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Rethinking Rural Connectivity with Christopher Ali - Episode 473 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week, we are spotlighting episode 134 of Building Local Power, an ILSR podcast hosted by our Communication’s Manager, Jess Del Fiasco. On this episode, Jess is joined by the Community Broadband Networks Initiative’s Senior Researcher Ry Marcatillio-McCracken and Senior Reporter, Editor and Researcher Sean Gonsalves to interview Christopher Ali about his new book, Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity.
Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia where he is currently focusing on broadband policy and deployment across the country.
The four discuss Chistopher’s motivation for and methodology in writing the book, how better broadband access can spur economic development in rural areas, and how communities are finding solutions in situations where the federal government’s efforts to improve rural broadband infrastructure have fallen short.
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.
Christopher Ali: Everybody needs the ability to participate in this digital world that we all take for granted. And the more people who are on the network, the better. That's the network effect, right? The network improves when we've got everybody connected.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome episode 473 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for local self-reliance. Today, I joined communications manager, Jess Del Fiasco, and senior researcher and editor, Sean Gonsalves to talk with Christopher Ali, an associate professor and the of media studies at the University of Virginia. Christopher discusses his new book from MIT Press titled Farm Fresh Broadband, the politics of rural connectivity. During the conversation, we talk about the communities Christopher visited while writing his book and some of the local success stories he heard. We talk about why the concept of rural deserves a more nuanced definition than it is usually afforded, and how high quality affordable broadband access can revitalize rural economic development in direct and indirect ways. We end by talking about where and why federal efforts to improve rural broadband infrastructure have fallen short, and how local solutions have shown the way forward. Now here's the show with Christopher, Jess and Sean.
Jess Del Fiasco: Today, I am joined by my colleagues, Ry Marcattilio-McCracken and Sean Gonsalves who are senior researchers with ILSR's community broadband team. Welcome to the show guys.
Sean Gonsalves: Thanks for having us.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Thanks Jessica to be here.
Jess Del Fiasco: And Sean has been on the show before, but Ry, is this your building local power debut?
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: It is. Yep.
Jess Del Fiasco: Very exciting. All right. That means we have to haze you just a little bit. And we are joined by Christopher Ali, who is an associate professor in the department of media studies at the University of Virginia. Welcome to the show, Chris.
Christopher Ali: Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Jess Del Fiasco: Listeners might remember you from an episode you were on earlier this year, where we did mention that you would have a book coming out in a little while. And the book is now here, it's called Farm Fresh Broadband, the politics of rural connectivity, which is very exciting. And I think we can just start there. So do you want to talk a little bit about the writing process for this book? How did you approach doing the research for it? Who did you talk to?
Christopher Ali: Yeah, so this is a book about five years in the making. And when I started it, I mean I think everyone on this podcast and probably all of the listeners know that when you start thinking and learning about broadband, that learning curve is huge. So I didn't even tell anyone I was writing a book about broadband for about a year so I could just get myself up to speed with all of the technical and technological aspects of broadband deployment. I started off originally, this was going to be a book... Well, the book is about policy. It's about the failure of policy to provide broadband in rural America. So I did about two or three years of really deep policy dives. Really wonky stuff, which is kind of the stuff I love doing. But in about 2018, I started realizing that maybe there's a chance that not everyone thinks policy is as exciting as I think it is.
Christopher Ali: So I might need to humanize my policy work. And with the help of some amazing colleagues and some amazing organizations, my hound dog Tuna and I embarked on a 4,000 mile road trip across the United States, mainly in the Midwest, we called it the rural broadband road trip. To put a human face on rural broadband, both the failure of policy to provide rural broadband, but then also how communities were connecting themselves in the absence of a lot of federal leadership in this space. And of course so much has changed since I began this book five years ago, and so much has changed since the rural broadband road trip. But really the book is a combination of policy analysis and then also that human face, that human story and those community stories that are so important to this conversation about broadband.
Jess Del Fiasco: Thinking about the human face of broadband issues. Could you just point to a couple of things you saw in communities that illustrate either what broadband has done to change people's lives in that community? Or what the lack is and what could change if there was better connectivity for folks?
Christopher Ali: Yeah. Chapter four of the book is entirely dedicated to a place called Rock County, Minnesota. And I spent a bunch of time in Rock County located in the Southwest pocket of the states. Rock County has 99.93% fiber to the home pass by maybe not tick rate but one of the most connected counties in Minnesota and certainly one of the least populated. So it was a really interesting case study for me. How did this happen? I mean, they have this amazing county administrator named Kyle Oder who became this digital champion and he recruited members of his board of supervisors, they got together. And it also demonstrates how vital it is for communities to understand themselves what the digital champions in broad county wanted, was they realized everyone wanted fiber to the home. And they weren't going to compromise on maybe a fiber to the tower situation or a fixed wireless network or a ring.
Christopher Ali: They really were invested in fiber to the home. So they actually passed up some opportunities that came their way early in 2009, 2010. And they were waiting for what I call in the book, a dance partner who would actually provide the fiber to the home. They found that in a cooperative, a telephone cooperative out of South Dakota, advanced communications. And they got a $5 million grant from the state of Minnesota through the amazing broadband office that you all have in Minnesota. And then they actually also bonded themselves for a million dollars to their wind turbine tax, which allowed them to then offer up 6 million then plus another 6 million from advanced communications. And now they are one of the most connective communities in Minnesota. And not only that, but it's attracted businesses. It's certainly lowered prices. I mean, I think we've all heard stories of folks who have to jostle between various cell phone subscriptions and satellite subscriptions.
Christopher Ali: I heard of one radio station there who was in Laverne, which is the county seat that was paying thousands of dollars a month for broadband. Now their bill is 80 bucks a month. There was talk of some major economic development going on there as well. And so I think Rock County really demonstrates both the importance of digital champions, the importance of communities understanding for themselves their own needs, their own digital and communicatory needs. And then working with an amazing state like Minnesota and a cooperative to make it happen. So the importance of partnerships as well. So it really is this great story that I hope I do justice to in the fourth chapter of Farm Fresh Broadband.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: I lived in Marshall, Minnesota for about four years, which is just a little ways Northeast of Rock County. And we had wire line broadband from Vast and I think Charter and it was expensive and it was slow and it was pretty unreliable. I think it would go out relatively regularly. And I didn't even know this project in Rock County existed. And it brings me to this question which is one of the high level arguments you have going on in the book, and this idea of the network effect and why it's important not only to connect everyone, but to connect everyone with equal service. And I'm wondering if you can speak to that a little bit.
Christopher Ali: I think this is one of the major struggles going on with federal policy right now is, is it just about getting the unconnected and under connected something? Or is it about getting them the place where we all take for granted is, right? Like high performance, high speed broadband. Ideally low cost, although my Internet bill certainly is not low cost. The idea being that everybody deserves in my opinion, in my research, high performance, affordable broadband. I think we all agree with that on this call. Because we can't start creating and what we have right now is the second class, second tier of digital connectivity, where maybe you've got geosynchronized satellite Internet, or you're working from an old DSL connection. You can't possibly participate in again, what we all take for granted, a Zoom call like this or when I teach and my students go out to their rural homes. They can't participate in class.
Christopher Ali: They might have an Internet connection, but I think something that I've been talking a lot about is that not all broadband is created equal. And despite the fact that in federal policy, it is all equal, right? Just as long as it can get you to 25, 3 it's considered broadband, which is another major point of critique of the book. But this idea that we really need to think about what connectivity will be like 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the future and not what connectivity is now, or what connectivity was 5, 6, 7 years ago when we created that 25, 3 threshold. So everybody needs the ability to participate in this digital world that we all take for granted. And the more people who are on the network, the better. That's the network effect, right? The network improves when we've got people, when we've got everybody connected.
Sean Gonsalves: Chris, you mentioned satellite and the various technologies. And I think anyone that works in this space knows that fiber connectivity is the gold standard. But there's all of this talk and hype about 5G. You talk about that in the book. And there's been quite a bit of talk and hype and great marketing I guess, around Starlink connecting rural America. And so I can imagine there's folks out there that say, "Well, Starlink is here or is coming so why worry about investing in broadband infrastructure in rural America?" Et cetera. So is Starlink the answer?
Christopher Ali: Yes and no and that's kind of the easy way out, right? But here's my concern. I mean, you're absolutely right. I mean, both 5G and Starlink, and I think we can lump them together because of the hype around 5G and Starlink. Two, three years ago when I was working with some counties, all I was hearing is, "Well, maybe we'll pause out connectivity plans because 5G's just around the corner." Now the conversation is, "Well, maybe we'll pause our connectivity plans because Starlink is just around the corner." I think Starlink sounds like it's a viable option, particularly for remote communities. And I'm learning more and more about how Elon Musk has pivoted away from saying, "We're going to provide broadband for everybody." Then it became, "We're going to provide broadband for rural." And now it's, "We're going to provide broadband for remote."
Christopher Ali: So either the eligibility or the goal of Starlink is shrinking. But I mean quite frankly, if Starlink can provide the connectivity in rural Appalachia, that would be fantastic. But I think that Starlink is just one possibility in a spectrum of possibilities that we have now. What worries me is when counties and communities and municipalities pause their digital strategies, because they think Starlink is just around the corner because of the hype, right? And it may be, but it also may not be. I mean, they're still in beta, right? They're still rolling things out. They're still application only. It is also still expensive, right? That initial customer outlay a couple hundred dollars may not be feasible for a lot of folks. Again, I'm thinking rural Appalachia or the islands of Maine or in Washington, there's really hard to reach communities.
Christopher Ali: And so I think Starlink should be considered as a possibility, but we can't sacrifice all of this great planning that communities are doing in the hopes of Starlink coming and being this great savior. In the book, I likened it to the play Waiting for Godot, right? You might just end up waiting forever for nothing because Starlink may not be there. So I think communities need to empower themselves to keep moving forward with their digital connectivity plans and maybe keeping Starlink in mind as a possibility.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Yeah. One of the things I liked about the book is that it's got a great high level history of federal policy and programs for anyone who's interested.
Christopher Ali: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: And you say that federal dollars on rural broadband aren't being spent either efficiently or democratically. And I'm wondering if you can speak to one or both of those things with an example of how that plays out.
Christopher Ali: For sure. I mean, part of the main high level question of the book is that, how is it that we, the federal government has subsidized broadband for at least eight years at about $8 billion a year, right between the FCC's high cost fund and the USDA money. And then even more if you include the billions of dollars that the recovery act allocated for broadband through Btop and Bip through NTIA's work and USDA's work. So billions and billions and billions of dollars have been spent and yet the digital divide still exists, is still worrisome and in some cases might be growing as we have some folks on DSL and satellite and others who are moving up to fiber. So we've got this greater divide here. So what I mean, the money hasn't been spent efficiently.
Christopher Ali: And is that traditionally? Particularly at the FCC, the money has just gone to the largest and the loudest providers, right? If you look at the Connect America fund phase one and phase two, several billion dollars. I mean, it just went to the 10 largest companies, right? They just said, "Here, we trust you to connect this country." That's not efficient. That's not an efficient way to deal with billions of dollars, nor is it democratic when we know. We know that local providers be they co-ops, be they small regional providers, be they municipal broadband providers, are the ones who are actually doing the on the ground connecting way more than the CenturyLinks or the Horizons or the AT&Ts, right? So that's what I mean that it hasn't been efficient because it's been just going to these 10 largest companies. It also hasn't been efficient because the standards have been so low.
Christopher Ali: I mean, this 25, 3 threshold has basically allowed the existence of DSL, right? Why do we have so much copper on the ground? Why aren't we incentivizing providers to rip up that copper and move to fiber or at the very least fiber to the node. And we're just not seeing that because these policy thresholds have been so low that we've grandfathered in all of these inadequate technologies. So that's where it hasn't been efficient. And then it hasn't been democratic because we just gave money to the 10 largest providers without really thinking, I think very carefully about who's actually doing a lot of the connecting. And a lot of the times, even back in 2015, municipal providers were working through and of course, cooperatives were working through this. And they've really been shut out up until 2018. They were shut out of a lot of federal money, particularly FCC universal service fund money. They were a little bit better at USDA. But yeah, really, really, really shut out of that process. So absolutely, hasn't been efficient, hasn't been democratic.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Another of the consequences that you track throughout the book is that with these huge providers, Frontier, and CenturyLink, taking hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies a year, and then years down the road reporting that they have been unable to meet their broadband build out requirements, leaving those communities stranded for connectivity options for more years to come.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean, that to me is just one of the more vexing things and is a lack of accountability of where so much of this money has gone. And again, CenturyLink becomes one of the main antagonists, I guess you could say in the book where they have received over $500 million a year through the Connect America fund. 2018, 2019, possibly even 2020, they have reported to the FCC that they have not met their build out requirements. And not only have they not been punished or sanctioned, or even a slap on the wrist, they were still eligible for more money through Ardov, right? So where's the accountability going here at the federal communications commission? And hopefully we're seeing maybe some more account accountability measures through Ardov, through asking winners to hand back some of their money, some of their spaces. So maybe we're starting to see some of that accountability.
Christopher Ali: But I've got to be honest. If you read the broadband component of the infrastructure plan, there's not a lot of accountability measures written in the law. So it's really going to be up to FCC, NTAA, USDA, to enforce very stringent requirements. Otherwise again, we run the risk of companies gobbling up tons of money. And then just saying, "Well, listen, we can't do what we promised. I'm sorry, sorry about that?" And then moving on.
Sean Gonsalves: Right. Actually, you just said two things in the last few minutes that I wanted to hit on. One of the things you mentioned were cooperatives. And one of the things that I find fascinating about your book is you get into the history of the rural electrification act and how the federal government really intervened to bring electricity to rural America. And we're sort of in this moment of this question of the broadbandification of rural America. And one of the things I think that both Ry and I have written quite a bit about and have seen, are just how well positioned electric and telephone cooperatives are to tackle these issues, just in terms of their experience of building and maintaining infrastructure. They've got the poles and the crews, but they also have a different motive than the private markets. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of electric and telephone co-ops in solving the digital divide?
Christopher Ali: Sure thing, and I would thank you first of all, both for your writing. Because I don't know if you noticed in the work cited but I cite you both a lot, so it's great to have this conversation. I mean, cooperatives to me are the unsung heroes of broadband, particularly in rural communities. They operate Sean, just like you said, on a different mindset because they are not driven by quarterly profit returns to investors and shareholders. They can take a much longer view in terms of return on investment. I also think that because they're local, the accountability is different. I mean, when you run into folks in the grocery store or walking your dog down the street, that level of accountability, when someone says, "Hey, why don't I have broadband yet?" Or, "Why has my Internet been out for two days?"
Christopher Ali: Or, "Why is my bill so high?" That level of accountability is so different that you don't see with Comcast or Charter or Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink. I mean, that's accountability from afar. This local accountability, I think and community service mindset of the cooperative has been so important. And I think this is why we're seeing so many... I mean, telephone cooperatives were a natural inclination into broadband, but we're seeing also so many more electric cooperatives move into broadband, willing to take that long term return on investment.
Christopher Ali: And I don't want to put words into their mouth though. But thinking as an investment in the community, rather than necessarily investment just for shareholders or investors and this is what makes me so excited about talking about cooperatives, because we're really able to feel and to see that long term investment in rural communities play out in real time. Just like happened in the 1930s with electrification and cooperatives in the 1940s, 1950s with telephone cooperatives. I mean, they got the job done when AT&T failed, when big power failed in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. So again, the unsung heroes of rural broadband. Absolutely.
Jess Del Fiasco: All right, we'll get to the next question in just a minute, but first we're going to take a short break. Thanks for listening to building local power. If you're enjoying our conversation with Chris Ali, I hope you consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate to help support us. Your donation makes this podcast possible, as well as all the work we do here ILSR. You can visit ilsr.org/donate to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. I also want to take a moment to plug Chris's new book Farm Fresh Broadband, go check it out. And with that, let's go back to the conversation.
Sean Gonsalves: One other thing that you mentioned also is the infrastructure bill. Bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate. It contains the $65 billion for the expansion of broadband access, I guess, because 42 billion of it is going to be as it's currently written, sent to the states for broadband networks deployment. And then there's money in there for various other things, digital inclusion and what have you. I got to say that one of the things, and your book is important because it makes the case for why connecting rural America is important. One of the disappointments, I think for myself and others with the broadband infrastructure bill among other things, and there's a lot in there and it's a mixed bag. Well, one of the good things is that instead of the FCC where there's no accountability handing out the money, that it's one step closer to the localities who have the best sense of where broadband needs exist.
Sean Gonsalves: And so this money will be given to the states, but it talks about defining un-served areas that lack access to 25, 3. And the bill basically says that this money should be exclusively spent on those areas. And only until you can prove that every area in your state has at least 25, 3, only then can you spend money on underserved areas, et cetera. And so it seems like it's a major investment that's going to focus most of the infrastructure investment in rural regions, because pretty much everybody has access to 25, 3, theoretically, networks. And so I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the infrastructure building. If you see this as a watershed moment for investing, particularly in rural America and infrastructure there.
Christopher Ali: I think you hit it on the nose when you said it's a mixed bag. I'm certainly not going to scoff at 65 billion. I was disappointed that there was a compromise, the original promise of course being a hundred billion. I for one was on board with the SEC's 2017 report that said, "We need 80 billion to connect the country with high speed broadband." When I testified before the Senate, that's what I said we needed and that's the best report I cited. I'm certainly not going to scoff at 42 billion for deployment. Couple of things. Yeah, I was disappointed that un-served was defined as 25, 3. I was also a little disappointed that underserved was 120. I think that asymmetry is potentially reflective of the cable lobby, right? Because cable can't provide symmetric coverage. I'm a big proponent of 100, 100 as a baseline.
Jess Del Fiasco: Sorry, I just want to jump in for a second to explain why symmetric is important to people, just in case-
Christopher Ali: Right. Yeah, so when we were throwing out all these numbers, we're talking about megabits per second. And right now we have an asymmetric definition of broadband, with 25 megabits per second download, three megabits per second upload. As it was described to me and how I talk about it in the book is that download is really about consumption, right? It's about binging your Netflix. It's about streaming. It's about social media. All the things that we do on a daily basis. Upload is about production. Upload is about business. At three megabits per second you're struggling for a Zoom conversation, let alone if you need to upload terabytes worth of data. Doctors for instance, can't upload high resolution x-rays at three megabits per second, right? So we really need to be thinking about a much higher upload speed.
Christopher Ali: The 120 gets us there, but the question is not what can we do today? It's what could we possibly do in five or 10 years? What will upload speeds need? And if we're stuck at this asymmetric, this 120, what are we missing out on? And that's one of the hard things to predict is, what's the future going to hold? But if we liken it to electricity, my mind is like, well, we didn't just say a house can have one light bulb. You've got electricity, you have got one light bulb, right? We connected a house and the same thing here. We're not just saying, "Well, you can have one computer connected", or just enough Internet to get through your daily work. But we need that high performance broadband and that's why I was a big proponent of 100, 100.
Christopher Ali: Back to the infrastructure package. I like the idea of it going to the states. Through NTIA of course. But one of my concerns is not every state has a broadband office. Not every state has a robust broadband office. I would've loved to have seen language in there that says for states to get money they need to establish a broadband office. I mean, Pew Foundation found this as well, right? The importance of state broadband offices. And you all know this in Minnesota. I don't think it can be understated the importance of state broadband offices, well funded, well staffed state broadband offices. So I would like to see that. Is this a potential watershed moment for real broadband?
Christopher Ali: Yes. I don't think we're going to be able to connect everybody at 42 billion. It's just not enough, but a lot of people will get connected with this. A lot of good will hopefully happen with this money. So I'm not going to, what's the expression? Look a gift horse in the mouth. But we're going to have to see when the rules come out because the allocation of the money was a little vague. There's not a lot of rule making around there. So we got to see what NTIA is going to propose in terms of actual rule making. But again, I would love to see more robust state broadband offices that act as information clearing houses, that act as grants. I mean, because we're going to have a lot of money coming down the pipe, so we need to make sure that money is spent well. The other thing I might add is in the recovery act when NTIA and USDA got those billions of dollars, one of the main concerns was do they actually have the staff at those offices to be able to administer such money?
Christopher Ali: That was one of the major critiques, particularly of the rural utility service is that they just didn't have the personnel. And so people were making super fast decisions and sometimes bad decisions. And sometimes money went to failed projects. We also need to make sure that the NTIA is well staffed and well equipped to be able to handle 42 billion passing through its doors. I got a little nervous when I saw NTIA call for volunteers for program review. I'd love to see that staffed and staffed appropriately rather than relying on outside volunteers. So there's a lot of good that can happen, but there's a lot of scaffolding that needs to happen I think before this money gets out. And of course the other thing is mapping we need to improve. The other thing that I was glad to see and yet disappointed at the same time, 14 billion for affordability is fantastic.
Christopher Ali: I would've liked the subsidy number to remain at $50 a month rather than the reduction to $30 a month. And maybe this is something the FCC can tackle if we bring back net neutrality and title two regulation, which is that do we need to mandate that providers have a low cost option so it's less than $30. To me, that should go hand in hand. Whatever how much we're going to subsidize should be the mandated low cost option. That's a question for the FCC of course, because it wasn't in the legislation.
Sean Gonsalves: We could spend hours on this, but one of the things too that I thought was a bit disappointing about the Senate passing this bipartisan infrastructure bill, is that it has been quite watered down from what... We were initially excited when Biden announced that he wanted to do this. As it related to broadband, there was a lot of talk about how localities and municipalities and cooperatives were going to be given funding preferences. And that is missing in this particular infrastructure bill. So that is a bit disappointing. I think Chris would probably agree.
Christopher Ali: Definitely. I would definitely agree. I was so excited when it was that White House fact sheet right on the American jobs plan. Holy smokes, local, nonprofit, cooperatives, $100 billion, future proof. Yes. That's the kind of ambition we need. And then we see it get watered down and through political compromise into 65 billion for non-descript entities. I mean, I certainly noted the language that said municipalities were not excluded and cooperatives were not excluded, so that was good. But definitely it took a little wind out of my sales and Sean, it sounds like it took a little wind out of your sales too, to see the final text.
Sean Gonsalves: Yes, indeed.
Jess Del Fiasco: It does seem like that's a huge change to even see that kind of language coming from the White House in the first place. I mean obviously it's federal politics, things are going to get watered down, but do you feel like there has been a significant shift just in the sense that there's a tension on these local projects? And different ways of thinking about policy rather than just complete domination from the big monopolies? Has that actually shifted or are we still very much in Comcast thrall?
Christopher Ali: A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B. I think that you're quite right Jess, that for the president to have included cooperative localities, nonprofits, even within this original messaging was a big win. It's a big acknowledgement. I think time and time again, municipalities, nonprofits, cooperatives, have proven that they can make the connections and the connectivity possible where the traditional private investor of market has absolutely failed in doing it. So I think who's ever advising the president on these matters has done a good job, but this is not a time for those of us who champion local nonprofit cooperative to get complacent. There's still a lot of work to do, particularly around the rules. Big Telco, big cable has this kind of insidious way of gobbling up a lot of well-intentioned money.
Christopher Ali: And I think we need to make sure that that doesn't happen. And again, going back to Ry your question about efficiency and democratically distributed funding. This is where we really need to stay on top of things or else we're just going to see big money go to big cable and big Telco without that accountability that we all hope for. So I'm optimistic. Maybe this is the Canadian in me, but I'm optimistic that we're seeing a little bit of the tide change in terms of towards at what point where alternative providers to the big players. But it's definitely still going to be a fight.
Christopher Ali: I also think that NTCA, and the NRECA has done a great job in working with their members. In particular, I think the electric cooperatives have done a good job in instilling the value of retail broadband, to maybe some electric utility cooperatives that were hesitant at first. I'm seeing a lot more movement there and I think that's great. And they've proven, like I said, time and time and again that they can get the job done. So now we just got to fight for their right for money.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: This is a book that's about local success in the face of federal policy failures or shortcomings. When stakeholders get to together and local officials roll up their sleeves and start getting to work. I'm wondering if you can just take a couple minutes and tell us about Rock County and the cooperative and what happened with the county seat of Lou Verne, and the results of that endeavor that started unfolding in the last 10 years.
Christopher Ali: Yeah, for sure. So Rock County knew back in the late I'd say [inaudible 00:30:22], right? 2008, 2009 that they understood again through the county administrator, Kyle older, that broadband was the wave of the future for economic development, for education, for health in their county. They also had an opportunity to get on board with some of the recovery act money. That didn't work, unfortunately, and then they really pivoted to wanting fiber to the home and weren't going to compromise on anything less. That's what their community said they wanted and that's what their digital champion said they needed. So they were going with that. The hardest thing for them was finding that provider to do it for them. And this is something I'm seeing time and time again, particularly in Virginia, where there might be some money available and there's certainly the will available, but the dance partner, finding that provider was and remains incredibly difficult.
Christopher Ali: And again, this is where cooperatives can step up and do that provision. So Rock County found Advanced Communications which is in South Dakota, which was already operating in a couple of towns in the county just right on the border. And they created an entity known as Rock County Alliance. There's literally a rock, an engraved rock in the county seat of Laverne in the courthouse commemorating the Rock County Alliance. And there's a picture of it in the book. And so they formed a Minnesota based company and by doing that, they were able to tap into Minnesota grants. They won the largest grant, I think it might be ever awarded for broadband in Minnesota, $5 million. I think the riskiest thing or at least when I was hearing the story, the riskiest thing they did was bond themselves for a million dollars. And this is a county of 10,000 people.
Christopher Ali: So to bond yourself for a million dollars, that's a huge gamble on your future. And then Advanced Communications put up the rest of the money. So I think the entire project cost 12 million. They came in right on budget and then Laverne, because it was already served technically with two cable providers, it actually had to get left out of the provision. So Laverne kind of became this island in a sea of fiber. This island without fiber in the sea of fiber. And the last time I talked to a general manager of Advanced Communications, they were going to roll out into Laverne on their own dime because of course they would be a competitor, so they can't get a subsidy for that. I use the word competitor and not the word over builder because I hate the word over builder. But they were a competitor in Laverne.
Christopher Ali: And so they've moved in now and into [inaudible 00:32:43] retail as competition on unsubsidized. And again, I think this is really great about cooperatives is that they didn't wait for that subsidy. They knew they wouldn't be able to get subsidized for Laverne, but they saw a need and they filled it, kind of this wall to wall coverage. And again, now you've got Rock County being one of, it was when I was doing my research, it was the most connected county in the state of Minnesota. I haven't looked at recent Minnesota maps so I don't know if that's still true, but back in 2019, 2020, they were absolutely most connected county. Then they got a grant from the Blandon foundation to do digital equity and digital inclusion work, and that was done through the library. So what an amazing local story here and everything about it was local from the local digital champions to the provider, to the people, to the library. I mean, it's broadband localism at its finest.
Sean Gonsalves: I know we're probably running out of time. One of the things I'm just going to say, and you don't necessarily need to speak on, I was totally fascinated by the part of your book that talks about precision agriculture and the various technologies that really require this reliable, high speed, high performing Internet connectivity. It's fascinating. But the other thing that I found really fascinating, and maybe this is maybe something that you want to speak to is, you have a very nuanced discussion in the book about what is rural America and what isn't rural America, and the tendency to romanticize certain things, et cetera.
Sean Gonsalves: And just how important though it is to connect rural America, not the least of which because of things like precision agriculture and things of that nature and the importance of these things to the rural economy. But just maybe pulling that lens back. This book does focus on connecting rural America, but the analysis and the discussion that you have made me question my own assumptions about what I consider to be rural America, and who makes it up and the kind of issues that they're dealing with in rural America. So I don't know. I guess, I'd just invite you to just maybe talk to us a little bit about what is rural America? Who's in it?
Christopher Ali: Sure. And that's such a great question, Sean, because I think so many of us who don't live in rural America, and I'm kind of halfway. I live in a town of 40,000 people, but it is not that bucolic farm pasture necessarily these open spaces, right? It is so much more diverse and it's so much more eclectic. It's so much more dynamic. And I think by reducing rural entirely, and this what I say in the book, if we reduce rural entirely to an agricultural community, we're really doing it a disservice. It is a lot more diverse. It has a lot more unique challenges. I will say, I think we also might have a tendency and this was certainly true I think during the Trump administration, to reduce rural America to a place of whiteness. Whereas rural America is in fact more diverse, the highest immigration rates were into rural communities.
Christopher Ali: And so we're seeing the changing phase of rural America, literally the changing phase of rural America and the diversification of rural America. I also think that it's not a zero sum game to write a book, and I'm going on a tangent here, about rural America and about rural broadband does not negate the importance of urban broadband, tribal broadband, low cost broadband, broadband for education. I mean, this was just one piece of a much larger broadband ecosystem that we need to tackle simultaneously. But I was really surprised. In 2019, I wrote a piece for the New York Times talking about the need for broadband for rural America. And amidst a bunch of emails of people who like the piece, there were also quite a lot of people complaining at why I would champion rural America. Well, aren't they just a bunch of Republicans? Or people who chose to live in rural America, it's their fault for living in rural America.
Christopher Ali: So I was getting a lot of complaints, a lot of criticism for saying this. But again, if we reduce rural America to these false essential qualities, we're doing such a disservice to these really amazing communities. And so hopefully what the book does is dispel some of these myths and maybe encourage people to go to rural America. We've certainly seen during the pandemic, people are moving outside of cities into more rural communities. But one thing they're not thinking about asking about is broadband because we just assume there's connectivity. I'm going a little all over the place here, but suffice to just say that the part of the point of the book was to dispel some of these myths and essentialisations that we might have about rural communities, and hopefully, hopefully it's done that job at least a little bit maybe.
Jess Del Fiasco: Thank you so much, Christopher. That's really great. And I would encourage all listeners to check out the book. Again, it's called Farm Fresh Broadband. Chris, if there's anything else you want to say about the book, where can folks find it, or if there's any other resources you want to point people towards.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. I mean, the book can be found online with most book retailers, including Amazon, MIT Press, Penguin Random House, Barnes and Noble. I mean, they'll all carry it. It probably won't be found in a lot of local bookstores. Although if any local bookstores are listening to this podcast, they can certainly stalk the book. And people can also find me on Twitter or feel free to reach out on email. I love hearing people's stories about broadband. I love it. I love getting emails. I love getting tweets about this. So who's ever listening, please don't be shy to share your story and would love to keep this conversation going.
Jess Del Fiasco: Great, thank you so much. Thank you to you, Christopher. And thanks John and Ry for joining us today.
Christopher Ali: Thanks so much for having me.
Sean Gonsalves: Glad to be here.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Jess Del Fiasco, Sean Gonsalves, Christopher Ali and me, Ry Marcattilio-Mcracken. 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's @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle's @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. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Huesby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through creative commons. This was episode 473 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.