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Christopher Mitchell in Ask Me Anything Seat
Last week, our own Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, was the featured guest on the Broadband.Money “Ask Me Anything” series.
The one-hour live program, which invites leading minds in the broadband industry to talk candidly about their knowledge and perspective on broadband-related matters, was moderated by Drew Clark, editor and publisher of the online news outlet Broadband Breakfast.
Evolution of Community Broadband Networks Initiative
The discussion began with Christopher sharing why he joined ILSR over 15 years ago and how the Community Broadband Networks Initiative has evolved over the years.
The core mission of the initiative, he said, “has to do with research and telling stories; seeing what is working for communities … to solve these problems around making sure everyone has high quality Internet access, and they can use it. Every few years, I feel like we change our focus a little bit just based on what is needed. And the way that we do that is, we are constantly talking with people that are out doing the hard work,” Christopher explained.
And while the focus of the CBN team has been on research and publishing stories about the birth and development of publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks across the nation, Christopher noted that ILSR “is not pro municipal network, necessarily.”
New Study: Digital Equity Requires Local Solutions
Caroline Stratton, Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Florida, has published a new article looking at the digital equity plans of four major U.S. cities with the aim of seeing how policy makers understand the genesis of digital inequity in their cities and how they frame solutions for addressing it. She does so with the hopes of offering recommendations for other cities that will undertake these types of efforts in the near future. To do so, “Planning to Maintain the Status Quo? A Comparative Study of Digital Equity Plans of Four Large US Cities” looks at recent-ish plans published in Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, Kansas City, Missouri, and San Francisco, California.
The first third of the study includes a lot about meaning-making and the social construction of understandings of digital inequity that readers can skip without missing the bread and butter of the piece (which begins on page 51). After that, Stratton highlights a few important points that will be useful for cities embarking on digital equity work for the first time.
A Broken Marketplace Requires Community Solutions
First, she says, an understanding of digital inequity doesn’t offer much chance for change without being accompanied by a vision for solving it. Second, better city plans had larger and more inclusive coalitions from the outset, and were tapped into a variety of constituencies that represented a broader swath of lived experiences in these cities. Third, successful plans relied on the advice and participation of nonprofits, libraries, and other trusted community anchor institutions.
Importantly, Stratton shows that even though “ISPs’ profit-seeking motive may dictate why particular communities lack Internet service entirely, or service that is high-quality and affordable . . . they are spared scrutiny in plans” in many cases. More than 80 million Americans live in areas with a functional broadband monopoly.
The study also points to the reality that digital equity advocates have been describing for decades - that there are a host of other inequities that perpetuate the digital divide.
Apply for AARP's Community Challenge Grant Program
AARP has announced the latest round of its Community Challenge Grant Program, an effort to direct funding towards building more resilient, livable, equitable communities around the country. Applications for the current round are due March 22nd at 5pm ET.
Part of the AARP's Livable Communities initiative, this is the sixth iteration of the grant program, which led to the funding of more than $9 million in projects across 800 grants to nonprofits and local governments in rural, urban, and suburban areas. This includes everything from improved city infrastructure, to trainings, to new volunteer programs, to the support of local cultural and art initiatives.
Watch a video of the announcement below, or visit here to learn more.
In Missoula, Montana, a Wireless Mesh Network Builds Community and Connections
A year after a group of local broadband champions got together to see how they could improve Internet access in Missoula, Montana, the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative has successfully raised funds and designed, deployed, and launched a wireless mesh network delivering 150 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service to more than 50 of 550 pre-registered households for, on average, $40-60/month. The community-owned option has injected some welcome competition to a stagnant local broadband market, with a second network already in the planning stages in a community to the north.
Both efforts are being driven by the Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance (PNWRBA), a Missoula, Montana-based nonprofit aiming to build resiliency, local capacity, and expand quality Internet access to the region by making use of a variety of community-oriented business models. The nonprofit serves not only to coordinate grassroots organizing efforts, but provide technical assistance and lead policy engagement with local leaders. It is running a dual mission. First, to bring faster and more affordable Internet access via a community-owned model to the area. And second, to prove out a series of models in the region with the hopes of generating additional community-based approaches to improving broadband in the region and beyond.
Ideas for a New New York
Happy new year everyone!
We're still on hiatus here until Monday, but Annie McDonough, a tech and policy reporter at City & State, released a piece recently worth reading about the work we have to do in framing a post-Covid 19 policy future. It collects the results of conversations with "urban planning and policy experts, health care and environmental advocates, and local and state lawmakers about the bold steps they’d like to see taken in New York."
She frames the discussion:
[A]s the country begins the massive work of vaccinating people, we’re starting to imagine what life looks like on the other side of the pandemic. Do we revert to the status quo? Do we attempt to chip away at those long-standing inequalities with some version of the solutions we’ve tried before? Or do we use this crisis as an excuse to take big, ambitious swings?
"New York," the piece says those experts collectively argue, "should use this moment to pursue bold policy ideas that not only aid our recovery, but ensure that in a future crisis, all New Yorkers are protected from the worst effects witnessed in the past eight months."
Municipal broadband sits first on the list of the five ideas covered in the piece (the others being single-payer healthcare, radically more friendly multi-modal transportation, the end of exclusionary zoning, and a universal basic income) that McDonough offers as a result of those discussions. Among them, it has arguably both the strongest track record of existing success stories in the Unites States as well as deep support from a wide collection of diverse interest groups.
Head over to City and State to read the whole piece, stay healthy, and we'll see you back in the office next week.
Something for Everyone at Broadband Communities' 2020 Annual Summit
Another year of the Broadband Communities annual summit is behind us, and it’s worth revisiting the most salient moments from the panels that touched on the wealth and variety of issues related to community broadband regulation, financing, and expansion today and in the future. We weren’t able to make it to every panel, but read on for the highlights.
Last Mile Infrastructure and the Limits of CARES Funding
The first day of the program saw some heavyweight sessions from Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) on last mile digital infrastructure. For communities at all stages of broadband exploration and investment — whether exploring an initial feasibility study, putting together an RFP, or already planning for the future by laying conduit as part of other projects — partnerships dominated the discussion, with timing and debt also serving as common themes.
ILSR’s Christopher Mitchel helped kick off the conference by moderating the first panel in the Rural/Editor's Choice track, and was joined by Peggy Schaffer from Maine's Broadband Office (ConnectME), Monica Webb from Internet Service Provider (ISP) Ting, and Roger Timmerman, CEO of Utah middle-mile network UTOPIA Fiber.
The group discussed the open access models to start, and the benefits that could be realized from two- or three-layer systems. UTOPIA Fiber has seen some explosive growth and spearheaded significant innovation recently as it continues to provide wholesale service to ISPs that want to deliver retail service on the network. Ting, which recently signed on to be one of two providers on SiFi Network’s first FiberCity in Fullerton, California, also acts as an example of what can happen when we break away from thinking about infrastructure investment and Internet access as one-entity-doing-it-all.
How San Rafael, California Built a Neighborhood Mesh Network That Turned into Something More
Marin County and the city of San Rafael, California, are demonstrating what happens when local government, a community nonprofit, and generous stakeholders come together to do something right. Over the summer they’ve built a Wi-Fi mesh network in the city’s Canal neighborhood to connect over 2,000 students and their families in anticipation of the upcoming school year. How the project unfolded shows what a thoughtful, committed group of people can do to respond to a public health crisis, close the digital divide, and make a long-term commitment to the vulnerable communities around them.
A Neighborhood in Need
The Canal neighborhood (pop. 12,000) was founded in the 1950s and sits in the southeast corner of Marin County, bounded by the San Francisco Bay to the east, the city of San Quentin to the south, China Camp State Park to the north, and the Mount Tamalpais Watershed to the west. It’s split down the middle by Highway 101 and Interstate 580.
Canal is populated by predominantly low-income workers, and remains one of the most densely settled areas in Marin County — one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. Its residents serve, according to San Rafael Director of Digital Services and Open Government Rebecca Woodbury, as the backbone of the area’s service economy. Those who live there are mostly Latinx residents, with a small but significant segment who identify as Vietnamese. A 2015 study highlighted the challenges the community faces. Its population grew by half between 1990 and 2013, while available housing units grew by just 15%. During the same period, median household income shrunk by nearly a third, and unemployment remains twice as high in Canal than in the rest of Marin. It suffers from the largest education disparity in the entire state. It’s also among the hardest hit in the community by the coronavirus pandemic: the Latinx population in Canal accounts for just 16% of Marin County but 71% of cases so far.
How One City Came Together to Provide Free Broadband To Those Who Needed It Most - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 425
This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Jill Levine, Chief of Innovation and Choice at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Evan Freeman, Director of Government Relations at the city’s municipal electric and fiber utility, EPB, and Deb Socia, President of the Enterprise Center.
Together, the group discusses the recent landmark announcement by Hamilton County Schools of HCS EdConnect, in which the schools, local government, EPB, and local stakeholders and philanthropic organizations have come together and made it possible to connect all school children on free or reduced lunch programs in the district to free 100 Mbps symmetrical Internet access for the next ten years. The initiative will include not only 32,000 students but their families as well, and is the first of its kind in the United States — a success story at using a city-wide network to bridge the digital divide for economically disadvantaged students, and a decisive move to respond to unequal Internet access during a worldwide public health crisis.
Jill, Evan, and Deb discuss the challenges of setting up the partnerships that made it happen, overcoming obstacles — including dealing with tens of thousands of new customers with unique skills and needs — and how they managed to pull it off.
This show is 31 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Pilot Project Brings Telehealth to Barbershops and Salons for Hypertension Screening
Community anchor institutions like public libraries, schools, and government buildings have long served as backbones for initiatives to better connect communities and in doing so open up a world of possibilities that come with Internet access. Add to that list barbershops and salons, because one project is combining robust broadband and hypertension screenings to achieve better health outcomes for communities in urban areas around the country.
The project was conceived last winter by Craig Settles, who’s been working with public and private groups to advance community broadband efforts for more than a decade. At (eventually) ten locations in places like Cleveland, Wilson County, North Carolina, Chicago, and Denver, Settles is leading an effort to bring hypertension screening to urban areas by partnering with barbershops and salons. The aim is to leverage all of the unique characteristics of these businesses — including their strong community ties, their place as a social hub, the trust they hold with their customers, and the regularity with which they see them — to pioneer early detection and eventually ongoing treatment of high blood pressure and the constellation of associated complications (like coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart failure) that go with it. It's a problem that disproportionately affects the African American population.
Settles told one news outlet:
Many hair dressers and barbers see their customers every other week or so, and shops and salons are tight communities. It’s noticeable when someone disappears and you find out later that the person is disabled by a stroke, or has died from a heart attack.
Old Idea, New Twist
Chattanooga Uses Municipal Broadband to Connect Students in Historic Announcement
Yesterday in an announcement via livestream, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools, and the fiber arm of municipal utility Electric Power Board (EPB) announced a partnership to provide free Internet access and hardware to the 17,700 homes with school children on free or reduced lunch programs in the county. Called HCS EdConnect, the initiative will be the first of its kind in the United States — a success story at using a city-wide network to bridge the digital divide for economically disadvantaged students, and a decisive move to respond to unequal Internet access during a worldwide public health crisis.
Creative Thinking and Public-Private Partnerships
This is a watershed moment for the city of Chattanooga and its residents. It’s the result of hard work by a coalition of public and private partners, including the city, the school district, EPB, area nonprofit The Enterprise Center, and a host of others. Once completed, the program will connect more than 32,000 students. Those households who already received EPB’s low-cost service (called NetBridge) will be eligible for the program as well, and the group is looking at ways to connect the hundred or so homes currently not in EPB’s service area. A goal of early January has been set.
In total, the connection effort will cost $8.2 million to complete, with $6 million already raised. $1 million each has been contributed by Hamilton County Schools, the Smart City Collaborative, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee. The county and the city of Chattanooga have likewise chipped in $1.5 million.
"Thanks to support, all children in Hamilton County will have tools and the opportunity they need to engage in equitable learning," said Deb Socia, CEO, The Enterprise Center