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Talking Rural Broadband, the Internet, and Media with Dr. Christopher Ali - Broadband Bits Podcast 355
The Austin, Texas, 2019 Broadband Communities Summit was about a month ago, but we’re still enjoying the experience by sharing Christopher’s onsite podcast interviews. This week, he and University of Virginia Assistant Professor Christopher Ali have an insightful conversation about rural broadband, media, and the Internet — and we get to listen in.
Dr. Ali works in the University Department of Media Studies and has recently published a piece in the New York Times titled, “We Need A National Rural Broadband Plan.” In the interview, he and Christopher discuss the op-ed along with Dr. Ali’s suggestions for ways to improve federal involvement in expanding rural connectivity. In addition to structural issues of federal agencies that affect the efficiency of rural expansion, Dr. Ali discusses the advantages he sees from a single-entity approach.
The two also get into a range of other topics, such as the importance of broadband to help deliver a range of media, especially in rural areas where local media outlets are disappearing.
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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: There's a role for the federal government in streamlining and democratizing this process. There's a role for states acting as the go between, and I really think that the solution to rural broadband are the local and municipal and cooperative ISPs that are coming up. They are the unsung heroes.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 355 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In April, Christopher went to Austin, Texas, to attend the Broadband Communities Summit, and while he was there, he had the chance to interview several guests for the podcast. He's back now, but we're still sharing his conversations, including this important talk with Christopher Ali, an assistant professor from the University of Virginia. If you read the New York Times, you may have read his piece from February 2019 titled, "We Need a Rural Broadband Plan." In that opinion piece, professor Ali shares his experiences traveling and researching in rural areas to discover what federal efforts have accomplished up to now. He also offers suggestions on ways to improve the current system that include better coordination rather than passing federal dollars to the large incumbent ISPs hand over fist. Christopher and professor Ali carry on that conversation, and since media studies is his area, they talk also about the way the Internet impacts media and the effect it's having on democracy. From the analysis of the influence of behemoth Facebook to the importance of smaller local media outlets, this is an important and interesting conversation. Here's Christopher talking with assistant professor Christopher Ali.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadand Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell here speaking with Christopher Ali, a assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Did I drop any words there?
Christopher Ali: No, you're good.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. For the sake of our listeners, we're both Chris's that use Christopher more formally.
Christopher Ali: Yes, sir.
Christopher Mitchell: But tell me a little bit about what you do with a, ]]as a professor of media studies.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. So I specialize in media policy and regulation, and that goes both for the kind of classes that I teach and for the research that I do. So in terms of teaching, I teach a huge survey course called media policy and law, which goes everything from broadband to broadcasting to the first amendment to obscenity to porn to libel and slander, you know, and then I teach a more specialized class called Internet policy and regulation, which really looks at the policies and funding mechanisms for broadband access, both in the United States, which we cover in the first part of the semester, and then globally. So we look at things like Internet shutdowns in conflict zones and Facebook Free Basics in India, aboriginal broadband in Canada, and try and make comparisons between what's going on in the rest of the world and what's going on here at home.
Christopher Mitchell: And you are here at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, where we're doing a lot of interviews sort of off the cuff, a little less planned. What brought you here as a professor who's studying media studies?
Christopher Ali: This summit has actually been on my radar for about two years now, and it's something that I've always wanted to do, but not being in industry, the registration fee is a little hefty for public service professors like myself.
Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting and there's no way to necessarily know this, but for people who are interested, the people who run the conference generally I can try to come up with ways of making it easier for people who work in the public sector and things like that.
Christopher Ali: Oh, well that's great to know. But how I think I got on their radar was that two months ago I published an op ed in the New York Times calling for a national rural broadband policy or kind of coordinated federal effort. And Drew Clark, the president of the Rural Telecommunications Congress reached out to me and wanted to have a chat, and in the end, he invited me to be on a panel here talking about the technologies of rural broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: You and I were on a show about three years together, but I think one of the things that I find most interesting about you is some of the students that have gone through your program. You've had some great folks: Cat Blake, who's becoming famous at Next Century Cities, Katie Watson, who had been at Next Century Cities, is now with the Internet Society. You've had some really great folks come through, and I think — I mean according to them, you've helped inspire them to want to work in this field.
Christopher Ali: Well, thank you. I mean, I am incredibly proud of the work that they're doing and the work that they will do in the future. I mean, it's been really an honor and a privilege to get to see both Cat and Katie kind of excel and find passions in this space that I am also really quite passionate about. So I love following their careers. I hope that more of my students at the University of Virginia will kind of be interested in this space. I've already got a couple of students who are writing their undergraduate theses on municipal broadband policy, and actually one of them just got hired as . . .
Christopher Mitchell: Don't say Comcast, don't say Comcast.
Christopher Ali: No, NCC's new intern.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, right, Next Century Cities.
Christohper Ali: And New America also just picked him up, so he'll be in DC starting in a few months actually. So, yeah, I'm incredibly proud of the work that they're doing and you know, if I played a small role in helping them do this, then I'll take that.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's talk about the op ed in the New York Times because you described it as calling for a national rural broadband policy. We already have one. It consists of writing very big checks to very big companies who then are not obligated to deliver broadband to anyone really. So what's wrong with that?
Christopher Ali: Ah, you know, so here's the thing. I mean, we spend $6 billion a year through kind of cross industry subsidies through loans and grants on rural broadband, and I actually think I might be in the minority by saying that I actually think that's a good number. I just don't think we spend it wisely.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Christopher Ali: Certainly the fact that $2 billion of that gets allocated to the 10 largest telecommunications companies with no accountability to roll out DSL is highly, highly problematic. So one of the things that I argue for in the New York Times piece and that I argue in my book that's coming out in two years, is that we need to democratize this process. You know, I love the idea of competitive auctions where all stakeholders are equal and can bid, but I also think part of the larger problem at the federal level is that we lack coordination. We've got the FCC on one side doing what it's been doing. We've got RUS on another side who —
Christopher Mitchell: Right, the Rural Utilities Service.
Christopher Ali: The Rural Utilities Service, which you know, had its history as the Rural Electrification Administration and incredibly successful in the 1930s and '40s connecting this country for electricity and telephony. And then you've got NTIA who kind of just comes in and out depending on what Congress has ordered the NTIA to do, without kind of a single voicing champion of this issue. And what I call for in the op ed is that we need a coordinator. We need one agency that is in charge of deploying and thinking about rural broadband. I personally think it should be USDA. I think that with their offices throughout the country, they are much more accountable to community needs than the Federal Communications is, which this particular FCC is quite hostile to communities. So, you know, I'd love to see that, and there's actually a bill in Congress right now —
Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, let's just hold on there for one second. It's worth — it came up yesterday in a panel on the first day during the Coalition for Local Internet Choice day that Chairman Pai is not friendly to cities, but there's a commissioner, I assumed that they were talking about Michael O'Rielly who is outright hostile. It's not a matter of saying I prioritize, like, the companies, the big telecom companies, over the cities. He literally would like to see the cities burn it seems like.
Christopher Ali: I agree. You know, when he makes his public statements about this, I just cringe and I'd love to know, you know, more about where he's getting his information and his data from. I have my suspicions about where it's coming from. Between O'Rielly at the FCC and then of course BDAC, the Broadband Deployment Advisory . . . Council?
Christopher Mitchell: It's "Council," I believe. Yes.
Christopher Ali: You know, stacked with industry representatives who are also incredibly hostile to municipalities and to communities. I'm not sure the FCC is the right organization to be fighting this fight, despite the fact that the chair of the FCC claims at least kind of rhetorically or discursively to support issues of rural broadband. But you know, just because you're from Kansas doesn't mean you get to make these claims.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right. That's right. So, coordination. Let me run by you what we tend to think because I agree with you. Like, if there's going to be someone handling rural broadband in the federal government right now, I think it makes sense for it to be USDA, and USDA frankly has done a good job. I mean, we're just looking at the map of fiber in the United States from co-ops. North Dakota, South Dakota largely have the best broadband you can get in the nation because of USDA, so they're doing a good job. I tend to be absolutely supportive of what is trying to be done, but I don't really know that there's much of a federal role in terms of getting it done. And you know, it just challenges me sometime because I think, well if NTIA for instance, which I admire how they did BTOP and I don't want to insult them with this, but I will say that the amount of money that they have to spend to do a report does end up being far greater than what an organization like ours would do or, you know, what kind of experts would do. So I just don't know that it's necessarily great for the federal government to be doing this, so, you know, how do you respond to that?
Christopher Ali: I think one of the things that I'm learning throughout my research about rural broadband is that it is a situation where it's an all hands on deck situation. You know, we need to empower communities, we need to empower co-ops, we need states to empower this by getting rid of some of these ridiculous laws that are on the books.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Christopher Ali: You know, the prohibitive co-op laws that we're seeing slowly being rolled back, but you know, the prohibitive muni laws are there and quite sticky. At the federal level though, I mean there's a couple of reasons why I would say that we still need a coordinated federal push is they still control the majority of money and right now USDA and the FCC don't talk to each other, despite the fact that they have a memorandum of understanding, but they're quite hostile to one another. But that becomes really problematic because it is the local co-ops and ISPs who got caught in the middle, right? So one of the things that 99% of all companies that receive a USDA telecommunications loan are dependent on Universal Service Fund money to provide the subsidy to guarantee the loan.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Christopher Ali: So they are tethered between the FCC and USDA. They cannot exist without these two organizations. And when these two organizations don't talk to each other or actively disagree, it's the local ISP, particularly the co-op, that gets caught in the middle. So that's the kind of regulatory clutter that I think we need to get rid of, and I think that if we had a point agency that could really help. I love USDA, I love RUS, but they're also an incredibly conservative organization, and when it comes to funding, they typically actually don't give out all the money they're allocated. It's really difficult for communities to apply or co-ops to apply for RUS money. The paperwork is insane.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, yeah. If you didn't grow up with it, it's very difficult.
Christopher Ali: Right. And so, you know, wouldn't it be great if we could streamline these efforts at the federal level? And there are some states that are kind of acting as go betweens. Minnesota and Danna MacKenzie, her office, the Office of Rural Broadband — Office of Broadband Development, excuse me, in Minnesota, has done a great job kind of unpacking RUS and FCC language for providers in Minnesota, but I'd love to see that rolled out kind of nationally. So, there's a role for the federal government in streamlining and democratizing this process. There's a role for states acting as the go between, and I really think that the solution to rural broadband are the local and municipal and cooperative ISPs that are coming up. They are the unsung heroes of rural broadband, and I love that there's so many of them at this event here.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about urban areas. What is a challenge there? And frankly, is there a role for the federal government there do you think? Because we may start there and work our way down.
Christopher Ali: Absolutely there is. Lifeline and E-Rate. We are so dismissive of low-income urban communities. We — actually, I mean policy makers are quite dismissive of this. And I think even sometimes people like myself, when we talk so much about rural broadband, tend to forget that there are other digital divides. I mean, my, my book and my research is so focused on this, but I need to remember as well that low-income communities, minority communities, newcomer communities are equally as susceptible to this digital divide as rural communities. You know, we could ask the exact same thing about tribal communities in this country — which is something that we very rarely talk about, if at all, and I'll fault myself for not investigating that more too — is how do we have these conversations with tribal communities to bring broadband there. So I think, you know, we've got these three pockets — low-income urban communities, rural America, tribal America — that seem to each be fighting their own battles and you know, to have these larger conversations, I think, are so incredibly important and it's something that the federal government can do. You know, I'm a believer in that the government is there for all people. This is the Canadian in me speaking right now, so I do think there's a role here.
Christopher Mitchell: So you mentioned Lifeline and E-Rate. This was something that just recently came up because I was talking with a group of people and discussing how I'm really excited that some of the solutions we're seeing with public housing, getting a gigabit even to the unit for $10 a month. And some of the people were saying, well, $10 a month is still too much for some people to pay. This was at the Net Inclusion Conference, which I encourage people to mark their calendars — April 7 through 9 next year in Portland, Oregon. A wonderful conference. It'll be terrific. And I was saying, well, remember if 70,000 people had voted a different way in three different states, we would have Lifeline covering that in public housing, Lifeline being a program through the FCC that pays people for a phone or broadband subsidy of $10 a month. The Lifeline program was going to be expanded to more business models that would have enabled this sort of a thing. But one of the challenges is that $10 a month doesn't get you a whole lot in today's market, and so I'm curious, what do you think about what needs to be done to improve Lifeline?
Christopher Ali: I mean, the cynic in me would say that the chair of the FCC needs to get his hands out of Lifeline. You know, I don't like the idea of companies being stripped of their ability to do this. I fundamentally believe that the Internet and Internet connectivity is a utility. I go back and forth on whether or not I agree with the United Nations that it is a human right.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I just never want to have that fight myself either.
Christopher Ali: It's actually a conversation I love having with my students because we get into a really amazing conversation about rights and needs as a human. But it is a fundamental utility and we've got minimum standards for instance of how much voltage and wattage an individual residence has, right, that all electricity companies have to sign on to. We certainly have potable drinking water conversations. It just frustrates me so much that we're not having this conversation or not seriously having this conversation about broadband. And in fact, you and I heard today someone on a panel say, I'm not going to call broadband a utility.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh no, I didn't hear that. I didn't go to the session.
Christopher Ali: It was the representative from AT&T said that.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's why I didn't go to the session.
Christopher Ali: It broke my heart. I think if we change that conversation, it would make the argument so much easier for broadband for low-income communities. I still think that we — those who are homeless and we look at them and they have a phone and think of it as a luxury.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me just jump in because I'm not actually convinced that we do. I think smart people — this is my critique of smart people like you. Smart people look around and say, well, there's a lot of policy makers that just don't get how important broadband is. And there's fewer every year, fortunately, but that's true. But like 75 or 80 percent of the public agrees with you already that broadband is a utility.
Christopher Ali: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: Like, maybe we've won that fight and we just have to move on and ignore the other people who don't get it to some extent.
Christopher Ali: I mean, that's a really good argument, and maybe we have won but if we have won, why aren't we . . . ? You know, wouldn't this be a victory then?
Christopher Mitchell: Technically, I think the term for the majority on the FCC is dead enders.
Christopher Ali: Ah, yes. Yeah. I also think we're fundamentally hostile to low-income people in this country, and I think that's also part of the problem.
Christopher Mitchell: No, I absolutely agree with that and I don't want to say that it's wrong to, like, keep thinking about this, but I do sometimes think that we forget that we are representing the majority of people who believe broadband is key infrastructure. And I actually believe that a majority of people also would see a homeless person with a cell phone and say, okay, well that really makes sense because, like, what are they going to have? A landline?
Christopher Ali: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: I mean, but there's very loud, obnoxious minority of people who have a lot of access to media that I think are destroying our discourse. In fact, you know, one of the interviews I did this morning that was probably run a week or two ago in his feed, Asfi was mentioning about how important vision is as a sense, and I was arguing that that's why cable television is — not cable television, cable news is destroying our country. Like, I think, if you wanna look at the things that are bringing us apart, I think, particularly nationally, but all news television just, it screws up our brains because of the visual. You're a media studies professor, so I get to just throw this stuff out there. You either are looking at me like I'm crazy or you're just thinking, well, yes, this guy already explained all that or this woman already explained all of that a few years ago.
Christopher Ali: Yeah, there's a lot of conversations going on in my field about the role of cable television and kind of distorting this kind of national discourse. Certainly we're in a news climate in which being first is more important than being right, which is because the 24 hour news cycle, you just need to turn out content. It's not unlike clickbait on Buzzfeed, right? I mean, you just need constant content. Now it's highly problematic when that content comes in the form of news. Most of it is not in fact news even. It's opinion.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, or it's just, like, it's irrelevant, but it's exciting because, oh man, our brains just love gobbling up anything like a perceived danger.
Christopher Ali: Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: You know, we're going to see so many more stories about the fact that that one person out of a million was murdered than we will about how we're all losing $30 a month to, like, a monopoly of one field or another.
Christopher Ali: Definitely, and you know, where that's particularly damaging is in local news, and local news is my other big passion of my academic career. So what happens when communities are losing their local news voices? Where are they going to for their news and information? Are they going anywhere anymore for their news and information. And we're certainly seeing the rise of news deserts, you know, areas without access to fresh, local news and information. And broadband actually has an important role to play here because those communities are typically rural.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Christopher Ali: So not only are you now perhaps without your newspaper of record, you probably don't have a broadcaster, or you're getting your news from the next largest market. You don't have an Internet connection or you have a subpar Internet connection, this is kind of a spiral or kind of a circle of — I don't know how to coin this term, but you know, some sort of information paucity that is really detrimental. And I'm not talking about politics. I'm just talking about information. I mean, you know, people have their partisan issues, but we all need access to information.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I think one of the challenges is that most of the information we have access to, it has the wrong incentives. And because it's exciting — I mean, this is where to some extent, and again, I'm sure you've given this more thought than I have because this is media studies, but, I have some trouble saying for instance that, like, if I took over CNN, I should do it totally differently. Now, I would argue that that TV news is always going to be manipulative. I mean, we just know that. I realize, sorry, dear listener, this interview is all over the place. Like, this is what happens when I don't have as much structure. But podcasts, which I'm obsessed with, you know, I mean, people will sit and listen to 30 minutes of podcasts. If it was a video, they probably would turn it off after a minute, and that's where the vision distorts the way we process media, I think.
Christopher Ali: Right. And you know, it's funny that you mentioned that, oh, if I inherited CNN, I would do things different. You know, the company that tried to do that with Al Jazeera America. They tried to import a much more European style of news, right, which is much more conventional, much more hard news, much less talking heads.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. A lot of former BBC employees.
Christopher Ali: Absolutely. Obviously they had a branding issue because Al Jazeera is tainted in this country, but they misread the American news market. They thought they could offer this product that no one else was, except no one watched it even if they had access to it.
Christopher Mitchell: Because I mean, this is my challenge, right? I mean, you're looking at me, you might graciously say 30 pounds overweight, and it's because I have a choice between eating stuff that's nutritious for me or not. And you can tell what decision I made on a daily basis.
Christopher Ali: Well, I mean, but who doesn't want some Texas barbecue? Let's be honest, I mean.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, no, I would totally — it's the sugar that's killing me. The barbecue I actually consider to be one of my more healthy choices.
Christopher Ali: Understood.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, so as we wrap up here, let me just ask you about the role of Facebook because in the 2016 election — and I'm trying not to be too partisan here in any way, but I think a lot of people made up their mind based on, I think, some faulty information. You know, I don't think people really had a sense of what the actual policies would be of Donald Trump. You know, particularly in the primary fields and that sort of a thing. But, well, there was a big question about the role of broadband and Facebook in spreading misinformation and perhaps, you know, confusing people, which is not to say that some people don't embrace Donald Trump's policies and style. But the point in my mind is, as someone who cares about the development of the Internet, does it worry you that we might just be basically spreading sugar across the land and sort of like poisoning people rather than actually helping them?
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. It does concern me. It concerns me when my students don't realize that Facebook is not a publisher — Facebook is a publisher, but that Facebook is not a news source. You know, they'd say, where do you get your news? Facebook. Well, no, where did you get that article from? And they can't trace it back. One of the conversations that I I think about, I worry a lot about is, how do we get Facebook to take responsibility as a publisher? And I say this because there's a regulatory issue here, right? And section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, so long as Facebook is not a publisher gives it a lot of — it's an interesting scapegoat to not take responsibility for what's on your platform. Certainly we're seeing Europe and now most recently the UK just a couple of days ago really crack down on this. You know, Germany has already done this pretty severely. It becomes difficult here in the United States to regulate that type of speech or to police it or even to have that conversation without being accused of being anti-American or anti-First Amendment. It is incredibly worrisome. I'll defer to my esteemed colleague Siva Vaidhyanathan who has literally written the book on Facebook and the spread of mis- and disinformation here.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me jump in to ask you, because you made the point I think of, where are you getting that information? And people say Facebook, but they're not. I mean, we've seen that the top trending stories are typically from Fox News, which I would argue are designed specifically to mislead people in specific ways. And similarly people will think, oh, I don't get my local news from the newspaper, I get it from the Internet, most of which comes from a newspaper.
Christopher Ali: Yes it does. So anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of all original reporting in a major city is done by the newspaper. Right. And, yeah, I don't think people realize that. You know, we tend to use newspaper and think just about the paper product, but of course, it's the online product as much. And where are, you know, local TV getting their news from? They're sitting down and reading the newspaper first and then figuring out what to do about, you know, their broadcast day. I think that if Facebook, Google, if these platforms were serious about saving journalism, we would see what, you know, Emily Bell, who's the executive director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism just quite frankly, calls for a transfer of wealth from these companies into local news, either through funds, you know, like a larger competitive fund or kind of direct investments, rather than these piecemeal, you know, things that they're doing. Facebook has their local local news initiative, but it's always done through Facebook and Facebook always becomes this hub. So I find their desire to save local news rather disingenuious. I can say the same thing about Google. They make so much money.
Christopher Mitchell: And there's good people in both companies who really do want to solve this problem.
Christopher Ali: Yes, yes.
Christopher Mitchell: But I feel like in some ways it's like handing a very earnest doctor a butter knife and saying, I would like you to do surgery with this. At a certain point it's just the wrong tool, no matter how hard you try and how good your motives are.
Christopher Ali: Absolutely. Facebook is the wrong tool. You know, there are amazing employees in Facebook who are fighting the good fight, but the platform of Facebook is not the right tool to save journalism.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Christopher Ali: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I really enjoyed talking with you.
Christopher Ali: Yeah. It's been great.
Christopher Mitchell: It's fun to — I mean this is the kind of conversation that I'm often having and sometimes people find them entertaining so I enjoy recording them so that we can, you know — just this broadband stuff that we're working on, like, it matters what it results in. And I'm glad that people like you are really focused on not just getting it out there but trying to make sure that we're thinking critically about is it making us better off or not.
Christopher Ali: Oh, thank you very much. I'll keep fighting the good fight.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher Ali from the University of Virginia discussing media, the Internet, and the need for a federal rural broadband plan. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them any place 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. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 355 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.