Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 271

This is the transcript for Episode 271 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Research Associate Hannah Trostle takes over as host in order to quiz Christopher Mitchell on the latest developments in community networks. Listen to this episode here.


Christopher Mitchell: I can't believe we're freek'n talking about satellite again!

Lisa Gonzalez:This is Episode 271 of the community broadband bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. What do the FCC satellite internet access mobile broadband. Madison, Wisconsin, and utility poles in Louisville, Kentucky, have in common. They're all in the recent community broadband news and they're all in this week's podcast. In this episode, Research Associate Hannah Trostle boots Christopher from the host chair to interview him about some significant recent developments. For more details on these and other topics check out the appropriate tags at Now, here's Hannah and Christopher.

Hannah Trostle: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is your host this week Hannah Trostle. Joining me is the normal host Christopher Mitchell.

Christopher Mitchell: I don't know how normal I am but thank you for having me on my show.

Hannah Trostle: Now we're going to kick you off, and I'm only going to do the podcast from now on.

Christopher Mitchell: I can't say I don't deserve it.

Hannah Trostle: Well you've been gone quite a bit. Where have you been?

Christopher Mitchell: I've been traveling around. Most recently, I was just out in Seattle for the NATOA conference, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, which is a group that does a lot of great work in this area. But I was just in town very briefly I didn't get this -- I didn't get to enjoy the whole experience. And then I was off to Western Massachusetts where the Berkshire Eagle which really does some of the best local reporting on broadband anywhere in the country. they had an event in western Massachusetts in the Berkshire's in Pittsfield in particular and had an evening event with me and several other people from the area that are making important investments and talking about broadband. So it was pretty great.

Hannah Trostle: What kind of investments?

Christopher Mitchell: Well in this case they're trying to figure out how to bring fiber to everyone and that kind of brings up the point that I wanted to make. Before we move on to some other pressing matters that we'll talk about depending on the host discretion. But we talked a lot about fiber and in a setting like that western Massachusetts is quite rural something that Hana I know you're familiar with and there is an expectation that in these areas that that fiber is nice to be nice to have. It's like a luxury but that you cannot afford to build it. And one of the questions that we got from the audience was whether or not compression of data would be enough that we wouldn't have to need fiber to have high quality connections if just applications could be smarter we wouldn't have to build fiber in rural America and I really went on a tangent a couple of times about how the reason that I support building fiber in rural America is not just for the high bandwidth applications which certainly it can handle better than any other technology but because I desperately hope that rural America is still around and actually is doing much better in three four decades. And if you want to bring Internet access to any place really but rural America especially then and you want to figure out have the lowest cost way to do that over many decades it actually turns out that fiber is that way. And you know I'm not able to do the accounting I'm not able to dig into the technology and the way that many of many others are but I can talk to many people from the public private who are building wireless and wired networks and every one of them tells me that yes over 30 years that fiber is almost always way less expensive than wireless because it's very costly up front but then there's all the operational savings that you get and the lack of upgrades that you need. There's several pieces in the network that you do have to upgrade over the years. But what it comes down to it wireless is very expensive over many many years because you have to replace the whole network many times. And when things go wrong you often have to send a crew out to fix it. So anyway I just went on this tear about why, you know, if you're just worried about being financially responsible and you know that you're going to need a network for many decades, then fiber is the smartest choice not the luxury choice.

Hannah Trostle: Well that's certainly one way to bring broadband to everyone. I think the FCC has a different way of doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: They do. But if you'll let me let me hang out there for a second. Let me just ask you something ;ole just just dropped the focus on telecom right now.

Hannah Trostle: OK. And think about computers in general what is one of the biggest problems that people have with their computers today.

Hannah Trostle: It's just so slow--

Christopher Mitchell: just ignoring the broadband. I've certainly like you know --

Hannah Trostle: Oh I just meant the computer software itself.

Christopher Mitchell: OK so so what are the issues with that is sometimes spyware or or the or trojan horses or anything malware malware in general Russian hackers taking over a computer. All of those things including the speed of the software that you're noting I think could be dealt with in the near future. And this is something that someone else brought up which was it was someone who was saying a select board member from a nearby community was saying Oh well a higher upload speeds would be nice but you know most people don't really do much with that. And I would respond I don't have a chance. Then we were talking about so many different things but I would say well most people don't have the opportunity to. But if you want to deal with security challenges with people slow computers and things like that when you have a high quality low latency network we're going to go back and I fully believe that we'll be doing this.

Christopher Mitchell: We'll be going back to the client mainframe kind of approach like we had back in the 80s where people have very basic computers on their desktop very fast connections so that as they type they won't know that there are signals traveling you know 10 - 20 miles to the local cloud. But that's where the application will be. It'll be more secure where professionals can secure it. And in general our computers will be easier to use. I'm certainly not making a prediction that this will be cheaper because these things often tend to end up being a little bit more costly for anyone who used to buy Photoshop but now buys Adobe like monthly plans is well aware. But I think it will be more secure and generally easier to use because our computers will be less complex we have less things on them.

Christopher Mitchell:What more things in that cloud. But we need low latency high quality symmetrical networks to get there. And so there's another reason that people talk about bandwidth and speeds. But but I really think the future is low latency. And one of the ways that we'll see that is in applications not being local but they'll run faster because they're on much bigger computers in the cloud.

Hannah Trostle: Well that hold true for my myself as well my terrible 8 gigabyte cell phone when we're paying twelve hundred dollars for a cell phone I certainly hope that it will be.

Christopher Mitchell: frankly horrified. Like I think you are about the escalating costs of these little devices.

Hannah Trostle: Yes most certainly which somewhat leads us to our next discussion the FCC this version of getting broadband to everyone it's possibly just changing the definition.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I would say largely I mean I don't think you know if you if you ask Chairman pie he'll tell you that his number one issue. The thing that he cares more about than anything that leaves him unable to sleep at night is how to get broadband out to rural America. It turns out he actually means really worse broadband out to rural America fortunately. Yeah well you're talking about is something that I did not think the FCC would actually do.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean I I think like you I think we both expected that they would contemplate it but we didn't think that they would actually have you know the chutzpah to go out there and say no broadband is really not as good as it's been. Actually it's better if we have a much slower broadband. But they don't have the courage to just say that outright but it looks like we're going to be commenting on that this week. The FCC has an open proceeding to discuss this but it is claiming that for areas rural areas that do not have 25 megabits down and three megabits up it might be OK if you at least you have 10 megabits down and one megabit up of mobile broadband access.

Christopher Mitchell: That's by my cellphone on your cell phone. Let me ask you Hannah you have a much longer history in rural America than I do than probably most of our listeners do. How is that mobile coverage out there in terms of relying on that as your internet source.

Hannah Trostle: Well, it definitely varies by phone as my friend's phone kept picking up LTE and mine was no service or sometimes 3G. We also had quite a bit of fun trying to tell them my phone so that I could answer Chris's emails while I was on vacation.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's just be clear about this. I did not ask you to do that. I greatly appreciate it. I encourage you not to do that but I cannot deny your dedication to getting the job done.

Hannah Trostle: It was mostly hilarious.

Christopher Mitchell: So. So what are some of the challenges for using your your phone as your dedicated broadband source?

Hannah Trostle: If I hadn't had my computer there. Typing on it is not very fun. I have written papers on it before. I do not recommend it. They're very very short like 200 word pieces and there are a lot of typos because it's a cell phone but you can't really see.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure but if you turn it into a hotspot does that make it all the problems go away.

Hannah Trostle: No, it makes different problems. I somehow in about half an hour ended up using about 200 Megabytes doing nothing but typing on my computer and answering Facebook.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah it's that's one of the things that I think people don't realize is how much when you're on a fixed connection not really paying attention. People don't notice how much goes by. I mean my wife and I we don't even watch and since we had Jackson we don't even have that many many hours streaming video but we're still using 400 Gigabytes per month. And I think a lot of that is just like heck or even just scrolling through Instagram on my phone. I mean you're looking loading image after image if people are on Facebook scrolling down the feed you're pulling in so much more content than you realize and that's all that's all going somewhere. And if you're on a data cap you're in a lot of trouble.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah and if you're paying by the Gigabyte like I am, it is not super fun.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about this in terms of the coverage because if we look at where you grew up in in either Northern or central Minnesota depending on whose definition.

Hannah Trostle: North central

Christopher Mitchell: Minnesota what does the mobile coverage like. I mean you know is this the kind of thing where everyone in this census blocks is likely to have a similar level of service.

Hannah Trostle: No, it also varies. If for a while if you had a tin roof you could not get any cell service in your house. That was a rather fun when visiting friends the cell service is mostly Verizon. There was a drama in my town where apparently T-Mobile and AT&T had a fight over a cell tower. And then neither T-Mobile nor AT&T customers had service for two months.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it seems like you know it's one of those things where it's like hey it's pretty cool if you have cell service in that situation but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that you should be relying on if you are say the regulator of the most advanced economy in the world.

Christopher Mitchell: It is not a reliable way to get internet service and you know this is something that we talked about with Jon Chambers just recently on this show is these are this is carrier of last resort that we're often talking about and it's not a game. You know I don't feel like like it's not like pi should be thinking this is like oh I have this great achievement by redefining broadband and therefore claiming that I brought service to rural America. I don't think people are going to be super excited just because the FCC tells them that suddenly they have broadband no people won't be.

Hannah Trostle: I mean I was just outside the Bay Area a few weeks ago and I lost cell service right before I was supposed to have dinner with my sister. And we ran around on top of basically a small hillside looking for cell service before we got in the car and started driving where I only found cell service right before a tunnel.

Christopher Mitchell: It's amazing what the cell companies have done what the engineers have done and everything else. But the idea that we should just blithely just go about saying oh well. Because many people have access to phones that seem to work most of the time let's just find that as good enough and move on or even worse frankly. You know for the FCC to think about spending a lot of money on exploring and expanding that technology rather than technologies that would serve as a carrier of last resort where everyone could have access where your service would not depend on the weather or the activities of those around you. I mean up near where my wife's parents live a little bit north and west of your family I believe they have this thing called Moondance.

Hannah Trostle: Oh yes Moondance jam.

Christopher Mitchell: Moondance jam, and I really wonder how the cell service changes for some of those local folks when you get that one weekend or you know then you also have the Moondance with the country music so you've got a few weekends or weeks during the year where you just saturate those cells. And again those technologies aren't made for that. I don't know if they roll in an extra antenna or two for the Moondance. I don't believe they do. So it's really disconcerting that the regular would do this and I am shocked that we don't see more outrage from Republicans who are representing these areas. I mean this is a Republican FCC that seems intent on basically saying only Democratic strongholds the major cities should have high quality broadband and the areas of the country that vote most Republican most reliably should just be left behind with either satellite or mobile broadband or whatever but we don't really care about them. It's -- it's shocking that Republicans in the Senate with the the Federal Communications Commission get away with even thinking about that little love getting to the point where we're we're submitting comments on it we haven't really picked on satellite yet. No. No I don't think we have. To some extent I have to wonder if anyone listening to this show needs us to. I mean you and I have been working on this a lot lately because all of a sudden I think you know we had a similar realization which was oh my god we have to talk about how satellite is not good enough again. I thought we left this behind?

Hannah Trostle: But haven't you heard about that really new satellite that provides 25 by three over all of Iowa.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes and this was one of the things that had you found that it was just amazing is that according to the FCC maps everyone in Iowa has broadband access now. So what's the problem with that happening?

Hannah Trostle: The main problem with that is there are a lot of places in Iowa that do not have decent internet service. And if you say that everyone has access it becomes a lot harder to prove that there are areas of need. It makes it a lot harder to actually build infrastructure to the right areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes I just I so second and the way you phrased it is exactly right because what inevitably happens is that people who actually live in Iowa are like wow this is really frustrating we can't get good service and then maybe a newspaper reporter looks into it and they say the FCC has ever won Iowa has awesome service but these people say that they don't and then it comes almost like this argument whereas we should all agree there are many people in Iowa that do not have high quality service and simply saying that satellite is good enough is ludicrous. It's just I mean it's so incredibly frustrating and part of it is something that you know very well as the person who is almost all of our mapping work I mean really all of it. This idea of using census blocks ignores the fact that in many of those subsets blocks possibly all of them there are people who do not have a view of the satellite it so you're leaving hundreds of thousands of people behind.

Christopher Mitchell: I would guess but because their neighbors could get satellite service they're included as well. So it's unprofessional. It's a real problem for living in the kind of country we want to live in where everyone has access to these technologies. I just I can't believe we're talking about satellite again.

Hannah Trostle: I can't believe that if Iowa does have amazing internet service like this FCC map says that I would be driving through it and every rest stop would advertise that they have wireless Internet service at every single one. They're very excited about that in Iowa apparently.

Christopher Mitchell: And I mean I'll just I'll just stick up for Iowa for a second. Definitely some of the best rest stops in the entire country.

Hannah Trostle: I am from Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: So you won't say anything nice about Iowa?

Hannah Trostle: Iowa is a nice place. So let's start with our final topic today. We're going to change gears a little bit. I want to know your opinion on some more local issues Chris. So Madison, Wisconsin, recently issued an RFP? Have you had a chance to look at it?

Christopher Mitchell: Just very briefly but I've actually spent more time talking about it because I mean the general idea of it is that the city is looking to do an approach similar to Huntsville where the city would build a network out through the neighborhoods but not do the drops it sounds like. So just to refresh people. Huntsville has a municipal electric utility. They built a fiber network out just like Chattanooga had but they didn't connect anyone to it. And that's that's a cost that could range from you know$500 to twelve hundred forty hundred dollars depending on the premise and the cost of connecting to it. The ISP is that least the network from the city. They do that final connection and that means that is it's easier for them in this case largely Googles the the major ISP that is using it because they don't have to build this network to the city but they also like it because then they kind of own that customer so he can think of it as it's like an open access highway system with private on and off ramps. And some people are really angry at that. You know some people who really believe in open access and lowering the barrier for multiple ISP to compete are frustrated because they think Huntsville still has too much of a barrier to competition. And then others would look at that and say well that's what Hartsville utility wanted to do and they still get a lot of other benefits out of it. They have this big network that they could use and they could always do drops later if they wanted to. There might be more costs of that having including them in the original project. But that's what they wanted to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Westminster took the other approach will be at Westminster actually owns the drops as well. And so there the city is less reliant on the other ISP and has a little bit more control in this case the City of Westminster which is in Maryland is working with towing company that's active in three markets soon to be five markets around the country. And I think I prefer that model from a sense of I'd like to see the city owning all the way to the customer to make sure that the customer isn't stuck with limited choices.

Hannah Trostle: What happens if the customer wants to switch in the Huntsville model?

Christopher Mitchell: There's a couple of different things that could happen. One is that the first ISP like Google is generally can be the first ISP could sell the drop to the new company. They could work that out behind the scenes. The new company could run a second drop at their costs and and that could be part of their business model and in that first probably just be sitting there. You know that's I think this is part of the inefficiency or the frustration that some people have where they want to see lower switching costs for those customers. Now I think a city like Huntsville looks at it and says look we put together a deal that would allow us to work with Google and can have an ISP we brought another ISP to the market. It's led to more investment from our incumbents. It's doing everything that we want it to do and we're pretty happy with it.

Christopher Mitchell: So I would take that away from them and see where it comes in the Madison is different people are taking different lessons away from these examples and some people so people that I respect say one thing and people I respect totally disagree with them. So you know from my point of view I do think if I lived there I would like to see the city building the drops and having that extra layer of control costs. It costs more upfront although I think it may end up being more cost effective over the life of a network but being at the do for local self-reliance the thing that I respect more than anything else is the right for people to make their own decisions. And you and I both read a lot about the history of the co-ops and I do think we see that there is a lot of compromise and it still led to Electric Cooperatives bringing electricity to the entire country.

Christopher Mitchell: And perhaps there would have been better ways of doing it but they got the job done and there were some compromises along the way. And we live in a country of 330 million people. I don't always get what I want. So I'm I'm more willing for cities to take what I think might be a suboptimal approach in part because I'm not it's not always right but also in part because I just respect the right for them to do things that I might not do myself.

Hannah Trostle: And speaking of cities doing things that are right for them. Did you hear about Louisville, Kentucky, its one touch make ready, the decision made there?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes yes I did and it gets exciting that Louisville has the right to do the one touch make ready which will lower the costs for a new network to get all the polls. One touch make ready is just briefly -- it's the -- it really simplifies the process of putting a new wire on a pole because previously basically everyone that was on the pole would have a chance to delay and sort of sandbag which is to say stretch out the time period so it might take six months eight months or a year for a new entity to get all the polls they want. Now it'll be a much faster process with much more certainty for the timing because of this policy that will allow a single crew to go from pole to pole switching it rather than everyone who's on the pole sending their own crew.

Christopher Mitchell: It's also a big victory for the ability of cities to make common sense policies and and not to have to wait for the state to do it although I'll say that there was some state representatives of Massachusetts and when I talked about what Dortch make ready and how important this would be in some of the people the audience that have experience trying to solve these problems in rural Massachusetts were like nodding along and you know there was they were interested. So I think there's a lot more interest in this one to make ready and I'm I'm excited because frankly it doesn't really do a lot to further our municipal ownership agenda or the co-op agenda but it is a a common sense approach to trying to knock down the power of the incumbents to stymie new competition.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. And it allows the city to make its own decisions about what goes on right.

Christopher Mitchell: Exactly anytime we see we have the principle that is upheld there. It's it's wonderful because our poll attachments work. The FCC has a set of rules. The states are allowed to opt out of them and establish their own rules. And that's the way the framework works it's not really clear that cities have any authority this or that although cities do have the authority to maintain their own rights of way. The question has been how far does that stretch. And we have a precedent here that cities have pretty broad authority to manage the rights of way in the interests of the community. But I think that's a big victory.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah it's very exciting. OK. I think it's about time to wrap this up Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: No I don't want to go.

Hannah Trostle: So if you have any stories about satellite and mobile internet access please send them along to

Christopher Mitchell: Yes we would love to collect any stories you have about why those just aren't good enough and we need to do better why we need to expect more for connecting all of rural America.

Hannah Trostle: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Hannah, for sliding into the host chair and and not punching me as I talk too much.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. You'll never get this chair back.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Hannah.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and our research associate, Hannah Trostle, talking about rural internet access via mobile broadband and satellite the recently released Madison, Wisconsin, RFP and the court decision that allows Louisville Kentucky to enforce their one touch make ready ordinance. We have transcripts for this and other community broadband bits podcast available. slash broadband bits. Email us that with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter his handle is at community nets. Follow me on the network's dot org stories on Twitter where the handle is at MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other

ILSR podcasts: Building Local power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple podcasts ditcher or else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thanks again to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative commons and thanks for listening to Episode 271 the community broadband bits podcast.