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[Speech] Remarks of Gigi Sohn at the Community Broadband Action Network 2024 Spring Summit

Photo of a reel of conduit ready for installation.
Photo: Gigi Sohn speaks at Community Broadband Action Network 2024 Spring Summit

The Best of Times and The Worst of Times: The State of Public Broadband Today

The following remarks were delivered on April 9, 2024 at the Community Broadband Action Network 2024 Spring Summit by AAPB Executive Director Gigi Sohn.

Thank you, Curtis and Jon for inviting me to speak today. This is my first time in Iowa, and I am honored to be speaking in the state with the highest number of municipal broadband networks. I was looking forward to celebrating a national championship with you all today, and while obviously the result is not what you had hoped for, I’m sure you all are incredibly proud of your team and the poise and class with which they played.

Before I start, let me tell you a little about AAPB. We are a non-profit trade association representing broadband networks across the United States that are controlled by local communities and their residents. AAPB believes that communities should be free to choose the communications networks that best meet the needs of their residents. And that means promoting the growth of public broadband networks; defending against attacks; and ensuring that these networks are not disadvantaged from receiving state, local and federal broadband funding. And just to be clear, I’ll be using the terms public, community and municipal broadband interchangeably. What ties them all together is local ownership and control of the infrastructure.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times….” The opening line of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens could also accurately describe the current state of public broadband.

Let’s talk first about the best of times - Community broadband is 650 networks strong. 450 of those networks are owned by local communities and another 200 by co-operatives, which are owned by members of the local community. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, dozens more community networks are in the pipeline across the country. State barriers to public broadband are starting to fall and where they still exist, enterprising communities are working around them. While there are still 16 states that restrict community broadband, the Colorado state legislature repealed its restrictions nearly a year ago.

The number of individual successes is striking. While networks like Chattanooga EPB, Wilson, North Carolina Greenlight and LUS Fiber out of Lafayette, Louisiana, are still the North Stars for community networks, one no longer need rely on them to make the case that community broadband is a success. Here are just a few examples: SandyNet of Sandy, Oregon, population 11,000, started with DSL and then fixed wireless until 2014, when it built a fiber-to-the-home network. It was hoping for a 35% take rate in year 1 but had a 50% take rate. Today, that rate hovers around 70% for Gigabit symmetrical service that costs just $59.99.

Built in 2014, NextLight, Longmont Colorado’s city-owned network, topped PC Magazine’s Readers’ Choice rankings in 2023, which asked readers to rate their satisfaction with their residential broadband providers. The magazine noted that “NextLight's near-perfect scores, including an astronomic 9.9 for overall satisfaction, are unprecedented in the history of PCMag's surveys of ISPs.” NextLight’s current take rate is 64%, and it recently announced that it is going to expand its network beyond the city limits.

In 2019, Pharr Texas was named the worst-connected city in the nation by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. 5 years later, it is one of the best. Like many other communities, Pharr was spurred to build its own network when the COVID-19 pandemic forced residents to attend school, work and doctor’s appointments online. Using a combination of low interest bonds and American Rescue Plan funds, Pharr.Net now reaches 75% of the city, with the objective of reaching 100% by this summer. The city has prioritized reaching low-income communities and making their service affordable to all, with a $25-a-month 500 Mbps symmetrical service, a $50-a-month Gigabit symmetrical service, and an $80-month 2 Gigabit symmetrical service.

Then there is the great state of Iowa, and it bears repeating that you are home to the greatest number of municipal broadband networks – 29 to be exact. There are numerous successes here, including in Cedar Falls, Vinton, Pella, Waverly, Indianola and others, with more to come in Decorah, Waterloo, Fort Dodge and West Des Moines. Since it is a relatively unique model and the hometown of a certain very famous Iowa basketball player, I’ll highlight West Des Moines for a moment. “Plant the Speed” is the name of West Des Moines’ citywide open access conduit network that has partnered with G Fiber (formerly Google Fiber), Mediacom, Lumen and local ISP Mi-Fiber to provide last mile service to residents of the city. While the city originally proposed installing the drops from the network to the home, it changed course and the ISP of the resident’s choosing will now provide those connections.

What makes the West Des Moines network special for me is the city’s efforts at getting low-income households online. It has provided hot spots and public wi-fi as a bridge to those residents, with a goal of providing fiber to the home. The city offers a website that helps residents choose between providers and gives them plain English instructions for applying for the Affordable Connectivity Program, the $30 a month broadband subsidy provided by the Federal Communications Commission. For West Des Moines, digital equity isn’t an afterthought, it’s baked into the system.

If you want to see other examples of successful community broadband networks, I recommend AAPB’s recently published handbook called: Own Your Internet: How to Build a Public Broadband Network. The handbook is a plain language primer laying out the decisions a community must make, and the steps it must take, to build a public broadband network. We hope the handbook, along with a series of webinars that start on April 16, will encourage more communities to consider building their own networks.

I’ve given you just a snippet of the best of times. If you don’t know already, Christopher Mitchell and his colleagues at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance catalog every new, proposed and active community broadband build. I highly recommend signing up for his Community Networks Blog. ILSR also has the best map detailing where community broadband networks are, dividing them by business model and whether they are partial or complete.

Naturally, since public broadband networks are doing so well, incumbent telco and cable companies are doing whatever they can to stop their growth, and in some cases, reverse it. I started as Executive Director of AAPB last June, and in the 10 months since I started, I’ve helped efforts to thwart half a dozen attacks on community broadband. I also know that there have been several unsuccessful state efforts to deny public broadband networks funding from the Commerce Department’s Broadband Equity Access and Deployment or BEAD program. To the credit of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, many of these legislative efforts have been nipped in the bud. As the entity that will give states their BEAD funding, NTIA can be very persuasive in convincing these states that trying to block community broadband networks from receiving grant awards is ill-advised.

So the “worst of times” for community broadband consists, in part, of attacks ripped from the same playbook: an incumbent broadband provider, typically a cable company, pays an organization with an anodyne name that doesn’t have to reveal its donors to undermine a new or existing network by, for example, engaging in a press and media strategy to attack it, and/or trying to get signatures on a petition to place the question of the network’s existence on a ballot initiative.

The latter strategy was part of an attempt to stop Bountiful City, Utah from partnering with UTOPIA Fiber to build its own network this past summer. Not long after the City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the network, an organization called the Utah Taxpayers Association hired a group called Gather Utah to go door-to-door to gather signatures that would put the question to voters of whether the City should move forward with the network. The Gather Utah workers told residents that they were from the government, which was a lie, and that they supported the fiber project, which was also a lie.

Where does the Utah Taxpayers Association get its funding? As a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, it does not have to reveal its donors, and did not do so after being asked by the press. The UTA is what is known as a dark money organization – corporate donors can hide behind these nonprofits where, as here, it would be deadly to its cause to act in its own name. Residents surmised that UTAs funding came from one or both incumbent ISPs in the City – Comcast and Lumen. Lumen denied involvement. Comcast did not.

Construction on the Bountiful City network was supposed to start last July, but putting the already settled question of whether the community supported the public network on the November ballot would have cost the city millions of dollars and even if the community voted to move forward, would have delayed deployment by at least 8 months.

The city did not take this attack lying down. While Gather Utah was able to garner enough signatures on the petition to put the matter on the ballot, the city, through advertising and town halls, convinced enough people to take their names off the petition, and the effort failed. AAPB also raised a row in the press, including publishing an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune, and running a number of TV ads. But community support for the network was the deciding factor.

That attack was quickly followed by more attacks on UTOPIA Fiber and community broadband networks in Michigan, Virginia and Massachusetts. This time, the culprit was a group called the Domestic Policy Caucus, which attacked UTOPIA Fiber with numerous TV ads. In addition to its website, the organization has a separate project in Massachusetts called MassPriorities. Among other things, MassPriorities targeted a proposed public broadband network in Falmouth, Massachusetts that has not moved beyond the conceptual stage. After several residents expressed concern and AAPB put out a press statement questioning the Domestic Policy Caucus’ funding, the Falmouth Enterprise, a local newspaper, asked Christopher Thrasher, the head of MassPriorities where the Domestic Policy Caucus gets its funding. His answer was “I don’t have to tell you.” Comcast is the only ISP in Falmouth.

The Domestic Policy Caucus has been fairly quiet after AAPB pushed back with ads of its own in Utah and the Falmouth Enterprise and community residents expressed concern about MassPriorities and its lack of transparency. In February, I traveled to Falmouth and other parts of Cape Cod to talk about public broadband and the dark money attacks. Mr. Thrasher was invited to debate me, but he never responded.

There are two other recent attacks that deserve attention. The first, which Curtis alerted me to, is legislation introduced by a new Kentucky State Senator named Gex Williams to force the Frankfort Plant Board to sell its broadband network. The Plant Board has run a communications network of one kind or another since 1952 and has provided broadband service since 2021. I find it puzzling that the first thing a new State Senator would propose is legislation to force the sale of a successful public broadband network with a 65% take rate. It’s even more puzzling when you consider that the sale is opposed not only by the Plant Board, but also by just about every official in the city and the county. AAPB sent a letter to the Kentucky General Assembly urging them to reject Senator Williams’ bill and published an op-ed in several Kentucky newspapers requesting the same. The Plant Board and local officials are pulling out all the stops to beat back the legislation. The bill was passed out of a Senate committee by a 6-5 vote, but there is no companion bill in the House, and with the legislative session due to end in a week, the Frankfort broadband network will probably dodge a bullet this time. But there is little doubt that the bill will be introduced next year.

The second attack happened just about ten days ago. New York passed a law creating the Municipal Infrastructure Program, which provides grant funding for communities seeking to build locally owned and controlled broadband networks. According to ILSR, Charter Communications slipped language into the New York State Assembly’s budget bill that would mandate that the program’s funds would be available only to community broadband projects that seek to serve “unserved and underserved locations…,” rather than to any community that wants to choose local network ownership, which is what the state legislature intended. This anti-competitive and anti-consumer provision would ensure that no municipal network could compete with Charter or any other ISP. And needless to say, Charter would claim so much coverage that only a fraction of locations would be deemed unserved or underserved. Thankfully, the Senate budget bill doesn’t have this language and the governor opposes it. We will know very soon if the final budget includes this language.

In these and other examples, there are three main ingredients that make for an effective defense against the incumbents and the dark money organizations that are paid handsomely to foil public broadband.

  • First, and most importantly, leadership and doggedness from the proponents of the public network, including community leaders and residents. The local support that motivates a community to consider or build a public broadband network in the first place is the best defense against attacks. If you can get state and Congressional representatives to weigh in, all the better. And of course, AAPB will always be there to do what it can to raise the profile of these issues. But community support is paramount.

  • Second, media and press attention. The battles in Bountiful and Falmouth were won, in part, because the local media questioned the funding of the dark money organizations and promoted the notion that communities should have the freedom to choose which broadband network would best serve the needs of their residents. Kentucky's local and state press have also been key to delaying action on Senator Williams’ bill. The shrinking of local press throughout the country and the national press' disinterest in this issue makes this strategy much harder. Supporters may have to turn to paid media like Facebook and TV and radio ads to supplement or replace this coverage.

  • Third, pushing back forcefully on the tired arguments made by incumbents and their surrogates. Opponents of public broadband typically make 3 arguments. First, that all community networks are failures. Second, that they are a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used to build bridges and roads and strengthen schools. And third, that it is unfair for the “private” sector to compete against the government.

Let me take those in turn—first, the failures. Almost every example opponents of public broadband cite is about two decades old and taken from a University of Pennsylvania Law School study funded by the cable industry. Were there public broadband failures then? Yes, when demand for broadband was low, and equipment prices were high. Today, however, with the demand for broadband skyrocketing and equipment and other costs much lower, public broadband failures are few and far between. And of course, private networks fail too. Does anybody remember Adelphia? But the best defense against the “failure” argument are the numerous success stories.

Second, many public broadband networks are built not with taxpayer dollars, but with municipal bonds and other alternative means of financing, like loans from enterprise funds or grants from government and philanthropy. Regardless, given the centrality of broadband to full participation in our society, our economy, our education and health care systems and our civic life, local policymakers have every right to prioritize broadband. Like roads and bridges, broadband is infrastructure.

Finally, I can only laugh at the argument that incumbents are completely free market actors competing with the public sector. Anybody want to guess how much money Charter has taken from the federal government for the Affordable Connectivity Program? More than $3 billion. And it, Comcast, AT&T and other ISPs will be seeking billions more from the BEAD program. So, the argument that they shouldn’t be forced to compete with the public sector while taking billions of taxpayer dollars doesn’t pass the red-face test.

Proponents of community broadband networks have so far been successful in beating back these recent attacks, which is something to celebrate. But the negative effects still linger – efforts to slow or stop public broadband bills can be very costly, both in time and money. And worst of all, the inevitable attacks serve to discourage other communities from choosing public broadband, even if it would be the far better choice for their residents. The Mayor of a mid-sized city recently confessed to me that he was doing everything in his power to hide the city’s interest in owning a network because he knew that it would lead to an intense lobbying and pressure campaign by the incumbent cable operator. The city is still moving forward, but many communities might not be willing to deal with that kind of pressure, and trust me, I know from my own nomination process that it can be extremely unpleasant.

That’s why AAPB is on a mission to double the number of households served by public broadband networks in the next five years. Without a doubt, there is strength in numbers, and despite their enormous resources, the greater the number of successful public broadband networks, the harder it will be for big incumbents to beat them back. We want to give people the tools they need both to consider and move forward on owning their own broadband infrastructure. And we want to provide a robust defense for doing so – including ensuring that public broadband networks are not disadvantaged from receiving state, local and federal funding.

I hope you will consider joining AAPB so we can continue the “best of times” for public broadband, while at the same time severely limiting the “worst of times.” Thank you.


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