In this episode, we continue our interviews with leaders helping municipalities navigate, understand and realize the vision of connecting their communities through broadband. We speak with Brian Snider about how Lit Communities (www.litcommunities.net) is helping municipalities navigate the early stages of broadband funding and planning.
Sean Stokes from Baller, Stokes and Lide, explains the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (www.localnetchoice.org) mission and discusses policy updates. And we speak author and industry advocate, Craig Settles of CJSpeaks (www.cjspeaks.com) about the telehealth and its significance to municipalities.
Brian Snider: Our mindset when we created even the idea of Lit Communities was more how can we get Municipalities to move forward? That was the most important aspect of what we’re looking for. And we feel the New Century Cities Broadband tool kit and the panel that we just did is an indication of different ways we can move forward with this, and it’s not one size fits all, it’s let’s figure out a way to make the box fit a little bit differently for each community, so, or blow up the box. The idea of Lit Communities has been around for the past four years, so I started the practice area, the Network Design Practice Area Foresight Group, and we begin then focusing more on open access lit networks, and Lit Communities was the way for the private industry to get more into the space to try to get these networks to move faster. Because that was a big issue that we saw. We’ve worked with communities like Broomfield, Colorado, Breckenridge, Colorado and New Orleans, Louisiana, and we get to the point where we’d have this great business plan, but then the funding, you know. You’re spending months and months of trying to raise funding, so Lit Communities is for the community. We help bring different financing to the table, but we brand the network always to be the communities’ network. Lit Communities is in the background keeping the momentum going.
Pete Pizzutillo: In the panel discussion, one of the biggest municipality fears was the capital expenditure. You’re helping attack that specific problem that seems like inertia for a lot of these communities.
Brian Snider: Every community looks at this and they look at the price tag, and they get these big wide eyes like, “holy crap, how are we going to do this?” But then once you start peeling back and peeling back more and more, I’m not spending seventy million dollars to go build out in the next two weeks. It’s a segmented process that people need to understand that this is the long play that you’re in. So think of the financing from that standpoint, too, and think of the financing from it takes different capital stacks to be able to get it done, from you could use private equity, you could use local banks who are now more based on new CRA changes. They’re incentivized to move forward with community projects. In a lot of our markets were working with local banks and things like that, but it’s, that price tag fear is like holy cow, it’s sticker shock. But then once you start looking at it and breaking it down, they sit back and go, “oh, we could do this, and we could manage it the right way,” and realized that I don’t have to have seventy million dollars of capital just sitting there spending money when I can spend one million dollars, prove ourselves out. Then the capital is going to be able to come in, in different ways. So, it’s about building that plan and then executing it from both an operational standpoint and then aligning it with the finances, too.
Craig Corbin: Bottom line is regardless of the time and effort, money that it takes, the community and all the constituents are the ones who benefit.
Brian Snider: And that’s why we’re called Lit Communities in that sense because it takes a community to do this the right way. But, if you’re not focused from that community mindset, and you’re jumping in this to just make a bunch of money out the gate, you’re in it for the wrong reasons, first of all, and then second of all it’s bigger than internet, now. Broadband is what you need to be online for students to finish homework and I always say that there could be a student in Lampasas, Texas, another community we lived in that could cure cancer if you had the right connectivity. You need to think about it that big of a standpoint. It’s now an economic game changer, it’s a workforce development game changer and it’s bigger than the money is worth it. Go do it, but it doesn’t have to be this huge, again, huge shock to your senses. But like you said with the zones, you’re building out as you go, and as long as the community understands that, you’ll still be successful.
Brian Snider: If you asked me that same question four years ago, I would’ve given you a totally different answer. Everybody’s looking at it now. Yeah, after the panel that we just got done, I don’t know if he was a resident or a part of the council or working with the city, but Marble, Colorado has about 500 homes. They’re like, “can your model fit this?” Well, of course it can. And they we’re like, “well, we were told by another consultant that open access wouldn’t work in Marble, Colorado. Well, open access is not just about the providers from ISPs and internet voice and data. You can have one provider, but still be open access for Telehealth and smart applications, and so every community is looking at this now, and if they’re not, they’re falling behind already.
Craig Corbin: You talk about the different ways that communities benefit and being competitive from an economic development standpoint is something that we are seeing now across the board. The communities that see the future and know that if they don’t start today, they are so far behind many will never catch up.
Brian Snider: I say that to a lot of the communities that we go meet with, if you’re not putting a shovel in the ground today, you’re already behind. Technology is changing too fast, and it’s just it’s the 5G just those buzz words, and the acronyms everybody loves to use in this industry, but it’s true to the fact that you have applications that are evolving so fast and other countries that are better connected than us right now. And we should be able to have the connectivity to implement the technology changes from autonomous vehicles to gunshot recognition software to even the 5G standpoint that they’re talking about, but we’re so far behind in infrastructure and those regards. If you’re not, again, same comment, if you’re not putting a shovel in the ground and building out fiber broadband right now, or fiber networks, you’re behind.
Brian Snider: I feel like 5G is being used to kind of take advantage of the situation. Meaning that the larger companies that are working to put 5G in these major tier one cities, it’s causing the communities that aren’t as well connected as say like a Nashville or Houston or Dallas, those tier one NFL cities that already have fiber all throughout the cities, the communities that are outside of them think, “well, 5G is just going to answer all our problems.” Well 5G only goes about 700 feet. In Chicago when they were doing testing, the signal wouldn’t even go through your hand depending on where you stood and how you held the… So, we’re a long ways away from 5G being successful. And I always like to say if it can only go 700 feet, how many homes am I going to build out to and rule America. I got to go build all the way to your driveway to get a 5G signal to your house. Why don’t I just go ahead and just build the rest down the driveway? Economically, it’ll still actually make more sense. Where I see 5G and smart sensors coming into play are all the smart city applications. It’s going to be four autonomous vehicles. It’s going to be on the interstates and things like that to where it needs to be thought of differently, and I say just replace everything that you see with 5G with fiber and then we’re on the right path right now.
Brian Snider: We just want to connect people. If you can connect people, you can change the world, if you think about it that way. If we connect people, we’ve accomplished our goal.
Sean Stokes: I’ve been to one a long time ago, one of the earliest ones. And then I’ve also been out here with the Colorado Utility Alliance which also does a lot of things with Mountain Connect. If you tend to go to the things you know about because you want to see what’s being said on that. And so, in the areas that I’ve been following have been sort of the community broadband tracks. I’ve been following very closely anything having to do with the electrical operatives getting into the space. I’ve also been looking at a lot of… there’s been two or three tracks that have been talking about wireless in 5G, but ones I’ve been to get into, because I don’t know much about it and I need to find time to find out about is a lot more the things about the driverless vehicles and a lot of those other capabilities.
Sean Stokes: I’m speaking for CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, which is a non-profit group made up of both public sector and private sector entities that basically advocate for community choice in its many facets and just making sure that state and local governments and consumer-owned entities, whether it’s co-ops or others, just have a full range of options available to them to meet their broadband needs. Doesn’t mean that we advocate for any one of those. We’re agnostic on that. We’re also relatively agnostic on the technology, whether it’s fiber or wireless or some combination, but we just want to have options available to as many communities as possible rather than having something from a legislative regulatory preclusion from those types of options.
Craig Corbin: Why is it that it is such a challenge for Municipalities and the like to gain the right to provide broadband?
Sean Stokes: We’re involved in going back to litigation all the way to the Supreme Court back in the early 2000s dealing with the state law that restricted municipal utilities is Missouri. I think that the issue is that it used to be concerned about public sector entities getting involved in areas that they didn’t know much about. But a lot of that has gone away, particularly when there’s been more and more focus on infrastructure and things that local governments certainly do, they do long-term infrastructure all the time and fiber and public-private partnerships. Of course, they enter into those types of arrangements all the time. As I said, CLIC is very much comprised of public and private entities moving this. And I tend to see most, not all though, but most of the opposition coming from incumbents and I don’t blame them. They have particular market goals and certainly any time you can keep someone out of your market, you continue to do well without having to invest any additional money. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. They are focused on what makes most sense for their particular business model. And as an investor, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Our concern is you don’t want to preclude others from being able to get access to those capabilities that their communities need just because it doesn’t fit within someone else’s particular business model.
Pete Pizzutillo: I think transparency needs to be discussed and the information in the market is being controlled by the incumbents up until this point in time. Does that make sense?
Sean Stokes: I think that’s true. I think that open access… in a lot of ways you would think, a lay person would think, “well, why wouldn’t an incumbent like this, if this can help avoid some capital costs and infrastructure costs,” and they can focus on other aspects that they can differentiate themselves on. That may make sense if you were starting from scratch, but from their point of view because they already own these networks, and we have certain capabilities because of these, and we have certain dominance because of those. They’ll fill out a part of a network where they don’t already have things and they’ll do some redundancy here and there, but by and large, they do not ride on an open network. I’m agnostic on the business model. I’ve seen open access networks that fine. My concern is that when they first rolled out, some of them were mandated by state laws that said you can’t get in this space unless it’s through an open access network and you can have no control in vetting who your retail customers are. And that’s problematic because if you go out there and you bonded money, your taxpayers, your consumers, whoever have paid for something, assuming some incapability, but then the retail provider doesn’t do the follow through and you have no ability to control that.
Craig Corbin: We are intrigued about the legal work that is going on behalf of Coalition of Municipal Electric Utilities. Talk about what’s going on there with regard to the FCC.
Sean Stokes: The FCC has adopted orders intended to remove perceived barriers to 5G rollout. I think we do need to do what we can to accelerate 5G and other broadband capabilities. I’d be hypocritical, given the other parts I said if I didn’t think that was true, however, I do think that the FCC has taken a one size fits all and is really saying that we’re going to do this and sort of what they view as sort of the low hanging fruit of removing what it perceives as barriers being local government permitting and regulating and right of way control which historically has been the quintessential things that local governments do, zoning. I represent also Municipal Electric Utilities and they own utility poles just like a private investor owned and cooperative owned electric utilities. And for decades, actually going back to 1978, municipally owned electric utilities, public power utilities are exempt from the FCCs federal regulations. Now the FCC has used a different portion of an existing law to say, “we actually think that we do have the ability to reach access to public power utility poles, so we’re involved in litigation and the ninth circuit court of appeals right now, and that is going on. It’s a massive piece of litigation. It’s involving just about every of the main wireless carriers. Dozens and dozens of local governments as local governments and cities, and as I said, I’m in there, working on behalf of the public power community because we just think that the FCC has really just stepped too far beyond this. The other thing we think is that the FCC really just doesn’t recognize there are reasons why people do things through pole attachment agreements, and I recognize that those can take a while, but when you’re talking about putting wireless facilities on electric utility poles, that’s not a traditional, horizontal wire going in the communication space, that is actually going above the electric space which has significant safety and operational issues that at least have to be factored in when the FCC is adopting shock clocks and time frames by which you have to act.
Craig Settles: I was writing a book on wildest technology, and I was interviewing CIOs for different companies, and then the announcement came out that Philadelphia was going to build its own WiFi network. And in the time that I had the interview with the city CIO, I decided there was enough of a story there that merited its own book. I wrote Fighting the Good Fight for municipal broadband. And, in that exercise, I started formulating strategies and guidelines and how to approach the topic of building a citywide network that had three main benefits. Now I have since talk about Telehealth and healthcare in general, but in the beginning, it was the quality of the communication between various parts of the city, and that was one main objective. And then the second one was the business side and why this would have a big benefit. And then the residential side kind of came along as part of the discussion, but the idea of using broadband to facilitate education, that’s where it came as I learned more about cities and broadband. Those called mini WiFi back in those days. And then, somewhere in the turn of the decade, I started bringing in the topic of healthcare, and of the four, the healthcare was sort of the last because everyone was all focused on the economic development side.
Craig Settles: I had a stroke four and a half years ago, and I was very fortunate that I was able to get to the hospital within a few minutes and they were able to treat me where the neurologist who was in charge of the stroke center, she was at home. And we’re talking 10:30 at night on a Saturday night, but she was able to get online, see everything that the ER specialists were seeing, and were able to start treatment in what’s called the door to needle time. But as I went through recovery, I was in the middle of writing a book, Building the Gigabit City, and the thing I had struggled with was how do I make broadband real, and how do you make a gig real when people couldn’t tell the difference between a gigabyte and a draft, right? And so, all of a sudden I had the way because then I could talk about the fact that if I hadn’t been lucky and I had cell service, which I was able to use to call my friends because I wasn’t able to really… my brain couldn’t function to dial 9-1-1. But there are people in a place as populous as Santa Fe, this woman fell off a ladder, got wrapped up in all the… the ladder itself was aluminum or whatever. But it took two hours to get her help because the cellphone didn’t work and I understand here in this area of Colorado, there are pockets of humanity where they have no cell service, right? And so, as I looked at the aspects of my treatment from arriving at the emergency room, was I started going through rehab as I was trying to communicate with friends which was not an easy tour, and my friends and family are all over the country, the ability to have that interaction which is very important with recovery. That wouldn’t happen in a rural area. It wouldn’t happen in an urban area that it’s a poor neighborhood where they don’t have good broadband. And so, I was able then to, one, finish the book, but to have chapters where I talked about not so much Telehealth, but just using broadband to facilitate healthcare delivery.
Pete Pizzutillo: I think even from the medical industry perspective, right? That they’ve always tried to struggle with having one view of a patient. So, if you have your primary care doctor, and you have your cardiac specialist, your neurologist, they each have their own view of you as you walk in the office, but in this model that you’re starting to describe, it becomes more feasible for the multiple folks that are managing a single patient to have a more holistic and complete view, right? Which start enabling them to make better decisions, faster decisions with a lot more context.
Craig Settles: Exactly. And that is often referred to as the continuum of care. It is why all of the different parts which right now are often paper-based, and a doctor… your primary care may have a different process of managing the patient, checking up on the patient, so forth, and it may be different than my cardiologist, and if I were to go to a neurologist again, it would be a different set of procedures and so forth that all together makes up this continuum of care. But to bring all of these parts together, it is helpful, well I would say imperative, especially when you talk about low income areas and rural areas, this is where the Telehealth and the broadband comes in. And so, to make that real, you have to figure that what you are doing as a broadband provider is understanding how those different pieces work and how they can be supported, right? Now, the broadband provider may not get in the business of providing Telehealth services, but they’ve got to understand the mechanics. What happens when we want to increase the level of mental health work with populations that they don’t have the internet. What are you going to do? We’re going to bring them together.
Craig Corbin: You’ve been involved with the International Economic Development Council on creating the future of community broadband, an economic development study. Some interesting data that we see in this overview. Tell us a little bit about how this all came about to begin with.
Craig Settles: In 2005 when I started writing about municipal broadband, it was very interesting to listen to mayors, city council folks and so forth as they would describe the future of a connected city. And they’re all, “we’re going to bring people back to the community.” Kids are going to stay after graduating. You’re going to find better jobs, right? There were a number of economic impacts that people expected to have once you have broadband. But there is a consistent level of people are well intentioned, but they don’t understand fully what the benefits might be on an economic standpoint. I contacted the IDEC and said, “your members are really the arbiters of local economic development, so why don’t we do a survey of what they think about broadband?” All of these promises that politicians are making, what do the economic development folks see? And what I would find every year that I did this, and up until 2014, there were a number of things that they basically said, “that’s not very helpful.” My email address is Craig@cjspeaks.com, and my website is cjspeaks.com and I would say if you’re learning about broadband and you’re planning to move your city into the broadband arena, and if you’re trying to understand the value of Telehealth, there are reports, there are articles that I’ve written and interviews and so forth. And so, there’s a whole lot of research and value that’s basically for free that you can benefit from. So, you should stop by the website.