Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 242

This is the transcript for episode 242 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Our Christopher Mitchell invites Professor Susan Crawford to reflect on her recent travels through North Carolina and Tennessee. Both states have restricted communities from building new municipal networks. Listen to this episode here.

Susan Crawford: It's much more about a very bipartisan, quite progressive group of people thinking about how to make life better in their communities, and that's terrific. That's truly American.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 242 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We're pleased to have Susan Crawford back on the show this week. She's a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, but she's also served as Special Assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. Susan's CV is too long for us to go through point by point. She's authored several publications, including The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and The Telecom Industry and Monopoly power in the New Gilded Age. She's been on the show before to talk with Christopher about access to high-quality connectivity, and it's always a pleasure to have her back. As it turns out, Susan has been on a walkabout of sorts, visiting local communities as she works on her current book, and in this discussion she shares her impressions with Christopher. She's got some ideas on how she feels are the most effective ways to bring better connectivity to the most people, especially in rural areas, and she and Christopher hash through her findings.

Christopher Mitchell: Hey, folks. This is Chris Mitchell, the host of Community Broadband Bits, and I just wanted to ask you if you could do us a real big favor to help us spread this show around. And that's to jump on iTunes or Stitch or wherever you found this show and to give us a rating. Give us a little review. Particularly if you like it. If you don't like it so much then maybe don't do that, but if you're enjoying the show please give us a rating and help us to build the audience a bit. Thanks!

Lisa Gonzalez: Now here are Christopher and Susan Crawford, author and professor of law at Harvard Law School.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast! I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and today I'm speaking with Susan Crawford once again, a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Welcome back to the show!

Susan Crawford: Hey, Christopher, thank you for having me on.

Christopher Mitchell: I've always enjoyed our conversations, and I've enjoyed your books, and I found an excuse to bring you back on absent another book. But I think you have a lot of interesting things to say about where all of your travels over many years have brought you, so maybe we can just lead in with a hint of what that would be.

Susan Crawford: Well, actually, Christopher, these travels are in service of a book, so I'm hoping to merger that book relatively soon. But what's happened is that, recently, after some wonderful trips to Wilson, North Carolina, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, all places where you've been or that you've looked at. I think I'm beginning to understand how to talk to people about the importance of fiber optic, community-organized networks. And particularly the importance of wholesale street grid fiber networks. Here's how this works. I think. All the elements that a community needs to have in place in order to carry off the task of organizing to ensure alternative community overseen wholesale fiber, all those elements are in turn essential for communities to take on the next set of challenges, which are things like stubborn levels of poverty, difficulties with health outcomes, trying to integrate immigrants into a community. And communities that are doing this well are going to be models for the country because we have all of these problems as a country as well. And I think that in the end we're going to need the federal government to see this as a key industrial policy that, in turn, is essential for everything else that the country needs to be able to do. So it's not as much fiber as an end, in and of itself, although it's going to have plenty of great economic spillovers, but you can't talk about economic development without also talking about social justice. And the communities that are working on fiber networks really have those twin goals in mind, and it's leading them into many other well-organized and important conversations.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's a great overview. And I absolutely share where you want to go and it feels odd - ten years I've been spent on trying to help communities have great connectivity, and of course you're right. The goal is not just to have great connectivity, it's to do things with it. But I'd like to just push in on one particular word of what you mentioned. And I think this is something that you've long been an advocate for. The wholesale model. And it's worth pointing out that the more astute listeners that have been following this for a while might recognize that two of the three places you've just visited, Wilson and Chattanooga, they've done an incredible job of connecting their community. Of trying to make sure that no one's left behind, of focusing on business as well. But they're not wholesale networks, so I'm curious what makes wholesale so important to you.

Susan Crawford: It's extraordinarily important for the current political climate to be able to say that government is not directly competing with the private sector. But is instead facilitating all kinds of competition and economic growth or making available the equivalent of a street grid. Now, both Wilson and Chattanooga had preexisting electrical utilities and were already in the business of direct customer service. So they'd already passed over that hurdle. But for communities that are just starting to think about it, I think it's a much easier story to tell to stay out of direct competition with the private market. But instead make positive a thriving private market. It also helps with all kinds of other issues like, for example, people's increasing fears about surveillance and privacy and Internet of Things. If the government is able to collect and see everything about Internet usage, that sometimes triggers fears in people that are sort of unnecessary for this conversation. So, all in all, the thing that makes the most sense to me, and has made the most sense for telecommunications for 150 years, is to have a wholesale facility that can't be captured by any private entity but is instead overseen by the public and serves public interests broadly.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm so with you on that line of thinking and for those reasons. I would just add to it that you can also do incremental in a more easy fashion. And you also have much more ability, I think, if you're embracing that model, to hire people that would be good with it, and trying to track down the smaller universe of people that can build and run a triple-play type network. So I'm so much in agreement with you on that.

Susan Crawford: Well, thanks. I think that's right. And I think that, both as a matter of emotion and intellectual thought about these networks, it makes intuitive sense to people of all political stripes that the street is not controlled by any one private actor but instead makes possible all kind of commerce. So I am happy to see the developments in places like Rockport, Maine, and Idaho, I think San Francisco, that are thinking about leasing out their dark fiber assets or already have. And it seems to me like a really sensible move. And that's what I encountered in Greensboro. It's a very new story in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, do you want to tell us a little bit about it? I've been following it from afar, but I'd love to hear what you've learned.

Susan Crawford: Well, what was so wonderful about being there a couple weeks ago is that they're just starting. There's a leader inside city hall, Jane Nichols, who deeply understands this issue. And there's concern in Greensboro that they're neither Raleigh nor Charlotte. They're right in the middle. But they have a long history of consensus and discussion stemming from Quakers showing up in Greensboro a long time ago. And they are thinking about their economic and social justice survival into the next hundred years. It turns out that Greensboro has a lot of dark fiber already that's controlled by the city and that they are now exploring how they could lease out that dark fiber in targeted pilot areas to make possible terrific connectivity in areas that are traditionally underserved in Greensboro. Greensboro is pretty much controlled by Time Warner Cable. Something like 90 percent of subscribers are to Time Warner Cable, particularly in the leafy western suburbs. And the city is exploring what its next step is.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and I think it's worth reminding people that North Carolina severely limits what Greensboro can do, but that law does not prohibit dark fiber approaches, so as long as they stay dark. You know, once again, it's another reason for that wholesale model. There's only one state I can think of immediately and there might be one or two others, but even states that really prohibit business models generally don't limit dark fiber approaches.

Susan Crawford: Right, and the thought had been, I think on the part of the incumbents that got those state laws passed, that it would be impossible economically to have thriving wholesale networks. So why not allow that in as a loophole that wouldn't really get affected. But the world has changed. And with so many more video options available over the top of Internet networks, and with people really understanding that high capacity access is a utility and not a luxury, there is a business model these days for dark fiber offering, I believe.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm curious, in your travels, have you had a sense that there's a lot of companies that are willing to take this up? Because we know of several: Ting, Sonic, there's XMission in Salt Lake City, that are able to take advantage of these. But there's not enough to date, and my bet has been if we have more cities that build these networks, that there will be more of those ISPs that develop. But it is a bet. It's not something I'm certain of.

Susan Crawford: Right, and I think we're seeing that in Greensboro, also. There's a local company that has already done this on a dark fiber network in High Point, North Carolina. Name of the company is North State and they responded to the city of Greensboro's request for information. They're a local ISP that's very interested in riding on top of that dark fiber. And we certainly saw in places like Stockholm and Sol, that competitors will show up if you make this available to them. For the existing incumbents in America, they're so huge, the companies that control telecom policy here. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner. Showing our respect for them that they, as a matter of religion, can object to using wholesale networks. But there's some smaller actors that may break ranks. Companies like Cox, companies like Cable ONE. Who don't see the point, frankly, in running a soup to nuts network and would be happy to ride on top of a wholesale offering.

Christopher Mitchell: As someone who has also traveled quite a bit, and almost everything I've learned has come from traveling and gathering people's stories, I sometimes feel like I'm a story thief. I'm curious, in your recent travels in North Carolina and Chattanooga, is there anything that you would be excited to share with us?

Susan Crawford: Yes, I'm very excited about something that happened in Wilson, just in November 2016. The electrical utility there, Greenlight, which provides some of the fastest fiber connectivity in the country, they're now making that available to both apartment houses and public housing units for $10 a month. It's a 50 megabit by 50 megabit symetric connection. And they're finding that take up in public housing units, so adoption of that $10 a month bill being added to your rent, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 percent. And I think we've had for a long time a couple of fictions in our minds. One, that it wouldn't be cost-effective to offer service at such a low price, and that turns out not to be true. Because bandwidth is really cheap. And two, that low income people wouldn't be interested become we'd have to give them all kinds of literacy training, and bring them up the ladder. That's not true, either. So I think Wilson is really showing the way with that program. I find that very exciting.

Christopher Mitchell: As you were saying that, it actually reminded me of something from a recent podcast we did talking with a co-op in...I believe it was northern Missouri, mentioning that they actually have...I think their base offer is 25 megabits symmetrical for $40 a month. But they said that they actually have a lot of people that are taking a mid-tier package, they're going up to 100 megabits because they want more access. I think a lot of the old rules, things that we thought were set in stone, either never were or are changing dramatically now.

Susan Crawford: Right, I think one of those is that you have to have a triple play. The next is that nobody needs this. And the final one is that people are going to resist the ideas of government involvement in fiber. I think all three of those turned out to be myths at this point.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So let me ask you, did anything pop out of Chattanooga while you were there, like...I actually think Chattanooga, as I was thinking about it, is probably the only place on the entire planet where anyone in the city can get 10 gigabit service. I don't think there's another city in the entire world that can say that.

Susan Crawford: It may be true tomorrow, somewhere else in the world.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Susan Crawford: It's not impossible. Chattanooga really gave me this insight that, you know, EPB and the fiber network there, really happened because of a long tradition of rethinking Chattanooga. That starts with the waterfront. And opening up the aquarium. And has the mayor challenging Harold DuPrice to say, what're you going to do for the city? That's all of a piece with Chattanooga continuing to reinvent itself. Never resting on its laurels. And, so, that for me is the lesson from Chattanooga. That everybody works together, and continues to do things that are new and helpful for a community. That has to be true for the country as well. I mean, Chattanooga starts taking off as a modern city when the river and the air get cleaned up. The federal government had to do that. The City could never have done that on its own. And that's a nice symbol for the rest of

the country: That when it comes to actually updating the entire country's connectivity, only federal government involvement is going to make that possible. And we can talk until we're blue in the face about economic growth coming from cities, but we need to do this as a national priority as well.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me challenge you on that to just say "why"? And in the sense that, it seems to me that rural co-ops, they once needed federal money to be established, absolutely. At this point, we have cooperative banks that can loan them money and John Chambers and others believe that, actually, the federal government may be doing more harm than good by throwing so much money at some of those companies you mentioned as running policy.

Susan Crawford: Well, I think that when it comes to setting policy for the country, saying in essence that every house needs this connection in order to be part of the 21st century, only the federal government can do that. And, otherwise, there are a million games that could be played in every corner of the country by these existing companies. They have such strong interests in maintaining the status quo. And that's not good for our future. It locks our destiny into where we are today, and you could have a million struggling rural co-ops. They're never going to get there as fast or as completely as a matter of oversight as the federal government.

Christopher Mitchell: You're right, and I'll say that one of the things that I think is a limitation of mine, and that I don't know that everyone here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has this, but you know, in my sense, I want to make sure that every community that wants to do something can do it themselves. But I think your vision is to make sure that everyone is brought forward. No one is left behind just because they might be in a community that is not as entrepreneurial. But, as you were saying that, I was thinking there is something in which I would absolutely identify the federal government as so necessary. And that is breaking up the monopolies, or at least restraining their monopoly power. You have a lot of insight into the federal government, and I understand that it's changed dramatically over the last month, but nonetheless I'm curious. What do we need to do, people that live outside of DC, to make sure that the federal government is going to try and restrain these monopolies?

Susan Crawford: Well, outside DC for the next four years, we have to route around the FCC because the current chairman is going to do whatever he can to support the incumbents. So it's our job to demonstrate the viability of these alternative public options, in essence, and then have that adopted as a matter of federal policy by the next administration, not this one.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I've been arguing is that I think that solving this problem in rural areas is not nearly as hard as solving it in urban areas. I think that making sure people that live in cities, low-income people in particular, have high-quality access, is the hardest challenge we have. And I'm just curious what you've been thinking along those lines.

Susan Crawford: Well, for me, this has become more of a tapestry, and less just about fiber than about fiber as a symbol of everything else the city needs to do. You know, Chattanooga has terrific connectivity. It's too high priced for people living in poverty in Chattanooga to afford, and the structural issues undergirding stubborn poverty in Chattanooga and the terrible problems in their public schools, that all needs to be addressed by the same mesh of community powers that took on the fiber question. So, for me, things are broadening. It's not just about connectivity. It's using connectivity to make visible existing structural problems and then using the community affordances that make fiber possible as the elements that drive the city forward. And I think Chattanooga is quite capable of that, and it's just beginning to work on it, but it's continuing to evolve. Just being a big city is not enough. There's a lot more that needs to be done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, Susan, this has been a fun conversation. I'm really looking forward to your next book. You know, your first book, Captive Audience, is considered a bible by many people. I think a lot of people got involved in this because of it. I thought your book Responsive City was terrific, I thought it's far beyond the thinking of most smart city discussions, and in some ways I actually think it's maybe more critical of smart city discussions because I think you have a much better framework. So I'm very excited for it. And I will just give you a chance if you have any final comments that you want to share with our audience. Before you go and write the next book and then we bring you back on.

Susan Crawford: Thanks. Just a note of optimism on all these travels in America over these last few weeks for me. No one's talked about Mr. Trump. It doesn't matter what he's up to. It's much more about a very bipartisan, quite progressive group of people thinking about how to make life better in their communities. And that's terrific. That's truly American.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I think that's a great note of optimism. And thank you for it.

Susan Crawford: You're welcome.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Susan Crawford, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, author and telecom maven. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at E-mail us at with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to Break the Bands for the song Escape, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 242 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.