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NC Needs Local Internet Choice to Tackle Pandemic - Community Broadband Bits Episode 404
The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting communities across the country in different ways. Recently, Christopher called up Scott Mooneyham, Director of Political Communications and Coordination for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, to find out how towns and cities in the Tar Heel State are faring.
Christopher and Scott discuss how the spread of the novel coronavirus has changed life in the state's communities and how local governments are responding to new needs while continuing to provide essential services. Scott shares stories from towns that are now struggling with broadband access, despite their proximity to major metros, creating public safety concerns.
The pair reflected on WRAL's recently released documentary "Disconnected," which compared connectivity in two North Carolina communities, Enfield and Wilson, and explored how the different levels of broadband access affected residents. They talk about how municipalities like Enfield would be able to partner with local companies to improve Internet access if the legislature removed the restrictive prohibitions currently in state law. Scott explains how the current Covid-19 shutdown has elevated the issues raised in the documentary while also piling many other priorities onto state legislators' desks.
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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.
Scott Mooneyham: This is an issue that they know about, that they're dealing with every day in their everyday lives and right now they're dealing with it in a way that they never have.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 404 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. Today, Christopher talks with Scott Mooneyham, Director of Political Communication and Coordination for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Scott tells Christopher about what he's been hearing from communities responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and how this crisis has highlighted the importance of high quality Internet access. Scott and Christopher also discussed Disconnected, which is a new documentary from North Carolina's WRAL news station that profiles a town called Enfield. Scott tells us about how a change in law could allow towns like Enfield that have their own electric utility to work with partners to improve local connectivity. Now here's Christopher talking with Scott Mooneyham of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Christopher Mitchell from my house in St. Paul, which is the better of the two cities next to Minneapolis where our office is for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm back on the phone with Scott Mooneyham, someone I've been working with quite a bit over the last few years. Scott is the Director of Political Communication and Coordination at the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Welcome to the show, Scott.
Scott Mooneyham: Good to be here, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Scott, I wanted to have you on because I feel like there's so much happening in our cities around the nation, and in particular North Carolina as a place where you and I have been working together quite a bit, and I just wanted to get a sense, what are you hearing from communities that are dealing with COVID-19, this pandemic?
Scott Mooneyham: Again, obviously this has changed life dramatically in communities. We represent over 550 cities and towns in North Carolina, and so for a lot of those elected officials, they're dealing with a myriad of issues right now, including how to enforce some of these social distancing rules. We have a lot of essential businesses out there that are... I mean, people are still having to conduct their lives, and so people are trying to reach a balance with that. There are also concerns about... they're hearing concerns from their constituents, their businesses about how to stay in business from their individual residence, about how to conduct their lives and keep on with their connections to work as much as possible.
Scott Mooneyham: So there are all those things going out there, but obviously this has also brought to the forefront this issue with people trying to work remotely, with school children trying to conduct their schoolwork remotely, and right now our schools in North Carolina, the public schools, are shut down until May the 15th. Those are issues that have really come to the fore here right now and their own, their residents' minds, if they have a poor broadband connection how they can negotiate through this time.
Christopher Mitchell: And I mean this is something that I feel people don't always have the greatest grasp of all of the things that local governments have to deal with. But I mean, they're certainly worried about the things you mentioned, but there's all kinds of other things you didn't have a chance to mention, right? I mean, public safety. There's still house fires, I think. Any number of things that could go wrong. I'm sure you're worried about what happens with the next time hurricane season kicks up on the eastern part of the state.
Scott Mooneyham: Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: So there's so much happening. But I am curious, what are you hearing on the broadband front in particular? Are there any stories that have really struck you, that you've heard from your local communities?
Scott Mooneyham: As you introduced me, Chris, you talked about working with me on this issue a lot, so I've been out there as one of the public faces out there talking about this issue. And so now that people are... There is a stay at home order in North Carolina and has been for a few weeks now, I'm hearing from people about this issue where they directly emailed me and one of the communities that I've heard from is, really, it's only 30 miles outside of Raleigh, the State Capitol and a major metropolitan area. And it's a place that's only a 10-minute drive from a major private university, Campbell University. And yet this is an area where I've gotten a couple of inquiries from people and they either have very poor Internet connection or none at all, and no home connection at all. It's been interesting that certainly this has obviously, when people are at home like they are right now, it's really... the need, it's really been show and it's exacerbating.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think you forwarded to me an article that was about a family about three to four miles outside Chapel Hill, a preeminent university, major community part of the triangle. And in that case they were talking about how they had speeds that were very slow, much less than 10 from AT&T on a slow DSL connection, and there was a couple of memorable phrases. One was that there's high school kids that are trying to do their work on technology that's older than they are, like the DSL circuit was put in before they were born.
Scott Mooneyham: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: And then on top of it, there's this phrase that I just... It struck me because it said, the connection would go out for hours at a time. And it just struck me because we're not allowed to go out for hours at a time, and yet the connections can. It's so frustrating.
Scott Mooneyham: It is. And that's not... even before this virus struck and we were faced with this crisis, those were not unusual stories before. And I don't know if you know that, but we've heard from people in our mountain counties here where it's not unusual sometime for them to lose their Internet connection for a week or more. And you think about that, I mean, this is an important public safety issue and I think it's certainly more important than ever right now because people are at home more, and so if people feel that isolation from the world more that we're seeing now just how important it is to be connected and how these broadband connections are a part of your connection to the rest of the world.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you've done that I was excited to be a part of, was this WRAL documentary called Disconnected, and we'll have a link to that on the pages where we post this. But also if anyone just Googles WRAL Disconnected, I think there'll be able to find it really well. It's a 20-some minute documentary. I really liked it. I'm just curious if you can reflect on... This was something that you really worked on and you had, I think, high expectations going into it. What did you think of it?
Scott Mooneyham: Well, I think it's a really great documentary. One of the things that it does, Chris, it really utilizes a small town in Eastern North Carolina, Enfield, North Carolina, which is in an area in the northeastern part of the state that suffers from poor broadband connections generally. I think if you were to look at the state, you've often talked about how North Carolina has some of the best broadband connections in the country in some of the metropolitan areas. But when you get up in the Northeastern part of the state in particular and in the mountain areas, that's where you see this situation at its worst where you have people either have no home connections at all or their home connections are technology that is where they have poor speeds and struggle with reliability.
Scott Mooneyham: So, at any rate, the documentary I felt it was really great because it compared and contrasted Enfield, and there were a number of interviews with both city officials, school officials, business owners, school students, parents, all of the folks that are affected by this, and really made a strong case for how this one community and the outlying areas of it as well are really struggling economically and educationally and from a healthcare perspective, and how much better broadband can help that. And it contrasted that community with Wilson, North Carolina, which is a few miles to the west, but still in Eastern North Carolina and still surrounded by a lot of rural areas of the state.
Scott Mooneyham: But Wilson, as a city and broadband provider, Greenlight, and one of the best systems in the country, and it's just startling how, when you see the difference between Wilson and then a community like Enfield. And what's really sad about this is that Enfield is an electricity provider. There are a number of communities in North Carolina that are electricity providers, and so it has some infrastructure that can be utilized if we change the law here. And of course that's the big thing for us at the North Carolina League of Municipalities, we've been trying to get the law changed here to better encourage public private partnership.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And we're not really expecting Enfield to want to duplicate what Wilson did so much as most likely work with a provider in order to try to improve access using some of the assets that Enfield has and perhaps some new ones that they would create. But it would be more likely a partnership, and even if that wasn't true for Enfield, a majority of the local governments that would take advantage of a change in the law would want to work with existing providers rather than trying to build their own new wheel from scratch.
Scott Mooneyham: Absolutely. And there's dozens of homegrown providers in North Carolina that are willing to do this work except for the fact that it's expensive. I mean, it's expensive to connect people in rural areas and so they are trying to make the business model work. But there are a number of providers out there from ones that are just in a few communities to some that are working all across the state that are very much interested and want to work with towns, with local governments, with whomever they can to try to limit their expenses and create a retail service for people out there. But as long as the law hinders the ability of local governments to work in the best way possible, cooperatively with them, this is going to continue to be an issue.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and this is the part that drives me nuts because the federal government has recognized, I mean, everyone, everyone at the federal government admits, they do not know where broadband is and where it is not. The state uses the federal information to try to figure out where the problem is. The state therefore does not know where the problem is and where it is not. Although, to its credit, the state is now trying to collect better data in order to make that information available for its programs to improve access. But the only people who know is Enfield. If you go to the local government officials there, or probably a lot of people walking the street, they could tell you where the Internet access starts and stops. And yet they are the ones who are prohibited from doing anything about it. It's just insanely mind-boggling.
Scott Mooneyham: It is. And you're absolutely right. At the local level people understand this very well. You know, Chris, January of 2019 we went around, stated, and did a few of these meetings, and when you get out there away from these metropolitan areas, they know about this issue. It did not take a whole lot to get community interest in those meetings and get people out to those meetings, because this is an issue that they know about, that they're dealing with every day in their everyday lives. And right now they're dealing with it in a way that they never have.
Christopher Mitchell: So last question I want to ask you about is, after the WRAL documentary aired around the state, I suspect you had people reaching out to you and I'm curious if you have any stories from that? I mean, the ones that aren't necessarily related to the COVID-19, but just stories of people reaching out after they saw that and said, "It really resonated with me."
Scott Mooneyham: Oh, absolutely. And I talk about that one community that's not far from Campbell University, and they had seen the documentary as well. So, yeah, I received a number of people responding to that, and I think, hopefully, what we wanted out of that documentary, and as you said, we spent a lot of time working with WRAL and the folks there to try to connect them with people who could talk about this story in ways that resonate with people and in ways that connect people. And so that's exactly what happened. It connected people and we have heard from individuals, whether it is related to the COVID issue or whether it's this issue of telehealth. So we're very pleased, Chris, with the outcome of that in that regard. All of us now are working from home and having to deal with a lot of other different issues.
Scott Mooneyham: On the one hand, this crisis has brought this issue more toward the forefront, but it's also, in terms of, from a policy perspective, it's not the thing that's always foremost on people's minds as they're having... If you look at from policymakers, they're having to deal with all kinds of issues related to the crisis. And I will say, one of the things that's been very heartening about all of this is that we have seen a lot of follow-up, whether it was people calling us or contacting us or whether it was just people responding on their own. Clearly this is an issue that is at the forefront of people's minds. It's going to continue and it's very good that that documentary helped to build on this. I've seen more stories, in particular right now, from school teachers who are having... As I said, our schools here are shut down until May the 15th, and you have public school teachers that are out there doing their best to connect with students, and it's not easy.
Scott Mooneyham: There was an editorial from our former governor that appeared today or yesterday, Beverly Perdue. She was saying that they're real heroes and I think people would agree. I mean, they're out here doing their best to connect with their students even in this atmosphere, this landscape where it's not easy to do so. And she said she really hoped that we could take the lesson learned through this and act on them when this crisis is over, because these teachers deserve more. They deserve to be able to be connected to their students without having these Herculean efforts to figure out ways to connect with them, and obviously the students themselves deserve that as well.
Christopher Mitchell: So, as we're wrapping up this discussion I just wanted to note, my understanding of the legislature is that we have no sense of whether they're going to be able to address broadband because right now they have a first priority of just figuring out the physics of how they could meet in a safe way to conduct the state's business. And then the second thing is, is that they are very worried about the hospital situation and making sure that they do everything they can to deal with the peak. And then after that it seems like it's anyone's guess if there's any other business that will be conducted.
Scott Mooneyham: Absolutely. There are ongoing house committee meetings taking place remotely right now. So they are adjusting to this world as well. I think they will be able to address needs but what is considered a critical need right now, today, and as you mentioned the public health issues, and then they're going to be dealing with the budgetary impacts of this as well. Having said all that, Chris, I mean we're certainly bringing this issue up of broadband connectivity even as we're talking about other priorities, and we're going to continue to do that. This is, hopefully, again, this is obviously a difficult time for everybody in this country and this is, in a lot of ways, this is a tragedy, but we need to learn lessons from this and emerge from this recognizing just how crucial being connected in the 21st century is.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I imagine that the likely scenario, absent a miracle cure, is that sooner hopefully, or later, we will be off lockdown but we will be doing testing and there will be times in which different regions go into lockdown because of an outbreak. And so this, making sure everyone has high quality Internet access, is something that it really needs to get done because it isn't a matter of, "Oh, well, if we don't get it done in the next two months we won't need it as much anymore." It will be needed for some time.
Scott Mooneyham: You're absolutely right and we're probably going to be in four, five, six months is, if we are there in this kind of world you're talking about and there is more testing and certain parts of the population are able to reengage economically and socially, where we're going to see those types of outbreaks you're talking about at that time, Chris, it's going to be in the same rural areas. And so, you're right, this is not going away and we really need to address these issues. Broadband is part of a larger issue as well related to the rural areas and how they're being left behind economically, and this country can do better by the rural areas of North Carolina and of all of our cities.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you. Thank you so much, Scott, for the work you're doing and for taking some time today.
Scott Mooneyham: Great. Thank you for having me, Chris.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Scott Mooneyham of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. We 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 the other podcasts from ILSR, 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. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed to Creative Commons. This was episode 404 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.