Evolution Digital from OTELCO

Nick Battista of The Island Institute of Maine

Episode Summary

OTELCO launches its Evolution: Digital podcast with guest Nick Battista, Senior Policy Officer at the Island Institute in Maine.

Episode Notes

OTELCO launches its Evolution: Digital podcast with guest Nick Battista, Senior Policy Officer at the Island Institute in Maine.

Episode Transcription

You're listening to evolution digital, how businesses across industries have adopted to ensure continued success in today's digital marketplace. I'm Tracy Scheckel,

[00:00:19] welcome to evolution digital. I'm Tracy Scheckel with OTELCO, and I want to welcome you to the first episode of our podcast. In the coming weeks, we'll be speaking with a variety of . Yes. To hear how technology has affected the way we do business over the years. It's the project we've had as a work for a little while now, and we're so excited to share the conversation we've been having, but we have to acknowledge that this episode has come about a little differently than the ones we are used to.

[00:00:45] We've been working with Cortland pod on our recordings and I'm sure our audio engineer Tanner will do an amazing job with the finished product in the interest of social distancing. We are recording this episode via conference call. As I'm sure many of you have grown quite accustomed to over the 

[00:01:01] past several weeks.

[00:01:03] Yes. This is not the first conversation we've recorded, but in the wake of the Cove at 19 pandemic, businesses are operating in a variety of new ways, so we felt that bumping this conversation up in the series was important. It's become more evidence than ever that internet plays a critical role in our day to day life.

[00:01:22] Luckily, thanks to the digital evolution, the very thing we're here to discuss today, it's possible for all of us to stay connected. My guest today is Nick Patista, the senior policy officer for the Island Institute here in Maine. The Island Institute works alongside names, islands, and coastal communities to catalyze community sustainability in the States, 120 coastal communities and share what works among these diverse communities and beyond as one might guess.

[00:01:52] Broadband is a big part of that equation. Nick, tell us a little bit about yourself and the Institute and we'll get into talking about broadband and digital evolution after we learn more about. The Island 

[00:02:05] Institute. Sure. So. My name is Nick, and I've been working at the Allen Institute for eight and a half years now.

[00:02:14] Prior to joining down Institute, I worked on Capitol Hill for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who lives in one of many violent communities and represents about half of the coast. I have a background in fisheries policy, Breen and coastal policy and law, which is a little bit of a strange background for ending up in the broadband world, but.

[00:02:37] In reality, I got into fisheries and coastal community work because I cared deeply about small rural coastal communities in Maine and come to find out when you are working with small rural communities, sometimes access to fisheries resources is a big challenge, but a lot of times broadband is a bigger challenge.

[00:02:57] And so from a, the perspective of. What I care most about, it's main, small, small, rural communities and dry is a huge, huge challenge for those communities. And so about three, two and a half years ago, I moved from leading our fishers and ocean related work to leading our policy work. And broadband is one of our top organizational policy priorities.

[00:03:21] Maine has 15 year round Island communities. These are umbrage communities. They rely on ferries to go back and forth. Some of the communities are. A 20 minute ferry ride and have a number of varies and in a given day up there, 20 ferries a day. In some places, some of these synergies are pretty remote and might be 10 1220 miles offshore at have 30 ferries a year and maybe a small Bush plane that flies back and forth to to deliver the mail.

[00:03:55] These are places where they're already isolated. There are six one and two room school houses out on some of these Island communities, and so connectivity has has long been a challenge. We are the Island Institute. We do work with the 15 year on Island communities, but the challenges facing many of May's Island communities are also chaired by coastal communities in Maine, and they're also triggered by, by rural communities.

[00:04:23] All around the country. Sometimes we find that we see, we say things clearly because we're looking at islands because they're surrounded by water. The issues of remoteness, the geographic isolation, the connectivity with mainland or access to services that we know rural communities across the country struggle with.

[00:04:42] We see those connections more clearly on. 

[00:04:46] So Nick and I came to meet through our working with the main broadband coalition. My involvement has gotten more involved recently, but I've been a follower for certainly a 

[00:04:59] few years 

[00:05:00] and Nick has been with the organization pretty much since its inception. Right.

[00:05:04] Nick. I 

[00:05:05] think there were a few others from an Institute who are more involved when it started, but one of the things that we try to do it down and Institute, and one of the things that we recognize is we work at a nonprofit, we're nonprofit staff, and. Much of the work to move broadband or many other issues forward relies on our ability to help community members or community leaders connect with each other and connect with policy and decision makers.

[00:05:35] And so we've tried to bring that to the broadband coalition and to a whole bunch of other coalitions. And networks that we work on. And so I've been involved in the broadband coalition and the visible side for a couple of years. And then in, in the background, in terms of how do we think about networking as an organization and how do we help similarly situated communities and leaders.

[00:05:56] Interact with each other and influence policy and really make sure that their voices are being heard in the discussions where they need to be heard. 

[00:06:05] Okay. So the reason we've moved this podcast up to the front of the series is because here we are sitting in a coven 19 pandemic. I know that old telco has

[00:06:18] Spent the better part of a week and a half moving everybody possible to a telecommute position except for our outside field guys who have to go to people's houses. I know, Nick, that you're working in a an Airbnb unit that is getting cancellations and you've made it your home office. There is nothing that drives the point of.

[00:06:43] The need for broadband everywhere home the way this does. What are you seeing hearing in your Island communities? I know that we have a broadband coalition meeting on Monday. What are you hearing? What are people doing. 

[00:06:58] So I think there's a couple of parts to that answer. And for some of main, for some of the people we work with, particularly the people who don't have internet, people who used to go to the library or used to go to a coffee shop to access the internet life has, has changed greatly.

[00:07:17] And their ability to connect to the world is. Diminished and I think because of the significant increase in people working remotely, people working virtually and the rise in. The amount of conference calls and really the amount of video calls that we're doing. I think there are more people who are seeing, seeing that not having connectivity is a problem, and they're seeing that their friends and that their neighbors don't have access to the high speed internet.

[00:07:46] The video conference call cuts out, or the everybody else is joining by video and they have to join the telephone because they don't have a great internet connection. And so I think it's just becoming a little bit clearer for people. How. Important frog and is and what it means to have it and what it means to  not habit in some of the places that we.

[00:08:09] That we work in and some of the communities where we work, they've been connecting virtually for years. So the teaching and learning collaborative is a network of one room school houses that connect virtually with each other is a network that has been in existence and made do they have virtual student councils and reading groups and critical friends groups for the teachers.

[00:08:36] And it's really a way, if you're in a one room school house with your, your brother or your sister and your cousins and two other kids. It's nice to see kids in other communities. So they do work together and they've been working together for for years and they're very familiar with working virtually.

[00:08:54] I'm working remotely. The town of Vinalhaven the other day had a, a town meeting. There's swept board meeting, and they were discussing some pretty big issues about how their community was going to be responding to. The current crisis, and normally they get seven or eight people from the community to attend a select board meeting.

[00:09:13] I did it virtually, put it out on, on Facebook and had over a thousand people watching the the meeting. And so in some ways we are more isolated and distancing ourselves from other people. And in instances like. That all of a sudden we're able to see our, our democracy in action, and we're able to see and be part of how our communities are working in functioning.

[00:09:40] That's amazing. I didn't want to interrupt you when you were speaking a thousand. Are there even a thousand people that live on Vinalhaven. 

[00:09:48] There are a few more than a thousand people and there are a whole bunch of people who don't live on Vinalhaven but have a strong connection to the community, whether it's a second home there or they've been going there all their lives, or they have a friend who's been going there all their lives and they've found some times.

[00:10:06] And so the world they think has been very curious about how. Small isolated remote Island communities are responding to this issue. And that was so, it wasn't just the residents, it was a whole bunch of other people who care very deeply about the community and support the community in a variety of ways.

[00:10:26] Trying to learn and understand what was, what was happening. That is 

[00:10:30] absolutely amazing. I know that anybody I know that has young children, and I don't know if your daughter is school age yet, but kids are expected to take classes online. I know a kindergartener who is having a zoom meeting with his teacher.

[00:10:46] Last in the morning and if you live in Westbrook or Barnum or any other place where internet is really good, that's awesome. If you live in the hinterlands up in Penobscot County, you don't really have that option. We do know you and I have been working and following and supporting. Funding for broadband infrastructure.

[00:11:07] And as you said earlier, people are really starting to understand the significance of broadband at home. And apparently our legislature has to, because a $15 million bond is headed to the voters in June, which is awesome. But from a. Provider's perspective. Even if they voted yes on that money in June and started giving it out in July, it would be a year before any construction, at least from our end, related to that bond would happen.

[00:11:36] Any ideas on what to do in the meantime? 

[00:11:39] Yeah, I think that's a really important, the important point in looking at state funding for broadband, for infrastructure, it takes time to put the projects together to build the infrastructure. And so we're not necessarily hoping to address the current crisis with funding for infrastructure, but it is a way of making sure that if we have a similar crisis or other crisis in the future, we are better connected.

[00:12:06] In the very near term, the national digital equity center has been working with ins department of education to purchase a number of HubSpot devices. These are tablets that are cell phone enabled. And so where you have key mobile or USL, their service piece devices can help students connect to the internet.

[00:12:28] It's not the high speed, reliable connection that comes with a, with a good broadband connection, but it's sure better than nothing and it will help help students connect. And so these, I don't know exactly how many there looking to get out the door, but it's well into the thousands. At the Ave Institute.

[00:12:47] We've. Where did the a hundred and are looking to get them out to the communities where we know there are issues with ethernet connectivity. That's a start for sure. 

[00:12:58] I don't want to put you on the spot. Obviously you deal with main and, Oh, telco deals with Maine, Alabama, Missouri, Vermont, Massachusetts, et cetera.

[00:13:10] Are you in contact with entities similar to yours and other States and are they operating under the same memo right now? 

[00:13:18] We've been trying to figure out how to respond and support main communities. And that's taken the bulk of the last we can a bit to organize our, our internal response and start assessing community needs and start figuring out what is needed.

[00:13:36] So last week we held a. A virtual convening of community leaders to talk about how they're, how they're responding. And this was stress. So the community is the main network we're working with. In, in that conversation, it became clear that they were interested in hearing from community leaders in other places, similarly situated communities.

[00:13:57] And so. We started that process of reaching out to our friends and colleagues in across the country who, who worked with smaller remote communities. But we're, we're just starting. And I think everybody is, is scrambling at the moment to, to figure it out, how to respond and what those structures are and, and how to be helpful without over overwhelming people.

[00:14:19] And I think for the geography that. That you're working in. We have partners that we've worked with on a variety of issues, some broadband related, but also renewable energy and energy efficiency programming in Vermont, and. Massachusetts and some little bit of work around working waterfront preservation and supporting efficient communities in Alabama.

[00:14:44] All of those networks and connections will come into play over the next few weeks as we collectively start to grapple with these issues. 

[00:14:53] We're in the same boat. We're trying to do what we can everywhere and collaborate with different providers in different States to see what people are doing and help to keep people connected.

[00:15:04] I just want to kind of take a break from this line of conversation because typically these. 

[00:15:11] Podcasts, 

[00:15:13] start with how did you use to do business before develop digital evolution? How are you doing business today because of digital evolution and what is your crystal ball for the future? And as we're having this conversation, I'm thinking about the format that we've been using and it's like, this is the future.

[00:15:34] You know, normally at this point in the podcast, I will ask the guest, what is your crystal ball? What does the future look like in your business? And I'm going to ask you the same question because I'm hoping that where we are today is not the future, but maybe a catalyst to get to whatever the future of connectivity is.

[00:15:53] So how do you find the positive in everything that's going on as far as what it'll bring to the 

[00:16:00] future. You know, when I think about where we are in Maine now or where we were before the current crisis, we had 85,000 households who didn't have access to high speed, reliable internet. These are people who don't have a connection as good as I had as a high school student in one of Maine's wealthy suburbs in the late nineties the ability for people to.

[00:16:25] Connect to the economy to connect to their social networks, to connect to each other, to access resources, to do all sorts of things. That ability has been patchy across the state for decades, and the current crisis I, I think really helps crystallize the disparity and the importance and just how far we've come in.

[00:16:51] Our use of the internet are you? So being digital, can I think back to 2009 the last time we had a major economic crisis and a response that was, that was happening then certainly broadband was, was part of that response, but it was not so clear that the world was heading towards digital convenings, towards virtual convenings, towards video conferencing.

[00:17:20] We were talking and at that point about building middle mile infrastructure and in Maine and helping the  to connect people, but we weren't having the same level of online convenings and and online and online calls. I think about even when I started at the, at the Island Institute, most of the fishermen I worked with.

[00:17:42] You didn't have smartphones, they might've texted from a flip phone. A lot of them didn't. They just, they might've had a cell phone. They might not have had a cell phone. You have to call them. Email is, you know, 50% of the people I was working with heady now and in the last. Three or four years. That's jumped greatly there.

[00:18:02] Facebook is now a good way to connect with a lot of them. A number of them have Instagram accounts that are great. They're texting each other, they're calling each other. They are video conferencing with each other, and that is just a huge change in how one small segment of of our coastal economy has changed because of.

[00:18:25] Greater connectivity and greater access to all service, greater access to the internet. A number of the agriculturists we work with are selling their products online. They have little online pop up stores that they're using, and they've been doing this for the last couple of years. It's, it's great to see they're able to make a little bit more money.

[00:18:44] They're able to connect directly with their. Would their customers with, and a lot of it's being driven through their social media accounts. I got to think a couple of years ago that was, that wasn't where we thought things were. And so I think, you know, in terms of where things are going, we're, we're heading in that direction.

[00:19:02] We just need to make sure that we all can can come along and that we're not leaving pupil behind by virtue of where they live, that we're not leaving rural communities behind by virtue of the fact that they are. Rural and the economic model or building out infrastructure for you, Tracy, for owls code, just say, let's invest capital in these communities on a really, really long return on investment timeframe.

[00:19:29] That's really hard to ask you to do as a business. We need to come in with state and federal subsidies to help make, help make that investment feasible and to help make sure that those people have a connection. Oh, 

[00:19:41] from my telco heart, I don't think anybody could have said that better. I mean, we all have the best intentions and it's good to see that Maine and the other States that we work in are also working towards.

[00:19:54] Putting funding out to help businesses, private businesses and communities that want to build networks, do it, and be able to make a business case for it. I just want to thank you for being here because I know that your life right now is as crazy as everybody else's. Trying to. Keep things together for the different roles that we play, but this is where you get to do your little commercial and tell people how to reach you and the Island Institute and the broadband coalition for that matter.

[00:20:21] Before I say a final thank 

[00:20:23] you. Sure. So the Island Institute, the best way to reach us is on our website, www dotIsland institute.org and we are always looking for opportunities to connect with. Communities or institutions or anybody really who is trying to support a community broadband process. We have a community leadership guide that we use with the communities that we're supporting directly that is available on our website.

[00:20:57] We are happy to have people use that guide. We are happy to talk about what's in there. We're happy to talk about how we, how we created it for. Communities in coastal Maine, we have a broadband planning grant to help get started or to help move a community conversation forward, and we're always interested in doing exchange trips.

[00:21:18] We think when community members are talking with each other and learning from each other or that mutual learning is happening, that's where the magic happens. And so just to open offer, if you're wanting to connect. Virtually, or at some point, not virtually with main communities who are working on broadband, we are happy to help facilitate those interactions.

[00:21:41] If you're in Maine or you are interested in the Maine broadband coalition, the website for the broadband coalition is www dot Maine broadband coalition. Thought or the Nebraska coalition is the statewide voice for mains Aaron at users and is a coalition of internet service providers, groups like the Institute community leaders, a whole bunch of other people who are working hard to make sure that Maine is not.

[00:22:10] Romaine is not left behind in our digital future.

[00:22:15] Great. Okay. Well, I thank you again and I am in light of the rent times going to do a little commercial for telco. If you're within one of our footprints and would like to know more information about what we're doing as far as the covert 19 response and what we're doing to keep people connected and get people connected.

[00:22:34] You can visit our website@wwwdototoko.com forward slash coven dash 19 next time on evolution digital, we'll go back to our first conversation and speak with Tanner Campbell of Cortland pod, who's actually producing this series. If you operate or know of a business or industry that's been impacted by digital evolution, please let us know.

[00:23:00] We're looking for interesting stories and guests for future episodes. Thanks for joining us. Stay safe, and we hope you'll join us next time. Email evolution digital at podcast at  dot com or visit . Oh telco.com forward slash podcast to suggest other industries we should talk 

[00:23:21] to.