Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
The Long and Winding Road for Publicly Owned Broadband in Washington State - Episode 477 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
On this week’s episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, host Christopher Mitchell is joined by Angela Bennink (Telecommunications Director for Kitsap Public Utility District) and Laura Loe (Executive Director of Share The Cities Community Education & Share The Cities Action Fund) from Washington state.
The group discusses the struggles Public Utility Districts (PUDs) have experienced over the last 20 years as a result of the state’s legislative restrictions. In 2000, the state legislature passed a law restricting PUDs from offering retail telecommunications services, despite the fact that they are a natural path toward getting fiber infrastructure to all Washingtonians.
They recount the tumultuous road to repealing the restrictions and how PUDs and other community networks are working toward providing better competition and Internet access to the region.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Angela Bennink: It wasn't about not having quality service providers. It was the unintended consequences of having these restrictions on public utility districts and those unintended consequences for access to federal funds.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of The Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although I'm building my office back and soon I might be saying, "I'm in Minneapolis again." We'll see. The show today is something that's just... It was one of the most amazing things that happened this year in my line of work, which is the effort to repeal the Washington laws that made it difficult for public entities to build networks under multiple conditions. And we're going to talk more about that.
Christopher Mitchell: For our guest today, we have a returning champion, Angela Bennink, who is the Telecom Director at Kitsap Public Utility District. Welcome back.
Angela Bennink: Thank you, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, we've had you on talking about Kitsap and we've had you on talking about NOANET, the Northwest Open Access Network more generally and it's wonderful to grab some of your time. I know that you don't sleep anymore.
Angela Bennink: That's correct. It's all broadband all the time now.
Christopher Mitchell: We also have Laura Loe, who, if you look at the Twitter feed also does not appear to sleep and is very passionate about issues that I care about as well. She is the Executive Director of Share The Cities Community Education as well as Share The Cities Action Fund.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to the show, Laura.
Laura Loe: Thank you for having me on. I'm a huge fan and so glad to tell the story of what happened in Washington this year.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. I never realized it before but the title of your organization is brutal for someone like me who's trying to hide a slight lisp, constantly. So, thanks for that.
Laura Loe: Oh, no. Accessibility.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's start with Angela with. For people who want the deep history of all the interesting stuff that Kitsap has done and the real nitty gritty on the models that have been used with the local utility districts, they can look at our past interviews but give us just a brief update of what's been going on more recently.
Angela Bennink: As all the nation and the world saw in 2020, when we were sent home and at least in Washington State, we had a stay home, stay healthy order, which required schools and everyone to go home. We saw a change in the view of broadband. And so, Kitsap PUD has been operating a broadband network for almost 20 years. And in 2016, we started to provide that to residents but it wasn't until 2020 that everyone was behind this saying, "We need this. We need this for our students. We need this for our homes. We need this to work." And so, it truly changed the perception of where we were at and the amount of demand that we had at the same time. And so, our team, were actually a pretty small team at Kitsap. But our team just stayed working the whole time and really focused on supporting schools and focusing on the students because we knew if we focused on the students, that would be giving their parents access as well.
Angela Bennink: So, we used our model, which is the local utility district model that you talked about before and I know you have other information on that but it allows homeowners to spread the cost of construction out over 20 years. And that is the only way as a public entity, we're able to finance the ability to push services out. So, using that model, we're now at over a thousand customers connected. So, we added hundreds over the past year and are continuing to do more. As most of the world knows or most of the nation knows, it is grant season. And so, we've just been applying for grants after grants and we have a ton of support from our community in whether that is from our county government, our city government or Grassroots efforts in supporting us applying for those.
Christopher Mitchell: And you serve a mix of audiences from quite rural areas where there's nothing available to urban areas where they may have existing cable option or something that is pretty standard in many cities.
Angela Bennink: That is true. In fact, most of our population, we are not considered a rural county anymore. However, we do have very rural areas where there are one residents to 10 acres and those can be the most expensive areas to build out. And we also have the added complicating factor of it rains a lot and we have trees and we have hills. And so, line of sight options become an issue too. So, we have these rural communities that were just forgotten in some of the efforts.
Christopher Mitchell: And for people who aren't aware, this is not the high desert then. This is an area just west of Seattle. And Laura, you focus on areas more often in Seattle and King County.
Laura Loe: Correct.
Christopher Mitchell: I know you care about all kinds of other areas regarding the mission of Share The Cities. And so, tell us about Share The Cities.
Laura Loe: So, we started out as a land use advocacy organization, focusing on zoning and housing affordability, both in Washington State and across the country. And we got really active as a Patreon funded collective back in 2016 as part of kind of the [inaudible 00:05:50] in my backyard movement and engaged on some really difficult, challenging, stressful land use conversations that were happening in Seattle all the way up through about 2018. And then way back in 2016, I personally participated in something that was hilarious. It was a slow Internet walk where about 15 of us-
Christopher Mitchell: I love it. Yeah.
Laura Loe: It was Devin Glaser Upgrade Seattle and they did a slow Internet walk starting at [crosstalk 00:06:20].
Laura Loe: Yes. The Comcast offices and we all walked as slow as zombie's in a zombie movie in the pouring rain all the way to city hall and it took hours and it was so funny. Tons of media showed up and it was on the news and we had signs and we had the loading sign when you're just waiting for the loading.
Laura Loe: And at the time, they were pushing for an initiative. And so, at the time I knew nothing about broadband or megabytes or take rates or fiber and copper. I didn't know any of that until six months ago. But I knew that I didn't like my Internet. I didn't like Comcast interference in our elections in terms of basically buying the mayorship and all of that kind of stuff. And so, I went on the slow Internet walk and it was fantastic fun. So, more silly actions to get people engaged.
Christopher Mitchell: This is the thing. So, you came into my consciousness when all of a sudden this new person or group from my perspective is on Twitter and social media, all over the place saying the right things and very excited about this legislation in Washington. So, we'll talk about where that legislation came from but tell us how you got engaged with it.
Laura Loe: So, late one night, I was complaining that if we tried to put forward another initiative, what's the amount of money that Comcast would throw against us? I was going back and forth with Devin from Upgrade Seattle on Twitter. And then all these people started reaching out to me like, "Oh, are you organizing on this? Do you have meetings? Do you want to meet up?" And so, I had a first meeting last September and all these people showed up. And so, now we have about 40 folks in a Slack group and we meet every other Thursday and we've had guest speakers, organizers, folks that have done ballot initiatives, folks that have built broadband and people that have done legislation. So, we've had a lot of education and then we were invited by representative Gregerson, who's a state representative to attend these fantastic meetings that she was doing to assemble folks across the state on digital equity.
Laura Loe: And so, really early on, we were getting plugged in to statewide efforts on that and then County Council Members Ally for King County is in an area that has a lot of folks. It's an incredibly racially diverse community that has truly underserved and some unserved folks in King County and has long been a disinvested part of King County. And so, he and his staff are extremely passionate. And so, we started talking to them and everyone was just connecting us to everyone and talking to Ryan Hawkins at the ports. And then eventually, we got connected to Representative Hansen. And so, compared to my housing advocacy, which it took me years to kind of get plugged into who is who and what's what and get invited to all the spaces.
Laura Loe: It was instant. And obviously because of COVID, every meeting I'm in, people were talking about like, "Wow, this would be great if we had public broadband." It was just kind of a thing everyone was throwing around. And so, we decided to steal the name from Upgrade Seattle and be Upgrade King County. And we're still in communication with them and building on their work. Through the housing advocacy, I had amassed about 7000 Twitter followers. So, that was helpful for spreading the word. It was a little helpful.
Christopher Mitchell: Many of them engaged and active folks.
Laura Loe: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: So Angela, I have memories of many years past of getting our hopes up that a bill, this is not the first time a bill is introduced, but it caught fire this time in ways that we always hoped it would. Can you give us a little bit a history of that?
Angela Bennink: Since 2000, when the legislation was passed that allowed wholesale, telecommunication authority for PUDs efforts were put in place at that time to try to lift those restrictions on the wholesale only and the retail restrictions there. In Pacific County, this was one of the drivers there in that they were providing services. They were doing this before 2000 when the legislature passed that authority. And so, they actually had to sell off all the retail business to another provider. And so, you had this effort going from then and it wasn't about not having quality service providers. It was the unintended consequences of having these restrictions on public utility districts and those unintended consequences were access to federal funds for driving out broadband services. And those were from the Rural Utilities Service. They had restrictions on their grant funding that didn't allow people who were non-retail to apply as well as being able to access eRate funds for schools.
Angela Bennink: And eRate is a huge program operated through USAC that allows schools to fund most of their telecommunications infrastructure and services. And right away, and I was working with Northwest Open Access at the time. Right away, you had this underlying provider that was no longer able to access that service and you had to go through a wholesale system. So, it was costing our schools more just because of this legislation. So, there were unintended consequences. Every year legislation was introduced and Senator John McCoy was a huge driver for this and pulled together working groups of the large service providers and the PUDs, and PUDs predominantly, because those were the only municipalities at that time looking and providing telecommunications services. Since that time, we've added a lot of other entities who are supporting their communities, getting access to broadband but working with Senator McCoy and the many other supporters throughout the legislature, we have had great successes and as far as just support and growth and funding through capital funds.
Angela Bennink: And then we've also had these challenges with these unintended consequences. And so, in 2018, I will say that is the first change that was made to retail authority and that allowed Kitsap PUD, specifically, and retail authority in restricted conditions. And so, what that was for, and I mentioned the local utility districts already. What that was for was it was to ensure that any of those residents who had paid up to... We've had residents pay up to $60,000 to extend fiber to their home. But on average, around $7,000. They were always ensured that they would have access to a retail service provider, should all the retail service providers go away.
Angela Bennink: And so, that legislation was driven by Christine R. and was passed in 2018. And then as I mentioned before, and as Laura has mentioned, everything changed in 2020. And we took this broad knowledge that we have been pushing forward. It just became real for everyone, right? It just became real that broadband was necessary. And we didn't want to see the same unintended consequences with any of the federal funds that were being talked about, pushed out. And so, when Representative Hansen brought forward the idea of bringing forward a bill that would allow public entities to provide services on a retail basis, our support for that bill was about funding. It was about accessing those federal funds to allow organizations like Kitsap PUD to build out.
Christopher Mitchell: And to clarify what you're saying is that you don't necessarily have to offer retail services but if you are unable to offer retail services, then you cannot compete for the funds. You can get the money and you don't even have to offer retail services. It just has to be a check mark that you're able to offer retail services to qualify for funds.
Angela Bennink: That is exactly true. And so, Kitsap PUD is committed to a wholesale open access model. We think that is better for our residents. We think it is better that they have choice. However, if they can't access those federal funds because of a rule that was put in place to protect incumbent territories, it makes it challenging as a citizen.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So, we have a pandemic. Representative Hansen pushes the bill forward. What's the first sense that something's going differently? And let me ask you Laura, when did you first learn about it?
Laura Loe: Well, we had a thousand people sign up for the first hearing. And so, this is the first time that you don't have to go all the way to Olympia, whether you're in Bellingham or Spokane or Vancouver. They had tried some pilot programs around remote testimony in the past but the scale of being able to sign in for a bill present, just changed everything. All of a sudden between the educators across the state and the ports and the public utility districts and other folks that came together. A lot of tribal leaders. Just everyone was mobilizing and to see that turn out and it was just very heartening to see the people that subscribe to my newsletter and be able to see their names on the sign in and to know that I helped make that happen was really powerful.
Laura Loe: And so, that was just a moment where it was like, I think there's a lot of giant egos, including Representative Hansen in the house and the Senate in Washington, just like there are in every place. And people were really competing for those sign ins. And so, other legislators were like, "Wait, how did you do that?" And so, there's that competitive nature of that everyone has. And so, that was the moment I think, and there were very, very great bills that were getting 20 people signed in. And so, I think that was the moment because then it allowed the news folks to kind of latch onto that. And then the earned media just kind of is exponentially there.
Laura Loe: You've got folks for the first time realizing what upload and download speeds mean and realizing that 253 is horrific as a measure of being served and all of that. The average person, whether they know what 253 is or any of that, they were experiencing it. I was unable to be part of my sister-in-law's wedding on WebEx. I had to switch from one provider to another to be able to use WebEx. I had never done a speed test before and I was getting one up one down in the City of Seattle and now I don't get that. And I didn't know. I didn't know any of this stuff. And so, you can be a broadband fan and not know any of this. And so, a lot of those folks, I'm sure that signed in, those thousand people, they don't know any of the ins and outs that all of your listeners do but they knew that they were feeling unfair.
Laura Loe: They knew that when they went to their friend's place or when they were playing game night with their friends, some people had seemed to have no problem but maybe they were struggling. And people have been talking about digital equity, educators, librarians and other folks for years and years and years. And I hear a lot of frustration from them like, "Oh, now you all finally believe me." So, there's that too, that pent up from the experts. It's like, "Okay, now we're all on the same page with this." So, the pandemic, the thousand people signing in... To Hansen's credit, he early on, got us all in meetings together on a regular basis. Leading up to the bill, there were daily check-ins. So, just a lot of making sure that we were coordinated and he used a lot of war analogies, which I wasn't comfortable with. A lot of the broadband army and the war room and all that kind of stuff that I was just like, "Really?"
Christopher Mitchell: That's what a successful coalition is though. People that make you slightly uncomfortable.
Laura Loe: Yeah. But I'm very grateful that we were included. There were lot of people with big lists that they could mobilize that he got there, that had thousands of people on their statewide lists. And then to the credit of the folks that showed up and told their stories. I don't know if Angela was part of that but the folks that told their stories of driving to a parking lot for school or accessing telehealth. The personal storytelling is really strong and really powerful.
Laura Loe: And the pressure on the legislators, they know that this is a bipartisan issue. They know that this is a populous issue. They know that small businesses are impacted. They know this is an economic development issue. They know what side they want to be seen on. And so, there was a lot of abstentions. There wasn't a lot of people that wanted to come out strong against this. There was one awful, awful legislator that kept talking about socialism and all of this stuff and trying to say this was a socialist issue but it's not, right? People feel like this is an issue like libraries and digital access in the digital commons are the idea that it should be a utility, so far hasn't been tinged with that same kind of... That this is an ideological position, which is a really nice advocacy space.
Christopher Mitchell: Angela, I'm curious if, when you got a sense that this is taking off, if your reaction was, "Oh, man, I've got enough stuff going on." At least partly, where you're just sort of like, "Am I really going to be doing all this telecom stuff in the legislature now, too? I'm trying to build a network here."
Angela Bennink: So, I have to admit. We thought 2018, we were done, right? We have our stop gap. We can protect our residents who have funded and we're good to go. We were not expecting to be back at the legislature supporting this with new legislation in 2020 or 2021. Obviously, all the work starts in 2020 and then the legislation actually is discussed at the beginning of the session.
Angela Bennink: Yeah, definitely not the plan. And we had to take a little bit of a divide and conquer type of mentality. And I had to actually step out a bit and focus on the runnings of a utility and making sure we were getting those out to as many customers as possible. Our general manager, Bob Hunter, who you've talked with before. He stepped in and really spoke as an advocate for our communities and worked closely with Representative Hansen and our lobbyist team to make sure that we had those stories out there. It was the best time, right? Laura mentioned it's nonpartisan. It hasn't always been nonpartisan but it became nonpartisan as soon as everyone went home. And again, as she mentioned, the thousand people signing in on that bill, you no longer could ignore it. You no longer could say, "Thank you," for, "Let's hear it and then let's push it off." It required the legislators to actually engage at that point.
Christopher Mitchell: So, as we fast forward then, at what point do you have a sense, "This thing's moving and the industry is starting to fight back hard," because I feel like it doesn't take a lot for industry to bottle up a bill usually. And there's usually a lag before they recognize that they have to do more if they really want to stop something that's moving. And so, I'm curious if you had a sense of, or if there are any moments that were along those lines where you're like, "All right. Now the big guns are coming out."
Angela Bennink: We did see right in the beginning that it was being tied to poll attachments, which has been a huge issue over the course of the years between private and the public electric companies who own the polls. Kitsap PUD is not an electric PUD. We are just telecom, water and sewer. And that is one of the reasons why Bob took that front and center position, because this was not about poll attachment agreements. This was about getting access to funding. It was about pushing these services out. It was about lifting restrictions on multiple municipalities to be able to look at, "How do we better get kids connected? How do we better get people who need to work connected? How do we better do that?" And if municipalities can step up and do that, let's lift restrictions on them to do so because how it's been functioning so far, clearly hasn't worked.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.
Laura Loe: I think it sort of was like a resolution. So, I don't think that the average person understands retail authority or any of that.
Christopher Mitchell: The word, whole sale, requires... It took me years to just get that without having to think it through.
Laura Loe: Yeah. So, I think that most of the electives that I talk to that are like, "Oh yeah, let's do public broadband." They don't know anything in terms of... They don't know how many speeds they're getting in their home. They don't know about middle mile or last mile. They don't know any of this stuff. They don't understand the monopolistic view, AKA, overbuilding. I'm constantly having to explain all of that just over and over and over again to people that are excited and like, "Let's do it. How do we do it?" And so, just that basic education piece to fast forward to where we are right now. Angela and I are working on creating a group of 15 other folks, education materials that community members like myself and others across the state can use, such as a PowerPoint presentation, maybe a video of that and going out and doing like, Drew Hansen's calling it the road show, right?
Laura Loe: How do we actually get it deployed? I liken it to tenant legislation. You can pass all the great tenant legislation but if there's no education piece, if there's no outreach, if there's no enforcement then it doesn't matter. One statistic in the King County broadband study that they did in 2020, which is an amazing study. And I want everyone to look at it because the data visualizations on the story map that they did and the way that they present the information is so accessible. They found that 47% of households who would qualify for low cost equipment were not aware of programs mentioned in the survey. And so, we can talk about 90% of the county having digital access or broadband access or we can talk about 80% of folks under $30,000 a year incomes having access, which sounds amazing like, "Oh, 80 to 90%."
Laura Loe: But when we talk about like, "What does that even mean?" I liken it to the Emergency Broadband Benefit now, where we have all this money just sitting there because people don't know about it. When you contact, in my case, Comcast and say, "I don't have a job right now," they don't bring up the Internet essentials. They're in the business to upsell and one of the basic reasons that Upgrade King County exists and is so passionate about this is consumer protections. And really, who's going to look out for the consumer and who has failed us? And I think that's something that rural and urban and suburban folks can all agree on is we are being failed and we have been failed. And there's been so many false promises. The FCC and this idea that we can't build or send money to places that already have service at some sort of insignificant level, 253. I want to get people mad. I want to get everyone as mad as I am that I didn't realize how inadequate that was as a way to mobilize people.
Christopher Mitchell: Is there anything that we want to talk about in terms of dramatic last second type of stuff? I want to make sure we have time to talk about what happens next and that's important.
Laura Loe: I want to talk about our governor signing the two bills with two different hands. So, there was two bills.
Christopher Mitchell: Lets pause that for a second.
Christopher Mitchell: Angela, is the thing that you want to talk about chronologically [crosstalk 00:27:48].
Angela Bennink: I want to talk about state broadband office and the fact that our legislature chose to form one and we didn't have one.
Christopher Mitchell: And you got someone who actually knew what he was talking about.
Angela Bennink: Russ Elliot was a great person to have in that role and really drive the understanding that the state needs to support broadband out into the community. And torn between how he was going to do that with privates and publics. And I don't know that we always agreed on the same issues. However, he was a vocal proponent of getting people access to broadband. He actually has... This next week is his last week. And he will be moving on to an organization in California and Deputy Director, Don [Isner 00:28:46] is stepping in temporarily and she will be a great resource as these funding materials come out and being able to look at that. But if you're listening to this and looking for an opportunity, we're looking for a Director of Broadband Office.
Christopher Mitchell: And this will probably air right after Russ has left. And I just want to say, Russ and a few others like [Dan McKenzie 00:29:14] in Minnesota. They came into the job, not with an animus toward the private big companies but an understanding of how they really acted. And I think that's really important because Russ had been running ISPs and working with ISPs for a long time. He knew the business. And it's really important in a position like that, that you have someone who understands what the lies are, what the exaggerations are and what the honesty is. And that's something that I thought Russ got and really brought to the job as well as just a passion. So. I always enjoyed talking with him and I'm sorry he's leaving but I'm hoping that he'll keep doing great things.
Angela Bennink: I agree with you completely. I think his passion and his energy around broadband was infectious and really what we needed in our state.
Christopher Mitchell: And so, with all of that, the bill eventually gets signed. From the second... Two bills were passed that had competing definitions. And we're going to go back. We'll do another discussion. We may bring Drew Hansen and we'll get different perspectives to talk about how this all had happened but then clearly, the weirdest thing of all of this.
Laura Loe: Just comically never had happened before.
Christopher Mitchell: So, the governor has two bills to choose between and he refuses to choose.
Laura Loe: None of us could believe it was happening. So, this tension between underserved and unserved, this tension between... Kind of that scarcity mindset of we're all kind of in a Hunger Games against each other for these FCC dollars around building our networks. All of that is just so unfortunate. And then, like I mentioned earlier, the big egos and Olympia and I feel like it didn't have to happen. And it was just a real lack of leadership in the Washington Democrats who control the Senate and the house in terms of resolving their differences in a non immature way. And they just played all the way out to the top with the two... Behind closed doors, double signing with the left and the right hand. I've been very much tempted to make some Photoshops of it, such as found footage.
Christopher Mitchell: What's at stake is that one bill provides significantly more authority than another bill. And the governor doesn't want to be seen as the person who chooses, whether he's going to go with, if I might be so bold, the people or the big... Not just the big companies. There were some small incumbents that were also pushing heavily to protect their turf, we might say. And so, the governor just says, "I got elected to make big decisions and I'm not going to make this one." So, claims to have signed both bills at the same time and the courts can figure out how to deal with it.
Laura Loe: So, there's still work to be done to make sure that HB 1336 is the priority and the one that's understood to be the predominant will of the people in terms of Grassroots support and who was paying attention to which bill and who signed in and who spoke. It's very clear which one but there is constantly... You talk about this so much on your podcast and educate folks about the needs and the deep misunderstanding of what rural folks need. And so, I got an education as well and my support for HB 1336 might have been seen. And our group might have been seen as is very urban centric by some folks that are advocating in rural areas. But at the same time, if you talk to people that aren't profiting off of broadband in those rural communities, there was just so much a sense of neglect as well.
Laura Loe: And so, they have their own tensions that they have to figure out. But at this point, the money is flowing and we need to have our hands out ready to take it, like every single one of us. I'm hoping that the new broadband office doesn't become a gatekeeper and put urban and suburban and rural folks against each other. I haven't been around long enough to know how it was before but I really am hoping that there's enough for all of us to benefit.
Christopher Mitchell: So, what does happen next then? Angela, at the beginning of the conversation, you had noted that there's a dramatic amount of work available to figure out which pots of money are moving where, what's the most strategic and how to manage all of this. And so, that's one piece of it that I'll ask you to respond to. And then Laura, you can talk about how the massive education campaign to help local folks know what they can be doing in areas that aren't in Kitsap's territory and things like that.
Angela Bennink: I think with the amount of money that's flowing forward, what has been our saving grace at Kitsap PUD is we had data. We had already worked with the schools. We had identified students who didn't have access. We had a survey of 10,000 residents to be able to identify where infrastructure wasn't. So, we could overlay those to say, "These students who don't have access don't have access because of infrastructure. It's not because of a computer lack or the ability to afford a monthly bill. It is because of the infrastructure." And so, that has been a huge tool for us to be able to determine what pot of money you look at. And then also, where we move quickly? Now, we also, because we've been doing this for over five years now and working with residents, we knew areas where it was too expensive.
Angela Bennink: We knew areas where people were in need. They've tried to form an LUD but it's just too expensive to take that next step. So, we knew, "Okay. Those are the areas we're going to apply for. We have all the data. We have all the support already identified. Those are the shovel-ready projects that we're going to push forward." As of the end of this next cycle of state funding, we will have pretty much addressed all of those. And then now we have to be more open and say, "Okay, what's our next way to look at this? How do we take those next steps?" And we're putting together some policies where it's either grants for individuals now, where we're saying, "Okay, if we can get a grant where we can support 50% of your bill cost up to a dollar amount," like $5,000, be able to have those funds available and apply that equally throughout our community.
Angela Bennink: Again, unserved is a requirement and I think Laura touched on this a little bit and when you start looking at urban and rural, it's easy to focus and say, "Okay, well, that's an easy stop gap." We'll just say, "You're served. You don't get any broadband funding," and that's what's happened. So, how do we deal with that and how do we take that next step? And I think that's going to be a huge job of the state broadband office to do that and look at those next steps, so there is equitable sharing and we are making sure people throughout the state are getting access to broadband and not just those who don't have access because of infrastructure in rural communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Yep. It seems like you're where others will be in another year or two in some ways.
Angela Bennink: I am so grateful that our board had the foresight to say, "Let's survey our community," because without that, we wouldn't have that data to say, "this is where we need to go."
Christopher Mitchell: And let me ask, just to put another conversation to bring an end to it. If the same amount of money was available under similar terms from a reverse auction at the FCC, do you feel like you would be less likely to get involved in it? When you look at the lessons we've learned, was it smart for Congress to put the money into the states as I encourage them to?
Angela Bennink: I think it was very smart to go that way. I think the reverse auction, while has helped a lot of people get access in high cost areas, some of our areas and I mentioned this earlier, we have a whole group that Starlink was awarded funds for and it won't work. Line of sight is a challenge. And so, you now have a eliminated those people from accessing other funding but yet they can't use the funding that was there. So, I think every state's different. I think every state has different incumbents with different goals, with different drivers and with different return on investment requirements. I think it was a great way to take that next step to say, "The state is going to do this." And then our states talked about now saying, "Okay, we're going to distribute it to the counties. And the counties are going to decide," because again, you have the micro culture where you know better where your needs are.
Christopher Mitchell: And I would just say that even beyond what you said, some of the companies are different in the different states. Century Link is totally different in Missouri than it is in North Carolina.
Angela Bennink: Correct.
Christopher Mitchell: It's dramatically different.
Christopher Mitchell: So, Laura, what's happening in terms of getting people to actually take advantage of this authority and make sure they can develop intelligent plans?
Laura Loe: Just a lot of education and I don't think that we can assume that people know anything. I think this is one of those things where we really have to start off at the very, very, very basics because if you're a community member out there and you're going to talk to your elected about, "I want public broadband," or, "I want community owned broadband," or, "I want digital solutions," you're going to have to be a patient educator and have multiple meetings and provide them with education podcasts to listen to and things for their legislative aids to dig into and try to get them really nerdy about this. And once they can get over that threshold, then they'll make better policy as well.
Laura Loe: So, I think it's just deciding what those materials are going to look like and who's going to fund the education work but it's needed everywhere. We need toolkits and we need messengers and we need people to fund their organizers. So, communities need their Grassroots organizers funded to do this work. And it's often being done by volunteers. And so, if we really want a national broadband movement or a Washington state broadband movement, it is about having organizations dedicate a certain percent of their time to this work. I heard from so many people last year, "Wow. Our organization would have loved to weigh in on that issue but it's not even in a top five priority for us. We're so glad you're doing it." And so, there's a lot of vacuums to be filled by folks. And if someone's in Washington State in a community and wants to get some mentorship on how to do advocacy, I definitely want to fulfill that role as well. Like train the trainers kind of thing.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. And that's something we're trying to figure out how we can help with as well. So, can make this model and export it to other states and things like that. Learn from them as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you both. It's been a wonderful conversation and there's a day's worth of material to cover. So, we're going to come back and maybe dig a little bit more deeply. Thank you both though for the time today.
Laura Loe: Thank you.
Angela Bennink: Thank you, Chris.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at www.muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handles @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handles @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, 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 newsletter at www.ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arnebhus for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Comments. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.