Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 165

This is Episode 165 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Lisa Gonzalez interviews Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities, and our own Chris Mitchell, Policy Director of Next Century Cities. Listen to this episode here. Check out the Next Century Cities' Policy Agenda here.


Deb: They don't have to reinvent everything. There are people out there that have already moved along that pathway, and what we try to do on a regular basis is connect people who are learning with people who are experienced.

Lisa: Hello, again. This is episode 165 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez. Next Century Cities, a coalition of over one hundred local governments across the US, seeks to share information and resources so they can improve connectivity within their communities. The organization, led by Deb Socia, as Executive Director, and our own Chris Mitchell, as Policy Director, recently released a policy agenda titled Connecting Twenty-first Century Communities: A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders. The document is filled with recommendations for local, state, and federal government, as well as philanthropic and community organizations. 

This week I interview Chris and Deb about the document, and why they chose to publish it, and we focus on some specific elements of policy agenda. You can download the document at Next Century It's worth adding to your library. Check it out.

Now here are Deb, Chris, and I discussing Next Century Cities' new policy agenda.

Welcome, again, to the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Lisa. I've managed to wrangle the microphone away from Chris. Today, he's going to be one of the interviewees. We are going to be talking with Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities, and since Chris is Policy Director of Next Century Cities, one of his many hats, he is, also, going to be answering some questions. We're going to be talking about their July publication, Connecting Twenty-First Century Communities: A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders. Welcome, Deb.

Deb: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Lisa: Hey, Chris.

Chris: Hello.

Lisa: Deb, it's been about a year since we last spoke with you, and, at that time, was when you and Chris were talking as Next Century Cities was being launched in Santa Monica, and the organization has grown quite a bit since then. Do you want to just give us a quick little update on what's happened in the past ten months or so?

Deb: Sure. When we last spoke, we had thirty-two cities as members. We now have a hundred seven, and it's been less than a year. What we're discovering is that there's a lot more of the need for this type of opportunity for cities than we imagined there would be. We always through there would be a need, but it's more significant than we thought, and we have cities calling us everyday saying, "Can you help us? Can you help us?" Sometimes it's citizens that call, so we're definitely getting some attention for the work that we're doing, and we're using that opportunity to spread the word.

Chris: I would add in that some of the attention we got is from some pretty high levels. I think Deb's a bit modest in terms of not just coming right out and saying that President Obama himself mentioned Next Century Cities when talking about broadband back in January, when he talked about broadband in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Deb: He did.

Lisa: All this interest, is this the reason for this new policy agenda?

Deb: I think we actually always planned to do this. I think that it's really good timing for us, because it's very helpful to our cities. I think I'll let Chris talk a bit about the origin.

Chris: One of the questions we often get from people is what can we do, and we try to tackle that in a number of ways. One is by looking at what different levels of government could do, the local level, most often cities, but, also, counties. What can the state level do, and what can the federal government do. We didn't stop there. Then we, also, looked at what philanthropy can do, recognizing, of course, that Lisa, you, me, Next Century Cities, a lot of the organizations that have been key to moving broadband policy forward are funded by philanthropic organizations, big foundations and others. We looked at things that the philanthropies can do.

Then we, also, looked at what communities could do in terms of maybe you're not the mayor, but you can do something still in your community if you organize people around it. We tried to make sure we reached beyond just traditional government levers, and offered suggestions for how just about how anyone can plug in to try and make a difference in improving internet access.

Lisa: Let's go back a little bit to you were talking about some things that local government can do. In the report, you referred to particular municipal codes. Any particular recommendations that you felt really stood out, maybe something that a lot of of places just don't think to implement, that you feel are very strong recommendations?

Deb: I get calls almost every day, including today, from people who say, "What should be my first step? What should I be thinking about?" Really, one of the first things I ask is, "Do you have a big wants or a joint use policy," and in the past week, I have spoken with two different cities and towns where folks didn't know what that was. It's an important part of this process, and so we want to give everybody those resources, and those opportunities and best practices, because no matter what choice you make moving forward, whether you're going to work with an incumbent, build your own, have a public private partnership, a big wants policy is a good decision. I would say that's the one that I find is probably the best early first step that cities can be making, because it will help you no matter what approach you choose.

Chris: Yeah, I tend to favor that one as well. I think it's, also, worth noting, as a reminder for people that Next Centuries Cities is a group of cities that is pretty comprehensive, from small cities to large cities, from cities that have built their own networks, to cities that have partnered with entities like Google, and so trying to come up with suggestions that would fit each type of city was a bit of a challenge, although I think we did find those. 

Something that cities can do that benefits the private sector, whether that's the big companies or small, independent providers that are trying to find ways of competing in the modern era, is to make sure that the local government is efficient when it comes down to permitting and rights of way access, and that sort of thing. I think we are still trying to come up with really great models for what that looks like, but I think a city doesn't necessarily need to have the exact final policy it's going to embrace. I think if they start looking and iteratively trying to improve on their existing policies, that's probably a good step, but just making sure that those who would want to invest don't have a big headache, it's good.

I'll say that just the caveat is not every community has a private provider that's willing to invest, but where there are some, we want to make it easy on them.

Deb: We're just trying to find the easiest pathway to support our cities, and they don't have to reinvent everything. There are people out there that have already moved along that pathway, and what we try to do on a regular basis is connect people who are learning with people who are experienced. Cities that are experienced, we find, are really happy to help.

Lisa: That was one of the things that I like about this particular paper, is that it's short on explanation and long on examples, and I think that's really helpful to the communities that pick it up and look at it. For every particular type of suggestion and recommendation, there's some sort of example, some sort of community, whoever it is, that's using the agenda can say, "Hey, look, we can get in touch with these people, and find out how they did it."

Chris: That's something that Deb has really emphasized in a variety of ways, but when Deb became the Executive Director for Next Century Cities, Next Century Cities was going to be shaped by the Executive Director, and I think Deb really has focused on making sure that cities have a real ally in terms of being able to find out answers. Not just generic thoughts about something, but actually saying, "I can connect you with the right person, or the right city, to make sure that you can get the answer you need."

Lisa: I noticed, also, in the report when we move on to state level recommendations, there's a little bit more about coalitions and partnerships. Was there a reason why you choose to put in the state section a lot of recommendations about partnerships and working with other organizations?

Chris: In general, when we were shaping the state section, I think you'll see a philosophy that mayors are really the best leaders in this area, and so a lot of the state policies that we were encouraging, were ones where the state would be getting out of the way, and making sure that it was not impeding progress when communities choose to step up.

Beyond that, I think we were looking at the ways in which states can try to use their large geographic area, and the fact that they're a bit removed from the ground level, to focus on solutions, like making sure that if a community builds a great network, it can get out of its town and to the larger network.

Then when it came to other areas that we've seen states often doing, such as convening task forces, we tried to offer some constructive criticism, in terms of mapping as well. That may have been more at the federal level, in terms of data collection, but for some of these things, we know that these things are already being tried, and we wanted to offer just a little bit of advice for how to improve on an existing policy that may already be there.

Deb: We, also, mention the idea of Kentucky building out of middle mile, and the opportunity for investment in helping the cities and the more rural communities get that middle mile access, so they can work on figuring out last mile.

Chris: Right. There's some states, like Connecticut, where the state is actively helping cities to form together in these partnerships, and I think that's really helpful as a convener, but fundamentally I think being Next Century Cities, we're most excited about the leadership that mayors can put forth, and city councils can put forth, and even county commissioners, and so the document really springs from those sorts of goals and excitement.

Lisa: I didn't see a whole lot in this document about funding. Is that just because it's such a huge topic? It's just too much for this particular agenda, or is it because it's such an individualized community to community issue? Why is there not more in here?

Chris: I think in some ways as I was thinking about this and as we discussed it, at a certain point funding is always going to be helpful, but it's a default ask, and it's, also, in some cases, a very hard ask for states that are struggling. We mentioned some of the states that are funding. For instance, Massachusetts put a lot of money into middle mile. Minnesota put a little bit of money into expanding rural access. We cite those as examples. But fundamentally, I think, we, also, wanted this to be a very realistic document, and saying to states, "You should put five hundred million dollars in as New York is doing," that's not something a lot of states can do right now.

Deb: There will always be the need for funding, and I think part of what we're hoping to help people think about is how you creatively find those opportunities. In addition to anything that we can expect or hope for from state or federal government, what other opportunities are available, so we aren't waiting for that as the doorway into making change.

Lisa: Deb, talk to me a little bit, also, about the section on community, and, also, the section on philanthropy, or choose one and let Chris handle the other. I don't think I've seen too many documents that deal with philanthropy especially in a policy agenda document.

Deb: We really felt like we wanted to think across all sectors. Who else is available to participate? Who else do we want in this conversation? Who else can help in this effort? We know that philanthropy plays a big real. Quite honestly, without the support of philanthropy, neither your organization nor Next Century Cities would be able to provide the kind of support we've been able to give to cities, so we felt like that was really important. They, also, have a role to play in elevating the conversation, and hopefully helping with some of the research that we feel really needs to be here in order to help us make the case. I think there's great value in thinking about philanthropy as having a role here.

Chris: There's one other piece of philanthropy that I think is important, and I would echo the call of the past Ford Foundation president, which, unfortunately, did not resonate as strongly as I think many of us would have hoped, and that was that we need to see more engagement from philanthropy on internet access related issues. Philanthropies care a lot about improving educational outcomes. They care about creating jobs, and having a high quality of life, and all those sorts of things, but even though our work has been supported by a few large philanthropies, there's many others that should be supporting not just us, but the similar organizations, and, also, pushing their grantees to have I think a wider view of things, of how making sure everyone has high quality internet access will result in improvement in all the issues that those foundations care about.

I think that's a point we wanted to make, is not just that philanthropy should do this, but, to some extent, some philanthropies, some of the foundations don't yet understand the importance of the internet.

Lisa: In terms of community, Debra, tell us a little bit about why you choose that section. I guess it's sort of self-explanatory. The community needs to be involved, and needs to have a voice, and often they drive this sort of initiative, but explain more about why it's in this particular policy agenda.

Deb: I would say for every city or town that reaches out, there's at least a dozen citizens that reach out to us, and, in general, they're saying, "I have terrible service and I don't know what to do," so I think they not only need a voice, but they want a voice, and they want to get engaged. I spoke with folks at Charlotte Hearts Gigabit. Allen's doing a great job of encouraging the business and citizens in the community of Charlotte to really advocate for this. They can both provide support and a little nudge to the government to move it forward, and they have actually spoken with a lot of these citizens who've contacted Next Century Cities, including a young man named Richard from Henry County in Georgia, who has this amazing campaign now going for better access in his community. I think that has great value, in addition to having ... When a city is thinking of moving forward, having community members tell them what their needs are, I think that's the impetus we should be looking at when we're making decisions about what you do as a city, how do we meet the needs of our citizens and our businesses, and so we need to hear that voice, and I know that our communities want to have that voice.

Lisa: Great. Was Richard in reaction to this particular document, or was that something that came up before? Tell me.

Deb: It was actually somewhat simultaneous, but we had put Charlotte Hearts Gigabit into our policy document, and I shared that information with Richard, and he immediately went and spoke before his city councilors, and has been on television, and created a citizens petition to advocate for better access for his neighborhood. That has a lot of value.

Lisa: Absolutely. What about reactions to this particular report? Have you had any reactions from any groups or communities?

Deb: Certainly folks have contacted us and said, "We read the report, and we really appreciate the concrete steps, and what can we do to participate?" It has had that value. I think in a lot of ways, it has, also, caught the attention of some folks at the federal level, and resulted in our being asked to testify before a House Subcommittee on the issues that we see and the recommendations that we had for states and federal lawmakers.

Chris: Yeah, and I can add to that, by noting that I've had in more than one instance people send it to me, and say, "This is really great stuff. You should really know what this group is doing," which I take as a compliment.

Lisa: Right, absolutely.

Deb: It certainly is. Chris, I agree with you. I think that it's not too dense for folks to use well. It's very concrete, and it's full of examples, and I think there's great value in that, as opposed to a longer, very in depth explanation, that sometimes is just overwhelming.

Lisa: Agree. It's easier to share, especially when you're trying to share it with busy people, legislators, or legislative staff, or people at the city council level, people who just are inundated with documents, and this is something that they can easily flip through and find specific information that they're looking for. I agree totally with that.

Isn't there an event coming up that Next Century Cities is co-hosting with NTIA?

Deb: Yes, we are going to work with the NTIA on the digital New England event. It is an event for regional broadband leaders, and we're bringing together folks from all over New England, all over Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and we're going to locate it in Portland. It will be on the twenty-eighth of September, and there's information on our website. I will say Portland in September is beautiful, so we hope folks will be interested and want to participate.

Chris: Right, and that's Portland, Maine, just for people who may not have the geography down in their heads.

Lisa: Great. Is there anything else that we should talk about regarding this document or Next Century Cities? What's the next report coming out of Next Century Cities?

Chris: That's top secret. I think there is something important to note, and that's that communities, people may want to know how they can join, and if a mayor, or a city council, or a city manager wants to talk with us, they can reach out, and there's a very easy process. You want to agree with the six principles that we've all agreed to, but membership is open to those cities who have either built networks, or they want to have better access, or they're partnering, or whatever. It's very open.

Deb: We do have another event this fall. September 17th we are partnering with Broadband Communities on an event to discuss financing next generation broadband, which is one of the issues that so many of our cities struggle to resolve.

Chris: Yes. That's part of this great series of fall conferences that deal with economic development and municipal broadband, although that's generally construed fairly liberally. If you come and spend a day doing that, make sure you spend the afternoon of the next day there as well. Plan on staying a little bit longer for the Next Century Cities panels, because there's some really great people coming in, and I think we're going to have a really good time.

Lisa: Great. Thank you, Deb.

Deb: Thank you.

Lisa: We appreciate you coming and talking to us. Chris, thank you.

Chris: Thanks, Lisa.

Lisa: Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast at Mini You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is at community nets. If you use Facebook, search for Community Broadband Networks.

Once again, we want to thank BKFM B side for their song, Raise Your Hands, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening.