Political Will and Local Broadband Initiatives - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 329

While Christopher was in Ontario, California, at the 2018 Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference, he took advantage of the opportunity and recorded several discussions with experts to share with our Community Broadband Bits Podcast audience. This week, we’re presenting his conversation with Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities, and Bob Knight, Executive Vice President and COO of Harrison Edwards. His Public Relations and Marketing Firm has some special insight into the broadband industry.

In their discussion, Deb, Bob, and Christopher get into the challenge that faces every community that searches for ways to improve local connectivity — political will.

We often report on communities that are considering some level of investment in publicly owned Internet network infrastructure. From convening committees to commissioning feasibility studies to entering into talks with potential partners there are many steps that a community may take that may lead to nowhere. The reality is that moving from consideration to implementation is a path filled with potential pitfalls, especially when elected officials face challenges from incumbents bent on maintaining their positioning in a community. It’s also a process to determine if a publicly owned network is right for a community; every place is different and each local government faces the process of discovering what’s best for them.

Bob and Deb have worked with many local officials and have seen firsthand the types of issues that can fracture political will toward a local broadband initiative. In this interview, they share their observations, how those issues affect local communities, and provide pointers for constituents that want to support their local leaders.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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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.


eb Socia: It's all about ensuring that the citizens are engaged and excited and you are sharing information all the time. And then you end up with a success like that. It's great to hear about those stories.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 329 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Christopher is back from the 2018 Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference in Ontario, California. While he was there, he recorded several interviews, including this week's episode. Deb Socia from Next Century Cities is back on the podcast, and a first time guest, Bob Knight from PR and Marketing firm, Harrison Edwards joins in. The topic for today is political will. Deb, Bob, and Christopher discuss how political will, or the lack of it, is such a key element in communities considering publicly-owned broadband infrastructure. Bob shares some sobering observations from his company, and the three talk about possible reasons for the challenges behind mustering political will to move beyond discussion to implementation. They also get into the ripple effects that are negatively impacting local communities, and they provide some pointers on what constituents can do to help their elected officials who need the political will to move forward. Now, here's Christopher, Deb, and Bob discussing political will and community network projects.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Ontario, California at the Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference with another set of live interviews. We're going to talk today with Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities and past guest. Welcome back to the show, Deb.

Deb Socia: Wonderful to be here. Thanks, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: And we have a new guest that I've been wanting to have on for some time now: the one, the only, Bob Knight — not the basketball coach.

Bob Knight: Duck!

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Bob is a partner at Harrison Edwards. Bob, what is Harrison Edwards?

Bob Knight: So we're a strategic public relations firm, a strategic communications firm, a digital marketing firm, and we have many areas of expertise including economic development, government, healthcare, and we've been in the broadband space also for about three or four years now.

Christopher Mitchell: And yeah, I was going to say, I see you at all of these events. You've been reading, hoovering up all the material you can find to think about these sorts of things.

Bob Knight: And certainly listening to the podcasts. There is so much great information out there, and our team is really excited to be working with communities and some of our partners on some really interesting projects. Actually we have the only dedicated broadband team in the US in our space.

Christopher Mitchell: And you're located out just outside of New York City. What's happening in Westchester?

Bob Knight: That's really interesting. So we helped the Westchester County Association launched Gigabit Westchester. This was in 2016, and it was a really interesting project at the time. They put together a compact of the four cities in Westchester County — so about half a million people — and the object was to bring gigabit speed broadband to the entire county starting with the four cities. The [county has] about million people, so it's a big project. I think they are finding their way. The Federal Reserve has been a bit involved. Jordana Barton, who I believe has been on on this podcast before —

Christopher Mitchell: I'm not sure if she has or not. She certainly should be, but we've talked about her ideas frequently in terms of using banking regulator tools to improve access.

Bob Knight: So the Federal Reserve right there looking at the economy and they're taking a big look at the digital divide and those issues. And they've identified that basically, without digital inclusion, without access to high speed broadband, digital divide equals economic divide. And our nation's economy really depends on the deployment of high speed broadband. So they see this coming down the pike and they're saying, you know, we're facing downward mobility in our nation without high speed broadband. It's a very, very serious issue. Probably one of the most serious issues facing the US.

Christopher Mitchell: And Deb, what's going on in Next Century Cities? Any exciting news? How many cities do you have now?

Deb Socia: We have 190 member cities, towns, and counties across the country and growing every day. So it's pretty exciting. We do have an event coming up, and it's in Hartford, Connecticut, and our keynote speaker is Gigi Sohn, the wonderful Gigi. And we've got several panels: one of a panel of mayors being moderated by state senator, Beth Bye, and a panel on financing, a panel on successful models. So a lot of really interesting information that we can share with local leadership.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. I'm looking forward to it. I'll be there. We're going to talk about political will today — something that, Deb, I know you have intimate experience with and something that actually was prompted by Bob after you gave a presentation on it at the recent Great Lakes Connect. So, I'd like to start off by asking you, Bob, why is it important to build political will? And then we're gonna come back to Deb to get some more examples.

Bob Knight: Just for background purposes, my business partner, Carolyn Mandelker, and I both have political backgrounds. She sits on a planning and zoning commission and used to run political campaigns in New York City, and I'm formerly an economic development official. So having worked and continue to work with government from the inside, we really have a keen understanding of what makes projects tick and why certain projects move forward and why other projects just lament for years and years. And at Great Lakes Connect, to the point that you made, it was really interesting — sort of timing is everything in life. I had given a session on building political will and making the case for project funding. I was doing [it] with Tom Coverick from KeyBank. And the issue throughout the entire conference, it came up in every single session, was you have to have political will to be successful, or oh, how do you build political will? We were hearing from a lot of people. This statistic is startling: 90 percent of broadband projects that have come about throughout the nation actually are not moving forward.

Christopher Mitchell: Of community broadband projects.

Bob Knight: Community broadband projects are not moving forward. It's probably even closer to 95 percent. And there are several factors, but really the main reason is a lack of political will, a lack of community engagement. So we want to change that.

Christopher Mitchell: And you would define that as where the city council takes the idea seriously, the mayor, [and] maybe they form a subcommittee, something like that, but it doesn't go further than that. That's what you're talking about.

Bob Knight: Yes. What happens is that it fails at the polls. It fails. The project fails to get a council vote. And what we're seeing a lot of is when you look at who the project managers are at a municipal level, it's typically a chief information officer or director of finance or a director of technology. By nature — and the word bureaucrat is not a bad word, but by nature those appointed officials typically are a little more insular, and they're looking at budgets and project timelines, and they sort of work behind the scenes. That's what they do versus an elected who's out in the community. So very often the first time a project sort of sees the light of day, it's daylighted, it's like agenda item number three or four on a council meeting, then all of a sudden the public has its back up because these are not inexpensive projects. So the public has some questions. The local reporter is sitting in the council meeting if you still have a local reporter in your community —

Christopher Mitchell: Let's hope.

Bob Knight: Let's hope, and all of a sudden, you know, there's a reaction. And then the city council members become a little scared, and they say, "Well, let's study this further" or "Let's ask some more questions." And we get on this wheel of delay, delay, study, study, and projects are not moving forward.

Christopher Mitchell: So Deb, is this what you've seen as well, or would you come at political will in a different way?

Deb Socia: I think political will is essential if you're going to be successful in any of these projects. But I think the thing that people forget to do is to make sure that they back up and they bring a lot of people on board with them because there's a lot of power in numbers. Right? So when you think about, for example, what happened in Charlotte with Charlotte Hearts Gigabit, which provided the elected officials with a lot of backing before they ever got to the council to deal with making change —

Christopher Mitchell: In this case, to bring Google in.

Deb Socia: To bring Google in. But, think about Mayor Durel from Lafayette, Louisiana, who did the same thing. He went to the people, he talked to folks, he got stories, he got backing, and then he got the project off the ground. And I feel like that's something that sometimes people forget. I think that was the same thing in Chattanooga that when you talk to the mayor of Chattanooga, he is well versed. He's got his talking points, and he's very supportive of the project, and he's supportive of the community. And I think there's a way to make that happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I think one of the reasons that I was excited when Bob suggested this as a topic is something that I've seen and I'm curious to get both of your reactions to this. I don't want to pick on two Next Century Cities member cities, but in this case, I think it's illustrative. Palo Alto has had a successful dark fiber network for many years. We're talking 20 years, and that has generated more than $20 million of revenue, which has kind of been softly earmarked for future fiber related projects. They have not mustered the political will to do hardly anything with that, and in fact they seem paralyzed in many ways. Now I just want to compare that to Mount Vernon where when I talk to Mount Vernon and I say, hey, you know, it's just amazing to me what you've done with almost $0 because they had all of this desire and will and a sharp person, who is just thinking I have a paper clip and a rubber band, and I've got to figure out how to improve connectivity with it. And I asked him one time, you know, like, what would you do if you just had like a few million dollars sitting around? And his mind was blown. He was like, there's so many things we could do. And I think that there's just a difference in mindset. I don't want to ask you to comment specifically on those cities necessarily, but I'm just curious about that dynamic where I feel like you just see a difference. And it's not about whether or not you have resources. It's not about your bond rating. There's a different thing that determines whether or not you're going to take action to improve Internet access locally.

Deb Socia: I think part of the struggle is that by nature governments are risk averse, and you do take a chance when you are putting forth a big project with a big dollar amount attached. And I think we need to help folks think about how to mitigate that risk so that their political future is not at stake. And I think that's been an issue for a lot of mayors. The mayors who step up — like Joey Durel, like the mayor of Mount Vernon, Mayor Boudreau — are mayors who are saying to heck with it, this is way more important than my future career. This is way —

Christopher Mitchell: Like Mayor Dana Kirkham, like long before she know how popular it was —

Deb Socia: In Ammon, Idaho, right? These are mayors who really step up and say, I've got to go for this because it's about quality of life for my citizens.

Bob Knight: You know, it's interesting. There's a real interesting dichotomy here when you look at government. You know, how do we measure success? In the private sector, we measure success by showing results. In government, we measure success by following a process, and sometimes results don't have to be equated with that just as long as you're following the process. So there is that inherent tension between the private sector and the public sector in [that] are these broadband projects a success if they keep getting delayed and delayed and delayed further? I would venture to say no, but those internal, in the workings of government, would venture to say yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Before you get to your next point, Bob, I really want to just clarify something that I think we're on the same page on, which is that a community might say, no, this doesn't work for us and that might be the right decision. Right? None of us are suggesting that every city should be moving forward with a specific plan. I think what you are specifically talking about is cities that are basically refusing to make a decision. they're kicking the can down the road.

Bob Knight: Yes, that's right.

Christopher Mitchell: I just want to make sure people are clear that we're not saying every city that has said this doesn't work for us, we're not saying that was the wrong decision. We're talking about the vast majority of those 90 percent in that figure that you cite are where they mostly have not made a decision

Bob Knight: As an industry, we're really not operating with a sense of urgency. The industry isn't, and at the municipal level, we're not. I sort of feel, and this is my own personal opinion, that the window of opportunity is closing for community broadband projects because the big incumbents, they're out there, they're lobbying in the state legislatures. Some of these bills are actually getting out of committee, and they're going to be just throwing small cells up, you know, wherever they want to. The FCC has been very friendly towards that. And so communities are basically like, look, we're still gonna, need the fiber for the backhaul for the small cells and for forthcoming 5G networks, but we're going to be going from a position of power and offense to one of defense, where we're going to be supporting the carriers deployment plans rather than looking at what's gonna be best for each community as a whole. What problems are we trying to solve in the community versus how do we support profits? Very, very different distinction.

Christopher Mitchell: Now I want to come back to your point in a second. Deb, I know you want to jump in, but I also wanted to know, I've been saying this for years that I feel like the window is sort of closing — not in the sense that it will be closed in the way that I think you might be more afraid of, but certainly that the business cases get harder every year because the market becomes more fractured with new business models.

Deb Socia: I think one of the things we have to recognize is the daily reality of the life of a mayor and understanding why they get so stuck. Right? So, if you are mayor, you get phone calls about graffiti, potholes, the streets torn up . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Dog waste.

Deb Socia: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: Garbage cans.

Deb Socia: And so, I feel like their day is so full of managing that, that sometimes it's hard to take that long look. And I think that it's really helpful for a mayor to step back and have a process in place that includes citizen input that can help them move forward and move past that sort of [problem of] I got to take care of these daily issues — which by the way, for them are small wins. Small wins are good wins. And so helping people look at the future and think here's a big win and this win makes a difference in the life of our residents.

Christopher Mitchell: I like that idea a lot. I would have actually put it on the citizens and the local businesses to say you have to force the mayor to do that good job, but you're putting some of that responsibility more on the mayor to say you need to have a process that is thinking along these lines. I think that's a really good point.

Bob Knight: Well, I think it's actually both, and I want to underscore Deb's point because it's an excellent point. You know, when I was an economic development official sitting in our first selectman's (which is like a mayor) office, and we were talking about attracting a significant company to the town. And I just remember this vividly. He had to get up, pick up the phone because Mrs. Jones was calling because one of the town snowplows took out her mailbox and you know, we had to fix it. And you're right, those are very important, those little victories, politically. You know, when we look at stakeholders, it is the role of the mayor to drive the process. It's the role of other champions and government to drive the process. But it should also be a bottom up approach. And in engaging stakeholders, how you build political will, you build stakeholder will. And I think our industry, when we say stakeholders, engaging stakeholders, I've heard a lot of tactics, but I haven't seen a lot of strategies in place across the country. So groups will say, well, we're going to have a meetup or we're going to have a hive — that's my favorite one. I have no idea what a hive is, and I've been in marketing for for 15 years, but all I know is as someone allergic to bees, I'm staying away from it. The reality is that we're really not engaging the entire community, and this should be an entire community project. We're typically a speaking to young white guys in tech who may benefit from broadband initially, but we're not speaking to our seniors. Guess who goes out to council meetings, guess who votes. It's our seniors. How are they going to benefit from the network? How are your anchor institution is going to benefit from the network? You know, I'm giving a talk today on healthcare. Robust telehealth networks are critical to the profitability of hospitals, often the major employers in most communities. So really, you know, think about the community as a whole and your strategy. And when you engage the community as a whole, you're making your project evergreen because elected officials change. We have elections. Appointed officials leave. But if the community wants it, that project is gonna is gonna live on through change.

Deb Socia: I'd like to jump in and just say, you know, we created a toolkit for cities about tech powered civic engagement, and one of the five important principles we outlined in that was work "with" and not "for." So you're not doing this for somebody, you're doing this with somebody, and when it's a shared goal, there is much more power in it. And I agree, it outlives whomever the elected official might be — outlives their office, not them personally. But I think it's all about building trust, right? It's building trust in the community and transparency and allowing the voice of citizens who are impacted by this potential change to really be heard.

Christopher Mitchell: So one of the realities about political will that I think people may not be aware of is how the ecosystem around building these networks is potentially harmed by this perpetual kicking the can down the road. You know, there are supplier companies, consultants. There's a whole range of people that are essential to make sure that communities can build a successful community network. And Bob, you were talking about some of the stresses that some of these folks are facing. I personally know that Symmetrical Networks had come into this space, tried to work with several cities, and then exited this space because they had this sense that cities just weren't making decisions and they couldn't just go year after year, paying a staff ready to move, you know, at a moment's notice only to have them sitting around in their office doing very little.

Bob Knight: Well, that's right. And, even the multinationals are having a hard time, coming to conferences, talking to cities, working with partners. And these projects really aren't moving forward at the speed that they need to, and some of our colleagues and friends, who we see quite often, they're all saying, God, I'm having a hard time selling this up the food chain that we should be devoting this time and expertise. So —

Christopher Mitchell: Internally in their companies.

Bob Knight: Internally in their company, which puts the broadband industry and it puts communities at risk because we're going to start losing some really good talent that we've all sort of cultivated in bringing to the table for these communities.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, just to explain that dynamic briefly, because I think too many people think of a company as sort of like a monolithic entity. Why is it important to sell something up the food chain in a supplier company?

Bob Knight: In the private sector, we're always looking at at P and L, profits and losses, and even nonprofit organizations have to have to make money. So if a company is going to invest in sending their people to conferences, there's travel costs associated, or to go out and meet with communities, again, travel costs associated in terms of new business development. They want to see some sort of return on that investment. It's the results, it's the ROI. And if it's not going to be profitable in the broadband industry, if projects are not going to move forward, these companies are going to say, well, maybe let's focus elsewhere in some of our other areas in other product lines and reassign talent. It's a very real threat, and I've been hearing it more and more from several of our partners and others.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. It's distressing, but I understand why it is.

Bob Knight: It is. I mean, look, we're okay at Harrison Edwards. We have several practice verticals, and we're doing some business, we're working with communities across the nation — you know, we're doing okay. And as an owner of a company, we have a long runway and I can control that runway, but there are others who may be in middle management or even fairly senior who are having a harder case. And they have to answer to shareholders at the end of the day too.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's wrap up with a discussion about what you do if you're a member of the community, if you're not an elected official or the mayor, to build political will because I think we've come at this often with what the city council and mayor should be doing. And so, I often think of this as a tripod, in that if you're a citizen, you want to have some support from the business community and the residents — that's one leg of the tripod. Another is city staff. You don't want city staff to be totally opposed to the project because they can veto it even though, you know, public policy doesn't necessarily take into account the opinions of staff officially, they certainly have a lot of power to shape these things. And then the other is your elected officials. So there's sort of three legs of the tripod you have to be thinking about. Deb, can you share? Does that makes sense to you? Have you seen examples of that?

Deb Socia: It really does. And you know, I referred to Charlotte Hearts Gigabit earlier. They really started with the business community, got the business community together, and then spread out to the citizens. All the while, they stayed in communication and collaborated with city staff and elected officials. And they were very successful, and I'm not saying because they got Google. They were very successful as a group of people gaining and garnering energy behind this movement. And I think that's a very powerful message for people to remember, is that you bring people in early and often and you share as much information as you can and you are at the same time as a group of citizens, both pushing the process forward and pulling the elected officials with you.

Bob Knight: I think it's really important when we're talking about community — I'm gonna say something a little controversial now.

Christopher Mitchell: Uh oh, here we go.

Bob Knight: I can just imagine. Here's the little clip before the show: I'm going to say something controversial now. Here's the promo. Our industry relies heavily on social media and broadband champions within the community. And I'm here to say that's maybe not such a reliable resource. Champions are great, but at the end of the day they are volunteers and champions have been known to go off message. There was a meeting of champions in one of the Colorado towns, I'm not going to name it by name, where they had put together, you know, a dozen champions in the various neighborhoods and they held a meeting. And two of the champions, two of the 12, show up and they're off message. They're actually even a little bit negative about the process because they had read something in the newspaper that incumbent had planted, some of that deliberate misinformation that our company tries to correct the record on. So you always have to be wary that yes, a bottom up approach is great, but you do need a little bit of that top down, that three legged stool that Deb was just discussing. Proper community engagement leads to three things: shorter project timelines because the community is behind it, so therefore there's political coverage; there's less cost because the projects don't drag out and further studies and more and more and legal battles; and also stronger take rates. If the community is behind it, they're gonna want [it]. You know, once people get broadband, boy, they sign up for it in a heartbeat. And that's really, really critical. Having the community there, man, these projects move forward.

Bob Knight: I think that's a really good spot to end. Deb, did you want to have any concluding comments?

Deb Socia: Let's just say that I think about some of the things we've heard here already at broadband communities in Ontario and that's, you know, Sandy, Oregon, has a 68 percent take rate, right? I mean that's because the community really cares and the community's really engaged. And Chattanooga, Tennessee announced their hundred thousandth customer. Again, just it's all about ensuring that the citizens are engaged and excited and you are sharing information all the time, and then you end up with a success like that. It's great to hear about those stories.

Christopher Mitchell: And Mr. Knight, would you like to finish up with a concluding comment?

Bob Knight: Well, it actually in cases like that, it's great, and then you switch your campaign to managing expectations, right? You say this all the time, Deb. Government is great at building infrastructure, lousy at operating it. So what happens when you have 68 percent of the community or 100,000 subscribers, you need the infrastructure to set them up, you need the human resources. So there is that messaging.

Christopher Mitchell: I wouldn't have said that Deb said lousy. So Deb, why don't you respond?

Deb Socia: I would say they are great at building infrastructure. They've been doing it for years. They don't always want to manage it, and it is not always in their wheelhouse to manage it. And so I would say it that way. I wouldn't say they're lousy at it. The folks that choose to do it actually are really doing it quite well.

Christopher Mitchell: Well and I think your point is that the things that you do well, Bob, are the things that are really challenging for communities in terms of managing the message and and rapidly changing the message that you're putting out in the media if, you know, you need to on a regular basis in terms of your marketing campaigns and things like that.

Bob Knight: So we actually just launched a brand new website just for this. It's called PRforBroadband.com. PR, like public relations. PRforBroadband.com. And it actually shows the process of building political will, building community engagement, and also you know how we go about, you know, helping to build higher take rates too. And it really shows what sidelines these projects and really how to help communities become more successful. We want to turn that 90 to 95 percent number around, flip it on its head, and make sure all these community broadband projects are successful.

Christopher Mitchell: Good. Well thanks for your passion. Thanks for coming on to talk with us today.

Bob Knight: Can't be anything but passionate about broadband.

Deb Socia: Thanks for having us, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Deb Socia and Bob Knight. They were discussing political will and community broadband network projects. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, take a moment to donate. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 329 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.