How the Core Values of Small ISPs Contribute to Internet Access and Digital Equity for All - Episode 556 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Angela Siefer (Executive Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance) and Matt Larsen (CEO, Vistabeam) to talk about connecting the unconnected and doing digital equity work as a small Internet Service Provider (ISP). They talk about creating a culture of inclusion inside and out and working with local communities to get the most value out of every dollar. In a marketplace that heavily favors the largest cable and telephone providers, Angela and Matt share the ways that they participate in grant programs and how they actively build peer networks to exchange knowledge and make sure the Internet works for as many of us as it can.

This show is 34 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below.

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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.


Angela Siefer (00:07):
Even though for the most part we see large ISPs not being trusted. Smaller ISPs are a different, it's a different situation. And in particularly in rural areas, there may be no place else to who is doing this work.

Christopher Mitchell (00:22):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Christopher Mitchell at the Broadband Community's Summit in Houston, Texas, where we are talking today with Angela Seifer from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome.

Angela Siefer (00:40):
Thanks for having me, Chris,

Christopher Mitchell (00:42):
As well as Matt Larsen, CEO O of Vista Beam.

Matt Larsen (00:44):
It's only been four years, man,

Christopher Mitchell (00:46):
<Laugh>, it's only been four years since you were on this show, but you won an award. So congratulations. You got the Cornerstone Award for something we're gonna be talking about here. This is there was a little interaction on a panel where Angela's up there talking about the importance of of doing this work. And and Matt was basically like, which is how I <laugh> think of you. You pointed out that you are doing this really great digital work. You have you have the Empowerment Centers, which I asked you to describe in a second, but you're making it work and a lot of the money to support this is not aimed to be even eligible for for-profit providers.

Matt Larsen (01:25):
Yeah, I mean, we're like, like regular WISP operators typically do. We're going out and trying to figure it out ourselves, and we do get some assistance from Microsoft. Microsoft gave us a little bit of a grant to help subsidize the initial salary of our person that we needed to work with. And we're making it work so far. And the next challenge is gonna be figuring out how to make it scale and make it really useful for all the people in our communities.

Christopher Mitchell (01:49):
Now let's just tell us what that full is, cuz you described it on that wonderful video program. Connect This! Which people should definitely tune into, past episode maybe like 64, 65, 66, something like that. But for people who are sadly missing that show, what are you doing with the Empowerment Centers?

Matt Larsen (02:07):
So our empowerment center is basically, we took an office that we had in one of our rural towns and we put in a set of work stations for digital skill training for public access for people to use for job interviews, what whatever, whatever they need. We put in a video conferencing enabled meeting room where organizations can come in and they can use the video conferencing facilities or just use the meeting room facilities. And then we have a customer service representative who has digital navigation training. And so people come in and we have somebody that can help them with affordable connectivity program. We can help them get working on one of the PCs so they can get some digital skills training. We have digital skill programs that Microsoft provided that we can get 'em started on if they wanna work with it. And we can let their organization use the meeting room to have a teleconference enabled meetings. We're also doing a trial with a telemedicine device manufacturer that is gonna have their device there is looking at potentially having a nurse come in and let people come in and use the device. And we're gonna explore whether we can become telehealth access point where people can, can use our facilities for telehealth visitation. So that's a lot of lot of stuff, but that's, we're, we're kind of throwing it out there to see what really

Christopher Mitchell (03:27):
Works. And when you're not doing all of that, you are operating at like 45,000 miles square miles at this point. You are a wireless company that's been around since Nicole Tesla was playing around with wireless a hundred years ago. <Laugh>,

Matt Larsen (03:40):
Yeah. Yeah, I knew the original Tesla <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (03:43):

Matt Larsen (03:44):
What it seems like some days. But yeah, it's we, we've I I've been doing Internet service in these rural areas for 25 years now and I used to be the young guy at broadband shows and now I'm the old guy <laugh>, so that's how it goes. But yeah, we cover some very rural areas, you know, parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. And now we even have a few customers in Kansas just across the border. We got a tower down pretty close. So we cover a lot of territory. It's it's a big job, but, you know, we followed the demand right when people needed service, we answered the call

Christopher Mitchell (04:18):
And you have a very high rating among your customers. Now I wanna jump over to Angela. So Angela you're on the panel and you're talking about this and I feel like, you know, you've been on a roller coaster it's been a lot of new things and here you have someone coming up and talking about how they're a for-profit ISP that's trying to do. What goes through your head when you're, when you're hearing about this use case?

Angela Siefer (04:42):
I felt the need to be upfront with Matt that the NDIA does not suggest that the federal money go to for profits for digital equity work, cuz we haven't seen that turn out well in the past. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> Matt and I now since then, are now best buddies. I'm extremely impressed with the work that, that they're doing and want to make sure that NDIA is being super supportive because I think what's, what Vista Beam is doing is actually very similar to what we've seen in Tribal lands where the ISP is providing that Digital Navigator service because they are the ones trusted by the local community. And I think that's a, an adjustment that we have to keep making, even though for the most part we see large ISPs not being trusted mm-hmm. <Affirmative> smaller ISPs are a different, it's a different situation. And in a particular, in particularly in rural areas, there may be no place else to, to who is doing this work. And so being able to have Vista Beam doing what they're doing is incredibly exciting. And so we are now on a path of figuring out how NDIA can be

Christopher Mitchell (05:51):
Supportive. And this is a challenge with policy because this is what we see right. In the Lifeline program. It is open to for-profit. And so there are unscrupulous people who have business models where they, they roll up into a parking lot and they basically give people something they don't need, they don't know how to use, and they start collecting a federal benefit for them. Yes. It's

Angela Siefer (06:09):
Horrible. Yes. Yes. It's incredibly frustrating. Because the, the methods used often are free phone or free device. That free phone and that free device is really not good quality, but free phone, free device, free tablet usually seems like a sweet deal until you actually try to use it and then it's not so sweet. But they have then taken your $9 and 25 cent benefit from Lifeline, and now we're seeing similar with the Affordable Connectivity program. So fortunately there are a lot of good folks like Matt out there helping folks understand what the affordable connectivity program is. So the numbers receiving a real benefit are on the rise.

Christopher Mitchell (06:46):
When, when this was being discussed before Angela had a chance to respond, my first thought was that, Matt, you should just create a nonprofit because I know that you're not busy enough and creating a 501c3 [inaudible] is super easy and you could just run everything through there.

Matt Larsen (07:01):
Yeah. What's another thing to keep track of? <Laugh>?

No, I I, we, we did talk about, actually had an idea going back several years to try and do something like PCs for people. One of the things we noticed was they stole your idea. No, no, they didn't. Kidding. I was not the only per I'm, I recognize ideas are out there, you know, you just grab 'em out of thin air, you know. But you know, the idea of way back in the day we used to buy a lot of off-lease computers to build our access points mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And so one of the things we've noticed is like technology companies oftentimes, you know, they, they recycle through their equipment. They buy new stuff every four or five years, and then they auction out the old stuff. And, you know, I think what PCs for people is doing is great. We, we work with them on getting devices, but I thought it would make sense to reach out to like the local banks and hospitals and stuff. It's like, Hey, instead of auctioning this stuff up, why don't we create a nonprofit? You can donate to non-profit, get a tax benefit, but you can take this stuff, refurb it and give it to people. And I think that's a, that's a concept there. There might be ways to localize that a little bit better. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, or maybe I, I just didn't have the time to work on that. Honestly.

Christopher Mitchell (08:12):
I found that very easy to believe <laugh>.

Matt Larsen (08:13):
Yeah. So, but I think that's the sort of thing if we do, if we're thinking about things at a local level, finding those local resources instead of being dependent on, you know, somebody else to do it for you. I'm a big believer in, in self-reliance, you know, small town people would, I think much rather try and figure out how to take care of themselves and keep it flowing locally. Use local people, use local resources, and do that because the unfortunate truth, a lot of broadband is extractive pulling money out of local communities. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I wanna see stuff that keeps the money and the effort and the jobs in the local communities.

Christopher Mitchell (08:48):
Yeah. That's the thing that people don't always realize is that despite the fact that there's you and a thousand or more other local ISPs that do a good job like 90% of Americans get their Internet access from the big cable company or the big telephone company. Yeah. So it is very extractive. So what is the solution then, Angela? Well, you two were talking about what you can do in this situation. We've laid out the problem. So how do we move forward to make sure that this model could be supported and, and is able to be sustainable and expanded?

Angela Siefer (09:17):
Yeah. So one of the things that we talked about was Matt was already on a, a process of thinking about who we should could partner with in the community because the funds could flow through that partner and then they can be a, a consultant or contractor on that. But also part of what we were talking about was how to pull Matt's team who are doing this work into NDIA's community mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, because there's also a learning that our community can do about the work that Vista Beam is doing and how they're structuring it. And so there's that learning back and forth. There's the learning of what are those that have digital navigator programs, particularly in rural areas, what they can share with, with Matt's team, but also what Matt's team can share about how they've structured things and how that can influence other communities.

One of the projects NDIA has right now is our national Digital navigator corps. That was specifically, we set up to, to support local and Tribal digital navigator programs. There's 18 grantees in that funded by And so we now know more than we did before. And so there's a lot of learnings that can go on and we wanna make sure that we are with that work, bringing in others who are doing digital equity work in rural communities because it's not, there hasn't been a lot of it to, to this point. Right. And so now that it's starting to happen, we need to make sure folks don't feel alone. When we first started NDIA, that was a thing we heard at our annual conference mm-hmm. <Affirmative> was I found my people. And so I think now we, we can't stop finding our people.

Christopher Mitchell (10:42):
Did you get a sense that this is doable? Did you have any new ideas as you're talking through this? Matt?

Matt Larsen (10:47):
You know, one of the ideas that did not occur to me that I, I think I've picked up while I've been here at the show was I was on a panel with William Wells from I think it's a STEAM in Kansas City.

Christopher Mitchell (10:58):
He's impressive. Everyone keeps talking. I gonna try and grab him for a show

Matt Larsen (11:01):
Here. Yeah. And I started seeing his slides and here are these inner city youth putting wireless stuff up on buildings mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and they're down there with their laptops program list stuff. And I was like, that's great. That's exactly what we're doing.

Christopher Mitchell (11:16):
No, that, but let's just pause for a second. And I don't want to say this, like someone didn't do their job, but like Kansas City, Kansas City has three different providers in, in most almost the entire city, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, we're talking about Kansas City and and those providers are competing and yet there is still a need for this.

Matt Larsen (11:33):
Absolutely. And what, what I realized, and I was like, man, we have a lot in common with those guys. In fact, I went up to Williams afterward, I was like, Hey, can I, can I send some farm kids down to work with you guys for a week and you can send some guys out to out the middle of nowhere with us and see what we're doing? I think it would be great to have that exchange, because what I find out is like, man, we're, we have a lot of, there's a lot of similarities mm-hmm. <Affirmative> in what we're doing. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I think that extends to a lot of the Tribal places too. I would love to figure out, you know, how to get like some of this exchange going on. Because one of the things I've noticed with smaller ISPs, especially coming from the wireless side we started out and we kind of had to build our own community.

And so there was a lot of support. We had a lot of communication with each other about, okay, this is what works. This is what doesn't work. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And we're very big on data sharing. I've noticed bigger ISPs are not that way. Everybody kind of has their own little secret sauce what they want to do. And I would, I think it makes more sense to try and figure out how to, let's open source some of this stuff. You know, I wanna share the stuff we're doing with our empowerment center with NDIA. Hopefully we can share stuff together and figure out, you know, here's the thing that works mm-hmm. <Affirmative> good for all, you know, come up with some best practices and get these communities that you normally wouldn't think that inner city kids and Tribal kids and farm kids would interact. But here's a great opportunity to get some interaction going and, you know, figure out how to make things better all the way around.

Angela Siefer (12:57):
When Gigi so was speaking earlier, she said, I really hate that urban rural divide. I agree. I also really hate that urban real. We all have issues, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, so let's stop pitting people against each other.

Christopher Mitchell (13:07):
Yeah. We should force everyone to move into cities. <Laugh>. That's what she was saying. I think <laugh>,

Angela Siefer (13:12):
But I, so Matt, if, if we can figure out this exchange, I think that would be amazing. And I would love to highlight that at n DIA's annual Conference net inclusion. Because I think that's the kind of learning that we want to highlight, right? We're bringing folks together. We're not like, oh, your problems are worse than your problems. That's ridiculous. We all have issues, but we can often share some solutions regardless of where we

Christopher Mitchell (13:33):
Live. And if net inclusion grows the way it's been before, you'll go there cuz the entire country will be there pretty soon, hearing the story about the youths. And and that exchange reminds me that we all start somewhere and I feel like we have this need for more people that have these technical skills and people that are focused on digital equity. And there's a woman who is in this circuit and she has a son who is now winning rodeos. And he, when he was younger had through a weird combination of things, I've been able to spend a few time with a world with a world champion guy who did this sort of thing, I guess. And that guy took him under his wing a little bit and like, you know, that doesn't happen. He probably doesn't get into it in the way he does.

And, and giving people an opportunity to see how this stuff works. Like no one ar around, like no one outside. If you walk around these streets out here and you ask them like, how could you get into working on the Internet? They wouldn't even know what you were talking about. But showing them like how to work on outside plant, how to do tower climbing, how to like, you know, be a network tech and and work in a knock. Like, these are all things that like just open up the possibilities for young people to get a sense of, of how they could actually do it and see themselves in that. That is really exciting. But also like the digital equity training and, and doing that work just so people have a sense of what their opportunities really are.

Matt Larsen (14:48):
Yeah. I I can tell you from firsthand experience in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, you're probably not gonna get a lot of respondents if you put out that you have a job for an experienced network tech mm-hmm. <Affirmative> or somebody to learn how to climb a tower. So we have had to do a lot of basically training our own army. And so we have just absolutely taken that, one of the big things we've done is we've created processes and we've create, created a training regimen for, for people that we bring on board. And the opportunities are tremendous in rural areas. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> for, I, I lived in a more urban area once a long time ago. I think I I was like 25 ish and what I found in this urban area, you're not that young. What's that?

Christopher Mitchell (15:30):
You were not that young. Well, yeah, you were born 30, I think

Matt Larsen (15:32):
Back in my day. <Laugh>, come on, I'll tell you, get off my lawn. You know, it was but what I found in, in an urban area, it was like so competitive. There was always somebody better and there was always somebody cheaper and there was this fight, you know, and you had to like, you know, they would, they would, employers could choose who they wanted. You know, if you're in an environment where you know somebody's gotta work with you, that that creates a lot more opportunity. So I can tell you like, my main IT guy right now who is, you know, has just been a tremendous asset to our company. He was manager at Subway was his previous job. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> my like number two network guy right now who is just this young guy that's just been absorbing knowledge and is just so smart.

We hired him to basically break down boxes and unpackage equipment and put it on a shelf and we gave him that opportunity to grow. We've got I think four kids of people that are employees that have worked for us for a long time. Their kids are now working for us. One of 'em was this farm kid and he came in and just, he started out basically sweeping and organizing the shop and just getting better and better, you know, and, and the guys are like, man, I wish we had access to him more. And he graduated and Monday he came to work at 8:00 AM cuz he didn't have to go to school anymore and they gave him the keys to his truck mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and said, this is, this is your truck. You're now a Tower Tech and you're gonna go through Tower Tech training. And so we're developing this program internally to go out and train these guys. And we've taken guys used to work on center Pivots are now climbing towers and we we're giving them a quality job. You can make a lot of money climbing towers if you wanna ruin your quality of life and go travel all around the country mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and work terrible hours and be away from

Christopher Mitchell (17:17):
Your family. It's super uncomfortable. It's hard on your feet. Oh, it's awful. It's, yeah. Yeah.

Matt Larsen (17:20):
And, and we created something. So we've got people that have families, they get to come home and spend time with their family. They got great quality of life. Yeah. If you wanna make money, go work for at and t or Verizon, I guarantee you won't be able to do it for very long because they'll burn you out. But we provide an environment where people can be successful. It's a good paying job. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, that sort of thing. And we're growing our own army and it's so much more resilient, so much more powerful to do it that way than to just try and bring in mercenaries.

Christopher Mitchell (17:47):
You know, I'd like to know the person who goes the other direction. You brought 'em in as a vice president, but they decided they prefer to just focus on cleaning and organizing the warehouse.

Matt Larsen (17:57):
Ah, I, those are hard to find <laugh> maybe on the financial side, you know, we could, I, I knew need somebody really is really good at like cleaning, organizing, financial stuff, <laugh>. Cause that's been that's been a challenge.

Christopher Mitchell (18:11):
I'm curious about a comment that, that you had made as we were talking with other folks out in the hallway, Angela, about the role for like larger companies. And like whether they should, it would be a good rule for them to be stepping up into doing more of this work in terms of the digital equity work. Or if they should rely on partners and others,

Angela Siefer (18:31):
They should rely on partners. So larger companies are not known for being trusted by those, their customers. And because of that, it does not make sense for them to run a digital equity program. So what Comcast and some of the others, quite a few of them, at and t, Verizon, charter, all of all of the, the big kids have programs where they fund digital equity programs. They should do that. They should do more of that. Frankly, they should all do more of that. But they should not run those programs themselves in large part because trust is an incredible piece of all of this. Technology is confusing, it's intimidating. Plus you don't trust your Internet service provider. All of that wrapped up to end together means you have to find the entities that are trusted. And if that's not you, then you have to find somebody else. Mm-Hmm.

Christopher Mitchell (19:18):
<Affirmative>, one of the other things that happened during that panel I thought was interesting is Dick, from Spot on Networks who we've talked about the work that they've done in bringing high quality access to public housing in New York City. He talked about how they hired people that were already in the area to do this work. And my first reaction was, I can see that you would get some of those great people you talked about, you know, like the person that you got who was unboxing things. You also run into people who aren't that good and some of them do great interviews. And so I'm just curious, did you react to that and think that's scary to be trying to hire more people locally to do digital equity work?

Matt Larsen (19:53):
Well, we have kind of a higher slow fire fast philosophy when it comes to bringing people on board.

Christopher Mitchell (20:00):
Which is I think the smart and best thing to do for all parties involved, frankly.

Matt Larsen (20:04):
Right. You know, because we, we wanna make sure that somebody we hire is somebody that we're, we're, we're providing, we're gonna put a lot of resources into try and get this person trained and to kind of educate 'em the way that that we operate. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And the thing that's really hard is making sure that somebody's gonna be a cultural fit. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, we've got a couple of core values in there that we are a team. We have each other's back. We respect our customers, we empower our communities. Those are some of our core values. And people generally will self-select themselves out. We've got a very low tolerance for people that want to throw other people under the bus especially inside the company or want to point fingers. We're big believers in accountability. You're not gonna get in trouble if you, if you mess up and admit it that you made a mistake and go for help. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you're not gonna get in trouble. You can get in trouble if you try and sweep it under the floor or blame somebody else. Oh,

Christopher Mitchell (20:58):
You do it for the fifth time. You do it once or twice. We understand. We all

Matt Larsen (21:00):
Exactly. But it, and it, it is hard to figure that out from an interview because interviews go a certain way. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But, you know, it's kind of having, having a way to correct somebody's actions if they, they aren't living up to the culture and getting that culture to kind of build. And that's what we found is like, man, once, once we got that critical mass of everybody kind of believing in the mission, that made a big difference. You know, Enron had company values. They had, you know, well developed corporate, paid for company values while they were running around doing nefarious things all over the Yeah. You

Christopher Mitchell (21:34):
Could read Harvard case studies about how great they were, I'm sure <laugh> E

Matt Larsen (21:37):
Exactly. But man, once you, once you get everybody believing in that and you can filter your core values, filter everything through that, that helps. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So the hardest part, honestly, if you find somebody that's got a work, good work ethic, I would much rather work with somebody that was green and didn't have any skills at all, but has good work ethic and meets our core values and develop it. We've had wonderful success doing that. I think there's all kinds of opportunity to reach out to some different populations. One of my good friends, it's one of our phone techs he worked with the foster care program. And so he had to deal with kids that were aging out of foster care and didn't have anything to do. I, I, it's like I wanna reach out to that population and see if we can provide something for them or veterans to come back. They might have some technical skill training, but they are having a hard time finding something that works for them. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I think that there's some great opportunities out there to try and reach out to some different populations that kind of get ignored by regular employers and see if we can, we can do that and give them a, give them a path,

Christopher Mitchell (22:40):
You know? Right. So, Angela, I'm curious. When Dick made that comment, I felt like that's following the best practice, right? We're increasingly trying to find ways of compensating people for what we often call lived experience. Right. And, and making sure that people who are participating in this, particularly those who don't have a lot of luxury time where they are able to say, oh, I'll just, you know, take some time off work and like, it's all good to, to do this work that they're being compensated for it. But it's also a challenge. And so I'm just curious how you reacted to that statement.

Angela Siefer (23:13):
It's amazing, right? Again, I feel like Matt, can I be your best friend <laugh>, right? Like the work, the work that he's doing that Vista Beam is doing. What I was thinking about when Matt was talking was the values and how NDIA, even though we're a 5 0 1 [inaudible] [inaudible] nonprofit, we have a mission statement. It was still changed a, the culture at our growing fast organization when we set our values. And we hadn't done that previously. We did that what a year and a half ago. And it, it is something we keep coming back to and that we're able to say like quality is one of our values. So if, if we are not doing quality work, we are not meeting our values mm-hmm. <Affirmative> we are, you know, we are inclusive, we are diverse, we are community driven, and it helps to make decisions. So it's really fabulous to hear Matt talking about how Vista Beam operates similarly in choosing employees and then how those employees are integrated into that community and into that value system.

Christopher Mitchell (24:16):
And I can imagine that a municipality that's running its own municipal network, technically a non-profit may be a good fit for, this might be a terrible fit for this depending on the culture of the organization and whatnot. And so it isn't really a dividing line between profit and for-profit, non-profit and for-profit. It's really about the culture of the entity. Unfortunately, very difficult to make laws and procurement around that,

Angela Siefer (24:42):
Around values. <Laugh>. Yes.

Christopher Mitchell (24:44):
<Laugh> check here if you <laugh>. Right.

Angela Siefer (24:48):
Are you honest? Are you a team player? Then you can have this grant.

Christopher Mitchell (24:51):
Yes. So I was wondering, do you have any guidance for others who might be thinking about this? Like, I mean, as an example, I can imagine that some Munis are in a position where they actually have a significant amount of, of cash flow. And, and they just aren't sure how to use it. But for them to do this kind of a model of, of being able to set up centers, have some computers, do some trainings, hopefully in partnership with others you know, you said you're working at Microsoft. I think A A R P is a good partner in many cases to try to bring in some training. So

Angela Siefer (25:24):
I, I actually think Matt offered us two different models. He offered us the model of training local folks to then in, into their jobs and then helping them continue to move up within the company. So that's, that's incredible. And then there's this, the separate model of providing that digital equity, digital inclusion programming through his company to the local community members. And I, so I think those are both models we would wanna see replicated in, which is why it's very important that he's on the show that ILSR is lifting him up. And we will do NDIA, we'll also do our best to understand the model better so we can lift up and put in some of our materials. Because the more folks see that, and I think you're totally right, Chris, it doesn't matter if you're 5 0 1 [inaudible] [inaudible] government for-profit. We can, we can all operate in a way in which we are doing the best for our communities in honorable kinds of ways.

And sometimes the structure and the culture is not such that it would encourage that kind of situation mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. So we wouldn't want that digital inclusion programming to incur in that local government. The other thing that we've seen recently is that when local government, or any government, when that leadership changes, when there's a, a change there, then those who had been doing some work, it could be like, that was the last person's thing, not my thing. So we're not gonna do that anymore. So that's why it's is important to have those partnerships outside of government. Yes.

Matt Larsen (26:51):
Any last thoughts, Matt? Talking about partnership with Munis? I think there's an interesting possibility here because, you know, just because muni's providing service in town doesn't mean that somebody lives outside of town isn't gonna come in and look for help. And so one of the big things for us is we keep the, the empowerment centers there for everybody. They don't have to be a Vista Beam customer. I anybody check it out, anybody could come by and check it out. Although you might be on a, you know, we might have a watch list deal picture for certain people that Yeah. But you know, the other thing I, I'm kind of struck by, and I would hope that we could see more possibility of partnerships between Munis and I'm not just gonna say WISP, so I'm gonna say alternative providers because, you know, there are, you know, a few thousand wireless ISPs and other alternative providers out there that I think are perfect partnerships for Munis that to work together.

One of the things I found, I I think at one point I'd heard you say something about like, if you have less than 10,000 subscribers, then a munis gonna be a little bit harder to scale. But if you could figure out how to, for, you know, especially rural environments or like certain specialized environments, figure out how to get munis and alternative providers to work together. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, because I would love to have an environment where, you know, I I, I'm very focused on wireless. We're now doing some fiber. And the thing is like getting access to capital is really difficult to do. Fiber and dealing with some of the big government programs is a giant pain. You know, we're so busy building, you know, we're out putting out the, the, the digital divide fire, you know, one hotspot at a time, you know, trying to, trying to knock everything out.

And we don't have time to get, a lot of 'em don't have time to go through all these government programs. But if a muni has the, the, the time and the resources to go out and go through a program needs, needs to find somebody to partner with, to figure out the ISP side, look at the local ISPs, I would love to partner with Muni's in or around my service area where we could leverage, you know, our existing tech support, our existing network management, all this other that we already have in place. And I'm willing to sacrifice losing some of our fixed wireless customers if we could turn them into fiber customers and we pay the Muni for access to the network in order to be able to do that. I believe AM and Idaho, the wireless IP up there is the biggest user of the network.

Yeah. I think talk about things like that we can partner with communities on doing digital equity applications and making it accessible for everybody. That's the other thing is, you know, fixed wireless is very good about accessibility number one, and getting it to everybody. And then working with fiber, you can build fiber out under later on when it makes sense. There's so many good opportunities to work together that I, I think that's what I'm really excited. I'm not as excited about the big government money and bead and everything. I think it, it brings a spotlight onto places where we can do things that maybe exist outside that program that are gonna have an equal, if not larger impact.

Christopher Mitchell (29:57):
Well, and Gigi noted that there's money in art off, and it would be amazing if there was a non bureaucratic way of distributing that in some of these areas. To fill in holes counties often have some access to funds, so it wouldn't even necessarily have to be cities, but I think counties, there is some history in Minnesota of this where they have a non bureaucratic way of doing a loan or working with you. So yeah, there's a lot of opportunities there.

Matt Larsen (30:21):
We've had fantastic experience with revolving loan funds. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So when I first started, we got a grant for creating jobs. And I've gone back to this. There's one fund in particular in Scott's Bluff. They have a few million dollars in their revolving loan fund. We've gone back to that I think five or six times. And now it started out with 5,000. Now it's $10,000 for every job you create. And then you can get a loan of a similar amount at low interest to get the facilities and whatever you need, vehicles or computers or whatever to get those people going. And that has been tremendous. We paid back into that fund. It wasn't a, it wasn't a hand, I mean, the grant was a grant, but we have to keep those jobs in place for five years. So it pays off. I'd like to see more programs like that. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, that have that kind of an impact. CARES act was fantastic for us. The money came out. There was like a short timeline we made, we made a huge improvement to our network in a short period of time. We put the fire out,

Christopher Mitchell (31:17):
You know. Yeah. No. Travis has suggested something that I think is interesting and maybe ties us together as we wrap up, which is an ideal program would be one in which you took WISPs, for instance. This wouldn't be the only way of distributing money, but you would take a whisp and you'd give them $500,000 or a million dollars and you'd see like, did they do a good job? And if they did, then you'd give them more money and then you would give them more money. And like, they would keep like sort of scaling up a little bit. And like for the ones who like screwed up or whatever, you know, you take some, you take a loss, but the benefits like the lo the overall loss of that program are probably quite small compared to what we'll see of the administrative costs of all these rules that we're dealing with now. And so it's, it's a different way of thinking about the loss, but like that would give these WISPs a chance to like really prove themselves in many cases.

Matt Larsen (32:04):
You say give, but I think there should be accommodation of Yeah. I mean it

Christopher Mitchell (32:08):
Could be of give,

Matt Larsen (32:09):
But but also the idea of having a revolving loan fund that you put the money back into it, that's what's future proof.

Christopher Mitchell (32:16):

Matt Larsen (32:16):
Is if you set up something, I can borrow money from it and then 5, 6, 7 years later if I need to go back and upgrade, I'm not going to the government to try and get money. I'm going here to say, look, we did a good job. We upgraded this. It's time to refresh our equipment. We want to do a similar deal again. Go back and redo

Christopher Mitchell (32:33):
It. I like to think that the revolving loan fund and the money that you received led into your ability to now create this empowerment center and multiple more on the way because you got to a higher scale and you have a cash flow that you're able to now support that. Yeah. Well, we're gonna wrap it up there. Thank you so much. Thank you, Matt. Great to see you again. Let's not make it four years next time. <Laugh>. Yes. <Laugh>. I'll just invent another show so you can come back sooner. Angela, thank you. Thanks Chris. I appreciate you.

Ry Marcattilio (33:01):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles communitynets, follow muni Stories on Twitter that handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from I L S R, including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.