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Merit Network is hosting a weekly Michigan Moonshot Educational Series in the lead-up to their Broadband Summit this fall, and as part of the programming, Director of Community Broadband Networks initiative Christopher Mitchell recently hosted a webinar called “Exploring the Basics of Broadband.” Aimed at community leaders and the interested public, it explores the different solutions — and their relative advantages and disadvantages — in an accessible way.
Access the webinar on Merit's website, or watch the video below.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Christopher offers a frank discussion and an overview of the present deployments and future prospects of cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), mobile and fixed wireless, satellite, and fiber optic network technologies for both high-density urban areas and sparsely populated rural ones. In particular the webinar succeeds at cutting through industry speak and assessing the practical impacts, as well as the breadth and depth of choices, that local communities should consider in their efforts to connect all their citizens with a modern, reliable network. The webinar also includes discussion of economies of scale, financial feasibility, legal limitations, and the current 5G hype, and is intended to equip attendees with the information they need to contribute to local efforts at increasing Internet access. As an added bonus for listeners, Christopher provides commentary on Smokey and the Bandit, Burt Reynolds, and Austin Powers.
Merit will be also hosting another webinar later this month titled “Local Community Broadband: A Good Answer to Internet Connectivity”, on Thursday, May 28, at 12 p.m. ET.
Earlier this week, Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell joined the radio talk show 1A, distributed by NPR, to talk about poor connectivity in rural America and how the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing digital divides. U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger from Virginia and ranch owner Tiya Tonn from Kansas also called into the show.
Digging Into the Divide
Christopher and 1A’s other guests explained how rural Americans across the country, from the mountains of Appalachia to the plains of Kansas, struggle with inadequate Internet access. Broadband quality varies greatly, so some households must rely on spotty cell phone hotspots or fast food Wi-Fi networks while neighbors several miles down the road may have access to fiber optic connectivity.
The pandemic is heightening the impacts of the rural digital divide on students and workers who now aren’t able to access their usual connectivity stopgaps, such as public Wi-Fi at libraries and schools. Tiya explained how the shaky broadband connection at her family’s ranch forces her to drive into town for routine activities, and her son spoke to the difficulties he experiences trying to attend online classes now that college campuses are closed.
But poor connectivity isn’t only a rural issue — people who lived near Houston and Columbus, Ohio, called into the show to share how they also can’t access high-speed broadband. Christopher added:
Even just three miles outside Chapel Hill, there are stories in North Carolina about people that are stuck on a technology that hasn’t been upgraded since before the kids that are in high school were born.
How to Expand Access
Not only has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exposed our nation’s dire lack of medical equipment and protective gear, but it has also shone a light on the inadequacy of our rural broadband networks.
A recent CNN article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home,” by Harmeet Kaur, explores the many struggles that rural households face now that jobs, schools, and everything else has moved online and their outdated broadband connections can’t keep up.
“We Should Be Embarrassed”
CNN reports that while only 1.4 percent of urban Americans don’t have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, more than a quarter of rural households don’t have broadband available to them. And almost three quarters don’t have access to faster upload speeds of 25 Mbps.
These disparate stats are currently on display at parking lots across the country, as families without adequate home connectivity are forced to drive to open Wi-Fi hotspots and sit in their cars while completing assignments for school and work.
The article shared how one teacher in rural Virginia has turned her school’s parking lot into her new office:
Every Sunday since the coronavirus lockdown started, Stephanie Anstey drives 20 minutes from her home in Grottoes, Virginia, to sit in her school's near-empty parking lot and type away on her laptop. Anstey, a middle school history teacher, lives in a valley between two mountains, where the only available home internet option is a satellite connection. Her emails can take 30 seconds to load, only to quit mid-message. She can't even open files on Google Drive, let alone upload lesson modules or get on a Zoom call with colleagues.
“We are the country that created the internet,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative, said in the article. “We should be embarrassed that millions of people have to drive to a closed library or a fast food restaurant in order to do their jobs or do their homework.”
High Costs, Slow Speeds
The CNN article points to a number of reasons for the dearth of high-quality Internet access throughout rural America.
Need better Internet access in your community but don’t know where to start? Want to educate your local leaders on broadband solutions but they can’t tell DSL from fiber optic?
Join the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Christopher Mitchell on Tuesday, May 5 at 12 p.m. ET for a webinar on broadband basics as part of Merit’s Michigan Moonshot Educational Series. The conversation will introduce various broadband solutions and technologies, giving participants the necessary foundation to start working on better Internet access locally.
Merit, a statewide educational and research network run by Michigan’s public university system, is hosting the event. Michigan Moonshot is Merit’s effort to improve Internet access in the state by collecting accurate data, disseminating educational resources, influencing policy decisions, and connecting communities to funding.
ABCs of Connectivity
Christopher’s presentation, on Tuesday, May 5 at 12 p.m. ET, will “explore the trade-offs, capacity, and economics behind common Internet access technologies, including cable, DSL, mobile wireless, fixed wireless, satellite, and fiber optic,” according to the event page. The webinar will aim to give participants “the confidence to engage in broadband discussions, debates, and efforts to improve broadband Internet access.”
This introduction is ideal for residents, community leaders, and business owners who want to engage with local efforts to increase connectivity. If you already have a good understanding of broadband technologies, consider inviting local officials or stakeholders to the webinar to build their knowledge.
Sign up online in advance for the webinar link.
Dust up on the Rules
Marketplace Tech’s Molly Wood interviewed Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, this morning on national radio. The pair discussed how broadband providers are responding to increased demand during the Covid-19 outbreak and what barriers there are to expanding Internet access to families sheltering-in-place.
Christopher has been a guest on Marketplace Tech before, providing his perspective on issues including security concerns around Chinese-made network equipment and the effects of ending network neutrality on municipal networks.
Connecting New Subscribers
Schools and businesses have closed across the country, but many students and employees are still expected to complete work from home. This is leading households to subscribe to broadband at record levels in some areas.
There’s a lot of people who are signing up for service who didn’t have it before, or maybe they’re going to a better provider. We’re seeing in areas that have one or more cases of the virus that some of the [internet service providers] are seeing record sign-ups, in some cases twice the previous record of a daily number of new customers.
The surge in demand is creating a challenge for providers still figuring out how to safely connect new users. A number of companies have temporarily halted home installations, while others are instituting policies to protect their employees and household members. “We will need to find a way in which we can do new connections,” Christopher said on Marketplace, “because I think this connectivity is just going to become more and more important”
States Stopping Local Solutions
Make it to Colorado in the spring for Mountain Connect on May 18th - 20th. This is one of Christopher's favorite events located at the picturesque Keystone Resort and Conference Center in the Rockies. This year's theme is "Broadband: The Great Enabler for Disruptive Technologies."
Many past attendees cite the regional focus of Mountain Connect as one of the reasons they find the event especially valuable.
The mission of Mountain Connect is to move our western US communities forward by providing relevant and targeted content to help them make the most effective decisions as they build new or expand existing telecommunications infrastructure that enable the long-term vision of a community. We are agnostic of the technology that delivers broadband and as such, believe this provides a well-balanced foundation to make an educated and informed decision with input from industry and community leaders from across the US. Finally, we believe in looking forward and are inclusive of trending technologies that will shape our broadband future.
Expect to hear from some top-notch speakers, including:
- Jeff Christensen from Entrypoint Networks
- Angela Siefer from National Digital Inclusion Alliance
- Colman Keane from the City of Fort Collins
The agenda is still being solidified, but some of the topics to be included on panel discussions and from speakers include:
- The Impact of Emerging Technologies
- Why Master Planning is Paramount to Long-term Success
- Unique Funding Alternatives
- Policy and Legislative Considerations
- 5G/Small Cell
- Update on the progress on our Public Safety Broadband Network
- Economic Development
- Experimental Wireless Technologies with our Research & Academic Partners
I have stepped down from my role as Policy Advisor at Next Century Cities, an organization that I helped to found and one that I believe is very important to ensuring everyone can use fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access. Nothing is changing for me at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — I just wanted to reflect on how wonderful my experience was at Next Century Cities.
Next Century Cities members are incredibly innovative and at the forefront of efforts to expand this amazing human enterprise — the Internet — to everyone on terms that make it truly available to them. I am honored to have helped highlight their efforts and share the lessons they have learned to others that have iterated on the models and practices.
Working alongside Deb Socia in establishing and nurturing Next Century Cities has been a highlight of my career. The people I worked with at Next Century Cities taught me important lessons and I treasure all the time we spent advancing the interests of our innovative members. I cannot count the times I reflect on what I learned from Deb, who models intelligence, balance, grace under fire, grit, wit, and loyalty.
Almost all of the work I get credit for is a product of teamwork, informed by people I respect and trust. But I want to single out Cat Blake, who is also leaving Next Century Cities, as one of the most remarkable people with whom I have worked. I recently received a text from someone saying they often forget how young Cat is due to her impressive command and confidence on the issues tackled. I had just sent a note to someone making the same point. Cat came to us the same way her predecessor did — Kate Watson Jordan (now at Internet Society) — from Christopher Ali's tutelage at the University of Virginia (quite the pipeline). I was dubious about putting her on stage at one of our events, but she nailed it and I started to realize I was seriously underestimating her capacity. Then she created the Becoming Broadband Ready Toolkit and I started to wonder what she couldn't do — I haven't seen a limit yet. It was a pleasure working with you, Cat.
When his Twitter feed announced the “arrival of 5G” last December, tech reporter Chris Matyszczyk made a beeline for the nearest T-Mobile store and asked, “Can I have some of this 5G, please? I will become a much more desirable, admirable person if I have 5G!” From there, it was all downhill.
The Pain of the Hype
We aren’t the only ones who have pointed out the hype around 5G as telecom companies rush to outdo each other. In another case of marketing mayhem overtaking technical truth, Matyszczyk shares his rain soaked pursuit in the Bay Area. Expecting fanfare, he was met with a surprisingly subdued store:
I wandered into a T-Mobile store that was emptier than a politician's tweet.
Oddly, there weren't 99 pink balloons hanging from the ceiling to celebrate 5G. There weren't even five.
He goes on to describe how the less-than-enthusiastic salespeople didn’t seem very well informed about when, where, or why 5G isn’t available to him when the company indicated that it arrived nationwide:
"But isn't it a bit annoying to be told there's this incredibly exciting 5G when you can't get it for at least another six months?"
They seemed neither to agree or disagree. They seemed like they were annoyed it was raining and that I was there, dripping.
Read the full article, "I went to T-Mobile to ask about 5G. The response was painful" here. You can also watch an interview with Matyszczyk.
He expressed sympathy for the salespeople. After all, he says, “it’s hard for them to present something they can’t actually sell you.”
Marketplace spoke with experts, including Gigi Sohn and our Christopher Mitchell, about the hype surrounding 5G. Sohn said, "5G is 80% marketing and 20% technology. The hype around this technology is enormous, and also the hype around needing to win a so-called race around 5G."
Listen to the story here:
This past October at the Broadband Communities Economic Development event, Christopher returned with all sorts of news from different places around the country where people are taking control of local connectivity. He also returned with an award from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC). The nonprofit organization champions the right for local communities to decide for themselves the best course of action when expanding broadband to their residents, businesses, and institutions.
CLIC honored Christopher with the organization's "Indispensable Contributor Award" and described their decision to recognize his work:
You have been chosen for this singular award in recognition of the indispensable contributions you have made to local Internet choice during the last decade, for your tireless opposition to barriers to local decision-making, and for your creation of a huge and immensely valuable body of knowledge about community broadband initiatives.
As a clever symbol of Christopher's "indispensable" work CLIC's President Jim Baller presented him with a special travel mug to add to his awards shelf:
In a follow-up email, Jim added:
“If Chris Mitchell and his team at ILSR did no more than tell the evolving story of community broadband in real time, their work would be invaluable. But that is far from all they do. They often write high-quality analyses and reports. They address countless audiences in person and through electronic means. They participate actively in our fights against state barriers to public broadband initiatives. They communicate regularly with the media to debunk industry myths and falsehoods. This list could go on and on. Chris and his colleagues have truly earned CLIC’s recognition for their indispensable work."
Thanks, Jim and CLIC, from all of us at the Community Broadband Networks Team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We are truly thankful for the work you've done to lay a strong foundation on which we can build more support for local communities.
On October 21, 2019, The American Conservative published an article by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Christopher Mitchell. The article delves into how preemption affected the municipal broadband project in Lafayette, Louisiana. Christopher addresses the fact that many communities that have invested in local Internet networks have done so to fill a void in a manner that is based in self-determination. He also discusses the ways local government strengths lend themselves to the success of municipal networks and how somes states are making changes that may signal a shift in perspective.
We've reproduced the article in full here:
Fleeced by the Telecoms and Your State is Blessing It
You may live in a place where the monopolies' lobbyists have more authority than your local government.
Joey Durel was not an obvious champion for building a municipal broadband network in his city. He owned multiple private businesses and was the head of the local chamber of commerce prior to becoming mayor of Lafayette, Louisiana, one of the most conservative urban centers in America.
In the early 2000s, like today, the big telephone and cable companies were extremely unpopular. DSL and cable Internet access were growing, but smaller markets like Lafayette always had to wait to get the speed upgrades they saw the larger cities getting. However, Bellsouth (now AT&T) and Cox were not slow to increase prices, which led to obvious customer frustration.
When first presented with the idea of a city-run network, Durel was skeptical but open minded. He looked toward the Lafayette Utility System, which already handled electricity, water, and wastewater for the community—and had a much better reputation than the cable and telephone monopolies—to make an assessment.
Durel soon determined that a city-run broadband network would provide better services at lower prices than Bellsouth or Cox, but he was under no illusion those companies would go quietly into the night. However, he probably didn’t expect such a challenge to his authority—a challenge that went right up to the state legislature to stop him. This was preemption, and Durel was about to get one heck of an education in how monopolies use the levers of government to get what they want.