to do this, you know, and establish this as policy.
We have folks looking at this and, you know, looking at additional things that would enable, you know, tribes to self provision and recognize greater tribal sovereignty over communication. We don't know where it'll go. It's done good already. And hopefully we may be sitting here 10 years from now where everybody's like, well of course tribes have sovereignty over the, the spectrum on, on tribal ends. It's crazy to think that they wouldn't, or we might be sitting here where the 2.5 was just a one time deal and tribes are making do with what they have.
Christopher Mitchell (39:15):
Yeah. And I think, I mean, you, you get some benefit of hindsight and I think sometimes we we do have that problem of viewing it as inevitable rather than recognizing all the ways in which things that were happenstance may have resulted in the results. But it is not easy to imagine. What would weve taken to convince a jeti that we should just have all spectrum returned to tribes
Harold Feld (39:40):
<laugh>. Right. Exactly. Mean, mean know that if we come in saying tribal sovereignty, the F C C ought to have a declaration. I mean, we couldn't get Democrats to do that. You know, it's right,
Christopher Mitchell (39:49):
Because I mean, and then it is, it's, I I I, there's areas where I sympathize, and this is putting yourself, yourself in the, their shoes is that, you know, they don't know what's gonna happen. We don't know what's gonna happen. We thought we would have a sense of what would happen. and, and I think we're still learning and calibrating on that, but I think, you know, even though I want to go to a world where there's a lot more municipal networks, and I would agree that not everyone should do that. I would not say that tomorrow every city should start building one. Right. Like a making a big risky investment. Like there's something to be said for towing the water in a number of cases. Not always. Yeah. But a lot of the time,
Harold Feld (40:22):
Yeah. I mean, you know, we tried this in 2004 with the Muni wireless networks and we had a lot of hopes for that technology and that technology was not ready. You know, mesh networks, which are an important technology and, and you know, they've been developing and we have them, but you know, our hope at the time that they were gonna be wildly transformative and we were gonna be able to set this up, turned out the technology wasn't there yet. And that happened sometimes, which is why, again, at any stage with any of the things that succeeded, it would've been very easy to say, this is gonna go nowhere. Why do you think, you know, this is gonna happen? I do have one story that I wanna share. This had to do with Low Power Radio back in 2004. And people who are are familiar with the Low Power FM service, that was after about 10 years of non-commercial folks robbed successfully for the FCC to create this service.
And then National Association of Broadcasters went into congress, got it significantly trimmed. And there had been in 2003 what they called the Great Translator Invasion, which was applications for translator services that had threatened to wipe out and take up all of the space that could be used for low power fm. And there hadn't been a, a second low power FM window. You know, we'd had the first one in like 2000. Michael Powell, who was chair of the FCC at the time because of blow back from his effort to eliminate the ownership rules, wanted to show that he was, you know, interested in localism. so low Power fm, he had a rulemaking at that he was circulating for approval that would address the translator issue and set up a number of improvements that the L P F M folks wanted and would, would, you know, get us on track to schedule another window.
The problem was Michael Powell was leaving the fcc and Kevin Martin was scheduled to take over and everybody knew that Kevin Martin was good buddies with the National Association of Broadcasters, and therefore everybody knew that Kevin Martin wasn't gonna vote for this item. and, you know, it was just pointless. So why work on it? I went to each one of the, of the offices and said, look, you vote the item, you know, you don't be the one who killed it. I will get Kevin Martin's vote. Now, I had no idea at the time how I was gonna do that, but, you know, I was like, don't you be the one who makes this fail because it's not voted out before Michael Powell leaves. I had worked a little bit with Kevin Martin on a couple of things, so I had some ideas. I knew that he cared a lot about due process, which is again, kind of another thing was having met him and talked to him, I believe that he was genuinely sincere about a number of things that he said he cared about, like due process.
whereas everybody knew that that was just baloney and blah, blah blah. So I was working with Gloria Tristani at the time, former commissioner who had known Kevin Martin back in the day before he was a commissioner. and he was you know, working at the fcc, he agreed to take a meeting with us, you know, this was Thursday and Michael Powell was gonna leave that night at midnight, scheduled the meeting for Thursday morning, kept getting pushed off, kept getting pushed off, kept getting pushed off. We were sitting there waiting. Finally at about four in the afternoon, Kevin Martin walks in, he's got his cell phone that is constantly ringing, and he's constantly pushing his little red button there, and he just looks up at me and says, this is the White House on the phone. I know why you're here. I will vote the item.
I will not have it said that I killed this on a pocket veto. Now, if for any reason, the item does not get out the door before power leaves, this is not a commitment to recirculate. This is not a, I'm just gonna do this because I believe in the due process stuff and I'm not gonna kill this through a procedural trick. Now, do we have anything else to talk about? And I said, no, thank you and left important lessons here. One, actually consider that people might mean what they say. Two, actually take the chance. Don't give up. You know, what would be the worst thing that would've happened? He might have said, no, I'm not gonna meet with you. I'm not gonna vote with it. So then, you know, what would've happened? I would've looked bad to a couple of folks, but, you know, we would've tried three. When you get what you want, say thank you, shut up and leave.
Christopher Mitchell (45:09):
Yeah. I mean, that's wonderful, as long as you have that temperament and and it's, it's something you have to cultivate, I'm guessing.
Harold Feld (45:17):
Yeah. I mean, it does. If you're gonna be an advocate and you're gonna be an activist, that means you're probably already a passionate person who cares deeply about this stuff. So you do have to cultivate that. I'm not here to feel good. I'm here to be effective and Right. This is what's gonna be effective.
Christopher Mitchell (45:34):
Thank you so much, Harold. This has been a really fun conversation and and I hope it's helpful because I think it is difficult to feel like you can win everything and then like you're losing if you win some of it. And I feel like we have won quite a bit and we need to keep working at it.
Harold Feld (45:49):
Yeah, and I'll say, look, it's no secret we have an election coming up. It's no secret that Republicans are now predicted to win and to win Bigley. so it's very easy for those of us who looked at four years of not getting infrastructure out and then noting that it was the Democrats who, who got the 45 billion out to, to feel a good deal of despair about, you know, what the future may hold. But, and I'm not gonna pretend that cause we believe in cause we really want it, that means we'll win. But you gotta believe that we can continue to find ways to make a difference. And in similar situations, we have found ways to make a difference. You know? And one final thing I'll lend with, which is if you can't do what you want, do what you can.
Christopher Mitchell (46:36):
Absolutely. Thank you for your work and thank you for your time today.
Harold Feld (46:40):
Thank you. We
Ry Marcattilio (46:41):
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