How Big Internet Keeps Small Communities Disconnected

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Lizzie O’Leary: One demanding is 58. And she’s lived in East Carroll Parish in Louisiana for her entire life.

Speaker 2: We are in the northeastern part of the state. We pressed against the levee and on the other side of the levee is the Mississippi River.

Lizzie O’Leary: It’s a small rural place, mostly agricultural, a land that was once used for cotton plantations. About 7200 people live there now. More than a third of them below the poverty line. And the opportunities to work or even shop are dwindling.

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Speaker 2: We’re down to a couple of like one families dollar store. $1 General. We’re not a very big community at all.

Lizzie O’Leary: There are three public schools in the parish. A parish is the Louisiana equivalent of a county. And Wanda taught there for almost 33 years during the pandemic when school went remote. She noticed that one of her fifth grade students, a boy named Nathan, was struggling to stay connected to the Google classroom.

Speaker 2: He would be in one moment, out the next moment, and then, oh, he kept saying, it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault.

Lizzie O’Leary: When Wanda reached out to Nathan’s mom, she found out why the family could only connect to the Internet with dial up.

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Speaker 2: And my heart dropped. I thought that was doing all the pays in 2020 to use that look. That’s that was my thought. So I promised her son that I would do everything within my power to make sure that they have good, sustainable Internet in that area out there.

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Lizzie O’Leary: So Wanda became an organizer with a group called Delta Interfaith to try to bring broadband Internet to the parish, a place where less than half the households have it. This summer, it looked like her group had succeeded. They found a rural company willing to provide fast Internet. Louisiana’s governor announced money to help. Residents were thrilled. But then at the last minute, $1,000,000,000 Internet service provider Sparklight threw a wrench in the deal. Now Wanda and her community are locked in a David and Goliath fight to get fast Internet.

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Speaker 2: You know, big corporations are going to come after small communities. You all might be the next one. So be prepared and be diligent and vigilant about what’s coming down. Because I’ve learned where there’s money involved. Big money, the common.

Lizzie O’Leary: Today on the show why a giant company is standing in the way of a small community getting online and how that playbook is being repeated across the country. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us.

Lizzie O’Leary: The Internet service provider that Wanda and her fellow organizers found was called Connection Connect. It agreed to provide the infrastructure for fast broadband in the parish. That infrastructure would be paid for with a $4 million grant from the federal American Rescue Plan. But the state was doling out. Governor John Bel Edwards came to town to announce the funding in July and people were thrilled.

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Speaker 2: Thank you, Mayor Vale, and it is good to be up here with all of you this morning. I’ve been looking forward to this day for a very, very long time, so.

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Lizzie O’Leary: It seemed like it was all going to work out. But part of the process of allowing a new Internet provider to come into an area is a period of time when an existing provider can lodge a protest, basically saying, hey, we already provide adequate service here.

Speaker 3: There was about a week left where these telecom companies could come in and try to stop the process and gum up the works.

Lizzie O’Leary: That’s Issie Lapowsky, the chief correspondent for protocol. She wrote about what happened in East Carroll Parish.

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Speaker 3: But I think they really thought they were in the clear since they’d made it so long without anybody speaking up. And on the the last day of the protest window, income’s an incumbent saying, Hold up, not so fast.

Lizzie O’Leary: Sparklight protested the grant with the state’s broadband authority, saying the money shouldn’t go to East Carroll and Exxon. This protest from Sparklight. I think it’s probably worth explaining why an ISP can file a protest. What is that exactly?

Speaker 3: This is money that’s set aside for the most unserved or underserved areas of Louisiana. And we see these kinds of grants in states across the country. So the protest policy exists so that, you know, you don’t have a bunch of people trying to get this money to serve a place that already has a thousand options to choose from, which is a rarity in the United States, where we have a lot of telecom monopolies. But that’s the sort of best case scenario. That’s the rationale behind these protests. I guess the cynic would say these protest periods exist because telecom companies have lobbied for them. Telecom companies have swooped in and said, you know, you’re not going to give us a whole bunch of competition in our area. At least give us a chance to to have our say when you’re going to get this kind of money out.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Protest from an ISP to state regulators aren’t that rare. In fact, as he says, they’re quite common. But what made this one unique was that it came at the 11th hour. Residents felt like it wasn’t made in good faith.

Speaker 3: What I was hearing from the leaders and is Carol, from the leaders at Delta Interfaith was they’re just trying to gum up the works. They’re just trying to delay us. You know, they had these seven months and what they wait until the very last day of the process. They are just trying to hold things up. So I put it to Sparklight said, you know, why did you wait? And they gave me an initial response saying, oh, you know, we we after the award was granted, we had seven days and it took us those four, seven days to do our analysis. And I said, Well, what about the seven months before that? You know, January is when the application went in and July is when the award was granted. What about all that time? And they kind of hemmed and hawed and told me some stuff about, Oh, we couldn’t see the addresses that were supposed to be served under this grant. Well, that doesn’t turn out to be the case. I asked the state and it turns out all those addresses were public.

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Speaker 3: Long story short, after asking many, many times and going back to the drawing board with them, they told me that essentially they had technical issues on their end, getting access to the files that were submitted as part of the application. They say they couldn’t get access to the mapping files and had to update their software. And I asked them to actually confirm that $1,000,000,000 telecom company couldn’t find a way to open a file over the course of seven months in seven days. And they told me that that is the. That’s correct.

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Lizzie O’Leary: I want to back up a little bit and and sort of explain the the protest process and what a company like Sparklight gets out of that. Right. If they file a protest, are they saying, no, no, we can come in and we should get this grant money?

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Speaker 3: They’re not actually competing for the grant. They’re saying we already serve or conserve this area. So they’re not even having a say. We already serve all 900 of these homes. They’re saying that if if those 900 homes wanted our service, we could provide it to them. So they don’t necessarily have to prove that they already provided to these people, but they have to prove that they could.

Lizzie O’Leary: And yet residents in your story clearly have said that the Internet options that they have are substandard. What are their options?

Speaker 3: They have the option of Sparklight. They have the option of AT&T. And when COVID hit, this is how desperate the community was. They really went out searching for another provider because these providers were not were not adequate for the needs that people had. To be logged on to zoom and doing virtual school and all of those things.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Because they cost so much.

Speaker 3: Because they cost so much or because, you know, in some cases it’s, you know, old slow, you know, one one former school teacher in the area told me, you know, some folks are being asked to pay $140 for dial up. So, you know, it’s just not really feasible. So they went out and they actually got some donations from from StarLink, which is Elon Musk’s satellite Internet. And they did donate a bunch of satellite Internet for four homes that had students on free and reduced lunch. And so that put a big dent in the problem temporarily, at least as long as the donations last. But it didn’t address homes where schoolchildren didn’t live, but where folks are still really struggling to get connected while they were at home.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Those people were almost utterly at the mercy of large ISPs like Sparklight and whether or not the companies wanted to provide workable service to the area.

Speaker 3: These companies have a lot of power, at least more power than a small, poor, rural community is going to have. Right. These are the companies that are lobbying statehouses across the country not only for a more preferable, you know, protest laws, but for a whole bunch of things. Right. And so they have relationships. They have sway. They have they have incumbency status. Luckily, there are some really smart people in Terrell Parish who have kind of known what to do. They sent out these digital navigators to all of these homes in the area to conduct speed tests, to say, look, we actually are not getting the service we need. We have the proof right here. And they submitted with with connections applications. So but not every community knows to do that. Not every community has the resources to do that. I mean, it’s a definitely a David and Goliath thing, right. At these these telecom companies have a lot of sway.

Lizzie O’Leary: I guess what I come back to in listening to this is really not understanding why Sparklight rejected multiple bids to improve Internet service in the parish, and it doesn’t want another company to come in and provide adequate Internet. It’s hard to understand.

Speaker 3: Well, I guess it’s just corporate incentives, right? I mean, if a company doesn’t have to provide better service, if it doesn’t have to build out in an area, and if it doesn’t see how that would necessarily serve their business or drive their profits, then why would they? Right. So if they can successfully, because of a favorable protest policy in the state, stop a competitor like Nexon from coming into this area because they can say, hey, we provide up to X amount of speed for for our service. Then, then why would they?

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Lizzie O’Leary: Campaigns like Sparklight may soon play out across the country. Congress set aside $42.5 billion in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas like East Carroll Parish, which means state regulators could help millions of under connected Americans get online unless these Internet turf wars stop them. Some states have been proactive in fending off last minute protests.

Speaker 3: Some experts I spoke to talked about other states that have implemented policies where, for instance, there is no such thing as protesting a grant after it’s been awarded. You don’t have the parade scheduled and the governor flying in and then all bets are off. There are other states where, for instance, if you are trying to challenge somebody’s application and you are successful, you don’t get to just, you know, rest on your laurels. You actually have to provide service at the same price and speed that the applicant was applying for. There are other states that punish challengers for coming in and saying, we provide service there or we could provide service there. And if they successfully defeat an application and then it turns out they don’t provide service there, they won’t be able to challenge again for another couple of grant cycles.

Lizzie O’Leary: How common is this among big ISPs? Is this something they do a lot?

Speaker 3: Yes. What I’ve heard is that this is very common. It’s happening everywhere. But the reason I wrote about this situation and Kara was really the, first of all, the sort of inspiring story of the grassroots movement there, also the peculiar nature of the 11th hour protest. Like these protests are very common, but they are happening over the course of months. They’re happening shortly after applications go out. Having this protest come on the seventh day was was such a peculiar circumstance, such a letdown for the community and sort of sort of evidence of these these stalling tactics we’re talking.

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Speaker 3: At $4 million you’re in is Carol. But there’s about to be $42 billion on the table for states to invest in broadband infrastructure. And so what I’ve been hearing is that, you know, yes, this is happening all the time, but it’s going to get a lot worse. It’s going to get a lot more ferocious. And it’s really time for states to start thinking about the possibility that this is in the playbook and and writing rules to defend against it.

Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back, more money does not always mean fewer problems.

Lizzie O’Leary: There are a lot of East Carols across America. According to the Agriculture Department. 22% of rural Americans and almost 28% of Americans living in tribal lands don’t have fast broadband.

Speaker 3: So we’re talking about a fifth, a quarter of the population living in these rural areas. Then you have to think about not just rural areas that need better broadband, but urban areas that also don’t have access to, you know, maybe the affordable options that they need or, you know, are are just sort of as a as a function of redlining, have never been offered the sort of competitive pricing or speeds that, you know, wealthier areas are.

Lizzie O’Leary: I think one of the things or a narrative that is sometimes put forward when we think about the digital divide is it’s just a thing that happened. And woops, this is how it is. But when I read your reporting, it seems very much like something that. Is planned or is at least, shall we say, a predictable consequence of large company actions. How would you describe the why of how these broadband deserts exist?

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Speaker 3: If you’re a telecom company, you want to get your money back after you’ve done all this digging and laying of infrastructure and all that stuff, it’s very capital intensive up front. And then if you have a really sparsely populated area or a really poor client base, customer base in that area, how do you get your money back if you’re having to offer low cost Internet to affordable housing complexes, or if you’re having to offer affordable Internet to, you know, vast farmland where, you know, only a few homes live, or maybe there’s one business, it’s really hard to get your money back. So I think it is about the profit incentives. And so that’s where you have some of this federal funding coming in saying, okay, remove the profit incentives. We know you’re not going to do this because of your own business needs. We know you’re not going to do this out of the goodness of your own heart. Here’s $42.5 billion. Will you do it now? So I think it’s really about how they get paid.

Lizzie O’Leary: How important is the outcome of the Sparklight protest if the state broadband authority in Louisiana rules in favor of Sparklight, what does that mean for these other rural areas across the state or the country who are trying to get their reliable Internet access?

Speaker 3: You know, for the people of East Terrell, for the 851, you know, locations that are supposed to be served by this grant, you know, it makes a huge difference in their lives. They say, you know, if we don’t get the money from the state, this $4 million bill will keep fighting. We’ll try to find it anywhere. But you also asked, you know, what does this mean for other areas? I think this is a really interesting test case. You know, if the state, which is led by a Democratic governor, which has already come to who has already come to town and promises to these people, can’t approve this money going to those people or really to the provider that wants to give service to those people. I think that isn’t very encouraging for what happens in other rural states that aren’t as far as, you know, concerned or incentivized or just for PR reasons, motivated to make good on this promise.

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Lizzie O’Leary: It’s unclear when Louisiana’s broadband authority will make a decision on what should happen in East Carroll Parish. But Issie says that other ISPs are watching this case very closely.

Speaker 3: What’s different about what Sparklight did here is again the 11th hour protest. But the playbook has been written and played all across the country by pretty much every technical summit, every telecom incumbent. So I think that, yeah, they’re going to be watching how all of these fights play out, and especially they’re going to be interested in states if states are taking a more, I guess, authoritative stance against these kinds of practices. But but I wouldn’t say it’s any secret that this is a tactic that can be used.

Lizzie O’Leary: I think if you live in a community where the Internet is reliable and priced in an accessible way, this story might sound really shocking, and I wonder if you could lay out how lack of accessible and affordable Internet keeps these areas in in poverty and and really stuck in a place where having digital connections to the outside world becomes tenuous.

Speaker 3: You can look at it from the perspective of students who, you know, especially during COVID, weren’t able to access their actual education. But even in the best of times without connectivity, you know, aren’t getting the benefit of, you know, accessing the Internet for research or whatever it might be. All the ways that technology is used in education today, you know, there are lots of ways that not having access to the Internet kind of holds students back. Then you can think about how it holds these communities back in terms of business. You know, East, Carol, is a place that has had, you know, huge population decline. There’s not much population to begin with, but folks are leaving because how do you build a business or how do you work remotely or how do you work in the year 2022 at all without reliable access to the Internet?

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Lizzie O’Leary: One of the things that I’m struck by in your story is that I think I had always had the somewhat naive assumption that more money put toward the problem of connecting unconnected communities would immediately solve the problem. But what I found reading this piece is that it seems so much more complicated than that. And there’s a whole kind of political and lobbying apparatus that exists. Behind this. And and maybe it’s not such a simple equation.

Speaker 3: Right. I mean, I think everybody kind of cheers or plans the parade when, you know, Congress or when when President Biden signed into law the thing that says $42 billion in funding is going toward closing the digital divide. And that is a huge accomplishment. But it’s a whole nother thing to see that money actually get out the door and to see it actually get spent on in the places where it’s supposed to get spent.

Speaker 3: And so, you know, of course, Sparklight would say we’re mounting this protest in good faith and we want to see this money spent in an area where it’s really needed. There are plenty of areas of need. And Louisiana is Carroll Parish is not one of them. The people who live there beg to differ. But you’re right that you know, what is often the subject of our attention and our, you know, celebration is just like crossing that finish line to get the money. And then all of these negotiations and protests that stand in the way of this money actually being spent happen kind of quietly and in a lot of places. It’s really hard to track. And and yet it’s no less important because that’s how the money is actually making a difference.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Issie Lapowsky. Thank you so much for talking with me.

Speaker 3: Thank you.

Lizzie O’Leary: Issie Lapowsky is the chief correspondent at protocol. And that is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. A show is edited by Jonathan Fisher. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family. And we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you are a fan of the show, I have a request for you. Become a Slate Plus member. Just head on over to Slate.com. Slash, what next? Plus to sign up. We will be back on Sunday with a show on how victims of human trafficking are forced into scamming people online. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thank you so much for listening.