All posts by CLIC

Future of Work Expert, Gary Bolles, will keynote CLIC’s Day @BBC Atlanta on Nov 7

Advanced broadband networks have long been drivers and platforms of local economic development. Now, communities are increasingly asking how such networks can help them meet the challenge of providing residents fulfilling and well-paying work opportunities in the face of rapidly accelerating automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and globalization.  CLIC has the honor of featuring international future-of-work expert Gary Bolles as the keynote speaker for our CLIC Day strategy session in Atlanta on November 7.   A member of CLIC’s board of advisors, Gary is the director the Future of Work program at Singularity University as well as founding partner of eParachute and Charrette.  Many of you may also know Gary from his work with his father Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?

Come join us in Atlanta, as Gary helps us leap forward and make this “Age of Acceleration” work for us.  Here is one of Gary’s recent blogs on the topic.

Unbundling Work: Learning to Thrive in Disruptive Times

by Gary A. Bolles, Partner, Charrette LLC; Co-founder, eParachute.com

Listed below are the major insights from the full version of Unbundling Work, where more complete statistics and graphs are included.

-Automation & globalization are unbundling work — but our greatest challenge is the pace of change.

-As detailed in Unbundling Higher Ed and in Unbundling the Middle Class, the arc of our lives — defined in the industrial era — includes “three boxes”: A glut of learning, then a glut of work, then a glut of leisure (in what I call “the period formerly known as retirement”). Millions of Americans have followed those Old Rules of Work, which included learning a trade or getting a degree; doing that work for most of their careers; buying a house, having a family, and educating their kids so they’d have a better life. But following those rules no longer results in widespread economic benefit.

-Even though, as of this writing, unemployment sits at an 18-year low, nearly half of all workers report they are under-employed, and about two-thirds are not engaged with their work. Unemployment increasingly is concentrated in rural areas, and is likely to increase there, as more and more young people move to urban areas.

-Work is becoming unbundled — but what is work? Work is four things: Skills, applied to Tasks, to solve Problems, and generate Results. (We are paid for work because we’re problem-solvers and results-generators. But we are often rated by how we perform Tasks.)

Automation doesn’t kill jobs: It performs Tasks. It’s an employer’s decision if enough Tasks are automated to justify killing a job.

-Most studies reported in the popular press focus on what Tasks are automate-able —Tasks that could be automated by software & robots — but can’t accurately predict what employers will choose to actually automate, nor what decisions employers will make about how many jobs to retain or destroy. And they can’t predict what the net impact on compensated work is likely to be, because we can’t effectively envision what new work will be created.

-We do know that automation has the potential to disrupt an increasing number of work categories. Automation creates a lot of jobs. Automation will change a lot of jobs. The potential for displacement is dramatic. And the pace of change isn’t likely to ever slow down.

-We don’t know what the net impact on compensated work will be, nor exactly what the arc of impact on many job categories (such as truckers and self-driving trucks). We also don’t know what the impact of “gig economy” two-sided work market platforms will be — though we do know that many of the existing platforms have a downward impact on wages.

-Hi-tech theorists often assume the net impact of automation will eventually be that robots and software will eat most jobs, and that we need to consider a “universal basic income” to insulate workers from disruption. That’s essentially hi-tech “dancing in the end-zone,” assuming that technology “wins” and humans lose. And it’s a failure of imagination, because those same pundits can’t envision what work will be created by automation.

The most important question we can ask ourselves is: In 20 years, what will we wish we had done — today? What we need is a set of processes to help us continually to adapt as exponential changes continue to occur.

-There are numerous strategies that we need to pursue simultaneously, including converting our schools to teach 21st-century skills like collaborative problem-solving, converting our colleges to lifelong learning platforms, creating numerous short-cycle “nano-degrees” offering targeted knowledge linked to available work, expanding trusted reputation systems like badging, and training to help workers and managers to become continually adaptive and entrepreneurial as they change work situations much more rapidly.

-Silicon Valley needs to turn its considerable innovation engine toward using technology to enhance workers’ skills, to increase their access to compensated work.

-Employers have numerous opportunities, including adopting more inclusive hiring practices, increasing market signals so workers can know better what opportunity is available, instituting apprenticeships and mentorships, “rural-sourcing” work, and expanding their corporate stakeholders beyond shareholders to include workers, customers, partners, communities, and the planet — and therefore changing the calculus for retaining workers.

-We need to rethink “the period formerly known as retirement,” dramatically increasing the perceived value of the experience of older workers.

-We need to create new policies for an exponentially-changing world, including changing the way we report on employment, revising certificate requirements for many jobs, creating individual learning accounts, and create portable benefits.

Thanks to Dick Bolles, John Hagel, Vint Cerf, Peter Sims, David Nordfors, Parag Khanna, and Heidi Kleinmaus for their contributions to the thinking here.

CLIC Congratulates NATOA Community Broadband Award Winners

Every year NATOA holds a nationwide competition for those local communities who are showing exceptional leadership by building programs that champion community interests in broadband deployment and adoption. Each of these award winners demonstrates how local communities across the nation are actively engaging their resources to ensure full community access to this critical modern infrastructure.

CLIC congratulates the following five 2017 award winners:

  • Community Broadband Hero of the Year: Danna MacKenzie, Executive Director, State of Minnesota Office of Broadband Development;
  • Community Broadband Project of the Year: Longmont Power & Communications, Longmont, CO;
  • Community Broadband Strategic Plan of the Year: Seattle, WA “Strategic Plan for Facilitating Equitable Access to Wireless Broadband”;
  • Community Broadband Digital Equity Project of the Year: Seattle, WA “Technology Matching Fund”;
  • Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year: Garrett County, MD & Declaration Networks Group, Inc.

More on these award winners can be found here.

From CLIC-NC: Mozilla Brings Together Gigabit Lovers in Charlotte, NC

by Christa Wagner Vinson and Alan Fitzpatrick

Mozilla, probably best known for its adorable vulpine mascot from the Firefox web browser, came to Charlotte last month to talk about the virtues of high-speed gigabit Internet connectivity and what can be done with it. Mozilla’s foundation has recently been connecting tech enthusiasts, digital literacy advocates, and other leaders through its Hive Learning Networks and gigabit city-based programs in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Lafayette, La.; Eugene, Ore. and Kansas City, Mo.

The Hive’s neighborly outreach, plus the recent arrival of gigabit broadband Internet service to Charlotte, is what brought Mozilla our way. Google Fiber Charlotte and NC Hearts Gigabit, (a project of CLIC-NC and an outgrowth of Charlotte Hearts Gigabit) , were pleased to host a small gathering for the half-day workshop.

Kicking things off in the Google Fiber event space in uptown, the workshop got an appropriately techie start by first defining gigabit. So, what is that, exactly? Well, giga is derived from the Greek word for giant, and, yes, it’s pretty big.  A gigabit is a thousand megabits, which is a thousand kilobits, which is a thousand bits. 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 equals a gigabit, one billion bits per second. (Bit, by the way, is a basic unit of information that generally refers to speed of upload or download.  Byte, meanwhile, generally refers to storage capacity – the quantity of data.)

Mozilla’s facilitators helped the group visualize the possibilities of a world at Gigabit speed. They asked the group to rate their awareness of various gigabit-related topics like 4K video and the Internet of Things. They dazzled by showcasing gigabit-enabled success stories from Chattanooga and Kansas City, where next-generation applications being built there are making possible everything from scientific research to artistic collaboration. The conversation then turned pragmatic: sorting out what is working in the Charlotte region when it comes to using technology to meet community needs – and what isn’t. The event participants, ranging from digital inclusion and workforce developments advocates to smart city wonks and civic techies, each had a stake in the conversation.

Yet the workshop also offered a welcome opportunity to challenge pre-conceived expectations.  Namely, that while the digital revolution has long promised straightforwardly positive advancements in economic development– new jobs created from technological innovation, the decentralization of work to anywhere with an Internet connection – the reality is, it’s been a bit more complicated in the execution.  The upshot, fortunately, is that there are ways to get there – at least when Mozilla is your tour guide.

As Charlotte powers forward with its own gigabit networks, we hope the region will continue to work hard to find solutions for the complexities the Internet Age throws at us. This will mean helping people get jobs wherever they are, and with the skills they already have, using digital platforms; innovating the new financial products that can support broadband expansion, as well as mobile financial services that meet the needs of underserved groups; helping small business deploy technology strategies that make them more productive and competitive; and helping our region win the race for the jobs produced by Industry 4.0 so that we’re talking about up-skilling rather than job killing.

In the end, for community and economic developers and those we serve, the real opportunity is discovering what we actually want out of technology — after all, it is merely a tool — and how to get it. From application development to community development, and everything in between, we have a lot of work to do.

And, hey, if you’re reading this blog, you are an agent in that change. Charlotte Hearts Gigabit, and NC Hearts Gigabit look forward to continuing the buzz around the enormous opportunity of the gigabit.  You can follow us on twitter at @NCHeartsGb

Who knows, we got the Hornets back, maybe we can be a Mozilla Hive City one day, too.

Wilson Greenlight to Continue Gigabit Fiber Service in Rural Pinetops and Vick Family Farms — with conditions

Late last night, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation, HB 396, allowing Wilson’s Greenlight to continue providing broadband service to Pinetops and Vick Family Farms. The bill sets additional conditions and also authorizes Greenlight to resume charging those customers for service.

This action somewhat resolves a series of legislative and regulatory decisions that required Greenlight to cease charging for service in these recently expanded areas, beginning last October. Under the new law, Pinetops customers and Vick Family Farms can continue to receive Greenlight service until another provider builds a similar fiber to the home network in the area. At that time, Greenlight would have 30 days to cease service, with customers transitioning to the new provider. In that event, Pinetops would be in the unique position of having two fiber to the home systems to serve a small, rural community. (Pinetops has about 600 households, and a per capita income of $15,763. About 20% of the population live below the poverty line, with about 60% of the residents being African American and 40% Caucasian).

“We appreciate our delegation’s efforts, led by Representative Martin, to eliminate restrictions on Greenlight’s ability to serve customers who requested and desperately need our service,” said Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose. “While this is not the bill we had hoped for, it is a step in the right direction. We hope that in the future our General Assembly will be allowed to focus on expanding rural broadband instead of restricting it.”

House Bill 396: Municipal Broadband Service Area was introduced first in the House, by Representative Susan Martin (R-Wilson) and Representative Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson). It was presented on the Senate floor last night by Senator Harry Brown (R-Onslow, Jones), Senate Majority Leader, who represents many rural communities in his district.

Pinetops residents were left with much uncertainty in the past few months about future access to broadband service. Suzanne Coker-Craig and Brent Wooten, both Pinetops Town Commissioners, have worked diligently toward a solution to preserve reliable broadband in the community.

“Although not the solution we expected, we are pleased this bill allows us to continue to leverage Greenlight’s next generation infrastructure as we focus on growing our community,” said Coker-Craig. “Hopefully, no other provider will exercise the option to build redundant infrastructure that our community neither wants nor needs. Pinetops has made it clear that we want the quality and speed of service that only Greenlight can provide.”

Greenlight currently serves more than 200 residential and commercial customers in Pinetops, as well as providing broadband access to community and anchor institutions.

“We are pleased to learn that we will be allowed to continue serving Pinetops and Vick Farms with the best broadband service in our State,” said Greenlight General Manager Will Aycock. “Our focus moving forward is to determine how best to serve these areas under the new legislation.”

The legislation will become effective once Governor Cooper signs it into law, expected early next week.

Background

Under legislation adopted the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2011 session, municipalities like Wilson are barred from offering broadband services except in very limited circumstances. Wilson’s Greenlight system was already built and serving customers when the legislation passed, after years of unsuccessful attempts to partner with a telecom partner to offer broadband in the city. The legislation (heavily lobbied for by the state’s incumbent providers) limits Wilson to operate Greenlight only within Wilson County.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that a federal law encouraging the extension of broadband into underserved areas preempted North Carolina’s law.  The FCC ruling allowed Wilson to provide broadband to customers within its electric service area, a five-county region.

Wilson then extended Greenlight to Pinetops in Edgecombe County and Vick Farms, a large family farm that employs nearly 300 people just over the Wilson County line in Nash County, pursuant to the FCC ruling, in early 2016. (The critical nature of Wilson’s Greenlight’s next generation internet service to the sustainability of Vicks family farm sweet potato production was featured by the New York Times last year.)

On August 10, 2016, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority in preempting the North Carolina statutes. That ruling put the 2011 NC law back in place.  The NC law required Wilson to cease selling Greenlight services to Pinetops and Vick Family Farm by October 2016 or risk having to shut down all of Greenlight.

The Wilson City Council voted in September 2016 to provide limited Greenlight service to customers outside of Wilson County at no charge for up to six months, a measure that prevented disconnection of customers in the town of Pinetops and Vick Family Farms. Without this action, these customers would have been disconnected. The Council made that decision based on a commitment by Rep. Martin and North Carolina Senator Harry Brown to draft and support legislation to change the current law in the 2017 session of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Wilson Greenlight was there for Vick Family Farms in the heart of the sweet potato harvesting season; and it continued to be there for Pinetops even during Hurricane Matthew.

Why You Should Join CLIC’s Newest Chapter in Colorado

I am Todd Barnes. I was president of the Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance (CCUA) for 6 years and just stepped down in January. As such, I wanted to introduce you to CLIC’s newest chapter, CLIC-Colorado. A little over six months ago, CCUA voted to become an official chapter of CLIC. This alliance between the CCUA and CLIC was a natural fit because both CLIC and CCUA believe that the internet is an essential element of every community’s infrastructure and that each local community is best at determining if its broadband services are sufficient to meet current and future needs.

This natural partnership will weave CLIC’s network further into our state-wide efforts. For many years, CLIC has worked in unison with CCUA to support its legislative agenda both at the state and federal levels. Along with our legal counsel, Ken Fellman, and the other members of CCUA’s Executive Committee, we have  partnered with the Colorado Municipal League to educate Colorado elected officials about the intricate issues associated with broadband deployment and the challenges the industry has presented to local decision-making. Our partnership was most valuable during the last two legislative sessions in Colorado, when our organizations battled together to overcome a state law that prevents local governments from providing broadband services. While we have not yet repealed the law, our effort will likely continue because it is the natural outgrowth of  a popular movement in Colorado communities to gain local internet choice. Over the last few years, more than 95 Colorado communities have voted in referendum to exempt themselves from the state law that prohibits them from providing broadband networks, with vote margins being far from close.  An average of more than 75% of the voters declared that they wanted their community to have the right to choose.

In addition to broadband, CCUA, and now CLIC-Colorado, are big supporters of PEG operations and programming. I actually started my work with CCUA as a member of the video production committee. We started producing our own video program for members to use on their PEG channels. Today, CCUA produces its own video program called Connected Colorado. This commercial-quality production lets our communities showcase events, programs and people from their communities.

Please feel free to visit the CCUA’s website for more information at www.coloradocua.org or become a Colorado member of CLIC by clicking here, and your name will pass through to our chapter.

Professor Yoo’s Flawed Study Flunks Test on Municipal Broadband

By Jim Baller and Joanne Hovis

On May 24, 2017, University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Christopher Yoo and  student Timothy Pfenninger released a paper entitled “Municipal Fiber in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of Financial Performance”. Applying a Net Present Value analysis to data on 20 municipal broadband projects for the years 2010 to 2014, the paper concluded that 11 projects generated negative cash flow and that only two projects generated sufficient cash flow to pay off the debt incurred during the networks’ estimated useful life.

As with many past industry-supported attacks on municipal broadband, it will take some time for interested readers to dig into the details of the Yoo study and fully understand its strengths and weaknesses.[1] That will occur in due course. There are, however, a number of serious problems with this study that leap out at once.

For one thing, almost immediately after releasing their report, the authors issued a press release acknowledging that they had “erroneously stated that the bonds used to finance the projects in Chattanooga, TN; Lafayette, LA; and Wilson, NC; call for balloon payments toward the end of their bond terms.”[2] They say that they made this error because they were reading summary tables on page 2 of the relevant sources rather than “[t]he more detailed discussions contained inside the Official Statements.”[3]

While the authors claim that this error did not affect their financial analysis, one wonders how many other serious errors exist in the study—and how many other times the authors took shortcuts instead of reviewing the full available data. Perhaps if they had contacted the cities at issue to verify the data, they could have caught this mistake in advance. Apparently, they skipped that step as well.

A particularly important shortcoming of the study is that the choice of 2010 through 2014 as the study period introduced significant selection bias. This occurred for at least two reasons. First, at least three of the key projects studied—Chattanooga, Lafayette, and Wilson—all began service in 2009. Because city-wide projects take years to build (as do all substantial communications networks), none of these projects was fully operational throughout the 2010 to 2014 study period.  This may also have been true of several of the other projects included in the study.[4]

Second, amplifying this problem, during the 2010-2014 study period, the U.S. was slowly recovering from the 2008–2009 collapse of the global economy. This undoubtedly dampened demand for communications services relative to what it would have been in more normal times. Yet, the authors chose to base their projections on these unrepresentative data.

That using 2010-2014 as the study period was inappropriate becomes all the more apparent when one examines Chattanooga’s, Lafayette’s, and Wilson’s actual post-2014 experience.  For example, the Yoo study predicted that it would take Chattanooga 412 years to “turn positive.” In fact, Chattanooga’s post-2014 sales have soared, its fiber utility has already paid off its debt, and its net revenues from sales of fiber-based communications services are helping to keep Chattanooga’s electric rates down.[5]  At the same time, according to studies by Dr. Bento Lobo, professor of finance at the University of Tennessee (Chattanooga), Chattanooga’s fiber network has contributed to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 jobs—and to economic and social benefits to the community ranging in value from $865 million to $1.321 billion.[6]

Lafayette and Wilson have also had strong post-2014 experiences. Wilson has reduced electric rates by 22 percent, a clear sign of the strength of its utility,  LUS Fiber has already paid $600,000 to the City’s General Fund, and by 2020, it will be paying about $1 million annually, which support Lafayette’s fire and police forces.  LUS Fiber has also helped to create nearly 1,000 high tech jobs in Lafayette.

Indeed, all three cities have merited strong bond ratings from Wall Street.[7] So, one must ask, who has more credibility in assessing the strength of these municipal fiber projects, a law professor and his student—or professional bond rating firms such as Moody’s Investment Service, Fitch Ratings, and Standard & Poor’s Ratings?

Another problem with the Yoo study is that the boldness of its conclusions is undermined by the many caveats and qualifications set forth at various points in the study. For example, at one point, the report states, “[t]he high-level analysis presented in this study may overlook key details that can help explain the results in particular cases. In addition, the financial performance of these projects may improve in the future.”[8]

At another point, the study notes that the authors did not have certain data for seven of the 20 projects being studied, so they made projections based on data that they had for the remaining 13 projects.[9] This effectively made a small sample of projects even smaller.

Likewise, in the course of discussing their linear model for calculating discounted cash flows from 2010 to 2014, the authors candidly caution, “[c]are should be placed on attributing too much weight to the results of these models. The relatively small number of observations and the simplicity of the model prevent them from achieving statistical significance.”[10]

Nevertheless, despite these and other similar qualifications, the authors did not hesitate to draw broad conclusion and opine that “the overall results provide a useful snapshot of the nature and size of the challenges that municipal fiber projects face.”[11] Unfortunately, in reporting on this study, several media outlets have focused on the authors’ sensational conclusions and have missed the significance of these caveats.

The study also insultingly suggests that city officials are shortsighted in seeking to secure for their constituents affordable access to gigabit broadband: “[a]lthough some day people may need the download speeds that FTTH makes possible, the evidence suggests little need for such speeds today.”[12]

This breezy dismissal of the need for fast broadband demonstrates that the authors lack understanding of the goals of the local officials they seek to warn away from municipal fiber projects. Like electric utilities in the last century, fiber networks are multi-purpose platforms and drivers of simultaneous progress in just about everything that matters to communities. This includes economic development, education, public safety, healthcare, transportation, environmental protection, energy, government service, democratic discourse, digital equity, entertainment, and much more.

These critical community goals are why local government officials are eager to obtain the benefits of advanced communications networks—by working with willing incumbents, partnering with new entrants, building their own networks when necessary, or developing other innovative arrangements that work for them.

In any event, local governments are not alone in seeking broadband at gigabit speeds. Google Fiber, AT&T, Comcast, and many other entities have made the case for such robust networks—and have invested in building them in select areas, notwithstanding Mr. Yoo’s skepticism about the need for such networks.

Furthermore, throughout their report, the authors condescendingly treat municipal leaders as ignorant hayseeds.  Municipal leaders, the authors say, “should carefully consider all of the relevant costs and risks before moving forward with a municipal fiber program.”[13] Cities considering whether to initiate a municipal fiber project “should carefully evaluate the performance of prior efforts and assess whether differences exist that would likely lead to a better outcome.”[14]  In our experience, local government officials are well aware that capital-intensive infrastructure projects are costly and risky and actively seek  to learn from the experiences of other communities. They do not need a lecture on common sense from a law professor and a law student.

When a locality considers the possibility of developing a municipal fiber network, months—even years—of intensive discussion typically occurs at the local level, during which every fact, every assumption, and every technological, legal, financial, social, and other relevant issue is examined from multiple angles. Incumbent service providers invariably participate actively in this process, as do local entrepreneurs and competitive providers. In the end, this process ensures that only those projects that meet a significant unmet need and have a high probability of success will go forward.

Finally, as former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell noted at the event where this problematic report was released, localities undertake broadband initiatives not for purposes of profit, but for public purposes such as education, economic development, healthcare, and civic engagement. These purposes are fundamental to the missions and obligations of local governments, and the value delivered by fiber networks in these areas goes far beyond income on a financial statement. As with so much else about municipal broadband, Mr. Yoo and his student fail to accurately understand that.

Jim Baller is the President, and Joanne Hovis is the Chief Executive Officer, of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice

[1]               The Yoo study was published under the auspices of Penn Law and its Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition. Among the Center’s supporters are AT&T, Comcast-NBC Universal, CTIA, NCTA, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. https://goo.gl/oY1Ouv.

[2]               Steven Barnes, “Correction,” Press Release, University of Pennsylvania Law School, May 26, 2017, https://goo.gl/7XFWJ2.

[3]               Id.

[4]               Table V includes a column entitled “Age of Project as of 2010,” but the numbers listed in the column are unreliable.  For example, Chattanooga and Wilson are listed as two years old, and Lafayette is listed as three years old, even though the study elsewhere acknowledges that each began service in 2009.  According to Table V, at least five other projects were two or three years old as of 2010.

[5]               Colin Wood, “Report discredits municipal fiber financials — but experts balk,” Statescoop, May 30, 2017, https://goo.gl/cU6P1x.

[6]               Bento J. Lobo, The Realized Value of Fiber Infrastructure in Hamilton County, TN (May 2, 2017), https://goo.gl/g4vDDJ.

[7]               Dave Flessner, “EPB Readies $250 million bond issue with upgraded rating,” Times Free Press, https://goo.gl/Ait7w8, July 9, 2015 (Fitch and Standard & Poor’s upgrade EPB’s bond rating from AA to AA-plus); “Standard & Poor’s Upgrades LUS Fiber’s Bond Rating to A+”, https://goo.gl/YjASlL (April 2015); City of Wilson, NC, “Fitch Ratings upgrades City of Wilson bond rating,” https://goo.gl/CZbyxh December 30, 2016 (“The City of Wilson’s bond rating was recently upgraded by Fitch Ratings to AA+, a significant endorsement of the financial health of the city.”)

[8]               Yoo study, at 1. See also id., at 3.

[9]               Id., at 1.

[10]             Id., at 24.

[11]             Id., at 1.

[12]             Id.

[13]             Id., at 1.

[14]             Id.

Why a Dedicated High Speed Broadband Network to Connect the Unconnected is a Game Changer

by Lev Gonick, DigitalC

[Note: CLIC reprints here with permission this important guest blog from Lev Gonick, a member of our Board of Advisors]

Recently, DigitalC launched the Connect the Unconnected program. It has received strong media coverage in the Cleveland PlainDealer, WCPN (NPR)’s Sound of Ideas and in blog postings around the world. In this blog posting, I offer details on the technical design, the solution architecture, and our hopes for America’s first, dedicated gigabit network designed specifically to support the unserved and underserved members of our community.

The Connect the Unconnected network aspires to connect the 50% of Cleveland residents with no wired broadband access.

Why It Matters – The Center for Public Integrity notes that nationwide, families in neighborhoods with median household incomes below $34,800 — the lowest fifth of neighborhoods nationally — are five times more likely not to have access to broadband than households in areas with a median income above $80,700 — the top fifth.

In Cleveland, the average household salary of the 8,802 families living in public housing is $7,572 per year. Nearly a third of those with housing choice vouchers are working poor. Today, Internet access in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority is measured in the hundreds of residents. Cleveland is the third least connected city in the United States behind Detroit and Brownsville, Texas. Twenty percent of the residents of the Lutheran’s Men’s Shelter, the largest homeless shelter in Ohio, are returning Vets. Without an internet connection, residents can not apply for public housing, a job, or a myriad of other VA, City, and County services. Dr. Adam Perzynski of MetroHealth in Cleveland has recently concluded that controlling for income and education, broadband access is the single most important social determinant of health and wellness. Students in Cleveland’s Metropolitan School District all take a battery of standardized tests online. Seven of ten teachers assign homework online and yet one in three students has no internet access at home. More than 3000 children are in some form of foster care or at risk of timing out support systems provided by the County in Greater Cleveland. Internet access is rare but for those youth in foster care who enroll in public universities so they can gain shelter instead of sleeping on the street or in a car.

This is the other America. More than 47 million Americans without Internet. 47 million Americans with real faces, circumstances, hopes and dreams. Nearly a third of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans do not have Internet. Digital equity is our 21st century civil rights challenge, neither color blind, independent of class, age, ability, or location independent.

Designing America’s First Dedicated High Speed Network to Connect the UnConnected

There is no silver bullet, no elixir, no one-size fits all solution to connect the unconnected. For the past fifteen years, Cleveland has had an intentional effort to design, build, manage, and operate its own digital infrastructure. I do not mean the City of Cleveland. DigitalC is a non-profit spin-off of OneCommunity which in turn was a rebranding and scaling of OneCleveland that was launched in 2003 by a group of civically minded technology leaders in Cleveland. Conceived of as a catalyst for leveraging technology for community impact, we spent much of the decade between 2006-2016 designing, constructing, managing, and operating what became a large regional fiber optic network in Northeast Ohio connecting thousands of community anchor institutions. In November 2015, the Board of OneCommunity agreed to accept a $50m investment by MC Partners in order to accelerate and deepen the investments we sought for digital infrastructure through Everstream. As part of that agreement, we retained significant fiber optic capacity (through a legal arrangement known as IRUs) for our continued work in R&D, grants, and mission-related activities.

Our Connect the Unconnected network leverages community anchor institutions that have a presence on the fiber optic backbone.

The first ring pictured is a fully redundant network that was designed by engineers from Siklu, a leading provider of millimeter wave (mmWave) wireless technologies. Many of their more than 45,000 deployed antennas across the United States are the ‘kit’ for WebPass, the company recently acquired by Google Fiber. The backhaul for WebPass is a collection of commercial networks and drains to the Net. Not withstanding, the continuing debate about the future of the modernized lifeline service, there is relatively little leverage for the poor, elderly, rural, and disabled to assure their ability to access the Net. There is even less strategic opportunity to create new entrepreneurial opportunities to be serve and disrupt the substantial unserved and underserved marketplace. All over the global south and beyond, the Net is the platform through which better health, job opportunities, education and training, and other public services and delivered rather than a regulatory afterthought for the incumbent providers. Thus the opportunity to design and launch a dedicated high speed network to fill a demonstrable void and serve the unserved and underserved communities within the Greater Cleveland region.

Anchored to our fiber at the St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, the antenna arrays for the Connect the Unconnected network in Cleveland have between one and three antennas per building allowing us to extend fiber-like services. All the buildings in the ring are connected at gigabit speeds. The installation team from Agile Networks tethered and calibrated the Siklu mmWave antennas and then connected the wireless antennas from the rooftops to the demarcation points in the respective communication rooms, typically in the basement of each of the residential towers.

DigitalC reached out to Sunnyvale-based Actelis Networks to design a solution to connect the internal wiring plant of the original 1950s copper wiring through their switching technology to the gigabit mmWave antennas via a fiber optic link. The team from Actelis terminated the copper wiring in every single apartment to customer premise equipment and a WiFi switch as well as to their own switches in the demarcation room in the basement of the residential tower. Not withstanding the promise of future technologies like G.fast, the Actelis solution turbo-charged the existing copper wiring to provide residents with a symmetrical service of, on average, 25-30 Mb/s down and up. A service offering I would be very happy with, could I receive it in the suburbs.

Given the well documented challenges of leveraging the pervasive legacy copper plant in cities like Cleveland, this pilot programs provides proof positive that there are technology solutions with relatively modest investment requirements to provide all customers with copper with an FCC-defined and acceptable source of high speed bandwidth, at least for now.

More than 1000 men and women live in homeless shelters in the City of Cleveland. As noted above, 20 percent of the men are returning Vets. Another 60 percent are men re-entering the community from being incarcerated in prisons. These men and women are demonstrably interested in gaining access to the Internet for digital literacy training, keeping in touch with loved ones, seeking workforce training opportunities, digital up-skilling as well as opportunities to look up their healthcare records.

The Lutheran Men’s Shelter, the northerly most node on ring one, brought their connection from the rooftop to their computer lab via a fiber optic connection. A group of 30 men immediately signed up for training. As the first set of computers were connected to the network, a speedtest.net was performed at each station and access at the homeless shelter is now among the fastest Internet connections in the entire City of Cleveland.

Build It And They Will Come — NOT

Over the past 25 years, the experience of community technology centers and their advocates have consistently demonstrated that making Internet access available is a necessary but insufficient condition to onboarding those excluded from the digital economy. Digital isolation can only be overcome by direct and contextually relevant engagement work with those unserved and underserved members of the community.

Connect the Unconnected attempts to be such a wholistic end-to-end program. DigitalC is the catalyst but the entire program is delivered by and through our partnership network.

Every city in the United States has an e-waste stream eco-system. In Cleveland, RET3 has long been a partner supporting the recycling of computers to support the needs of the community. The forward leaning leadership at RET3 not only provides a certified solution for recycling e-waste for corporate and enterprise Cleveland businesses, they have long been engaged in supporting certified workforce development programs. RET3 offers A++ certification, Cisco network certifications, and a host of internship, re-entry, and work study opportunities. RET3’s gently used PC and Apple laptops and mini-towers come with TechSoup certified software licenses.

Another key part of the Connect the Unconnected program is to tie the distribution of computers and software to successful completion of 8 hours of certified training. Delivered by community partners like the Ashbury Seniors Community Computing Center (ASC3). Digital literacy trainers with decades of experience and credibility in the community are critical resources to raise the prospects of success. The empirical evidence bears out the value of this approach. Academic research conducted in 2012 and 2013 affirms that investments in digital literacy training bears strong positive support for employment prospects, greater responsibility for health information, social engagement, and sense of personal self-worth. The data also show that once the once digitally isolated get connected, they overwhelmingly see the value of investing in their own futures and paying for access and prioritize the Internet near the very top of their needs.

Scale – What Comes Next?

I continue to believe that the need for digital equity is as compelling as it is urgent. The danger for failing to act in a timely manner will only lead to dystopian futures with the threads of our social contract fraying further still as the divide continues to widen. There is no doubt that a national framework for connecting the unconnected has always been a desired end-state. Even a strong set of templates for statewide efforts to connect the unconnected would prove valuable in having positive impact on individuals, families and whole communities. There is little to no prospect of a national policy move in this direction. Likewise, there is little prospect for statewide initiatives. American exceptionalism in broadband has meant that the action to connect the 47 million Americans with no Internet is happening in our cities and with our rural utility coops and other more locally defined authorities. We can wait for enlightenment or we can continue to work on connecting the unconnected as a local issue.

The technical architecture of the Cleveland Connect the Unconnected program is scalable and replicable. There are hundreds of community anchor institutions on our network geographically dispersed around the Greater Cleveland geography. That said, there are several technical constraints to such efforts including the laws of physics as they relate to line of sight, a requirement for the mmWave fiber extension project. We are already designing hybrid approaches to solve for these constraints. Our available fiber footprint will allow us to plan and cost out the extension of fiber to advance connectivity. We are actively engaged with the R&D community and industry leaders here in Cleveland to position our region for a strong, research-led engagement on bringing 5G wireless test beds to the Greater Cleveland area. Our Connect the Unconnected initiative is a good exemplar of the foundations for a meaningful civic IoT to advance the quality of life in our community and serve as a reference architecture for others. Likewise, we anticipate G.fast pilots and several other emerging technologies to join the mix. We have begun design work on rings 2-4 building off the work in the midtown campus district as we anticipate offerings both east and west of the downtown. We have also been asked to model extending gigabit connectivity to geographies around the Greater Cleveland area where poverty is quickly encroaching, bringing with it the downward spiral of economic and social challenges.

I want to end where I began. Designing and launching a reference architecture for a dedicated high speed broadband network and all the attendant wrap around services and support is my definition of civic technology. Connect the Unconnected is about making a small contribution to a simple idea. When history is written, our ability to extend access to the digital economy and all of its opportunities is the surest way to bet on a future of prosperity for all of us. Connecting the Unconnected is the promise of supporting those unserved and underserved to restart their dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow.

[The original of Lev’s blog post can be found here.]

See you Monday at CLIC Day in Dallas!

We look forward to seeing everyone on Monday in Dallas at CLIC’s pre-conference event, “Making Local Internet Choice Happen in a Changing Environment: Opportunities and Challenges in 2017.

We will focus on how to overcome barriers that impede the development of advanced communications networks. We will examine the impact of the new federal administration on local Internet choice, new state legislative efforts both for and against local Internet choice, and innovative fiber deployment approaches in rural areas. Our interactive panels of experts will share best practices, experiences and strategies for developing robust, resilient networks — including a full range of public-private partnerships — and for overcoming political, legal, and financial barriers.

You can still register as a CLIC member here. To receive the CLIC member discount, simply go to the “CODE” drop down menu and type in CLIC2017, for a conference rate of $350. If you are not already a member of CLIC, you can join here (It’s free.)

Why Rural Broadband Matters: Silicon Holler Rises Up from Old Coal Country

“Could a coal miner really code?”  “Yes” was the answer from a small group of ambitious former coal miners who knew if their town did not diversify its economy, their only other choice was moving. “Hillbillies,” they answered,  “can code!”

According to a recent article in the Guardian, more than 600,000 U.S. tech jobs go unfilled every year, jobs that end up being shipped overseas but which could be filled by Americans if only we had the skills. These jobs pay the same as those $70K a year coal mining jobs.

So in a coal mining town called Pikeville, Kentucky, a new “Bitsource” company was founded from the fingertips of 11 former coal miners. After two years, it has blossomed into the dream of carving a new Silicon Holler out of the mountain’s resources. “We’re nerds now” according to one of its 55-year-old coders.

To make their new on-shoring a reality, Pikeville City Manager, Donovan Blackburn, faces two large barriers: 1) access to modern broadband and 2) getting access to the federal funds that will help Pikeville connect to Kentucky’s unfolding fiber backbone. The Trump Administration’s 2018 budget eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Economic Development Commission which are tasked with helping Kentucky recover from the collapse of the coal industry. If Pikeville doesn’t get broadband very soon, they know they will be cut off from the modern economy despite their newly retrained coal workforce.

“In the mines, if you messed up, you could either kill someone or cost your company millions of dollars,” according to the 55-year-old coder quoted by the Guardian. This is why coal miners make good coders. “Failure for us was just not an option.”

We encourage you to come hear Pikeville’s City Manager, Donovan Blackburn, speak at CLIC Day in Dallas on May 1st, about Pikeville’s effort to transition away from coal and into a hi tech world for his mountain community. CLIC members qualify for a deep conference registration discount.  See here.

NC Legislators Should Encourage, not Disconnect, Modern Rural Internet

Background: A tiny, rural town in North Carolina has gigabit internet from a community-owned fiber provider, Wilson Greenlight, and the big cable and telephone companies want it disconnected. Today a local newspaper printed an editorial from an industry front group (just like the one these monopolies used in 2010 and 2011). Titled “City-Owned  Broadband Squeezes Taxpayers” the “American Taxpayers Alliance” in essence suggested that NC legislators should disconnect gigabit internet service in rural Pinetops because “municipal broadband poses a significant threat to taxpayers.” The real story of what is happening in Pinetops is found in a local letter to the editor from a Pinetops Town Commissioner, reprinted below . While it is not true that Greenlight uses taxpayer money to run their network, it is true that Centurylink is getting more than $40 million in public funds through the federal Connect America Fund with which they are building old internet technology (10Mbps/1Mbps) to their NC rural customers. Having no internet choice and access to only old internet for your community — that sounds like the death knell for local rural economic growth — and the real “significant threat” to taxpayers.

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Legislators Should Help Promote Internet Access, 

by Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops Town Commissioner

Every one of the 600 homes in rural Pinetops – in economically struggling Edgecombe County – has access to symmetrical, fiber-to-the-home, gigabit internet service. Not even Raleigh has that. So why are state legislators trying to disconnect us and take away the biggest economic and education advantage we have had in decades? Why are they siding with big telecom corporations rather than their rural constituents whose livelihoods are being crippled by antiquated internet service?

In 2011, the telecom industry pushed the NC Legislature to pass a law limiting the City of Wilson’s internet service area to Wilson County, even though Wilson is a long-time utility provider to Pinetops and other small towns in neighboring counties. The Federal Communication Commission ruled in 2015 to preempt this law, which allowed Pinetops to invite Wilson to bring its fiber internet service (“Greenlight”) to the town in March 2016. In May, the State challenged the FCC decision and won, which will force Greenlight to disconnect Pinetops. Rep. Susan Martin (R-Wilson), Rep. Shelley Willingham (D-Edgecombe), and Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D- Wilson), Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Martin) and Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) introduced legislation to keep Pinetops connected, but the bills appear to be stalling because of intense lobbying by the big telecoms. Rep. Jeff Collins (R-Nash) has even introduced a bill that would force Greenlight out of Pinetops by a specific date.

We hear that the big telecoms are telling legislators that they  are “upgrading” our little town with modern, even fiber based internet. Our residents (their customers) tell a different story. Their “high speed” internet (sometimes 10Mbps/1Mpbs) buffers and crashes regularly and customer service is a joke. Our overworked regional technician serves from Fayetteville to north of Greenville. Greenlight by comparison provides us fiber-to-the-home symmetrical gigabit internet if we want it. Their customer service is hyper-responsive and was even in town the day after Hurricane Matthew, hooking up and servicing lines for emergency responders. The other providers were nowhere to be seen in hard-hit Pinetops.

Access to modern internet is vital our town’s future. Legislators need to give us the freedom to choose internet partners we can depend on to improve our economy, educational opportunities and quality of life. Pinetops should be able to keep Greenlight and legislators should be encouraging, not disconnecting, modern internet access for our rural communities.