Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
The Man Behind the Mask: Christopher Mitchell Reflects on More Than a Decade of Progress in Broadband — Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 418
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast we flip the microphones around. Christopher gets interviewed by Isfandiyar Shaheen, also known as Asfi, an experienced thinker on all Internet-related issues around the world and longtime friend of the Community Broadband Networks initiative.
Asfi and Christopher have a wide-ranging discussion, including how Christopher first got involved with Internet policy work and the changes he’s seen over the last decade in fiberization and rural broadband development. Christopher shares what three actions he’d take as (an unhappily and reluctantly appointed) FCC chair, from putting together real processes for publicizing actionable data about broadband access, speed, and price around the country, to supporting experiments in different network structures, to encouraging policies that foster the creation of many overlapping networks.
Asfi also asks Christopher about the Christopher Mitchell smell test in affordable connectivity initiatives and what he’ll do once everyone in the United States has more than one option for fast, affordable, reliable Internet.
Asfi has been on the podcast before—he and Christopher talked on Episode 351 about the spillover effect of fiber networks in areas like public works and agriculture. They talked about how high-bandwidth connections can reduce municipal labor overhead, allow companies to do predictive maintenance on expensive machines, and give farmers way more information about how their crops are doing in the field.
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This show is 54 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Can you now tell, having seen and interviewed over close to 400 people, which ones are going to work? Can you give us a sense of what is the Chris Mitchell smell test?
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 418 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Isfandiyar Shaheen also known as Asfi. Asfi is the founder and CEO of NetEquity Networks. Asfi has been on the podcast before, he and Christopher talked on episode 351 about the spillover effect of fiber networks in areas like public works and agriculture. They talked about how high bandwidth connections can reduce municipal labor overhead, allow companies to do predictive maintenance on expensive machines and give farmers way more information about how their crops are doing in the field. Asfi is one of the great minds thinking about bold new strategies to expand high quality Internet access across the globe. We asked him to interview Christopher because Christopher has a big ego, unfortunately in his excitement to be interviewed by Asfi, Christopher messed up the recording quality by using a USB hub that introduced some noise. We hope it's not too bad.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Christopher promises he won't do it again. Asfi asks Christopher about his childhood, the state of broadband coverage and policy today, and the Christopher Mitchell smell test for new networks. Now here's Christopher talking with Asfi.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In case you're wondering who is this guy who doesn't sound like Chris Mitchell? My name is Isfandiyar Shaheen. I go by Asfi and I have been given the rare honor to interview Chris Mitchell. I totally jumped at this opportunity because Chris is someone we've all heard from, he's taught us so much. Today is an opportunity to learn about Chris. Chris, a lot of your listeners, I think you're now approaching 400 episodes almost. We know you as a Mr. Community Broadband Bits, but the question I've been aching to ask and learn about is the person behind the Chris Mitchell or the person at that before you became involved with ILSR. I'd actually like to start by understanding the first time you ever logged on to the Internet. Tell us about that time. Tell us about yourself at that time and I'd love to understand your relationship with the Internet, but before we get into the rest of our conversation.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I think it's a good challenging first question. The question about my first experience, it really comes down to a definitional issue actually in some ways. I think you gave me some questions to think a little bit about before, so I was trying to figure out how to talk about this and I think it's worth... When I was very young, my father repaired small electronics and then he got laid off. I was about six or seven or so he went back. He started at community college and he found out he was actually pretty good at it and so he went and got a college degree in dealing with computers, and then he got a master's actually after that. All of which was done in like, well he was taking double class loads and things like that. Well, my mom, who's a nurse, supported the family and worked what we called triple doubles, which is an incredible amount of work. Which to say is that I actually was a rare working class kid who had computers in the home.
Christopher Mitchell: I grew up around electronics. I grew up with a computer after I was maybe 10 or 11. We had a computer in our home in the late 80s and so I was on Prodigy back before the Internet was commercialized. I remember just trying to figure out what you could do. I think for a lot of people, they like to catch up on sports and stuff like that or talk to other people and I don't even really remember what I was doing on Prodigy except for being fascinated that I could talk to different people and things like that. Now if you fast forward a bit, I do remember when we had our first Internet connection and I was learning how the dial-up worked and things like that.
Christopher Mitchell: This would be probably like 1993, 1994 and I just remember talking with friends of mine that had been using a little bit longer and being like, well, okay, I'm on the Internet now, how do I find things? Web Crawler was the search engine of the day and so I definitely remember just going around there and then for me, I got in and I wanted to create stuff. I started building websites. View source was the most amazing thing because every webpage you could see how they did something and so when people came along with multi-column formats, we had a left sidebar. I remember just studying it and being like, Oh, tables, I need to learn how tables work and then you can just do it by looking at how people did things.
Christopher Mitchell: Then eventually I started getting, not in trouble, I would say, because I had good teachers at the high school I went to. When I started being able to do independent research, I was looking into things like the School of The Americas in which the United States was training people extensively, mostly from Latin America and what we were supposed to be doing was teaching them about the importance of civilian rule and democratization and things like that. Unfortunately many of them learned other lessons, which I think were also taught there and they began mass killings and in torture squads and things. I was in high school and I'm just sort of finding this stuff on the Internet. Half of me it's like, is this real? When they publish the actual training manuals from Fort Benning, I would report on them in school.
Christopher Mitchell: I think a lot of the kids probably thought I was a conspiracy theory nut and my teachers were also sort of interested in the Internet and so they encouraged me and I tried to learn how to do better research and sort fact from fiction, but in some ways I feel like I just hit a lot of the lessons everyone has learned, but I hit them a little bit earlier. I just never wanted to stop. I remember having arguments with friends about, some of them thought it was dumb that I was on email and trying to email people and they're like, no one uses email. I don't know, I have a lot of different memories. I learned about networking by trying to set up Doom II land parties and trying to do four people in a basement with these large computers and these big, heavy monitors, and carrying this stuff around in order to play this game where we'd shoot each other, four person two V two, no actually it was all... I think it was everyone for themselves at that point.
Christopher Mitchell: I've loved it. I had a business in which I was designing websites and doing some server administration. I'd volunteered with different efforts over the years to provide independent media that was non-corporate. I learned a lot of server administration that way, so I feel like the Internet is in some ways it was a part of my late childhood and in teens growing up and I've just always been very active on it.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Amazing. Chris, lovely memories of Doom by the way. I don't know if you brought back my memories of using that cheat code, IDDQD, which is [inaudible 00:07:28]. I don't want to get distracted by conversations about Doom. Tell us a bit geographically where you grew up and what point you realized that Internet access is so unequal and also tell us a bit about what the status of Internet connectivity is in areas where you grew up.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania near Allentown, Pennsylvania. I lived in Allentown for a while. My family moved out and then in, I think it was 1992 or 1991, we moved to Minnesota. I always forget which. I moved to Rochester, Minnesota and that became sort of my love affair for Minnesota. I've lived here ever since. I think I learned a lot and being in Eastern Pennsylvania shaped me, but I love Minnesota. For most of the time that I've not lived in the Twin Cities, in St. Paul specifically, the Internet was, I would say fairly equally distributed in that anyone who had a telephone line could have the same access as anyone else. Although for some people they would have had to dial long distance to connect perhaps. It's only really after the late 90s, early 2000s where speeds varied by geography in many ways.
Christopher Mitchell: Although there was work in rural areas to set up modem pools for dial-up back in the day. I would say the access was more about having the literacy and the devices historically, but I've lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota since I went to college here, so that's almost 25 years now and in that time we've certainly seen Internet access, because the speed has gotten so much faster and in some areas, but not others. It's more of a recent phenomenon where you have this lack of access.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Tell us a bit about that moment, that time in your life where that first instance, when you first realized that, wow, that access is so unequal. That there is this rural, urban divide. What was that point? That's the point I want to capture in this conversation. The point where right before you took up this mantle at ILSR.
Christopher Mitchell: I don't know if I really... Sorry, right before I started ILSR, I was in grad school at the university of Minnesota studying public policy and science and technology. Policy specifically. In that time, I was really focused on energy policy because I went to grad school, not really knowing what I would be doing, but the advisor that I got assigned to, was brilliant. Still is brilliant. She was really in energy policy and her classes, I feel like were the hardest. She was the most challenging. It was actually her first year as a professor. She'd come from EPA where she'd worked both in the private sector previously and in government and was very interested in energy policy. It was always the classic drinking from a fire hose.
Christopher Mitchell: When I talked to her a few years ago, she said that she's cut the assigned work in half and people still complain it's overwhelming and I don't believe it. It was a very fast two years. When I came out, I jumped in ILSR because I was interested in information technology and in some ways, the question I went to grad school with that was really bugging me was not so much about Internet access. It was about how it could be that in the early 2000s, we had more access to information than at any other time in the human history and yet a significant number of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 and it just drove me nuts because it's a basic fact. That wasn't even really in... Some people would dispute, Oh, they'd try to come up with reasons to tie Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein.
Christopher Mitchell: It just drove me nuts because it struck me as someone who had studied the Middle East, had been fascinated by US policy in the Middle East. It was just this thing that was so obvious that those two events were not linked and then to see that ignorance help push us toward a war in which ruined the lives of millions of people in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of Americans were certainly touched directly. I was interested how people were using the Internet and I had this opportunity to take over this program at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which I was totally unprepared for, but I found myself having surrounded by really good people here. I think almost all of whom are still here at the Institute. We have wonderful levels of longterm... We don't have very much turnover, but it was probably during that time when I started to more appreciate how service was so uneven and what the implications of that would be over time.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Amazing. That's super, super insightful, Chris. Even though I can't vote in this country yet, one of my big hopes for you is to someday see you as the chairman of the FCC and [inaudible 00:12:51] all sincerity, because I think there is very few people who understand the heartache of rural America better than you do. I want to ask the first loaded question I want to ask you is that, if by some stroke of luck, I had the power to make you FCC chairman, what are three actions that you would take immediately?
Christopher Mitchell: There's people who will say, Oh, I wouldn't want to be the chair of the FCC. I think that what I'm doing is what I'm very well suited for and so I appreciate your question and I'll answer it honestly, but I'll say that I don't think I would be a good chair of the FCC. I think there's people who have the right qualities. I think I'm well suited to be doing the kind of stuff I am and I think it's important that people do have a sense that not everyone would be a good president, not everyone would be a good chief of staff. With that said, I would like to think that one of the first things I would do is set in place processes for publicizing real data that would enable markets to function better.
Christopher Mitchell: That would include pricing so that we can see where the worst problems are. It would be address level availability where the services are available. These are things that, not the pricing, which the FCC does not seem likely to do, but they will be doing better mapping. I think it's really important that a regulatory agency publishes data, government needs to publish accurate data that people can make plans on and entrepreneurs can work around and cities can make policy based on. I'd like to support experiments. Things that wouldn't necessarily happen in the country otherwise or the things that are happening slowly.
Christopher Mitchell: I think the FCC has the ability to encourage certain types of networks to see what the results are and what happens at scale. Open access, I'd like to see money for open access networks to see what the results are, how it changes markets and what the implications are. I'd like to see more experiments around spectrum. What can we do with more spectrum sharing and things like that to get more out of this resource. Final thing is a culture shift. The FCC is built up around regulating and kind of misperceives the country as being run by AT&T and Comcast and Charter. If you look at, for instance who's invested in rural America, it's hundreds, maybe more than a thousand small companies. It's cooperatives, it's municipalities. The big companies have been absent and we still see States and the federal government trying to figure out how to get money to the big companies and I think that's the wrong direction.
Christopher Mitchell: I also would be trying to make sure that FCC policy encourages and recognizes that telecommunications should now be about overlapping networks, not one giant centralized network or three giant centralized networks, but many overlapping networks that are providing resiliency through the same way the Internet does. I'm hoping we have a new FCC chair come spring next year. Many cases, circumstances set the agenda for the chair of an agency like that and I think we can go in saying these are the three things I'm going to do, and maybe you can do one thing, but fundamentally you're going to be responding to whatever happens on your watch.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Amazing. I'd like to drill a bit deeper Chris into a fourth point you raised, which is, for the communications regulator to go beyond the scale network operators and to think about where quality coverage is lacking. I feel like the point about accurate data has been discussed plenty in your discussions before, so I won't delve deeper there, but I would like to go a bit deeper. For me, frankly as an observer of connectivity, looking at maps published by you and you're looking at maps published by the FCC and then traveling to some of the conferences where you are a regular speaker. It was quite an eyeopener to see the disconnect for myself. My question I want to ask you is, in following this initiatives by municipalities, by cooperatives, by smaller operators to make connectivity happen in rural areas.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: A lot of times it is through fiberization and I use fiberization as something that's synonymous at improving connectivity, but certainly not attached to that being the holy grail and the only option. Broadly I want to ask you when you look at genuine initiatives that are happening in rural America, and particularly as it related to fiberization, are they currently happening faster or slower than you had anticipated say three years ago? I'd like you to remember some of you do this lovely show where you look back at forecast and predictions with some of your colleagues, and then you kind of see, what did I get, right? What did I get wrong? You guys do that annually, but if you were to take like a three to five year view on what were you thinking five years ago? Give us a bit of a broader time horizon perspective. Are things going faster or slower? I'd love to hear it.
Christopher Mitchell: Depending on the issue, both. I say both because I thought that we would be further along and I think to some extent it was incorrect reading of what was possible given supply chains and things like that. Even if let's say that someone came along and said, I'm going to liquidate my entire wealth right now, and we're just going to build rural broadband and it'll still take a while. In some ways slower, but on the other hand we're in such a better position right now. It was about last year when I realized that the small independent telephone companies were really pushing hard into fiber and high speed services and I hadn't noticed that it had happened before a year ago where there's sort of a tipping point. In my mind, I was still thinking back to maybe like five years ago when the telephone companies reacted with hostility to the idea that DSL wasn't good enough.
Christopher Mitchell: In many cases they laughed at the idea of a gigabit. Nobody needed, it was their argument. They'd like to make fun of Google and they still do, but independent telephone companies have really gone there. There's always been some, it's always been like 10%, 15% of the independent telephone companies that have been very forward thinking and that includes a number of the cooperatives, but now it seems like most of the independent telephone companies have gotten it for a while, that they need a higher quality product. They need to deliver very high quality speeds. I think that's very good for rural America. The electric cooperatives coming online is just, it's remarkable. It seems like it's probably not every week on average, but I think I've seen three announcements in the last week or two alone of Southern electric cooperatives deciding to commit to fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: Some of that may be with plans of getting auction from this FCC auction that's coming up, the rural digital opportunity fund. I really think that much of rural America is going to be covered in the next five to seven years. I think it's going to take longer for some other areas, in part because what do you do if you have a part of let's just say Kansas, and no one is stepping up to cover it. It's hard to figure out how you solve that problem and I think often the regulator answer at the state and the federal level has been satellite, but we need to entice someone to expand and if that means a cooperative, well that cooperative probably has to expand its own service internally first and make sure all of its customers are covered before they can then expand to a new area where they haven't historically served.
Christopher Mitchell: This could take a while to work some of that out, but I don't think of rural broadband as a puzzle anymore. Rural broadband is something that needs money. We know how to solve it more or less, but you look at something like the challenge in urban areas where there's already cable service, but it's not affordable. That's a political nightmare because of the power of the cable companies to solve it and I think that's the hardest challenge we have in broadband today.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: That is fascinating. I think that's the first time I've heard you talk about the upcoming challenge in urban areas, but before I go there, you've seen so many initiatives, right? You've seen co-ops, you've seen munies, you've seen small telecom operators. I'm going to just bundle them all into, I would call them affordable activity initiatives in markets that are not traditionally covered by large corporations. Can you now tell, having seen and interviewed over close to 400 people, which ones are going to work? Can you give us a sense of what is the Chris Mitchell smell test? You see something, I'm sure you have a good gut instinct now, where you see something and you're like, I can see these guys pulling through, you see some [inaudible 00:22:32] I don't think... This has issues. What is that Chris Mitchell smell test? Help us understand that.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I appreciate the praise. I think I've tried to develop my smell test in part by looking at people that actually have a lot more experience than me. Consultants that have often been very open with me perhaps after a drink at a conference. That's where I've learned quite a bit as well in terms of what they see happening and there's two things that I immediately look for I think. One is, in particular for any kind of a project is, what is the financing plan? If the financing plan is we're going to find someone that's just going to give us free money, and we're going to keep hoping to find it, then that doesn't seem very realistic. Whereas if a financing plan is okay, we're going to bond for this amount.
Christopher Mitchell: We're going to borrow that amount. We're going to take some sort of risk. We've had these important discussions in which we're putting skin in the game in a meaningful way. To me that suggests a level of responsibility that suggests more likelihood of success. The other piece of it is, and this is more true of municipal broadband than a rural cooperative type approach, is the marketing plan. Most of the municipal broadband networks that have been accused of failure, the ones that have actually failed. A lot of them it's a marketing issue where they have a superior product. They probably have a reasonable price for it, but they are not getting the word out and they're not attracting people with an effective marketing campaign. I want to have it assigned to people are taking that seriously. Whether it's just educating people about how to use it or the importance of going with a community led initiative or what is their approach to doing that.
Christopher Mitchell: A lot of times I'm only talking to one or two people from a community and so it's hard for me to really get a deep sense of what's happening, but looking for some level of community buy in is a part of both of those, I think. If it's two people that have a really good idea, even if they're really smart and really capable, if they haven't done the work on the finance, if they don't have a good marketing plan, it's often a sign that even if they have the right analysis, it's not necessarily going to go anywhere.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Awesome, so share with us an example of one very cool financing or funding technique that you've seen and one very cool marketing technique that you've seen of all the areas that you've covered. What stands out top of mind, cool financing play, cool marketing play out of everything that you've seen.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow. I really like the way RS fiber structured their financing. We wrote a report on it called Fertile Fields. It's a broadband cooperative out of Minnesota. It has had some challenges in that, they have seed capital, half of it was provided by a loan from the cities and that helped to unlock the rest of the loan through a complex arrangement that we discussed, but basically is that the cities paid a portion of the cost, but absorbed almost all of the risk. I like the creativity there, now in part, because of some challenges that they had, they had to make good on that. They've had to use tax dollars to supplement the network in the first two years that they had to pay debt because they had not hit all of their goals for revenue. When that happened, I was at the meeting where they voted for the cities to pay that out of the levy and the only questions that were asked were, well, when is the network going to expand?
Christopher Mitchell: People weren't upset. They still viewed the network as being a very good deal for the community and that is because there was a lot of community buy in and work that had been done, but I think too many people think, Oh, can we bond for a hundred percent of this network or can we get a grant for 50% of the network when you should be thinking, maybe we can build this network over here in this way and maybe we can arrange different financing in that way, which is, as I would say, my criticism more largely fits together with this idea that too many places are trying to figure out how to do something all at once or using only one mechanism and I think a lot more communities would be better served if they tried something incremental rather than just trying to figure out how to do it all at once.
Christopher Mitchell: That's the financing model that I think is really good, is that model of trying to piece together different financing arrangements that fit together nicely. In terms of great marketing, I go back to Kyle Hollifield, who's been on the show a few times. He's someone who's taught me a lot over the years. He's a marketer and he would talk about how his marketing strategy really built on the utility as a whole in the community and so this would be relevant for electric utilities or municipalities that also do other services because in many cases, people don't have a choice for some of your services and so it's weird to think of how to advertise that, but what you want to do is you want to create a feeling of community.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that one of these places did was they would sponsor equipment for sports teams for kids and the reasoning that he put it to me was, when grandma gets a knock at the door and someone says, Hey, I can knock $20 off your Internet bill or your cable bill if you go with us, grandma's thinking yeah, but my grandchild's wearing soccer cleats that they got from the utility and my loyalty is with utility. I just think it's not a billboard, it's a sense of community that is being built and I think it's a challenge to do that and just throwing soccer cleats at every family isn't going to do it in every community, but it's that sort of creativity.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Just one thing I want to share Chris, since financing is my world. I think a lot of times developing this distinction between financing and funding is important and I think that financing is bringing the actual cash to do the construction funding is figuring out who's going to pay for it and I think that more and more as I am seeing international events, since my focus is outside of America. I think more and more what I'm finding with the fiber networks, particularly rural fiber networks is that if the funding equation can be solved where an entity can say, I will assume demand risk. Then the financing follows very easily. This is another time to discuss this concept of the availability payment scheme with you. It's something that was used in Indonesia and I really hope that's something that we get to see more of in parts of America.
Christopher Mitchell: We could probably simplify a little bit by just saying that almost all of challenge is in who bears the risk and I think this is something that... We have government specifically to accomplish things we can't do individually. It's about bearing risk and so-
Isfandiyar Shaheen: I will stop you there. I'll stop you there. I'll say this Chris, that risk is a spectrum. Risk is a spectrum. Just like trust is a spectrum. Risk is a spectrum. Risk to do what, right? I think the more that, that spectrum can be broken down, the easier risk digestion it can become. Honestly, this is what we're seeing work fairly well, but particularly with five and initially with one scheme that I've seen work really well is if the private sector is told, Hey, your responsibility is to ensure that you construct it and you keep this thing on. We will find a way to pay you, if you can keep this thing on, but we're going to pay you a fixed amount. You can't just keep charging us more and more as more and more customers start using this. That creates some very interesting set of incentive structures where the private sector is now incentivized to build a cost effective solution.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: They're incentivized to put up the money up front, they're incentivized to take the risk upfront and the public sector, which could be the city or the universal service fund or the local municipalities basically saying, we know there is demand for it. We know that whatever return you need, this fixed return you need, we will ensure you get that. Basically then what the city is basically saying is, there's going to be a bit of a shortfall in the initial years. In the initial years, let's say your take rate is 20%, so there's going to be a bit of a shortfall that will be there to [inaudible 00:31:25] all the payment requirements. If literally the city just says, I'm willing to pay for this shortfall and I will no longer be on the hook when this shortfall is not there, just that little tweak can start mobilizing an incredible amount of dollars. I think this is where I it's important to draw that distinction that, who is bearing exactly which risk? If the public sector is, and this is where I sometimes get a bit frustrated and perhaps because for me financing is my world, right?
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Everyone's been talking about, Oh, Internet is critical infrastructure. Everyone's talking about,[inaudible 00:32:04] okay, now what, right? If you think it's critical infrastructure, then there is no question about demand. Then there is no question about demand. Public sector, please come and assume demand risk, because if you come in assume demand risk, I can guarantee you that for every public dollar you will mobilize $20 from the private sector. I feel like there's just so much more sort of work and education that needs to be done. It's just like this distinction between funding and financing and understanding the type of risk.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Let me just say that. I think there's definitely also slightly different challenges when you're talking about a fast network versus an area in which there already are some networks that are serving some part of the population where they have political power to try to shape the solutions. That's just where I think it starts to get a little bit more complicated, but I very much appreciate your points on that and I think that's where it's important that the government makes sure that if it is going to take on risk that it is for the benefit of the community and not some well-connected political actor.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Totally. Totally with you. The more we rewrite incentive structures, right? The digital divide is a byproduct of incentive structures and unless those incentive structures are tweaked, there is no way that we can change this little puzzle, but I'm super encouraged to hear that for you, you can see the puzzle as solved and you can see it happening in a couple of years. Which brings me to my next question. We've always talked about community broadband, we've talked about the specific communities, so I want to shift gears and focus a bit more on I-L-S-R, and understand how you guys measure success. I want to understand for you that if you're looking, if we fast forward two years or three years, and you're looking back, what does amazing look like? For you, what does success look like as ILSR?
Christopher Mitchell: For a lot of years, we've seen linear growth in municipal networks and in even cooperatives. In many ways, I think an amazing success is much faster growth than that. It's entirely possible to see exponential growth for several years of municipal broadband and so that would be one solution. I think in order to get that, I don't think we can see that kind of growth with the retail model, where the cities are themselves offering services themselves. I only think we can see that growth with an open access model where they're enabling others, whether it's one partner or ideally multiple partners, and ideally, ideally, different services. I love what UTOPIA is doing. I love what has been accomplished in Washington with the public utility districts. We have about 30 open access networks in the United States, and most of them are ones in which you can sort of get vanilla from this company, vanilla from that company or vanilla from this other company.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, what I find so exciting about [inaudible 00:35:17] and the work that entry point is doing it and I think there's others that are trying to do it as well, is this idea of well, maybe I want to get vanilla from them and chocolate from them and I want to get strawberry and coconut cream from this other person all at once. Can we do that? This idea of it's not just Internet service, but different kinds of services. Telehealth is an obvious one, but at a certain point it's hard to predict because in this world we would see innovation that's I think very hard to predict right now and so I think the most amazing outcome would be having dramatic growth in municipal networks that would really catalyze this open access approach with new markets being created and really seeing what kind of innovation we could drive.
Christopher Mitchell: It's possible that in a few years after that, we would say, you know what? No, most people just want Internet access. They want IP services and we can do everything over that, but I'm not convinced that, that's true. I really think we should give it a good chance. That's what I've been hoping for. I feel like it's worth saying though, it's hard for us to know how successful we've been, because so much of what we do is based on a decentralized strategy. We try to provide materials in ways that we can't track how they're all being used. In part, because I think the effort to track makes them less useful. We try to make materials that others can use without us knowing about it, so they can just go out, they can iterate, they can use our materials and they can do their own thing and so we're not a central point of failure.
Christopher Mitchell: That just makes it harder for us to know where we're having as much of an impact and I think that's a trade off for a decentralized structure. I think it's why we've been so successful in this area, but it's also sometimes, I'm trying to tell a funder that we've been a good investment and it can be hard to tell them exactly how.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Man honestly, for what it's worth, I think you guys add a phenomenal amount of value. I can speak for myself, your organization has made a monumental difference in the work that I do in terms of, not just teaching me theory, but showing real examples and then helping me point other people to so many examples that are sadly opaque. Honestly the world doesn't know that America has the connectivity problem. I live in Silicon Valley, honestly I've been here for about two and a half years, not a single person knows about [inaudible 00:37:49] and I'm in Idaho. It's like a two hour flight, but no one knows, so going back to this thing that you talked about, your Saddam example, it's like information's out there, but so much often capturing attention is the problem.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: I think your organization is... I've once been a funder, it's I think probably one of the best investments I've made and I want to do more often, so this one thing I want to ask you, if you'd like to share with your listeners. How can we support this more? What more can we do? I think that, yes it's a challenge measuring exact impact of ILSR, but I think just qualitatively speaking for myself, just the fact that you can point examples, help create community, help build bridges between a Pakistani guy like me sitting in Silicon Valley, wanting to do Internet for all in his part of the world with communities in rural America. That's incredible, right? I'd like to know what's your message to our listeners. How can we do more? Personally I'd love to do more and I'm sure there are other people who like to do more. How? Tell us.
Christopher Mitchell: There's an irony in my answer because I'm sadly overwhelmed in email. I have a wonderful team and we get more requests than we can help with. My answer in some ways is letting us know what resources you need. One of the ways that we decided, Oh, we need a new fact sheet or we should do a report on this is if we get questions from people in which we're like we know what the answer is, but we don't have a place to point to explain it. I don't want to send the same email 20 times. If I find myself, for instance, lately, we've been talking with some cities about digital divide issues in the wake of the pandemic and it's one of those things was okay, we should have collected the advice that we've been giving to these community after community, into a short document that then we can give to them so that when we talk to them, they've already seen the basic steps that we would recommend and we can talk about them, rather than spending an hour explaining that they can spend ten minutes reading it, and then we can just move on to higher value conversation.
Christopher Mitchell: It's not always clear what is most valuable for people like where the hangups are, why aren't we seeing more municipal networks develop? I think a lot of people would say because of it's hard to finance and I don't know that that's true. Whether it's financing or funding. I think generally if a city is saying that it's because they haven't made it a big enough priority and the question is how do you make it a big enough priority? One of the reasons our analysis hinges on local governments is they have access to capital when they want to, also true of state and federal government, frankly. It's a question of priorities. For us, I think it was a question of, okay, what materials do we need to produce that will help folks that are active on the ground, or may already be in city council or a mayor, but how will they convince others around them that this is a priority worth investing in? I think that's where we're constantly trying to figure it out, making sure that the time we're spending into creating resources is making the right resources.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: That's really interesting. I think my two cents of their interests would be that, as with the influx of information, attention is becoming scarce and a lot of times people find it hard to internalize information that is written in text form and I think maybe-
Christopher Mitchell: I should do an audio show.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: [crosstalk 00:41:46] Well, no. I think honestly, it's something more basic, right? If there's a Zoom room, people can tune into where you've got some well wisher listeners who are willing to share their knowledge, because I think a lot of times it's that human touch that's also required with a bit of handholding that's needed, right? To say that, Hey, look, if you need to just talk to someone about getting this initiative off ground, give us a call. This is something I can empathize with, right? You guys do so much at ILSR with such few resources that a part of me thinks that a listener or two who you feel has now a good enough grasp on some of these issues, if they could sort of become volunteers.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: I'm willing to totally become a volunteer for that, right? If you need me at any point to say, Hey, here's a town getting started. They could use a conversation or two, are you cool with talking to them periodically? I would totally sign up and I think a lot of other people would. I think that is maybe something to think about.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. One way to perhaps start that would be once a month having a kind of open Zoom call, where people could bring their questions and chat about it for an hour and hear from others who might have similar challenges. We did that, I don't know, five years ago. We did it twice, so there wasn't a lot of turnout, but a lot's changed since then. I could see trying to do a series of those where that could be the first start, where you come to sort of an open discussion and then may get paired off with people like you.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah. I think this is kind of the challenge with internalization, it's like you know that cliche, right? It's not a cliche. It's a nice saying that when the student is ready, the master emerges. Unless the listener is really ready to absorb the lesson, there's no point and so I feel like maybe sort of one hack around that could be that you're scheduling something. If it could literally just be at a room that is open for four hours a day, which is just manned by or held by one individual, either in your org or someone and it's the idea is that if there's this little room, there's this little café, virtual cafe that's open and you can just get in there and you can have a chat and it can be a very general chat. This is something I've been thinking about the world as well, right? That how do we create those pieces where more fluid dialogue can happen, but good to know. Good to know.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: I'd be very interested in what some of the other listeners who are listening in think about ways we can support ILSR beyond financial contributions, because I think what you guys do is amazing and just about everyone I've come across is a huge fan of you and this show, which brings me to my last and final question, Chris, and that is that we can see rural broadband God willing. I'm optimistic. I think America will solve its broadband problems the next five, six years and I think after that, it'll be really exciting to see what this economic engine does because I've always said this, it's the biggest economy in the world with the worst broadband ever.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Imagine this sort of spirit getting a Singapore style or South Korea style broadband, what's going to happen to America then, so I hadn't been very [inaudible 00:45:22] do that question. When that happens, when Internet for all has happened across America, what are you going to do? What's next for Chris Mitchell? Once there is no connectivity battle to fight, because I do think that day will come and I'd be curious to know what's next for you after this one?
Christopher Mitchell: I'm not entirely sure that you're right about there being no battle to fight, but I think you might be right in the larger question in that I think my skill set and personality does better on the frontier than it does in sort of a well established field. I think there will be fights on connectivity, if I look at the history of electrification, the big Wall Street interests are constantly trying to figure out how to take over something that is so essential because when something becomes essential, it means people will pay a lot for it and I think you may have heard me talk about this before. If something horrible happened and our electricity prices went up by a factor of 20 times or a hundred times, what are you going to do not use electricity, right?
Christopher Mitchell: No, you're still going to use it. A light at night, being able to keep food cold, these things are essential. Wall Street sort of minded folks, they know that and so they're trying to figure out how to get a piece of that action. We're going to see that with Internet access for a long time. I think there will be work to be done long after we have accomplished a lot of the goals that we've set out, but like you said, I think I like to be in areas where it's a little bit more of a frontier. This isn't as much of a frontier, I guess, in some ways, it's been a fight for a long time, but I feel like something that it needs a different approach and that's housing.
Christopher Mitchell: When I look at the racial inequity that America has in particular, so much of it seems to be centered around housing, housing wealth, the legacy of it. My family went from working class to being very successful in part because of the GI bill. My father served that was a mechanism that he then did very hard work. Both of my parents worked extremely hard and yet they also benefited from being able to live in any neighborhood that they wanted to. They benefited in many ways from a privilege we haven't extended to lots of people. You and I talked a little bit on LinkedIn where I was saying, I think housing is one of the most important things, and you were saying, what about Internet access? I think Internet access is important, but like intergenerational wealth from housing is so important for how we've built America.
Christopher Mitchell: That's something I could see myself just really wanting to bury myself in. That and also family leave policy is something that I just think is really important when I look at again how important family is and how many millions, tens of millions of Americans aren't able to care for loved ones. Whether it's parents or whether it's children one has to care for, it ruins lives when you can't be there. I just feel like for all our material wealth, we need to have a good solution that is both business friendly and family friendly to making sure that we can do that. It's policy issues. I'm interested in policy and so those are two that I come back to.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Very interesting. One if I may suggest is, because I am pretty much still I can... I see Wall Street's perspective quite a bit, so I need to respond to something that you said. Consider understanding incentive structures, right? [inaudible 00:49:08]The corporations are not evil, right? No CEO is sitting there saying, I want to go [crosstalk 00:49:12]What gets measured gets done, right? If shareholders are saying, we're going to hire a management team to maximize total shareholder return, and that management team is going to try and maximize total shareholder return and if the underlying structure is looking to... Is going to result in a market failure. I think you raised a really good point about electricity. One of the reasons we don't ever see a 20% increase in electricity is because it is a rate based driven business model.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: It's based on a fixed return on capital. Telecom is based on average revenue per user, which is high in urban areas, low in rural areas, or like you earn more in urban areas. One area if I consider is for sort of looking into, and I think you're so well placed to bridge that gap is, why do corporations behave the way they do? It's literally if there's a way to tweak that incentive structure, [inaudible 00:50:20]behaviors may change. Just something I thought, I'd leave you with Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, no. I think you're familiar with some of our other work across ILSR. My colleague, Stacy Mitchell, very focused on this.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: You guys are related, right?
Christopher Mitchell: No, we're not.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Not related?
Christopher Mitchell: No relationship. No. It's an ongoing joke in which I always pretend that she's just embarrassed that I had somehow ended up with a name that's the same as hers. The thing is that I feel like the incentives are essential and that's what I've come down to. I agree with you a hundred percent on that. The challenge is where the incentives are set by corrupt legislation because the people that have economic power write the rules and that's where our fundamental analysis is that by decentralizing power, it doesn't make it inevitable that the common man or common woman would write the rules, but it's just the closer we get power to main street, the harder it is for massive corporations to basically write all the rules. In short, what we do at ILSR is try to figure out how to get better rules so we can have stronger economy that is more centered on community values and benefiting the communities.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Amazing, amazing one that I'm totally with you, Chris. It was an absolute pleasure. This was my first ever interview. I've never interviewed anyone, so thank you so much for giving me the opportunity. Yeah. Really enjoyed talking to you, really enjoyed learning about your formative years and best of luck with what's next. I can't say it strongly enough. I think your organization is a national treasure and I really hope that more people in America in the coming days and years will recognize the immense contributions that you and your colleagues have made, so thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you Asfi. When we put up the idea of someone interviewing me and you wrote back that you were interested. The first thing was that everyone on my team were all like, Oh, well, that's obvious. He'll be great. My second thought was, Oh man, this is going to be so much of a harder interview than I expected because you have a real, you have a way of cutting to the important parts of arguments. I'm really glad you stepped up for it and I'm really appreciative.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Thank you. Thank you. I look forward to listening to this and hi to all your colleagues. I hope this madness ends, man. I'd love to come down to Minnesota and meet you guys.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Well, you'll be invited as soon as we have some of this under control.
Isfandiyar Shaheen: Thank you Chris.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Asfi of NetEquity Networks. You have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @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 ilsr.org, while you're there, please take a moment to donate.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 418 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thank you for listening.