Local communities continue to search for ways to tackle the digital divide and in San Francisco, the city is making strides by working with a local Internet access company. The City by the Bay and ISP Monkeybrains have adopted a new model to bring high-quality connectivity to residents in public housing. The approach not only creates new opportunities for people who were once denied economic and educational opportunities, but does so in a way that is financially self-sustaining. With modest maintenance and start-up costs, Monkeybrains and San Francisco has found a way to bring the same high-speed Internet access to low-income households at an affordable rate. Read our new report, A Public Housing Digital Inclusion Blueprint: Monkeybrains and San Francisco Deliver a Sustainable Gig, to learn how the partners found a way to shrink the digital divide in public housing facilities.
A few national ISPs offer programs for households considered low-income, but those services only offer slow and typically unreliable connections. The program that Monkeybrains and San Francisco has created provides high-speed Internet access to public housing units at no cost to the end user. In some cases, the ISP does receive a monthly payment of $10 per unit from building management. No matter what, each user receives the same level of customer service and support as those who pay standard monthly rates. From the beginning, the goal was to bring the same level of service to subscribers in public housing as Monkeybrains subscribers throughout the city.
We spoke with Preston Rhea and Mason Carroll from Monkeybrains back in 2017, when we first learned about the plan, which was still being developed. You can listen to episode 264 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to understand the early challenges Monkeybrains faced.
You can also listen to Christopher’s conversation with co-author Hannah Rank about the report. The two sat down when they began to work on the case study to discuss the project for episode 319 of the podcast.
Lessons for More Communities
Every community, regardless of population, must contend with digital inequity. As local communities continue to recognize all residents’ need for high-quality Internet access, models such as the approach developed by Monkeybrains and San Francisco spark further innovation.
“These households need Internet access to search for jobs, improve their education, access government services, and for many other reasons common to modern living. Monkeybrains’ work in San Francisco shows how smart one time investments in public housing can guarantee high-quality access to all in public housing.”
Bipartisan Bills Introduced to Correct Tax Law Hindering Rural Co-op Broadband
Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks.
Addressing Legal Ambiguity
As we explained last year, a tax policy change included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act carelessly put rural co-ops at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they accepted government funding for broadband projects or disaster relief, among other things. Traditionally, these government grants were excluded from the requirement that electric and telephone cooperatives obtain at least 85 percent of their income from members (often referred to as the member income test) to maintain their tax exemption. The 2017 law threatened this precedent by changing the tax code so that “any contribution by any governmental entity or civic group” is now included in a corporation’s gross income. This has made some co-ops hesitant to apply for programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Pilot Program for fear of jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
To end the legal uncertainty that electric and telephone co-ops are now facing, the RURAL Act would explicitly exclude government funding for broadband infrastructure and other important investments from the member income test. Specifically, the bill would exclude the following funding sources from a co-op’s gross income for the purposes of determining tax-exempt status:
“any grant, contribution, or assistance provided pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act or any similar grant, contribution, or assistance by any local, State, or regional governmental entity for the purpose of relief, recovery, or restoration from, or preparation for, a disaster or emergency” or “any grant or contribution by any governmental entity . . . the purpose of which is substantially related to providing, constructing, restoring, or relocating electric, communication, broadband, internet, or other utility facilities or services.”
The two bills are currently in the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee.
Rural Broadband a Bipartisan Issue
Republicans and Democrats united to introduce the RURAL Act in a show of bipartisan support for better rural connectivity. In a press release announcing the new legislation, Senator Smith stated:
“These bipartisan bills are good for people in rural Minnesota, rural Ohio, rural Wyoming—and rural communities across the country. Democrats and Republicans alike supporting efforts to allow rural broadband to keep expanding . . . shows what we can accomplish when we come together with commonsense fixes to make life better for Americans.”
Express Your Support for Community Networks With This Constituent Letter
If you believe that publicly owned Internet networks are one of the tools that can help in efforts to expand fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to people in your state, and you want to share your thoughts with elected officials, use this language to get started. There may not be a project being developed in your area or a specific bill that you support, but you know that you want decision makers to vote favorably on measures that advance policies and financially support local authority and communities’ efforts to improve local connectivity through publicly owned broadband infrastructure. We’ve created a brief constituent letter/email that you can use to get started in drafting correspondence to state and federal lawmakers that convey your support for publicly owned Internet networks and local authority.
Keep It Simple, Keep It Effective
State and federal legislators typically serve on multiple committees and, as a result, their time spent on each issue is often limited. In order to encourage them to digest your full letter, stating your thoughts in a brief letter or email is often the most effective. Being direct, polite, and supportive goes along way with Representatives, Senators, and their staff.
You can include examples from your own state or from other places to help politicians and their staff learn more about the advantages of community broadband networks. Large national Internet access companies spend millions each year to employ lobbyists who spread negative misinformation about publicly owned broadband networks. You can help balance those efforts by sharing some of the positive results. Use our Municipal FTTH Networks page, the Economic Development page, search a specific state on MuniNetworks.org, or click on one of the pins on the Community Network Map to find a sample network.
If you live in one of the 20 states where restrictions are in place that legally discourage or prevent communities from investing in publicly owned infrastructure, you can mention your state’s restriction in your letter and encourage your elected officials to work toward removing it. You can check out our Community Network Map and select the “States with Barriers” tool. Click anywhere within the red on the state and a box will pop-up with a short explanation that describes the limitation and a citation to the specific law. Insert the information with the letter.
We also encourage you to use your own experiences to personalize your letter. If you live in a place where you already have access to the Internet via a community network, you can share the benefits. If you wish you had better connectivity, explain why.
Improving access to broadband, especially in rural areas, is quickly becoming an issue that elected officials are moving front and center as they reach out to voters. This letter is crafted to state elected officials, but the language can also be worked for contact with your representatives at other levels of government. We encourage you to make changes that reflect your own style and to share it will other people who also want to express their support for community broadband.
You can find information on your elected officials with this look-up tool from Common Cause.
Dear [REP/SEN NAME],
As your constituent, I am writing to ask you to support community broadband networks, including municipal networks and other publicly owned networks, as a solution to inadequate Internet access in our state.
Community broadband networks, such as [EXAMPLE(S) FROM STATE], bring affordable, high-quality Internet access to residents, encourage market competition, and enable local economic development. Publicly owned broadband networks can also reduce costs for local government buildings, schools, and libraries. Also, because they are run locally, not by a company headquartered in a different state, subscribers can hold community owned networks accountable.
Unfortunately, [STATE RESTRICTION — e.g., “Tennessee state law prevents municipal networks from extending beyond their electric service territory”]. This restriction keeps affordable, reliable, and fast broadband out of reach for far too many of our state’s citizens [OR “Tennesseans,” “Idahoan,” etc.] We should be able to make these decisions locally.
I ask you to remember the many benefits of publicly owned broadband networks when developing new legislation and that you vote to support local communities’ ability to solve their own connectivity needs. In addition to removing state laws that discourage community networks, it’s important that you support proposals to help local governments fund planning and deployment of broadband networks.
As your constituent and a voter, I consider this issue a priority.
Thank you for your time and your service.