Never Throttle a Grandma - Net Neutrality in Rural Ohio

Today we have a guest post from Liz Shaw, Founder of Indivisible Appalachian Ohio and Chair of the Citizens Connectivity Committee. Liz tells the story of how she got involved with the fight for rural connectivity.

I had only five minutes left to get the order processed for next day delivery. Months of planning my first grandchild's baby shower had come down to one last detail - order freshly picked edible flowers by 10:00 a.m. to ensure I could plop them onto fluffy cupcake icing the next day. I was running out of time. The instructions clearly said all orders must be placed online by 10:00 a.m. on day of harvest, so I began filling in the order form at 8:00 a.m., hit "send" by 9:00 a.m., and watched the clock tick away as the blue swirly thing on my computer screen tormented me. I prayed and then I cursed as the witching hour arrived without a "Thank you for your order!" popping up on my screen.

Verizon won … again.

I had lost count of how many times they had throttled me to below dial-up speed. But, this time it was personal. This time my unborn grandson was involved - yes it was just cupcake decorations, but it represented much more to me. My rage burned like white-hot coals, and I packed up my laptop and headed to the coffee shop in town to cool off with a Frosted Cappuccino and use the free wi-fi.

I was a grandma on a mission. How does this whole connectivity thing work, anyway? Several coffee shop sessions later I naively discovered that telecom giants don't always play fairly and they buy politicians. I also learned they don't care about rural connectivity, especially in Appalachia where I live. I unearthed all sorts of grants and contracts earmarked to bring us connectivity, but soon realized the money had been squandered, consequences amounted to slaps on the wrists, and their bad behavior continued. I researched municipal broadband, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee for Communications and Technology, the Federal Communications Commission and more.

I started reaching out to others about their connectivity horror stories, and mine paled in comparison. While I was dealing with out-of-control throttling, my neighbor with a finicky satellite was often ferrying her children to fast food restaurants with wi-fi so they could do their homework. One commuter college student was falling asleep in the school's parking lot each night using the wi-fi still transmitting from the administration building. Business owners were parking in library parking lots past midnight for wi-fi that had been left on as a public service.

I heard from a university administrator who found Kenyan connectivity in 2007 more reliable than connectivity at her Appalachian Ohio home in 2017. No cell coverage, dead landlines from the smallest of rain showers, and internet speeds slower than mine kept her family in isolation only 20 miles from a major university.

A young woman with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair shared that she was hoping to take online courses which would enable her to start an insurance coding business from home. Unreliable Internet prevented her from pursuing her education, however, and negated her business plans. No cell coverage and fickle landlines actually compromised her safety on a daily basis.

Stories kept coming about people unable to summon ambulances (resulting in at least one death); first responders out of cell and radio range, unable to call for back-up; and 911 systems going haywire and routing calls to the wrong counties. On more than one occasion I learned about entire communities in recurring connectivity blackouts from damaged landlines lying exposed in roadside ditches despite pleas for proper maintenance to the providers from township trustees. These unfortunate communities already lacked cell service, and satellite Internet was far below dial-up speed, leaving them in great peril when inoperable landlines were ignored for weeks at a time by providers. Some families were even relying on walkie-talkies to check on each other!

Professors, scout leaders, Sunday School teachers, political organizers, and others bemoaned the Herculean efforts needed to reach students, members, and associates to share lesson plans, grade reports, meeting information, and details about special events. Some said they relied on telephone trees, but had to factor in the timing of calls based on when people would be in areas with cell coverage such as at work or in town on errands.

I heard from many struggling small businesses - some could not even process a credit card in less than 15 minutes in their brick and mortar stores while others had trouble fulfilling online orders or updating their websites. Business owners complained that broadband reached their competitors only a mile away, but would not extend to their location, putting them at a distinct disadvantage. Even schools and hospitals were in the same boat!

And I was mad about cupcake decorations?

I started to understand why rural areas, and especially Appalachia, were not able to keep up with the rest of the country, and why our health, safety, education and economy continued to balance precariously on a potentially crippling tipping point.

In my research I kept running across the name of the Washington D.C connectivity watchdog group, Public Knowledge. On a whim I decided to give them a call and ask why things were such a mess. I spoke to Kate Forscey, an attorney with the organization at that time, and we immediately hit it off. I told her I had been a community organizer since I was a teen, had been on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2008 for my organizing with the Obama campaign, and that I got throttled one time too many. Did she have any ideas because I was ready to start organizing about rural connectivity?

She, in fact, did have an idea. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn had been on a listening tour of America in hopes of understanding the broadband challenges the entire country faces. Forscey believed the stories I had collected would be of great interest to Commissioner Clyburn.

Fast forward three months, and the Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit & Town Hall, featuring Commissioner Clyburn, went off without a hitch on July 18, 2017, thanks to the Citizens Connectivity Committee, Forscey and the team at Public Knowledge, the Center for Rural strategies, nationally known rural broadband experts who donated their time to present, and a host of volunteers from Indivisible Appalachian Ohio.

The daytime summit brought Commissioner Clyburn together with county commissioners, Ohio and West Virginia state legislators, and representatives from federal officials such as Senator Rob Portman, Senator Sherrod Brown, Senator Shelly Moore Capito, Senator Joe Manchin. Delegates from Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia counties were given time with the Commissioner to explain their connectivity challenges, and their testimony is now in the FCC public record. That evening a town hall attracted citizens from the entire region to share their connectivity stories with the Commissioner.

Within a week, the Commissioner testified before that Congressional subcommittee I had learned about at the coffee shop, and shared our story. She insisted rural Americans are getting short-changed and that her experiences in Appalachia at our summit and town hall better informed her about how to solve these problems. She continues to testify, tweet and write about her experiences with us, always championing our cause for connectivity.

Recently Commissioner Clyburn has reached out to us to lead the charge in our part of Appalachia to defend net neutrality. Our team continues to fight to address these issues, but something else very exciting is happening. Many of our followers are Republicans who wholeheartedly supported the summit and town hall, and they believe that gutting net neutrality could make the abysmal connectivity in Appalachia untenable.

We are proud that our efforts brought Republicans, Democrats and Independents to the table to work together on connectivity and net neutrality. We believe broadband and net neutrality is a unifying issue in Appalachia that will get voters to the ballot box to flip the House in 2018, and we plan to involve everyone who came on board this summer as well as those who continue to find us, no matter their party affiliation.

And as for me, I am enjoying my new grandson to the fullest, and when I get battle fatigue, I remember those cupcakes and head to the coffee shop for a Frosted Cappuccino to do some organizing, because I have unfinished business with Verizon.


What You Can Do

Support Liz and her neighbors by fighting for net neutrality here at home. We have until December 14th to make a stand - even if the FCC vote doesn't change, a strong public push for net neutrality will register this ruling as a politically disastrous move for this administration.

Attend the Defend Net Neutrality Boston Protest at the Boston Verizon store this Thursday at 5pm. This is part of a national protest sponsored by a host of digital rights organizations, including Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and more. The local event is co-hosted by ACLU Massachusetts and Indivisible Somerville. We will be there with our red banner and our best memes. You can find more details on the Facebook event here - and remember to invite your friends to the rally!

Help us message rally guests who RSVPd on Facebook, reminding them to come to the rally. We have a list of attendees and a short script for you to Facebook message. We're offering rides to the rally and are here to answer any questions our fellow supporters have. Let's make it easy for everyone to show up and show their support for net neutrality. Contact volunteer@indivisiblesomerville.org to help.

Make calls to Congress, which has the power to make Chairman Pai reconsider his proposal. If you haven’t already done so, please call Senators Markey (202-224-2742) and Warren (202-224-4543) and our representatives https://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and urge them to contact the chairman and demand that he drop his plan. While we’re at it, leave a message for Mr. Pai at the FCC (202-418-1000). If you’ve already made the calls, you might want to email the three FCC Commissioners who appear to be anti-neutrality: Ajit Pai, Brendan Carr, and Michael O'Rielly.

SCRIPT: Hi, my name is [NAME] and I'm a concerned customer from [CITY].

[IF CONGRESS]: I'm calling to express my support for net neutrality and a fair and open Internet. I strongly belief that the free flow of information on the Internet is critical to a healthy democracy. I'm asking [SENATOR’S OR REP’S NAME] to contact FCC Chairman Pai and demand he abandon his current plan to dismantle net neutrality. I ask that contact FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and demand he abandon his plan to dismantle net neutrality.

[IF FCC]: I'm calling to express my strong oppositions to the FCC’s attempt to kill net neutrality. Preserving an open Internet is crucial for fair and equal access to resources and information, and it is essential to a healthy democracy. Please abandon your plan to dismantle net neutrality.

Thank you for your time and attention.

[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full street address to ensure your call is tallied.]