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Democracy Works: Rural broadband and the politics of "good enough"

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Christopher Ali, the Pioneers Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State.

COVID-19 showed just how essential high-speed Internet is to our everyday lives. It determines how many of us work, learn, and access news and entertainment. Yet, millions of Americans do not have reliable access to broadband and millions more can't afford to pay for the service that's available to them.

Christopher Ali, the Pioneers Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State, unpacks these issues in his book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity and joins us this week for a discussion about market failures, how communities across the country are democratizing Internet access and how the federal government is now starting to step in thanks to funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November 2021.

We also discuss some of Ali's more recent work on the relationship between broadband deserts and news deserts, and how the combination impacts democratic citizenship.

Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity

Christopher Ali on Twitter

Episode Transcript
Chris Beem
From the McCartney Institute for Democracy on the campus of Penn State University, I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to democracy works. This week, our guest is Christopher Ali, who is the Pioneers Chair in telecommunications, here at Penn State and author of the book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity. And I have to say, rural broadband has been on my list of topics for the show, ever since we started it. So I'm excited that we are getting to it today. And I think over the past couple of years during the pandemic, all the ways that, you know, broadband, touches our lives and is essential to our lives have really come into much sharper focus than they even were, you know, back in 2018 2019, when we started this show.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah, I'm really glad that you brought Christopher on the show this week, and reading the book and some of the articles that he's written, you know, you reflect on your day, right. So this morning, I woke up, I listened to WP Su from North Carolina for my Google Home. And then it told me what my schedule was for the day, what the weather is what the top news stories are. On some days, I work from home, I might have office hours on Zoom, I might go to a faculty meeting on Zoom, I touch base with my research groups on teams. We're recording this podcast from multiple cities across the country, which can only be done with high speed internet before the day is over, I'll read three newspapers, check in on Twitter, like 1000 times, I'll see my friends on Instagram. If I'm unlucky, I might have to meet a doctor on some sort of secure website thingy. At some point, I'll stream a show with my husband, and then I'll ask some device to wake me up in the morning. And I do most of these things with high speed internet. So, you know, while it has been argued that this kind of ease and way of life is a luxury, it's become incredibly clear that broadband is a central part of American life and access to broadband mimics, I would argue kind of any basic util utility. People rely on broadband to grocery shop to, you know, consume news and information, run their businesses access health care, access government services, fill out forms, sign up their children, for school, go to work, take classes at the community college. I mean, we could go on and on. And so, you know, despite the apparent necessity and increasing necessity of broadband access, it is actually not universal across the country. A lot of people are left out.

Chris Beem
Right? And why is that? I mean, it is not dissimilar from other utilities in American history, right, there are rural communities that were very late in terms of getting electricity and phone service. And initially, those were understood to be luxuries, and eventually became necessities. And the in both cases as well, the the private industry decided that there was not sufficient return on investment for them to spend money on the infrastructure needed to get these places, or getting the services to places that didn't serve many people, right. So you had to go a long way with those telephone lines or with that electric electrical lines to get to a community that had 20 people in it. And it just was not worth it to them to do it. And that is what is known in the biz as a market failure. The market is incentivizes profit. And if there's not enough profit, they're not going to do it. And so in those cases, the government had to step in, and that is what we are seeing, or at least talking about right now. I mean, you know, whether they have done it adequately, whether they've done it the right way, those are things we're going to talk about. But the the basic point is that when there's something that the public needs, and the market is, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to provide that necessity, the government has to step in. That's it's basically that simple.

Candis Watts Smith 
I live in North Carolina right now. And North Carolina has 100 counties and 80 of them are considered rural. And you know, we can kind of I think, I think there's not necessarily a kind of hard and fast definition of what rural means. But one of the things I think is important to know Oh, you know, in this conversation about access and affordability is that it's also a matter of equity and racial equity. So I think we tend to think about rural places as being white. But in North Carolina, let's say 12% of the population is Black. But one in five people who live in rural North Carolina are Black, North Carolina, is a relatively new destination for Latino immigrants, which is changing the demographics of North Carolina. So, you know, this is just kind of one example about how our common sense notions of urban, being largely home to people of color, while suburban and brutality is being associated as whitespaces doesn't really pan out, you know, it's not so cut and dry empirically. So, you know, we know, generally speaking, when, when some parts of the population get the cold, people who are historically marginalized, get the flu. And so we can kind of think about the there's a rural penalty, right, generally speaking, but the extent to which that is going to be exacerbated by other modes of inequality. You know, it's also on the table,

Chris Beem
In many cases, in many counties, rural counties, there is some internet access, but it is a crappy, it's very bad, very spotty, very sporadic. And also, it's more expensive. So I mean, you, you're getting more, or you're getting less for more. And that is also something that happens a lot to poor people. The other thing that that I just want to mention is, you know, when you're talking about inequality, the internet in America is dramatically more expensive than it is of the OECD countries. And and that is a large question. But and we should get into it. But the fact is that this equity issue is not as dramatic as it is in Western Europe.

Jenna Spinelle
Maybe that's something we can pick up on after the interview. I know, Chris, and I talked about whether broadband is the one of the last bipartisan issues and some of the more influences of politics idea. Alright, so let's go now to the interview with Christopher Ali.

Jenna Spinelle
Christopher Ali, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us.

Chris Ali
Thank you so much for having me.

Jenna Spinelle
So lots to talk about in the realm of rural broadband. This is actually a topic that has been on my list of episodes for this show, since we started back in 2018. So excited to have this conversation. And you know, as you say, in your book, farm, fresh broadband, the term rural broadband is something that politicians love to throw around in their stump speeches and these kinds of things. So I thought maybe we could start by just defining it a little bit.

Chris Ali
So broadband, the official definition of broadband in this country is an always on internet connection of 25 megabits per second, download three megabits per second upload. So what on earth does that mean? Right? It basically means that if you, if you had that speed as kind of a floor in your house, for instance, you should be able to, you know, binge Netflix while emailing while social media and basically that you could do what it is that you need to do. There is a big debate right now as to whether or not we need to raise the speed threshold. The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, is proposing to raise it to 120 100 megabits per second download 20 megabits per second upload. And the reason for that is that while 2025 three, which is how we would often talk about this, it might be good enough for one person, it is absolutely disastrous for more than one person living in a house. Moreover, we don't know what we don't know in terms of what the future is going to hold. The average person has 16 internet connected devices in their household. That's everything from smartwatches, to toasters, to fridges, to laptops, to gaming consoles, you know, all the things that might have an IP address washers and dryers, for instance, all of those devices take bandwidth. And so right now, one of the major debates when we're talking about making sure everybody has broadband, is what exactly is broadband and what is good enough and what is great, and I've been an advocate for great broadband, like in the 1930s. We didn't just say, well, you get electricity for one room, we said you got electricity for the house, right? That to me is the difference between good enough electricity and great electricity. And that's the same thing I want for broadband. Now, the question is, what is rural? And a great way I think, to start that conversation is the fact that the USDA has about 35 definitions of the word rural. Some depend on land use them to depend on population. Right now they're kind of the definition that's generally been floating around is a community between 25 Nelson in 35 50,000, that is not adjacent to a large metropolitan center. So anything kind of under 50,000 might be considered rural. So long as it's not like a suburb, anything under 25,000. Even better when we're thinking about rural, others like to use density as as a marker, the Census Bureau, for instance, has a definition that says like, roughly around 92% of the of the country is actually rural, right, because they basically say everything that's not Metro is rural, whereas some use a different definition. And the reason why this is so important is because it matters when we talk about funding, right? If you have funding for rural broadband, we need to have a basic definition of what does it mean to be rural in America? And that's something we actually lack. And that's something that I hoped to explore in my own book.

Jenna Spinelle
So let's put this in terms of population numbers. So taking everything you just said about what it means to have broadband and what it means to be rural or not, or living in a rural place. How many people are we talking about that lack access to what you described as I guess, the good broadband, putting aside like the great question for the time being?

Chris Ali
Well, so this is another great quick conversation, because the fact of the matter is, we don't know how many people are and under connected, because we've done a really bad job at mapping broadband deployment. And one of the reasons why we've done such a bad job is that the FCC, which is in charge of broadband mapping has allowed mapping to happen at what's called the census block level. And a census block can be anywhere between a couple of streets or a neighborhood in let's say, Manhattan, to 8000 square miles and Alaska, because it depends on population. So right now, when we map broadband, we say so long as one building within a census block can have has broadband, or has the potential to be connected within 10 business days, that entire census block is served 100% Serve with broadband. What that means is that we have dramatically over exaggerated the level of connectivity in this country. Most reports say that the FCC has actually exaggerated broadband connectivity by about 50%. So here's an example right now, the FCC will tell you that about 21 million people lack connectivity. Most estimates say it's actually both 42 million, and then another 100 and 20 million, according to Microsoft connect to the internet, but below broadband speeds. So we're looking at somewhere between Well, let's say 42 million, somewhere between 20 and 42 million lachit entirely and upwards of 120,000,001/3 of the population lack it at adequate speeds, to kind of do what it is that so many of us take for granted. So there are so many digital divides in this country. And I should also add that it's not just a rural urban issue 18% of New York City doesn't have access to the internet. So you know, again, politicians love to say this is a rural issue. It is yes, it is a rural so it's also a tribal issue. It's also an affordability issue, it's also an urban issue. It's also a minority community issue because fundamentally about any quality

Jenna Spinelle
For the households that are not able to access broadband what is their connection look like? Is it primarily you're doing things on your phone over the sound network is it's still like the land of dial up modems like what what's going on in these these households, these communities?

Chris Ali
I mean, one of the crazy things is that 2 million people still use dial up in this country and 60,000 Farms still use dial up, which is ridiculous. But 85% of the American population have a smartphone 15% of the population, according to the Pew Foundation are smartphone only. And a colleague of mine, Nicholas Matthews, who is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and I, we did a study in Surry County, Virginia and it is the lease or was when we conducted our study the least connected county in the Commonwealth of Virginia vote 3.6% fixed connectivity. And we were trying to kind of to understand what is life like in a broadband desert. And one of the things we found is a lot of it a life is harder. And be a lot of life is defined by waiting, waiting for the potential for an internet connection. Sometimes if folks had satellite, satellite broadband is notoriously slow and notoriously brutal. They will wait to download things when when the network clears up. One family that we talked to describe themselves as a second shift family, because they'll stay up all night, because that's when their bandwidth is faster because they use a combination of things. It was satellite in hotspots. So it's expensive. It's time consuming and is defined by waiting. And what we're seeing a lot in rural communities is if you don't have connectivity, you lose a lot of young people, right? I mean, and then you also lose the potential for telework. We we've learned during the pandemic, we saw this urban flight during the pandemic, but only you if you had high capacity broadband.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, and there's this issue of the brain drain, you know, people leaving these communities we had Congressman Ro Khanna on the show several months ago he talked about that. I think he brings maybe some Silicon Valley utopianism to this we could talk about whether whether you agree with that or not, but he sort of framed that as you know, if you if we're able to connect these communities that Jobs will come, the opportunities will come it will all follow. Do you share that optimism?

Chris Ali
I mean, it's a beautiful, wonderful thought. I don't think this is a Field of Dreams situation, this is not build it and they will come. The inverse, though is much more correct. If you don't build it, you will lose. Broadband is a tool for economic and social development. It is not the the end all be all right. So we know that we absolutely communities need high speed, high capacity broadband. And that goes to everything from running your credit card, right? That requires an internet connection. Getting money out of an ATM, requires an internet connection, paying for gas requires an internet connection. So all of these things that we take for granted make life easier whether or not it will guarantee jobs, will they not guarantee a company to relocate? We're not sure about that. But what I can tell you is that there was one study that found that high speed connectivity accounted for between 60% and 100% of a company's decision to look relocate to a rural community. So they are absolutely looking. And we there are tons of examples of communities that became connected, and then use that to marshal and promote themselves and marshal their communities to attract businesses to attract schools. And also, again, to keep young people working, living and thriving in a lot of these rural communities. And I think this is particularly true in the Appalachian region, where we're looking to reinvent what economic development looks like.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, and you bringing up the Appalachian region reminds me of course of the Tennessee Valley Authority. And you know, we have in some ways experienced this, this problem before whether whether it's electricity, whether it's telephone, cable, television, all of these things. So we have seemingly made our way through I mean, what what is what's the barrier, this time, what's different about this time is it may be that we just we just need to allow for more time perhaps like what what do you think is maybe similar? And different thinking about these previous technologies?

Chris Ali
That's a great question actually devote the first chapter of my book to comparing how is it that we connected the countryside with electricity and telephone and 30s 40s and 50s. And we continue to fail at broadband today. One of the one of the you know, and I hate to sound cynical here, but one of the major barriers has been what we call Big telco, we're the largest telecommunications companies. So what happened in the 1930s when the FDR government realized that so much of rural America, which at that time was synonymous with farmers, were not connected to the electrical grid, they created what was called the Rural Electrification Administration. And that was a kind of a loan granting agency. And it would create cooperatives, electric cooperatives throughout the country, there are 900, electric cooperatives now, most of them getting their starts in the 30s 40s and 50s. It was tremendously society, it's successful. So they kind of bypassed quote unquote, big power and went local. They did that, again, with telephone in the 1950s, realizing that a lot of rural farmers did not have a telephone anymore after the Great Depression. So once again, the RCA came in and kind of incentivized local telephone cooperatives. And there are hundreds of local telephone cooperatives now across the country as well. Both by the way, electric cooperatives and and telephone copters are doing amazingly well with broadband as well, which is super cool. Jump ahead 100 years, and why haven't we kind of been able to marshal that kind of Zeitgeist? Especially when the President said last year broadband isn't the next electricity, right? We've often heard this, what does it mean? The difference is that we have trusted the largest telecommunications companies to do this. But we have put the threshold so low for them, that they used it as in what I in my book, I call it they use it as a ceiling rather than a floor. So we this country was very late in funding broadband. We didn't have a standardized broadband funding program, really, until 2014. And at that point, what we did is we looked at the 10 largest telecommunications companies in the country and said, Here's a billion dollars, we hope for the best. We give them very low build out thresholds. There was very little accountability. And so yes, did these companies follow the letter of the law? Yeah, but the the law was so large that they didn't have to do much in particular, they didn't have to think for future needs. They were just they ended up just deploying what was called DSL Digital Subscriber Line, which is telephone lines, copper lines, they weren't putting in fiber, they weren't thinking about connectivity. 10 years ahead. They were thinking about connectivity five years before, and now what we end up having are like islands and a wases. In deserts, right. In some rural usually in county seats, we've got a pretty good level of connectivity, anything else we've got a broadband desert, some hard to reach areas are completely blank, a lot of this hodgepodge, and that was because of really poor funding decisions by the Federal Communications Commission in kind of 2014 2015 2016. We are hopefully now with the infrastructure package and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the NTIA, which is managing a new $42.5 billion grant. Hopefully history will not repeat itself and will really make some good headway into bridging the digital divide.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, I want to come back to what's happened since in your book came out but you know, you bring up these these ideas, this idea of cooperatives you tell some really fascinating stories of broadband cooperatives in your in your book I'm thinking about one in particular from Rock County, Minnesota. I believe this I love that you, you talk about that, as you know of a way of democratizing broadband policy. So tell us about what's happening up in Minnesota.

Chris Ali
Chapter Four of my book is, is dedicated to the story of rock county and the Rock County Alliance. And this was a community that I had the privilege of spending some a few days in, during what was called the rural broadband road trip, where my hound dog and I drove across the country learn about broadband, and it was amazing and collecting stories. And so Rock County, about 10 years ago, wanted a fiber optic network Rock County is in the southwestern pocket of the state, bordering South Dakota and Iowa. It is the Nutcracker capital of the Midwest, and also has a really excellent hot dish. So they wanted this fiber optic network and they wouldn't settle for anything less. And they really struggled working with the large providers lecture fighters were not at all interested in a rural county of 10,000 people. And we see this time and time again, right, that the market has failed it for rural communities. And so what happened is that they found a Telephone Cooperative in South Dakota, a local one, it was just across the border, the Telephone Cooperative, put in some money, Rock County bonded itself for a million dollars, and it put in money and then a one to $5 million grant from the state and Minnesota I should say, has been this kind of pioneer and trendsetter in how to think through high speed connectivity at the kind of universal scale for the state. With all of this Rock County was able to push out a fiber optic network that covers roughly 99% of the county is not saying that 99% of the country to subscribe, but can subscribe to this amazing fiber optic network. So what a great story of community building, right knowing they bring in partners bring bringing the state and having this phenomenal county supervisor and County Administrator rather and board of supervisors who are really willing to, to work with their providers and to work with their community to bring connectivity.

Jenna Spinelle
So the other thing that that's on my mind thinking about these local issues, we're also hearing a lot now particularly since 2020. About, you know, people coming in to local government that have more anti democratic tendencies, right, pushing local government farther to the right, and trying to really decrease the role that government plays in, in citizens lives. I mean, do you do you worry about that? Or are there is this an issue, you think that might be able to transcend some of those more anti democratic tendencies?

Chris Ali
You know, I think broadband connectivity is one of the very, very few bipartisan issues that we can we can all rally around. And maybe it is not only that maybe can also be a way that we can bring ourselves together in other issues, you have both Republican and Democrat and independent. Elected officials campaigning on this, talking about this, needing this wanting this, where we are seeing a difference, though, is what is broadband, oftentimes, those on, let's say the further right of the political continuum want to keep the definition lower, much more in line with maybe some corporate interests than those than those on maybe more progressive side. But there is there is a bipartisan consensus around the need for connectivity. There is also surprisingly enough bipartisan consensus on the need for the federal government to step in. Because the market has failed. We it is an empirical fact, if the market had succeeded in this, we would have universal connectivity, because we have surrendered all connectivity to the private market. Certain examples of municipal broadband are excluded. But there is an agreement that the market has failed. So therefore, there is an agreement that the federal government needs to step in and incentivize and subsidize Texas, Texas, for instance, just launched a broadband plan just has a new broadband office, it's really capable, they're doing really cool things. What they did not do is allocate any state funding, they are entirely dependent upon the federal government for funding. So just an example of a state a conservative state that is getting behind the idea of connectivity, but it's not really willing to invest any state money into this. So that's Texas is rather unique in that regard. A lot of states, Virginia, for instance, just allocated $700 million to broadband, Illinois, 430 million, New York, I think 550 million California a couple billion. So you know, a lot of states are putting state money behind it. Texas, has I think the bill, I don't say the right idea, because they should be putting state money into it. But at least they're on board with the idea that we need connectivity.

Jenna Spinelle
And this this idea of the you know, kind of partisan divide also gets to questions of misinformation and access to information. If, if I'm not mistaken, that paper you referenced earlier from Virginia, did that also look at news deserts in addition to that.

Chris Ali
Yeah, so we were curious about life not only in a broadband desert, but in a local news desert. Where do people get news and information If not from the internet, one of our major findings and again, I should say we because that study took place during COVID, we couldn't go to Surry County, we ended up doing phone interviews, a lot of people got news from word of mouth. A lot of people used people who were connected in their communities, a few people who were became the kind of these opinion leaders, which is a very old school of mass communication term. And then the Dollar General became this place for congregating around news and information. There is of course, the thought that oh, well, if we bring broadband to these communities, he will immediately trigger extremism immediately trigger Ultra conservatism or, you know, some might say ultra ultra leftism as well. And, you know, there's there's kind of these arguments on both sides of the political spectrum. But it reminds me that there is that the digital divide is actually plural. It's a digital divides. And one of the crucial things that we haven't talked about until recently, and policy is around skill development, and digital literacy. That is part and parcel of having a sense, you know, if if the wires in the ground are useless unless you know how to use them, right. And again, that's where our earlier conversation around one wires in the ground will not guarantee economic development in a rural or remote or tribal community, the absence will spell some disaster. So it means that we need to be thinking not only about connectivity, but affordability, and then what's called a larger other issues of digital inclusion and digital equity, including skills and digital literacy. So what we're actually seeing now at the federal level is there's a new state digital equity program, states have to have digital equity plans, there's a ton of funding available for it, a couple billion dollars for digital equity programs. So hopefully, we'll see not only a rise in connectivity, but a rise in, in digital literacy, digital sophistication, digital competencies, again, that many of us might take for granted. But hopefully, we will see that kind of training and skill development arise as well. Again, there's no magic bullet to, you know, fighting myths and disinformation especially, especially here where this also is a contentious political issue. But I do think that as we think about connectivity, we need to think immediately about affordability and literacy as well. And, you know, there are some states that are doing very well in this regard.

Jenna Spinelle
So you mentioned before that, you know, this is obviously and this idea of a rural broadband and expanding broadband access is is a big part of the Biden administration's agenda. So, bring us up to speed on what's happened since your book was published.

Chris Ali
Holy smokes so much is that I mean, one of the, one of the frustrations with academic publishing is that it takes a while to get published, although I do I do think that farm fresh came out at a, you know, kind of an incredible moment where this country was captured by the conversation around broadband, no less so because of the pandemic where I think what the pandemic did, I mean, of all of the terrible, all of the painful moments that have happened because of the pandemic, what it also did is, we have ended the conversation around whether or not connectivity is a luxury, we know now it is a need is it necessities utility, it has a right etc, etc. The Biden administration has stepped up tremendously. So the infrastructure package included $65 billion, specifically for broadband 42 billion of that will go towards deployment. And that, again, is run by the NTI. A, and they're just getting rolling on that. So what's going to happen with that money is that it's actually going to go to the States. And then states are going to choose who's the winners of this kind of these subsidies. And it's for providers to well, it's to incentivize providers, public or private or cooperative, to connect their communities. So every state is guaranteed $100 million. And depending on the level of on connection in the state that will determine how much extra you get out of that 42 billion. I want to say Texas is in line somewhere between Texas being one of the least connected states in the country is in line somewhere between one in 3 billion it might be the largest winner in in broadband and forgive me when I can't, I can't think of what Pennsylvania is going to be allocated I would imagine more than a billion as well. So states can be prepared for that. One of the things every state has to do is file a five year broadband and digital equity plan. So a lot of my work is going to be focused on on those plans right now. There was also out of that 65 billion 14 billion for affordability. That's the affordable connectivity program, which again, subsidizes subscriptions for low income families at $30 a month and $75 a month on tribal land. 2.7 5 billion for digital equity, 2 billion for a USDA Broadband Program 1 billion for tribal connectivity and money for bonds and other grants. So it is tremendous. This is a largest public investment in telecommunications in the country's history. You know, what was also really interesting is that Congress when it passed the infrastructure act, didn't make the FCC steward of this money. It made this other organization, the NTA. And I think it's because we've seen Congress lose faith in the FCC is ability to subsidize and get the results necessary for broadband deployments. It'll be really interesting to see what NTIA is doing owing to me, though all of my eyes are on what states are doing, because they will be the final arbiters of a colossal amount of money. So a lot of my work right now is how do I make sure that states are equipped and empowered to make these decisions?

Jenna Spinelle
One last question for you, Chris. So, you know, our audience is very passionate, obviously, about democracy, but also all about political reform and you know, working at the at the grassroots. So if listeners want to get involved, and you have a say, in digital equity, or bringing connectivity, whether it's to their community, or communities of friends and family member, like, what, what are steps people should take?

Chris Ali
That's a great question. And I love the idea of like, Let's mobilize our local Digital Champions, because they are still absolutely needed, because there's going to be times in which we've stopped talking about broadband, but we haven't solved it. So we need people to keep the fire alive in every community. First things first, you should figure out if your community has a broadband authority, and who's in charge of broadband deployment, there's usually a ton of meetings that go on, you could organize, for instance, a listening session, if you know, if you have the capacity to bring in like your board of supervisors and your providers, talk to your providers, what are their plans, I mean, it's a lot of it's to be honest, it's a lot of conversation, just around trying to figure out what your the providers plan is what your elected officials plan. And if there isn't a plan, you need to get one in place, it doesn't mean that that person has to draft it. But to be pushing your elected officials to be developing a broadband plan for your community, for your neighborhood for your county, that's all going to be absolutely crucial. Some communities have even taken to thinking about do we mobilize like the Boy Scouts to do broadband mapping. And I've been to a ton of town halls which have been so amazing, where people are able just to kind of share their frustrations around connectivity. And usually these bring in, you know, to me, some congress people or folks in the NTA to really hear the stories because the stories are impactful. So collect stories, and use these stories to fuel your connectivity efforts. And of course, if I can ever be of help to anyone who's listening, please, please, please reach out to me and be happy to have more conversations around getting our communities connected.

Jenna Spinelle
Okay, well, we will link to your your Twitter profile and your your Penn State contact information in the show notes and in your book as well. So thank you so much. Yeah, thanks for joining us today.

Chris Ali
Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Candis Watts Smith 
Thanks, Jenna, for that great conversation with Chris, I learned a lot. And one of the things that stood out to me is that we all know that on and under connectivity is a problem. But actually how big the problem is, is unknown, because methods of evaluation and measurement are inconsistent, or much too conservative. So I you know, find it fascinating that the US government does not have an accurate depiction of broadband connectivity, even though every American president since Clinton has said that this is a problem that needs to be solved.

Chris Beem
Right. I mean, and you can see why that's the case. Right. I mean, you know, for, for Republicans, this is their constituency, largely right. And so when their constituency says we want this, and when it's clear that the market is not providing this adequately, then, you know, just in terms of just the most basic political instinct of meeting the needs of your constituency. The Republicans want it. And for Democrats, it's like, yeah, we want to, you know, everything that they claim to represent your government, helping the part of the population that is less well served. And that is addressing the fundamental issue of inequality, through government action, that's a government that's a democratic thing. And this is a way to do that. And so if we have everybody in agreement, and we've had presidents since Clinton, who have addressed who have acknowledged the issue and desire to solve it, why is it that we're still in this position? And I mean, it's worth talking about that. Right. There's a lot of things that that kind of go into that right.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah. So one of the things that stands out to me is one of the things that Chris, Ollie talks about, but also you Chris being talked about earlier, is this business of market failure. And I would make an argument that one of the problems that we have, is that both Democrats and Republicans have, you know, for the past 40 years, all kind of seen problems through a neoliberal logic, which centers markets, even when they proven not to be interested in stepping up to the plate. And so people believe the market will solve the problem and then when it doesn't people suggest that the government shouldn't be in the business of solving a problem that the market should and it's just a circular logic, I think, I mean, I would make an argument that there's a difference in degree, not in kind across Democrats and Republicans on this issue, which is why we see a lot of public private partnerships, instead of kind of more robust federal standard, higher standards, coordination, collaboration, so on and so forth. So, you know, in the meantime, the digital divide is getting deeper it widens, it captures more problems, brain drain, lack of access to health care, economic development, so on and so forth.

Chris Beem
But it's also still the case that, you know, if even if it is bipartisan, you're gonna have a lot of push and pull in terms of who does what, and how expensive is, is cetera. But I want to get back to another issue here. And, you know, I said before that the United States average consumer spends a lot more on broadband than they do in in Western Europe. And I, you know, I looked this up, because I just wanted to be correct. And one of the reasons why it's, it's, um, it's expensive is a very Republican reason, a very neoliberal reason, right? There's insufficient competition providers. And that's true in in even places like State College, right? I mean, the argument is that about 70% of American consumers have one provider in their area. And when you have that, then that provider can set the terms in terms of what is available and how much it cost. And if you don't like it, oh, well, you can do without the internet, right.

Candis Watts Smith 
In Chris's book, he talks about the politics and policy of good enough that, you know, in these kind of public private partnerships, there's little oversight, there's reduced transparency. And when the US government hands over resources to private telecommunication companies, not only is there very little oversight, but there's actually low barriers to claim success, the standards are low. So you know, the US government might only require companies to provide like 10 megabits per second, when broadband starts at 25 megabits per second, you can't do much on the low end. And I was kind of trying to get my mind around, like, what do these numbers mean, and one analogy that a person suggested was that 10 megabits per second, with like, upload speed of one megabits per second, is kind of like having an electricity in one room of your house. And or you think about when we kind of had to go home during COVID. And people had to turn off their cameras, and they couldn't do this. And they couldn't do that. So were like, basically taxpayers and you know, through these fees, for our own kind of, you know, our cell phone bills and our internet bills, were subsidizing large companies to provide subpar broadband access to our fellow citizens and residents and Americans. Were subsidizing subpar connectivity,

Chris Beem
When you have money driving technology, or when technology is an opportunity to to make money it's going to develop and it's going to develop very quickly. There's strong incentives to do that. And, you know, that's the free enterprise system at its best. legislation doesn't work that way. It's always slow. It's always compromise. It's always, well, we'll do this because we can do this right. And so he talks about this as a forever problem. And, and I think that's a really good lesson, not just for rural broadband, but just generally, that legislation is always going to be behind. And it's always going to be trying to catch up. And it's almost always going to solve the problem that existed three years ago, yeah, let alone and so it's not a the moment it starts, it's inadequate, and then the technology just keeps moving and it becomes more inadequate. And so I can understand this kind of frustration that people feel. I mean, it's all over the place.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah, I mean, and I think that's where he says, you know, if you don't build it, you will lose not, you know, if you build it, they will come I think that difference makes a difference. And that we're seeing that as time goes on. People are you know, young people are gonna want to Move, communities are not going to develop and they're not going to be potential hubs of innovation.

Chris Beem
No company is going to want to come to some place that doesn't have good broadband. Right, irrespective of any other issues. Yeah, I got to believe that for most companies, that would be a deal killer.

Candis Watts Smith 
I think the other thing that is worth bringing up is kind of the overlapping issues that we've talked about before one that comes to mind is local news. So there are places that not only don't have local news sources, but they also don't have broadband access. And so we can think about what that means for the politics of that place. Of those places, the kinds of additional labor that people have to go through to get needed information to make informed decisions. And also like just the potential for that rumor mill, to do the work of informing local residents,

Chris Beem
Because of the misinformation because of the algorithms that ratchet up who you see and what they say. It can only exacerbate the kind of partisan divides that we're seeing. Now, if you suddenly were to make broadband available, it doesn't mean that these people are suddenly going to be, you know, reading the economist or, you know, downloading. I don't know how democracy works, right. But of course, if you don't do that, if you don't make that option available, you're guaranteed to have these kinds of information deserts. And that's not good for democracy. All of this is a matter of or turns on framing broadband, as a public utility, and no longer as a consumer choice. And even by uttering that word, I am sure there are Comcast executives all over filly who are having heart palpitations. Right. But I don't think there's any way around it, if it's a necessity. And if it is, if the if equality, if the the the goal of equality is directly associated with the well being of our democracy, not to mention our economy, then I don't think you have any choice. But to see it that way. Yeah. And once you do that, once you reframe the question, then all these issues appear completely different. And you know, I think we'll get there, but how soon? And what difference that makes and will government do a good job? I mean, all those, you know, because sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it doesn't, right. And so all of those questions remain open. But I also think that you have, you know, eventually that's where we have to go. I could not have said it better. I mean, Jenna was right, that this is a very good subject for us to talk about. And it was a great interview. And Chris, really interesting. And the the, as we so often found, the implications of these kind of flat kitchen table issues. Two fundamental questions about government and democracy are there if you just kind of like, you know, what did you say Park the weeds and all that here. So for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, I'm Chris Beem

Candis Watts Smith 
And I'm Candis Watts Smith. Thank you for listening.