Hello. Welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host, Joe Coldebella. We are in Houston, Texas at the Broadband Communities Summit, coming to you from the Harrison Edwards Summit Studio. Joining me is the President of ETI Software, Jeff Fraleigh. Jeff, welcome to The Broadband Bunch.
Joe C, thank you so much for having me. I can’t believe that it’s taken us this long to do this. I’m really happy to be hanging out with you.
Usually, I ask for a little bit of introduction. For those of you who are listening, this is the guy. ETI sponsors the podcast.
So Jeff, on behalf of myself and all the listeners, thank you so much. ETI does a phenomenal service in terms of spreading the word about broadband.
Yeah. I got to say, Joe, I’m over the moon about what you and the team have been able to do. We thought about things like this in the very beginning. You guys have taken it to an entirely new level.
I love the impartiality. I love the fact that you have so many different topics. So many different people, and so many different perspectives. It is just amazing.
I couldn’t be happier about our investment in helping get The Broadband Bunch out there. You guys are doing a phenomenal job.
Appreciate that very much. Our theme is, “What’s your story?” So just to start with, I would love it if you could share with the listeners your story. How did you find your way into broadband?
How much time do we have? No. I’ve been in the software business for about 25 years. A personal connection brought me to ETI.
I have never been in the telecom industry. It’s always fun and scary when you get into a new market that you don’t really know very much about.
But I think it’s actually critical to do things like this. ETI has an amazing amount of people that have a huge amount of legacy and heritage in this business, in the telecom business.
I think what I tried to bring to ETI was not so much about trying to replicate my knowledge of the telecom industry, but to think about things in a different way that maybe they have never thought before.
So, I jumped in with both feet, as I normally do when I go to a job where I have no idea what they do. This was clearly the case here. I talk to a lot of customers and try to understand why they like ETI, why they bought the software, and how it really helps them.
Then I take a little bit more macro view of the market. What are the market trends? Can ETI do something that is a game changer for a market?
I didn’t really know this until I got here, but I really feel like for ETI, this is a lightning-in-a-bottle moment.
It allows us to take advantage of the huge amount of influx of money that’s coming into a market and one that is largely challenged by technological evolution.
For me, I’ve been in many other kinds of markets. I’ve been in finance and banking, insurance, and government.
Bringing that kind of model or mode or thought process around, what can we do differently to really impact a market that I feel really needs it?
I’ll just say, it often stinks when you have an idea and you want to go implement it, but the market itself isn’t really ready for change.
I’ve done that before too. That’s very frustrating. But I think it’s been a really, really great experience because I think the market is ready for the things that we want to talk about.
It’s not just to benefit ETI. I think this is really to try to benefit the market as a whole.
Okay. Great answer. Before we dive into the awesome news, the exciting news, I would love it if you could just give a 30,000-foot view of what exactly ETI Software does.
Yeah. We’ve been around for 30 years. ETI was always on what we would call the OSS or the operational support system side.
BSS is for business support systems. So most internet providers, telecoms, think of the world in three sections. One is billing. How do I get bills out? That’s important. You got to get paid.
The second would be business support systems. So what are their customer service reps using? What are their field service reps using? How are they managing things like assets and product inventory?
Then the third part of that is the operational support systems. How do we automate the delivery of services?
Obviously, your audience knows very, very well, but I often use this for my mom when she wonders what I’m doing.
I say, “Mom, you have cable. You have a TV at home, and you have the internet at home. You want to order HBO. What do you do?” So you either do it online or you call up a customer service rep for your internet provider and say, “Hey, I want to add HBO.”
At some point that order has to be provisioned all the way to the ONT that’s sitting on the side of her house. That’s really where ETI has played for the majority of our lives as we are experts at technical interfaces in order to be able to deliver what we call service activation and service fulfillment.
So you order something. It’s got to get to you. It’s got to be right, and you have to know how to bill for it.
Here is a metaphor. Is it like, you guys help the back of the house of a restaurant get things done; so when it comes out to the customer, it’s piping hot and people are happy?
I have not heard that analogy before, but I really like that. I think that’s absolutely right.
Besides OSS and BSS, we do use a lot of back office and front office terminology to also describe this.
Awesome. ETI has been around 30 years, really kicking ass and taking names.
But now we’ve entered a new point. ETI is going to pivot. You guys made a great announcement today. I would love it if you could share that with our audience.
Yeah. Just another 30 seconds of background because it will help. While we were always on the OSS side of this equation, about a decade ago, we did move into the BSS side.
We have a solution called Customer Care. It does what it says it does. It helps manage a subscriber and manage work orders. But it was largely pretty rudimentary.
It’s working. It’s great. But when I got to ETI and I looked at the market and I looked at the needs of our customers, I kept hearing the same thing. Which is, we have to be better at leveraging technology in order to be more efficient and to deliver services and experiences to our subscribers better.
It was really as simple as that. In this world, there’s a term called swivel chair, which means systems are pretty disconnected. You have to do a lot of double entry. You have to swivel your chair from one program to another.
That just really hamstrings a broadband provider because they just can’t be as efficient as possible.
Especially now. At the rate that everything is going, you’re not only falling behind. You are way, way behind.
You’re way behind. When I first got here, I talked to a lot of, not customers, but maybe prospects. They told me that the status quo was fine.
So I’d ask them about their systems and how they felt about them and whether they were supporting them. I always got a similar answer, which is, “Eh, it’s okay, but it’s not bad enough to make a change. What am I really making a change to?”
They felt like there wasn’t really a dramatic need to make a change, but everything changed pre-Covid. But I think Covid accelerated this by probably a factor of 5 to 10 years.
Now what’s happening if you’re an ISP, I’m making it up, you have 10,000 subscribers. You largely didn’t have to do very much in order for them to stay with you.
But with a massive influx of money, two things happen. You’re either an ISP that’s getting money. This means you’re trying to grow your footprint. You’re trying to offer better services, or someone else is doing it. And they’re soon going to compete with you, which means the status quo, either way, doesn’t work.
It bodes well to be able to talk about our announcement now of what we think is the world’s first AI-driven intelligent BSS, OSS system.
What we’re trying to do is not use a bunch of big words, but to leverage as much technology as possible to practically help an internet provider or broadband provider across every aspect of their business, from billing to all of those BSS capabilities like customer service and field service, all the way down through provisioning.
So, we try to automate the process as much as possible, to get rid of the swivel chair and to be able to be efficient, which leads to a better subscriber experience, which in this world, is what it is all about.
Part of the discussion with AI is that it’s going to replace everybody, but it’s not that at all. Right? It actually has the potential to be a great tool. Is that how you guys are looking at it?
Yeah. Listen, I get it. I get that technology, especially rapidly changing technology can be scary. AI in this world is moving even so much further than the cloud, but it’s probably the closest sort of metaphor I can provide. Right?
When everyone’s like, “Oh, cloud, what does that mean? Is it for me?” And I get that, and I got that at the time.
I can see why things like AI are that much more nerve-racking; because, number one, it feels like I’m not even sure what to do with it. And B, it’s changing so fast that I worry that it can kind of be out of control. We totally get all that.
What I’m going to call it from now on is practical AI. We could talk about AI in The Matrix and in Terminator and all that kind of stuff. But in reality, AI does not replace a human. It preps them to be better and more prepared more quickly.
So as an example, a customer service rep gets calls all the time. Some questions are easy to answer. Some are more difficult to answer. But when you talk to one of them, they’ll often say that the calls repeat themselves.
Without automation, including AI, they often first of all don’t understand that there’s a connection outside of what they can see.
As an example, I might have a call center with 30 people in it or 20 people in it. Each one of them is getting a call about an outage. But if you think about it, each interaction is individual to that conversation between the customer service rep and that subscriber.
But the use of automation and AI can start to aggregate that information. So now, every customer service rep starts to see that there’s a pattern here and that it’s not an individual outage. It’s probably an outage somewhere higher up in the network. So, they can start attacking the problem right away, knowing that it has a much more mass effect.
Okay, that’s great. But also, doesn’t it also allow for some things to be automated and then allow the customer rep to focus on the real issues, like the big choke points? That way they get more focused on those, and then ultimately it’s a better customer experience.
A thousand percent. I think you said it perfectly. I think that what we want to try to do is to reduce the number of calls that don’t have a huge value impact because maybe they’re pretty standard or they’re very repeatable. Like, “Hey, I want to change my credit card,” or, “Hey, I didn’t get my bill,” or, “I had a question about my bill.”
So yeah, the ability to automate those kinds of responses, whether it’s with a real chatbot where you’re having a back and forth, or whether it’s a self-service portal where I can go in by myself without talking to somebody and be able to add my credit card. If we could even just reduce those calls by 20-, 30-, or 40%, it allows the customer service reps to have much more time to address the more complex human-based issues that aren’t going to be solved by technology.
It’s not about replacing the human being. It’s about giving them a head start on what they need to try to figure out so they can answer a question more effectively, more efficiently, and leave the subscriber saying, “Wow, I thought this was going to be a pain in the butt conversation. They had the information, and they didn’t have to call me back. They didn’t have to ask 19 people and transfer me. Not only that, but they understood my problem. They sort of knew it before even I did, and they already have a remedy for what that problem is.”
That’s incredibly powerful. You want that subscriber to hang up and say, “Man, they had their stuff together. It didn’t feel like it was all haphazard and all over the place. They couldn’t really help me.”
I’m super excited about that because the customer service rep is happier, their management’s happier, and the subscribers are happier. Everybody wins in that scenario.
As you were describing that to me, I actually thought about the customer service rep because I’m sure that there are things in their job that are tedious, that they would love to automate. Then, when they are engaged by a customer, they’re truly engaged. You get a person who’s not just pushing buttons but is really interested in solving your problem.
Without a doubt. Without a doubt. I mean, we still need human interaction. We still need human brains here. It’s just about trying to silence the noise to get to the real issues.
So just quickly, in terms of the platform itself, you guys decided to build on Microsoft 365.
Usually, you’ll hear the thing is that people want everything agnostic, but you guys went in the opposite direction. I’d love for you to explain why.
Yeah. Every software company goes through this kind of idea of whether you build from scratch, buy, or build on top of it.
When we made the decision to re-engineer our BSS, we had a couple of choices. We could do what many companies do and build completely from scratch, or we can leverage another company’s power and R&D experience in order for us to get a leg up.
So, you’re exactly right. We decided on Microsoft Dynamics 365. Why? Because Microsoft clearly is very well known, and they are wonderful at horizontal capabilities.
What they’re not very good at is verticalizing those capabilities. So, a bunch of years ago, they created what’s called an accelerator program.
Microsoft partners with a vendor in a very specific vertical. Not just telecom, it’s in banking and auto and insurance and everything.
They work with that ISV, that software vendor, and they say, “Let’s work together to build a quick start for a customer.”
Ironically, when we started this, Microsoft had an accelerator for everything but telecom, which I thought was interesting.
Now, to be fair, we didn’t choose Microsoft to try to have a better relationship with Microsoft. It happened, and it was a wonderful outcome. But we did it because there are certain things that you don’t want to have to have a software company like ETI build from scratch.
Things like security and scalability. Those things you want from a vendor that spends billions of dollars a year, not tens of thousands, but billions of dollars.
So, not only are we able to leverage things like security and scalability and usage overall, but we are able to benefit from the billions of dollars of research.
AI is one of these perfect examples. Joe, you don’t want this to be my AI. I know you think I’m smart, but you do not want it to be mine. You want hundreds of really smart people figuring it out.
What you want me to do is to telco-ize it, so it has the most impact on the market that you care about. That’s what we’ve spent over 200,000 man-hours doing, understanding what happens and what we get with Microsoft.
We don’t get it all. There’s a lot that we had to add because Microsoft doesn’t understand, nor should they, the telecom industry.
There are things that are very specific to telecom, things like service rating and bundling and the old triple play. I’m going to buy voice, video, and data from you. I want to do a promotion.
The system out of the box doesn’t know anything about that. But where they were excellent was in general customer service capability and general field service capability.
They’re really wonderful. So, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel there. We need to tailor it and telco-ize it, so it really meets the needs of our customers. That’s really what we’re doing.
Did that also shrink the timeframe? Because right now we’re at a key inflection point. You’ve got these legacy systems that unless they do something, they’re going to fall behind. Then they’re going to get run over.
Then you’ve got these greenfields that are just starting out that. Hey, listen, now’s the time. So, if you’re going to do it, do it right from the jump.
Without a doubt. I think what it did do is if we had to build everything that we are launching right now, it would’ve taken us 30 years and a lot more money to do so. Right?
We started this project in 2020. We started launching our first customers in 2022. I mean, in this world, man, that’s lightning fast.
It’s lightning fast. Depending upon whether you are a greenfield or you’re an existing operator, what they really want is they’re just tired of super disjointed systems.
Again, we’ve seen this in every other market. This is not specific to telecom, where things are a lot of cobbled together. There’s a lot of homegrown. It happens everywhere. But markets outside of telecom have made the change to say, we’re trying to go with a platform that is foundational, that is future-proof, that we can use for the next 15 years, and that it will grow with us.
They don’t want to do this again, Joe, in five years. It is a major pain in the butt, man. So, the ability to say, the customers that I talked to, the new customers that I talk to, they’re serious. They say, “Jeff, we’re making a 15-year decision to partner with ETI.”
I don’t take that lightly. That means we are going to be a family for 15 years. And at the end of the day, we need to deliver the best possible capabilities, and we want to continue to evolve. That’s the best part.
Six months ago, we didn’t have any AI. We had basic AI in the product. Now with the release of ChatGPT-4 inside of Dynamics 365, we get the benefit of that. So, now it’s our job to understand it and then to make it relevant for every part of a broadband provider’s business. If we do that, everyone’s happy.
Awesome. So these 15-year relationships are just starting, but it’s also one of those things where there are some folks that are deciding to leave the party. We joke around in terms of the giant sucking sound of all the people that are going to be stepping away from the industry in the next three, five, seven years.
Would love it if you could talk about that as well in terms of, this is not only just a nice to have. It’s turning out to be mandatory because a lot of that power is going away.
You’re absolutely right. I mean, I’m astounded. I’m really honestly scared sometimes when I talk to our own clients that are telling me that 20, 30, 50, 70% of their employees are retiring.
We already know how difficult it is to get amazing talent. That was before Covid. Now when you can have a great job and work from home… I can work for Silicon-based companies. I can work for New York-based companies, and I don’t need to live there anymore.
So, I think they’re all incredibly worried about what they’re going to do. I don’t blame them. I mean, it’s really a scary thing. So to me, it’s all about automation.
I mean, it’s the only way to be able to provide a good or better service, increasing subscriber experience. The only way to do it is through technology and automation, because what’s going to happen when you can’t replace those people that are retiring?
Are you going to deliver worse service? Are you going to have a more disjointed IT? That’s scary stuff.
So if it’s me, our customers love the fact that we offer a managed service. We do it all. It’s all cloud. It’s all hosted. They don’t have to worry about it.
So for them, it’s such a sigh of relief. They realize that these people that have been with them for 30 years know where all the bodies are buried. They know all the ins and outs, and there’s no way they’re going to replace that person.
So the only way that they can is to say, “Hey, I want to focus on getting new subscribers and having great experiences. I don’t want to be an IT company.”
You brought up greenfields. I hear it all the time. Probably it’s because greenfields are funded by private equity, and they tend to be more businesspeople.
But I hear it all the time. They’re like, “Jeff, I don’t want to be an IT company. I want to be a broadband network provider. That’s what I want my job to be. I don’t want to be in IT.”
So for them, the fact that we can offer them something that’s turnkey, that is really everything that they need to run their business, built in the cloud, built on something as foundational as Microsoft is just music to their ears.
Listen, I’ll be the first to say not everyone is going to love Microsoft. It’s okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to buy our stuff. I don’t need to convince you of that, but I will say that the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
To your point, I just read an article about cybersecurity in the federal government. Less than 4% of their employees are under the age of 30 because there’s just so much opportunity out there.
I think that, unfortunately, the broadband industry as a whole, at least my general experience is that it doesn’t do a very good job of promoting the industry itself. I think that’s definitely something that needs to change.
But in the meantime, we’re moving forward. And we’ve got to have solutions now because, in the next five years, there’s going to be $50 billion coming into the space.
Without a doubt. I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive here, and I think that we can find talent.
I sat in on a great panel talking about this exact topic. One of the stats was crazy. It was, for every five people retiring, they only have one person to replace them. I mean, that is mind-boggling, Joe. Right?
These are good jobs in great communities.
Yeah. That’s 80% of your workforce you can’t replace. That’s not 20% where you’re like, eh, maybe we’ll do some consolidation. I mean 80% of your workforce. So, I agree with you.
Listen, here’s the benefit, if you want to be getting millennials and folks that are of the younger generation, they are more technology savvy. They understand what leveraging technology means.
So you can say, “Hey, I want you to come to work for us. You have two choices. We have 30-year-old legacy systems that you’re going to have to hopefully try to figure out and good luck.”
Rub two sticks together and pray.
Exactly. Bring your bubblegum. Or “Hey, listen. We’re utilizing NextGen technology. We’re utilizing exciting things like AI and mixed reality and augmented reality and chatbots.”
So, they don’t feel like it must be a choice between old and legacy or some other job. Now we can marry the two. I think that’s the safer play.
Again, we are not saying human beings aren’t needed, and we have to do everything in an automated fashion. But automation done correctly can be a real driver to solve part of this problem.
I couldn’t agree more. Technology needs to help the end user not ultimately replace it. At the end of the day, we still need to have jobs. People need to still have a purpose.
We’re all working in the broadband field, but everyone loves to come to these conferences because then you get to interact with people. You get to solve problems and have a good laugh. You get to experience other people’s problems and their solutions.
Exactly right. I totally agree. Yeah. Yeah. It’s really not about replacing the human job. It’s just about trying to help you be better, be more efficient, and answer questions faster. If we can do that, there’s a wonderful place for AI. It really does make a difference.
So obviously you’ve been living in or swimming in the AI world for the last six months. I would love it if we could just expand the conversation a little bit more.
I saw an interesting stat on the internet. Since it’s on the internet, I’m a hundred percent sure it’s accurate. Right?
It took 75 years for a hundred million folks to have telephone service. Took 16 years for a hundred million folks to get cell phones. Obviously, we all love those brick phones from the eighties.
Love the flip. Motorola flip, baby.
Absolutely. It took 16 years for a hundred million users. Facebook, it took 4.5 years to have a hundred million users. TikTok, which I know you’re a big TikTok guy. That took nine months. Then for ChatGPT to get 100 million users, it took two months.
My question to you though is, is this sort of a seminal moment? Is there a big shift, a paradigm shift coming because of AI?
Oh yeah, man. This is a great conversation. We might need to do a different podcast on this one. But I would say, I mean it is absolutely 100% transcendent.
Your stats are great. It kind of shows the evolution of technology in general. But I think it’s a mixture of a couple of things.
I think more and more people that are living at this time are just more comfortable with technology than they ever were before. Right?
Now I will say, that stat is really astounding. I still talk to tons of people that have absolutely no idea what ChatGPT is or what general AI is.
Quick story. So Jeff and I, we’ve known each other for quite a long time. We actually play poker together.
When ChatGPT originally came out… I play with nine other knuckleheads. And when it first came out in November, I was super excited. I asked everyone at the table about it and none of them knew about it.
Then in January, I asked them the same question. A couple had heard about it. Then I asked them again last week, and all of them had except one.
Can I guess who it was? No, just kidding. No, listen, I agree. I was just on vacation with my 80-year-old mother. I was trying to explain it to her because it’s just astounding.
People still don’t yet understand the power of what it can do because it does start to cross the chasm of the salacious movies, like Matrix and Terminator, about the growth of AI and what happens when computers have self-awareness.
But I think that it really is a transcendent moment. It needs to be managed effectively, without a doubt, it does.
I think, unfortunately for all the good things that it can do, it can be used by bad actors as well. But I think there are so many amazing things that it can do.
I mean, they’re already talking about how much it can help in the medical field with curing disease.
So, I want to believe that there will be a coexistence that is really smart, that has very smart human beings understanding the right way to use technology.
Is it moving lightning-fast? Boy, it is. But hopefully, a little bit will be a novelty as well. People are going on and being like, “Write me a song about a dinosaur,” and then it will. It’s pretty freaking amazing.
I think some of that will die down a little bit. But when you look at it where the application is across the technology landscape, I mean, it’s kind of getting everywhere.
Well, it’s funny you should say that because I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal that doctors are using it as a second opinion.
The scary thing about it is that they’ve said that the AI does a better job of diagnosing the patient. But the one thing that AI doesn’t have is a bedside manner.
That’s, I think that one of the things that we must make sure that we understand is that AI is a tool just like everything else. It’s a tool on steroids and a bunch of other pharmaceuticals.
So, to your point, we need to temper what we do. But I think things are awesome.
Yeah. It’s a super exciting time. I mean, it really is.
When you and I were younger, we’d always talk about, oh, by 2025 we’re all going to be in flying cars.
I think I saw the stat that Back to the Future II when he goes way into the future, I think was 2022 or 2023. I’m like, “Where’s my hoverboard? I want that thing.”
But I do think that it may start to accelerate slightly faster than we’ve seen before when you start having transcendent technological advances like this one.
Jeff, this has been an absolutely phenomenal conversation.
I thought we were going to do a four-hour podcast. Now I’m sad.
Right? I know. Two things. You guys are doing amazing things at ETI. So, if someone wanted to find out more, where is the best place for them to look?
I’d say go to the ETI website or pick up the phone. AI hasn’t permeated its way through ETI. So, you can call us, and we can have regular conversations.
I think it’s great to have conversations about this. I know this stuff is interesting and fascinating and scary.
We’d love to talk to you about what I’m going to call the practical side of AI because I think that that’s something that we can all get our heads around.
Love it. Perfect place to end it. That’s going to wrap up this episode of The Broadband Bunch. Until next time, we’ll see you guys later.