Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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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the many struggles that rural households face now that jobs, schools, and everything else has moved online and their outdated broadband connections can’t keep up.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.
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. (April 24, 2020) - The Federal Communications Commission has concluded that broadband is being deployed “on a reasonable and timely basis” across America.
The FCC has admitted on many occasions that it does not know who has broadband or where it is available. Congress has told the FCC to fix its failed data collection. States have had to develop their own approaches because they cannot rely on the FCC’s deployment data. Georgia found that the FCC massively overestimates rural broadband availability.
In relation to the data collection used to justify its conclusion, FCC Commissioners have said the following things:
Chairman Pai: “It’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
Commissioner O’Rielly: “I appreciate the hard work that went into this item to fix the Commission’s broken mapping process.”
Commissioner Carr: “The FCC created the form almost 20 years ago to assess local voice competition and collect data on advanced telecommunications. Back then, less than half of Americans had Internet access at home, and almost all of those were on dial-up. Yet today, we’re still using substantially the same form to assess the deployment of networks that weren’t imagined at the time of the FCC’s 2000 Data Collection Order.”
The following comments can be attributed to Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
The FCC does not know how many Americans can access broadband. It has failed at one of its most basic tasks.
Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, recently appeared on Broadband Breakfast Live Online on March 31 to discuss the impacts of the pandemic in the broadband sector.
Along with Christopher, the panel discussion was joined by host Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher at Broadband Breakfast, Gigi Sohn from Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, and Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of SiFi Networks. The panelists explained policies to support universal broadband access, shared issues with telehealth, and suggested short-term solutions to bridge the homework gap.
Here is an excerpt from Christopher’s discussion with Broadband Breakfast:
I think that the school backbone networks can be helpful right now. We need any fiber available to immediately bring high-quality Wi-Fi to parking lots so that people can access networks right now, perhaps with a heater on and soon with an AC on. I feel like that is the major priority of what we are seeing in terms of the reactions. In the longer term, to actually make sure everyone is connected with the high-quality network, I think those school networks in some cases will be useful. Certainly, in municipal networks we've long seen sharing of cost. So if you are opening a trench to put in a school network, you should put in other conduit or fiber for other usage. A lot of municipal networks have benefited from the shared cost. So that is just a good standard practice.
Watch their full conversation below or on Broadband Breakfast.
Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, wrote an op-ed that the Orlando Sentinel published on March 5, 2020. Katie wrote about how lobbying from the big wireless companies at the state legislature restricts local communities from making their own decisions. She also touched on the importance of protecting local authority to allow communities to have their own right to make decisions.
Here is the full piece:
Imagine moving into a new home. One of the reasons you chose this house was the view from your daughter’s bedroom of the park across the street, a nice change from the alleyway her room overlooked in your old apartment.
Then, days after unpacking the last pair of socks, a set of ugly, bulky boxes appear on the street light right in front of your daughter’s window, blocking the view almost entirely. You contact your council representative only to find out that it’s a new wireless “small” cell and despite being on city property, state law prevents them from doing anything. Their hands, you’re informed, are tied.
This story is playing out again and again in communities across Florida as companies like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile stumble over each other to build out next generation 5G wireless infrastructure. In their haste, wireless providers are slapping up poles and equipment often without concern for the impact on local communities, affecting aesthetics and straining city resources.
A municipality typically has the authority to prevent or at least address this kind of local nuisance. But in Florida, there’s little recourse for the communities and families harmed by indiscriminate 5G construction. As a result of lobbying from the big wireless companies, state law limits the ability of local governments to collaborate with wireless providers over the placement and appearance of small cell wireless facilities. It also shortens the permitting process for new wireless installations and caps or eliminates the fees that cities can charge companies like AT&T to use public property.
These industry-backed blanket regulations ignore the unique needs and values of different communities, limiting local control over neighborhood appearance, undermining digital equity efforts, and threatening public accountability.
On February 17, Christopher Mitchell spoke on WPR's "Central Time" about the need for broadband access in unserved areas and how communities have taken a different approach to increase reliable and affordable Internet access.
The discussion also touches on funding programs, which is an important factor for local providers to expand broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
Here is an excerpt from Christopher's interview with WPR:
The issue with the city is a little bit deceiving because you may have real competition between three to four providers in some parts of a city, and in other parts, you might just have a cable monopoly where no one else is investing. I think we are going to see major issues in cities in the coming decade still. It's not something that will be resolved by 2030, I don't think. We may actually solve rural broadband problem faster than we bring real choice to everyone in the city.
Listen to the interview on WPR.
Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, recently appeared on Marketplace Tech to discuss security concerns around Chinese equipment used in many rural broadband networks.
Christopher explained why this equipment has become so ubiquitous, details some of the potential security issues, and talks about how proposals to remove and replace the equipment might affect networks. In response to a question about how this will impact consumers, Christopher said:
In rural areas, where we’re seeing this gear being used, effectively, the Chinese had been subsidizing rural deployment in the United States because they were charging such low rates for the gear, it allowed the rural wireless providers to get out there and to go further than they otherwise would be able to. If we don’t do anything to pick up that slack, then we will see broadband expanded more slowly across rural areas. This would also be an opportunity to revisit our programs to make sure that we’re investing sufficiently in rural broadband from the American government and not just taking advantage of Chinese trade policy.
In a letter to the editor published on Oct. 18th at Cleveland.com, Katie Kienbaum, researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussed the benefits a municipal broadband network could bring to Cleveland Heights. She also refuted an earlier piece that cited faulty data in order to claim most municipal networks are failures.
Read her piece below:
Robert Schwab’s opinion piece from Oct. 13 misconstrued the viability of municipal broadband and ignored the many opportunities it could offer Cleveland Heights.
Contrary to Schwab’s claims, most publicly owned networks have succeeded. As support for his argument, Schwab cited a discredited study from the University of Pennsylvania that was thoroughly debunked by my colleagues at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in the report Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies.
Though there are a few notable failures, the vast majority of municipal broadband networks have achieved the goals set by the communities they serve. The city-owned network in nearby Fairlawn, for example, has found great success since it launched a few years ago. PCMag ranks the network as one of the 10 fastest providers in the country, and more than half the community chooses it over companies like AT&T and Charter Spectrum.
Building a publicly owned network in Cleveland Heights would pressure the incumbents to not only lower prices, but also improve customer service and make infrastructure investments. It would enable Cleveland Heights to invest in smart technologies and to ensure net neutrality, privacy protections and digital equity for its residents.
Past accusations that AT&T digitally redlined low-income communities in Cleveland underline the importance of these guarantees.
Thankfully, city officials are moving forward with a feasibility study, so they don’t have to rely on a debunked academic study when deciding whether municipal broadband is right for Cleveland Heights.
On Oct. 21, 2019, The American Conservative published a piece written by Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Christopher discusses broadband preemption and the importance of localities being able to pursue the broadband solution that best fits their needs. Read excerpts from his piece below:
When first presented with the idea of a city-run network, [Joey] 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.
Preemption is when the federal government or states preclude lower levels of government from enacting certain laws. The recent rise of conservative legislatures has actually led to more cases in which states are preempting localities—from plastic bag bans and minimum wage hikes, to sick time ordinances and tougher gun laws. In many, but not all cases, these are conservative legislatures preempting more liberal city laws.
Today, 19 states have laws that discourage municipal networks—ranging from outright prohibitions to sneaky de facto prohibitions and procedural challenges.
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. (October 10, 2019) - The Blandin Foundation, an organization dedicated to strengthening rural Minnesota, awarded Christopher Mitchell with a Blandin Foundation Courageous Leadership Award at their 2019 Broadband Conference. The award celebrates acts of leadership that have significantly contributed to the vibrancy and livability of rural Minnesota communities. Christopher directs the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).
For more than a decade, Christopher has led a team focused on researching and creating resources about community broadband networks. He’s worked with local leaders, advocates, and engaged residents from hundreds of communities. By reporting on the successes of many different broadband models, such as municipal networks, cooperatives, and partnerships with local independent providers, the Community Broadband Networks initiative has helped communities across the country dramatically improve Internet access for residents and businesses. Christopher’s efforts have helped shift municipal broadband from a niche approach to a national movement.
High quality connectivity ensures the long-term success of communities by connecting residents to educational, health, and economic opportunities. Christopher Mitchell and ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative continue to be champions of a more equitable digital future.
“It is an honor for our work to be recognized by the Blandin Foundation, which has done so much for Greater Minnesota. Achieving the promise of Border-to-Border broadband Internet access requires contributions from everyone, especially communities themselves. We have always felt that Internet access — a service that education already depends upon and medicine soon will — needs much more local leadership. That leadership is what we have seen from the communities that are reaping the rewards of the best connectivity available today,” Christopher said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION and to schedule an interview with Christopher, call Jess Del Fiacco at 612-540-5997 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance
2720 E. 22nd Street
Minneapolis, MN 55406
An op-ed written by Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, was published in The Intelligencer. Katie addresses the inadequacy of satellite Internet access and why federal funding should go to real broadband solutions. Find the full piece below:
The digital divide is about to get much larger in rural Pennsylvania, and the federal government is bankrolling it.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, held a reverse auction that distributed approximately $1.5 billion to Internet access providers to connect underserved rural communities across the country. While this was an important step toward improving Internet access in many communities, in others it was a perverse step backwards — especially in Pennsylvania.
Rural communities desperately need better broadband to survive in the digital future. But instead of investing in high-quality networks that will allow rural families, farms and businesses to thrive, the FCC is burning millions on slow, unreliable satellite connectivity in Pennsylvania and 19 other states.
Nationally, the FCC awarded satellite company Viasat more than $120 million — including about $20 million for Pennsylvania — to provide internet access that most wouldn’t even consider broadband. Compared to other technologies, satellite has slower speeds, higher latency, much lower data caps and less reliability, all at higher prices. This low-quality connectivity makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks, like finding employment, accessing health care and finishing schoolwork.
It’s also all but impossible to run a business on satellite Internet access. As a result, most people resort to satellite internet access only when there are no other options available. Because of the technical limitations of satellite, it’s questionable whether Viasat will even be able to meet the modest quality standards established by the FCC.
It wasn’t inevitable that these communities got stuck with subsidized satellite. In the same auction, the FCC awarded $225 million to electric cooperatives, which will leverage the federal funding to deploy mostly gigabit-speed fiber, the fastest and most reliable broadband technology, in similarly rural areas.