All Access Pass
What is life like without fast Internet, and how does life change once a person has it? Should Internet access be a right, rather than a luxury? Veronica Belmont explores these questions as she talks to people about joining the digital economy. Inspiring stories of access are surfaced by members of a small Minnesota community and by a Syrian refugee who found hope in Amsterdam. Show Notes
Chuck: Welcome back to The Weakest Connection. The game show that matches your internet speed with your internet knowledge. Martha, you are our returning champion.
Martha: Great to be back.
Chuck: And Leroy you’re fresh meat.
Leroy: Oh, hi, Chuck.
Chuck: How fast would you say your home internet speed is?
Leroy: Well, interesting story. I only have dial-up available in my town so I’d say pretty slow.
Chuck: Okay, here we go. Remember in this game you must answer questions using only your internet connection.
Leroy: Wait. What?
Martha: On your phone. Use the internet on your phone.
Leroy: I don’t have internet on my phone.
Martha: You don’t? Why are you even here?
Leroy: I sort of just charged in here without a plan.
Chuck: First question, how many intentional internet shutdowns in how many countries were there last year?
Leroy: Nobody told me I needed internet to play this game.
Chuck: Martha, what is the internet telling you?
Martha: Last year, there were 51 intentional shutdowns across 18 different countries, Chuck.
Chuck: Really? There’s a fact for you; a fact worth 10,000 gigabucks.
Martha: Who-hoo. Isn’t the internet great?
Chuck: Next question. What is the best estimated annual global value of private consumer data being sold by data brokers online?
Leroy: 5 billion.
Chuck: Big number. What’s your source?
Leroy: I just guessed. I don’t have internet.
Chuck: Ooh, Leroy with an analog penalty; minus 100 gigabucks.
Leroy: Analog penalty?
Chuck: You didn’t use the internet, Leroy, so you get left behind. Martha?
Martha: 130 billion a year.
Chuck: Whoa, that’s a lot of money. Another 10,000 gigabucks for Martha.
Martha: Whoo. I’m so smart.
Leroy: No, you just have fast internet.
Chuck: Oh, that’s the end of this round. It looks like poor Leroy is out of the race. Sorry, Leroy. Thanks for playing, but clearly you are The Weakest Connection.
Veronica Belmont: Leroy, poor guy, can’t catch a break. Of course, that’s not a real game show. Well, not yet, but if it were, you’d need good internet access to get ahead just like real life and without that good access people fall behind. Roughly half of the global population can log on some way or another and that kind of adoption rate is worth a thumbs-up, but it still leaves half a planet cut off from the web; billions of people. The poorer the country, the worst the access gets. What is life like without the internet and how does life change once a person can log on and join? I’m Veronica Belmont, and Chuck?
Chuck: Yes, Veronica?
Veronica Belmont: I’ll take ways we access the internet from the motherboard.
Chuck: Okay. Let’s play The Weakest Connection, but first a word from our sponsor.
Veronica Belmont: This is IRL because online life is real life, an original podcast from Mozilla. Ah, the classic sound of waiting for super slow internet. If you’re old enough to remember dial-up, it was weird. You could either talk on the phone or get on the web, not both at the same time so I would literally have to wait for my parents to go to bed at night before I could log on, which was crazy. Nowadays, it’s not enough to have dial-up if you’re hoping for a full internet experience. In rural America, 28% of people don’t have broadband. You know, the kind of high speed service that’s fast enough to keep up with the content the internet can serve these days so they have old school dial-up or clunky satellite link-ups, which means their speeds can be stuck between well, at least it works most of the time to might as well train some passenger pigeons. So local movements are popping up everywhere. Citizens banding together to build better internets. Our friendly neighborhood producer, Dominic Girard, took a look at one project in Minnesota that’s midway through construction.
Dominic Girard: Hey, Veronica.
Veronica Belmont: Hello.
Dominic Girard: So yeah, it’s what you said. It seems that for the most part, the internet in rural America kinda sucks.
Veronica Belmont: Like in Minnesota or so you’re about to tell me.
Dominic Girard: Specifically, for this story, we’re focusing on the slow as molasses internet service that affects a group of communities in South Central Minnesota as you said. Largely in and around these counties called Renville and Sibley and these are towns with names like Winthrop, Fairfax, Gaylord, Gibbon and Buffalo Lake. They were fed up with dealing with really shoddy internet, dial-up internet, satellite internet.
Veronica Belmont: Yeah, it makes sense.
Dominic Girard: Right. They decided they were going to build a member-owned high-speed broadband network all by themselves.
Veronica Belmont: What?
Dominic Girard: Yeah.
Veronica Belmont: Nice.
Dominic Girard: Yeah. It’s kinda cool, right? They called it RS Fiber and it’s a combination of super fast fiber optic cable internet and a better than ever Wi-Fi network, too.
Veronica Belmont: Okay, and so how fast to them is super fast?
Dominic Girard: One gigabit per second at the top-end of the service. That’s what? It’s 1000 megabits per second.
Veronica Belmont: Yes, that’s how the math works out.
Dominic Girard: Right. At that speed, you could theoretically buy and download a high definition copy of a Hollywood Blockbuster like Wonder Woman in under 30 seconds.
Veronica Belmont: Nice.
Mark Erickson: When we first formed this, we all agreed that this is not just a network we want to build. We wanna change the way we live, learn, work and play by bringing positive benefit to senior citizens and students and businesses and farmers. Now this is a once in a lifetime for us and we want to make the most of it.
Veronica Belmont: Okay, so who’s this guy?
Dominic Girard: He’s Mark Erickson. He’s playing a big role in helping RS Fiber launch and roll out.
Veronica Belmont: Alright, so a quote, once in a lifetime opportunity, he says.
Dominic Girard: Right.
Veronica Belmont: How badly needed is this broadband for the good people of Renville and Sibley.
Dominic Girard: So well, let me introduce you to a few people that we talked to and let them tell you what they’ve been facing to give you like a sense of what’s going on there.
Jenny Hazelton: My name is Jenny Hazelton. I live in Fairfax. I am currently waiting for high-speed internet to come to us.
Dominic Girard: Jenny; she’s a mom and her two kids well, they need internet access to do their homework obviously. The service at home is awful.
Jenny Hazelton: It’s a struggle because when you don’t have great access at home then you have to find time to find a place to go so they can get the access. There’s students that currently don’t have access to any sort of internet because of where their home is located right now and it is a struggle.
Veronica Belmont: That definitely sounds frustrating [crosstalk 00:06:57] I’m already thinking about what it’s like for a student in Minnesota trying to learn online compared to a student in say a place like Portland.
Dominic Girard: Well, that’s right. To me, it immediately creates a sense of education inequality. Although to be fair, there are students in cities who also face internet access issues, but as for this part of Minnesota, I asked Tami Martin for what she’s seen. She’s the superintendent of the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop School District.
Tami Martin: They stay as long as they can after school and until we lock up the doors on weekends. I’ve actually seen ‘em sitting out in the cold in the winter on the park benches outside of our libraries that have Wifi so they can gain internet access.
Veronica Belmont: They’re actually that … It gets cold there.
Dominic Girard: It does.
Veronica Belmont: This is rural America. Aside from students, how else is this a problem for the people who live there?
Dominic Girard: Right. Well, you put your finger on it. Rural America, likely lots of agriculture and that is very much the case here. Farmers like any other business need the internet to do their work, but here’s the thing. Farmers in this region can’t even do the most of basic stuff with their existing internet speeds. Mark Erickson, he gives this example.
Mark Erickson: They create these files that they need to then upload to their crop advisor and they would start the download at 6 o’clock at night and at 6 o’clock in the morning, it wasn’t finished yet because it was so slow or it had timed out and they had to restart it. They would take hours and hours as it was actually cheaper and quicker for them to drive it 50 or 60 miles and drive back.
Dominic Girard: Veronica, can you imagine if that’s how you work your day job with that kind of service in your internet fancy-pants land of San Francisco?
Veronica BelmonT: No, and this is super frustrating ‘because they have real work to do and if they’re waiting on that kind of stuff that’s bananas.
Dominic Girard: Right, so I actually wanted to bring this to an actual farmer and I found one. He’s the Vice Chairman of the RS Fiber Cooperative. His name’s Jake Rieke. He’s a fifth generation farmer. He lives in Fairfax. His farm grows soybeans, corn. They raise hogs, too. Jake was telling me that he struggled with this and went through a period where he worried that he wouldn’t really be able to make his farming business work. Here’s how he told it to me.
Jake Rieke: If our internet access never got any better that we may need to consider moving off of our home-site and move into a town or somewhere else where we can do business more efficiently. It’s definitely something that crossed my mind.
Veronica Belmont: We’re talking a fifth generation farmer thinking about picking up and moving elsewhere. That’s super dramatic.
Dominic Girard: Yeah. People need access to education, to economic opportunities, even like come on, frankly, the personal comforts. These are things the internet can offer. When the idea first sprang up for RS Fiber to let’s just build our own, it didn’t take much to convince the folks of Renville County and Sibley County to move ahead with the project.
Mark Erickson: Once you educated the folks on what the opportunity was, to build this fiber network, 98% of ‘em got it and said “Oh, absolutely. We absolutely need this.”
Veronica Belmont: That’s great. Everyone was on board, but how far along are they now?
Mark Erickson: We have about 14 hundred customers to date and we’re adding about a hundred every month.
Dominic Girard: When it’s finished, 6,000 homes and businesses, 2,500 people living on farm land will all be these customers.
Veronica Belmont: For the people who are already hooked up, how have things changed for them so far?
Dominic Girard: Well, Jake’s a good example. He doesn’t yet have the fiber service, but he’s on the new wireless service.
Jake Rieke: Well, one of the things that I’ve setup is cameras inside of our hog facility so we actually have live monitoring of our hogs. Also, at our newer site, we have an internet-connected barn controller, which can tell you pretty much anything that’s going on inside of the barn; how much feed they’re eating, how much water the pigs are drinking, which fans are running, what the temperature is in there. All of these settings can be changed remotely and viewed remotely.
Veronica Belmont: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Don.
Dominic Girard: Yeah. You bet.
Veronica Belmont: RS Fiber isn’t the only example of communities banding together to build themselves a better internet. It’s happening across the country and around the world, too. In the UK a woman started a local broadband project called Barn to connect farms in Lancashire. In Canada, a group of young indigenous adults and teenagers in Ontario made a plan, hired a contractor and built a tower that now beams broadband internet into their community. Around the world, there are grassroots efforts, government efforts and business efforts to get people online. It feels like we should move past convincing each other that the internet is a necessity not a luxury and yet still some people are being left behind. It’s a totally frustrating situation.
Angela Siefer: It is a frustrating situation.
Veronica Belmont: This is Angela Siefer. She’s the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Angela Siefer: For the most part, I don’t find myself in argument’s anymore about why the internet is necessary today. The arguments tend to come when we talk about how fast is fast enough and at what price point is affordable and why is it should there be public support, right? Why should we subsidize access to the internet and the reasons for that are that we need everybody to be using these tools if they’re gonna benefit those of us who are online. It benefits all of us to make sure everybody’s online.
Veronica Belmont: Our Minnesota story is an example of rural communities getting together and building their own network. How much of this is happening across rural America?
Angela Siefer: There’s a lot of local innovation around solving this problem right now. It’s really exciting and really fascinating. It’s also quite frustrating because there are so many local folks in rural areas who say okay, I mean we’re gonna fix this and they gather their friends and their neighbors and their colleagues together. They decide that they’re gonna go after it and then they realize there’s a state law that says uh, no, you can’t do that.
Veronica Belmont: Yeah. I’ve heard a bit about this so what’s going on with that?
Angela Siefer: There are some states who, let’s assume well-meaning state legislators who thought they needed to protect internet service providers from regular folks who want to fix their broadbands.
Veronica Belmont: Gotta protect those ISP’s.
Angela Siefer: You do because they may not make enough money for their shareholders. I think it’s silly for any of us to say that it’s not their responsibility. It is and there’s nothing wrong with that. The part where it becomes wrong and troubling is if an internet service provider works against someone else bringing in service in an area where that internet service provider has decided not to serve them at speeds at which are necessary today. There are lots of things you need to do that are beyond a meg, three meg, which is what a lot of rural areas already can get.
Veronica Belmont: People who don’t have good internet access, it’s clear to me how they are being left behind, but what about the rest of us? What do we lose when those voices aren’t participating in the web the same way that we are who have the great access?
Angela Siefer: Right. Well, we all know that many of the tools being developed today are being developed by white men and that really impacts how those tools are developed and how they assume the rest of us are going to use those tools so that’s one aspect. Another aspect is that whenever there are services that are only available online, then those other individuals are totally left out of whatever that is. If we’re talking about civic engagement and we’re discussing how it is we want our downtowns to look and we’re getting lots of input from folks, but we’re only getting input from the folks that are online, that’s a problem, right? Because then we’re just totally leaving them out.
Veronica Belmont: It’s bad product development.
Angela Siefer: It’s very bad product development. That’s exactly right.
Veronica Belmont: I’m Veronica Belmont. This is IRL because online life is real life, an original podcast from Mozilla. Earlier, I mentioned how half the planet isn’t online. In the US about 47 million people still don’t have reliable internet access, roughly 15% of the country. It’s easy for most of us to forget what it’s like to live without the internet. A high-speed line can be a life line. Often that life line is found at public libraries.
Sha’ron Brown: My name Sha’ron Brown. I drove a truck. I didn’t have to really deal with too much of the internet situation.
Chris Coil: My name is Chris Coil. I’m 58-years-old. I have no internet access outside of the library. Today I’m learning how to do emails and I’m also learning how to use YouTube.
Sha’ron Brown: You can’t tell some older person to get on the computer and just play with it. You need somebody to be right there next to you to make sure you doing it proper and-
Chris Coil: I had a relationship with someone for about 10 years and I used to go to their family’s get-togethers and they would be talking about things and I had no idea what they were talking about.
Sha’ron Brown: I came to the library. I’m learning a lot of things that I did not know.
Chris Coil: But I have to be a part of technology because it’s going past me.
Veronica Belmont: Chris, sir, I can relate. I don’t like being left out of conversations either.
Chris Coil: I hate to be outta the click.
Veronica Belmont: Then there are people who don’t even have a place to call home, nevermind a device to log in with. Zack Fournette says the most disadvantaged people in society are the ones that most need the internet. He would know. Zach spent a part of his life living on the streets of San Francisco.
Zach Fournette : I mean, I was never sleeping on concrete, but there was definitely the better part of a year where I was living outta my car. I would do whatever it took to make money; panhandle, fly signs, sell drugs. I mean I can tell looking back on my social media profile, there’s like the three year gap where there’s just like nothing happening. I didn’t always have a phone. For an individual who is out on the streets and needs help, it can be hard to even find where to go to access that help without the internet. It’s almost like if you don’t have access to it then you don’t exist.
Veronica Belmont: I can see why Zach would feel that way. Those of us with internet have most likely weaved it into our every day in such a way that when it isn’t available, we feel lost and kind of anxious like we don’t exist. You know what I’m saying here. I know you felt this, but in other parts of the world that feeling that you don’t exist or that you don’t matter can be created by real-world dangers and when that’s your reality, being able to get online well, it can save your life.
Hasan S.: You know I wish … This is really a pity, but my computer still under the war. I mean when I flee from my home, I didn’t have time to take it with me and all my files, all my photos, everything I have. Yeah. All my memories, actually, everything I made. Yeah.
Veronica Belmont: The Syrians have a war forced millions of refugees to leave behind their homes, families, possessions, computers and flee to safety. Europe, in particular, has been dealing with an overwhelming refugee situation, but in the Netherlands, a group of tech entrepreneurs are trying to help in the way they can, with the web. There’s a real thirst for trained competent web-developers in Europe and skilled workers are hard to find so the Hack Your Future program, that’s the training school they’ve created, is teaching refugees how to write code for the internet. The hope is by learning how to build the web, they have a chance to rebuild their own lives.
Hasan S.: Okay. I will show you. I don’t know if you like it, but I will just show. I will say, hello world. This is basically the first program ever you write if you are learning code.
Veronica Belmont: It’s Sunday afternoon in Amsterdam and Hasan Shahoud is doing one of his favorite things: nerding out on a computer in a Hack Your Future classroom.
Hasan S.: Because I’m learning in Linux and Linux for geeks, nerds so
Speaker 16: Okay, then [crosstalk 00:19:57].
Hasan S.: I have to sow [crosstalk 00:19:56] some hope. I got to win this.
Veronica Belmont: He can’t help himself.
Hasan S.: It’s kind of, what’s the word? I forgot. When you do a thing and you just cannot stop. Addictive.
Veronica Belmont: This is the kind of place where a tech-obsessed refugee like Hasan can go to start a better life, a place where, thanks to code, Hasan can bring order to a life of chaos.
Hasan S.: I come for Syria from Aleppo from the north. We were in simple environment, simple people.
Veronica Belmont: Hasan ’s obsession with computers starts in high school. He’s 17 and begs his mother for one.
Hasan S.: I got a computer, but I couldn’t connect to internet because I never told how to do that so I have a cousin. He’s a web-developer and he’s programmer. After two lessons, he … I ask him, “What do you do really?” so he showed me like you can write code. You can write something actually. I said, “That’s amazing. What is that?” Then he said, “It’s HTML5.”
Veronica Belmont: HTML5; the coding backbone used to build a website. Hasan is instantly taken by the possibilities, but this is in 2011. This is the year civil war breaks out in Syria so just as Hasan ’s world opens up online, offline it all comes crashing. His father dies; a heart attack. The family loses their home and main source of income so he heads to Turkey. Another cousin has work for him there as a tailor. He leaves his mother, brother and computer behind.
Hasan S.: I had to work 12 hours a day and I couldn’t just [inaudible 00:21:50] study and work there. People started to go to Europe so then I thought, oh, well, that’s a good idea. I mean, maybe I go to Europe. Actually, I choose the Netherlands.
Veronica Belmont: Nine long days and Hasan finally makes it to Amsterdam.
Hasan S.: We arrived at night, which was 11 o’clock or something it was such a very nice, very beautiful city.
Veronica Belmont: Hasan is taken to a refugee camp. One volunteer goes one step further. She finds a local home with a spare couch for him. That’s how Hasan comes to meet Daniel. He asks Hasan for his plan.
Hasan S.: This guy; he’s great. What’s your dream and what did you do back then and I told him I really like computers that I think I’m good at it and I like to be programmer. Then he said, “Well, just a start.” And he gave me his old laptop. He told me “Well, but I know a coding school. It’s called Hack Your Future.”
Veronica Belmont: Hack Your Future is a tough love kind of learning space.
Speaker 17: I don’t understand exactly the concept of this.
Speaker 18: Okay.
Speaker 17: I need more explanation [crosstalk 00:23:15].
Hasan S.: I was struggling all the way.
Veronica Belmont: On top of that he has to tackle the actual languages Dutch and English, but thanks to the mentorship and peer support at Hack Your Future, Hasan is thriving. He now has an internship. The company is even offering him a job.
Hasan S.: I never thought about this. I’m sitting behind my laptop and developing some things and I feel proud. Yes. Web-developer.
Veronica Belmont: Hasan is one of Hack Your Future’s best success stories. It’s stories like this that remind the co-founder of Hack Your Future why this program was started to begin with. Here’s Gijs Corstens
Gijs Corstens: One of the cool things about coding is that you really lose your status as a refugee as soon as you become a good programmer because as soon as you’re a good programmer, anybody in the world wants to hire you. They can just apply with a Visa, a working Visa. I think in that way it is … It takes away really the word refugee because you’re not a refugee anymore. You’re just working wherever you feel like.
Veronica Belmont: Hack Your Future offers programs in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Find out more about them at hackyourfuture.net. I live in San Francisco and my internet at home is for the most part reliable, responsive and blazing fast. When I hear about Hasan learning to code, so he can rebuild a life ripped apart by a brutal civil war, when I hear about how small towns are banding together to build the internet they feel they deserve, when I hear Zach’s story about being homeless and helpless without internet I’m reminded of just how lucky I am to be as plugged in as I want to be. Access is valuable. It helps people take control of their own lives, which in turn makes online life better for everyone. In that way, high speed internet access for all is one of the key paths to a healthier internet. There are really simple ways that you can help bridge the digital divide by the way. If you have an old computer or smartphone gathering dust in a drawer, give it away. There is most likely a community non-profit near you that will erase it, really-build it and give it to someone in need. If you think yourself pretty web-savvy, pay it forward. Many libraries offer free workshops to help first-timers get online and use it effectively. Maybe they could use an extra hand. Learn more about these ideas and what Mozilla thinks about digital inclusion and access by reading the show notes to this episode online at irlpodcast.org. IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the non-profit behind the Firefox browser. A lot of you have been discovering and downloading this podcast, which is amazing. Want to help us keep the momentum going? Leave a rating and review on Apple podcasts. Help new people find the show. I’m Veronica Belmont. I’ll see you online until we catch up again, IRL. Leroy, poor guy cannot catch a break. At least I have chicken. Except I don’t ‘cause I’m vegematarian.