NC Hearts Gigabit - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 280

NC Hearts Gigabit is a grassroots group recently launched in North Carolina that aims to dramatically improve Internet access and utilization across the state. We caught up with Economic Development Consultant Christa Wagner Vinson, CEO of Open Broadband Alan Fitzpatrick, and Partner of Broadband Catalysts Deborah Watts to discuss what they are doing. 

We discuss their goals and vision for a more connected North Carolina as well as their organizing methods. Given my experiences dining in that state, I'm not surprised that they have often organized around meals - good stuff!

NC Hearts Gigabit offers an important model for people who feel left out of the modern political system. It is an opportunity to get out from behind the desk, engage others, and build a coalition to seize control of the future for a community or even larger region. And have a tasty lunch.

Learn more on their website or follow them on Twitter.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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.


Deborah Watts: And you know we need we need to get regulations in legislation that prevents local choice out of the way these people on the tractors the ones in the production rooms the ones in the businesses that can go to their representatives and say You all need to do something about this because I'm having difficulty running my business. I can't be competitive.

Lisa Gonzalez: You're listening to episode 280 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Christopher recently attended the broadband community's economic development conference where he was able to connect with this week's guests from North Carolina Christa Wagner Vinson, Deborah Watts, and Alan Fitzpatrick from the group and NC Hearts Gigabit joined Chris to talk about local choice and better connectivity in North Carolina and how they're using technology to bring people together. Catharine Rice from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice was also there in this conversation. You'll learn how and see how it's gigabit began. Who's involved. What they've accomplished their goals and you'll also hear some tips on the best way to get the word out and get organized. You can learn more about the group. Check out the collection of resources and even join up at their website and see hearts gigabit dot com. Here's Christopher with Christa Wagner Vinson, Deborah Watts, Alan Fitzpatrick, and Catharine Rice.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Atlanta sitting on the runway of the Atlanta airport at the Broadband Communities Conference talking to you now with three folks from an organization called NC Hearts Gigabit I'm going to start by introducing Christa Wagner Vinson, the economic development consultant of the group. Welcome to the show.

Christa Wagner Vinson: Good morning Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm also going to plug Deborah Watts the Partner of Broadband Catalysts.

Deborah Watts: Good morning.

Christopher Mitchell: And we have with us, as well, Alan Fitzpatrick, the CEO of Open Broadband.

Alan Fitzpatrick: Great to be here Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: And you can't see her but longtime friend of the show Catharine Rice off in the wings making sure we don't screw up too much. So let's start with just what is NC Hearts Gigabit. Sounds like a very, I guess, Web 5.0, now kind of millennia kind of named organization.

Christa Wagner Vinson: Yeah absolutely. But we want to reach a large community that cares about connectivity and the ability to network local communities to move forward and prosper in the global economy.

Christopher Mitchell: So in case anyone's listening to this early in the morning the 'NC' is for North Carolina the idea of the name really comes from Charlotte, and Alan you're involved with this. Where does that come from the idea of Charlotte Hearts Gigabit.

Alan Fitzpatrick: Four years ago Google Fiber announced that Charlotte was being considered as one of the next Google fiber cities. And at the time there were only three cities in the country that had Google Fiber and a couple of us saw the announcement and decided this would really be good for Charlotte and no one had been talking about high speed Internet in the community at all. None of the carriers none of the entrepreneurs just wasn't a topic of conversation. But when Google Fiber announced they were considering, then people started to get excited. So a couple of us decided we needed to promote this. We need to advocate to try to attract google fiber. And then the conversation quickly generated to well you know we really just need to advocate for high speed Internet in general.

Alan Fitzpatrick: Well none of us worked for Google Fiber and what we're not trying to be a company specific advocacy group. So we formed a group called Charlotte Hearts Gigabit and the whole purpose was to educate people on why gigabit internet would be good for us. And then what you would do with it once you had it and then we started looking at gigabit applications and seeing what Mozilla was doing and US Ignite and some other organizations and we found that we really had to educate people on the use cases so we had to bring people together. And surprisingly enough the techies were one of the hardest groups to win over because a lot of them would say well why do we need this speed.

Christopher Mitchell: You know and there's a fair amount of just natural antagonism. I know more about technology than you do in that community maybe. Let me just ask you one other thing though and that's it comes out of a question that we had yesterday on my panel which was what do we need to do to get better broadband in this country. And my answer was that we need more people stepping up as citizens of communities. You're not the mayor of Charlotte. I don't think.

Christopher Mitchell: No I'm not. I'm just as it is. But you stepped up and did something. I'm just curious. You have a history of doing this. How did you get into it.

Alan Fitzpatrick: It was the first time advocacy ever myself I'd always been you know in corporate America. I was just passionate about the topic. I found some other people that had like mind. And we decided just to start holding conversations and holding events. And then one thing led to another and we ended up getting Google Fiber which is great. And then even better than that is we attracted other carriers to do the same thing.

Alan Fitzpatrick: AT&T fiber came into Charlotte as well Camporeale which is a carrier just south of Charlotte and Rockhill they started offering gigabit speed. And miraculously enough time warner cable suddenly increased their speeds at the same prices so consumers won because there was competition. And all this was happening. But your point Chris this is the first time I've ever done this as a consumer advocate. I really enjoyed it and we made a lot of progress and now we're trying to take it to the next level for North Carolina. So

Christopher Mitchell: let me bring Deborah in. I'm curious how you got involved with this this ragtag group. Were you involved with started it all just jump in with and see how gigabit.

Deborah Watts: No I think my links are are the opposite of Charlotte. They're much more rural because I come from a huge family and my husband does as well and that means that probably a third of the States related to me but there are all in the country and I have a visceral level. I am aware of what they're missing. You know the kids who can't get the AP courses and can't apply to the best colleges not because they're not bright but because they don't have the credits in the right courses. You know that's just one thing where the hospitals that close. I spend a lot of time running around rural North Carolina and the reality of what isn't there but could be if the technology enabled it is very personal. And so that's that's really the motivation behind why I'm doing this and why I have been working in getting broadband into rural and disadvantaged communities for about 20 years. Now this has been a very long struggle.

Christopher Mitchell: When my colleague Hanna Trussel with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed North Carolina on a report. One of the things that we observed from afar is North Carolina's cities seem to be above average with regard to gigabit investment. But the rural areas seem to be considerably behind compared to others. There was one of the greater divides with notable exceptions with some of the co-op co-op that have done investments and we of course know that some of the municipalities like Wilson would do more in rural areas but they are prevented from doing so. So I'm just curious is that your impression as well that the rural communities in North Carolina are particularly left behind.

Deborah Watts: It's not just my impression that's borne out by the FCC statistics and we worked really I worked with the NC authority and Jim Patterson for a couple of decades and we worked really hard to get internet across the state and it was successful. We have some of the highest DSL coverage of anywhere in the country. And then the EOC authority and the organized operations to try and move things forward went away for lots of reasons not the least of which were political. And as a result we still have really good DSL coverage in rural areas but very poor high speed we're down near the bottom in the high speed is like providers said we were there. We've done our job. And that's the end of it and it isn't the end of it it's a moving target and we haven't been on that road in a while.

Deborah Watts: And just to clarify when you say good DSL coverage I suspect you mean widespread widespread widespread speed hardly adequate and in still way too many places just nothing. You know it's in and out. It's not reliable. You can't do the things you need to do in terms of coursework in terms of telehealth in terms of public safety. I was in a community this week on the coast and it's a very upscale community and the police chief and the fire chief carry two separate telephones so they can maybe get connection depending on where they are in their county and that's what they're reduced to doing. And it doesn't always work. So it becomes a life or death issue. And that's that's reality.

Christopher Mitchell: So Christa I'm curious how you fell in with and hearts gigabits and what's motivating you to poor time as a citizen into this.

Christa Wagner Vinson: We love get out of it. We want to get out of it. We want everybody to have access to gigabit. And our message is ultimately hopeful. I think the realities on the ground are stark but our opportunity is great and we know that coming together engaging communities coming to consensus about a path to move forward is our best way to move forward. Part of our heritage as we are a project of click and see the first state chapter of the National Coalition for local Internet choice and great work had gone into bringing people together for several years. Talking about how to help communities move forward communities like Wilson that had moved forward being an example to others. Wilson North Carolina the first gigabit city in the state.

Christa Wagner Vinson: And after several years of talking to one another we realized we have a broad based message a message that we needed to get out there and engage others. And that's the stage of work that we're in right now.

Christopher Mitchell: And so what does that mean on a daily basis. What are you doing to get the message out there.

Christa Wagner Vinson: We continue to have meetings with one another we have about 150 people from across the state are convening are called fibre lunches. And it's a community of technologists of local officials of small business owners of the entire spectrum of community that needs to be engaged not only in a broadband agenda but what can you do with broadband to advance your community's goals around economic opportunity job creation global competitiveness and our convening happened over lunch. We want people to have more fiber in their diet. That's sort of part of the subtext. In April we're looking forward to doing a statewide convening where several hundred people will attend. We'll talk about how to build broadband how to finance it and how to use it.

Christopher Mitchell: So I'd love to ask an ambassador who's going to grab the microphone on this one. I'm just I'm curious how you've gone about getting the word out. I mean I think a lot of times for instance we have an idea we want to try and contact with people. It's hard to even figure out who to talk to. How do you go about you know reaching out to people that might be living several hundred miles away.

Alan Fitzpatrick: I'll start with this answer when we started Charlotte hearts Gega. We started get a known across the country for our community advocacy efforts because early on in the day of Google Fiber and rollout of gigabit. So I went to the national gigabit City Summit that Casey digital drive held in Kansas City and met like minded folks across the country. So the first time I went to that event I was a participant in my eyes from just openness to wow this is not an issue just for us but it's a nationwide issue. The second year I was asked to speak. So we got more visibility for Charlotte in particular and as we were going forward along with the efforts that Christa was just describing we started hold a gig. Wow. It's literally show the WoW behind what the power is the high speed Internet and we got involved in a multi city hackathon gigabyte hackathon was San Francisco Burlington Kansas City in Chattanooga. So we started to build those international connections and as we were doing this other areas in North Carolina we're hearing about it. Started asking us to participate. So Gaston County was the first group the Gaston County Commissioner said We don't want to be in the shadow of Charlotte we want to have gigabit internet too. So they appointed a committee the committee chairman reached out to us and said hey what you're doing in Charlotte we want to do it Gaston County. So still today there is a page on our website forecasting county that you'll see and then Greensboro found out about it as well. So Greensboro wanted and on hardscape about effort.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say Greensboro found out about the Mayr citizens there are businesses like.

Alan Fitzpatrick: Who in Greensboro is actually the CIO of the city of Greensboro. Jay Nichols and she had been involved in the fiber launches that Christa was describing earlier and she said you know Greensboro wants to be part of this initiative as well. So she was leading that from a city technology group perspective.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Deborah I'd love to get a sense I mean I feel like one of the things that's been a lot of time worrying about lately is the divide between rural and urban areas and I'm curious if there is any challenge of having a coalition that's kind of focused on everyone as opposed to where I might think the need is greater in terms of just focusing on rural alone.

Deborah Watts: Yeah I think we're all worried about that and it is a challenge because it's a capacity we have some counties in the state that have about 5000 citizens. And when you start trying to identify leaders and generate energy they're focused on more basic things in Internet substance is substances are focused on survival. And it's it really is a big challenge. So having a coalition is an effective way to try and supplement what might be missing in terms of actual on the ground people who could who could take it and run with it. I think part of what we have to realize is that the solution and the involvement you can take it down to the individual person level or to the city or to particular offices or agencies in a lot of cases of rural America is used to be a regional approach. So you scale your effort and your outreach appropriately. And I think we're going to be working with a lot of regional leaders who then go back and work with the grassroots people in the different committees and commissions and their particular geographic area. That's that's got to be the way to go with it. You know I think one thing that we're trying to do and we're hearing it at this conference is just when you talk about broadband and you talk about using it a lot of times people throw out numbers. It's very data driven because we think data is going to prove the case and it may prove the case. But in terms of reaching people and getting them engaged and involved in stories it's making it personal. You know I. You need broadband because your niece can't do this she can't go to school here she can't do what she needs to do. Your grandmother's going to have to take a two hour drive to get to the doctor when she could sit in her bedroom and hook up with her phone. You know making it personal is part of what we're about to work storytelling platform because we've talked about being education oriented and it is education oriented. Some of that's facts and figures. You target your message and package it in the most powerful format you can put together for the particular audience and for a lot of the grassroots audience it needs to be visual and to be graphic and personal. And that's part of the reason we launched the. It's a big part of the reason we launched the Web site and that we're actively engaged in gathering those stories and formulating things and packaging them in the most powerful way we can. Now

Christopher Mitchell: when you say educating kids like good two ways. One of the criticisms I've often heard about people like me is that too many people in rural areas just don't think broadband is relevant to them. Right. Or you could be making the case to state officials that there's plenty of people who really want or they just can't get it. So how are you dealing with both of those dynamics resolutely.

Deborah Watts: I mean those those are not disconnected. I mean all the research that Pusey relevance is either number one or number two as to why people don't get connected you know then once they understand why they need it and they're still not connected. You had the challenge of educating legislators about how big this issue really is. You know so it's personal it's political it's financial there's it's a multi-dimensional problem and you have to attack it on all levels to to move the needle.

Christopher Mitchell: So Christa I want to pick on your age for a second. You're the youngest person in the room. And and my impression is is that people coming out of college are people going into college they can't conceive of living in a place without high quality connectivity. Are they getting involved in this to try and push people. Are they content to just stick around in the metro areas and build their lives there.

Christa Wagner Vinson: Well I'd say the audience of gig wow skewed younger than what was gig. Wow. That was the event Allen described earlier and Sharla. Well the Charlotte region that brought people together to talk about what I get get back Carindale. Yeah I mean our objective is to reach all those audiences including young people. And part of our message was that there's opportunity for you in the Research Triangle and in Charlotte or if you want to choose to return home that there will be opportunities all across the state for you to have the life and career that you want. So North Carolina has a long history of technology leadership and looking forward and attracting the industries that millennials want to work in as technology industries. Our objective is to make sure that the rewards are shared across a state that the opportunity is there.

Deborah Watts: I just want to throw in there that part of the answer and I think part of the question when you're talking about Millennials and educated people getting jobs we need to remember that it's really only about 25 percent of the people who have a college education. So the majority of young people young people at any age but even the younger millennial group they are part of the challenge to educating them as to the potential that the Internet and broadband has for delivering services assets applications that could help them have the quality of life they want. It's not just about a tech grad from N.C. State choosing to live in Charlotte or or Raleigh. It really is a much bigger issue than that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I feel like a person listening might be thinking is Well I want to do something like this but Google's not coming to my community. I'm going to organize around that obviously and see heards gigabit it was also not organizing around Google. You had something to build on but what do you recommend a community do or a person do in Virginia or Nevada or something like that.

Christa Wagner Vinson: Well start with meeting for lunch. That's certainly worked well for us and build from there.

Christopher Mitchell: Well let me let me just ask you very quickly I mean how do you let people know. I mean you know I'm I'm a I'm a technical connected person I'm relatively social. I don't actually know how to go about letting people know that I wanted to talk about this at lunch. When

Alan Fitzpatrick: we started this in Charlotte we had the personal connections like you were just describing and we found that if you start off with those strong nucleus of avid supporters that they'll spread the word. So if you start off with 10 people and they go from there.

Christopher Mitchell: So yeah I guess I'm on Facebook put it on Twitter things like your own social circle and expect them to spread the message.

Alan Fitzpatrick: Yes social media was definitely helpful but I think the person events were the most effective. You actually had to get people in a room and we found one of the most valuable things was showing people you could talk about high speed all you want but until they sat down in front of a device and actually sent files back and forth or tried videoconferencing or whatever they didn't really get it until they put their hands on it. So one of the effective approaches we started out with was going to a data center that had gigabit speed. And we sat down with laptops and we showed people how to do it. One of the events we held we were remotely controlling robots in Kansas City. We were driving them around in real time and the latency was so low that you know you turn the robot to the left turn to the left. You can see people on the other side.

Christopher Mitchell: Wow OK. That seems pretty great.

Christa Wagner Vinson: Another example all the way across the state and Wałęsa and we just had the city's first hackathon. And you know high school teachers other mentors encourage students to come out. Students invited their friends. I mean in a way it's community engagement. When I won it there's nothing special about the way that we're engaging and other places can do it.

Christopher Mitchell: You my message often. I wouldn't think of it as divisive but incumbents find me divisive because I'm generally looking for others to come in and provide competition to them. I'm guessing I'm hoping that you have more of a friendly relationship with incumbents and that you're promoting better broadband connectivity from anyone that'll do it. Is that been your experience.

Alan Fitzpatrick: We kind of ran into this when we were promoting Google Fiber selecting North Carolina cities. But we found that the real benefit was just having choice that we needed to have multiple choice as with high speed capacity and when there's choice consumers when so where we are vendor neutral we're looking for providers that can roll us out across North Carolina. It's not going to be a single provider. You know be a small co-op it will be small towns. It might be an independent ISP it could be a large ISP. But what is happening is people are getting better service for lower prices. So if we focus on competition and including all the carriers we're going to achieve that result. So

Christopher Mitchell: what else should we know what haven't we covered so far.

Alan Fitzpatrick: I would add entrepreneurship is a core value of North Carolina kind of from the history of the state. And that may want to weigh in on. But entrepreneurs are one of the first early adopters for technology. You can start a software company anywhere in the state anywhere in the world. If you have the tools like high speed Internet and there's no reason why we can't promote and foster more entrepreneurship in the state by having better infrastructure.

Deborah Watts: And I would take it to the other end some of the traditional industries of the state that are very important like agriculture and textiles and furniture manufacturing are the one to the extent that they're continuing to thrive and grow. It's because they're starting to use the better applications of the Internet to reach markets to run their operations to run their production. So in a sense there are missionaries and we have missionaries in different sectors all across the state. And so what we need to do is to get them on board and give them a mechanism for coalescing and speaking powerfully to the forces that are that are in charge. And you know we need to get regulations and legislation that prevents local choice out of the way. And this is an advocacy group would have limited power but these people on the tractors the ones in the production rooms the ones in the businesses that can go to their representatives and say You all need to do something about this because I'm having difficulty running my business. I can't be competitive without without this, going away so we can speak with a stronger voice. The more people they get on board. And we're just trying to get the need to get the message out in front of more people.

Christa Wagner Vinson: You know we celebrate entrepreneurship as something that's not just high tech you know really a part of our mission is to help uniquely local small businesses thrive. And when they can connect to global markets that will happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Now let me just plug that I love hearing that businesses are moving more and more to the cloud. Right

Alan Fitzpatrick: . So you're you're working your software and your tools and your systems are all remote and you have to access them over the Internet. That makes an internet connection even more powerful. The servers are not down the hallway and in telecom from the servers out in the cloud. So that Internet access is so importantChrista. So we're working with a peanut processing plant in eastern North Carolina that has moved to the cloud. So now their number one issue is faster Internet access. So this applies not just to software company but to a peanut processing plant. So it's a real life example.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. Thank you all for coming in. Joining me here on the runway to do the interview.

Christa Wagner Vinson: Thanks Chris.

Alan Fitzpatrick: Thank you.

Deborah Watts: Good bye.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Christa Wagner Vinson. Watts Alan Fitzpatrick and Catharine Rice about NC hearts gigabit. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks dot org slash Broadband Bits email us at podcast at MuniNetworks dot org with your ideas for the show. Follow us on Twitter. His handle is at community nuts. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is at MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter and Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons and thanks for listening to episode 280 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.