In 2021 it’s non-negotiable: quality home internet is something we all need. Our entire economy, along with almost all other aspects of our lives, relies on access to the internet. This reality is why many argue that it should be treated as a public good and operated like a public utility instead of run by a handful of corporations that leave many people underserved. This week, Baratunde sits down with technologist Bruce Patterson to learn how the small city of Ammon, Idaho gives its residents access to high speed internet through its own state-of-the-art, public broadband infrastructure.
Baratunde Thurston 0:00
Hey, I'm Baratunde Thurston and this is How to Citizen with Baratunde. In season two, we're talking about the money, because to be real, is hard to citizen when we can barely pay the bills.
I was born in the future, technically, the year was 1977. And you could argue that that is before now and therefore the past. But I was born in the future. Because I was born to my mother, Arnita Lorraine Thurston, and she was a computer programmer in the late 1970s. Making her from the future me a child of the future. That's why I say I was born in the
Unknown Speaker 0:48
Baratunde Thurston 0:50
She was an almost literal, hidden figure. You know how many black women computer programmers there were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My mom, that's how many there was, there were my mom, many black female programmers. In that time period, we had a computer in our house starting around 1983, I was six years old, the only house in the hood, with a computer, I am pretty sure of that. I had a computer in my house more than a decade before I would ever have a girlfriend in my house. So I was very involved with the technology. And I remember getting online in the early 1990s, which just plugged the computer into the phone in the wall by way of this modem, this dial up modem and getting online. That was an event, a loud event screeching and the beeping. All kinds of digital doohickeys happening in the background, you knew you were entering a new world of information. When I started going to a pretty fancy high school, my mind was further blown. Because we had a full time always on internet connection, running at about 1.5 megabits per second. Everything I have done creatively and professionally. Since my childhood has been built on this platform of technology and access to good internet. My newsletters in college, my first job out of college, every job, post college daily show the onion, everything in between this podcast is all possible. Because of technology and the internet. My mother's earning potential went up massively because of technology. My whole employment has been internet powered. This is not just tech. This is economics, very personal economics. And when COVID hit, it revealed a lot of disparities in our society. But one of the clearest signs was the lack of quality internet access for so many of us at home At home, became a very essential service school at home, work at home, church at home, happy hour at home. You know what I'm talking about? The internet is critical infrastructure which enables our economy. And without it, it sets all of us back. I think the internet should be more like a public utility, less like the privately controlled system run by phone companies and cable companies, both of whom we hate. Like if I thought about the companies I really don't like it will be tough to choose between the phone company and the cable company. But they've been in charge, charging us more money than the average industrialized nation for slower speeds and less access less coverage all around the internet is as important and essential as roads and electricity and water. Let's treat it that way. a necessity, not a luxury.
Bruce Patterson 4:18
I would challenge you by asking when the cable company owns the line, and they own the content. Can they control the price? And is that a monopoly? And I would say the answer is yes. After
Baratunde Thurston 4:31
the break, how a conservative town in southeastern Idaho did a pretty radical act and put broadband into the hands of the people.
Before we get into this episode, there's something you need to know we're going to get technical on So it's time for edge you tune day. Oh, I've wanted to say that for such a long time. And listen, I'm what you call a broadband nerd. I'll be more on that later. And I recognize that not everybody understands all this technical jargon. So let's break down a few terms you're going to be hearing in this interview. Our focus today is on municipal broadband. And it's pretty simple despite having a lot of syllables. Municipal is just a fancy word meaning local government run. Think of the streets, the post offices, the public schools and our communities. And broadband is how we connect to the internet. If you think of the internet as a highway system, broadband is our on ramp. And it usually refers to higher speed ways of connecting to that network instead of slow old school dial up. When you put these two things together. Municipal broadband means our access to the internet is owned by we the people via our local government. Bo, Class dismissed now to Bruce. Hello, Bruce, thank you for being here. Why don't we start with you introducing yourself, just say your name and what you do.
Bruce Patterson 6:12
So I'm Bruce Patterson. I'm the technology director for the city of Amman. I've been there for about 17 years.
Baratunde Thurston 6:17
Can you paint me a picture of this city? What are the people of Amman like
Bruce Patterson 6:23
it's in the southeast corner of Idaho. So we're just east of Oregon and Washington. And we have a very small population very, very low density compared with many other states very conservative. If they're natives here, and they were born and raised here, it's a lot of farming. Potato farming, you know, you hear that about Idaho potatoes, Idaho potatoes,
Baratunde Thurston 6:43
that's a real thing.
Bruce Patterson 6:44
It is. It's a real thing. And I moved in when I was probably 19 years old. And I've been I went to fourth grade here. So as far as as far as my life goes, realistically, I'm as close to a native as you can get. that's reflected because I get I get some pretty good rates on my hunting and fishing licenses for the number of years I've been.
Baratunde Thurston 7:04
And that's how you know, you can quantify your connection to the place based on the price of the hunting and fish.
Bruce Patterson 7:11
There's my proof right there.
Baratunde Thurston 7:13
So when did you first start working for the city of Amman?
Bruce Patterson 7:17
So it started in 2004. July 1 2004,
Baratunde Thurston 7:22
why do you remember the date? What happened that day is a big change.
Bruce Patterson 7:25
I was in the plumbing and mechanical business for years. So I'm actually a plumber. That's how I raised my children. That's how I paid my bills. So I actually came on to the city of Amman as a plumbing and mechanical Inspector, I was the fourth person in the whole city building.
Baratunde Thurston 7:39
What do you mean, you were the fourth person in the whole city building? You were the
Bruce Patterson 7:42
there were three people in the office, I was the fourth.
Baratunde Thurston 7:46
Like total, not just that day, just as a general note starting.
Bruce Patterson 7:49
So I got a little office space. And it was like this little tiny town, this little tiny thing. And this is how I got it. They would go to print the utility bills and it wouldn't work. And so they go, Hey, Bruce, can you come look at this, and I go look at it. And I get two utility bills to print. So somehow another that evolved over the next two years that I became there, it personally offered me a full time job as their IT person.
Baratunde Thurston 8:13
Wait, did they ask you for help with the printer, because they knew you were a plumber. And they figured this guy knows how to fix things.
Bruce Patterson 8:21
So in another life, I actually went to college for a year for programming in 1982, I went to Idaho State University. And so I did a year's College in that and decided that that wasn't for me that that I was ready at my point in life that I was going to get married have a family and that I had a construction background. So I went ahead and made a living doing that. But it became apparent to the folks when I came into city of Amman that I could do some of that stuff. And in 2006 they came to me and they said hey, you know, we're just we're really thinking we could use a full time IT guy. And at this point the city had grown I'd have to count the number of employees but it for sure it tripled. And we needed it support. And so they offered it to me and I took it
Baratunde Thurston 9:02
this is we share something here. So I I grew up around computers. My mom was a programmer in COBOL. Yeah, way back in the day. So I've I've seen COBOL code in the 80s in my childhood. And then later in my own life, I became the person because I knew a little bit more about computers and everybody else that got called on to fix the printer, at school and so on fixed at my high school, and that would you know, segue into becoming a job for me in college, where I was an IT person. And that helped pay for my college degree. I owe my college degree in no small part to failing computers or humans failing at computers. Yeah,
Bruce Patterson 9:47
right. So, you know, I enjoyed the work, they offered it to me and I felt like it was an opportunity for me to do something I kind of always wanted to do. And so I decided Yeah, that'd be fun, too. It was, it was a little bit. I won't lie to you. It's a little nerve wracking. Because you know, all my training all my skill set was in another direction. And it was like, Can I really do this? Because I don't really have a sheet of paper to hang on the wall that says I do know how to do it. But once I got into it and got going, I felt like oh, yeah, I like this, I can do this.
Baratunde Thurston 10:21
So talk to me about the leap or the step. What's the transition from your work? fixing the printers always fixing the printers? go from there to internet access? What's
Bruce Patterson 10:35
that journey? The organizational structure within the city of Amman was that a department head and believe it or not, I was one man department but that we have a liaison with the city council member. I was assigned Brian pal. So Brian pal moved into Amman from Boise, Idaho. Now Brian started a business called now disc now disc used to stamp CDs. So they would make they would make CDs. And they were the CDs that got shipped with new PCs. Hmm. And he decided that he was tired of living in in very Metro Boise, Idaho, and he decided he wanted to live over on the east side of the state around Ammonite Oh. And he was expressing to me some disappointment with where he chose to locate his business. Because he had access to pretty slow bandwidth. And the issue was, the manufacturers of these PCs would want to send him a new image of a CD to stamp right. And it would take him all night and into the next day to basically download this image, because that's how they would give it to him.
Baratunde Thurston 11:38
What year are we talking?
Bruce Patterson 11:40
That would have been in 2007 2008? right around there. Okay. So he was lamenting the lack of bandwidth, and that if he chosen a location based on bandwidth, he could technically get that in just a few hours, because there was a municipal fiber optic network in Idaho Falls, which is immediately adjacent to him.
Baratunde Thurston 12:03
So I want to pause you there. Can you define municipal fiber network. And what is fiber besides that thing we hear is good for our digestive system.
Bruce Patterson 12:15
So when I use that term, I'm saying that it's fiber optic infrastructure that is owned by the city. And fiber is actually glass. It really is just glass. And it's smaller than the diameter of the human hair by very measurable amount. And we shoot infrared light down it, we turn that light off and on and pulses. And that conveys data down the fiber. The value of fiber is we could technically run a fiber from the west coast to Japan in one piece and shoot that light from the west coast of Japan and have that signal go you could never do that with copper or any other media.
Baratunde Thurston 12:58
Okay, fibers magic. I remember for myself, roughly around this time 2009. I had to move apartments. And the most important amenity was internet access. And so I would go to these websites, DSL reports, calm and plug in a zip code, plug in an address and see what providers at what speeds were available. And it was the deciding factor. And where I chose to live. Because there was fiber in the building, it unlocked so much awesome for my life. And in fact, my home internet was better than the one in my office. So there were times when I call in sick, just because I could work better from home than anybody else I really do. I think in that same time period, I was struggling with the same thing. And that was New York City, you know, the big Metro New York City where we supposedly had everything anyone could ever need. How would you define how internet access in America works from a high level?
Bruce Patterson 14:04
That's a good question. I would actually flip that on its head a little bit and ask you what is it you actually need from your internet service provider? I think you're really paying them for two things, some infrastructure to get you to a point where you can plug into the internet. So you're paying for a wire or a fiber to plug in. That's one thing you're paying
Baratunde Thurston 14:22
or wireless signal, right?
Bruce Patterson 14:24
Yeah. So you're paying them to take you there. That's one thing. The second thing you're paying them for is a globally unique address. So those are the two things you're paying for. That's how it works. And it started with dialogue. So you really could only get it on the phone line. That was it. You couldn't really get it any other way. Well, the phone systems are regulated system but it's regulated for voice not for internet. But internet was kind of this cool thing and what the phone company figured out was, you know what? Some of these families got people on the internet so much they'll Pay for a second phone line, just the dial up. Right? So you remember that in the 90s that happened, but then long along comes this protocol called DOCSIS. So DOCSIS is the protocol that happens on a cable co x line. So now that cable company can give you Internet, and the phone company can give you internet using what they call DSL and the cable company started to compete, which wasn't a bad deal, because it was still a luxury. It wasn't a necessity. But now we're saying everybody needs it. And we've got two monopoly infrastructures that were never designed to compete, one of them regulated and the other one completely driven by profit, open market capitalism as it should be. And they're actually competing. And the question becomes, do we all have enough money to support two or three or four infrastructures just to have choice in our services? That's the question.
Baratunde Thurston 16:05
So you did a service in explaining that our access to the internet initiated on telephone infrastructure, very government regulated telephone infrastructure then evolved to be able to live on cable television, co x infrastructure, which is far less regulated, you have unregulated competing with regulated for customer dollars. Yep. Why did we not decide at that stage, as the internet became more essential to make it all live on public infrastructure.
Bruce Patterson 16:46
So just because it's regulated, doesn't mean it's public. It just means that they have to fall within regulated rates, which means that somebody, a commission, somewhere that we're going to call the Public Utilities Commission, sits down and looks at the bills that are incurred through the operation of this particular infrastructure, and decides what reasonable and fair rates are. We've been doing that on power infrastructure for decades. It's it was way ahead of this. Yeah. And so, you know, to me, that's the example you've got both public and private power operators. So let me kind of backtrack to the question you ask, which is, why didn't we do it? Somebody's balls gonna get gored. We just admitted their monopoly infrastructures. One of them's regulated, and it's pretty much been supported by Universal Service. So the public is paid into building it out in what we would call high cost areas.
Baratunde Thurston 17:42
help someone who doesn't understand how the telephone network has a universal service requirement. What does that mean?
Bruce Patterson 17:50
So when the phone companies started, we had an epiphany and that epiphany was, the value of this whole wire is that it gets to everybody, we're diminishing the value if we don't make it ubiquitous, and ubiquitous means it goes everywhere,
Baratunde Thurston 18:06
Bruce Patterson 18:07
So what we decided was their geographic locations with very dense populations. And it doesn't cost very much to put it in there. In fact, in their phone bill, they're paying enough that they can cover maintaining that getting it built out and do it. But when we get into the rurals, and we've got miles between homes, how are we going to connect these people because the cost is completely different. So we call those high cost areas. And what they decided was, we're going to charge a small fee, that goes into what we're going to call a Universal Service Fund. And that money is going to be collected, and then it will be coded these rural areas to help push down the cost for them to build and connect those very distant addresses. Yeah. So that that's the regulation that we're talking about that got the phone system built out. And you know, frankly, you can look at the history of it was the envy of the world. I mean, our phone rates were phenomenal. And this idea that we had homes out in the rurals, back in the 60s and 70s, that were connected at the rates, we were paying, other countries came in and tried to emulate and started to do what we were doing. So it was it was a fantastic system, it was a great system. then along comes the cable company, they never asked for any money. They didn't ask for any government support they didn't. They built out with investment from private investors started to connect homes, and they were able to charge enough that they could bring enough revenue in that they were profitable. And they had money to just continue to grow their footprints. And if you look closely, you're gonna find that cable companies don't exist in very rural locations. And that's the reason why because there's no private sector way to fund it. They don't have a Universal Service Fund to do it. But now if we come along, and we say, Hey, we don't care where it is, we're going to use one infrastructure and we're going to find a way to make this essential service as cost effective as possible. And we're going to put some regulatory framework on it to to get it everywhere. Somebody is going to lose out on that somebody is going to say I made an investment. You're taking that away from me. That's my infrastructure, and you're diminishing the value of it after I've invested in it.
Baratunde Thurston 20:14
So the way you described how a public infrastructure evolved around the telephone network, and the value of right, the idea that the more connections there are, the more valuable the network is. Universal telephone service makes the whole phone network much more valuable, and is a greater asset to the nation, other nations are coming, looking at our stuff. How'd you do that? I've heard that same story talk about our Postal Service, another type of network. And we had the most advanced postal system earlier than most other nations, even nations that have been around a very long time with a lot of resources. It also sounds to me like you'd be you could have been talking about a healthcare delivery network, right, universality increases the value to everybody. So I think as a concept, I'm right there with you. A public broadband network, a universal broadband network has greater value than this fragmented universe where some have access and some don't. How have I done with that summary?
Bruce Patterson 21:25
That's good. That's good. I'm, I'm gonna interject one thing at this point, okay. This is important to me, because I think when I start talking about the need for public infrastructure, because I believe that's really what we need, this is really an infrastructure problem. And I think that's a key aspect. But as I say that while I feel like that's so critical, I also believe this, there is a place for everybody at the table. So, besides building public infrastructure, I personally believe that we're missing the boat if we don't create a framework that allows a private owner that owns some broadband infrastructure away to become that regulated provider. And I just think that framework needs to be present.
Baratunde Thurston 22:09
How would you describe the effect on Americans from having a largely privatized broadband infrastructure?
Bruce Patterson 22:19
We're paying a lot in some cases and services, not bad. In some cases, it is very bad, but we're paying a lot. And we're redlining. So redlining is the phrase where you take a look at a geographic area, and you say, well, this area, I can make work, I can make it profitable. And therefore I'll make the investment in this area, I can't and so I'm simply not going to build in that area, or I'm not going to offer service, as as long as we're doing this, out of a purely capitalistic approach. I mean, gotta love it. It does some good things, capitalism, competition, it's great. But if it is the only driver, we are going to have those that are unserved. Yeah. And it's going to be really tough. To get fair, educational opportunities to everybody to get fair health opportunities or health care to people, some of those things are going to be pretty limited by that. As a consequence.
Baratunde Thurston 23:12
I want to follow through on that last point, because I can hear an argument which says, We are a capitalist society, and you're guaranteed things in that society, you work harder, you make more money, you pay for better stuff. So why is that not good enough? When it comes to broadband? Why do you think that needs to be universal and on a public infrastructure, versus letting the market decide where this network goes, how fast it moves, and what price people pay to get access to it?
Bruce Patterson 23:46
The problem is, is that the infrastructure is a natural monopoly. There's an author that I really like Susan Crawford, she compares it this way. Back in the day when we had railroads, railroads were the way you shipped everything that was before we had highways and for the car. And these railroads they built out and they somewhat competed with each other, they kind of just stayed out of each other's way and more or less, sectioned off areas of the country and said, This is mine, this is yours. Then they were shipping packages. So now it gets interesting. They had enough money, they started to buy the manufacturing and the packages. So now not only are they the transport, but it's actually their goods. That's when we first started to get law that said, You can't do that. That was the introduction of the government stepping in and saying that's monopoly, because what they actually doing is preventing any other manufacturer from selling a product and they could control the price of that product because they wouldn't ship the competitor's product on their rail line. So I would challenge you by asking, when the cable company owns the line, and they own the content, can they control the price? And is that a monopoly? And I would say the answer Yes.
Baratunde Thurston 25:04
After the break, Bruce shows us how the small town of Amman broke free from big broadband monopolies, and became a contender for the world's most affordable high speed internet.
So I want to go back in time, your IT director for the city of Amman. Can you describe the moment when you first decided to take on this cause of public broadband infrastructure?
Bruce Patterson 25:41
Well, so I already introduced you to Brian Powell at a city council member that said, Look, Bruce, you know, you need to go out, and you need to figure out how the city of Amman can drive the price of connectivity down, I want to pay less for internet and I want more bandwidth, I want better connectivity. And the city should be able to find a way to influence that outcome. Go figure out how to make that happen, and go look at what idol Falls is done. So I embarked on a, I call them field trips. So I learned best by going and looking what somebody else has done. So I actually went and, and looked at what idol falls done, I went down to some cities in Utah that formed an inter governmental operation called utopia. And they had 16 cities that had built fiber to each other. And I looked at how they were doing it. And then I went to some phone companies in Idaho, and I went to some phone companies in Oregon, I went to some phone companies in Wyoming. And I looked at how they did it. And I started asking myself, what would it cost? Where would the money come from? How did they get theirs built? Is there any way the city can participate in that? Is there such a thing as a municipal phone company, and I dug into all the details. And at the end of the day, it came back about a year or two later. And I said, I'm sorry, Brian, but it's not going to happen. We can't do this. Why? Because too much money. There, there are regulated companies that have like the phone company that can borrow money at a guaranteed rate of return, and get support to get homes connected. The cable company is already there. And I just didn't see any way we could rationally do it. So I kind of told Brian, we can't do that. Well, then we can it we had a little bit of an economic crisis, if you recall around 2008 2009. Yep. And the president at the time came up with the Recovery Act. Remember that and and there were what we called ARRA dollars. And so there was some Recovery Act money that municipalities could tap if they wanted to build a municipal broadband system. And so I i, that caught my eye and I started to do some research. And it became clear to me we could apply as long as we met certain rules. And so so we applied, we didn't get any funding. Well, when we didn't get funded. City Council asked me to come in and make a report because obviously, we spent some time and we spent some money trying to get this grant money. We didn't get it. And so they just really wanted to know, Bruce, you know, just tell us flat out. Why do you think, why do you think they didn't fund us? And I said, the camel doesn't have its nose in the tent.
Baratunde Thurston 28:15
You got to go and translate that one for me. Because
Bruce Patterson 28:19
we weren't credible. We own no fiber. We own no fiber anywhere. We ran no network except for the networks that were in our building. We outsourced all of our connectivity. We owned buildings that were connected, but they were connected through DSL, and VPNs. And so I just don't think we were credible, we needed to own a piece of fiber and operate it. And we needed to prove that we could do it. And then I thought we'd be credible. Yeah. So they said, Well, how would we do that? And I said, Well, we need an upgraded connection between these two buildings. And we've been shopping this and we were just quoted $80,000 to upgrade this connection. That's a huge investment, especially for a little town. So I said, I think we could build it for less, and then we could just run it. So city council meetings on Thursday night, and they told me to go do it. And my head's kind of swimming, because I'm thinking there's no going back. I mean, for me, this was a big deal. One man IT shop, small town. Do I really want to do this? Because once it's in, or once I start and I expend this money. What do I say if it doesn't work, or do I really want to go down this path? So I called up the consultant I've been working with his name's Robert Peterson I called Robert up. I said, I don't really know if I want to do this. I think I got some I'm pretty jittery. I got some nerves about this. You know, he was a huge help to me. He says I think the thing that I'd say to you is the journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step. And he says just worry about the step you got to take and if you know what that step is, take that one and the next one will become clear.
Baratunde Thurston 29:52
Sounds like what the swimming instructors at the YMCA tried to teach me when they said it's time to swim. Now after all these lessons, I said, I don't know how to swim though. And they just threw us in the water. And lo and behold, we kind of started swimming because our lives depended on it. Yep. So your consultant friend, told you just jump in the water. And you did.
Bruce Patterson 30:16
Yeah. And he was right. I mean, that first bit we did, because we were connecting city infrastructure. It was it was an investment, meaning that it did cost more than we were paying monthly. But it did pay for itself over a period of years. And so it was a reasonable investment. And we're still getting dividends on that. And that's really how we built out as we just started one by one to connect one city address to another city address. And then once we kind of reached a certain scale, and we had a certain amount of fiber out there, we had people start come to us, we had businesses, we had cell tower operators come to us and say, Hey, your fibers just down the road here, could you stretch it to our tower, because we've got people that would use your fiber to connect to this tower.
Baratunde Thurston 30:59
So it sounds like the city of Amman has created its own small network initially, to connect its own buildings, on roads and rights of way that it has no control over. And now you've got non city entities, businesses saying, Let me get a little taste to that. Let me plug into your network. So it sounds like you've created a competing network, to the ones operated by a private company, how did they respond to this new network in town run by the government.
Bruce Patterson 31:32
So they were not particularly pleased. However, most of the people that were coming to us at that point in time were coming to us because those incumbents could not offer the bandwidth that we were delivering. Admittedly, the price was significantly less, but they technically didn't even have the infrastructure to offer the kind of bandwidth we were given. So they weren't particularly pleased about it. I will say that of those incumbents, all but one of them, now use our infrastructure. So they're customers,
Baratunde Thurston 32:07
Bruce Patterson 32:08
Yes, they have customers that don't even realize they're using the city's infrastructure to connect them.
Baratunde Thurston 32:14
So this this, this sounds like a big leap. You've got a small network of city to city building connections that you own and operate, because it saves you money in the long run. other businesses show up and say, Can we plug into that two? incumbent ISP is like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, you're, you're poaching our customers. These are pretty good business customers, they should have been ours. And they grumble because you've bored their Gord Gord there,
Bruce Patterson 32:44
guard, they're bored, they're bored. They got their prize bowl.
Baratunde Thurston 32:47
Yeah, we go and you gored their bowl. But you're telling me today, those same internet service providers are now selling access on your own network to their own customers?
Bruce Patterson 33:00
That is correct. So they're using our infrastructure to make money and they're paying us to use it.
Baratunde Thurston 33:06
Okay, a lot of people are not going to see that coming.
Bruce Patterson 33:09
And part of the issue is, is that even some of those providers that use some of this public infrastructure, don't particularly want that known. So they will say they will say public infrastructure is going to kill our business model, it will totally kill us. We can't survive it. That's not necessarily true. Does it change their business model? Yes. Does it change their operational costs? Yes. Does it shift some of those costs to us? And do we now have to have personnel? trucks infrastructure?
Baratunde Thurston 33:40
Yes. Okay. So when do you start offering unattended access to just human citizens, non corporate entities? When does that start?
Bruce Patterson 33:52
It was always on our roadmap. When we started our fiber system, we drafted a city ordinance. And that city ordinance actually laid out our strategy, our roadmap, and the homes were the last thing on there. So it actually said, we're going to serve ourselves first. So it's first of all, for the city. Yeah. Secondly is for public safety and emergency responders. Next is for education, school districts and other public entities, then it's for businesses, and then it's for residences. And so we laid it out and said that was our goal. So I felt like we were at the point where we had to figure out how we're going to solve this problem, because it really it really truly was a problem.
Baratunde Thurston 34:29
What was the problem?
Bruce Patterson 34:31
Up to this point, everybody paid their way the city paid to connect its properties, anything that connected any other address was paid by somebody else. But now I got to go into a neighborhood and I need to connect homes. How do I do that at scale? How do I come up with a price to connect people because the cheapest home to connect is the one closest where I already have fiber and the most expensive one is the furthest one out there. Is there a legal way that I can charge them all the same and connect the whole neighborhood If there is that legal way, where's the money come from? So what I found was improvement districts. So improvement districts are mechanisms where property owners can basically aggregate their demand for an improvement. In other words, they all want new sidewalks through the whole neighborhood. How can they do that? How can they make sure that everybody gets the same sidewalk looks the same? And they're, you know, so they do an improvement district operating
Baratunde Thurston 35:28
collectively in sounds? Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And as I did the research, lo and behold, there's a mechanism where you can build what they call an optional Improvement District, meaning that the property owners get the option of participating. So so you found a way to fund getting broadband to the neighborhood's by using this feature of municipal governance, the improvement district? And you have, okay, we have an option Improvement District, raise your hands if you want broadband? And if enough say yes, then you're in.
Bruce Patterson 36:00
Yep. So where it gets a little nerve racking, you got a you got an area of 300 homes, and 30 of them want connected? That cost is totally different than all 300 of them, or even 150. So it's very nerve racking, because you're going in and you're telling a group of property owners, do you want fiber? And they say, Well, that depends how much does it cost? And then you say, Well, that depends how many of you want it.
Baratunde Thurston 36:25
Right. But that sounds I mean, listen, us, Bruce, and this moment, we're not talking about infrastructure alone anymore. We're talking about people. Yes, we're talking about communities coming together to decide we want this and in this case, the more who say they want it, the better price they're all going to get. That's right. So how does how does this play out in the people of Amman?
Bruce Patterson 36:51
There are people in neighborhoods that want fiber, they want better connectivity, they want another choice. And these people came out of the woodwork and found us and said, If I talk to my neighbors, if I go knock on doors, can you give me anything to say? So we started to call these folks fiber champions. And we spun up a website where any resident and admin can type their name and their address in and say, I want fiber. And there's a box they can check that says, Yes, I'm willing to be a fiber champion. By the way, that means that you're going to talk to your neighbors. So for our very first local Improvement District, we said the first one that can get over 50%, we will come back to you with a cost per home. And we will build your neighborhoods, we ended up doing three non contiguous neighborhoods that had a combined take rate of 73%.
Baratunde Thurston 37:41
Oh, okay. So broadly speaking, how has amande fiber affected Amman? Are there any tangible differences because you now have this publicly owned and operated broadband network,
Bruce Patterson 37:58
and fiber resonance as we went through the pandemic, could work and school from home, we hear that consistently. At the time the pandemic started and the school started back up. We had homes that opted not to get fiber. When we did the improvement district, we were connecting at least one of those every week, and they were paying for those connections. So to put that in context, that connection is 30 $600. So it is not an inexpensive proposition to build this infrastructure. Yeah. But there's clearly value to it, and people are starting to see that value, the upfront cost is high. But you need to remember that once that 30 $600 is paid, they're getting one gig connectivity for $26 a month. Okay, I
Baratunde Thurston 38:41
think we buried the lead on this whole conversation. one gigabit per second speeds at upload, download both,
Bruce Patterson 38:51
yes. $26.50. Total out of pocket monthly, total.
Baratunde Thurston 38:57
So that's that is one quarter of what I'm paying for the same just for the record right now. So how do we move to Amman? Is there a program just for the broad? I've told you, Bruce, I moved to a specific building because of the broadband. Don't think it doesn't apply to your town.
Bruce Patterson 39:13
I wish we could move and everywhere. What we have done is not that hard to do. I can tell you the hardest part. People ask me all the time, believe me when I tell you, counties and cities call us on a weekly basis because they see little video clips. Little things about us in a Fast Company magazine in 2019 said we have the best network in America. The open Technology Institute did a cost of connectivity research program. And they actually look at other countries and found Amman to have the cheapest gig internet in the world. So what I think is, we can get this everywhere. But the hardest part about this isn't the technology, the technologies. It's the fun part. It's the part I love, don't get me wrong, but it's actually the easiest But the absolute hardest thing is consensus. We just can't agree on anything, even in little Amman, it's a challenge. And we successfully got 70% to say that this made sense and they joined up, and it works really well. But I think the larger you stretch this and the more people you involve, the harder it is to get that consensus. It's very challenging to explain to a resident that yes, in order to serve some people down this road, we need to go through what you perceive to be your front yard. And yes, we will fix it. And yes, it is disruptive. And yes, we're sorry. But this is for the greater good.
Baratunde Thurston 40:44
I was wondering, you know, about the consensus and the potential divisiveness? Where else are people divided about this? And what have you learned about overcoming that division?
Bruce Patterson 40:56
I use crossing people's property as an example. And that can be one of the most contentious situations. Fortunately, it's probably the most infrequent also. So even though it can be very contentious, it's probably something we see less than somebody saying, government should not do this.
Baratunde Thurston 41:16
Some people say, this is not the role of government, and how does that play out in him?
Bruce Patterson 41:22
So I'll make a couple of comments that are based on my experience. And I'm not campaigning one side against another. I believe that's why the municipality exists, where the county is, it provides a forum, a mechanism for the community to come together and do things that they can't do alone. And I think this is one of those examples. And I don't know that Amman fits everywhere, I wouldn't ever recommend every single city, just go do it. Do I think that we do need more public infrastructure? Do I think that we need some kind of a regulatory framework to help us get ubiquitous public infrastructure for broadband? Yes, my decade of experience tells me we're gonna build a framework that's new, and it's going to start at grassroots, it's going to start with communities like em and other communities that decide they're going to build their own. And our solution is going to be a patchwork of infrastructures that are publicly owned that all interconnecting cross. And it's going to work.
Baratunde Thurston 42:24
Well, Bruce, thank you so much for nerding out with me and advocating so passionately for municipal broadband.
Bruce Patterson 42:31
You're absolutely welcome. I appreciate it. Appreciate your time as well.
Baratunde Thurston 42:41
So I'm up here looking up how fast I can maybe move to Amman, Idaho, not just for the fiber optic broadband network, but so I can learn more of these cool Idaho savings. Seriously, Bruce, is just what this show is about. He is citizen and so hard, showing up for his community, helping the communities show up for itself. We can citizen, anywhere, a small town, a big city, on the coast or on the plains. And we can citizen in a multitude of ways. It's all about working for our collective benefit. And I just want to add two quick things. First, when we have a public option like municipal broadband, it doesn't mean the end of all private enterprise. Okay. That's why it's called an option. Second, Internet access is just one critical service we use that could benefit from this model. Imagine having public options for other essentials like banking, healthcare, even doughnuts. Okay, maybe not donuts. I don't know if I want government doughnuts, even though they're quite an essential service. If I'm hearing Bruce correctly, when we have options that prioritize people, not just profit, we can create a more equitable society where it's easier for us all to citizen. You might even say the world is our public oyster. Yeah, I said that I can be corny sometimes. You're welcome. Next week, we'll get into why some people can't even afford internet access or other life necessities. And it's not because they don't work hard because they do they work the hardest, is simply because we don't pay them enough. I'm going to talk with the one and only Igen poop. She's been working for over 20 years to bring quality work and dignity and fairness to people who care for our elderly, who clean our homes and who still have the least protections of almost any workers in this economy.
And now, it's action time. On the personal front. I want you to think about this. What's publicly owned municipally run in your own community, post office water the library. They Have what those things are? and ask yourself, how do you use these services? And what would you change about them? If they were owned exclusively by private companies? If you were in charge? What would you do to improve this service
Unknown Speaker 45:14
for the public?
Baratunde Thurston 45:15
And what else could you imagine working better if it was run by the people, and serve more? For our next action, let's get more informed. Basically, we can acknowledge that our lives and our livelihoods depend on the internet, Bruce helped meet that essential need by having the local government operated network. But it's not the only way. And the internet isn't the only service. You can find out more about community efforts to own services, from broadband to banking, the links in the show notes for this episode. Finally, we have something that you can do with other people bring municipal broadband to your community. That's right if this topic excites you, on your citizen journey, consider joining a community broadband effort near you, or learning from one in order to lead an effort in your city or in your town, aka your municipality. The Institute for local self reliance we heard from earlier in this series of Stacey Mitchell. They're tracking all these local efforts via their community map at muninetworks.org. If you're taking these actions, please brag about yourself online using the hashtag #howtocitizen and send us general feedback or ideas for the show to comments at howtocitizen.com speaking of that domain name, we have one and we're using it visit howtocitizen.com to sign up for our newsletter, or learn about upcoming events. Or even more stuff than that. And if you'd like the show, spread the word. Tell somebody How to Citizen with Baritunde is a production of IHeartRadio, podcast and Dust Live productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston. Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Yusef. Our producers are Stephanie Cohn and Allie Kilts. Kelly Prime is our editor. Valentino Rivera is our engineer. And Sam Paulson is our printers. Original Music by Andrew Eapen. This episode was produced in sound design by Alley Kilts. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio
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