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[Speech] The Art of the Possible at Eco-Bytes in San Antonio

Photo of a reel of conduit ready for installation.

On June 27, 2024, Gigi Sohn spoke at the Eco-Bytes: Weaving the Digital Opportunity Web Conference in San Antonio, Texas:

Good afternoon! Thank you, Molly and DeAnne for inviting me to speak today. This is my first time in San Antonio, and I’m incredibly impressed by its beauty and diversity. The heat on the other hand…. Did anybody read about the genius in Washington, DC who recently built a wax sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and thought that putting it in a park under trees would save it from the 90-degree heat? Let’s just say that Abe is half the man he used to be.

Before I start, let me tell you a little about the American Association for Public Broadband. We are a one-year-old non-profit membership association representing broadband networks across the United States that are owned 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 there should be no legal, economic or political barriers to them doing so.

I’m here today to urge you – city officials, business leaders, educators, digital equity advocates and city residents – to consider moving forward on building a city-wide, city owned broadband network. I was asked by a Texas Public Radio reporter a few days ago whether now was the right time, and I said – it’s past time. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it was that affordable, high speed broadband Internet access is essential for full participation in our society, our economy, our education and health care systems and our democracy. Access to broadband is not a technical issue, it’s a social and economic justice issue.

The vast majority of residents of Bexar County – 96%--have a broadband network available to them, according to a 2023 digital inclusion study. Regardless, that same study showed that 18% of County residents don’t have a home broadband connection, and 55% of those with connections rely on mobile hotspots, which are much slower than fixed broadband. The vast majority of those over 370,000 unconnected are low-income residents and people of color, and in a significant number of zip codes, mostly to the south and east, 37% or more of residents have no home broadband connection. With average monthly broadband bills of between $50-$100, this should come as no surprise to anyone. Indeed, while privacy concerns and general lack of interest in using the Internet were cited as reasons for lack of connectivity, the price of access and devices was cited as the number one cause. Just imagine the reaction if people learned that 370,000 residents of the county had no electricity or water. They would be outraged.

Neither the federal government nor private broadband providers will fill this gap. In 2021, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure law that included $14.2 billion for a $30 monthly broadband subsidy program for low-income households. That program, called the Affordable Connectivity Program, benefitted over 23 million households nationwide, including 122,000 in Bexar County and a whopping 1.7 million in the State of Texas. But the program has run out of money, and this Congress seems incapable of extending it. And while the Federal Communications Commission has the power to create its own robust broadband subsidy, its current leadership has shown no inclination to do so.

Most of the nation’s largest broadband providers, including those who serve San Antonio, offer decent $30 broadband offerings that made a connection costless, but they’ve only promised to extend those offerings until the end of the year, and they haven’t promised that they’ll be free.

This is why San Antonio must take matters into its own hands. And there are models to emulate, including in Pharr, a border town in Hidalgo County. In 2019, Pharr was named the worst-connected city in the nation by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. 5 years later, it’s one of the best. Using a combination of low interest bonds and American Rescue Plan funds, Pharr.Net now reaches 90% of the city, with the objective of reaching 100% 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. If you want to read about other examples of successful community broadband networks, I recommend AAPB and the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society’s recently published handbook called: Own Your Internet: How to Build a Public Broadband Network.

I do understand the hesitation, however. I’ve spent the past year travelling across the country, speaking to communities that are considering building public broadband networks. The three main concerns I hear from community leaders are: 1) the cost 2) they don’t know how or want to run a broadband network and 3) the inevitable attacks from incumbent broadband providers. Let me address each of these briefly:

  1. Cost

I’m not going to lie – building a broadband network, especially a fiber network, is expensive. This past February I visited a city of 35,000 people in Cape Cod that was given a price tag of $55 million to build a fiber broadband network several years ago – and it’s likely higher now. A community fiber build in Colorado Springs, with a population of nearly half a million people, cost $600 million, but some of that cost could be attributed to the geographic challenges of building in the mountains.

While the upfront costs seem daunting, a well-run community network will eventually pay for itself and then some. And not only does a community broadband network provide businesses, community anchor institutions and residents robust and affordable connectivity, it can power smart city applications that, among other things, enable vehicle traffic management, public safety and weather condition monitoring, waste management, and power grid optimization. These applications can save cities hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

2. Building and running a network

Another concern I hear from community leaders is that they don’t want the city to be an ISP – they don’t have the technical, marketing or customer service expertise to do so. The good news is that there are numerous companies that will do everything from feasibility studies to mapping to design to construction to marketing to operations. The first generation of community networks, like Chattanooga EPB in Tennessee, and LUS Fiber in Lafayette Louisiana, were add-ons to existing municipal electric and water utilities. Cities like Pharr and Fairlawn Ohio, which own and operate their broadband networks, are still coming online, but they are more the exception than the rule. Today, many cities and towns partner with private companies to build and operate the network while owning the infrastructure and setting the rules for what technology the network will use, where the network will be deployed, and at what price.

3. Attacks by Incumbents

If there is a big incumbent broadband provider operating in a community, even if they aren’t serving everyone, they will do whatever is in their power to throw a monkey wrench into the plans to build a community network. You can take that to the bank.

But the incumbents are too smart to oppose a community network in their own name. Their playbook is simple and has been replicated across the country: pay an organization with an anodyne name - like the Alliance for Quality Broadband or the Domestic Policy Caucus - 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 after community leaders have already voted to move forward.

The good news is that with strong community support and political leadership, local press willing to ask tough questions about who funds these dark money organizations, and strong answers to the same tired arguments incumbents have been making for over two decades, these attacks can be defeated. In the past year alone, local communities, with AAPB’s help, successfully beat back attacks in Utah, California, Kentucky, New York, Massachusetts and Michigan. Should San Antonio move forward, we’ll be there, on the front lines, pushing back.

I know that San Antonio has been thinking of building a community network for many years – I have a distinct recollection of speaking about it with Mayor Nirenberg when he was a city council member, and I was working for then Chairman Wheeler at the FCC. I’ll close with where I started – the time for the city to own its future is now. The city can do it; AAPB and I will be right by your side to help; and the network will pay dividends for many decades to come. Thank you.




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