Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 272

This is the transcript for Episode 272 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Christopher Mitchell sits down with three local leaders in Lyndon Township, Michigan, to discuss how the community decided to pursue a Fiber-to-the-Home network. Listen to this episode here.

Gary Munce: We had a voter turnout of 43 percent of the Township residents. That is by far and away the largest turnout for any August election in the history of voting in Lyndon township.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 272 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In August, the small community of Lyndon Township, Michigan voted to raise property taxes to fund publicly-owned fiber optic infrastructure. Marc Keezer, Gary Munce, and Ben Fineman from Lyndon joined Christopher to talk about the vote, their proposed network, and how they spread the word about improving connectivity in their rural community. Our guests also describe the work of Michigan Broadband Cooperative that's working on the Lyndon project. Now, here's Marc, Gary, Ben, and Christopher.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm Chris Mitchell, and today I'm speaking with a cohort of folks from Lyndon Township in Michigan. I'll start with introducing Marc Keezer, Lyndon Township Supervisor. Welcome to the show.

Marc Keezer: Thank you, Chris.

Chris Mitchell: We also have Gary Munce who led the Lyndon Broadband initiative ballot campaign and is also a board member of the Michigan Broadband Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Gary Munce: Thanks, Chris.

Chris Mitchell: And our third guest is Ben Fineman who volunteers as president of the Michigan Broadband Cooperative and is someone that I know has been working on this for a long time. Welcome to the show.

Ben Fineman: Thank you very much for having us, Chris.

Chris Mitchell: So we got three guys from Lyndon township working on this for a long time. I think a good place to start is with Marc Keezer, Lyndon Township Supervisor for people who might have forgotten already. So tell us a little bit about Lyndon. What is Lyndon like? A little bit about where it is situated?

Marc Keezer: Lyndon is situated in Washtenaw County. We are a typical-sized township, and that's 36 square miles, and we're 52 percent state and local land. So we're a little different there than most townships. We have approximately 2,800 residents here in our township. Like I said we're a rural recreational community. We have lakes, woods, trails -- lots of recreation opportunities.

Chris Mitchell: Is it fair to say that Lyndon is a bit higher educated than the average township around the Midwest? I get the impression that being so close to the University of Michigan might lead a certain kind of person to want to live there.

Marc Keezer: That is true. We're somewhat of a bedroom community for Ann Arbor and other universities in the area. So we do get a lot of doctors, attorneys, teachers, professors out in our area.

Chris Mitchell: Great. Well one of the things that you have in Lyndon is something I think actually stretches beyond Lyndon is the Michigan Broadband Cooperative, and I'm curious, Ben, if you can tell us a little bit about what that is?

Ben Fineman: To talk about what the Michigan Broadband Cooperative is we have to go back a little bit in history. About four years ago, there was a group of folks in our community that was actually in the conversation convened by our state representative at the time. And this group got together to talk about the lack of broadband in the western part of the county and what we could do about it. And basically, one of the main outcomes of those conversations was that there wasn't anybody who was going to come in and solve the problem for us. And so, if we wanted to solve the problem, we're going to have to do it ourselves. And so, that's the reason that we've formed this organization that we call the Michigan Broadband Cooperative to actually take action and find a way to build broadband infrastructure in our unserved community. And so, it's a grassroots organization, all volunteer run. It is a nonprofit organization, and we are a federally-recognized, private 501C12 cooperative, and this is a cooperative mainly educational in nature.

Chris Mitchell: Is that how it would stay? or what's the future of the cooperative look like?

Ben Fineman: Thus far, it's really been educational and research oriented and well community-activism oriented in terms of our group of volunteers has been figuring out the path forward in terms of ‘how do we actually take the tangible steps toward building the infrastructure? And what's the best way to do that?’ And we've found that even within our small area there are differences for different cities and the best way to address the problems. So to date it's been it's been those kinds of activities, but moving forward we definitely are open to the possibility of being our own Internet Service Provider. Some of the research that we've done has indicated that one of the most advantageous models for our municipalities would be to engage with a nonprofit service provider especially a cooperative service provider. And so, that's the reason we formed the organization like we did. Now, that said, that's not set in stone, and, if we find that there's another service provider out there that's already existing that we could engage to get just as much benefit for our communities, we're happy to go that direction too.

Chris Mitchell: So, moving on to Gary. In your introduction, I mentioned that you are leading the broadband initiative ballot campaign. What was the ballot campaign? And I mean, really what's the reason that we're talking about this now after this incredible moment of August?

Gary Munce: I've got a lot of help so I may have been one of the two people out at the point of the sphere, but I got a lot of help from my friends here on the call today when we approached this idea. Ben and I, and others, were trying to figure out ‘how do we solve this problem?’ And then the township really didn't realize that there would be a whole lot of work that needed to be done beyond just the engineering and the technical pieces of installing a fiber network, and so that brings us to talk about things like ballot language referendums, having the public vote on this. We are pioneers for ourselves in that respect, meaning we've never done this before, so we've sort of had to feel our way along. But I've got to tell you that it's very important for us to mention I think that we had an overarching principle or concern about the way that we approach this. Certainly, we understand it has to be this issue we wanted it to be and it has to be decided by the residents of Lyndon Township. But the approach that we took in our campaign was one of the principle of being completely informational and educational in our campaign approach. We didn't try to persuade people or to convince to vote in a particular fashion. I think our mission was to bring accurate and clear information to the residents so that when it came time to make this decision that they would they would have the information to make an informed decision. I think we're very proud of that and I think that's very good for the township. The thing about this referendum that's another unique characteristic of it is that we had a voter turnout of 43 percent of the Township residents. That is by far and away the largest turnout for any August election in the history of voting in Lyndon township. So that's another thing that's very important to us is that we had people who were informed and people who came out in numbers to make this decision so those are two really key points in the campaign that were important. The third thing I'd like to mention is that we are very rural as Marc has described typical urban kinds of election campaigning and canvassing really don't apply here because we can't go door to door and we don't have it downtown. We can't post flyers about, so and anything that we could think of that would help us to reach out to the residents of Lyndon township so there was also a challenge for us in the campaign

Chris Mitchell: Or, maybe coming back to Marc, can you just go back and remind us what this vote was? What has been established with the successful ballot?

Marc Keezer: The ballot language basically read that the voters would approve a two point nine Merrell taxation on their taxable value of the property to support a $7 billion broadband project that would be paid over the course of 20 years that's pretty much the nuts and bolts of what they would get for it would be fiber to the home to every house in the township with milliamp being excluded from every I guess household is a big asset. The downside of that and I kind of feel for I do feel for is the people that won't use it and the farmers with large properties they're going to be taxed just as everybody else but more because of their property values now so goes with higher higher taxable value of homes in the township they will be taxed more than the lower valued house in the township. So it's not quite a real fair way to do it. But there was no other way. We've fostered this along to the people, and this was our only avenue at this time and the only way to do it.

Chris Mitchell: When you saw I mean if this is something that might have squeaked out at 51 percent of the votes I can imagine that there might be some concern but you hadtwo out of every three people supporting it, which is quite remarkable.

Marc Keezer: I mean that's a lot for the sentiment of the people in our township. I've had so many people talk to me call me stop me on the street and ask me, you know ‘When is it going to the ballot?’ This was prior to our course. I had probably six to one people, you know, ask questions of ‘When is it going to ballot? We want it -- can't wait till it comes to everyone.’ It was not a bit negative.

Chris Mitchell: Sure. And what you've done is quite unique, not entirely unique, I mean, there's -- I can name two other communities that have done something like this. But, I think we're going to see a lot more coming forward. Then, I wonder if you'll maybe take us back a little bit to what you went through to have the ballot. You know, just in general, just take us back a little bit to how this started and you know what maybe some of the thoughts that were running through your head at that time were.

Ben Fineman: So, I think it’d probably be useful for me to go through the process that that got us to the ballot. We spent almost four years on this project and there were some times during that period where the thoughts were, ‘Man, is this ever going to actually go anywhere?’ There were some tough days in terms of some challenges we had to overcome, things like that, but you really have to start out by identifying the need within the community, and not only the need, but the sentiment within the community, whether the people in the community actually want the government entity to do something about it. And so we did a lot of surveying and are surveying was pretty decisive in terms of people don't have broadband and people want broadband but perhaps more importantly they wanted the township government to engage, to try to do something about it.

Chris Mitchell: So when you say that you did surveying there's multiple ways of doing that -- one is to go door to door or another would be to like stand on the street corner with a T-shirt trying to get people to answer your questions. How did you go about it?

Ben Fineman: So the most effective method that we used was enclosing a paper survey with the tax bill,, and so property tax bills are mailed out to every property owner two times a year. So we took one of those opportunities to basically stuff another piece of paper in the envelope that had a bunch of questions about broadband for our biggest survey in that regard. We had I think something like 291 responses and we asked specifically one of the things we asked was would you be in favor of. I think at the time we were looking at $3.7 million over 20 years to get broadband in the community and to our surprise, I guess, that at the time about 68 percent of people said yes. So that was, you know, indicative to us that that we should move forward and take the vote to the people on whether they would really want to do this.

Chris Mitchell: So people understand the mils language -- I mean what we're talking about $2.9 which passed are you talking about a little over three which was proposed. Are you talking about a few hundred dollars for the average person per year? So this is you know it's a significant amount of money thought it's not $5 a month it's like almost $20 a month or more even?

Ben Fineman: It is and to give you some specific numbers for it for the average Linden township property owner that $2.9 million comes out to about $22 a month. So it's not an insignificant thing. And then to be clear we're also we're going to have service charges on top of that for the actual Internet service, and we're talking about $35 to $45 a month for that projecting 100 Mbps service, no data caps, fiber-to-the-home all that good stuff. So for the average property owner that comes out to what's that $58 to $60 a month which is pretty good even if you're in a in urban area taking our rural area yet we get that a lot from even from people in Ann Arbor. But so, for people in a rural area that's far and away better than anything they can get today whether that's you know cellular or satellite or from one of the fixed wireless carriers.

Chris Mitchell: Right. So I took you off task. So what was the next phase after the surveying?

Ben Fineman: Yes, so after we knew we had resident support to proceed the Lyndon township board funded a feasibility study. So we brought in a consulting firm to take a look at the situation in the township and different options for how we might get broadband to everybody. And more importantly what the financial model is for those options would look like. So you know we we've looked at things like wireless. Probably, wireless versus fiber was one of the one of the big conversations. We ended up not going with wireless based on a few reasons. In our nice rural area, we have a lot of trees in forested parts of our community and there's a problem with penetration of wireless signals there, and then some rolling terrain and hills and things like that. The net result would be that it wouldn't be able to get service to everybody using wireless and the service that we would be able to get to people would be better than what they have right now. But it would really just be a Band-Aid in terms of it wouldn't really be able to scale into the future. So for solving the problem and the long-term fiber optic was what we ended up choosing, but so that was one of the results of the feasibility study. The other result was that, you know, that the project is financially feasible. If people were willing to make that investment in the infrastructure and so that that's what led us to take the next step and take the vote.

Chris Mitchell: So that brings us back to -- I mean I could ask any one of you this -- I realize it's -- but I'll bring back to Gary. You know it's one thing to check a box to say I'm willing in theory to pay more money and my property taxes to build the network. It's about having to secure the votes. So I'm curious how you went about making sure people were well-informed as you said but also you know maybe countering any opposition that you may have seen? Phrasing it more elegantly would be to say you know responding to opposition

Gary Munce: Of course, most of the heavy lifting about getting out the vote happened in the last probably six to eight months. But you know over the last two years. Ben mentioned the survey that one on the tax bill. We collected some email addresses from that. So we had you know a few a few like 200 or 300 email addresses that we started with and we sort of leaned on those people to help us along the way in terms of getting the word out getting help and doing things. But in the last six to eight months I think one of the things that we did was once again to get to try to get as many people as possible so we were able to get the addresses a registered voters in the township. And so the first thing we did right after the ballot language was approved which was in May. The first thing we did was a direct mailing to every registered voter in Lyndon townships with two messages. First, the first message in big bold letters is vote on August the 8th. The second message was to town hall meetings that we were going to have to open town hall meetings for residents to come and to receive information about the project and ask questions about it. So we had two of those. They were well tended there was probably 75 people in each one of those. And we did encounter people who had differing opinions that say that about whether or not the broadband was something that we should even have. And there were opinions about it. We're going to have it is this the way to do it. We really didn't go one to one to try to knock down all of those ideas. We basically informed people when they would come and there would be a question about things like 5G or about the next wireless or white space or things like that. We would then try to produce a epicure or an answer to that question without taking in a position or anything on it but merely stating what the facts were about the use of that technology the cost of that technology and the long range forecast of that technology. The other thing we had which I thought was pretty effective and quite useful was we had a social network that we used where people would get on line and it functions as basically a classified. You know people have things they want to do or they make announcements but of course it didn't take long for the broadband question to get on that social network. Needless to say in the comments there were much like we saw at the town hall people who had been working on the committee. So we tended to let the audience sort of monitor themselves if you would. Meaning if there was a strong negative comment we would often see someone responding in a different way with information that was perhaps more correct to the point. So it was sort of a self trolling kind of interaction between the residents themselves which I think was extraordinarily powerful because our thrust was to be educational informative and not to be twisting someone's arm for taking a position and doing so. So we had that opportunity for people to sort of exchange ideas themselves so that worked extraordinarily well. You know over the course of a couple of years you know we had a few touch points here and there. The aggregate of all of those came to roost in the last six to eight months. We conducted one final mailing just shortly before the election which is more of a flyer type epic view based approach to the residents. Again merely informing him of the day of the vote and how important it was for them to vote. I want to go back and echo something you said earlier. I think that you know I do think that Linden township although we are in the minority in terms of who has done this and we're early adopters I think that that it has reached point now where this is something that definitely is on people's radar and there's a great deal of interest to it and it is coming more to the front and I'm hoping that the rate at which we can solve these problems will be accelerated as well as they will become a more consolidated way to do this rather than approaching it 36 square miles all the time.

Chris Mitchell: Yes I certainly hope so. And I have no doubt that you're all working with others or at least sharing your lessons with others around you. A question I want to ask you in a second. But first Gary I'm just curious and I would certainly welcome anyone else jumping in when you are talking about these differences of opinion. I think you know a lot of us think Michigan it's pretty well red-blue split state. I'm curious the sort of politics come into your discussions over the years. Or is it more pragmatic discussions of just how to get it done.

Gary Munce: I would say that I don't believe that it became a political discussion. It may have followed some party lines in terms of conservatism and liberalism. I think any time that you put a question on the ballot that deals with an increase in people's taxes, people automatically have a gut reaction to that. I'm happy about this I think it turned out to be more a decision about the facts than dividing itself along any political line.

Chris Mitchell: Marc, I'm curious is that similar to when people raised objections with you. Was it more of more of what I would say a political or nonpolitical nature?

Marc Keezer: Oh definitely nonpolitical. I tried my best to stay neutral on the subject because I knew that once it went to the vote the people would decide. And that's how that's true democracy in action is there. And what we did as a board is we just fostered it along the path that it had to take to get it to the people. I want to commend the Michigan broadband co-operative. I attended their town hall meeting and it was very professional. Yes there was some negativity there but they handled it in a very professional manner. And I think at the end of the night everybody was pretty much happy and satisfied with the information they got. They tried to stay pretty much to the facts and it really showed. So it was a good push to get to the people and let them decide.

Chris Mitchell: Well Marc, I'm curious what comes next. I mean, I have an In-Law who's on a township board and I sort of get the impression that there's always many more things to do than there is time or willingness from people to help. But on the plans that you're hoping to have the network have people signed up by the end of next year which means I'm sure your plate just got a lot more full with that successful referendum. So what comes next?

Marc Keezer: Kind of probably a little bit of an understatement. What we're doing now we just had a meeting last night. One of the steps that we did is we sense we had a lot of talented knowledgeable and educated residents in the township. We decided to tap into them and let them help us along the way. So we created an ad hoc committee at the board level from the township board level and then we ask for residents to send in their resume if they wish to volunteer their services to be put on a committee. And what that committee is going to do. So it's good it's going to research. We broke it down into several different areas and each area has a group leader. We had 15 applicants all of them very knowledgeable and it was hard to choose just to break it down to five but we wanted to break it down to five just to make sure that it moved forward and didn't get bottled up with any kind of decisiveness. So there are going to be cast with that objective and it's going to come back to the board will come back to that committee if we call it the implementation committee the implementation committee will make a decision on whatever that area is and then we'll take it to the board as a recommendation because as you may know Chris township boards are elected people were all different skill set. You know we have farmers we have teachers we have all different types of people on our board and he is not really their forte. So we're going to let the residents help us with that on a bigger level. One of the tasks is hire a consultant. So one of the committees has that task to interview the consultants bring it back to them to that committee will look at it as a committee and then make a recommendation to the board. So it's really engaging all of our residents with this project. We're sticking with that grass roots kind of feel of this project.

Chris Mitchell: Excellent So the question I wanted to throw out there was I guess Ben what's happening in surrounding areas. I'm guessing Linden is not the only one looking at this.

Ben Fineman: One of the things that we said after the vote was successful is that you know at this moment for Linden township is it. It's bigger than just London township. And when we started this journey four years ago it was a number of Linden Township residents but also a number of residents from surrounding townships and communities who have been working together on this over the years. So we have three other townships that have already completed feasibility studies. There's one other township that already has their vote scheduled for May of next year and they're voting on basically the exact same thing with whether or not to use a property tax to pay for fiber to the home to all of their households and township to had not yet previously done anything. Are are now looking at if there's an opportunity for them to address this problem that a lot of people have been talking about for years. But nobody nobody knows what to do about it. So we're hoping to be able to provide at least one model of a way to actually take action and solve the problem.

Chris Mitchell: Actually let me throw it open if there or any other comments before we end the interview. Gary, Ben, Marc do you have any concluding thoughts Chris.

Gary Munce: I'd like to just say one thing about this.

Chris Mitchell: Sure, go ahead, Gary.

Gary Munce: I mentioned that you know 36 square miles in the time. I know there are other people out there has been so described just locally within arm's reach There's a half a dozen or more they're considering the same thing. I'm just hopeful that out of things like this and other efforts that we can we can find a way that's more organized and more coordinated and makes more sense and moving forward to accomplish this. We started out using the words of underserved population. We thought Lyndon was underserved and that's sort of the you know the broadband wording and echoing a broadband concepts but really, Chris, under-privileged is the right word because I have children and they're in school and it makes a huge difference that we don't have this opportunity in Lyndon Township for broadband. I really do not like the fact that we're going to possibly have to repeat this effort over and over again. It takes time it takes effort it takes a lot of involvement by people. Not saying anything is easy, but I think there must be a better way.

Chris Mitchell: I certainly hope that there will be. Sometimes it takes you know one community starting off with something to get those others, so others won't necessarily have to follow in the same path. You know you've done a lot of the hard work, and others will be able to find ways of working together maybe now that they see that there is another life that's possible. I want to I want to just say that I really, really appreciate the kind of leadership that, Marc, I'm sure that this involves some of you going above and beyond because of the incredible increase of your responsibilities but Gary and Ben, particularly as volunteers, over four years, you guys are smart guys you could have been doing a lot of different things with your spare time and to be putting this into bettering the community is something that's just really terrific and should be celebrated.

Ben Fineman: Well thank you Chris we appreciate that. I might regret saying this later but I do want to say that we're we're open to having conversations with with other communities that are on a similar path and hopefully we can share our successes as well as our challenges and our failures and how we overcame them so that that everybody can be more successful.

Chris Mitchell: Great. I'll be really excited to send people your way in coming months and years. So thank you Marc, Gary, and Ben, for your time. Much appreciated.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Marc Keezer. Gary Munce, and Ben Fineman from Lyndon Township, Michigan, talking about the community's recent vote to fund a municipal fiber network. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcast available at Follow Chris on Twitter his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow stories on Twitter. Its handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules Podcast. You can access them on Stitcher, Apple podcasts, or wherever ever else you get your podcasts. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song “Warm Duck Shuffle” licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 272 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.