Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, access to reliable, high-performance broadband internet was a necessity for many of us to be able to meaningfully participate in our workplaces, schools, and communities. The pandemic has made this even more apparent.
The digital divide separating those with access from those without is hardly a new issue but what is less often discussed is how that digital divide looks different in rural versus urban spaces.
In episode 141 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Christopher Ali, who argues that rural broadband access and connectivity is a crucial social justice concern—one with implications for everything from education and healthcare to the food available for us to eat.
In the conversation, Chris and Cathy chat about why federal policy has so consistency failed to bring broadband to rural communities and what a rural broadband plan would look like that put the needs of local populations first.
Chris highlights the community groups that are connecting themselves and offering creative infrastructure models in the process.
They also discuss Chris’s unique interdisciplinary research methodology that involved a 3,600-mile road trip with his adorable hound dog Tuna.
Finally, they close out the episode with a vision for a more connected world and what it would take to get there.
About Christopher Ali
Christopher Ali is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on communication policy and regulation, rural broadband, media localism, and critical political economy.
His newest book, Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity (MIT Press, 2021), analyzes how and why US broadband policy has consistently failed rural communities and offers a new broadband plan for the US that draws on the creative strategies of local communities and offers a real democratic option.
Christopher is a frequent commentator on the subjects of broadband, media policy, and local news in outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, NPR, CNET, CBC, Bloomberg, and his scholarly research appears in journals including Communication Theory, Media Culture & Society, and Telecommunications Policy.
In April 2021, Christopher testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on a hearing about federal broadband policies and has presented broadband recommendations to members of the US House of Representatives, the New York State Blue Ribbon Commission on Re-Imagining New York, and the governors’ offices of Illinois and Virginia.
In this episode
- Why the digital divide looks different in rural versus urban spaces
- The role of broadband in farming and agriculture
- Chris’s proposal for a better national rural broadband plan
- Building a more connected world
- Chris Ali’s Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity
- Elizabeth Ellcessor’s In Case of Emergency: How Technologies Mediate Crisis and Normalize Inequality
- Kevin Driscoll’s The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media
- Cecilia Aragon, Shion Guha, Marina Kogan, Michael Muller, and Gina Neff’s Human-Centered Data Science: An Introduction
Teaching and learning resources
- Chris Ali’s Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity
- Digital divide
- Rural telephone cooperatives
- Rural electric cooperatives
- Precision agriculture
- History of rural telecommunications
- Broadband plan in Biden’s American Jobs Plan
- Need to double food supply
- André Cavalcante
- Market failure
- United Nations report on broadband as a human right
[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.
[00:00:19] I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
[00:00:23] Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic access to reliable high-performance broadband internet was a necessity for many of us to be able to meaningfully participate in our workplaces, our schools and our communities. The pandemic has made this even more apparent. The digital divide that separates those with access from those without is hardly a new issue.
[00:00:45] But what is less often discussed is how that digital divide looks different in rural versus urban spaces. My guest today on the show, Christopher Ali argues that rural broadband access and connectivity is a crucial social justice concern. One with implications, for everything from education and healthcare to the food we have available to eat in our conversation.
[00:01:08] Chris and I chat about why federal policy has so consistently failed to bring broadband to rural communities and what a rural broadband plan would look like. They put the needs of local populations for. He highlights the community groups that are connecting themselves and offering creative infrastructure models in the process.
[00:01:28] We also discuss Chris’s unique interdisciplinary research methodology for his new book. Farm Fresh Broadband, which involved a 3,600 mile road trip with his adorable hound dog Tuna. Finally, we close out the episode with a vision for a more connected world and what it would take for us to get there.
[00:01:48] Thank you so much for being with us today.
[00:01:50] Christopher Ali: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:52] Cathy Hannabach: I’m very excited to have you on the show to talk about our September theme of harvest, or all the ways that we’re gathering lessons and resources from the collective work that we do with others.
[00:02:04] I know this is something that’s particularly acute for a lot of us right now, as we start yet another semester during a global pandemic. How has the concept of harvest showing up for you right now?
[00:02:16] Christopher Ali: I love this question. I think in a lot of my work, harvest manifests as the collection of stories. I’ve been really fortunate to have had some publications reach a lot of people. In particular, you know, I wrote for the New York Times and Realtor Magazine. The kind of windfall of people reaching out on email, on Twitter, and sharing their stories, particularly about broadband or the lack of broadband, has been such a surprising joy in my work.
[00:02:43] So hearing people’s stories, this collection of narratives around connectivity, is how I think harvest shows up in my research and then will make its way into my teaching and my public speaking as well.
[00:02:58] Cathy Hannabach: One big project that you’re quote unquote harvesting right now is your really amazing new book Farm Fresh Broadband, which even itself has kind of a harvest theme of sorts to it.
[00:03:09] To maybe start off our conversation about that text, can you give our listeners a little bit of an overview of what’s that book’s about and what got you excited to write about rural broadband?
[00:03:20] Christopher Ali: So the book is about rural broadband and the story is twofold.
[00:03:24] One is the question of how is it that this country spends at the federal level $8 billion a year subsidizing broadband, and yet the rural/urban digital divide is growing?
[00:03:36] Cities are transitioning to fiber optics and 5G and rural America, rural communities, seem to be left behind. So a part of the book is about the failure of policy to connect the un- and underconnected.
[00:03:51] On the flip side, the other part of the book is profiling some amazing communities who are connecting themselves. I spent some time in Rock County, Minnesota, and chapter 4 is entirely dedicated to that, about how through a cooperative, a telephone cooperative, and through these amazing digital champions at the local level, they managed to connect themselves with fiber optic connectivity, making them one of the most connected counties in the state of Minnesota.
[00:04:17] So it’s both a celebration of local, rural communities and on the other side, hopefully a good, critical push and nudge that federal policy makers need to do better to connect the un- and underconnected.
[00:04:29] Cathy Hannabach: Our team has been working with you on this book for several years now at this point, and I love every chapter of it.
[00:04:35] I think this book is really smart and really useful for a huge range of both scholars and non-scholars. You have really specific and fantastic policy recommendations and I’d love to talk about that in a minute.
[00:04:48] But I’d have to say that my favorite chapter of this book is the one about farming. And I know you make a very clear point in the book that the rural means so much more than agriculture, but the farming chapter, I have to say, it’s still my favorite.
[00:05:03] You talk about the rise of precision agriculture and the absolutely central role that digital technologies and internet access play in farming and how all of us get food.
[00:05:15] What were some of the things that you discovered while doing research for that farming chapter that surprised you?
[00:05:20] Christopher Ali: You know, the amazing thing I’m learning about farming is the level of sophistication.
[00:05:26] One of the things I really try to do in the book is dispel some of the myths we have about rural America, one of those being that we can just reduce everything rural to farms. But the other is that rural America might be simpler or less technological in some way. And that is absolutely not the case.
[00:05:43] Next generation farming is so incredibly technological. It involves drones. It involves something called telematics, which is that machines can actually talk to each other such that you can have a tractor with a receptacle paired beside a combine and they can be tethered digitally.
[00:06:05] All of that incredible sophistication requires not just an internet connection, but a high speed, high performance internet connection, because some of these farms are sending terabytes worth of data to be processed.
[00:06:18] One of the other cool things around precision agriculture is actually just this word precision. Let’s take a soybean farmer. They’re working their land and in real time, sensors on the tractor, sensors in the ground, are telling the farmer, how much fertilizer do you need? How much water do you need? How much seed do you actually need? And then it comes up in this digital map.
[00:06:38] In an ideal world, that could happen in real time. Right now, what’s happening is that oftentimes this data is being downloaded to a USB key that needs to be driven back to the house or maybe to the town, then gets uploaded to a third party, which processes the data and then provides the farmer with a map of how much water to use and how much fertilizer to use, how much seed to use.
[00:06:58] The ideal situation would be that this could happen in real time, which would allow for incredibly precise decisions at farming.
[00:07:07] The stakes here are astronomical because American farmers are going to need to do double our food supply in the next 50 years. But we have no more land. So that means we have to be even better stewards of the land, the agricultural land that we have. And digital technology, meaning at this point, really a solid broadband connection is essential to making sure we all get fed over the next half century.
[00:07:32] Cathy Hannabach: I would love to talk about the research process that you employed for this book, because I think it offers a really fascinating interdisciplinary model for scholars who are writing about a whole host of topics, whether they be farming, whether they be precision agriculture, media, cultural studies, you name it.
[00:07:51] You did interviews with media providers, with farmers, with broadband regulators, you built some really interesting partnerships with media organizations and think tanks. And my favorite part of it: you did a rural broadband road trip with your dog Tuna, which I think should be a part of everybody’s research methodology.
[00:08:10] Can you walk us through how that research methodology transformed over the course of the project, as well as maybe how you see that interdisciplinary approach contributing to the national broadband plan that you recommend at the end of the text?
[00:08:25] Christopher Ali: Sure thing. So I’m a policy scholar by trade. I have a PhD in communication studies and specialize in policy and regulation.
[00:08:31] So when I began this book, my first step is all right, let’s talk about broadband policy. Let’s write a book about broadband policy. And then it actually became a book about rural broadband policy. Then a couple of years into sifting through tens of thousands of pages of regulatory documents, which is something I legitimately enjoy and I’m trained to do, I started to realize that maybe not everybody is as excited and wonky about policy as I am.
[00:08:56] I started to realize that one thing we’re missing in this conversation around broadband policy that is so heightened right now with the Biden administration and in this pre-COVID, COVID, potentially one day post-COVID world where broadband has become so essential is I needed to humanize the policy conversation.
[00:09:15] So, one of my dear, dear, dear friends and colleagues, André Cavalcante, who is an exceptional ethnographer, walked me through ethnography light, let’s call it. I certainly wouldn’t lay claim to saying this was an ethnography, but you know what it means to go on the road, what does it mean to do field visits.
[00:09:33] So in the summer of 2018, my hound dog, Tuna, and I set about the rural broadband road trip, where we drove 3,600 miles across the country, predominantly in the Midwest, talking to anyone and everyone who had a story about broadband, whether they had broadband or didn’t. And this included local elected officials and county administrators, rural broadband providers, certainly farmers and also just people in the street.
[00:10:00] I mean, one of the really cool things about bringing your dog as a research assistant is maybe, you know, someone would be hesitant to talk to a stranger on the street, but a lot of people wanted to pet Tuna. And so when they were petting Tuna, I could say something like, Hey, can you tell me for your internet connection? Or like, you know, how do you get your internet or do you have internet? And we would just end up striking up a conversation like this.
[00:10:20] Suddenly policy became so much more human and so much more grounded and rooted in lived everyday experience such that I actually called my method one of lived policy.
[00:10:31] It translates directly, I think, into my recommendation for a national rural broadband plan, because fundamentally at the end of the day, broadband is not about companies, broadband isn’t even about technology. Broadband is about people and making sure people are connected.
[00:10:49] I think that as we debate how many billions of dollars are going to be deployed for broadband and the need for faster connectivity, if one of the things we can always keep in mind is that the reason we’re doing this is certainly not to make companies richer but rather to connect the un- and underconnected, to make sure that we always remember that broadband is about people, I think we can come away with really robust, well-informed policy that will actually get people connected at the end of the day.
[00:11:18] Cathy Hannabach: What are some of the elements of that national rural broadband recommendation or how does your approach to a national role broadband plan diverge from what we’re currently living with?
[00:11:31] Christopher Ali: Well, one of the things that makes broadband in rural America or the lack of broadband in rural America unique is that we tend to be talking about a question of infrastructure or an issue of infrastructure. Wires are just not in the ground. And this differs from the digital divide often faced in urban America, which tends to be one of affordability.
[00:11:50] Now I’m not negating the fact that affordability is a major issue in rural communities. In fact, rural Americans pay 37 percent more for broadband than urban Americans. But when we tend to see how the digital divide manifests in rural communities, it tends to be one of infrastructure. So we’re really looking at how do we get wires in the ground.
[00:12:10] One of the major critiques throughout the book is that the federal government, particularly through the Federal Communications Commission, has tended to privilege the largest providers: AT&T and CenturyLink and Windstream and Comcast and Charter.
[00:12:22] Instead, what I argue is that we need to really start privileging more local companies. I say that local broadband is the best broadband. So municipalities offering broadband, cooperatives—telephone and electric cooperatives—end up being the unsung heroes of broadband, in my opinion and have a pivotal role in the book.
[00:12:42] They’re these pivotal actors because they are the ones really doing a lot of the connecting in rural communities because the private market has largely abandoned them. We would call it, in economics, a market failure. There’s not that return on investment for a company like AT&T or CenturyLink, but these cooperatives are seeing the value in community investment and are willing to take maybe a 20 year return on investment if it means connecting their communities.
[00:13:07] So I think where, I’m pushing federal policy—and I even said this when I testified before the Senate a few months ago—is that we really need to start privileging more local actors because the national providers have really failed in connecting us and then connecting us with high performance broadband.
[00:13:26] Cathy Hannabach: I think your recommendation for how you’d like to see a different approach to rural broadband is a really fascinating example of imagining otherwise, the impetus behind the show. And so to zoom out a little bit to the bigger world that you’re hoping to create when you do this kind of research, when you talk to folks and figure out how policy is lived on the ground, what’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?
[00:13:54] Christopher Ali: I would love to see a connected world. A world where broadband is a right and not a luxury, where broadband is a utility, where broadband is affordable, where everyone has access.
[00:14:08] One of the things I work with my students on is policy is not written for the everyday person. Laws are not written for the everyday person. It is really hard. It’s a new language, this kind of legalese. How do we translate this?
[00:14:21] Again, it comes back to policy and law and regulation needs to be about people. And for it to be about people, it needs to be understandable, not just by lawyers and technocrats and economists and wonky professors at the University of Virginia, but it needs to be understandable everywhere.
[00:14:37] So I see connectivity, communication, and translation all connected to create a much more accessible world, where knowledge is not so siloed in companies and governments and universities, but rather is accessible, is translatable, and is empowering.
[00:14:54] So much of my work revolves around local communication. My first book was about local television, then I wrote about local newspapers, and now about local broadband. So what world do I envision? I envision a world where local communities can empower themselves through connectivity and take advantage of laws and policies that are written for them and accessible by them.
[00:15:18] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine otherwise.
[00:15:23] Christopher Ali: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure and really a joy and a privilege to work with you and Ideas on Fire on this book.
[00:15:30] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest, as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.