Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Think Local, Connect Global with Smart Wireless Policy - Community Broadband Bits Episode 403
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher speaks with Steve Song, a fellow at Mozilla who works to connect unserved communities across the globe.
Steve shares his background starting out at a nonprofit Internet service provider in 1990s South Africa, and they discuss the negative but mostly positive effects of widespread Internet access. While acknowledging the limitations of mobile connectivity, Steve describes the essential role wireless technologies have played in connecting people worldwide. To get everyone online, Steve argues that we need a mixture of models, including wireless providers.
Christopher and Steve also talk about how the potential impact of 5G is being diluted by focusing on high speeds instead of affordable, rural Internet access. At the same time, Steve explains that the U.S. has been a global leader in terms of opening up wireless spectrum for many uses. For better rural connectivity, Steve points to cooperatives as an exemplary model to follow, and he speaks to the need to treat spectrum differently in rural areas.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Steve Song: So, a strategy that is going to increase value for the elites, as opposed to democratizing access and making access cheaper and more affordable to everyone, I think it's only going to exacerbate inequality. Not just in the US and Canada, but everywhere.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 403 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. Today, Christopher talks with Steve Song, who was a part time fellow with Mozilla. On the show today, Steve explains how he became interested in helping people get connected to high quality Internet access and he talks about why some of the strategies the United States has adopted are not designed to bring Internet access to the most people possible. Steve tells Christopher about the new ways Spectrum is becoming available for innovative approaches to expanding wireless connectivity, and they discuss the ways in which our current pandemic crisis has influenced how we think about networks and how prepared we are to depend on them. Now here's Christopher talking with Steve Song of Mozilla.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, working out of my house in St. Paul, which is better than Minneapolis any day anyway. But today I want to talk with Steve Song, who is a person that I think of as being a very interesting thinker on wireless issues, and more broadly someone who thinks outside the box, who isn't just the kind of person who feels constrained by what's been going on. But anyway, he's a part time fellow with Mozilla. He also works with the Network Startup Resource Center at the University of Oregon, and he does some work with the Association of Progressive Communications on something that's near and dear to my heart, supporting community networks around the nation. Welcome to the show, Steve.
Steve Song: Thanks very much for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: Steve, you and I met as part of the Mozilla contest, in which we were judging. We were deciding who wins and loses for some funds around community networking technologies and disaster resiliency last year with the WINS contest.
Steve Song: That's right. Yeah. It was a very interesting competition.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, it was. And there was great projects, I think many of whom we all loved and had to make hard choices on, but I was very impressed with you throughout, in terms of just experiences that you'd had and judgment that you could share that I didn't feel like other people had. And I'd sort of made a note that I wanted to have you on the show. And then recently, we were on a call together after the shut-ins began, when people began staying home. And you just made a stray comment that I felt like we really should address, which had to do with where we've prioritized wireless technology is going in recent years. But let me just start, let me ask you, tell us a little bit about yourself. What's the 92nd version of how you came to be interested in all of this work and supporting getting people connected around the world?
Steve Song: It goes back a long ways. It actually goes back to the early '90s. I moved to South Africa to get involved in the mass democratic movement there, and got involved in setting up one of the first Internet servers for nonprofits there and running a nonprofit Internet service provider. And was just amazed how, while the postal service was completely subverted by the apartheid's government, email and Internet actually provided this outlet for nonprofit organizations to reach the outside world and to self organize. And it just seemed to be that this was something of unlimited potential in terms of benefits to civil society. And of course the reality is proven that it's a sword that cuts both ways in terms, but we still agree that the benefits outweigh the downsides. Otherwise we probably wouldn't be talking today.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean, it's easy to see that, let's just say that a loved one suddenly indulges in conspiracy theories that they hadn't before or people who are in some ways, maybe harmed by a hoax or phishing attacks on email or something like that. But we tend not to notice that every research, biology center in the entire world is working together right now on a cure or a vaccine or mitigation or other things, sharing information in ways that just are unfathomable 50 years ago.
Steve Song: Not to mention, literally millions of students who are carrying on their education or trying to carry on their education thanks to being able to connect to the Internet. Although, part of what I hope we'll talk about today is all those students who can't do that.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Yeah. I think, 10 years ago, I think that a lot of our cable networks would have fallen under the onslaught. We had many fewer people connected. And let's hope that if this happens again in 10 years, that everyone will have a high quality home connection and we'll be able to deal with that mis-fortunate situation even better. But let me ask you about something, which is, as we think about whether we have prepared technologically well for this or not, tell me a little bit about, when we were talking before, you mentioned that the hero of connectivity has been mobile technologies. And I'm just curious if you can tell us what that means.
Steve Song: Well, I think certainly in emerging markets, if you go back to the early '90s, telecommunication infrastructure was terrible. I mean it was mostly copper based and poorly maintained and not a lot of investment going into it. And with the arrival of GSM technologies and also other innovations, like pay-as-you-go services, it allowed people to gain access, to voice and to message and communication places we would never have dreamed that it was economically possible. So a whole revolution of connecting people to critical life saving technology happened over the course of say, 1994 into the sort of 2000s. And that transformed with the arrival of smart phones, into the delivery of Internet via smartphone, tablet technologies, into places that nobody would've believed possible as well. So it is a remarkable story and one would hope when we continue to deliver access. But I think what we're seeing now is just the limitations of that model, that mobile networks go so far into areas, but in rural areas where there are sparser populations, where income levels are lower, it's just not the economic incentive for operators to deliver services.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we've seen in the United States, and I'm presuming it's true, if you have any low income households in Canada. I'm not entirely sure you have any because we idealize it as such a wonderful place where everyone's polite and I guess in some ways above average, which is not Minnesota anymore, unfortunately with the end of Garrison Keillor's reign, but the point I was getting at is that we have a lot of people who depend on mobile technologies here, as well, for the Internet access because they cannot afford a fixed connection in their home. And if they have to choose between a mobile connection and a fixed, many have chosen a mobile connection. And so, you described how the world's been connected, but in many ways our working class people who are on the edge, have also had to rely on mobile networks because we haven't made it a priority to make sure everyone can afford a high quality fixed connection, even though they're mostly available in the United States.
Steve Song: Yeah. I think that if we are going to connect everyone, affordably, to the Internet and all the rest of it, yeah, we need actually a mix of models. And large operators have delivered tremendous value in terms of the spread of network infrastructure. But just as with any business or any sector, small businesses are just as important as big businesses. And historically, that's been impossible to do in the telecommunications sector because you have to invest in the entire supply chain of communication. But now, thanks to the spread of fiber optic networks, there's a certain dis-aggregation that goes on. And if you can connect to a fiber optic network, then you can arguably deliver competitive services anywhere. And that's what we see with a lot of wireless ISPs, particularly in the U.S., but everywhere else in the world as well, is that they can generate businesses and deliver services and indeed, community networks can as well in terms of operating different sustainability models of cooperatives and community owned network infrastructure.
Steve Song: To date, they've largely been limited to what we know as license exempt spectrum or wifi, in the 5 gigahertz and 2.4 gigahertz bands, which is great, but is somewhat limited in the ability to deliver services for two reasons. One, because it's a limited amount of spectrum, but also because licensed exempt works because the power limits are constrained on it, which means it can operate on a fairly small networks with that. As opposed to the mobile network operators, which operate transmitters that are road testing much more loudly and a bigger area.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things you said when we got the idea for this show was that we have not prioritized 5G as providing any of the functionality that we really need right now, as we live in our homes and poke our heads out on occasion to make sure no one's around before we run to the grocery store or a jog. And so I'm curious what you meant by that. What else could we have done? And if Steve Song was the wizard who set the 5G specs, what should have been done in terms of how we evolved to the next generation of wireless technologies here?
Steve Song: 5G does represent tremendous technological advances in many respects. But if we were to wind the clock back at to 1900 and think of the telecommunication industry a bit like the motorcar industry, we're at that moment where you could have Henry Ford deciding to build the cheapest, most practical car for as many people as possible, or you could have Mercedes-Benz deciding to build an elites automobile for the discerning customer who can afford it, and that requires very, very high performance vehicles. And 5G is more of a Mercedes Benz than a Model T Ford, right? It's focused on very, very low latency connections, which may serve the interests of high frequency traders, or focused on massive amounts of bandwidth to serve virtual reality applications.
Steve Song: But it's not focused on driving down the cost of access and it's not focused on rural connectivity. And I think if we've learned anything from the pandemic is that we need to make sure everybody's connected. Because right now, in order for this strategy of everyone staying home, they need connections to the Internet, they need their kids to be able to gain access to information, they need to be able to operate remotely. Of course, it's not practical for everyone, but there are a lot of people who can still carry on their jobs if they had access to connectivity. So a strategy that is going to increase value for the elites, which is a focus on urban architecture and higher, faster bandwidth, as opposed to democratizing access and making access cheaper and more affordable to everyone.
Steve Song: I think it's only going to exacerbate inequality in, not just in the U.S. and Canada, but everywhere. A strategy to do that would be to focus on driving down the cost of 4G infrastructure and making it pervasive. At the same time, as you're developing 5G infrastructure and there's lots of interesting things going on in that domain. So there's an initiative as part of the Telecom Infra Project, called OpenRAN, which is opening standards for radio infrastructure. There's lots of low costs or manufacturers that are producing 4G technology at the same kind of prices as we think of as wifi infrastructure. But now the challenge is, how do we open up an ecosystem, give access to spectrum so that those technologies and those more kind of federated open standards based approaches can thrive.
Steve Song: And the U.S. is really, I mean full credit, on the forefront of that happening. So the FCC is doing that with the 3.5 gigahertz band with something called Citizens Broadband or CBRS. It's fantastic, very much at all, it's with the rest of the world that has rather decided to auction that spectrum in a much more traditional manner. And recently the FCC have also announced that the 6 gigahertz band of their intention to expand, 5 gigahertz wifi into six gigahertz. So in many ways, the U.S. regulator is very much someone to look to in terms of ideas for innovation in this space. But at the same time you, you have this discussion of kind of like, how do we win the 5G race in order to achieve economic supremacy? I think economic supremacy comes from everyone having affordable access because the real generators of value are the people, right? Not technologies.
Christopher Mitchell: I agree, absolutely. I'm just struck by one of the reasons that we fear in some extents, the rise of China is because it has so many people who could be so incredibly productive and do so much. And similarly with India, is that the number of people they have that could do interesting things if they were all connected and that sort of a thing. We don't worry as much about the rise of Luxembourg, there's some limits there. But let me be contrary and say that, it seemed to me that, that you were saying we missed opportunities. But then you listed a lot of things we're doing right, in terms of the CBRS, in terms of the 6 gigahertz for unlicensed wifi. To some extent, T-Mobile with the way it's deploying its 5G, in terms of the rural areas, bring the benefits of 4G to a wider audience because of the spectrum bands that they're using. I'm not exactly sure what I'd change if I could go back and implement your plan. So what didn't we do that we should have done more specifically?
Steve Song: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think my comments are directed more broadly than the U.S.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's just get this on record then. So we have a person, both of us are very critical of many things that this FCC has done, but it's a reminder that they have made some very good decisions, that will give us longterm benefits, despite the fact that we would still disagree with perhaps a majority of the decisions they've made.
Steve Song: Yes. What I like about spectrum policy in the U.S., is that there have been very deliberate decisions taken to enable small enterprise to deliver services. And the U.S. has a thriving wireless ISP industry that that is benefiting from those decisions. Could they do better? Sure. But I think in those respects, the U.S. is an outlier. If I look at the rest of the world and a few countries have taken the steps to enable access, for instance, TV white space spectrum, which the U.S. was a pioneer of. You got a few countries following suit, but it has ultimately been slow to take off elsewhere.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm just fascinated by that. Is that because of incumbents generally? Are they just more powerful elsewhere? Is it actually corruption? There's a tendency in North America, in particular in the United States I think, to assume one reason that, that doesn't happen as people aren't as intelligent elsewhere. And that's not my experience. My experience is people elsewhere are quite intelligent. And so I'm curious why they're making decisions that we would think of as being pretty easy to classify wrong.
Steve Song: There are a few reasons. One, it didn't transpire as successfully as one might have hoped in the U.S. So there was a lot of pushback from the broadcast industry, from the wireless mic industry, which resulted in the regulations being a much more watered down set of regulations than one might have hoped, and somewhat bureaucratic in how it's applied, which has slowed down. I think its adoption in certainly in emerging markets because it's now quite a complex thing to adopt with, geolocation database authentication and so on. I think it has also suffered from a lot of lobbying from the mobile operators who see it as a potential threat to their business model, which relies on exclusive access to spectrum, which they pay for typically at auction or through other mechanisms, millions of dollars for that exclusivity, which then acts as a kind of firewall to participation from other operators. And they see things like dynamic spectrum as wildfires, ultimately sort of threatening that model. And fair enough, it should, it should threaten that model.
Christopher Mitchell: That's the goal.
Steve Song: Any healthy ecosystem, think about forest, you want young growth that will ultimately grow up into, to be bigger trees. And the idea of sort of killing off or stopping that growth is not a great stimulus to competition.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I think one of the things that I recall us discussing, is communications in times of disasters, and I'm curious about that as well. The points that you make I think are very well taken, in that we haven't chosen to maximize the democratic potential of these technologies by driving down the cost and making sure they're widely available. One of the areas in which I suspect we'll pay for that is in the response to disasters, of which I think you could certainly classify what we're in right now, where the systems are actually working better than they may in other disasters. But nonetheless, still we see lots of problems and most especially because of how many people are not connected to high quality networks right now. And so, do we build a more brittle system than we had to?
Steve Song: This disaster is unique in that it's not something that we can recover from quickly, and it's something that actually requires us to stay in place. And we've never experienced that before. And there's no quick answer. I mean, I think there are some modestly rapid responses in Google Loon are going to deploy over Kenya to increase access to air. It's not like we can suddenly roll out a hundred new base station somewhere to fix the problem of affordable access. I've seen a lot of articles in the press saying, "well, actually broadband is something that's so important to us. It needs to be a utility and we need to go back to thinking of it like utility". I largely agree with that perspective. Although, I don't think anybody wants to go back to the days of kind of a single monolithic, national bureaucratic utility. I think there's an opportunity now to revisit the ideas that utilities in the same way that electric cooperatives have done so amazingly in the U.S., that are now evolving into fiber optic utilities, that local infrastructure, especially in rural areas, just seems like a very natural response to the problem. Because I live in rural Nova Scotia in Canada, and we care about our little economy here and are prepared to invest in it. But the mechanisms are simply not designed to enable that or support that.
Steve Song: All of the kinds of universal service schemes are aimed at big operators and trying to somehow create an attractive enough scenario for big operators to arrive here. And even when they do, you may only get one operator that actually ultimately ends up serving a region through a universal service program that provides you with access. But it doesn't necessarily provide you with affordability because there's no competitive pressure on the prices.
Christopher Mitchell: You allow me to make a wonderful point that I've been kicking around lately, which is in the United States, the Connect America Fund, has certain requirements in terms of a history of operations, a letter of credit and this and that. You got to jump through these hoops that really discourages local solutions from getting the money. They prefer to lend to big stable organizations like Frontier and Windstream, companies that are going through bankruptcy right now. And it makes you think. We know that AT&T does not care about rural America. We know that CenturyLink has been very clear for years that they will only invest in rural America, where they get most of the money from someone else. And for some reason, that seems to still be the way the federal government thinks it should be distributing money. And they should have figured out a long time ago, that's not the best model. But it just seems like it's set by who has the powerful lobby rather than what's best for a community like you. I mean, you, like most communities, don't get a say in how the money is spent on your benefit and it's just wrong.
Steve Song: Well, and indeed. We have formed and registered a cooperative here with the intent of raising money to build a rural fiber broadband network, but unfortunately haven't been able to participate in any of the universal service schemes because of requirements of being a commercial operator. I understand this is government money, and one wants to make sure that is spent in a responsible way. At the same time, cooperatives have demonstrated themselves throughout the U.S., in Northern England, in Spain, as being very, very credible alternatives and creating mechanisms to allow them to thrive. I think it's just a missed opportunity. The irony is that cooperatives have such a pedigree where where I live in Nova Scotia, they've been around for 150 years. And in the agricultural sector and the finance sector have proven to be the optimum mechanism in many ways for stimulating rural economies.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. It is frankly depressing how few lessons were taken correctly from the enormous success of the rural electrification administration. To some extent, I'm glad people do still recollect that it happened and that's how we connected rural America. But people really haven't yet understood that the magic was the local ownership of the cooperatives rather than a whole lot of federal money.
Steve Song: Well, and indeed. I mean that lesson is being taken on in, not just in the global North, but in the global South, in South Africa. In the Eastern Cape, there's a cooperative that was formed just a few years ago called Zenzeleni. And they are delivering Internet services in a rural area at a fraction of the cost of the incumbents. And they can be doing so much better. Not to circle the conversation around, but if they had access to spectrum, because they have wifi technologies, which are great but not great for rural areas where you're trying to cover a large sparsely populated region. So that's certainly part of my work now is working to encourage regulators to release that spectrum in rural areas. One of the things we know is that spectrum in rural areas, in any country you pick in the world, is mostly unoccupied.
Steve Song: If you take something like 2.6 gigahertz, which is a popular LTE band in the UK, into rural areas, it's maybe 5% occupation of that spectrum. So what is needed, I think are specific rules around rural access to spectrum. We can't treat it the same as in urban areas. And that's one place where the UK is actually pioneering a very interesting new models for access to LTE spectrum, specifically designed for rural areas. And it's interesting, it's a bit like CBRS, but it's more targeted to areas where there is no use of spectrum in rural areas, whereas CBRS is more generic in that respect.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's excellent. It's a good note of hope to end on, and I appreciate you taking the time to come on the show, Steve, and share the work you've done around the world, but also helping us to remind ourselves that just because we did things one way in the past, it doesn't mean we have to keep doing them the wrong way.
Steve Song: I'm flattered to be asked. I'm a big fan of your work.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Steve Song of Mozilla. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support, at any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 403 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.