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H.R. Trostle On Co-ops, Munis, Connectivity In North Carolina - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 224
In June, North Carolina released a report pronouncing that 93 percent of the state has access to broadband speeds. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, our Research Associate H.R. Trostle, who has been examining reporting data in North Carolina for the past year, came to some very different conclusions. In episode 224, she and Christopher talk about the report they co-authored, which gives a different perspective on the connectivity situation in the Tar Heel State.
In their report, North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Trostle discovered that, while urban areas have been well served by the big private providers, those same national companies have shunned rural areas. Instead, rural cooperatives and municipal networks are attempting to serve their residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. It isn’t easy, however, when state laws discourage investment and access to federal funding.
Trostle gets into her analysis of the data, its limitations, and what we can learn from both. She and Chris go through some of the recommendations they provide to the state of North Carolina as it moves forward. The obvious first step is to repeal the state’s barrier on municipal network expansion, which has caused real harm in Pinetops, North Carolina. They also offer advice on how to facilitate telephone and electric cooperative investment and what that could mean for rural North Carolina.
For more, take a few minutes to download the report, which offers useful maps of where to find various connection speeds in the state.
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H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on MuniNetworks.org, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.
H.R. Trostle: Hi.
Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.
H.R. Trostle: The report covered everything from electric coops to municipalities and included telephone coops. It involved a lot of digging through a lot of FCC data.
Christopher Mitchell: What kind of data? What were we looking for?
H.R. Trostle: I looked at the FCC form 477, which is deployment data. It also includes maximum advertised upload speeds and download speeds, but it doesn't include things like pricing information.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. This has been long one of the issues that we have found infuriating is that the carriers can just say what they're offering. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. To some extent, it's very difficult for CenturyLink to know what it can offer in rural areas, because the DSL is so poor. It varies from house to house, but they never have to disclose what they're charging for it, which really makes it difficult to make good policy around this.
H.R. Trostle: Yeah, they also don't differentiate between different tiers, so it literally only tells me the maximum advertised. They may advertise that they offer 15-20 megabits a second, when in actuality you get maybe two.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. We know that that situation in Pinetops, just outside of Wilson, which we'll cover here in a few minutes, but I think one of the things that I found most interesting was that basic broadband access, which is overstated. You know, actually, why don't you just give us the numbers and facts that we're going to use from 477 data, from the FCC. Is that super accurate?
H.R. Trostle: It's not the greatest amount of accuracy. I could wish for more.
Christopher Mitchell: Is it randomly inaccurate, or is consistently inaccurate in one direction?
H.R. Trostle: It's mostly inaccurate in rural areas, because the census blocks are so large. The way the FCC's 477 is set up is each provider notes what they offer by census block. Rural areas tend to have very giant census blocks, with very few people.
Christopher Mitchell: That means that if a few people have access, maybe it's like the census block in which you have the edge of a town and you have a few people who have access, but the rest of the census block has no access. The form 477 data would suggest that everyone has access on that block.
H.R. Trostle: Exactly, even if two people have access, all twenty some people in the census block are considered as having access.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's imagine one other thing, which is to say that you have a census block in which, in the North side you have one provider's that's offering a service. In the South side, you have a different provider that's offering a service. In the middle, nobody can get anything, but we can't tell. As far as we know, I think about how that data is often interpreted. People might think there is competition in universal service in that block.
H.R. Trostle: It's actually pretty great. The FCC's form 477 specifically says that you should not try to use it to generate competition data, but everyone tries to use it to generate competition data for exactly that problem.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we can have a sense of at least -- The report, and the numbers in the report are a best case scenario.
H.R. Trostle: Yeah, absolute best case.
Christopher Mitchell: I find it interesting, I actually thought that North Carolina has better basic broadband access than I expected. What's basic broadband access and who has access to it there?
H.R. Trostle: Basic broadband access is the FCC definition of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload speed.
Christopher Mitchell: Advertised.
H.R. Trostle: Just advertised, obviously. You might not actually get that. In fact, some areas, you can get 20 megabytes per second as a normal, affordable speed tier. Then they also offer 100 megabytes per second at some absurd price. You can't actually get broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: Because even though you could get a decent connection, maybe from a coop, I think that's what you're talking about here. You have the coop that has a plan. It's one of the rare cases in which we have an understatement of who has decent access.
H.R. Trostle: Exactly.
Christopher Mitchell: In general, 4 out of 5 people in rural North Carolina, approximately -- There's a little bit of an overstatement there, but still most people seem to have basic broadband access from one provider.
H.R. Trostle: 4 out of 5 rural residents for sure, do. Supposedly according to the data, 93% of all of North Carolina has basic broadband access.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was that I think, when you look at the state's reaction, the state of North Carolina did their own report a few months ago. We were not really impressed with it. I think their conclusion was, "Wow, we're doing really well. Sure, we got to figure out some way of doing better, but we're doing really well." Our conclusion was that North Carolina's really not doing that well. In fact, I found interesting that when you look at their access to higher quality Internet access, you often find it's utterly lacking. You have that basic broadband tier as the maximum in a number of these rural regions, but there's nothing above that level.
H.R. Trostle: Yeah, it's very, very frustrating. Especially looking at where fiber is actually available. It tends to be available in urban areas or from coops.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, so there's not a lot of what we would call private sector or private company investment in fiber in rural North Carolina.
H.R. Trostle: Not at all.
Christopher Mitchell: Which I find very interesting, because their urban areas seem to be getting more investment, on average. None of those big companies are building out to everyone, but parts of their triangle, parts of Charlotte, parts of the suburbs around there, are getting fiber optic access from Google, from AT&T, from CenturyLink. At the very least they've announced it and made it available in a few partner buildings, but there's been a lot of announcements.
H.R. Trostle: There have been a lot of announcements but there's, from what I can tell, very little actually been done.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, they might just be on their way to doing it. It might be a charitable way of reading. In part, it does seem to me, and you and I both follow these things closely. It seems to me that there is some more investment in fiber optics in urban North Carolina areas than in your average metro regions around the United States.
H.R. Trostle: For sure, I've been looking at Minnesota and Tennessee as well. Doing something similar. There is so little actual private investment in those urban areas of Tennessee and Minnesota.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Let's move on to talking about some of the subsidies, because what I'm confused about is AT&T and CenturyLink seem to be getting a king's ransom from the Connect America fund, and yet they're not investing significantly in these areas, from what I can tell. How much are they getting?
H.R. Trostle: From the Connect America fund, AT&T's accepted about three and a half million dollars each year, to serve about 13,000 people by 2020 with not a broadband connection, but a connection of 10 megabytes per second, download speed.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's unpack this for a second, all right. Three million dollars per year for four years. Twelve million dollars?
H.R. Trostle: Just about.
Christopher Mitchell: To connect how many homes?
H.R. Trostle: To connect 13,000 in rural and under-served areas.
Christopher Mitchell: Specific areas where they do not have, according to the map, broadband access. By 2020, they will deliver a connection that's 10 megabytes down and 1 megabyte up, at a minimum.
H.R. Trostle: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, in some areas, and we'll talk about CenturyLink's numbers in a second. In some areas, I think we'll see them exceed that. I think CenturyLink will only provide that basic connection to some of their homes, but some of their homes will probably get a 40 by 5 connection or, occasionally, maybe, a gigabyte. I really doubt that, frankly, but they'll probably -- Homes that are close to the DSLAM, which, I always call it the magical device that turns your copper phone lines into an Internet provisioning system. People that are close enough will get higher speeds than 10 by 1, but AT&T seems to be really going for that minimum speed. They're just doing this wireless only product. This news really came out after our report was put to rest, but it's worth noting that AT&T seems to be really taking it seriously that they do not have to out-perform 10 by 1.
H.R. Trostle: That's what they want to do. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is getting about 10 million per year. They're going to serve 36,000 people with that same baseline.
Christopher Mitchell: I can only imagine what these coops in North Carolina could be doing with 40 million dollars a year. I find it infuriating that Uncle Sam is throwing away here, in just two companies, 52 million dollars to provide connection that would have been obsolete last year. It's really, really frustrating. Let's move on to what the coops are doing. What did you find in terms of, let's talk about the telephone cooperatives first. What are they doing in North Carolina?
H.R. Trostle: Yeah, so there are eight telephone cooperatives in North Carolina. All of them are deploying some sort of fiber for Internet service. Six have committed to serving their entire service areas, several have actually completed those projects. The map is looking so much nicer.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's remarkable when you see the map that you've prepared, of where fiber exists in rural North Carolina. You see these areas in the central northern part of the state, you have this big block. In the northeastern part of the state, you have this big block where it seems that every last person has access because they're served by a telephone cooperative.
H.R. Trostle: Yes, and the telephone cooperatives are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.
Christopher Mitchell: I was actually talking with a reporter and I made that exact point. The reporter was saying, "Is it surprising to you that the private sector is not getting this job done in rural North Carolina?" I was thinking, "No, it is not surprising." These are people who are served by co-ops because, for 100 years, we understand that the private sector does not do a good job providing the essential infrastructure for rural communities. The business model does not work for the way that they want it to. We have telephone coops and we have electric coops. It shouldn't be surprising that these approaches are the ones that are best serving North Carolina's rural communities.
H.R. Trostle: Yeah, and North Carolina has 26 electric coops. Several have already taken steps to providing Fiber-to-the-Home or Fiber-to-the-Business. Lumbee River, Blue Ridge Mountain, they are in possibly even more sparsely populated areas than the telephone cooperatives.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and that's not very surprising, frankly. The electric coops serve so much of the state that, on average, I can imagine -- Not even average. The electric coops serve such a large part of the state that there's just so many more opportunities for them to be serving the least dense areas. The areas that are the hardest to reach, but these electric coops have, historically, I feel like, resisted getting involved. Are you seeing that changing in your conversations with North Carolina's electric coops or, as they call them, EMCs?
H.R. Trostle: Yeah. EMCs is electric membership corporation. That conversation is really changing and part of that is the electric cooperatives are deploying fiber to communicate with their substations. They already had that as a growing part of their electrical infrastructure. Now they can actually use that for telecommunications. Previously, their infrastructure that would have been good for broadband access would have been just the poles.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say communicate with the substations, I always imagine them, "Hello substation, how are you doing today?"
H.R. Trostle: "Hello world."
Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, if I'm the state of North Carolina, I should be really excited about these coops investing and trying to promote that and doing everything I can to say, "Hey, how can we make this happen more quickly?" How is North Carolina reacting? You read the report. I skimmed it, I read some sections in-depth, but the state of North Carolina's report, did they really actually recognize the way that the coops are already doing this?
H.R. Trostle: They did not recognize the growing role of coops. Not at all. The state of North Carolina didn't even really address one of the barriers to electric cooperatives. Getting involved in telecommunications. There are some restrictions how an electric cooperative can access capital from the Rural Utility Service funds and from the USDA. It's rather discouraging to investment.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so the state of North Carolina says, if you're an EMC. If you're a rural electric coop, you can not get telecom loans or grants from the Rural Utility Service to distribute those. You also can't form a subsidiary. Now there may be other ways for these EMCs to find of accessing capital and to be able to build these networks, but I just find it stunning that the state wants to say, "We're going to officially discourage you from accessing the USDA," which is the main system that has built our cooperative infrastructure system around the country. All of the electrical coops, the telephone coops, they've all depended on our rural utility service funding. North Carolina says, "Hey, you know what? You guys are investing in rural communities, but we're going to make it harder on you." It's the exact opposite of what you'd want.
H.R. Trostle: It is the complete opposite of what you want. That's not all -- Other states also discourage electric cooperative's investment. Tennessee, New Mexico, but there are work-arounds.
Christopher Mitchell: Where there's a will, there's a way, right?
H.R. Trostle: Pretty much.
Christopher Mitchell: That may not be true with some forms of municipal broadband investment, though. We've saved the biggest hot button issue for us last, which is HB129, or just H.129, depending on the system that you use in referencing it, but this is a law from 2011. We've talked about it so many times. The FCC repealed it, it came back through the 6th circuit, reinstated it, but basically North Carolina tells local governments, "You can not build broadband networks."
H.R. Trostle: North Carolina does not support municipalities building their own networks. H129 is sort of a zombie law in that it came back and has now ruined things for Highlands and Pine Tops and a few family farms that really were depending on that connectivity.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, let's talk about that. The City of Wilson, incredibly successful municipal fiber network. We've talked about them many times because they were, with Chattanooga, the two of them went to the FCC to roll back these laws. Wilson, during that period when the law was not in effect, built out to some of its neighbors that desperately needed access but did not have broadband access. This family farm in Nash County, they could not even basically run their IT systems, they couldn't be a modern packing facility because they didn't have the Internet access they needed. Wilson comes along, provides it to them, the state of North Carolina challenges the law, goes to the 6th circuit. The 6th circuit says, "The FCC does not have the authority to change that law, so the law's reinstated." Wilson's going to have to disconnect its fiber optics networks from the small community and the nearby family farms.
H.R. Trostle: Yeah, Wilson had to vote to do that. They could have tried to continue service, but it would have just led to an even greater mess.
Christopher Mitchell: They would have had to shut down their entire system, ultimately. Wilson City has universal access. Wilson County has significant access, but it all would have been at risk if they tried to continue under their current laws. As this goes to air, there will be one week left, basically, of service that Wilson will be providing nearby. Then it will have to turn them off. Now, this is the part that kills me, though. The fiber optics cables, the optical network terminal devices will be on the side of the house still. I find it incredibly frustrating that people are going to have all of the things that they need to have world class Internet service in their home, but the state will say, "You can't use it for that." Wilson can use it to monitor the electrical system, to say, "Hey, how you doing?" To the substations, to communicate with the substations. It's there, but they won't be able to deliver Internet service.
H.R. Trostle: I would say it's a quirk of the law, but it's actually the entire point.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly. Here's a question then, as we head toward the end and I'm done ranting about the injustice in Wilson and Pine Tops and altitude in Highlands. What is the next step? What can North Carolina do if it actually has leadership that cares about promoting rural connectivity, rather than just lining the pockets of powerful CenturyLink and AT&T, their lobbyists and their interests?
H.R. Trostle: Well, it would be really simple to repeal H129, but I don't know if that's actually ever going to happen.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's go a step further and say, let's assume that that got rid of it. You have some towns that move forward, more importantly, perhaps, you have the existing networks able to expand and serve their neighbors. You still have a lot of areas, I mean what do you see in terms of the electrical -- Is it feasible to think that electric coops could solve most of North Carolina's problem? A way that partnerships with the telephone coops expanding outside of their areas? I mean, is this a pipe dream or is this something that could happen?
H.R. Trostle: No, this is entirely possible. The electric coops can work with the telephone coops to provide better connectivity. They don't have to actually worry about providing the telecommunication services themselves, they can simply partner with someone who already has experience in doing that.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're starting to get a sense, from some of the reaction to the report, is that this is starting to happen. There is hope, I think.
H.R. Trostle: There is. It would be a little bit nicer if they could get rid of some of the restrictions on the electrical cooperatives access to capital.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I also think, as you have the electric coops and the telephone coops doing this expansion. It must be incredibly frustrating. Let's imagine that you're just outside of the Wilkes cooperative area and the Riverfront Networks.
H.R. Trostle: RiverStreet.
Christopher Mitchell: RiverStreet Networks. You are right outside of there and you're not getting service from them. They're working with a couple of other areas nearby, but they can't build everywhere at once. North Carolina says, "Too bad, you can't get do it yourself. You have to wait until they come to you." Or something like that. I just, I think that the H129 restrictions are such a slap in the face to communities. To say, "Yeah, you're losing property value, you're losing businesses, people don't want to move in there, but you can't solve the problem yourself. You have to just hope that someone else is going to come along and solve it for you."
H.R. Trostle: Yep, even if you have the technical expertise, you're just not allowed to.
Christopher Mitchell: It runs totally contrary to everything that we believe in at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what people and communities should be empowered to do.
H.R. Trostle: Exactly.
Christopher Mitchell: I hope that people have a chance to check out this report. I think we're going to be seeing more maps, more exciting stuff coming from Hannah, from the work that you're doing. You already prove it a little bit, Tennessee and Minnesota are in the works. I hope people stay tuned to your work.
H.R. Trostle: I hope so too.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with H.R. Trostle, our colleague and one of the authors of our recent report on connectivity in North Carolina. You can download the report at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org to learn about the urban/rural digital divide and how coops and muni networks are finding ways to close the gap. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song, "Bodacious", licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.