The Future of the Final Mile

Roman Mars:
This bonus episode is the second in a four-part series we’re calling the “The Future of…” We’ll be exploring how changes to the way we live, learn, work and play may shape our health and wellbeing in years to come. Thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for supporting this episode. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committed to improving health and health equity in the United States. Learn more about them at rwjf.org.

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Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When the pandemic hit, everything that could possibly be done online made the jump. Work, job-hunting, school, doctor’s visits. And the shift was hard for everyone. But many Americans didn’t even have the fundamental thing needed to make that change.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORTS

[FOR ONLINE LEARNING TO WORK, STUDENTS AND TEACHERS NEED A FAST AND RELIABLE INTERNET CONNECTION, BUT DOZENS OF COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE STATE DON’T HAVE THAT OPTION.]

[SALES SAYS HER STUDENTS DON’T HAVE INTERNET. THERE IS NO SIGNAL WHERE THEY LIVE. // THEY WERE LIKE, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO TURN IN THIS ASSIGNMENT? I HAVE TO DRIVE TO SIT OUTSIDE OF A MCDONALD’S. // PEOPLE WERE ACTUALLY DOING THAT? // YES, STUDENTS WERE ACTUALLY DOING THAT.]

Roman Mars:
People without internet access showed up at emergency rooms — during a pandemic — for non-emergencies … because they just weren’t able to do a video appointment. And when the time came, there was no refreshing their browser to find out where to get a vaccine. And the lack of access isn’t just in rural areas, as is often assumed. About one in five people in New York City don’t have any internet access at all — not even through data on their cell phones. It’s two decades into the 21st century and when it comes to life online, large segments of America are still living in the 1900s. So to find out how we got here and what we can do about it, we’re going to be talking to reporter and longtime friend of show, Katie Thornton. She’s been looking into this for us. Hey, Katie!

Katie Thornton:
Hey, Roman!

Roman Mars:
So, Katie … it’s 2022 … why don’t we have internet?

​​Katie Thornton:
Well, it’s actually because AOL didn’t deliver enough CD-ROMs back in 1995.

Roman Mars:
Haha, that’s definitely an old reference! I feel like you’re too young to remember those.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, I have the faintest memories of teething on an AOL CD. But Roman, to actually
answer your question about why there’s this lack of access today in 2022 … first we need a quick primer on how the internet actually works, like what the internet physically is, because it turns out Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was kind of right!

ARCHIVAL TAPE
[SENATOR TED STEVENS: THE INTERNET IS NOT SOMETHING THAT YOU JUST DUMP SOMETHING ON. IT’S NOT A BIG TRUCK, ITS A SERIES OF TUBES!]

Greta Byrum:
Just so people understand, like in a sense, the Internet really is tubes! It’s these fiber optic cables that run under streets, along train tracks and connect with these very large energy-guzzling enormous server farms.

Katie Thornton:
This is Greta Byrum. She’s been working on community internet projects for over ten years. And, perhaps fittingly for this story, we spoke over a really crappy internet connection.

Roman Mars:
Your tubes were clogged.

Katie Thornton:
Yes, exactly! But I think this “tubiness” is something that most people do understand on a basic level. Like, when you scroll on Instagram, you’re basically sending a request to a distant server farm to find a certain piece of data and to send it back to your device. The only wireless part of that transaction is from your device to the wifi router. But Greta says it’s not the case that there is simply a single unobstructed connection going between a server farm and the modem in your home. Instead, the data actually goes through roughly THREE different layers of internet tubing, or what are sometimes called “tiers.”

Greta Byrum:
And tier one is like the big backbone lines that span the country or go under the oceans, it’s large companies that you’ve never heard of.

Katie Thornton:
These are companies like Lumen Technologies, GTT, the Zayo Group…

Roman Mars:
Greta is correct, I have never heard of these.

Katie Thornton:
Right. Neither had I, but then there’s Tier Two, or what’s called the Middle Mile which often own like the cables connecting different cities within large regions.

Greta Byrum:
And layer two is kind of like transit – like kind of long stretches of towers, and they also don’t sell to individuals or households.

Roman Mars:
So have I at least heard of these middle mile companies?

Katie Thornton:
Well, I don’t know Roman – have you Stealth Communications, or FibreNoire, or, my favorite, Internap?

Roman Mars:
Haha, no, I heretofore have been ignorant of Internap!

Katie Thornton:
Well, it’s okay that you were snoozing on Internap because for our purposes, you don’t really need to know the names of these companies. All you need to know is that tier one and tier two connections, they’re fast. And that’s because tier one and two companies only need to connect a few big facilities.

Roman Mars:
So they’re kind of like the interstate highway system or the airport hub and spoke system? There’s not too many of them, and they only go between a few key spots.

Katie Thornton:
Precisely, so it’s always been relatively affordable for them to lay down these high-capacity fiber lines. And fiber is like the really good stuff. It’s basically bundles of flexible strands of glass, the width of a human hair, that can handle really large amounts of data. It’s by far the fastest and most reliable type of connection. But there’s one final leap that the data has to make to get to us, and that’s called Tier 3. And Tier 3 are your local retail internet providers, your Spectrums and Verizons and such.

Roman Mars:
Yes. Finally we’re getting to names I know!

Katie Thornton:
Well good, because it’s actually here at tier 3 that our broadband access problems truly begin.

Roman Mars:
So why is that?

Katie Thornton:
Well it’s because tier 3 companies like Verizon – they might own and operate their own tier 1 and 2 networks, or purchase access from others – but either way, they’re stuck with the task of figuring out what’s called the “last mile”. And the last mile is all the millions of tiny connections that go down various streets, and under or over people’s driveways et cetera, et cetera.

Greta Byrum:
And building the last mile, like building the Tier 3 piece is very physical. Like you’re going up on the roofs and you’re installing equipment and you’re dealing with street furniture. And that part is very… it’s just incredibly difficult.

Roman Mars:
Not to mention digging up roads and burying wires.

Katie Thornton:
Totally. Totally, and tier 3 companies are the ones left to do this for entire cities and sometimes entire regions. So even though the last mile sounds way less sexy and high-tech than country- and ocean-spanning fiber backbone… it’s way more expensive.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, you can totally see that.

Katie Thornton:
Right, so instead of fiber, most people’s internet is traveling that last mile over wires that were first laid for totally different purposes. Which is why a telephone company like AT&T might also be your internet provider, because you’re using the copper lines originally provided for your telephone connection or the coaxial lines normally used for cable TV.

Greta Byrum:
And Internet signals can travel over both copper and coaxial but they’re slower than fiber. And less reliable. Like this is when your Internet service provider says, “Oh, we have fast DSL.” That just means like we’re sending the signal over copper lines. And watch out ‘cause if it rains? Your signal might get really fuzzy.

Katie Thornton:
So while something like dial-up might be mostly be a thing of the past, the truth is copper phone lines still connect a lot of people to the internet over DSL. And even many people’s coaxial cable connections aren’t fast enough to meet the federal government’s definition of broadband.

Roman Mars:
And what is that definition?

Katie Thornton:
Right now it’s 25 megabits per second download speed, and 3 megabit upload.

Roman Mars:
And to be clear, you’re saying megaBITS here, which are actually only 1/8th of a megaBYTE!

Katie Thornton:
Right.

Roman Mars:
So those speeds that you just mentioned, a 3 megabit upload speed – that’s really slow! Like, I have a house full of kids and between all of us… that would not even come close to being acceptable.

Katie Thornton:
No, definitely not. And this is why getting fiber into neglected areas is so important. But Greta says who gets fiber is determined by the market, and the market is determined not by who wants fiber, but really just who can afford it.

Greta Byrum:
So if you’re really lucky, you live in a neighborhood where companies see, “Oh, there’s plenty of people who can afford $80 a month Internet, so we’ll put a fiber line under the street.” But if you live in a neighborhood where they do their market analysis and it looks like folks can’t afford that, you’re going to still be on copper or coax.

Katie Thornton:
And so — even though there are plenty of homes and businesses with fiber connections, for a lot of the country, that last mile remains a deep, vexing problem. And so I wanted to take a look at two examples of cities that were decidedly NOT rich cities, where people in the last decade went about pursuing this last mile problem in two very different ways.

Roman Mars:
Okay, let’s do it. What is the first city?

Katie Thornton:
Up first is Detroit, Michigan.

Monique Tate:
The statistics in Detroit at that time were abysmal.

Katie Thornton:
That’s Monique Tate. She’s a digital justice advocate and former auto worker who lives in Detroit. And the statistics she’s citing are from 2014, and she says, at that time, Detroit was ranked as the country’s worst connected city – 60% of people didn’t have a connection that met the minimum definition of broadband.

Monique Tate:
Sixty percent. The number is astounding. That parallelled itself with 40% of the people lacking Internet connectivity at all.

Roman Mars:
Wow! So 40% of people with no internet! Not even on their phones?

Katie Thornton:
Yeah. Not even on their phones. And you have to remember, at this time in 2014, everything is moving online. So if you aren’t online, you are out of luck.

Monique Tate:
Education, economic development and opportunity which I’m relating to jobs. You are stricken from that because if you go somewhere and say, “I’m interested in a job, can I just fill out a piece of paper?” No one has that for you to do anymore. They’re going to say if you can’t submit your application, we can’t even consider you.

Katie Thornton:
So Monique watched as job opportunities dried up for folks who couldn’t easily apply online. Or as the people who did have smartphones tried to format resumes on them. And folks were always trying to find places with decent wifi, particularly around Detroit’s North End neighborhood.

Monique Tate:
In the greater North End, there is, of course, McDonald’s and you could go someplace like that but there was no local library in the greater North End. So we were not even able to really look to the public provision of a library system.

Katie Thornton:
Now in some of these cases, people weren’t able to get online because there was not an affordable option. And at the time, there were also large sections of Detroit that literally had no internet connection. Like, all that tier 3 stuff we talked about — the wires, the tunnels — just did not exist in some neighborhoods.

Roman Mars:
So I can see why they might not have fiber as an option, for the reasons you laid out earlier. But to have no real internet infrastructure at all? No copper. No coaxial. How does that happen? That can’t be random.

Katie Thornton:
No, it’s not random. Greta says a number of years ago, a researcher named Bill Callahan started looking into these patterns, starting with the city of Cleveland.

Greta Byrum:
He got a hold of AT&T maps of where they were investing in fiber infrastructure. And he lined that up with the old redlining maps from the forties and found that it’s the same. It’s the same streets that are the dividing lines between where the investment’s happening and where it’s not.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I have to say this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah. Sadly, me neither. This is a practice known as digital redlining. And AT&T has said, “No, we don’t redline.” But people have found evidence of digital redlining in Dallas, Toledo, Dayton, Louisville, Milwaukee and also, Detroit.

Greta Byrum:
And so, what was once explicitly racist policy is now just racist economic policy where companies can say, “Well, we will not recover the money that we put into these neighborhoods so this is just an economic decision. Race has nothing to do with it.” But the outcome is the same.

Katie Thornton:
But also Roman, when internet companies did offer service, they didn’t always make their fastest speeds available to everyone. For example, back in the mid-2010s when Monique was working with Detroit residents, one of city’s major carriers, Comcast Xfinity, offered a $9.95 a month deal to some low-income residents.

Monique Tate:
They bragged about the fact that they were providing this program that low income people could obtain. In that program, there was 10 megabits of download speed and one megabit of upload speed.

Roman Mars:
Jesus, that’s so slow.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, I mean, it is insultingly slow. It’s not even close to the minimum requirement to be considered broadband.

Monique Tate:
So you’re already saying to this underserved and underrepresented group, we’re going to provide a substandard product.

Roman Mars:
So given that this was the state of things in Detroit, in the intervening years since 2014, what have people been doing to get more access because I can’t believe that it’s stayed exactly like this the whole time.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, so what I’m about to tell you is gonna kinda sound like kindergarten logic. But one of the solutions that was hit upon in some of these neighborhoods — and that’s still being used in some of them today — started with the idea of … sharing.

Patrick Crouch:
It sounded like a good idea and it sounded really simple. It didn’t require anything that seemed too illegal.

Katie Thornton:
So this is Patrick Crouch. Patrick is an urban farmer who, back in 2010, lived in North Corktown, which was one of these historically redlined neighborhoods in Detroit with digital access issues.

Patrick Crouch:
So we didn’t really have any Internet. And the house was such that it wasn’t wired for telephone and it wasn’t wired for cable. And I was taking an online class and it was at night, so that was after the libraries had closed so I was like literally having to ride my bike two and a half miles to a friend who had Internet connection that was willing to let me sit and take this class.

Katie Thornton:
So Roman, most of Patrick’s neighbors also couldn’t get good internet — either because Comcast didn’t service their address, or they didn’t offer an affordable option. But down the block from Patrick was a software engineer named Ben Chodoroff.

Patrick Crouch:
He was a computer person. I don’t know what he does. He’s tried to tell me what he does and I still don’t understand it.

Katie Thornton:
And, you see, Ben had a rare thing in the neighborhood – a cable internet connection.
And he was happy to share it with Patrick. But he couldn’t just tell him his wifi password and call it a day – they were way too far apart for that. So instead Ben suggested an alternative approach.

Patrick Crouch:
Um… he started talking about this mesh network thing.

Ben Chodoroff:
For me it was the obvious solution. I mean, it was a super a fragile solution, definitely. But It was just like, yeah, we had we had to solve a problem

Katie Thornton:
This is Ben, and the mesh network thing he was proposing would go way beyond sharing one lonely wifi signal with just one other person. Instead, it was a way to bring wireless internet to a whole bunch of people all at once. He says he started thinking about it when he was going through some of his old gear.

Ben Chodoroff:
I had a pile of old little wireless radios that were like given to somebody who gives them to somebody else who gave them to me, so I ended up with this box of these really like pretty crappy wireless routers.

Katie Thornton:
So Ben began handing out some of these free wireless routers to those few neighbors who also had good internet access, and then asked if they could share their connections too.

Roman Mars:
So he was just like, knock on a door and hand them some weird old equipment and say, “Please attach this to your modem and give me the password?”

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly how it happened.

Ben Chodoroff:
Yeah, like, I already talked to all my neighbors. That made it easier to set up because people already trusted me… um, somewhat. [laughing]

Katie Thornton:
So, the way that this whole thing works was that the person with internet access would attach a so-called “radio” to their normal at-home router and they put that up on their roof or on the side of the house. And that radio would basically extend the wifi signal so folks down the block could pick it up, too. And throughout the neighborhood there were also these wireless “nodes” that extended the signals even further.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Katie Thornton:
And then Ben and his neighbors would climb up on the roof of whoever’s house they were connecting, and put up equipment to receive that signal. Then, as a final step, they’d connect a wire from that receiver into a home wifi router. And, bang, they would be online.

Roman Mars:
So, in this kind of giant daisy-chain of gear, what were the locations in the neighborhood where they installed some of these connections and nodes?

Katie Thornton:
Well, so ss far as I can tell from talking with Ben, the answer appeared to be: anywhere they could.

Ben Chodoroff:
So like, there is this hostel that donated their connection. The other node was in my upstairs neighbor’s chicken coop. I think that was it.

Katie Thornton:
Did you–

Ben Chodoroff:
Oh yeah, wait! There was another node in an old Airstream trailer that was like a food truck.

Katie Thornton:
So between these few internet access points and those few nodes – those extenders – they made a web of wireless networks connecting a bunch of neighbor’s houses, an apartment building, and the hostel.

Roman Mars:
So did the neighborhood need a password? Or was it just kind of open to anyone?

Katie Thornton:
No, you really didn’t need a password. People who had routers on the network could put a password on their connection if they wanted to. But a lot of people just intentionally left theirs open — so that other people could pick it up.

Patrick Crouch:
Yeah, people would park right next to our house all the time. People would just roll up and sit there for, you know, an hour or two and do their thing.

Roman Mars:
So it sounds like it worked!

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, according to Patrick, it did.

Patrick Crouch:
So this is what people that don’t know about computers call “magic.” It was essentially magic as far as I could tell.

Roman Mars:
I get that this is definitely better than no internet at all, but was it fast enough to get the job done?

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, I was curious about this. I’s true that because it involved sharing a limited number of broadband connections, Patrick said he would save heavy-bandwidth things like downloading music for Saturday mornings. And sometimes the Airstream food truck would be out serving food to people.

Roman Mars:
Right, like doing what it’s supposed to do, like going out and feeding people, instead of being a node on a mesh network.

Katie Thornton:
Right exactly, like doing a lunch service. But all in all, Ben’s mesh network did the job. Patrick says he never even bothered even trying to get Comcast for himself while he was on mesh.

Roman Mars:
I mean, what’s interesting about this is that this mesh network as this alternate solution to the last mile problem, it is not top-down. It is not being solved by Comcast or some other Tier 3 provider. It’s really bottom up. The neighborhood is doing it for themselves.

Katie Thornton:
Exactly. But – and I want to be very clear about this – Ben and Patrick definitely weren’t the only ones in Detroit using mesh to fix this last mile problem. It turned out a lot of folks found themselves converging on this solution. Including Monique Tate and Greta Byrum!

Roman Mars:
And those are the people – the experts – that we heard from earlier.

Katie Thornton:
Right. In the early 2010s, Monique and Greta helped form a group promoting internet access in Detroit that would come to be known as the “Equitable Internet Initiative.” And EII basically approached this idea of a kind of homespun mesh network and really kind of formalized it and scaled it up. They started a process of installing mesh in four different Detroit neighborhoods. And then they trained residents on how to build and fix the networks and paid them for their work.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Katie Thornton:
Right. But eventually they got so big that they ran into a bit of a problem.

Monique Tate:
As it became more popular, people did start to ask questions because comments were made that, I think this might not be legal.

Roman Mars:
I was definitely beginning to wondering if it was legal.

Katie Thornton:
Um… well… technically not exactly. But this sort of realization actually turned out to be a good thing in the end, because it spurred them to do something extra cool, which was to just go around Comcast entirely. Because in 2018, the Equitable Internet Initiative partnered with a Tier 2 provider.

Roman Mars:
And so, that’s the kind of company that buys internet access further up the chain, like closer to that big, fiber internet backbone?

Katie Thornton:
Right. And that Tier 2 provider, called 123Net, now gives the Equitable Internet Initiative multiple free, super-fast fiber internet access points that EII then distributes wirelessly, by mesh. And that means the Equitable Internet Initiative no longer needs to purchase broadband from Comcast or any other tier 3 provider.

Roman Mars:
Because they are tier 3.

Katie Thornton:
Precisely. They are tier 3. And this has increased the connection speeds of their users in some really meaningful ways. For example, their service now includes symmetrical download and upload speeds.

Monique Tate:
Because the key is to create not only just consumers but producers so that the upload of your content is just as important as the download of someone else’s content. So if you decided that you wanted to have a podcast – (laughs) – you could!

Katie Thornton:
And that neighborhood network that Monique was the manager of, now delivers free broadband to about 135 households. That’s about 500 people. And that’s just one of the three neighborhoods where the Equitable Internet Initiative has operational mesh networks.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so this brings me to my big question about mesh. These numbers that you’re saying – 135 households in one neighborhood, there’s 3 neighborhoods – that is super admirable and I’m so amazed and pleased and it’s a real success but those are small numbers compared to the size of the problem facing the US overall. So my question, I guess, at the end of all this is, will this scale and do we even want an ad hoc mesh network to be something that scales. Like is this a workaround to a problem that should be solved head on.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, that’s definitely something that I wondered too. Because, like you say, it doesn’t feel like THE solution. Some people are definitely trying to get mesh to scale. But it turns out… not everyone who has worked on mesh is convinced that it’s a viable way forward. Including, and this is really telling: Ben Chodoroff, who set up that really early mesh network back around 2010.

Ben Chodoroff:
I mean, I think I was naively hopeful in the early days. But that hopefulness definitely waned.

Katie Thornton:
The way Ben sees it, the network met an acute need for a while, and he is proud of what he and his neighbors built together. But he thought of it as more of a conversation starter than anything.

Ben Chodoroff:
I saw it as like a political message that could be sent by our mesh networks, like, man, look what we had to do. But then it’s easy to massage that political message into saying like we don’t have to change the big systems because we can just build our own. And I think that’s a way of ignoring the political organizing that has to happen to actually confront power and change it.

Roman Mars:
This reminds me of those like, heart-warming go-fund me campaigns for someone to get a kidney transplant when it’s great that so many people are generous and that someone can get their kidney but the actual thing you need is a health system that provides free kidney transplants to everyone.

Katie Thornton:
Totally, like that would be far more heart-warming.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Katie Thornton:
I’ll confess that I kinda felt the same way, which is actually what brings us to the OTHER city I wanted to talk about – a place where things played out very differently. Because while Detroit was struggling with just getting people online, this other city was busy getting criss-crossed with fiber connections – and they did it by re-thinking their entire approach to internet access.

Roman Mars:
We’ll find out just what city Katie is talking about. Right after this.

[BREAK]

Support for this four-part series exploring the future of health and wellbeing comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is committed to improving health and health equity in the United States. Knowing that the healthy, equitable future we all deserve won’t simply arrive, RWJF is exploring how new technologies, scientific discoveries, cultural shifts, and unforeseen events – like those in today’s story – may shape our lives in years to come. Through these explorations, they’re learning what it will take to build a future that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have. Learn more about their efforts at www.rwjf.org

If you like thinking about the “Future of” things – as we’ve been doing in this series – and you have a hunch about what it will take to build an equitable future, SHARE IT at shareyourhunch.org.

I’m submitting my hunch. So I’m going to shareyourhunch.org and selecting the prompt “I’m noticing that…” I’m noticing that more people in their 40s and 50s are having a midlife crisis in terms of their careers and thinking earnestly about career changes that do not prioritize income. That’s my hunch. These are from conversations that I’ve had with other parents.

Check out other hunches and submit your own hunch at shareyourhunch.org.

[END BREAK]

Roman Mars:
We’re back talking internet access with reporter Katie Thornton. So Katie, before the break, you were saying there was another city you wanted to talk about where people had an easier time getting high quality broadband.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, that’s right, and this is a place that – even during the very worst of Covid – more or less managed to avoid all of the connectivity problems we described earlier. In fact, in this one city, pretty much anyone who wanted to get good internet access during the pandemic could get it. And contrary to what you might expect, it’s not Westchester County or Grosse Point or Newport Beach or any of these uber wealthy suburbs. It’s Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Katie Espeseth:
Practically overnight, our schools shut down. Many of our businesses moved to remote work. And being able to go home and immediately access services really enabled you to work at home, learn at home without missing a beat.

Roman Mars:
So, who is this and why does she have so much good news about Chattanooga?

Katie Thornton:
So this is Katie Espeseth. She works at EPB, which is Chattanooga’s city-run electric power utility. And the reason she has such good news is because – Chattanooga’s great – but also because back in the mid-2000s, Chattanooga was kind of like Detroit. Internet access options for most telecom customers were really limited.

Katie Espeseth:
Chattanooga was in very much an underserved area. While we did have service from two large national incumbents, really there was no competition. And so there was no real driver to provide better services. But I do think we fell into a range of a lot of cities our size, and that we were not we weren’t getting the best technology.

Roman Mars:
So they were just kind of this motivational trough, where these big providers had no incentive to provide anything beyond the slowest connection.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, but then – and this is the good news part – the city made a really interesting move. They decided that starting in 2008, EPB – that public power utility that Katie works for – should enter the telecom market and become an internet provider.

Roman Mars:
Huh. So EPB would compete with the existing providers to sell internet connections to businesses and households.

Katie Thornton:
That’s exactly right. They already sold electricity to customers — and that’s also not free — so why not sell internet access too?!

Katie Espeseth:
And where we landed was using a fiber optic network.

Katie Thornton:
EPB already had power lines that reached every home and business in town, meaning they could put these super-fast internet lines right alongside them. And so EPB started laying down fiber all over the city.

Roman Mars:
And they could afford to do fiber?

Katie Thornton:
Well actually, yeah they could, provided they got enough customers.

Katie Espeseth:
Interestingly enough, as we were working through the business plan, we realized we needed about one in every three homes to make this profitable.

Katie Thornton:
So did you beat that?

Katie Espeseth:
We did! We did beat that, no doubt! We secured a greater than a thirty three or thirty percent take rate from the first month we were in business.

Roman Mars:
So how did the existing ISPs respond to that?

Katie Thornton:
Well, it turned into a classic speed war. First EPB offered a connection that was 30 megabits per second download speed and upload speed, which was a lot back then, but their competitors weren’t gonna let that phase them.

Katie Espeseth:
As you can imagine, they were not there were not ready to give up market share without a fight. So when we launched with the 30 MEG product, our competitor came back and they upgraded theirs to a 30 MEG product.

Katie Thornton:
So then EPB upgraded to 50 megs, and when their competitor matched that, they went to 100, then to 300. And in 2010, EPB began offering gigabit services, which was WAY ahead of the rest of the country at that time.

Katie Espeseth:
In fact, when we rolled out a gig, we got so many questions over what what would anyone do with the gig? This is just crazy. This is just marketing.

Katie Thornton:
But after a while those gig connections turned out to be really useful for things like streaming high definition movies. Or uploading multimedia homework assignments.

Roman Mars:
Or like Zooming into every meeting during a pandemic!

Katie Thornton:
Right, exactly.

Katie Espeseth:
I think people have figured out what to do. I don’t think there’s any argument about what you do with a gig.

Katie Thornton:
And so, in time, their competitors started offering gig-speed services, too. And Roman, for EPB, this was a goal of theirs all along. The idea was that even if EPB didn’t dominate the market, they would foster competition and force the private companies to provide better services. And that’s what happened.

Roman Mars:
That is amazing, but also, did they ever dominate the market, did they ever make it to number one?

Katie Thornton:
Eventually, yeah, they did!

Katie Espeseth:
In 2017, we hit a mark of 75,000 customers. 2018, it was 100,000 customers. Today it’s a little over 110,000 customers.

Katie T:
And do you have a sense of what your market share is right now?

Katie Espeseth:
We sit at about sixty eight percent market share today.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So those ISPs were right to be afraid.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, they were. And I think that what’s amazing about EPB is that the other third of people in their footprint who aren’t using EPB? They’ve already built out the fiber connections in front of those homes and businesses! So all you need to do is sign up, and EPB will basically wire you up, hand you a modem and poof, you are online. Which kind of led me to what I thought might be a gotcha question, but it turned out to just be more good news.

Katie T:
Did the uptake of the service vary depending on household income or depending on race?

Katie Espeseth:
You know, interestingly enough, no. Our take rate is pretty standard across all income brackets, as well as different geographic areas within our footprint.

Katie Thornton:
And part of that is because EPB has long provided an at-cost internet service for low-income families. And in the pandemic, they made it free. And all of this has had real benefits. Economists predicted that city-wide fiber would add 2,000 jobs over ten years. But according to some studies, it’s actually added about 10,000 jobs. And not long into the pandemic, the surrounding county’s unemployment rate was 2% lower than the national average.

Roman Mars:
It was really interesting because to hear you talk about how EPB rolled out their fiber network and the benefits of it, I almost have to remind myself that you’re not talking about electricity. It’s really reminiscent of the way new deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority transformed electricity from a private commodity into a regulated utility, to the point where it would just seem wrong that someone couldn’t afford electricity. And now EPB is doing the same thing but for internet access.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, that’s spot on. And that’s not just your read of it. In our interview, Katie directly connected EPB’s mission here to the TVA which served Chattanooga.

Katie Espeseth:
In the 1930s and really throughout the remainder of that century, the way to fulfill that mission was very obvious. It was all about bringing electrification to the valley. It meant jobs. It meant industry. It really meant survival. And actually, we think today that high speed Internet or access to broadband services does the very same thing.

Roman Mars:
I find this all super inspiring. And this seems like the top-down solution that really is necessary. It’s like, “We’re from the government, we’re here to help.” … and they really did help!

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, I feel the same way.

Roman Mars:
So this might be a naive question, but if it works for Chattanooga, why can’t it work for Detroit?

Katie Thornton:
Yeah.. or everywhere?

Roman Mars:
Exactly. Why not everywhere?

Katie Thornton:
It’s definitely not a naive question! I wondered that too. Like surely Chattanooga is proof that all you need to get Americans online is the political will. And this was ten years ago, so why aren’t we seeing a ton more of it?

Roman Mars:
So why haven’t we?

Katie Thornton:
Well, it turns out it’s not that easy – there are things that make Chatanooga a little bit of a unicorn. And one of the big ones is that, remember, Chattanooga already had its own municipal electric system.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Katie Thornton:
Right, so that meant that when EPB wanted to run fiber lines, they could just do it by laying fiber down right alongside their existing electric infrastructure that already went into people’s homes, and then that electricity actually powers the fiber, so they don’t need to worry about that part either.

Roman Mars:
Oh, interesting.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, most cities just don’t have an existing department that’s in a position to do that. And if you’re a mayor and you want to set one up, it’s gonna cost you a ton of money up front and there’s no way you’re going to see any tangible results before your next election. So it’s often a political non-starter.

Roman Mars:
But it just seems like the size and cost of these infrastructure build outs could be overcome if people really wanted to have public internet. Like, it would be expensive, but it would be possible.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah totally. We should make that very clear. These things are possible to overcome. But Roman, in many parts of the US, there’s one thing that makes it more or less impossible.

Katie Espeseth:
There are laws that exist today in the country in specific states that prohibit municipal broadband.

Roman Mars:
Ugh, of course there are! Of course they made it illegal.

Katie Thornton:
I know I wish I were more surprised as well. But 18 states, effectively, have roadblocks that keep cities from offering internet. Another five states have laws that make it really difficult. And those laws have been pushed by for-profit internet companies and their very powerful lobbying arms for years.

Roman Mars:
And so what were their bullsh** arguments against public broadband?

Katie Thornton:
Well, I reached out to folks at the two biggest telecom lobbies for this story; they didn’t agree to interviews. But traditionally they’ve said municipal broadband interferes with free markets. That it’s not the government’s place, etc. But Greta says ISPs also argue: we’ve been doing this for decades, so we have the know-how.

Greta Byrum:
And so, you know, like if you’re a local official and you have a big telecom company saying, “Hey, we’ve got that. We’re going to take care of it for you.” You know, that can sound kind of good to a local politician, right? Who’s like, “I don’t understand how this stuff works. Like, yeah, just fix it for me.”

Katie Thornton:
And the result is that these lobbies have pretty successfully put the brakes on a lot of municipal broadband. And so in many states and cities and rural areas, private ISPs are the only ones allowed to provide these services.

Roman Mars:
And so, is that true in Detroit? Does Michigan have these laws to prevent publicly-owned ISPs?

Katie Thornton:
It does, and although the situation in Detroit has improved somewhat in the last decade, even today they’re still ranked in of the bottom ten for American cities when it comes to internet access. The private ISP model hasn’t yielded big changes. All of which has left some people… like Patrick Crouch, feeling almost kind of almost resigned to their fates.

Katie:
What did you do for Internet when you moved?

Patrick Crouch:
Got Comcast, like a normal human being.

Katie:
I mean, are you happy with your service?

Patrick Crouch:
No, but you know, it just comes to a point where we didn’t, we didn’t really have a lot of options. And as I mentioned, Comcast is really the only game in town.

Roman Mars:
Man, so if this where things still are now – if mesh won’t scale, AND municipally-owned broadband is logistically and politically hard – where does that leave us? What can be done – or is being done – from here on out to get everyone good internet that they need?

Katie Thornton:
The short answer is … no one is totally sure. The recent infrastructure bill looks like it’s going to help with building out fiber in rural areas, and the people distributing a lot of the money to the states are asking explicitly about digital equity in cities. But in those states with bans on municipal broadband, that money is most likely to keep going to ISPs. And if the past is any indication, those ISPs might just end up using it to offer further discounts on the same old outdated internet connections rather than actually building anything new. At least in neighborhoods like Detroit’s North End. Which is why, although Greta and Monique both think there’s room for collaboration with the ISPs, Monique stresses that any solution needs to lie in giving access to those who have long been on the margins of technology.

Monique Tate:
Where do I see things going from here? I do look at the provision of Internet as a potential opportunity to execute reparations. Yes, I do.

Katie Thornton:
Monique says that whatever happens in the long-term, in the immediate future, it’s time for big telecom companies to step up. They can’t just follow the money and only lay down fiber in the richest neighborhoods anymore. They have to build out.

Monique Tate:
Big telecom has the largest profit margins in the country. So why not give back? CEOs say that they are giving to communities in need? Well, give what we need. Give Internet. Just give us the access and we’ll go from there.

Katie Thornton:
So ultimately, it’s going to be tricky. The goal of for-profit companies will always be to make money. Which is why a lot of people still believe that quality internet access for everyone means eventually treating broadband as a right, not just a commodity. And that requires intervention by people who are accountable to votes, and not just dollars. But no matter what happens next, if we know one thing, it’s that the days of treating broadband as a luxury are over.

Roman Mars:
Well, this was fascinating stuff. Thank you so much, Katie. Appreciate it.

Katie Thornton:
Yeah, thank you, Roman. Thanks for having me.

———

CREDITS

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Thronton. Edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Special thanks to Tyler Cooper from the organization Broadband Now, and finance professor Bento Lobo at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, who we also spoke with for this episode, but whose voices we didn’t get to include. And to Monique Tate and Greta Byrum for the many, MANY followup interviews they graciously allowed us to conduct. You can find out more about Katie Thornton’s writing and audio journalism on her website ‘itskatiethornton.com’ and her instagram @itskatiethornton, where all this week she’ll be sharing more about broadband infrastructure, including the story of the ‘Empire City Subway’ — and no, it’s not a train, but rather a weirdly important tunnel stuffed with wires.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

Thanks again to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their underwriting support of this special episode. Be sure to check out each episode in this four-part series “The Future of…”. And remember, if you have a hunch about what it will take to build an equitable future, share it at shareyourhunch.org.

 

  1. Great episode. Excellent background on how the internet gets to everyone. As a believer of ‘internet as a right’ while also working in technology, this episode was particularly interesting. There’s a small but thriving global network of public internet exchanges (IX’s) who voluntarily exist to support the ideals you reported on. As a board member of my local exchange, we work at the intersection of for-profit and public networks, and your reporting really resonated.
    Appreciate you covering this topic, and good background work on learning about all the different technologies. Even being in the industry, it’s sometimes tough to keep up.

  2. David Critics

    Another great 99PI story, and why I am a subscriber and supporter. The Detroit portion of this episode is very familiar as it sounds a lot like our experiences in rural Louisa county in Virginia. Almost a decade ago the county government created a “broadband authority” to bring high speed internet to every house in the county. When the pandemic hit we were still working off of satellite internet and LTE connections.

    In July 2020 Verizon ran a fiberoptic line across my front yard to a new solar farm down the road with an access box next to my driveway. I’ve asked them regularly to be hooked up, and when I checked yesterday (13 March 2022) the answer was still that service is not available at my address.

    The issues of internet provider monopolies have plagued service for my father and daughter in Richmond, VA, Las Vegas, NV and Reston, VA as well.

    It was good to hear about the success that Chattanooga had though, but it will be al long tome before Virginia catches up.

    Thanks fore the great reporting and storytelling.

    David Critics

  3. Robin

    I found this very interesting, as I do all of your episodes. But I was particularly interested because there is a company in the bay area that is using the mesh network as their product. They are competing with Comcast, AT&T. I found them when I got so fed up with poor service from Comcast and AT&T and was looking for an alternative. The company is Sail Network. My internet is fast, stable, and I haven’t had any problems since having it installed. I don’t know if they have special pricing for low-income. I hope more companies like Sail can give Comcast & AT&T good competition, which will hopefully encourage more choices, lower costs, etc.

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