By Joe Meadows, Liberty, ME
Over the next few weeks, I’ll join my fellow “broadband warriors” in the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition to conduct informational sessions with each of our local towns. Shortly after each town’s session, residents will gather in town meetings to vote on an interlocal agreement that seeks to form a Broadband Utility District, or BUD. I’m feeling reasonably confident that residents will approve this important step, but I can’t help but worry just a little about some of the misinformation and propaganda being spread recently about efforts such as the one our local coalition has decided to pursue.
My support of our BUD has surprised a few people because it took me a while to get there, and because I’m not generally a fan of government solutions to most problems. In fact, I’m a bit skeptical of too much government oversight or control, and frankly think we’ve gone too far with that in many areas of daily life. But like many of my friends and neighbors in our rural area, I’m certainly not anti-government. It has its place, and when and where it’s truly the best solution, I’m for it.
What worries me right now about our local efforts is the huge uptick in opposition to things like community ownership of broadband networks, driven largely by social media. I’ve noticed that the people and organizations behind these propaganda machines, as I now think of them, don’t generally live in our towns, but they sure are great at figuring out how to reach many of my friends and neighbors with a message that resonates! Their message focuses on those of us who favor small government, free enterprise, and solutions made available by entrepreneurs and job creators, instead of “government-first” approaches, which is how they try to paint community-owned (they like to say “government-owned”) solutions such as the BUD our coalition recommended our towns pursue. They know how to play to our predispositions and fears, which they’re all too happy to exploit, even if the “news” they share is really just their own set of cherry-picked “facts” and carefully concealed, bought-and-paid-for, opinion.
What really irks me is that they try to paint every town, and every situation, with the same broad brush. Our coalition – which has people from a wide variety of political leanings and views – spent almost two years studying this situation before finally recommending a BUD as our best solution. I don’t really appreciate a bunch of people with ties to big cable companies trying to sway my friends and neighbors with their messaging, given all the work we put into studying this issue and every solution we could think of.
I was forced to examine the facts because I was asked to serve as our town’s first representative to the broadband coalition when it was just getting started. Because I agreed to serve in that volunteer role, I took the time to research the situation, which included significant efforts to invite for-profit internet service providers to offer their solutions in a manner that helped all the residents of our towns (not just a cherry-picked few that could be served at a high profit). In the course of due diligence, I compared the option of a BUD to the option of turning the problem back over to the business community. When my own analysis was done, the answer was clear to me. I don’t claim that a BUD or other form of community ownership is the best solution for every town, which puts me at odds with some of my fellow coalition members, but in our local case, the decision to support a BUD was a “business decision” based on applying the facts as we know them to the current situation.
With a BUD, our local towns – not some distant corporation led by people who’ve never set foot here – own the assets that form the broadband network, and our local select boards (accountable to local residents!) will appoint people to manage those assets through the BUD. And while very few (if any?) of us know how to operate a broadband network, we can hire professional companies to do that, just as we hire professionals to plow our roads, build our town buildings, and provide other services. Through a public private partnership, we will effectively be managing a small business owned by the towns, and we have a LOT of people locally who are great at that! To me and my fellow coalition members, the answer became crystal clear. But it took a lot of time, effort, and studying to get to that point (about two years, in our case).
That’s what worries me now: it took two years of hard work to reach this conclusion that could be unraveled in weeks. I know many people in my community – people I call friends and see around town – who are being influenced by the misleading propaganda shared on social media. I know these people are intelligent. I know they care deeply for their community and their fellow residents. They’re not ideological zealots, opposed to government at all costs. For the most part, they fall pretty close to my own views on many issues, including a view that while the government shouldn’t be the first solution to most problems, it can be a good channel for people to come together and solve problems.An “attack the opposition” approach is likely to drive these people further into the camp that supports their existing biases and predispositions – the very thing these groups using social media to spread their propaganda are counting on.
So, If most of your conversations about broadband are with people that already agree with you, you’re likely guilty of “preaching to the choir”. It feels great! But it won’t do anything to change the mind of someone who has a different view “going in”. If you truly believe that community ownership is the best thing for your local broadband effort – and if you’ve done the hard work to make sure of that – go out and speak to people that don’t agree with you. Invite people to share their views about broadband and how your local community can solve its broadband woes. Be open to changing your own mind! And listen, even if you end up, in some cases, opposing government-owned solutions when there is an equally viable private solution (they do exist, my friend).
None of this needs to be an argument, but it does need to be a conversation. In fact, we need a LOT of those conversations if we’re going to solve the broadband problems of rural Maine communities. I just hope my fellow coalition members and I have had enough of these conversations in our own little towns. We shall soon see…