The Signal and the Noise in Broadband Reporting - Episode 540 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Joan Engebretson, Managing Editor at Telecompetitor. She shares a bit of her history, and chats with Chris about what it's been like to write about broadband over the last fifteen years. They talk about not only what it takes to translate what can be a technical and often dry field for general audiences, but cut through the hype machine and offer clear analysis at a time when it seems like confusion and purposeful misdirection are more and more the norm. They end the show by spending a little time unpacking a good example of this - the mapping challenge process over the fall and winter.

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

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Joan Engebretson (00:07):
Especially in the world of Internet news, you have to balance getting something out quickly with, you know, covering everything that's important about the story.

Christopher Mitchell (00:16):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I'm speaking today with Joan Engebretson, the editor of Telecompetitor. Welcome.

Joan Engebretson (00:35):
<Laugh>. Nice to be here. Thanks.

Christopher Mitchell (00:36):
I'm, I'm excited to, to be speaking with you cause I feel like there's so many interesting things that are happening out there and I know that you know, we do a fraction of the reporting that you do, and yet it is overwhelming <laugh>. So I thought we could talk a little bit about that. We're gonna talk a little bit about one of the more interesting stories of the past six months, which is what is going on with the mapping challenges and what are the deadlines that actually matter and, and where, why is there so much confusion around this? And we'll also talk a bit about like how you're, how you get into real technical issues like around DOCSIS 4. So I was just gonna start by asking you, you've been doing this for a long time. I feel like you're one of the names that was, that I was reading on my first days. So let me, let me just ask you, you know, how did you get into this?

Joan Engebretson (01:24):
Honestly, I majored in journalism and then I got an MBA and I did MBA type stuff for about 10 years. And I realized I had always wanted to be a journalist mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And I then managed to kind of make the transition by being a marketing communications manager for a couple of years. And so I was still in marketing, but I was doing more kind of like reporting and newsletters and things like that. And I live in Chicago, which is where Telephony Magazine is, and I did some freelancing for them. And then the position came open there and they, they had me interview for it and I got it. I was features editor there first, and that was back in the mid nineties. So it's been almost 30 years. I've been doing this now, you know, in a variety of, of outlets initially a print. And it's been, you know, all online for quite a long time now. I've actually been writing for Telecompetitor for 12 years. I only recently became an editor, but I was doing a lot of the writing and reporting editing of other people assigning things anyway, so it wasn't a real, real big transition for me.

Christopher Mitchell (02:26):
So you picked the right. 30 years, I feel like that's where Yeah, that's when the actions started happening, right?

Joan Engebretson (02:31):
Yeah, <laugh>. Exactly. I mean, it was, in fact, I started right about the time the telecom act was passed of 1996. You know, there was kinda that boom period, then there was kind of a bust period in early 2000s. And then it was, you know, kind of stable, steady, not super exciting. Well, it was exciting technology wise, but there wasn't a lot of big changes other than that for, you know, 10 years or so. And then, you know, it's, what's happening now almost kind of reminds me of the period right after the telecom act was passed, when there a lot of investment coming in and so on and so forth. But I, what happened that time was people got over exuberant and there was too much money that came in and there was kind of a crash. I'm hopeful that that's not gonna happen this time because I think people have a better understanding of what makes sense and what doesn't in terms of spending on broadband and so on and so forth.

Christopher Mitchell (03:20):
I think you might have more faith in people than I do on that <laugh> in that regard. I'm, I'm afraid that there's a bunch of private equity folks that, that think that they can take companies that are doing a good job and they can scale 'em all at 10 x and not really sure we're gonna see that <laugh>. Yeah. I'm curious about Telecompetitor since you, you've been there for so long, I feel like we see other, other companies now doing more and more and perhaps even being more ambitious in their coverage. What sets Telecompetitor apart from others that are writing about the telecom industry?

Joan Engebretson (03:50):
What I always say is, you know what I'm describing, Telecompetitor to people. I say that it is a news website focused on broadband with an emphasis on rural broadband because we really do cover all the technology news, all the big company news you know, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, all those companies. But we, we also cover the, the tier two and tier three companies, which traditionally didn't get as much attention. You know, a good, good chunk of our reader base is, is in that category. And and that area now has become quite hot as you know, because those are the, that's the area where we're looking to get government funding out there for broadband mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. So there is money coming into that area and it's become, you know, a hotter area really since Covid, because I think Covid was what caused everyone to realize that there's a lot of people that don't have broadband.

And I mean, a few years ago you hear things like, well, if you live in some area where they don't have broadband, why don't you just move? You know? Yes. and you don't hear that so much anymore. It seems like there is a lot more recognition that everyone, you know, even if you have broadband, you still do want everyone to have it. I mean, look at Microsoft, they have this airband project to try to get broadband to rural areas. They had that even before that goes back at least five years, maybe a little more than that. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> they realize that if there's more people on the Internet, there's that many more people, they can sell all their offerings too. And I think more and more people are starting to realize that, that it's really to everyone's benefit to have everyone be connected to broadband.

Christopher Mitchell (05:23):
Yeah. I I'm curious, if you go back and you search your, your archives, I'm curious the point at which you would've first quoted someone saying well now we all agree Internet access is essential and we have to make sure that everyone's on it. Because I don't know, I would guess that the first time you wrote that is probably like on the order of 10 years ago. At least I feel like that I've started hearing people say that

Joan Engebretson (05:46):
It was one of those topics that people had pretty strong views on both ways. Because there was a lot of people who, who really, well, you may remember the whole texting the thing, you know, that you shouldn't and, and people didn't even know what that meant. It just didn't sound good. You know, this idea that you shouldn't spend government money on you know, bringing broadband to people in rural areas, if they don't like it, they can move. That kind of thing. And I think Covid was really what brought more people around to the other side of thinking, which is what I just mentioned earlier, that mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, the more people are connected, it benefits everyone. There's this whole thing called the network effect, you know, that the, the more people you have connected, it's like an exponential improvement in, in, you know, connectivity, not just a one-to-one growth or direct, direct relationship.

Christopher Mitchell (06:35):
Yeah, exactly. I, I'm just, I feel like there's a part of me that feels a bit cynical about elected officials who I feel like some have been saying the same thing and they, and they're not reflecting in their budgets especially when we have federal dollars that are available, and it's a lot easier than to put money into it. But when it actually comes down to it, you know, I, I look at like Boston, Boston actually has in its regular budget money that is raised from taxes in Boston is spent on the digital divide. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and most cities don't do that. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, for most cities, they might even have positions that are funded by private philanthropy to be working on digital divide stuff in the mayor's office or things like that. And I, you know, I just, I don't know, like I feel like I'm interviewing you, you're the news person, you're supposed to be more cynical, <laugh> <laugh>, but you feel like, you know, you, you feel like Covid did change things and that we are seeing an actual rebalancing now.

Joan Engebretson (07:30):
Right. I remember hearing one example of, there were some areas where the, you know, when they sent all the kids home to, to, to go to school at home there were some areas where the kids couldn't go to school at home, and so they didn't go to school <laugh>, you know, for like six months or something. And you know, people realized, oh, that is kind of crazy.

Christopher Mitchell (07:48):
Yeah. and then that led to the US Congress appropriating money mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, NTIA distributing it. I'm sure you've I, I don't know how familiar you were with NTIA is, I mean, a lot of people still struggle over that the initials of that yeah, the abbreviation, <laugh> mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. But, but now we have this situation, this is where, you know, I originally, I I feel like you were the one person on January 13th that got it right. About what was at stake there. There was a couple of others, but I didn't see anyone that was actually like a reporter mm-hmm. <Affirmative> that had gotten it right regarding what the deadline was for and this and that. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And so I wanna talk a little bit about the the mapping challenges and things like that from, from your perspective, but I just wanted to, like, I'm curious about the overall thing, which is that it is still not clear to me. We're seeing, we're getting conflicting statements from people at NTIA about whether or not location challenges would be reflected in the June 30th MAP decision, which will allocate the BEAD funding. And, and you were pretty clear about it, but like no one else was. And so before we, we get into it too much, like, have you seen anything else where like it was of this importance where people were just confused about what the deadlines were and when, what mattered?

Joan Engebretson (09:07):
Yeah, it was pretty confusing. And, and when all this was coming to a head, which, cause there was this deadline of January I think it was 13th, it was Friday the 13th. It was January.

Christopher Mitchell (09:18):

Joan Engebretson (09:18):
Exactly. To where people were told, get your challenges in by the state. And it, a lot of the verbiage didn't say what type of challenges. And there's two type of challenges there. I mean, as you probably know, and this is a lot of your listeners probably know there were location challenges. In other words, is this a real location that can be broadband serviceable and or are there locations that are brand broadband serviceable that are missing? That's one type of challenge. The other type of challenge was availability. And once you have those addresses or those locations is broadband available there? And the, the deadlines were different for those two different things, but they were never, it was a lot of the verbiage that came out of NTIA and FCC did not have that level of detail. It would just say challenges, you know, try to get your challenges in by this time. And there was even, you know, the FCC was saying, send in your challenges. And some people said, I think they heard kind of word of mouth from NTIA that they should have location challenges in sometime maybe in November.

Christopher Mitchell (10:22):
I think it was October 30th.

Joan Engebretson (10:24):
There was something that came out recently that said that November 10 was the date by which bulk challenges, in other words, the current version of the location fabric, it shows the challenges that were made and addressed prior to November 10th. And so if your challenge was put in after that, this we're talking location challenges here, it won't be addressed until the next time there is another broadband data collection, then that happens twice a year. So the FCC as you know, does the, does the data collection and NTIA is the one that's gonna be awarding funding for broadband to the BEAD program and so on. And the 42.5 billion that we keep hearing about, part of the issue is just coordinating between the two agencies, but also there was the whole issue of the two different types of challenges and so on and so forth.

So the FCC does this collection process twice a year. One begins January 1st, essentially the beginning of the year, and one begins six months later. So the FCC can only really make location challenges prior to when availability challenges are put in because you can't start throwing in location challenges when service providers that have to report this information about where they have broadband available, they have to report it against something which is the location database. So you can only really change the location database twice a year. What ended up happening was that the database that became roughly January 1st was based on locations that have been challenged and resolved as of November 10th of the previous year. And that's the location database that's going to be used for allocating BEAD funds. And then we're currently in the process, the broadband providers are in the process of entering into their availability data and there's gonna be a challenge process for that as well. But those challenges wouldn't be recognized until the next time that the fabric comes out, which would beno, you know, another six months. So

Christopher Mitchell (12:30):
It's just that easy

Joan Engebretson (12:31):
<Laugh> No, it isn't. And there was a new deadline put out March 15th is the deadline for bulk fabric challenges for the next version of the math, the one that is made available to providers at the end of June, and into which they input their availability data as of the end of June. So that's after the BEAD funding is supposed to be allocated,

Christopher Mitchell (13:05):
Which I just, I find it really aggravating that basically the location challenges were closed off before almost anyone had access to the map states had access to the map, but most of the states didn't even have an office that was able to deal with it. They didn't have GIS people. Right. And so there was never really an opportunity to fix the map. And I, and then I felt like between NTIA and the FCC, and I don't want to re-litigate everything here, it's not your space, but, but I just, I'm amazed at how unclear they were. Like I, I feel like, and you know, you have so much years of experience of talking to agencies, spokespeople, I feel like their job is to make this clear so that we're not all confused about on January 12th. We're like, wait a minute, did location challenges even matter? Like what are we doing here?

Joan Engebretson (13:53):
Right. And when the, when the January 13th, like I said earlier, when the January 13th deadline was put out, it didn't say what type of challenges they were. I guess they assumed that you would know that this, it was too late to change location challenges because you know, the availability data is entered against the locations. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, but it still would've been very useful to have said that. I've heard from quite a few people that they don't wanna see the whole allocation process held up by this whole debate about the accuracy of the maps. Because there's a whole nother issue we could talk about, which is that people who did challenge locations or availability, very few of those challenges were accepted and they weren't given explanations of why they weren't accepted. So that's a whole nother issue. But the thinking now among a lot of people that I've heard from is that they don't wanna delay things.

If there are problems with the map, they probably affect the states equally. And so therefore let's just go ahead and allocate the funding with the information we have now, you know, as of June 30th is, will be the information June 30th of, of this year based on the data that was input by the providers showing their status as of the end of 2022. And, and based on the locations that were as of November-ish that, you know, anything resolved as of November. And then it's up to the states really to do the awards. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, they're gonna be given a p a pool of funding and they're going to be deciding who gets it and what areas are eligible and so on. And some of them already have done their own maps. New York did their map Georgia did a map and there's a lot of states that have done that. And they may not even rely on this FCC map to make their allocations. They'd smart <crosstalk> if they do. Yeah. And if they do, there's a whole nother six months to, you know, try to hone in on getting that more accurate. And it's never gonna be perfect because there's always

Christopher Mitchell (15:53):
That's right.

Joan Engebretson (15:54):
Locations being built and new broadband being deployed and so on and so forth. So, I mean, that's what I've been hearing from a lot of people. Like

Christopher Mitchell (15:59):
No, that's what people are saying that, but I just, I don't, I, for the life of me, if we had used the 4 77 data, I think then we would've had fairly uniform errors. But yeah, the way cos quests compiled this information, I actually think we'll see significant different error rates because different states have different levels of accuracy of the records that they keep mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. So, you know, I would think that western states with more Tribes where the federal government and there's generally much worse record keeping. I think Arizona's and Nevada are really gonna be penalized, frankly. And you know, and then states like Ohio I think got in tons of challenges because they were paying attention in Illinois the same I think. Whereas Arizona I think didn't even have a broadband office really by November 10th, you know, <laugh>. So, and I mean, you know, it's, some could say, wow, the state should have been on top of it. Well, yeah, blah, blah, blah. But like anyway, I just, I feel like whether it is Ardo or this, I, I don't know. It feels like the federal government just cannot handle this. And I don't remember like the stimulus in 2009, 2010, you covered that too. I wasn't super happy about the way it went, but it seemed like it was more competently administered at the time to me.

Joan Engebretson (17:13):
I mean, you did hear some complaints about overbuilding and so on and so forth, but it wasn't to the same. Well, overbuilding isn't the issue so much now, but just

Christopher Mitchell (17:22):
That was the complaint people had though at the time. That's right.

Joan Engebretson (17:24):
Yeah. but those were the main complaints at that time and this time, you know, there's a variety of complaints. And one thing that I also noticed is that the FCC keeps saying they've reflected bulk challenges in the map. And there was, that was one of two ways you could make your challenge. You could also challenge as an individual where you actually clicked on location in the map and the bulk challenges, only governments and providers could actually do a bulk challenge. You basically upload your own data to, you know, challenge what you think, what's in the database. They already have not addressed the individual challenges. So if you are a person who says, I, they say I broadband, and I don't, that hasn't even been addressed yet. And they're still, even this March 15th date, they're still just saying bulk challenges. And, and yet you, they keep saying, you know, you hear Jessica Rosenworcel, for example, has recently said, you know, everyone's encouraged to file their challenges, but <laugh> it looks, sure, looks like it's gonna be real long time to get to the individual ones.

Christopher Mitchell (18:24):
Well, the other thing I'm been curious about is I've heard I've heard varying things in terms of rejection rates of challenges mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and some of the challenges seem to be rejected because the, the, like, if a state files a bunch of challenges, but an ISP had already fixed those errors previously, then I think the FCC rejects the challenges, although that location will have been fixed in the map. And so rejection rates, it isn't clear exactly always that that means this, that the map won't be fixed. But I'm, I'm hearing a lot of concern about high rejection rates. You made that comment earlier, so that's something you're hearing too. And, and I don't think any of us have a sense of whether we're even gonna see the raw numbers of, of Yeah. Challenges and rejections and reasons and all that. Right.

Joan Engebretson (19:14):
I think people's minds will be put to rest a lot more if some of that had been shared or if, if it would be shared in the future. I mean, perhaps if I was giving them the benefit of a doubt, I would say maybe they were just trying to get things done quickly and didn't have time to go into that level of detail. You know, at some point they gotta catch up, you know, at some point they have to say, oh, we finally, we have time now. We'll tell you why. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, the criteria we used for rejecting or accepting challenges.

Christopher Mitchell (19:39):
So I feel like one of the aspects of your job is that you have to be focused on this government deadlines, what's going on with these processes, and then the next minute you're writing about you know, the future of DOCSIS 4.0, which you know, is what the cable companies will be using to compete with. Right. The with the the fiber companies. Right. You know, I felt like in like 2018, I felt like people were like, DOCSIS 4.0, DOCSIS symmetrical, we're gonna have it in 2022. In 2022. I felt like I was hearing, ah, we'll get it done by the end of the decade. And now more recently, I feel like I'm hearing, oh no, we're gonna get it rolled out in the next se couple of years. Although Comcast and Charter are going in different ways. Yes. How do you, how do you track all that? I mean, you have an MBA did you, how did you become technical enough to be able to write about this comfortably?

Joan Engebretson (20:29):
It was, you know, just doing it for a long time. I actually read Telephony Magazine before I started working there because I, I was kind of interested in that area and was already hearing it was kind of booming and would read things and eventually you start understanding it all mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and then when I was freelancing for them would learn new things too.

Christopher Mitchell (20:49):
Yeah. Same as me. Right. Like, I mean, a lot of it comes from just chatting with people and Exactly. You know, you go out to events and, and you, you, you end up at a dinner table with some engineers and you listen. Right.

Joan Engebretson (20:58):
<Laugh>. Right. I remember one time I wrote, I was writing something about at t m when I didn't really know what it was and I went out and actually bought a book about ATM

Christopher Mitchell (21:05):

Joan Engebretson (21:07):
Really? I'm dating myself. You don't hear much about ATM anymore,

Christopher Mitchell (21:09):
But, well, one of my mentors would love to hear that cuz he insists that att m was such an elegant way of transmitting data and we are foolish not to embrace it. Right. Do you just have a ton of Google alerts? Do you get, like, does everyone notice that you press releases? How do you decide when to write

Joan Engebretson (21:23):
A It's a lot of different, yeah, it's a lot of different things. It's wire services, it's subscribing to a lot of different things. It's Google alerts. It's I spend a large part of my day just kind of filtering information and from all the different places that it comes from.

Christopher Mitchell (21:38):
And do you have a sense of analytics? Like do you, do you see that like stories about the, the sort of like a DOCSIS 4 story, is that gonna get more coverage than a story about about mapping issues or something like that?

Joan Engebretson (21:51):
Yeah, I mean, you can tell that to some extent, but you know, there's a lot of hot topics right now. So you know, we try to cover all the important things that are going on. I think we're, the story kind of stories I really like to write are ones where I've always wondered about something, you know mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, it isn't, it wasn't someone calling me and saying, Hey, we've got this new widget, can we talk to you about it? That's fine. But my favorite stories to write are where someone has told me about their widget and I realize, wait, what about this? Or what about that? And then I'll dig into that. That I think is where you can really differentiate your coverage.

Christopher Mitchell (22:28):
Yeah. And I think you can tell when someone's really interested in it. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So being

Joan Engebretson (22:33):
The writer or the reader,

Christopher Mitchell (22:36):
I feel like you can tell when the, the writer is really into it. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and you know, it just, you know, I've written and and you don't have to admit to this if it's ever happened to you because you're, you're a professional. But I feel like there's definitely times where I've written about something that I thought needed to be written about, but I wasn't into it. I was much more willing to gloss over details <laugh> and not go as in depth <laugh>

Joan Engebretson (22:59):
In it. Yeah. I could see that happening. Also, you, and especially in the world of Internet news, you have to balance getting something out quickly with, you know, covering everything that's important about the story. That also sort of adds a whole different layer of challenge to it too.

Christopher Mitchell (23:16):
On the order of 10 years ago, and we're just focused on the municipal and cooperative space, I felt like we could have tabs more or less on everything that was happening in that space. And now it's, it's impossible. There's just mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, there's way too much. Do you, do you find yourself consciously having to let things go that like 10 years ago you would've done a, a story on and now you just have to pick and choose among them?

Joan Engebretson (23:40):
Not exactly. We, different outlets have different theories or philosophies about covering a lot of vendor news. And so I think maybe in the past I might have covered more of that type of news. You know, every time there's a new product from certain companies, now it's, I generally don't cover vendor news unless it's really big news. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> something that really people need to know about because, and a part of it is that there's just so many sources now for things like vendor news. A lot of them do their own newsletters and do their own blogs and I think there's less value placed on, you know, a media outlet covering that type of news.

Christopher Mitchell (24:27):
Right. They don't, they don't necessarily need that to get it out to their customers anymore.

Joan Engebretson (24:31):
Exactly. Right. And there used to be a couple people would call you up and wanna brief you about their new product, and that doesn't seem to happen anymore either. I think since everyone's gone to remote work, I think that's part of it. They used to know that, you know, certain publications were in certain cities and they could go and talk to people there they would even fly in to talk to you. But, you know, that doesn't happen anymore.

Christopher Mitchell (24:50):
Yeah. Where do you, where do you see this going and you know, is this the sort of thing that you're gonna be sticking around in? I'm, I'm always curious someone who's had 30 years of experience, are you looking forward to that day when you retire and then you don't think about it anymore? Or are you gonna be one of these like 89 year old lawyers you still practicing <laugh>?

Joan Engebretson (25:09):
Yeah, that's a really good question. I do think about it from time to time. I really do love what I do, so I'm not, you know, in any hurry to retire. And then I also sometimes wonder, you know, I'd love to to do more traveling and things like that, but I also wonder what I would do when I'm not traveling. So you know, I'm I'm good for now. I'm really in, I still continue to enjoy what I'm doing. That's one thing that's really interesting about this area is that there, you know, there, there is always new things happening. New technology. I mean, I don't write about et m anymore, but I'm writing about other things. You know, DOCSIS or whatever. You wouldn't have written about it a few years ago, but now that's coming along. So yeah, it's, it's, that keeps it interesting.

Christopher Mitchell (25:50):
I, I really like knowing that there's people out there that have a lot of experience and one of the things that experience has taught me, probably you've had a similar thing, is when I see a new byline I haven't seen before, I try to cut 'em a little bit of slack. Cause I remember how hard it is to get into this space. So but I'm glad you're out there and and you have that that background to to keep reporting. Thanks. thank you so much for your time today. This has been it's been fun catching up a little bit and getting beyond a byline I've seen everywhere for so long.

Joan Engebretson (26:19):
Nice talking to you as well. I think we had a nice conversation.

Ry Marcattilio (26:22):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at communitynets follow muni Stories on Twitter that handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this another podcast from I L S R, 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 While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.