Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
The Writing Team Takes Over - Episode 471 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
On this week's episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, host Christopher Mitchell is on vacation and the writing team takes over the show to talk about what brought them to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as well as the communities they’ve spoken to recently.
Sean Gonsalves, ILSR’s Senior Reporter, Editor, and Researcher, hosts the podcast and shares updates on a New Hampshire cooperative that is working its way toward connecting its 84,000 members. Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, Senior Researcher shares his most recent work on the Minnesota Broadband: Land of 10,000 Connectivity Solutions Report, which examines a variety of approaches that communities and local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have taken to expand affordable, high-quality Internet access across Minnesota. Senior Researcher and Multimedia Producer Maren Machles explains how DigitalC, a nonprofit in Cleveland, Ohio is trying to address the digital divide in the city’s most under connected communities.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Maren Machles: I'm just really excited that I get to be a part of the journey of documenting how communities across our country are doing this.
Sean Gonsalves: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast, the writer's takeover edition episode 471. I am LeVar Burton, sitting in as a guest host for Chris Mitchell in his absence. Okay. I'm not LeVar Burton, even though I'd love to host jeopardy or the reading rainbow, but it's just me. Sean Gonsalves, senior reporter and editor on the Community Broadband Networks team. And I have the con for this episode to borrow a bit of submarine lingo from one of my favorite movies with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, Crimson Tide. If you haven't seen it, you should check it out. We have not committed mutiny. Chris is, believe it or not, on vacation. It does happen.
Sean Gonsalves: And so that's why I've got the con, but I'm not alone here on the submarine today. I've got two of my distinguished illustrious colleagues with me, Maren Machles, the Shonda Rhimes or the Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola of the team, if you will, one of our researchers writers and video editors, extraordinary, and Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, the grizzly veteran researcher and writer of our team that we affectionately call Dr. McGyver. He's a five tool player with a perfect name for baseball. And he's the oldest millennial on the planet. Welcome guys.
Maren Machles: You just dragged Ry so hard.
Sean Gonsalves: But was it accurate?
Maren Machles: It's accurate. I mean, I'm not going to object to the description that you gave.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: It's good to be here, Sean. Thanks for having us.
Sean Gonsalves: So I use the submarine metaphor for a reason, well, first of all, I never metaphor that I didn't like. But I use the submarine metaphor because I want us to go a little subterranean today. Not like Mariana's trench deep, but well, I should have used the snorkeling metaphor cause we're going to skim the surface, but submarines are way cooler than snorkels to me. So I figured we'd just go with that. I don't mean to imply that we're in over our heads or that we're going to drown, but we might. But I want to ask each of you about how you got into this and then we're going to come back and cover some of the interesting work that we're doing now, because of course we don't want to let Chris get all the credit. So let's share a little bit about ourselves and our contributions. So Ry, let's start with you, you being, as I said, the grizzly veteran of the team. What did you do before you got here and why did you dive into the battle for better broadband?
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Sure. So thank you, Sean. It's great to be here with you and Maren and talk for a little while. So as Sean said, I'm a senior researcher on the team. I joined Chris after Lisa left and I have been writing or editing most of the things that appear on the website in the last year and a half or so, as well as working on some longer-term projects. I've got undergrad degrees from St. Cloud state university, which is a little teacher's college in central Minnesota, and a master's and a PhD from Oklahoma state. I got my PhD in American history in 2014 with a research emphasis in science, medicine, and technology. And then I taught for a while and wrote a book on the history of forced sterilization and eugenics in Kansas, a very pick me up kind of topic that was very popular at dinner parties.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: And while I will always remember with love the smell of a library, I'd been looking for a way to get out of higher ed for a while and do something in the non-profit world or policy oriented that would have a little bit more of an immediate impact. On a personal note, I've always been a computer hardware software guy. I built my first computer using parts from this little website that some people might remember they used to exist, it does not anymore, mgepc.com and I remember that name because the first time I turned that computer on with the power supply that I bought from that website, it blew up and threw smoke all over the room.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was at my first land where I think that was also the first time I remember putting together CAT 5 cables from a big school at a friend's basement here in central Minnesota, somewhere around the fall of 1999, academically, I've always been interested in what people can do with technology, especially the things that have the potential to democratize the world around us, like the Internet. I'm also interested in the ways that we can make our communities more resilient. And so it's been a real pleasure, not only to talk to policy makers, but cities and counties and cooperatives about the work they're doing every day to build locally accountable networks around the country.
Sean Gonsalves: Now you see Maren that's why he's earned the name Dr. McGyver. The man does a little bit everything.
Maren Machles: I know. I can't even dream of mounting up to that kind of a journey.
Sean Gonsalves: He probably, he's probably a master ping pong player.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: You know, I do love a good game of ping pong, but you guys are definitely talking to me up way more than, than I deserve. I want to hear about what Maren was doing before she joined us.
Sean Gonsalves: Let's go Maren, lay it on us
Maren Machles: All right, all right. Well, it's not going to be nearly the same story that Ry has. I have like zero background in broadband, but I actually come from an investigative journalism background, like right out of college. I joined a team in D.C. And, have covered the Clinton foundation, the Clinton campaign, Trump and all sorts of different subjects. I think something that I kind of struggled with journalism is I would just basically dive into the subject and become so immersed in it that I would ultimately, I mean, some of my editors told me that I cared too much about some of the things that I covered, the last thing that I covered pretty in-depth was about sexual assault on tribal lands, which has nothing to do with broadband. But I spent two years basically traveling to different reservations and, and learning about this.
Maren Machles: And I cared about it so much that I would have nightmares and, you know, like wake up in like a cold sweat and want to do something about it and became what I feel like was a pretty extensive expert on the subject. And then ultimately wasn't able to do anything about it. Like I could only just tell the story of what I saw and I wasn't able to make any impactful changes, which is a bummer to spend two years of your life on something and not be able to really do anything about it. So I ended up leaving D.C., Coming to Minnesota and then found the Institute for local self-reliance and found you find folks here. So not only here, documenting communities and what they're doing to help their residents, but actually able to help them make those changes and actually be able to reach into a community and help with grassroots movements and make a difference.
Maren Machles: So it's, it's been really cool. I think something that I've realized with over the past year is that Internet access is absolutely crucial for creating equity and a more just world, can't apply to most jobs without Internet access. You can't access resources. It's really hard to get out of any sort of an equitable situation without access to connection. And so I'm just really excited that I get to be a part of the journey of documenting how communities across our country are doing this. So, Sean, what about you? I want to hear about you.
Sean Gonsalves: Well, I really vibe, I really resonate with what you said. You know, I come from a print journalism background and I kind of did it backwards. Not kind of, I did it backwards. I started off actually as a columnist was lucky enough to get syndicated at a young age, in my early twenties, just because I had a big mouth and a lot to say and read a ton over the years. And it's funny when I was a kid, I used to force my mother to sit at the kitchen table while I pretended to be a news broadcaster. And that was because, that was, I'm old enough. That was, yes, that was back before cell phones and PCs and things like that. So you had to get a little creative in how you occupied your time.
Sean Gonsalves: And it's funny that I did that because growing up through high school and even after high school, I had no inclination of wanting to be a journalist per se, or become a reporter. It just sort of happened when, again, something riled me up I wrote about it, developed a relationship with the editor of the local newspaper in the area I was living in, and that led to the column and syndication. And then I was hired as a reporter and I did that for two decades. I was on the news, worked on as a news editor for a few years. And after 20 years, I left to get into the consulting business or the dark side, as they say, in newsrooms, consulting various clients that were paying a pretty nice sum to get advice on how to tell their story and get it out there and how to deal with crisis communications and things like that.
Sean Gonsalves: And then, after I burnt out with that, luckily I had already developed a relationship with Chris and he was into this broadband stuff and I was just fascinated by it and, and tried to learn more and more. And when this opportunity presented itself to get back to my roots in terms of writing in journalism, I jumped at it, especially because at ILSR with the focus on sort of the anti monopoly work, that's something that was always near and dear to my heart. I've always been concerned, coming from a very marginalized community. I've always, that's always been something that's been of real interest to me, the power dynamics and the society and how folks, how we can help get resources and tools in the hands of folks that have kind of been left on the margins. And to my mind, certainly Internet access is, is an important part of that and an important tool.
Sean Gonsalves: So I saw this as kind of like a practical way to make a small contribution in terms of getting people, the kind of information and connections and so forth that they needed to really kind of harness the power that folks have within themselves. And then within communities to kind of claw back some of the power that we feel.
Sean Gonsalves: I think most of us feel we're living in this world that where there's these big, powerful entities out there that have so much control over our day-to-day lives and get to make these decisions in far away, places that affect local communities and how cool would it be to be a part of something that is trying to sort of bring some balance back and re-energize communities and remind people of the power that they have. So here I am, and here we are, and I'm loving it actually, as I said earlier, I think we don't want Chris to get all the credit. So let's, spend a few minutes talking about some of the contributions that each of us are making currently and recently. Maren, why don't you start us off on this front this time?
Maren Machles: Yeah, sure. So one of the communities that I've recently written about was Cleveland, Ohio, which represent I'm from Ohio. So I'm very excited about this project, but, and my dad was actually born and raised in Cleveland. So recently covered this nonprofit out of Cleveland called DigitalC. Just to give you a little bit of background about Cleveland, the national Digital Inclusion Alliance, and DIA uses the American community survey to create this annual list of the worst connected cities throughout the country. And Cleveland is not doing too hot. It hasn't been doing very well for awhile and then 2019, it was ranked seventh in the nation. And then if you actually look at that list and look at, you know, the cities that have a population of over 100,000, it is the worst connected. According to NDA. DigitalC, this non-profit in Cleveland is very much aware of that.
Maren Machles: It's actually like part of what they're messaging of what they're trying to do. They're really focused on trying to make Cleveland, the greater Cleveland area, more digitally equitable. So they've done this through a few different things. So they have back in 2003, they built a fiber backbone network that they ended up ultimately sell selling to an ISP, but that was all in the effort of having more broadband access throughout the city. Now it has created this wisp, and the wisp is called an empower CLI since it started its first pilot project in 2018, it has covered nearly 1000 households. A lot of that ended up getting sped up during the pandemic. Basically they had all of these different parts of the community that really needed access. Like all of us have seen throughout our reporting, talking to all these different communities, with work from home, with doing a distance learning, they needed to be better access.
Maren Machles: So they created this program, that's $18 a month. So very affordable. They're really focused on the affordability aspect of it. One of the things that Angela Bennett told me she's with DigitalC, she said, our philosophy is that we will never disconnect anyone because of their inability to pay and it's not access if you can't afford it.
Maren Machles: And that's something that they really stand by when they were kind of planning where they would expand this project. They took red lining maps of Cleveland actually, and they overlapped the access to broadband maps that existed and were able to see that there was a lot of overlap with the red areas, like parts of the community that have gone for decades without access to home ownership, to generational wealth, also didn't have broadband. And that's something that you can actually see that map in the, in the story that's on muninetworks.org, but for yourself, you can see just how stark that overlap is. So I thought that this was a really awesome project wanting to write a little bit about it. And yeah, it just seems like they're doing really great work in Cleveland, so
Sean Gonsalves: Yeah, I mean, and this is some, you mentioned red lining and that's a term that we hear more and more frequently digital redlining, which, you know, as I understand it is similar to the horrid history of red lining as it relates to home ownership. But that what we see particularly in Metro areas are these, the big cable companies and telco companies, essentially cherry picking which areas they're going to serve, which tend to leave out a lot of communities of color and people that don't really have a lot of wealth. And so you've got this digital redlining. And so I'm really, I was really fascinated by the story and the work that DigitalC is doing. And it reminded me about one of the things I wrote about recently with the infrastructure bill, the infrastructure investment in jobs act that just passed the Senate recently.
Sean Gonsalves: One of the things in it that I called ugly of the good, bad and ugly that's in it is that it requires the FCC to study this stuff and come up with these recommendations. And I said, it was ugly because essentially it gives the sec, two years to look at something that we know is happening right now, like in places like Cleveland. And so I hope that when the FCC gets around to looking at digital redlining, these things that they look to DigitalC to learn lessons in terms of how you address these things. So I think that story is fascinating and I'm glad that you wrote about it. I'm sure LeBron James is somewhere smiling at your efforts right now.
Maren Machles: I can only hope that LeBron read that one small article.
Sean Gonsalves: That's right. Good work. Now right. You have been involved in the project, an extensive project, and that produced a massive report on the state of connectivity in Minnesota. Tell us about that.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We released this report in 2014, called All Hands on Deck, which featured a series of case studies on counties and cities and cooperatives, as well as policy recommendations on these case studies that were in their early years are just getting started about how Minnesota could meet its connectivity goals. And so with support from the blended foundation, we went back to these original communities to look at what happened from then into today. And then we also added about eight new case studies, including to private providers. And so that occupied a bunch of my time, the first half of this year. And then the report, which just released about three weeks ago is called Minnesota Broadband: the land of 10,000 connectivity solutions. It's available at ilsr.org and it shows all the different models that exist, that shows all the lessons learned and the diverse models and paths to success. There are a bunch of really great stories in there about grassroots organizing and local leadership and creativity and persistence.
Sean Gonsalves: There's a number of case studies in there. There's some interesting ones in there too, that maybe we might want to highlight a little bit like RS fiber cooperative and shout out to cooperators by the way, which we should mention that, as I've been here, I've come to learn just how well positioned cooperators are in delivering the kind of connectivity that local Internet choice. And so the story about in the case study in RS fiber cooperative, and I think it's in south central Minnesota. Tell us a little bit about that.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Sure. So yeah, RS fiber is a little bit unique in that it's just a broad band cooperative. It's not an electrical cooperative telephone co-op that has branched into the broadband business. It's a pure broadband cooperative. They're located maybe 20 miles north of where I'm sitting right now. And when we covered them in 2014, it was still a mostly theoretical project and has since brought fiber to towns and businesses in the area. And then for people that are living outside of those population centers, they can benefit from Internet access through RS Air, which is an RS fiber fed wireless service with some pretty good speed outcomes at affordable prices. And that's an important part of their success as well. Another benefit of the RS fiber project has been that the cable company, media com in the area seems to have lowered its prices significantly in what is now a newly competitive environment.
Sean Gonsalves: It's amazing what competition brings, isn't it?
Sean Gonsalves: You mentioned that some of the impressive speeds that are showcased there. There's another case study you did that about one of the favorite names of mind for any cooperative telephone or electric co-op, but the Paul Bunyan Communications, I love that name. Tell us a little bit about that.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Sure. So Paul Bunyan, isn't the north central part of the state it's relatively sparsely populated, and yet they've been steadily expanding their fiber network over the last 10 years or so, and increasing the number of passings, something like seven fold by aggressively reinvesting and taking advantage of anchor partnerships to bring service to new areas, adjacent to where they serve. They just launched. They originally had their giga zone service, which is one gigabit symmetrical to everybody. And they just recently, a couple of weeks ago announced that they were upgrading speed, their speeds available to two, five, and ten gigabit symmetrical.
Sean Gonsalves: That's incredible. That's that kind of you talk about future-proof. That's future-proofed to the maximum, that's great. Now I know you spent a lot of time working on this, on this report. So, you know, let me flip the tables. You're, you've been a teacher for a long time, but let me flip the tables on you and say and ask you, what did you learn? What are some of the big takeaways from, from, from this report, do you think?
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Sure. So I think we learned a few important things. Number one is that broadband projects are something that take effort, just like any other infrastructure issue, but affordable, accessible, reliable Internet access is one of the silver bullets to moving the needle on issues of equity and race and education and the wage gaps in our lifetime. And so it's an important thing to do. Another thing that I think we learned is that there are many paths to success, but there are also paths that don't lead to as fruitful outcomes as as possible, which is why just like anything, broadband is something that has to be approached with clear eyes and a responsible mindset.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: And then the last thing is, is that communities don't often get into this just because they want to, they build public broadband infrastructure because the huge out-of-state private providers have refused to often, despite years of being asked and often years of receiving state and federal funds to do so, cities and communities do it because the marketplace around them is fundamentally broken and they see too many of their family members and neighbors and friends stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Sean Gonsalves: Well said, okay, well, last but not least, I'll share with you a bit of what I wrote about recently, which is the New Hampshire electric cooperative who created a new subsidiary called NH Broadband and the cooperative recently. Well, I guess it was in December of 2020 when the co-op members voted to authorize the co-op to bring fiber to the home service to their 84,000 members that are spread out across 115 towns and cities in New Hampshire. So it's a wide area. And just weeks after they got approval to do that, they connected the first 900 households in the town of Lempster, Clarksville, Colebrook, and Stewartstown. They used a $6.7 million in grant money that they got from the state. And then last month after having gotten another $6.5 Million from the federal art off auction, they began expanding the network into two other towns in the town of Sandwich and Acworth.
Sean Gonsalves: So that means that they're going to be able to provide service to another 1500 homes and businesses by early 2022. You know, one of the things I thought was actually really cool, and this is something that you never see among our regional incumbent providers, which is that when they first started offering the service, their lowest service tier was a symmetrical 25 megabits per second for 50 bucks a month last week, because they're doing so well. They announced that they were upgrading every subscriber on that bottom tier to symmetrical a hundred megabits per second at no extra cost. I mean, that's, you know, that's pretty cool. I mean, imagine getting a phone call or an email from your Internet service provider saying, Hey, we're giving you an extra 75 megabits per second per month at no extra cost.
Sean Gonsalves: So I thought that was something that was really interesting. So right now, if you're a subscriber there, you're talking about, you have a choice of either the symmetrical a hundred mib/s for 50 a month, or you can get a symmetrical gig connection for 90 a month. That is a great price to that definitely, in comparison to, to the area that I'm in here, which isn't too far away from, from New Hampshire, the cost of build-out their projected, it will cost about 83 million bucks. And they are thinking right now, they're doing this town by town. They're thinking they can use a combination of revenue from new subscribers and capital loans and government grants, including some of the money that's allocated to the state under the American rescue plan act, or that will be forthcoming hopefully in the infrastructure bill.
Sean Gonsalves: And then another sort of little cool caveat was that in April vice president, Kamala Harris visited their headquarters in Plymouth, New Hampshire to get a look around and to learn. And, frankly, to highlight the fact that the Biden administration has really made it a point to want to fund efforts for broadband infrastructure for networks, just like the kind we're seeing there and in a rural area in the state of New Hampshire, that's something that's on the website now, all three of us are working on various other very cool stories that we hope folks continue to check out on muninetworks.org
Sean Gonsalves: Well, I don't know about you guys, but I think we probably should wrap this up, before Chris gets canceled as a host, because we did such an incredible job and the ratings are through the roof. Seriously, though, to our listeners out there, I invite you to let Chris know how ridiculously good we were, or I suppose if you really want to, you can email them and tell them to never let this happen again. But we'd love to hear from folks. We love feedback, the work of all, all of us, Maren, Ry, myself, you can find on muninetworks.org and occasionally you'll come across some stuff Chris does on there as well. Till next time, or not, CBN writing team over and out.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Email us at podcastatmuninetworks.org, with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets, follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks, subscribe to this and other podcasts from ISR, 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 newsletter at ilsr.org, while you're there, please take a moment to donate, your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through creative commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.