Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 317

This is the transcript for episode 317 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher Mitchell and Hannah Trostle discuss our recently released report Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom.

Listen to this episode here.

Hannah Trostle: So if Comcast is in one house and Charter's in another house and they are on opposite sides of the census block, and no one else in the middle can actually get service from either of them, that whole census block is marked as a "competitive census block," where all the people have all of the options for service.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 317 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. If you live in an urban area, you may have a choice of Internet access providers and you may even have access to more than one that offers broadband. As a reminder, the FCC defines broadband as a minimum advertised speeds of 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload. Chances are, if you live in rural America, your options are not nearly as diverse. In our new report, "Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom," we examined data available from the FCC and mapped out exactly where broadband competition exists in the U.S., and where it doesn't. In this week's podcast, Christopher interviews Hannah Trostle, who research and analyze the data to create the maps for the report. She and Christopher then analyze the results and describe their findings in this conversation. You can access the report at, or find it at Now, here's Christopher and Hannah.

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah, welcome to your last week at ILSR.

Hannah Trostle: Yes, it's good to be leaving.

Christopher Mitchell: I don't think it's good for you to be leaving, but I appreciate that you have to get on with your life, and we'll get on with the podcast. Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, ILSR. Here for one last time in studio, at least for the foreseeable future, Hannah Trostle, welcome back to the show.

Hannah Trostle: Hi. It's good to be back. 

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah has been one of the people behind a lot of the research that we've done over the past three years. I guess maybe a little bit more than that.

Hannah Trostle: Pretty much the past three, three and a half years. I think I started in May 2015.

Christopher Mitchell: And now you're abandoning us. What are you doing?

Hannah Trostle: Um, I'm going to Grad school over at Arizona State University. I'm getting a master's in urban planning.

Christopher Mitchell: So folks that are down there, you know, you gotta you got a great resource coming your way. Be sure to be sure to bother her. Stop her on the streets. Ask her about broadband policy.

Hannah Trostle: Or just comic books, how about comic books?

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. That could be preferable. Uh, we're here today though. We're gonna talk about a report that we've just finished up. In some ways, one of the more in-depth and frustrating reports that you've worked on in your time here.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. This report has taken in some ways more than a year because we've been working on it in one form or another since well before the net neutrality vote.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And we're calling it "Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom." And Hannah, you're the lead writer as well as the person that did all the mapping, uh, in which we look at the territories of the big cable companies and the big telephone companies to get a sense of where they operate, I guess. We just sort of, we started it on a lark, right? I mean we had the ability to start doing some mapping work and you used the Form 477 from the FCC, which we'll, we'll get into toward the end of the show, talking a little bit more about that, but we just started plotting the big companies to get a sense of what it looks like when you look at the entire United States where they offer services. Um, I mean, what's your recollection of why we started doing this?

Hannah Trostle: One of the largest reasons I wanted to do this was because I kept having conversations with people that were like, "No, we should leave Internet service up to the really large providers. They're the only ones that can go out into rural America and build new infrastructure." One of the things that I had realized upon like doing so many different maps of different states was that these large providers don't have as big of a footprint as expected.

Christopher Mitchell: You actually have people you've talked to that have said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We should have CenturyLink and AT&T in charge of solving these problems."

Hannah Trostle: Well, they're not the ones who live in the rural areas. This has been the problem with living in the city for seven years, working on rural issues, is I have all of these people that think they know what they're talking about, who really have no lived experience. Yeah, they have no idea what's actually happening.

Christopher Mitchell: That was, you know, just just as we, if we pause for a second and sort of reflect on things unrelated either to broadband or this report. For me that was a shocking moment in undergrad, in which I got a sense, and for me it was in the late nineties, of just how uninformed and ignorant many key policymakers are at the state and federal level. And one of the reoccurring conversations that you and I have had, is that people really don't know what they're talking about in many cases.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. Thankfully, we do know what we're talking about because we actually did dig into the data.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and this is, this is something that's come up where we've run into people that are talking about the Connect America Fund and they've made a number of mistakes that frankly I would not have caught because I rely on you, John Chambers and others, in many cases. I myself have dug into, you know, I'm sort of dug into Muni networks in a very deep way. I've not dug into the Connect America Fund. And so you have done that, and you've been able to catch mistakes that no one else is catching.

Hannah Trostle: I went to a city council candidate forum recently and someone said that they're a great policymaker because they read all the documents and what I can tell you is even if you read the documents, you need to read them multiple times. That's the thing about me and the Connect America Fund. I have read those documents multiple times. I've read like so many opinions on them. There's like a tendency to like misstate the magnitude of the Connect America Fund in a lot of cases. Um, for those of you who aren't familiar with the Connect America Fund, it's the rural high cost subsidy program. Um, it's primarily given out to the large providers. And we talk about it a little bit in this report.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, right. We, in part because when you're looking at the AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier maps, I think it's important to recognize that they are getting these massive subsidies. If we're going to talk about rural connections, it's worth noting that we're giving them billions of dollars to not do their job, basically.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. We're giving them billions of dollars to provide connections of at least 10 megabits per second, which is not broadband in any way.

Christopher Mitchell: And some small fraction do get above broadband speeds, which are 25 megabits by three megabits by definition of the FCC. But from what we can tell, the vast majority are getting below broadband speeds to date.

Hannah Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Just to step back for a second, we're going to talk a little bit about some of these issues and, but I want to talk about our overall thoughts looking at these maps. The other thing that we didn't mention is that when we started doing this, I felt that it would be useful to do maps of where all of the big companies offered service because in many places people don't know. You know, I was talking to people that are doing really good work in North Carolina and they didn't know which areas of North Carolina were served by which companies, so we're hoping that this would help to give you a sense of where the these different providers operate. Charter, Comcast, and then on the, those are the two big cable companies we did, and then the big telephone companies, the four biggest which are in reverse order Frontier, CenturyLink, Verizon, AT&T. So Hannah, you've been working on these maps for all. Do you remember what your first recollection was when you started seeing them and getting a sense of how everything fit together?

Hannah Trostle: I was surprised that AT&T was as small as it is. Um, I was less surprised to see Comcast and Charter just, you know, focused on the cities, like we always expect cable companies to be in cities. That makes a lot of sense.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say cities, really, I mean it's, people might not be thinking of a city of 20,000, but it's --

Hannah Trostle: Yeah, those are, those are still cities. They were there, the urbanized areas. They are oftentimes like the, uh, regional economic centers.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, 'cuz they're, I mean the cable companies are all over the map. I, my first reaction was that Susan Crawford nailed it when she wrote "Captive Audience," the book talking about the looming cable monopoly. Those were the words that she used and it's quite clear when we look at our map, you said AT&T's service territory was quite small particularly, I mean their overall footprint is smaller than I imagined it, but in particular their footprint of broadband service is much smaller than I imagined. It's clear that cable companies are the dominant force of broadband.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah. The cable companies are the ones providing broadband, if you're only looking at the big cable and telecom companies. Like as soon as you start adding in the Co-ops, then you can see that oh, co-ops are actually providing broadband in rural America. So it's really more split between co-ops in the rural areas and cable companies in urbanized areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And just again to give people a sense of the scale, roughly 90 percent of the country lives in areas that are served by cable companies. Um, and so that includes both urban areas and the areas right around them that we may not think of as being urban. There's more people get cable service and than I think many people realize or, or have the potential of getting it.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. I only know of a few people who have switched away from a cable provider when their only options are cable and AT&T or CenturyLink. Sometimes it's because the big telecom companies have upgraded to fiber. But oftentimes it's just because they're fed up with the cable companies pushing them around. I recently went over to work at my partner's house. I was like, "Oh, what's your Internet connection?" Like, I'm trying to see what kind of work I could get done. He was like, "Well, we have CenturyLink DSL. I don't know what speed we get. Sometimes it just doesn't work."

Christopher Mitchell: [Laughs] A phrase that we've all heard.

Hannah Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: So what do you remember when you first were working on the Frontier map? Did you feel like you had to double check them for accuracy? Because I was pretty shocked when you were describing them after you finished them.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah, the Frontier maps were rather hilarious because they don't have a whole lot of broadband service. One of the things that I did was I dug specifically into West Virginia because I was very curious about that. Um, because I know Frontier is one of the bigger providers in West Virginia, why wasn't it really showing up on my map? And I found that in the data in West Virginia, Frontier was only advertising 24 megabits per second by two megabits per second.

Christopher Mitchell: Just under the threshold for what we consider broadband per the FCC definition.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. I dug into that a little bit more. I found that they had run into some legal trouble with the state of West Virginia about mis-advertising speeds.

Christopher Mitchell: Oops. I'm sure it was a mistake.

Hannah Trostle: Oh, absolutely. Sure. Complete mistake.

Christopher Mitchell: Not an intentional in any way.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah, definitely, if you're going from advertising 40 megabits per second in one census block to the next year, only advertising 24 megabits per second. Definitely. Definitely a mistake somewhere.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Just a very optimistic person had completed the paperwork, I'm sure.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. Because we all know that DSL can get to broadband speeds. The question is how far away are you from the actual central office?

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So, so there's, um, there's a distance drop off, and then one of the other things that we see with Frontier and Windstream in particular, is that they have not upgraded the fiber from those central offices or even maybe put fiber to the central offices. And so, in one year they might be able to offer 30 megabits a second and then as more people subscribe to it, they cannot offer more backhaul. And so they have a bottleneck, much in the way that cable use to, but cable seems to have overcome it by investing and also just by virtue of having a, a superior product technologically.

Hannah Trostle: The thing about the cable companies that also surprised me was that Comcast's low income program, um, this isn't really mentioned in the report, but it's sort of alluded to -- Comcast's low income program only offers speeds of about 15 megabits per second.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, it used to be ten/one I think, and they've upped it a little bit.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. Charter, meanwhile, they're low income program is 30 megabits per second. That actually meets the broadband threshold.

Christopher Mitchell: For the download speed. But Charters uploaded, I think, we don't know what it is. Do we?

Hannah Trostle: Um, it might be five?

Christopher Mitchell: It might be five, but because we have a totally failed market in broadband, even educated people on it cannot find this information easily. How is a, how is a person in a home ever supposed to know what the quality of their connection is when you have to dig around in like all kinds of, do all kinds of research to try and figure out what the upload speed is from the cable companies. It's a different problem that we're talking about today, but it is very frustrating.

Hannah Trostle: Yes, it's incredibly frustrating. I just was looking into that problem for my own house because we're moving around with the whole roommate situation and they want to get a better speed and I'm like, "I don't even really know what we're subscribed to right now."

Christopher Mitchell: Mhm. So do you remember, the other thing I want to ask you about before we go through this a little bit more in order of, in which the reports laid out is, do you remember how many people get broadband from Frontier in Minnesota?

Hannah Trostle: It's less than 50.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I think you said it was two census blocks that make up, we believe 13 premises or something like that?

Hannah Trostle: Yes, I believe so

Christopher Mitchell: In Steele County, from what we can tell, it's very confusing, but but the entire state of Minnesota basically, according to the data, we didn't mention this at the top, but we should have said the most recent data from the Federal Communications Commission is more than 18 months out of date now. It's data that was compiled at the end of 2016 and was released at the end of 2017, and has not yet been updated because as frustratingly bad as the FCC has been collecting data, it seems to be getting worse.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. It's been rather frustrating to continue to wait to do this report and then realize that there is no data, new data coming out, so might as well just get on with it and just put out this report. Now that I said that like, knock on wood, they're going to release data in 20 seconds.

Christopher Mitchell: [Laughs] That was one of my concerns in talking to people that know the FCC a little bit more, it sounds like maybe not, because apparently they're just not doing a lot of the things that they've historically done and are expected to do of them. It's yet another agency being run by hacks that have no interest in doing their, meeting the mission of the organization they're running. It's infuriating, frankly. But, so running through some of the numbers here. You know, I thought it was interesting that, you know, we look at Comcast first. They're the largest cable company, we did the cable companies first. The map is quite large, although territorially Charter covers more people because I think the density of Comcast customer base is greater, so it's large on the map, but it's not all encompassing in the same way. You noted that you found 30 million people only have access to broadband through Comcast, which means of the more than 100, 100 million people that can take service from Comcast, for 30 million that's their only broadband option.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. Comcast has a monopoly over about 30 million people, that they could only get broadband service from Comcast. That's actually a huge number of people, and this is even including the fixed wireless providers.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's almost 10 percent of the United States can only get broadband from Comcast.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. That is a huge just captured markets. The reason I mentioned the fixed wireless is because they have a very broad range --

Christopher Mitchell: Mhm.

Hannah Trostle: -- and they do tend to, um, advertise their max speed throughout the entire service area. So what you would expect is for Comcast monopoly area to be even smaller than than it is if you're including the fixed wireless providers, but it's not. The fact is it's still huge. If I were to take out the fixed wireless providers, the captured customers would actually jump in magnitude.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, I, I believe that. And one of the things that we've seen and one of the reasons that we have had hesitations about fixed wireless is, um, is because some of the fixed wireless companies have inaccurately entered their data. Uh, again, something we'll talk about, I think at the end of this show, some of the shortcomings of this, but it's hard to uncritically accept all of the fixed wireless access because, last week's show with Matt Larson: Matt is a guy who is getting the job done from everything I can tell. Seems to have a very good network operating fixed wireless. Um, I certainly, if I was in western Nebraska and Wyoming and I had a choice between CenturyLink and Vista Beam, I'm on vista beam, absolutely. So we're not denigrating the technology, but one of the problems is, is that not all of the WISPs operate in that way. And so some of them misstate or um, or uh, just can't even deliver what they think they can deliver, the level of service. So yeah, we have listed 30 million Americans that have a Comcast monopoly. The number is probably larger. We don't really have a sense of how much larger, but we can be pretty confident that it is at least 30 million people who are stuck with a comcast monopoly if they want broadband.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. And this is total population that we're talking about. This isn't like number of households, some people will like talk about number of households and that's a sort of useful metric, um, in some cases. But overall I tend to think in terms of actual people.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Yeah, we try to, we include some household measurements, but we try to make sure that we're consistent in using people just because that's what people expect. Now Charter's monopoly turns out to be 38 million, although a lot of it's in New York, which they seem to be in the process perhaps of being booted out of.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. We'll see how that goes. That was very interesting to learn as I've been working on this report for, you know, the past year or so, watching this unfold.

Christopher Mitchell: So could you just step back for a second and remind us why we're talking about Charter being kicked out of a state. I mean it's unprecedented. When New York had talked about this in the past. My thought was always, yeah, I'd love to like maybe in five years we could have a political movement in which elected leaders and the Attorneys general thought that they could have the backing of the people if they took strong action against monopolies that abused the public. But here we are! It might be happening.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah. So Charter had bought Time Warner Cable's system in New York. In the process of that merger, they had made some agreements with the State of New York as far as making sure broadband was available in a more equitable and ubiquitous manner.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, they had a certain number of homes they had to expand to.

Hannah Trostle: Yes, so Charter claim that it was meeting these goals. Um, the State of New York didn't think so, it's been in the court system. So now, uh, the State of New York is basically revoking the Charter - Time Warner cable merger in their state.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And, and one of the sources of the confusion is that Charter had to provide additional service to a number of households in some cities as a condition of local requirements. And they seem to have double counted those and Charter thought they could get away with, with not investing in as much as I think the state of New York was requiring by double counting some of the expansion that they've done in recent years and the state of New York, to its credit, has said, "No, no, we're not going to get pushed around by you anymore." So it's a remarkable time, and we'll see what this number might look like in another, well, I guess we won't know for three or four years until we get an FCC that will actually release the horribly flawed data that it has. Just what a world when you're waiting for the FCC to release something that you know is going to be terrible anyway.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. It's going to be very interesting because um, the next set of data is supposed to be June 2017. And so that's sort of like in the midst of this whole flex with Charter and Time Warner Cable. And now Charter is supposed to be creating a transition plan. Who knows how long that sort of plan is going to be laid out for. Is that going to be years, we'll we be looking at only a months-long timeline. We don't really, we don't really know what's going to happen there.

Christopher Mitchell: Getting back to the report, where next up is AT&T, which I think is the largest telecommunications company in the world. Um, this is, this is pretty remarkable when you actually, you mapped it out. I mean a lot of this stuff I think we would have known by looking at the statistics, but it's more, it just has a more of a resonance when you see it. But, but looking at the numbers here: AT&T there's 62 million people that can get DSL from AT&T that is not broadband; the people for whom the best service they can get from AT&T does not qualify as broadband.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. Those areas are rather left behind. They may be some of the calf areas we don't really know like how far they're expanding. I did not put the Connect America Fund areas on the map because that would've made it way too busy.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. But presumably in a lot of these areas, people are not going to be able to get broadband speed from AT&T, or even if they can, it appears to be like it's gonna be priced out of range. We have a link to a post by Doug Dawson, a former guest of the show who detailed exactly what AT&T is charging for it service. It's, it's, it's ridiculous. It is so expensive, particularly for rural populations for what they're getting. But, so there's 62 million people that have AT&T service that's not broadband at best, and then there's another 66 million people who can get service from AT&T that is broadband. Most of them also have cable competition and so you found that there's approximately 750,000 people who can only get broadband from AT&T, that number is much lower than I thought it would be. So what does that mean? What should we take away from that? That so few people only could have AT&T for broadband.

Hannah Trostle: Well, if you think about it, our policies around promoting competition are working in the urban areas because when you're promoting competition then, as expected, like the monopoly areas are going down. You're seeing AT&T is investing in Fiber-to-the-Home in these urban areas where they face competition, and those areas are the ones that have broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: From the cable companies. And you mentioned Fiber-to-the-Home, although to be clear, I think you're generalizing a bit. The, AT&T's been doing this thing called U-verse, in which they're also offering 40 megabit, to people who happen to live close enough, DSL. So, um, when we're talking about AT&T broadband, it's a mixture of DSL and Fiber-to-the-Home.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. In those areas where they had DSL broadband, those are the ones that they're upgrading to Fiber-to-the-Home.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure, right.

Hannah Trostle: The rural areas that AT&T is supposed to be serving, they are still stuck with DSL that's not providing broadband access, um, because the rural areas are much more spread out from those central offices, so they can't get those speeds. And so what you're seeing is that all of the new investment is going into the cities and then the rural areas, which are getting that Connect America Funds money, they're not actually getting infrastructure that is of high quality. So what AT&T is doing in these rural areas is using their cellular wireless networks to meet their Connect America Fund standards.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, one might just come away with the conclusion that that's inevitable because you just can't build high quality networks in rural areas. There's too little density. There's, there's too much of cost. Is there anything, Hannah, in this report that would suggest otherwise?

Hannah Trostle: Um, we frequently suggested you go read our cooperative report that came out last October.

Christopher Mitchell: And I think you excerpted it in an appendix, didn't you? Helpfully.

Hannah Trostle: Yes, I added the co-op fiber map to the appendix. So it shows the overall footprint of fiber from all of these different cooperatives across the U.S. So it's both electric co-ops and telephone co-ops. Um, these are very much locally-rooted institutions that are democratically managed by the population that actually lives and takes service from them.

Christopher Mitchell: And, and it's just stunning when you, if you, I mean we don't have them side by side in the report, but certainly anyone that has, you know, you could just up the report two times in your, um, in your pdf reader or print it out and look at a side by side. When you look at the comparison of the fiber maps, because for each of the telephone companies you did a map of their fiber footprint where they're doing last-mile fiber services. Then you can compare that to the cooperatives and it is just stunning the difference. The cooperatives have found ways of building many times the amount of fiber that the, uh, that the telcos have.

Hannah Trostle:  Yes. There's actually a fiber map at the very, very end of the report in the appendix that consolidates all of the different fiber from all of the telcos. And so that is like actually next to the co op map.

Christopher Mitchell: Just a couple of quick hits: Verizon -- barely a wire line company anymore. I had no idea how much its territory had shrunk after it sold off so much to FairPoint and Frontier. It's just, it's almost gone.

Hannah Trostle: I'm not going to lie. I forgot that Verizon actually had a wireline footprint and I mean obviously it's a very big company, but because it's not in the Midwest, I was like, that's not a thing.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. It's definitely concentrated in New England and the mid Atlantic.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. So Verizon also has run into trouble with, uh, the city of New York, so that's also featured here. New York is featured very heavily throughout this report, apparently.

Christopher Mitchell: So Hannah, um, what's the last point that you want to share before we, we talk about the data that we used.

Hannah Trostle: Well, if you're still in the appendix, looking at those Fiber-to-the-Home maps, you might want to look at the cable duopoly map. And what that shows is Comcast and Charter, like on top of each other, and how they don't actually overlap.

Christopher Mitchell: [Laughs] Right, not really on top of each other. So much as side-by-side and like, and like in like interlocking but not on top of each other.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. [Laughs] I think of them as on top of each other because it was like create this layer, create this layer, look at the small overlap in Florida.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So they each have more than 100 million potential customers and there's somewhere on the order of 1.5 million people who, you know, as best we can tell, might have their choice between the two of them.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah. Give or take. Um, we have several fingers in there showing like the overstatement of competition and we can get into that, into that in a little bit when we talk about the Form 477.

Christopher Mitchell: No, I think, I think this is the time. So Form 477: Love it or hate it?

Hannah Trostle: Um, at this point, very much hate it.

Christopher Mitchell: So this is the comprehensive publicly available data that United States uses for policymaking to try and figure out what's really happening in the broadband world. And it is awful. It is just awful. And I say it's awful because of the perversity. I'm just gonna I was gonna ask you a question Hannah, but I've already just found myself in this rant. So, I look at it and I think about small ISPs that I've talked to that wrestle with filling out this form twice a year and it's a difficult form. It has a lot of instructions. It's like it was made in the Middle Ages and then updated over the years to make it more complex. So you have these small companies that don't have the manpower to be dealing with all of this compliance issue and then it's to create data that is fundamentally untrustworthy anyway. And so I feel like it's a double slap in the face for small ISPs, but maybe you can talk a little bit about why we can't trust it. What, what does it get wrong? Even in, even when the form is filled out correctly.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. We sent this report out to some reviewers who were like, "You should use better data."

Christopher Mitchell: Right

Hannah Trostle: Like, "Why are you using this data? There's so much better data available from private sources."

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And just to, sorry, to interject for a second, Wall Street like has better data, right? Like they don't make investment decisions and decisions that involve real money based on this data. They know that this data is ridiculous, this data is just reserved for the use of public policymaking and things like that, but there are private databases that are available to people of wealth. Uh, so it, it is worth noting there's better data out there for Wall Street, just not for the public.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. And one of the reasons we didn't use that is we wanted to show what does the FCC see. Like, what do all of the policymakers see and is the problem actually evident if you're using this data. The fact is, it is still evident like, and it's still a huge problem even using all of this like messed up data. And this data, um, overstates competition, this data, um, overstates availability.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so just walk us through that for a second. How does it overstate competition?

Hannah Trostle: So, um, the data goes down to the census block level. Um, within a census block, you can have several houses, many houses, um, you can have an apartment building or two.

Christopher Mitchell: So we're talking hundreds or thousands of people per census block.

Hannah Trostle: Yes, there are many, many people, um, in urban areas, in census, in these census blocks, and the data only looks at the census block as a whole. Um, so if Comcast is in one house and Charter's in another house and they are on opposite sides of the census block and no one else in the middle can actually get service from either of them, that whole census block is marked as a "competitive census block" where all the people have all of the options for service.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And that is a perfect example that you draw. I think that really illustrates it well. It's worth noting that the FCC often says, "Hey, this data shouldn't be used to ascertain the level of competition." Although, they do that and everyone else does that because it's the only way to try and figure out how much competition there is in the United States.

Hannah Trostle: Yes, the FCC even has a whole wireline competition bureau.

Christopher Mitchell: [Laughs]

Hannah Trostle: Yeah. This is one of the things the FCC looks at. This is one of the things you're not supposed to use this data set for, really because of this problem. However, that's the same problem that you get when looking at Internet service availability, because it turns out that, in a similar problem, you'll have five houses in a census block. One house gets broadband service. Everyone else in that census block can't get broadband service, but they're all marked as having it. So the whole statement of don't use this for competition -- then you shouldn't use this for Internet availability either.

Christopher Mitchell: Right? They should just cut it off early and say, "Don't use this, you know, we use millions of dollars of taxpayer money. We have basically wasted the time of countless small ISPs that don't have the time or resources to waste. Um, and we're releasing these data sets that are functionally useless, but will be used by the big incumbents to claim, 'Oh, there's plenty of competition. And if you squint your eyes just right. Look, there might even be too much competition!'"

Hannah Trostle: Yeah, absolutely. You can see that there is some competition in cities, maybe, if your apartment building is wired for both of the big ISPs that are there. If your apartment building is not wired for both of them, then you're stuck with whatever your apartment building agreed to.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, although I think it's worth noting, you did include a map in one of the appendices that shows some of the competition, including here in Minneapolis where USI is competing with both Comcast and CenturyLink. So you have a few arrows showing where there's some robust competition from some third providers as well.

Hannah Trostle: Yeah. I was just like, what is actually going on in a couple of these cities? Like give you an example. And USI is interesting too because yeah, USI started out doing Wi-Fi across Minneapolis and since then they have gone into doing Fiber-to-the-Home in many key areas of Minneapolis and they're like slowly working towards like a, more of a city-wide rollout.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Travis, the founder, who's been on this show, talks about how they want to be the first NFL city in which every last premise in the city has Fiber-to-the-Home. And I frankly, I don't see any other city that's going to come close to beating him. You know, Kansas City has a lot of the coverage from Google, but nobody's fighting to lay it out in the rest of the community. Um, Travis has a vision of connecting every door in Minneapolis that he's legally allowed to reach with fiber.

Hannah Trostle: Yes. And so you're seeing like Comcast and CenturyLink putting in more effort into their networks then even before and they're now starting to, um, compete with each other in even more ways.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Meanwhile, I can tell you across the river in St Paul, we are not seeing that nearly as much. So Hannah, thank you very much for coming in. Thank you for being a repeat guests on the podcast. Thank you for all of the research you've done and you know, I certainly wish you great luck with the urban planning and I hope that people don't ignore you like they do all the other urban planners because you are a sharp person who has a lot to contribute and I look forward to seeing where you go.

Hannah Trostle: Thanks. I'm much more interested in rural regional planning, but they don't really, um, title the programs like that.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Well, uh, for folks who are going to be looking for someone that's a great rural policy analyst in a few years, look somewhere else because I'm hoping Hannah comes back to us.

Hannah Trostle: [Laughs]

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Hannah Trostle discussing our most recent report, "Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom." Be sure to download it at or at We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter. The 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 Apple podcast, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research, subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle," licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 317 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.