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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 494
This is the transcript for Episode 494 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Will Anderson, Program Coordinator at Vermont Communications Union Districts Association (VCUDA) and Evan Carlson, Board Chair at NEK Broadband (Northeast Kingdom, VT). They discuss the success of Communications Utility Districts in connecting Vermonters. Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.
Will Anderson: It really is evident to us that the way for communities to get served when they're not served is to do it themselves.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota rather. And I'm excited to be talking about some of the coolest stuff that's just going on in this country, frankly, around broadband, which is in Vermont. And so we're gonna be speaking with Will Anderson, who is the program coordinator for the Vermont Communications Union District Association, which everyone calls Vada. Welcome. Will
Will Anderson: Thank you for having me, Christopher. I'm a longtime reader of Muni networks and really have to be talking about what we're doing here in the Great Green Mountain state of Vermont.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. And we'll be talking about how cool it is that you have an association as well as talking about what's going on with a number of those members of it. But we do have one additional guest. We have Evan Carlson, the board chair of n k Broadband, which is serving the Northeast Kingdom area of Vermont. Welcome Evan. Thank
Evan Carlson: You. Chris. Also a longtime listener of the podcast, so very excited to be here and share the stories about what's happening here in Vermont and excited to be on the show.
Christopher Mitchell: I think you might mean there in Vermont, because unless you plan on going to Hawaii, you can't get much further away from it right now,
Evan Carlson: . That is true. I was trying to avoid saying that I've jumped from one broadband desert to another out here in Nevada City, California.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I guess you can get a lot further away in California. I didn't realize you were on the eastern half of California, but you've got some background noise occasionally, and in case your connection is struggling, we can blame it on California and not Vermont . So let me start by, you guys coordinated a really nice bit of material for us today by, I'm entirely for my benefit, having a great testimonial. And so before we talk too much about what's going on, although I think longtime listeners have a sense, let's just talk about the fact that any K broadband is connecting people. And today you had a pretty cool connection it sounded like. So Evan, if you wanna tell us about that.
Evan Carlson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we are certainly one of the most rural and unconnected regions of Vermont. And today we got a great testimonial from a customer who had a daughter trying to work from home and commuting to local coffee shops to be able to get her college work done. And for the first time ever they have a Internet connection. They're in our house delivering 200 megabits per second symmetrical service from the fiber line that we brought to their home just yesterday.
Christopher Mitchell: And so this is, I think all the more remarkable because I did not realize that any K broadband had gotten this far along. So you know, are out there connecting, people are getting connected right now. They're going from having nothing to having a connection that's better than what I can get in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Evan Carlson: That's it. And the goal is to do that across all 55 communities in our districts. So we are very excited to be on this venture. We're just connecting the first addresses now, but we expect over the next five to seven years that we will have universal service to such a rural and honestly kind of economically deprived area. And this is really at the heart of the challenges that we're trying to solve.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. And so we'll talk more about the Northeast Kingdom and NK broadband as some specific examples, I'm guessing of what's going on. But if we take a step back, will, I've done multiple interviews with Fiber, the community of towns that work together and it seems like they were instrumental in creating this thing called the Communications Union District. So tell us more about what that is.
Will Anderson: Yeah, sure mean. So at this point now that n k has started up connecting customers, there's two cods out of nine COD being Communications Union District out of nine across the state that have customers. The first to go online was EC fiber. The start of their operation happened all the way back in the 1990s spinning out Dartmouth College, this organization called Valley Net, which was dedicated to being a non-profit provider of service in a area that was really neglected in terms of the national providers. And it really gradually snowballed over in Vermont. A group of towns in the upper valley signed an interlocal agreement that they would work together to get an Internet network built out to everyone within its territory and given some more time and especially given the pandemic, the Coronavirus pandemic, other groups of towns across the state of Vermont had the exact same idea. They exerted a lot of pressure, they got together volunteers, boards hired consultants, talked to their legislators, and going into 20 20, 20 21, the state of Vermont designated the CDs as its communications future. And we now have tremendous support from state agency, Vermont Community Broadband board, and everyone is looking to emulate EC fiber and be able to reach everyone within their member towns. So really a remarkable movement and they certainly set the standard,
Christopher Mitchell: You know, make it sound like a natural progression. And yet it's one of those things that as someone who was around when, back when Tim NTI was still at Burlington Telecom, I have a sense that the state of Vermont was pretty skeptical about municipal broadband. EC fiber I felt like had to fight upstream for a number of years. And then the state I think gave 'em a chance and they really liked what Fiber did with that opportunity and they've become more positive. But I'm curious, can you gimme a sense of, I mean it's so remarkable for a state to just basically say, well we're gonna have our cities implement our broadband strategy. It's what I'd like to see, but it's just surprising and awesome. So how do we get there?
Will Anderson: You're certainly right that there was a skepticism and challenges along the way. Burlington Telecom, while I don't know every twist and turn of the story, I don't think it can be called a success overall, although it is still thriving and connecting everyone in Burlington. I think there were some pretty significant financial issues along the way.
Christopher Mitchell: And just to break in for a second, that's certainly, we've covered that in depth and if people want to get into it, I don't know that anyone really who's talking knows the full story. I looked at it very in depth that it was happening and yes, there were many challenges along the way and I think the state was already skeptical and then became more skeptical and in part as a reaction to
Will Anderson: That. But that really changed with EC fiber. EC fiber was not only able to connect their customers on a path to universal service throughout their territory, they were able to do it with basically no grant funding. They had to go to the bond market and take on significant debt, which is still a challenge for them, but they were able to achieve this basically on their own. And second B, they were able to do that in a very rural area, an area that had been too unprofitable and difficult to serve by other companies. I think when the states saw that this was working, that really was an incentive for them to put policy into place to get the other CDs working and funded.
Evan Carlson: Just jump in quick, quick and just quick, quickly say that I think one of the other major things that gave the state confidence to be able to do this and really put all their eggs into the CD basket was when they structured the C U D legislation, they really put those protections in place to ensure that the actual municipalities weren't on the hook for any of the debt that was potentially defaulted on by the districts. And they put that in there really to ensure that there was never another Burlington Telecom situation to happen. And then when you pair that with the success that Ecuc fiber has seen, there are all the things in place to really make this successful and for the legislators and state to feel confident in the direction that they're going with the districts.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think of EC fiber with a little bit of humor in that they were trying to build in the more rural areas of central Vermont, which is to say they were avoiding the high density areas like where you are Will and Montpelier, which in many parts of the country would still be considered fairly low density in rural,
Evan Carlson: Right? We're talking like sub six addresses per mile, which is the no territory for any wire line provider, but the CDs are going all in on those.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so I think of EC fiber as the John Wick of these broadband networks. Just sheer determination to succeed pushed it through very difficult times. Well, I think I sort of jumped in and I derailed you a little bit, but what gives the state so much confidence that this is the right approach overall?
Will Anderson: They've studied the problem, they've hired a number of consultants and researchers to look at what the best strategy would be, but I think that it's more of the overwhelming support and that they've seen. If you look at how much of Vermont's towns are part of a cd, it's a vast majority, especially when it comes to underserved miles and overall rural areas. Really the main places that aren't part of a CD are the Burlington area and then a smaller area in southern Vermont that has a solid local fiber network. When the state legislators saw how great a buy-in there was amongst towns that wanted to join one of these municipalities, I think they saw that it was inevitable. And just the fact that this problem had been going unsolved for so long, there was a so much talk of the problem and no sign of solution except for EC fiber in the communications union districts. It really is evident to us that the way for communities to get served when they're not served is to do it themselves. It's pretty much that's the Vermont way. I mean communities here have to be united to stay afloat.
Christopher Mitchell: In a second, I wanna talk about the model specifically about how the cities then own the network or the towns own the network and then they have a provider that'll often partner with that has some experience in it. But I did wanna know what you were describing that I was speaking with a consultant in this space about the C UD approach and this person was laughing because they were like, well, in Vermont they did put a heck of a lot of money into the fixed wireless in the broadband stimulus of more than 10 years ago now. And I was just laughing because of just struck me as just what a colossally bad idea that was because it's like the ultimate marriage of terrain that's not good for wireless and hostility to towers like yeah, people are not, that's correct. They don't wanna view in their view sheds with a big old transmitter up there,
Will Anderson: But wasn't a mistake that stopped the Department of Public Service from continuing to try to solve this problem. I mean, they worked really tirelessly, not just in favor of the CDs, but just to find any solution and put us in a better place to be able to solve this problem. If you look at the work they've done with the data here in Vermont, it has to, I mean maybe better Christopher buts, it has to be some of the best broadband data that's been produced across the country. I mean the maps that we have and the work that they've done have really, really set us up for
Christopher Mitchell: Success. I would love to see other states duplicate the drive testing, all that stuff that was done. It showed a real dedication that we goes above and beyond what we see elsewhere. So Evan, let me ask you then, so were you involved at the very beginning of n k broadband and what made people realize that this was a good model for your area?
Evan Carlson: Our journey began kind of in the 2017 time period with an organization that I think I L S R would be probably very appreciative of called the Council on Rural Development and Vermont Council and Rural Development. They conduct a community visit process that is a multi-month design thinking exercise to really allow communities to help define what their actual vision for the future is and then establish groups to actually go through the process of trying to institute some of these changes. Broadband was very high on the list and just connectivity in general and there was an economic development committee that was established to help tackle some of this work. I was leading that group and one of the first things that we did was actually work with Vantage Point solutions to do an initial analysis to determine what is the best option for getting connectivity just in the lending and connecting areas. Ultimately, they pointed in the direction as a communication union district and at that point it was just ecuc fiber and CV fiber had just formed shortly before we had had that study completed. And so that really set the path probably after a year or so that economic development committee transformed really into a broadband focus group and started pulling in communities surrounding London. And we had some really amazing partners in our regional economic development group called N V D A and N K Collaborative. And those groups really pulled together all the other key players at the state level and also ally to help think through how to actually address this. We probably spent two years doing very tactical grassroots work to define the direction and really get communities on board. I think there was a group of four of us that really pushed in the early year and we did I think more than 30 different select board visits, some of them multiple times to be able to get them to bring the question of whether they wanted to have their town be a part of the C U D to their town meeting day. And that actually grassroots work really allowed us to do the kind of initial formation. And then March, 2020, we had town meeting day in 27 towns voted to join the district and that was our initial forming size. I mean when you look at EC fiber, they started with two towns and I think CV fiber was only a handful of towns as well. So to come out of the gates with 27 towns buying in and one of the most rural and also the fiscally conservative areas, they were very nervous every single community about the idea of potentially putting their community members at risk with the district. That was a huge win for us. And since then we've had a lot of really committed board members to push things forward to the point where we are now at addresses.
Christopher Mitchell: And for people who aren't as familiar with Vermont, I think it's useful to note two things. One is the town meetings are very serious in a lot of parts of New England where people go and they make important decisions, they discuss it over the course of the day and I'm sure they've discussed it beforehand too. And the other piece of it is that towns in Vermont are the whole area, no part of Vermont is not in a town more or less is my understanding cuz people might be thinking what about the areas between towns? But the towns are typically all what we would think of elsewhere as a county, not counties, but they include rural and more dense areas within them.
Will Anderson: Maybe a way to clarify that is that the counties in Vermont don't really have any government power. All local government is conducted by the town and that will generally contain the center or the village as well as variety of rural areas. But Christopher will add that Vermont also has a number of cities which have varied town meeting statuses. Most of them have a mayor and a city council, and most of them are part of cods.
Christopher Mitchell: And so I think the key part I wanted to get was that when we talk about towns, there's no one being left behind. And if I remember correctly in northeastern eastern kingdom then there is, it's not like there's people in unincorporated areas.
Evan Carlson: We actually have a couple of towns that we include in our 55 town district that are a part of what they call the UT Gs and that's the unincorporated towns and Gores. And that is a very rural area that has in some of those instances, one on grid address and the rest are all camps that are very seasonal or you get a couple people trudging back there in snowshoes in the middle of the winter, but it's pretty rare.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and that's an interesting point because in New England especially, you wanna make sure those camps have connectivity. I'm guessing
Will Anderson: Our mission is for the time being dedicated to on grid addresses exclusively. There are quite a few of off-grid addresses in Vermont, especially in the Northeast Kingdom. I do think a couple of towns in the Northeast Kingdom actually number zero for on grid addresses. Evan maybe can confirm that or not. I think the numbers tend to shift from year to year.
Evan Carlson: I can confirm for sure .
Christopher Mitchell: So I guess point, one of the things I think is interesting is that you need that local knowledge to know, all right, these 50 off-grid addresses we're not gonna get to, but there's a few here that we really do need to connect to because there's such an important part of the community. Or I could be wrong again, I mean I made a number of errors already in this show.
Evan Carlson: . I think that that's actually a super interesting point, Chris, because we're in the process of really getting into the detailed design of our network and we've actually had to have our board members, this is the power of having community led boards and having a representative in each town. When we have these hard to reach areas, we actually have our board members go out and check to see if the driveway is plowed all the way up to that address. And if it's not plowed, chance is not an address that anyone's living at, even though the state data as good as it is can't get a hundred percent right all the time. And so we can actually have people on the ground that are able to do some of that validation and we have such committed board members if they're willing to go out there and do that legwork on their own.
Will Anderson: Yeah. I just want to add quickly that maybe a little bit to your last point, Christopher. It's also very easy, I think relatively speaking for towns to join a c d per the legislation that governs what a CD is basically a town meeting day, they just have to approve a vote of a motion that says we seek membership in this cod and then there's yet to be a CD refuse membership for a town. And in fact, I don't even think they're allowed to refuse a town that seeks to join this part of their territory. So for a lot of these smaller towns, Evan I'm sure has some experience with this. With any K specifically, it's pretty quick and easy process to become part of a municipality that guarantees them universal service.
Christopher Mitchell: So when you form the C U d, one of the next things that seems to be important is finding a service provider or perhaps multiple ones you'd negotiate with that would provide service across this publicly owned fiber optic or hybrid network. So how does that work
Will Anderson: Evan? Evan has firsthand experience with this, but I'll quickly note some of the history to this. I alluded before to EC fiber's connection with a group called Valley net. Valley net is a design build operates partner for EC fiber and for a smaller network in the state of New Hampshire called LY fiber. It's a nonprofit organization basically dedicated to the engineering and construction of community networks, of course with support from other contractors and engineers, but it's the main partner for EC fiber, the other cods around the state. One of their major challenges has been to find partners that can meet these parameters. When I was with the U S D A, I actually submitted a proposal to the state to try to expand valley net because it's such a perfect model to work with the district when you have this nonprofit partner that's so dedicated that ultimately wasn't successful, but the partnerships that are underway right now, really innovative and are really getting the job done. Waitsfield, Champlain Valley Telecom, bit of a mouthful, but it's a local provider based in central Vermont. It's now working with several CDs including with N K Broadband, which Evan is the chair of. They're they're really doing some great work across the state of Vermont as CD partners.
Evan Carlson: One of the really amazing things about the C UD model is that it actually gives this C U D and its board the opportunity to really define what is best for its own community. In some instances it might be that non-profit partner or in some instances it might be some of the larger regional telecom providers like Consolidated and being able to actually have them come in and build and operate end to end the entire experience. In our case, we are working with a Vermont based homegrown network that has been really successful and they know the retail operations, they know the network operations and they've constructed for many years in the environments that we're building in. And I think that that is their long track record of being successful is kind of a testament to being able to be resilient in this type of climate. And so that's super important for us. I also think for us long term at NK broadband, we really want to see job creation. And so we are trying to work with our partners to be able to not just operate and develop these retail services, but kind of train us along the way. So eventually we can be in a position to take over things like the network operations and have people on the ground in the northeast kingdom taking those jobs and actually having careers being built outta when we have such a unique opportunity have this hundreds of millions of dollars coming into the state. I feel super strongly that we should be working to keep the as many of those dollars circulating in our local economy as possible. And that means establishing network operation centers in the main centers of the Northeast Kingdom and we're gonna do that.
Christopher Mitchell: When the legislation was passed to create the CDs, to me it looked like the restriction that the individual cities couldn't take on debt would be potentially a problem in the sense that CDs don't have a track record operating this infrastructure. Now, if you're able to work with a partner that has a strong track record, then you can go and try to find debt for IT investors that believe in it. I think it would be hard for a newly formed CD to work with Mitchell Broadband if we hadn't done anything before, but we just said, oh, but we're pretty sure we know what we're doing. And it feels to me like there's this perfect storm in which those hundreds of millions of federal dollars really are going to help because that will allow a lot of the cuds to get those track records often with proven partners and move ahead. So it seems like it's sort of one of these moments where this is the right time for this model.
Will Anderson: You're exactly right, Christopher. I mean, despite the massive influx of federal funding, even our most conservative estimates don't put the current supply at being an amount enough to complete universal service across the state of Vermont. We do expect that all CDs will have to go to the bond market in one way or another. However, the amount of money that's coming in through grants right now will be really critical to a setting them up in a perfect position to go to that market like you're alluding to. And also just to provide a generally more affordable service. Our mantra, especially my mantra as everyone here in Vermont knows, is that affordability comes from availability, the lower cost that we're able to provide the network to consumers, the lower rates that they're going to have to pay. So these grants are really critical to that philosophy and will help us a lot when it comes to the bond market in the very near future.
Christopher Mitchell: And Nevin, yeah, I'm definitely curious how you respond to that as someone who will be out there trying to figure out how to raise money from the bond market in sufficient quantities and low enough interest rates that you can connect some of the hardest to reach areas of one of the harder to reach states.
Evan Carlson: Yeah, I mean, our problem didn't go away with the ARPA funding, but it certainly got a little easier, for instance, because we now have addresses that are connected. We actually just filed our application to be able to take advantage of the FCC affordability program, which we wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. And that in our area where we are so economically deprived, affordability, aside from connectivity is our number one priority for us. It's still going to be a patchwork of different funding sources. I mean, we're looking at probably anywhere between 40 and 60% of our network being covered through grants. And then we're looking at some state funding available through Vermont Economic Development Association that will be able to help be matched for things like potentially reconnect loans that we're exploring that recently became available to our district and it hadn't been previously. And definitely looking at bond funding and that's gonna be something that we'll probably dig into, I would say in 2023. So all of those things are absolutely core to the network. And ultimately, as Will had mentioned, the more free grant money that we get, the cheaper our service gets to the end consumer. And that's what it is such a driver for us to get that grant dollar or get those grant dollars in the door as soon as possible.
Christopher Mitchell: Is it possible that Evan, you're actually building too fast in that you are taking areas that would be eligible for the NT funding in another year or two through the infrastructure bill and making them ineligible because you'll have this great network there?
Evan Carlson: It's possible, but I think the consumers on the ground would say that we still can't build fast enough
Christopher Mitchell: . Yeah, I can imagine that.
Will Anderson: Yeah. Interesting question, Christopher. For sure. The kind of philosophy that we've been moving under both state agencies working with us and leaders of the CDs is that the time for hesitation is over. We see other states also getting this amount of broadband funding and see ourselves in a really great position to advance to use the partners that we've made and the volunteers and that we have in place to proceed. And we do explore all available funding opportunities. I'm really hoping that n k will be able to leverage this year and that many more CDs will be able to do so next year. As for the NT I, we've received grants from the NT I across the state. We have other CDs that are in contention for large grants from the NT I right now, and I intend to help the CDs pursue those grants further in the future. But you may be right, in some cases we may have networks in place where we would've been able to win a lot more money, but the time for hesitation in Vermont has long passed.
Evan Carlson: Yeah, I think that just to add to that point, Chris, for us, we see a really big opportunity of helping grease the wheels for the other cuds in the state and being able to show that these new cuds actually can get their feet under them and build a network successfully, get people connected and have a good business model to support the business and operations in the long term. And the sooner we do that, the sooner it's gonna be easier for the rest of the state to get universal service too.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So as we're starting to run outta time, let me ask, what are some other things that are happening or points around CDs that I haven't asked about that we should make sure that we discuss?
Will Anderson: Each CD is pretty unique. Each CD being located in a different geographic area, I get to work with all of them and I find it fascinating how each of them take a very different approach. Yes, they're all following the model of fiber, as we mentioned, but they each have a different strategy to get there in terms of the partners they're working with in terms of the agreements they make with those partners, even in terms of how they're going to design and the order in which the order of operations in which they're gonna build their network. So I think that's really interesting, and I think it's also a strong strategy that we haven't put all of our eggs in one basket. We're really gonna see which cods are able to deploy the fastest and most effectively. And I really like my role working for the association because I get to serve as a conduit of information between the cods we're sharing, we're sharing best practices amongst all the districts all the time, and coordinating on ways to share resources and to get the job done most effectively. And I think that's a really good strategy for any states that communities when they're building broadband should be in solidarity with each other. The reason that Communications Union district works is because a lot of towns have banded together to use their resources together. I think that philosophy is really the key to success for community broadband and that we're applying it on the statewide level as well. Evan and I were discussing this afternoon concept of digital economy, and he has alluded a little bit to the desire to keep digital jobs in the n k really terrific idea. These kind of things have come outta the Vermont Council and World development as well. I've been so occupied helping the CODS construct their networks that that's kind of been on the back burner. But in the future, I really would like the CODS to embrace this digital economy and embrace finding ways to bring wealth in their communities and utilize these networks to keep the economy flowing in their territory, in their local area. So that's something I think is on the horizon that Nek has really embraced already.
Evan Carlson: Yeah, I mean, I think just kind of adding onto that, the aside from the digital economy aspects of the workforce development, we wanna really want to see people helping get the actual network built. We have a shortage of people that are out there hanging fiber and being able to do splicing at the home and being able to help run the network operations centers. So we actually are already working with the state to establish some workforce development programs to specifically addressed that because we know it's not just n k, but it's going to be every other c u D in the state that is gonna be bumping up against the same workforce development challenges. And I believe that's gonna be the case across the country with new infrastructure funding flowing and trying to address this broadband connectivity issue.
Will Anderson: Just throw some more details on that really exciting program. Through the Vermont Technical College, we've got internship or apprenticeship program going for fiber technicians. Really hoping that program continues to grow, expand to more colleges, but considering the depth of the worker shortage, we're also pursuing a number of other sometimes novel strategies as well. I like to paint a really optimistic picture about where the cods are at, and I think that's justified. We are really moving forward with this five year target for getting as many unserved underserved premises connected as possible. But that's not to say there aren't really significant challenges in the way between the supply chain labor issues, and of course capital, which we've developed upon at some length. There's a lot of challenges ahead, and it's not going to be easy by any means.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, you certainly are serving as an inspiration. We talked about this. We don't have time to dig into it, but I mean, we planned on having it as a topic potentially, but New Hampshire and Maine have both enacted legislation to create similar structures. New York has had legislation advanced, but I don't think made it into law. So obviously others are looking at what you're doing and finding it successful.
Will Anderson: Yeah, I don't have too much to say about that. I definitely like the folks from those states to speak for themselves on what, if any, inspiration they've taken from us and their strategy. But I do know that New Hampshire has a law that pretty much directly copy paste from Vermont and that they have some really exciting work going on mainly in the northern part of the state there. We're really happy to share our successes and our best practices with the rest of the country.
Christopher Mitchell: Terrific. Thank you both for taking time today late on a Friday to cover this. Very much appreciate what you're doing and just really rooting for you, doing a great job out there.
Will Anderson: Likewise, we appreciate your coverage of community broadband. We'll continue to stay tuned.
Evan Carlson: Yeah, thanks so much, Chris. Look forward to hearing the success of our rural broadband
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Networks. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts email@example.com slash broadband bits. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. This handles at communitynets follow muni networks.org. Stories on Twitter that handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly email@example.com. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Hughes. Be for the song Warm Duck Shuffle License through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.
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