On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Will Rinehart. In their discussion, Juliette and Will cover broadband access, broadband adaption, and plans to connect the “unconnected” and rural communities.
Will Rinehart is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity, where he specializes in telecommunication, Internet, and data policy, with a focus on emerging technologies and innovation.
Rinehart was formerly the Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum and before that a Research Fellow at TechFreedom and the Director of Operations at the International Center for Law & Economics.
Rinehart’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Wired, Morning Consult, The Hill, Forbes, Reason, Marginal Revolution, Overlawyered, and on BBC Radio and NPR, just to name a few. He speaks regularly on topics related to tech policy, has been cited in regulatory orders from the FCC, and has been featured in Supreme Court petitions.
In 2009, Rinehart was a Koch Summer Fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation. In 2008, he was a Research Associate at the Illinois Policy Institute, where he studied state-level budget, energy and tax issues. Additionally, he worked for the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Illinois
Rinehart received his MS in Applied Economics from Johns Hopkins University and his BA in Political Science from the University of Illinois.
Juliette: Hi, welcome back to my podcast. Today I’ll be talking to Will Rinehart, a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity where he specializes in telecommunication, internet and data policy with a focus on emerging technologies and innovation and innovation. So today we will be talking about broadband. Welcome, Will.
Will Rinehart: Thanks for having me.
Juliette: So first, before we jump in, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don’t?
Will Rinehart: About broadband or just writ large?
Juliette: Just everything in general, whatever you think is most important.
Will Rinehart: I’d actually suggest that I think the most important thing is- the short version of it -I would say is read the footnotes. And I know that’s like kind of a nerdy thing to be saying, but, whenever you’re looking at a topic or you’re looking at an issue, I really, I found this even with, I mean, even with my generation, obviously I’m older, I’m a millennial, a reviled millennial. One of the things that really kind of bothers me even about the conversations I have with my colleagues and the people that I know that are my own age it’s that a lot of them don’t have like the depth of the argument. So they really don’t know primary sources. They haven’t for example, haven’t if they’re interested in a piece of legislation or interested in like a policy, they really don’t know the policy all particularly, well, they know the talking points, but they haven’t read actual bill. So in that sense, reading the footnotes or going towards the footnotes or thinking through the footnotes to me that, I think that really just references this idea of having a depth of knowledge about the topic that you’re speaking about, which requires you to kind of read primary materials and to read anything and everything you can get your hands on about the topic at hand.
Juliette: Yeah. I like that. It also makes you more credible when talking about it, because if you’re like, Oh, well, did you read, I don’t know. I can’t think of an example right now, but like, did you read this? And then they’re like, no. And then you’re like, well, how do you actually know? How can you speak on it more than literally anyone else in this room?
Will Rinehart: Yeah, exactly. No, I think that’s exactly the point, right? I mean, it’s going back to those original materials and going back to the original sources and kind of knowing, I mean in a sense, also knowing you’re having an argument with somebody knowing their articulation, being able to understand the position they’re coming from as well. I did a lot of debate when I was younger, and that’s what I loved a lot about debate, was this ability to quickly switch sides and having to articulate effectively, both ends of an argument. And that forces you to think through cogently what’s going on, on both ends and also makes you think on your feet about other positions. And so having a sense of where somebody is arguing or how they might be arguing against your point, I think is incredibly, incredibly powerful. But similarly, it’s something I think everyone really that’s thinking through issues and especially that are that are getting any of their content today really need to be cognizant of these other points and these other positions, not just their own. And the fact that I think that even a lot of people, it doesn’t just your generation or my generation, or even our parent’s generations, it’s I think everyone has this sort of problem where they don’t think through the other articulation or the other position in whatever it may be,
Juliette: Especially now when it’s so easy to just see what someone else thinks about it, or have someone else explain it to you online, or if you read an article about it, it’s like, “Oh, okay, well now I get it.” But do you really get it? If you haven’t read the source or how much do you really care if you’re not willing to go back and do the research yourself? So jumping into broadband- I was born in 2003. I’ve never been a part of a world where I did not have access to the internet where I couldn’t send emails, texts, call people. And since the beginning of the pandemic, the majority of my life has been dependent upon the internet upon being online, especially with school because we’re still not back yet. We’re still remote, which is another thing, but I’ve always lived in a city or like- well right outside of the city- where broadband access and wifi networks are super available. So the issue of broadband and broadband equity and rural access to broadband was never really something that I had thought about before I read your work. So before we get into it, can you explain what broadband is and how it’s different from wifi? I know for me, that was like something that was difficult to understand, but also I definitely know my mom is listening and will be grateful.
Will Rinehart: Yeah. So, when we talk about broadband, we’re talking about kind of broadly, this idea of a fast internet service and that’s broadly different from when we talk about wifi. So wifi is kind of the in-home connection. Specifically, wifi is like a very kind of niche description of a very specific kind of technology that’s used in order to connect your router, your internet connection point through a system, through a standard it’s called it’s actually a wifi standard. And that’s used to basically connect all of your devices to the actual internet connection. Wifi is used as like the access point to the internet. So you obviously have to have a hard connection itself to the internet. That comes in through basically a broadband connection of some sort. It can either be cable, or it can be a fiber connection, or it can be DSL, which is a telephone connection. So those are the three basic ones that most people use. Or, I mean, even you can have a wireless service. So increasingly people are using their phones and just using their phones specifically to put out a Wi-Fi hotspot. And they’re just using that wifi hotspot for kind of their own home. That’s becoming increasingly common. But the way to really think about this difference between wifi even broadband is that wifi is really just this, this way to connect to the internet through a specific standard, whereas the internet or the broadband itself is the actual hard connection.
So you can have a wifi hotspot, or you can have a wifi system in place and yet not have a super fast internet access or broadband access point behind it. And that can really- that can kind of slow down things. And there’s obviously a lot that’s happening in between those two as well. And to make things even more complex and fun and interesting- oftentimes when people have slow internet connection speeds in their homes, a lot of times it’s actually related to their wifi or their router system, or their means of communication within their home, and not necessarily the actual internet spot or the internet connection that they have. So it’s a pretty consistent problem that we see with a lot of homes that because of the way they’re constructed and because of the way that you have this kind of wireless system in place, that in fact you can slow down broadband pretty markedly, pretty extensively if you don’t have a kind of a proper installation within your home. And that creates even more problems getting connection to the internet.
Juliette: So in that case, it wouldn’t be the broadband or the broadband access thats a problem, but the wifi and the way it’s set up.
Will Rinehart: Yeah, exactly. And that’s very, very common. It is unfortunately a very, very common problem that we see.
Juliette: Yeah. We used to have problems with that. Well, it actually kind of got in the way of the podcast for awhile. That was a struggle, but it works now. So that’s okay. Reset the router every two weeks and it’s good. So before we dive into how the pandemic has affected broadband and all of this stuff, and the need to increase broadband access, especially in rural areas, can you tell us what the differences are between rural and urban access to broadband?
Will Rinehart: Yeah. We do see that there is a pretty striking problem between rural and urban access. So for the most part urban access is not necessarily completely widespread. It’s not absolutely ubiquitous, but most urban areas have pretty good internet connection. And so there really isn’t a major issue when it comes to internet access when it comes to urban areas. Most people, if you live in an urban area, you do have a provider, or you do have a couple of providers that you can go towards, but when you get into rural areas that drops off pretty dramatically. And some previous research that I’ve done in this space, we see that even that kind of that really basic urban-rural divide is itself not as nuanced as it should be. So when you’re in kind of like a downtown area that is rural, they actually typically do have access to high-speed broadband. It’s just that when you get not very far away from those downtown areas, those downtown cores, like your main street will typically have internet access, but it’ll drop off pretty precipitously. So it’ll be a pretty quickdrop-off from say your like downtown main street area to to even maybe like a half a mile or two miles away. And in fact, I grew up- my grandparents lived in a, and my grandmother still does live, very rural area of Illinois. Downtown has pretty good internet access. And we used to go downtown to the coffee shop to use the internet down there. But her home is not by any means- It’s still not hard to get to. The roads aren’t particularly bad out to her place, but the internet access is just really, really difficult and it’s expensive. And it’s it’s not the best when it comes to her access. And we see that as a kind of an endemic problem throughout the United States. That rural communities don’t have the access to internet or internet service providers like they probably should have.
Juliette: So what I guess, like pre-pandemic, what has been done to kind of try to bridge that gap in terms of government? Also have there been market solutions, or like what’s going on there over the pandemic before the pandemic?
Will Rinehart: Totally. And a lot of this stuff, to be honest, is extended into the pandemic because I don’t know that there’s any great new thinking that has been done on this. But for the longest time there have been both state- and really to separate this out- I think there’s probably two ways to think about this, right? You can either change the supply side of things. You can, “Hey, we’re going to go in and we’re going to support rural communities”, or “we’re going to support urban communities by giving them loans or grants or any sort of support,” however it may be to build out and develop broadband so that you can do things on the supply side of things. But then there’s also the demand side of things. And that’s another way that governments typically have supported communities. Primarily by giving them just straight cash or some sort of voucher or some sort of support. This is another major way that traditionally governments have supported communities, but effectively there have been at least through the government, you’ve seen, like I said, these supply side sorts of projects and then demand side sort of things. What I think has been really interesting and what’s happened over the last couple years is that States are doing a lot more grant programs. They’re spending money to try to get local communities connected. You also see a lot of local communities actually trying to just figure out where the gaps are. And that’s a really big problem. As I see it just knowledge of where there are gaps in rollout and in broadband and where the needs are locally. So that’s another big thing that’s changed over the last couple of years. You also have seen some efforts by pretty large companies. So Comcast has a pretty big program called internet essentials. And so they’ve been supporting low-income communities with a subsidized internet service for, I believe it’s $10 a month. So there’s been a range of different things that have happened. And some companies- Google has actually helped support local communities by giving them, computers and laptops. So it’s a little bit of everything, right? There’s been a whole bunch of different things that have been tried. Not all of them have been particularly great at solving this problem. There seems to be a group of what you might call “the unconnected” that are pretty um- I don’t want to say hard to budge- but they’re a group that’s typically older, typically lower income, that is just difficult to get connected. Part of that is related to this rural broadband issue, as we’ve said, that it’s just, you can’t get internet access, but a very large portion of people who aren’t connected to the internet actually just say that they don’t see any relevance to the internet. And largely that’s an older crowd and that’s among the biggest problems that we’re still facing today is trying to get that older, 65+ community connected in rural areas. So it’s like this really interesting sort of endemic difficult problem that we’re still trying to solve.
Juliette: So you’ve kind of talked about different things that have been done at different levels, but should it be a local issue or a state issue or a federal issue,? Like which one makes the most sense, or do you think would be the most effective?
Will Rinehart: I think personally the best place is probably at the state and local level. The federal government has supported state and local communities for the longest time. But I think the knowledge really does exist at the local level. But the the money has at least since the 1980s, there has been a concerted effort to get people who aren’t connected to telephones to be connected to telephones. And that kind of was extended out towards internet as the internet transition happened beginning in the two thousands. So there is this kind of mix and you do see all of these different programs kind of working together. I’m kind of the nature of thinking that you do need to kind of have this variation within the federal state and local level. And each one of them does have a certain kind of benefit. But to the same extent, and I’m doing more and more work on this right now, but a lot of these programs have we really don’t know how well they do. We really just don’t have a good sense of if they’re all that effective and if we’re targeting the right groups. And if we’re if we’re really doing the best that we can do with our money. I think that one of the biggest things that we’ve seen is, especially with this pandemic, there is this new what’s called an emergency broadband benefit that will support families by giving them $50 per month for broadband assistance. And what’s interesting, I think, especially about that, is that we’ve had something like $9 to $10 support fund that’s been going on for many, many years. And we really don’t know if that’s the right level. That $9. We didn’t know if that was the right level for the longest time. And so now we’re bumping it up to $50 per month for families, but we still don’t know if that’s the right level. And so those sorts of basic things are to me really needed and necessary for good policy making. And yet we’re still just not doing it for a whole range of issues.
Juliette: So there have been many calls- I mean, always, but especially now, and like pandemic time- to fix the rural-urban divide with government actions. And I made a short list- well, it’s, it’s not a short list is a pretty long list- but I will shorten it of what we’ve been told will happen if we expand broadband access in rural areas. One, we will be able to attract companies to rural areas which will increase jobs and we’ll revive rural communities, it will create new occupations, it will eliminate climate change it will raise basic education, it will create the most advanced health care system in the world, reduce inequality, better transportation, improved the lives of the elderly, enhanced friendships, pumping more money into rural areas will just increase everything there. Apparently, it will reduce suicide rates. There’s so much more- and in some ways I can see how some of it okay. If you have more internet access, that makes sense. But some of it I’m like, how has that related?
Will Rinehart: I actually kind of want that list later. I should include some of this because all of these issues are , you talk about like inequality. I mean we know that when you do actually get internet or super-fast internet in a region, it actually tends to create this like skills bifurcation, right? The people who are more skilled tend to become more skilled, and those who are less skilled tend to become less skilled. And so it actually has this interesting effect of creating more inequality in the skills gap. So while it might be the case, in some instances, that these things can in fact change some communities, by and large, we’re seeing that when internet or broadband does come into a region, it actually has some really interesting effects the rural regions that get super fast broadband. So super fast broadband- instead of this, when we think of broadband, we can break it out into three tiers we might think about something that isn’t akin to broadband. So it’s not at the speed that you would want. And then you kind of have like this middle level, which is just regular broadband speeds, which what most people now get in the kind of the 25 megabits per second to about a hundred megabit per second range. And then anything over like fiber, which is a gigabit per second. That’s the super fast broadband stuff. Well, when the super fast broadband comes into, especially rural communities, it actually seems to have a negative effect on local retail. So it actually, if you get a super-fast broadband in your inner region, it actually tends to control people or it influences people to use say like Amazon or other internet services that are, that are more retail-based. And so these sorts of effects of changing local economic effects through broadband are far more complicated than I think most people are willing to admit. And they’re not as clean and easy as we would hope. But yeah, you’re right. There’s a lot here to me that really speaks to a far more nuanced conversation, but unfortunately, that’s not what we’re currently having. And I don’t expect it to happen at any time in the near future.
Juliette: Yeah. And in a piece that you wrote back in August, you warn policymakers that “far too much attention is being directed at broadband deployment and not enough at broadband adoption and use.” Can you explain like what you mean by that?
Will Rinehart: This seems to be- as I kind of mentioned this supply-demand the two sides of this- far more attention is really paid to this idea of trying to plug the holes and areas where we need broadband. And this really comes down to rural broadband communities and these kinds of gaps. But this is really the deployment question, right? That we don’t have deployment in areas where you would expect there to be deployment. But when- again, and I’ve kind of suggested or hinted around this with some of the research that’s come specifically out of the census. But when you look at people and you say, “okay, why aren’t you connected to the internet?” The people who say they are not connected to the internet when they then are asked, okay, again, as I said, why aren’t you connecting to the internet? They say relevance is the reason why. They just don’t see the relevance of the internet. And this gets to me that really one of the major issues that we’re facing, and this affects rural communities in particular, and also urban communities as well because there is still a large group of people who are not connected to the internet that are urban- but, if you don’t have a group of people that are connected to the internet, then you don’t have a large market, and you’re not going to be able to support services in that market. And the point being that there’s just as big an issue when it comes to adoption of a service, as there is when it comes to the deployment of a service. Primarily because we have seen that there again, the biggest group of people that are not connected to the internet are still in generally Metro areas where you would expect that there probably would be good service.
And yet there’s a huge group of people who are 65 and older, who are not connected to the internet in Metro areas that had they been connected to the internet we probably would see better internet service options. Or maybe you would see another provider in an area. And so to me, there is this really continual conversation that constantly happens about internet deployment. And yet we’re not talking about internet adoption, and we really, really should be focusing just as much on internet adoption because in fact, most of the data suggests that internet adoption is a really key problem. Cost is also another issue, which again, is internet adoption, so it’s not necessarily internet access, but again, it comes to an internet cost issue. So that’s another consistently cited thing when you look at the census. So all of these elements to me are just- it really speaks to this real gap, this yawning gap we have in the conversation when it comes to internet adoption. We really should be focusing a lot more on how we get people, that potentially do have access to internet, connected to the internet. And yet it just is not occurring. And it’s not easy either, right? There are no clean, easy ways to deal with this, or there’s no clean, easy method or program that we’ve ever found that really is good at solving these problems. So,I don’t envy policy makers in this space, but I also wish the policymakers would be a little bit more – not knowledgeable- but I wish they were a little bit less starry-eyed about what the possibilities were with with broadband and a little bit more focused on the actual problems.
Juliette: And it seems that it’s not in terms of job growth and all of that stuff- It’s not really that access is the- well, I mean, access is important- but it seems that you’re right. Adoption is just as important, but policymakers do tend to only really focus on the access part of that.
Will Rinehart: You’re actually correct. That when it comes to actual economic growth, it’s almost universally the case that we see the connection between a broadband adoption and not deployment. And so when you look at the data- it’s very, very clear that the best and most- if you look at deployment and broadband growth is actually not a very strong predictive variable. But when you look at adoption, it actually is a very, very strong, predictive variable. So adoption matters far far more than, than deployment. And again, we talk about deployment too much, but I’m sorry. I completely cut you off on that.
Juliette: No, no, no, no, it’s good. It’s good. But the thing is, the thing I think about is like how would the policy makers at all have any influence over adoption? Because these people- how do you change someone’s mind about the relevancy of the internet? I mean, I personally, I don’t like the internet that much, but I see that it’s relevant and kind of necessary to success and just to connection especially right now. It just is so weird to me that it’s an issue of relevance instead of being annoyed at the internet is why people don’t want to be, I guess, to your way of life, if it’s not relevant, but it could change your way.
Will Rinehart: No, no. I think that this last year in 2020, I think it will be a really, really interesting way of seeing if all of the predictions and seeing if what we know about broadband is actually correct. If we have this really big kind of shift and shock and there really isn’t that change, and you see people not shift all that much with relevancy and don’t really think that the internet can’t be relevant in their life. Then I think that what we kind of have to agree upon, or at least have to at least entertain, is that there will potentially be this group of unconnected that may not be easily budged. And I think that’s actually very real problem that we kind of have to deal with. That there is just going to be a group of people in the United States that aren’t going to be easily swayed by conditions that the internet ever really can be a useful product. So that’s not really very- how do I say this nicely? That’s not a really easy thing for most people to swallow, right? I think that most people, what they want to say right now is that for various reasons, everyone wants the internet, and the only things that are keeping people from the internet are the cost structure or being deployed out into your region. And yet again, when you look at the data, when you look at the census on this, and you look at research in this space, it’s pretty clear that obviously cost does matter and deployment does matter to a certain extent, but by far, the biggest chunk are the people who say that the internet is not relevant in their lives. And if they don’t find that the pandemic has made the internet relevant, I think we have to be a little bit more again, clear-eyed about what our policies should be and about how much effort we’re going to spend in trying to get the unconnected connected. I think that we should continue to work in getting individuals connected and online, but it will be a really interesting couple of years to see if people shift their opinions given the pandemic, even how much that there could be benefit from the internet. But yeah it’s going to be an interesting couple of years from my research space. Let me say it that way.
Juliette: Yeah. At the end of the day, what I always think about is if they don’t want it, they don’t want it. And if their eyes open to the benefits and the possibilities that come from that, then that would be great. I mean, I don’t see how it really has any negative side. There’s always something negative, but overall it has an overwhelmingly positive effect. So what I always think about if I get the argument that the differences between rural and urban areas and how that it’s expensive to provide it to rural areas in comparison to urban areas. But then when there are a lot of people who are not on the internet at all, and do not want to be connected, is cost really a barrier? Or does it just seem like a barrier because of this other factor?
Will Rinehart: I think you’re hinting at exactly this really tough problem, which is that oftentimes when people make this comparison or they think through and say, “Hey, cost is a problem for me” that what effectively they’re saying is that, “well, I don’t necessarily see the value in it”, even though the cost may not be all that much. So when we really do see this cost problem, and we’ve seen this actually a lot in these. I think the great examples of this, there was some research that was done on Comcast internet essentials program and going after this “cost problem”, the internet essentials program also gave some subsidization for computers. And so they provided super low cost computers. And again they found problems or at least it wasn’t as easy to get people connected even when they were giving subsidized computers. All this is to say, is that when we talk about costs, the issue of cost I think is far more nuanced than what most people would think of in the sense that if you do give people straight cash, you give them some sort of subsidy that’s not necessarily solving the cost problem because internally when you think of, well, the reason I don’t have the services, because it’s too costly.
Giving an individual a subsidy is not necessarily going to solve that because again there is much more of an internal calculation that’s going on about the value of a product than anything else. And this is what I think is really, really interesting that we see is that there is obviously a clear component of the unconnected is clearly connected to those who are making less than say, $50,000 a year typically, right? Or a household that’s making less than $50,000 a year. But again the biggest component of all of this is in the continual component of all of this is basically the 65 and older they are by far the biggest group of individuals. When you start looking at these groups, you start breaking them down. They are by far the biggest group of households that are not connected to the internet. And so when you start pulling all of this data together, and you think about it more cogently, and you think about these experiments that the FCC has run over the years, which have tried to get people connected and online by subsidizing their costs. And you’ve seen these subsidization models work over the years and you see this Comcast internet essentials program and all of these things, all combined costs may seem to be a thing that people do say that they care about, but lowering the cost doesn’t really change or move the bar all that much. And that to me, is something that probably needs a lot more work done. And that’s actually an area in a space that I’m trying to work in in the next couple of years.
Juliette: It does seem . . That makes the sense-The fact that the cost, even though it’s lowered, it doesn’t really necessarily mean that that cost is actually lowered for you as an individual. So the government in the space of broadband and kind of being involved with that, how much money on the federal level is probably the most common? It’s probably the easiest one to look at right now, just because people listen from all over the country and being, how much does Arlington County spend? So how much does the federal government spend on broadband and what agencies are spending that money and kind of what ways are they trying to attack this issue?
Will Rinehart: Yeah, so in a non-pandemic year the government spends, if I remember correctly, that a lot of this comes from what’s called- or at least most projects or most of the big funding comes through- what’s called the universal service fund. So if you’ve got a telephone you have a telephone bill, or you have a cell phone, you have a cell phone bill, and there’ll be this little line item at the very, very bottom, and it is a part of the universal service fee that is assessed for effectively each telephone user or long distance user. And then all of that is put into a big pot of money and that big pot of money is then doled out through a number of various programs. And in any given year, if I remember correctly, that’s about $4 billion or so. I think that the last time I really looked at this typically in any given year about $8 billion is spent. So there is a substantial amount of money that is usually directed. Now, this is obviously a different sort of world that we’re talking about. Currently, the FCC is looking at a three and a half billion dollar what’s called an emergency broadband benefit fund. So that is going to be spent over the next year, next year and a half or at least until the packages re-upped. We’re also talking about currently in Congress a $94 billion package, a broadband package worth basically $94 billion that’s currently being discussed. So in any given year there is a good amount of money that’s spent in this space. Mainly administered by the Federal Communications Commission, but there’s a whole bunch of other things that are also supported through the department of commerce.
There’s actually a lot that’s done by the US Agriculture Department. And it’s sometimes hard to actually- I’ve done this over the last couple of years, and I’ve tried to track the money that’s spent. It’s kind of hard sometimes to actually keep track of it all, because to be very honest, sometimes you can use the money or the grant program for any number of different projects and that gets hard to track over time. But increasingly, and you’ve suggested obviously what’s going on at the federal level, increasingly the States are doing a lot too, and there is a lot that even localities are doing. I know that Arlington has its own little tiny broadband project, and I think that they were even discussing broadband subsidies a couple of years back. So this is something that each local and locality and state and city municipality, everyone, is really trying to figure out how to do better and how to potentially get funding to various organizations or to various, honestly to be very blunt, to various companies, to support build out and to support these projects. They’re varying. There’s a lot of them that are going on, and there’s a lot that’s being done at any given moment.
Juliette: So I know you kind of said that it was hard to see whether a lot of these policies are working, and also the fact that the policies only, not even that they’re only focused, but they only can really focus on deployment instead of adoption. So within that, are there any examples at all of policies or initiatives that have worked or are working? Or do we just not really have any sort of grasp on that at all?
Will Rinehart: Yeah. I think that there are some projects that have worked pretty well in a kind of, I don’t want to say a niche space, but increasingly we are seeing a lot of localities and cities move to a different sort of model, which is what you might call a public private partnership. Where in effect the city itself owns the underlying architecture, the underlying infrastructure, and that they then contract out the service to a private company. Or they’ll do some sort of arrangement or contract either like short-term where they’ll work with a private company to to do all the maintenance and the operational expenditures, something along those lines, right? There’s kind of a whole range of different ways to run these projects. I think those are increasingly getting a lot of attention because they don’t have the sorts of problems that we do see with other other projects and other funding projects. Again, there have been, I think very clearly some really interesting projects that have been or at least some research that has been done in very niche spaces. Where we see broadband loans actually are most effective tend to be in farming communities. So if we’re talking about rural development in particular, they seem to be super effective in, or at least have some sort of effect in particularly farming communities. Which listeners may not recognize or realize is actually among the smallest of all rural county types. So you split rural counties into, if I recall correctly, I think six different groups and farming communities are the least populous, and it’s the smallest group of all of them.
So we do see that tends to be effective over the long-term. It kind of makes sense why these farming communities would do probably better with broadband. Particularly because they’re exporters and they’re connected to markets, and there is kind of this natural inclination and natural effect. We also do know that there have been some really important projects in the past that seemed to have been effective. In particular, there has been some funding through the 2009 stimulus projects that helped get some local municipal broadband projects off the ground. Like in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which seems to be an interesting sort of project. The big problem that really we do face with trying to understand whether or not that’s just a one-off is that of course Chattanooga itself is a growing region and growing metropolitan area. And it seems that this project in particular was able to kind of piggyback off of that local champion in effect. And so that’s one thing I’ve been trying to work in, to try to pull apart. Obviously, there’s a lot that’s going on, but trying to figure out those projects that have been successful in the past, and to figure out the characteristics of them, honestly. The characteristics that make each of these projects particularly successful. But for the most part, I still think that we’re in a space where there’s still a lot of unknowns. We really don’t know, like I said, what the benefit level should be for households. There’s still, I think, a really big gap and uncertainties in the areas where targeted loans can be effective. There haven’t been a lot of really- the FCC, which is the Federal Communications Commission. They haven’t done a lot of research in the past on- or rather they kind of gave up on research in the last 10 years, the last 12 years, actually in this space because of other demands and because Congress never really required them to do this work. So there’s a lot I think that can be done here to get better policymaking, to figure out exactly what these circumstances should be to get better outcomes with these sorts of subsidy programs. But I don’t necessarily think we’re at that stage yet.
Juliette: So in your ideal world or I guess in this world, but what’s your ideal outcome? Like what’s your ideal policy or at least direction for policy to go in terms of broadband?
Will Rinehart: What I really want for broadband to go is towards a targeted space, right? I really want us to figure out those areas where there where there are gaps. There clearly are some places in rural America where there are gaps. It will, to be very honest, I think that if you want to try to plug some of these holes in rural America, it’s really going to take some money. But then you start having this conversation and you start thinking through, well, “should we spend, as it’s projected to take 20 or $30,000 to connect some homes? Or should we give that as say a voucher for those individuals to literally move towards a move towards or to a bigger Metro region where you don’t have the sorts of other infrastructure problems?” It isn’t just broadband that you have these problems. You also have municipal water and educational issues and a whole range of other things that come with super rural communities. So it’s not a really easy conversation to have with individuals, but effectively when you start looking at the most difficult spaces and the best way to do policy, unfortunately a lot of it comes down to cost. I waffle on this constantly in a sense that I think that we should be thinking about cost, and we should probably be making some targeted investments, but at the same time recognize that these are problems that are going to be absolutely massive for some communities. It is going to be extensively costly to get some communities connected, and there could be in the near future- There could be a pretty big change in that cost structure, especially as new satellite technologies come in.
We haven’t really mentioned at all the idea of these Starlink or Kuiper, which are both coming into place in the next couple of years. The Starlink is the project from Musk that’s going to be providing really quite fast broadband service through satellite, and that could potentially solve some of the near term problems when we’re talking about rural communities. So you asked me what the best solution would be, or what my perfect world would look like, and I think that where I constantly come down on this is that we really do need to have a multi-tiered approach. The perfect world looks probably very similar to the world that we have right now, but recognize that even if we do spend more and more money, that we’re not really going to get all that great outputs, we’re not going to get all that change. We’re not going to do a whole bunch to change rural communities. It’s just not going to be a huge absolute game-changer in the way that we would be able to see in the data. Now, it could be beneficial for some communities. It could really help some localities kind of change their tune. It also might potentially keep some people in rural communities where they previously may have moved out of those communities. But by and large, we’ve seen at least in last 10, 15 years of this data and in these efforts that they haven’t really moved the needle all that much. And I think that policymakers should be cognizant of the fact that there really aren’t any great solutions to this problem. There’s only just increasing trade offs.
Juliette: Yeah. Also my mind always goes back to the debt and the growing debt and all of this stuff and spending. And so it’s kind of like- it’s like finding that balance between, well, if it does- it like finding the place where it works, because it’s not working and it’s not growing that much. The whole issue of broadband and broadband accessibility, it is more about adoption because it doesn’t matter if we’re spending all this money on making it accessible if people don’t want it. And so then also market solutions, like what Musk is doing really excites me because he is making it available. You can have it if you want it. And then from that point, once something like that exists, then accessibility is not an issue. Then it’s more like, do you want it? What are the costs of that? Can you afford it instead of being like, “Oh, we don’t know if you want it, we’re just going to give it to you.” So finding that balance. I think it’ll take a bunch of different types of approaches at once to make an impact. Yeah. Thank you so much for talking to us about this. Before we wrap up real quick, last question. What is one thing you believed at one time in your life that you lived or changed your position on and why?
Will Rinehart: Kind of within this space of broadband, we haven’t talked about the undying issue known as network neutrality, which is a whole different can of worms. But I would say when I was younger, I used to be really, really gung ho on. And I actually wrote a couple of papers when I was in undergraduate on network neutrality policy in particular. Why companies should have these very strict mandates to keep the internet open and to ensure that content is flowing across the pipes. I’ve kind of really changed that opinion over a series of going well one, going to grad school, and learning far more about policy and of learning more what’s at stake. That in fact, this idea of a network neutrality, openness,the idea that you really need a hard law to do that. And in fact that you could have something more akin to say the- obviously there’s market pressures, but more importantly, there’s a whole range of other legal mandates and other legal routes that you could ensure that these things are kept open and free without necessarily mandating it through law. Even though you effectively mandate it through law through other means, right.
That I think has probably been one of the biggest changes, at least in the space of technology policy that I’ve really have come to believe and to come to change. It is kind of a nuance shift over time, to be honest, that it really, to me, I think is it really shows that there is kind of a depth to all these policies that I really wish more people would understand. I’m hoping that people understand in the future. But that kind of stuff I think is hugely important to recognize that over time there will be shifts in your own thinking. Kind of piggybacking off of that, to a certain extent, I think one of the biggest things that I didn’t expect is how much I have changed and kind of the nuance even even now into kind of the middle of my career- I thought that I kind of- I felt when I was younger, I had a lot, much, I had better answers for most things. And I keep on shifting and keep on recognizing that there aren’t a lot of great pure solutions to the toughest public policy problems. And I really wish that weren’t the case, but I do think that there are some things that are just going to be endemic. I’m constantly optimistic for the world and for outcomes in the world, but I’m less and less optimistic for the ability of our institutions. That’s obviously a super qualified answering so many, so many different regards. I think kind of a sign of a mind to constantly be open to change, but recognize that things are the way they are for various and very obvious reasons.
Juliette: Yeah. And that’s a response that I get a lot. Either on or off the air, people are always “as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there’s not one solution. And that what I could have told you, like 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago was more, was more, I was more sure of everything I believe than I am now.” I feel that also because even in the past like year or so, the podcast is not even a year old. In the past almost year my beliefs and the way I think about things have grown so much, and I’m realizing more and more. I mean, people tell me, but also for myself, I see there is no one perfect solution. And that’s why so many people have different beliefs because it’s same issue, a different approach, different ways of thinking different, I don’t know, values also. And then to your point about net neutrality, I really don’t know that much about it. And I definitely should. And I don’t. I’ve also been meaning to look at it, but you’re also right about how tech issues and tech policy it’s so deep, it’s a lot deeper than I ever really thought because the underlying issues don’t really necessarily have to do with technology that much it has to do with growth and change and people in different generations and all this stuff that is. It’s not that it’s not applicable to other issues, but since tech is so new, that’s probably the most relevant way to be exposed to that and to have to think about that sort of stuff. And so it’s taken me a lot of time to like, think about each one of these issues way more than I thought it would, but I’m definitely going to get into that. So there’s that.
Will Rinehart: I’m glad you’re getting into it. Cause It’s a growth area. I think it’s a, it’s a great growth area.
Juliette: It’s really interesting. So thank you again and that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for all your time. And also just for all your insights. I learned so much, and I know definitely my listeners will too, and there’s so much more to go and research to look at and to think about from here.
Will Rinehart: Yeah, of course.
Juliette: I also want to thank all my listeners. Everyone who listens subscribes and shares the Grant Antidote Podcast. If any of you would like to be on the podcast or have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] Bye. And thank you again.