The conversation between Christopher and Susan is one of our best podcasts. They touch on technology, competition, and how we’ve come to the point when local communities are leading the charge to bring high-quality Internet access to their residents and businesses. Susan shares some of the stories she encountered — both favorable and not so favorable — of places where local leaders are either working to hard to put broadband infrastructure in place or barely moving the dial on getting their communities better connected.
She’s travelled all across the world to learn about how other countries approach fiber connectivity and how they’re reaping the benefits. Now, she wants to share some of those policies and ideas to help Americans realize that if we don’t adjust our mindset, we could miss out on fiber’s potential.
“Fiber” Freshens the Soul: Susan Crawford’s New Book Delivers More Than Data, Tue, January 22, 2019 | Posted by Christopher Mitchell
Susan Crawford has published the right book at the right time. Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — And Why America Might Miss It, makes a compelling case for local organizing around better Internet networks upon which the future will be written.
The book revolves around several communities that will be familiar to anyone following community networks – cities like Chattanooga and Wilson, many of whom are members of Next Century Cities. Even people with only a casual interest in how to achieve the best Internet access will recognize some of the community names in Susan’s latest book.
As someone who has tracked these networks closer than most, several of the anecdotes were new to me and sufficiently powerful that I – literally – had to restrain myself from cheering while finishing the book on a flight. So it works well both for someone unfamiliar with the technology or movement as well as for those of us who have worked from within it for many years.
Susan dives right into the tech and marries it to the purpose:
Those hair-thin fiber strands, capable of carrying billions of phone calls simultaneously, plus advanced wireless communications that depend on that fiber extending into the last mile, will make possible virtually unlimited, cheap communications capacity wherever you are—which in turn will give rise to new businesses, new transport capabilities, new ways of managing our use of energy, new forms of education and health care, new ways of earning a living, and new forms of human connectedness. For these things to happen, both fiber and advanced wireless technologies need to be widely and competitively available. Without these basic pieces of open infrastructure in place, your country will be missing out on the future being lived and built elsewhere.
Speaking of purpose, this next paragraph is the type of prose that I think sets Susan apart from other writers on these issues.
There is a fundamental link between the school’s abundance of data connectivity and its nontraditional educational model. Upper-level students these days don’t want to be talked at, but they do want to learn. Teachers can no longer hide facts—because everything can be found online—but they are still needed as coaches and mentors. An enormous amount of learning and mentoring goes on at the STEM school every day.
I love that phrasing that teachers cannot hide facts. Not out of any anti-teacher bias but because it recognizes how the Internet so significantly complicates what it means to be a teacher. I was one of the few kids in my high school on the Internet regularly in the mid 90’s and I remember how wide open, liberating, and yet intimidating it felt. Many teachers today must watch as some kids have unlimited access to unlimited information (for better and for worse) while others are squeezing in access from a park bench outside the library one night and a fast food restaurant the next if they are lucky enough to have the freedom and capacity to leave their unconnected home.
Then there are the anecdotes. We are just at the beginning of what unlimited Internet access can do. Susan artfully uses an example that many of us take for granted and that few of us would not link to better connectivity — dental care. One of the many factors external to school that, when it goes wrong, seriously harms the capacity of any student to learn.
A one-way use of fiber is already in place in the small town of Independence, Oregon, about an hour south of Portland. It’s a “store-and-forward” teledentistry program, possible only because Independence built a gigabit fiber network ten years ago. … Independence is a “poverty hot spot,” according to Linda Mann, director of community outreach for Capitol Dental Care. Few dental offices nearby will take Medicaid patients, and parents have to drive their children thirty miles for an office visit. As a result, many of the kids in Independence have never seen a dentist, and they all need preventive care. With a grant of $112,000 from the Oregon Office of Rural Health, the hygienists were able to go right into classrooms and cafeterias with a laptop, a portable X-ray unit, and a camera. Dentists in Portland could then see whether a particular child had a cavity; most of the children’s cavities could be treated at the school by the hygienists using “scoop-and-fill” procedures with fluoride-releasing fillings … A major consequence of the pilot is that the local dentist offices that do take Medicaid are freed up to provide restorative care rather than routine prevention.
Again, some smart government investment making markets more efficient and dramatically improving quality of life for local residents.
We have recognized Wilson’s muni fiber network Greenlight time and time again for its work to make the highest-quality Internet access available to low-income households. Susan reminds us how that changes lives.
Tiffany Cooper, an African American single mother of three teenage boys living in public housing in Wilson, could not wait to tell me how excited she is about having a city fiber connection to her unit. The $10 monthly price of her subscription is added to her rent bill. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said. Cooper is working several jobs. Already a certified nursing assistant, she’s been able to work toward certificates in medical technology and phlebotomy, all using the fiber connection that was turned on a few months before I met her. “And I’m not going to stop,” she told me. Her next online program will certify her to read electrocardiograms (EKGs). Before Cooper got her fiber connection at home, she had to go to the library to do her weekly homework assignments; the community college used Blackboard course management software that could be accessed only with a high-speed connection. And getting to the library was hard: “I don’t have any transportation,” she pointed out. Now she can look up new programs and participate online, from home. The best part, the really important part about having this connection at home, is that her sons’ grades have improved. “I noticed it and I couldn’t believe it!” she told me excitedly. Before she got fiber, “I was getting phone calls from teachers, and letters, because there were a lot of things they could not do at school because we didn’t have access to the internet.” She was emphatic: “Their education comes before anything.” The fiber connection “is doing a whole lot of good in our home.”
Getting it Wrong
When looking at the stirring successes of Chattanooga and Wilson, among many others, these projects may start to seem obvious and even easy. But Chattanooga and Wilson’s success came from years of preparation and elected officials that had done their homework. Susan includes a discussion of a community where the local officials just didn’t prioritize solving the lack of modern Internet network investment.
At the time of my visit there, I had just read George Packer’s The Unwinding, a set of essays that focuses in part on the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where Greensboro is located, and how the collapse of the textile industry here affected people’s lives. I wanted to be able to report that Greensboro’s region was raising itself up in part by focusing on fiber. The story I found did not fit my narrative plan. Instead, it illustrates what can happen in places where both the state government and local inertia, intentionally or accidentally, support the incumbent-controlled status quo.
You can listen to an interview I did with Susan in 2017 when she was bullish on Greensboro or read the transcript of our podcast. The optimism from that project evaporated in the absence of local leadership… which itself was hamstrung by state policy written by the big cable monopoly to prevent any local Internet choice threatening their revenues.
But no one seemed willing to make city money available for any of this. The city council and mayor knew about the projects but weren’t sure whether to support them. “This is more like a grassroots initiative,” Nickles said. She pulled together a draft summary of all the benefits of her proposed pilot projects for her city council. She got the council’s support. In April 2017, Greensboro’s city council approved Nickles’s pilot project. The grand aspiration of leasing dark fiber throughout the city was substantially narrowed: now the plan was to wire up a single Family Success Center that would serve as a hub for high-speed Wi-Fi in one low-income neighborhood.
A key lesson of Susan’s book is that local leadership matters. From elected officials, city staff, business leaders, and local engaged citizens. These projects are very challenging, from the technology to the politics to the economics. Communities need strong bonds to build successful networks.
Fittingly, Susan goes back to electricity for parallels, reminding us of some of the details most have forgotten. Electrification wasn’t just rural cooperatives distributing power created by new federal dams. It was building a market for devices by extending credit to low-income households that would not have adopted that new technology without assistance. This is market-building infrastructure investment policy at its best.
The federal effort was not limited to rural areas: the Roosevelt administration expanded consumer credit to low-income houses to advance electrical modernization. With no down payment, homeowners could buy a refrigerator using low-interest loans for as little as three dollars a month—thus bringing refrigeration, the essential ingredient of a modern kitchen, into the lives of millions. The private utilities had thought of their market as consisting only of the one-fifth of American households that were already modernized, but the use of electricity ballooned. Where the average early 1920s household had been using 30 kilowatt-hours or less each month, by 1950 most households had modern electrical services and were using more than 150 kilowatt-hours monthly.
The same was true in Chattanooga: in 1933, nine out of ten families didn’t have electricity. “There was not much of a middle class in Chattanooga,” Jim Ingraham of EPB told me. The rich families had electric refrigerators, but if you were a factory worker you were still lighting your house with oil or kerosene. Six months after EPB was chartered in 1935, as a public distributor of electricity with a mission to keep prices low and act like a utility (following the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a generator of electricity in 1933), rates came down enormously, and “everyone in our 600-square-mile service area had signed up for electricity,” Ingraham said. Everyone had it: all the factory workers, all the African Americans. “We offered refrigerators out of our office,” he said, “and we had a kitchen. We showed people, here’s what these appliances can do for you.”
That government policy to build these markets for electricity wasn’t popular with everyone – especially the companies that ultimately gained tremendously from it as electricity went from novelty to omnipresent in modern life. Much like the famous Hollywood effort to kill the VCR because it would be the end of the entertainment industry, the big monopolies fought to preserve the status quo rather than recognize how it could benefit from policies to broadly improve access to modern technology.
But it’s not easy: the incumbents go after them systematically, hiring academics and “experts” to attack these city planners as socialistic and mounting epic campaigns in state legislatures to block cities with legislation. Meanwhile, rural areas are unconnected and out of touch. The only thing we are missing is widespread public recognition of the depth and significance of the last-mile fiber problem—and either a young LBJ or a more seasoned FDR to address it.
I finished this book reinvigorated. We are seeing record numbers of cities study, build, and expand networks. Communities are iterating on approaches across the country. We are seeing new opportunities in municipal finance. Whether motivated by a lack of access or frustration with existing services, this book provides the background and motivation for communities to restore their self-determination over their economic future and a key aspect of quality of life in the modern era.
Susan recently appeared WGBH Boston to discuss her book:
Image of Susan Crawford by Joi [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Order Susan’s book online at Indiebound.org. Learn more about the book by reading Christopher’s review. Or listen to the podcast. This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. The transcript for this episode is available here and below
Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 343 Tue, February 12, 2019 | Posted by Katie Kienbaum
This is the transcript for episode 343 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode Christopher speaks with Susan Crawford, Harvard law professor and author of Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It, about the book, broadband policy, and so much more. Listen to the episode here.
Susan Crawford: The first step is getting everybody together, having a real consensus that this is important, and then taking the necessary block and tackle steps to figure out what needs to be done, what the gaps are, where the capital will come from, and what the plan is.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 343 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m Lisa Gonzalez. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Susan Crawford’s most recent book, hit pause, head over to your neighborhood bookstore, get your copy, and then come back and continue listening to this week’s podcast. The Harvard law professor and author of Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It took some time out of her schedule to talk to Christopher about broadband policy and about her book. Susan shares her thoughts on the differences between rural and urban issues and solutions to overcome them both. She talks about the lack of competition in the U.S. She and Christopher talk about some of the communities she visited, and Susan shares some policy recommendations. It’s a great interview to get you ready to read a great book. Now, here’s Christopher and Susan.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I’m Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, and I have one of my favorite guests back today: Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law and more recently the author of Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It. Welcome back to the show, Susan.
Susan Crawford: Well, it’s an honor to be here, Chris. This is really your movement; all I’m doing is writing it down.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, you have supercharged it and I am eternally grateful for you doing that. You know, one of the fun things about this interview is that I don’t have to ask you the first question you get from almost every other interview that you give because we can assume the audience is mostly on board with not only what fiber is, but the importance of it. And so therefore, my first question to you is actually just sort of a general question of: do you differentiate between rural and urban Internet access problems?
Susan Crawford: Well problems, yes, but solutions, no. I don’t see any reason why people living in rural areas should have second class access, and it’s just a policy decision. We did that as a country for telephone systems and for electricity, and it should be the same for the basic communications network. So when we get to the end of this policy road, everybody should have ubiquitous, mostly fiber if not exclusively fiber, cheap, persistent, reliable connectivity in their homes and businesses — wherever you are in America.
Christopher Mitchell: I entirely agree with you, and one of the things that I like about your analysis is the focus on fiber and I think that’s important for several reasons that you and I agree on. But, since the last time we’ve talked, the cable companies are on a path to do DOCSIS symmetrical, where it looks like they’ll be able to offer very high quality, symmetrical, very fast speeds. And so I’m curious then if you would think that the urban problem is kind of solved.
Susan Crawford: Absolutely not. First, at what price is really important. How much are people having to pay for this service? Because it looks to me as if the entire country is paying rent to about four or five companies that are doing extremely well. So that’s one issue that remains for urban areas — at what cost, and how many people are left out of that great network connectivity because they simply can’t afford it? And the second point is that yes, that looks good as an upgrade to their existing capacity, but unlike hybrid fiber coaxial lines, glass fiber really is, as far as we can tell, infinitely upgradable. There is a top limit to what you can do with that cable capacity that will not approach what’s possible with fiber. So the two technologies are just not the same, and the idea of making sure that we’re matching the rest of the world with our basic wire makes a ton of sense to me and it does to most people in these other countries that I keep visiting. So, long story short, that is not a solution if it’s too expensive and not upgradable without extraordinary effort.
Christopher Mitchell: And so then, I feel like we’re actually left in a situation in which, as you say, rural areas have second class service — they should not into the future. But given your analysis of the cable monopoly, it strikes me that we’re moving into an era in which over time, more rural areas will actually have the first class service and people like me in a cable monopoly area in an urban region will have second class service, in some ways.
Susan Crawford: I think that’s right, and I think that sets up some terrific incentives for people in the urban areas to be even more interested in the idea of a public option or a wholesale network or dark air conduit available to lots of competing fiber providers in every city or dark fiber available for lease — something that is a wholesale version of a public option that is available to everybody at a reasonable price, so the retail market emerges in those urban areas. Look, nobody wants to see cable not competing except for the cable companies. So I’m happy for them to be successful businesses, but they have to be subject to competition like everybody else.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think the final step of this, walking through this analysis, is that in some areas — you know, and I would be very clear — in some parts of some neighborhoods in urban areas are seeing fiber investment from AT&T, from CenturyLink, from some other of the telephone companies. And so where we see that — you know, you just mentioned creating an open market. Why isn’t that competition between, like, AT&T and CenturyLink fiber good enough for a first class city or . . . in this case, a first class city.
Susan Crawford: Again, because of the switching costs. There’s a huge lock in effect when you sign up with any one of these operators — very difficult to move to a competitor, and that’s a problem because over time, the company that has you locked in can just steadily raise prices and you’ll feel sort of helpless to do anything about it. So as a matter of public policy and just respect for human ingenuity, we should make sure that that competition is real, not just temporary and fake.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So now that we’ve gotten there, what is the argument that you’ve made in the book in terms of what cities should be doing? Because, you know, I think it’s clear. We celebrate Chattanooga and Lafayette and Wilson, and they’re champions in the book. You tell great stories about them. And yet, if you’re advising a city, you’re not advising them to go down that particular path.
Susan Crawford: Right, and so many of these cities that are heroes now have depended on their existing municipal electric utilities as a first step towards breeding fiber, and that can’t be necessary, right? Because, you know, there are only a few thousand cities in the United States that have a municipal electric facility available, so there has to be a broader plan. So what I’m — what we’re all advocating for, Christopher, and I think you more effectively than anybody else in the country, is taking stock of local realities with a broad cross section of the community, making sure that civic officials and the business community and residents and local government all understand the opportunity that they’re missing by not figuring out what to do about their fiber situation, and then getting in help to do a feasibility study about what might be possible there, and then moving ahead with political leadership at the political level. It’s all about lowering the cost of capital ultimately because it’s not rocket science to build these networks, but it is about lowering the cost of capital and getting sterling leadership in place and supporting that leadership to move forward. Increasingly, I’m excited about regional opportunities, not just municipal ones. Watching what’s going on in the South Bay, just south of Los Angeles, where a whole bunch of communities are talking about getting together and issuing a joint RFP for dark fiber services — that makes a lot of sense to me. There are ongoing economies of scale that operate at the public level, just the same way they do at the private one. But the first step is getting everybody together, having a real consensus that this is important, and then taking the necessary block and tackle steps to figure out what needs to be done, what the gaps are, where the capital will come from, and what the plan is.
Christopher Mitchell: I’m curious. What gives you hope that we’re going to see more of these approaches and more of these regional collaborations, as opposed to this just being a kind of a footnote over a period in which, you know, we’ll muddle along for many more years?
Susan Crawford: Well, MuniNetworks.org gives me hope because every day you’re putting out stories of different places working on this and learning from each other. It’s such a terrific community of people learning from past mistakes, making things work better, becoming increasingly professional in their approach to these networks. And Americans at their best are never cynical. And what also gives me hope is that this is such a thoroughly bipartisan movement across the country. So many of these areas working on fiber are Republican, or labeled that way, as well as Democratic. And that everybody, once they understand this issue deeply enough, is moved to do something about it. So far, every conversation I’ve had, let’s say, with my dry cleaner or the local music store or anybody on the street, once you take the time to explain it, they just say, “Well, of course. Of course that’s the way things should be. Why aren’t they?” And Americans don’t like to be behind and we are so behind the rest of the world, so I’m optimistic because of the American character. I’m very proud of being American, and I know that we will want to get this right and we won’t be frustrated by a few companies that didn’t do anything.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I really appreciate that. I know that Lisa will, too. My son is now three years old, so I know that Lisa has done almost all of the work on MuniNetworks.org for the past three years because that’s when I kind of handed it off. And since then, I still get the credit, but she does all the work.
Susan Crawford: Yay, Lisa! Yay!
Christopher Mitchell: You know, one of the things that you just said actually reminded me of a conversation I just had in North Carolina with a small business owner who has CenturyLink fiber, and we were commiserating because I also have CenturyLink fiber in our office now. And in my experience, 100 Megabit symmetrical service is amazing. He has not had as good of a result, and we both agreed that the Voice over IP that CenturyLink uses is just awful. I mean, I frequently can’t complete calls. I have all kinds of problems with it. And that’s just a reminder of something we were talking about earlier in terms of just one fiber line is not enough.
Susan Crawford: Right, quality of service will only come from competition. And the only way that telco or communications competition has ever emerged is requiring structural separation between the wholesale operator or, you know, the dark fiber or dark air part of this and the retail services. As soon as people are allowed to choose hats or wear multiple hats, they start carving up markets and discriminating against others and making sure that they don’t have to invest any more capital than they need to. So I think what we’re driving at with this idea of dark fiber, dark air wholesale networks is encouraging investment in a tremendously useful facility for all Americans. And that will mean great persistent Voice over IP as well as very high capacity data services that I hope someday we will simply take for granted.
Christopher Mitchell: I’m curious who you aimed the book at when you were writing it. In part, I have to say, the timing is almost miraculous in that it came out in January and here we are at the beginning of February, and I think we’re starting to see the media finally catching on to the fact that a lot of the 5G hype was bait and switch. And you lay that out in the book. And so when I was reading it, I was thinking it might go over the heads of a number of people, but increasingly I think, you know, it was just right for certain kinds of people. But I’m curious who you are aiming at.
Susan Crawford: I was aiming it at anybody who is curious and reads the newspaper. It’s very approachable as a book. It really tries to tell the story in very human terms and get everybody all excited about the capacity of fiber. And so, I was writing for any small business owner, householder, trying to make this a — it should be a pedestrian subject frankly. And it has seemed sort of technical and far away, but that’s because that’s the way it’s been framed by the incumbents. Actually, it’s very sensible. So that was my audience. Everybody’s my audience.
Christopher Mitchell: Your first book, Captured, came out and the cable companies had a plan to try and ruin you, they attacked you relentlessly. You know, one of the things I remember is they had, on the day it was published, multiple one star reviews on Amazon. Now, I think they’re just desperately trying to ignore you and hoping that no one notices you. Is that your impression?
Susan Crawford: I think that’s true. I’m still seeing a little bit. I have a particular detractor funded by Comcast who is always putting comments on Facebook and Amazon, so he’s still out there. But I think their goal right now is just to make sure this goes away, and what I’m hoping is that it won’t. I’m doing my best to get into mainstream news outlets, whatever I can do to keep pushing the story along.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I went to what for an employee of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is great extremes: I wrote a review on Amazon.
Susan Crawford: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: And I really hope that other people will too, even if they are also scared of Amazon because Amazon remains one of the key places people turn to to look for reviews. And so I hope people that have read the book or who are about to read the book, will do a review on Amazon even though I hope you buy the book somewhere else.
Susan Crawford: Oh, I appreciate that. And yes, I support independent bookstores and I want people to buy it there. I should do a better job of urging people to write reviews on Amazon. I just don’t. And in part, I sort of feel my role is just to write the book and then everybody else will do what they want to with it. Other authors are more active in promotion, and this is just a failing of mine. Not to get an army writing about it, but I appreciate the plug and I hope that does happen.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I did notice that you don’t start off every answer to a question with “As I say in my book.”
Susan Crawford: No, I don’t do that. And I really should.
Christopher Mitchell: So I am totally on board, as anyone knows who’s listening to us, with our arguments that local leaders are the ones that have to step up. You make that case very compellingly, but I’m curious because you have worked in the executive branch for President Obama. You know, when you think about this, my impression is that the Obama administration in the last two years tried to figure out any way the executive branch could encourage these types of networks and more or less came to the conclusion that they just don’t have much authority or power to do so. So if we had, you know, a president right now that was both competent and willing to take action on this, do you think there’s anything that the executive branch can do today?
Susan Crawford: Oh, absolutely. In fact, in the last chapter of my book, I make a lot of these recommendations. Setting a standard for what constitutes the basic telephone service in the United States, that’s the role of the executive branch, and having a lot of tax and loan guarantee and subsidization programs depend from that definition would be extremely helpful. For example, operators still running copper lines across the country could be essentially forced through tax policy to abandon those lines and replace them with fiber — and with wholesale fiber, by the way. Operators in particular regions could be given loan guarantees by the Fed, which operates regionally, to lower the cost of capital there and increase and incentivize the deployment of wholesale networks. Gosh, we could just make another kind of Tennessee Valley Authority operation exist in rural areas that would be a wholesale provider of transmission services with connections only to publicly operated or publicly supervised last mile networks. There are all kinds of things the federal government could do, but setting the standard and declaring that this is a priority of the United States would be a very first step. And that the Obama administration did not do.
Christopher Mitchell: That’s a very good answer. I did not see that coming. Even though I read the last chapter, I think I was, as I noted, so euphoric for some of the stuff that came right before then in the stories. But I want to note something, that some of the people who listen to this show are more of a fan of cooperatives and that sort of approach than municipal networks. There is some animosity between them. And when you say the kind of authority that might do the wholesale access, I assume you’re including the cooperatives as a major component of that.
Susan Crawford: Oh, absolutely, and I’m also harking back to what happened at the time of the formation of the TVA, that it’s policy was to make business arrangements only with cooperatives and municipals. So you know, a definite bias in favor of these alternative modes of getting basic network connectivity out to people in rural areas.
Christopher Mitchell: You know, there’s a line that I read from a 1950s political science paper about the meeting where that decision was made. Harold Ickes, who was a person — I actually have like, I don’t know, it’s like 2,500 pages of diary for him that was published that I want to read that I haven’t gotten around to yet. But apparently, in one of the early meetings about rural electrification, they were trying to figure out how to make it work, and one of his people on the committee said, “Well, we’re going to have to work with the electric trusts.” And Harold Ickes said something along the lines of, “I won’t have it. We’re not going to talk to those sons of ” — we have a clean tag so I’m not going to finish that off — and he said, “We’re going to find another way.” And as you said, they focused on the cooperatives and the munis, and I think we’ve saved probably trillions of dollars in rents because of that.
Susan Crawford: I think that’s right. And it takes character to do that because in the current American context that sounds like heresy. What?! Not have the private sector do absolutely everything? And I’m not saying that public-private partnerships couldn’t work, but they would be the public in charge and the private operator as a vendor, essentially, helping with construction or operation of networks but at the behest and under the control of the public entity or the cooperative.
Christopher Mitchell: Now I want to talk about Greensboro, North Carolina, because I think Greensboro makes this book work so much better than if you had excluded it. In this book, you talk so much about the great things that Wilson has done, RS Fiber with Mark Erickson and the many people that made that possible. You talk about MINET and we actually just interviewed Don Patten recently using some of the material from the book. You talk about Chattanooga. You talk about so many where there’s great things happening. Greensboro, you actually mentioned that you’d read it just after reading George Packer’s The Unwinding, which is a fantastic book. So why is Greensboro important for your argument?
Susan Crawford: Greensboro is important because I went to Greensboro expecting to find this kind of scrappy, spunky North Carolinian we-can-do-anything attitude about fiber, as well as everything else, and what I found was not that. What I found was that Greensboro’s sort of sinking into a genteel irrelevance in a state that is booming really. Greensboro hasn’t really gotten over it’s a past of excluding poor and black people from civic life, that was my finding, and can’t really see it’s way past its current Internet access situation too. Then these things are really of a piece. So the reason why Greensboro is so important narrative, is that the overall story here is that places that can think about fiber as part of a decent respectable life, just a basic affordance, can also think about treating everybody with respect and making sure that the entire community is thriving. That’s true and more and more true in places like Wilson, but it is not yet true in Greensboro. They haven’t made that turn. It’s still suffering from the past and kind of convinced that it’s important just because it’s Greensboro. And what I found was that although there’s some champions in Greensboro, they’re not gaining any traction because local government isn’t really interested in fixing the Internet access situation, which is dominated utterly by Spectrum, and there doesn’t seem to be much will for overcoming the somnolence, really the sleepiness, of the city’s business approach. So that’s why it’s important. It was in contrast to these other places.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. For me, it was such a reminder of the importance of true local leadership, not just someone who’s willing to say, “Yeah, that’s nice.”
Susan Crawford: Right. Exactly. Yeah, they would sort of wave their hands at it and then not do anything. And there are great people there, and I hope they see that I respected what they were up to when I wrote the book but that I could also see that nothing was gonna happen — that it was sort of a plan towards a procedure towards a process without any real leadership behind it.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, one of the things that I felt a little bit shown up on is the story you tell about Tiffany Cooper because it’s so great and it just so illustrates why Wilson’s municipal broadband network in North Carolina, in the eastern part of North Carolina, which we’ve talked about many times on the show because they’re so pathbreaking — but her story is just a reminder that talking about low income households, you know, isn’t just sort of a policy issue; it’s real people’s lives. And so I’m curious if you want to tell us a little bit about her.
Susan Crawford: Oh, I’d be delighted to. And I also hope people will buy the book — I know I need to start plugging — but I’m delighted to tell the story because it’s an important centerpiece here. It was so moving. I just about burst into tears when she said it. So I went to visit Tiffany Cooper, who is a young mom of three sons living in public housing in Wilson. And she told me that being able to add $10 to her rent bill in public housing and have that result in a terrific fiber connection from the city of Wilson was the best thing that had ever happened to her and that she hoped it would happen to everybody else in this country. She said a funny thing. She said, “Whoever came up with this idea, this was genius,” essentially. And what she was really excited about was that her sons’ grades were improving because they could do their homework from home. She can’t get them to the library. She has no ability to drive anywhere, and public transit in Wilson isn’t great. And she knows that they are doing better and really focusing on grades because of the network’s presence in her home. And she’s also getting new training, medical certification for new sorts of jobs by having this fiber connection right there. And whenever I tell this story across the country, people just gasp. You know, of course you should be able to just treat this like a utility and pay an affordable amount and have it present wherever you are: in public housing, expensive houses, wherever. But Wilson really thought this through and they said, “Look, we’ve got this sunk network cost going into public housing. We’re going to make this available to people in multidwelling units and public housing across the city, and we’re very proud of it.” And so it’s one of my proudest moments in this book was being able to report that and then have other people from other cities just gasp when they hear the story.
Christopher Mitchell: It’s a great story, and I will note that there are many similar moments like that in the book. I wrote two case studies with Todd O’Boyle, who is a Wilson native, about how Wilson built their network and then how Time Warner Cable fought back in the legislature. As I entered those parts of the book, I was thinking, well, I’m going to know all this, and there was details in there I wasn’t aware of. And so, you know, if you found things that surprise me, anyone who picks this book up is going to find interesting things they did not know.
Susan Crawford: Yeah. And what’s particularly — thank you for that nice compliment. What’s particularly great about the Wilson part of the story is that they were willing to talk about the shenanigans with Time Warner Cable in getting the state law passed and talk about them in detail. And I don’t think that’s been on the record before. We all sort of know it, but it’s great to have it written down and important for us as we attack this issue across the country.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that’s right. I mean, I know that’s right. I was trying to get into this point which is that, you know, I think one of the challenges is as many of us are bitter about the way, in particular, Republican state legislators but sometimes Democrats have accepted the arguments from the industry, and I think whenever we talk about that, we use language that is guaranteed to antagonize half of the people thinking about politics in the U.S. And so, when I’m trying to talk to people in North Carolina, in particular legislators, I have to remember that I think a number of those Republicans who voted for those bills are now angry at Time Warner Cable. And they may not say so publicly and I think we might think they should have known better at the time, but they did think that the private sector would do better than it has.
Susan Crawford: That’s right. We should always assume positive intent on everybody’s part, even on the part of the companies because good Lord, we haven’t restrained them. We haven’t given them any reason to act differently coming from the rule of law, right? So, everybody’s acting according to their best interests, and what we need to do is help people understand that the best interests of the country and of our place on the global stage and our ability to act coherently and with respect towards everybody depends on reframing this entire issue — that this is not a luxury, that it’s not something that only rich people should have, that it’s basic to every form of business in every policy we care about. And that reframing is just beginning to come into view, and whatever we can do to push that along is our job, I think, on earth right now.
Christopher Mitchell: So as we wrap up, I want to ask you about a phrase that you used on the Diane Rehm show, which is one of my favorite phrases. It has a deep history behind it, but I wasn’t sure that everyone would have caught it. And that is ruinous competition, and I’m sure you use that for a specific reason. Tell me about that phrase.
Susan Crawford: All of these businesses that seem to us today like ATMs with lawyers on top, like oil or communications, and sometimes banking —
Christopher Mitchell: Electric companies.
Susan Crawford: — electric companies, they have very high upfront costs to set up these initial networks. And so it is in the interest of the companies eventually to divide up markets, to say you take Minneapolis, I’ll take Sacramento, because if they start actually competing with each other, they’ll just run each other out of business. And that’s what’s known as ruinous competition. There’s a long history of the use of that phrase in the railroad industry around the turn of last century and in oil. It’s only rational to have pricing power, to have control over entire markets, and that’s what’s happened with telecommunications. We can’t allow that to happen. This is essentially a natural monopoly service. It only makes sense to have one wire connection going to homes and businesses and that wire should be fiber. And the way to create competition, we’ve known for a hundred years, is to make sure that that facility is shared and shared according to really clear rules that keep the operator, the wholesale facility, from having any incentive to pick and choose retail providers. That’s where we need to get. And the problem is that absent any restraint from law or oversight, these companies and legislators, everybody, will act in their own self-interest to keep the status quo in place.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me add onto that just briefly, and you can tell me that you think that I’m wrong. My way of thinking has shifted over the past 10 years, in part because of where we are and also in part because of economic theory. And that’s if I could wave a magic wand and have a publicly owned or cooperatively owned fiber to everyone’s home and ban all other forms of of access that would compete with that, I would not do that. And that’s because I think it is important, even though I think it might be inefficient in some economic analyses. I think it is good to have a little bit of infrastructure competition to keep the owner honest. My thought is the local ownership and accountability provides the best opportunity for that in itself, but also having a competing provider, I think, creates the right incentives, if at least one of those pipes has to be open in the way that you envision to multiple providers
Susan Crawford: Yeah, and I do disagree because we’ve seen this over and over again. If we believe in intermodal competition, which is what we did when we deregulated the telecom world, that we thought these wires would fight it out with themselves and that would protect consumers, inevitably there’s consolidation and they buy each other out. And then you’re left with a monopoly and no oversight, so you get the worst of both worlds. So actually, I think the competition comes from benchmarking wholesale providers against each other. This is the way Japan does it, so there’s NTT East and NTT West. And you have to keep prices down coming from that wholesale provider. But then a genuine retail marketplace does emerge on top of that wire, and that is the way it should work because otherwise you just have private equity buying out competing networks and consolidating markets.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think this has been one of the best interviews we’ve had. I love all the different topics we got into, and I really hope that people appreciate it and they go out and buy your book.
Susan Crawford: And I hope everybody reads MuniNetworks.org everyday.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. Thank you so much, Susan.
Susan Crawford: Thank you, Christopher. Talk to you later.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Susan Crawford, author, Harvard law professor, and broadband champion. Find her book at your local bookseller, indiebound.org, or from Yale University Press at yalebooks.yale.edu. We have a transcript for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t miss out on our original research from all our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you’re there, take a moment to donate. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 343 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.