July 13, 2021

Broadband Community Event: Mountain Connect 2021

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband BunchThe Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

In this episode, we catch up with Jeff Gavlinski, CEO of Mountain Connect.  Jeff shares the history of this community event, the upcoming agenda and themes, and his motivation for bringing the broadband community together in Colorado.  In the episode, we discuss:

  • Broadband Community Events
  • Broadband and Digital Equity and Literacy
  • Broadband Workforce Development & Supply Chain Challenges
  • Building Broadband Partnerships
  • Learn more about Mountain Connect 2021

Craig Corbin:

As we begin to see a return to in-person versions of broadband industry trade show events, one of the most eagerly awaited gatherings will take place the second week of August at the picturesque Keystone Resort and Conference Center in Colorado, Mountain Connect, with an agenda that is a fantastic collection of subject matter experts to focus on the core conference topics of intelligent infrastructure, funding, economic development, healthcare, education, emerging technologies, and policies impacting broadband. Our guest today, the CEO of Mountain Connect, Jeff Gavlinski. Jeff, welcome back to The Broadband Bunch.

Jeff Gavlinski:

Thank you, Craig. It’s always a pleasure to be on this podcast. I’m an avid follower and I just wanted to thank you and the rest of The Broadband Bunch team for inviting me on today.

Craig Corbin:

It is so much fun to visit with you anytime, but especially with regard to an event that most would agree is one of the highlights of the calendar. And of course, this is an unusual time in that you haven’t been able to maintain the in-person for the 2020 version of Mountain Connect, but it is back to a greater sense of normalcy with the 2021 version. I for one I’m happy, and a lot of others are, and I’m sure that you are so anxious for the event to get underway. Talk about what it’s been like becoming geared back up to an in-person Mountain Connect.

Jeff Gavlinski:

Well, when we convene in Keystone, it’ll be more than two years since we last met in person. So, I’m very much looking forward to seeing people face to face again. And I think a lot of people are very eager to get out and meet people face to face and network. I know I attempted to do a hybrid event this year, but they’re really just was no interest in the virtual side of it. So I think that’s an indicator that people are anxious to reconvene in person. Some people may not know this, but I think actually it was more work to put on the virtual event than it was to put on an in-person event. So I’m looking forward to this year.

Broadband Community Events

Craig Corbin:

Take us back a little bit on the evolution of Mountain Connect from its early days to what we will see in just a couple of weeks.

Jeff Gavlinski:

If you go back 11 years, the conference was first formed around the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program grant that was awarded to the state of Colorado. And that BTOP grant was awarded to connect all of our school districts throughout the state with fiber. But this particular conference was focused solely on the Western Slope. So we had a pretty narrow audience. And the gentleman who started Mountain Connect actually is coming back to Mountain Connect this year. One year I went to him because I ran the local technology planning team down on the southwest part of the state.

“We could expand content. We could expand the audience.” And he said, “Well, listen, if you want to expand all these things, then you take it over.” And he handed it to me, and so myself and my partner at the time. And we expanded it to the entire state very first year, which was, I think 2013 or ’14, and then slowly but surely, as content would probably help dictate, we expanded throughout the entire country. In fact, we have some folks, this won’t happen this year, because I think Australia is still in lockdown, but we’ve had people as far away as Australia and Israel attend. But primarily we’re focused on the Western half of the US in terms of our audience.

10 years ago, there were 94 people who were attending basically a one-day seminar construct event. And today it’s a multi-day event with a lot of diverse content.

Craig Corbin:

You have done such a phenomenal job with attracting a variety of speakers and presenters over the years. This year, certainly no exception when you look at the agenda, and they’re really intrigued with a number of items that are on it, in particular one, the women in telecom. Talk about that if you would.

Jeff Gavlinski:

I think in the industry when you look at speaker lineups, there are not enough diverse voices. And what I’m trying to do is add some diversity to my speaker lineup. There are plenty of subject matter experts and executives, and we need to provide a platform for their voice or be inclusive of their voice as well. So that’s what I’m trying to do there.

Craig Corbin:

Absolutely. And that’s something that of course a big shout out to your moderator for that discussion, Lori Sherwood, with Render Networks. We know the folks at Render very well and Lori will do a phenomenal job. And I know that there is so much to talk about when you look at having a discussion around barriers that are in this industry, just as exist elsewhere, and how to be able to affect a positive change and removal of bias in any way, shape, or form. And so anxious to see how that is attended.

The one nice thing, Jeff, about your itinerary, is that there is something for everyone. And of course, right out of the gates, no better way to start things then with basics, the 101 of the broadband industry. And so that’s something that I know is a part of the agenda that people count on, this year no exception.

Jeff Gavlinski:

It’s becoming a longstanding tradition to have activities on our pre-conference day. So the broadband 101 session, I think this is the fifth or sixth year that we’ve had it.

So every year obviously the agenda changes, but it’s really meant for our continuing education for elected officials. As you know, elected officials come and they go through voting cycles, so it’s important to maintain a cadence with education. And so this, as you mentioned and thank you for that, it’s been a fairly popular session. And I think the one that follows that this year will be important as well, given the infrastructure bill out of the federal government, and that’s our yearly state of the state sort of session that we have for the welcome reception.

This year we have a new Executive Director of our Broadband Office, and I’m also going to include, recently the Governor created an Office of Digital Equity and Inclusion, or subcommittee, excuse me, out of the Department of Labor. I actually serve the subcommittee. So, because it’s a new initiative, and because Colorado is trying to address digital equity issues and inclusion, they’re going to take part in that session as well. So it should be a content-rich session to sort of the start of our conference. So I’m really excited about both sessions.

Broadband and Digital Equity and Literacy

Craig Corbin:

I’m so glad that you brought that up because digital literacy and inclusion is such a big part of the equation that not a lot of folks will be willing to admit, but we talk ad nauseum about connectivity and bridging the digital divide. And obviously that’s a huge part of the conversation, but digital literacy is just as important once you have access to connectivity. And so glad that that will be a part of day number one there at Mountain Connect. Walk us through day number two on, this will be August the 10th. I know that things will get started with some remarks early in the morning, the opening keynote and anxious to see what the day will bring for day number two at Mountain Connect.

Jeff Gavlinski:

There’s a lot that happened during the pandemic. And just to go back to the digital equity and inclusion comment, I think you can really highlight an example of why this is a very important topic. If you go back for four or so years ago when Google announced they were going to build fiber to the home in Austin, Texas, like one of the first outcomes of that announcement was that it forced Time Warner at the time to upgrade their infrastructure. So wasn’t it interesting then, that if you think about it, you’ve got both Time Warner and Google, so it wasn’t it interesting during the pandemic that the main school district in the city of Austin had to roll out their unused buses as Wi-Fi hotspots so that children could continue their education?

So it’s an issue that I think impacts, and we have to recognize this as an industry, it’s not just rural parts of the country that are impacted by this. There are pockets in big cities where great fiber infrastructure, cable infrastructure, goes around, goes through, but the local providers were not providing services there or they’re underserving those communities because of demographics. And the long-term impact of ignoring those folks was quite profound. Until we provide a level playing field for everyone to compete in the global economy, we’re going to always have these types of issues.

Craig Corbin:

Absolutely. And that’s something we talk about from the standpoint of life-changing situations, when you talk about finally having the access, both individually and collectively for communities. And so glad that that is a primary focus of what you’re doing there at Mountain Connect. This is The Broadband Bunch. A huge thanks to our presenting sponsors, UTOPIA Fiber, building a more connected nation, DxTEL, creators of the Harper Broadband Marketing Library, and of course, ETI Software Solutions, your zero-touch automation experts. Our guest today, Jeff Gavlinski, CEO of Mountain Connect and just talking about the event coming up here second week in August at the Keystone Resort and Conference Center.

Broadband Workforce Development & Supply Chain Challenges

Craig Corbin:

One item on the agenda for day two that I think is extremely timely, Jeff, and that is the challenges of supply chain and fiber technician availability. I’ve talked to a lot of guys, and there’s a growing concern that with respect to fiber techs, we are really approaching a danger zone with regard to having enough manpower to handle what’s coming down the pike. Your thoughts.

Jeff Gavlinski:

Well, it’s part of the foundation of the conference this year, and what I want people to take away from it. So to my opening remarks of the conference, I think I’m going to highlight that. And I think to that end, if you look at the diversity of broadband projects that are being either built today, planned tomorrow, and certainly planned over the course of the next three to seven years, again, I’ll point back to the infrastructure bill that’s coming. A lot of those funding programs have built windows and if we have a shortage of qualified fiber technicians, for example, how do we meet those requirements?

But I think longer term, the other issue that needs to be discussed is what do we do over the next decade, five to 10 years, we’re going to have a lot of subject matter expertise retiring out of this industry, and who is going to replace them?

Who is going to manage, monitor networks? Who’s going to be monitoring cybersecurity concerns that certainly we’re going to have? And so on and so on. So it’s a very difficult challenge, I think, for the country as a whole, and certainly for the industry. I don’t have all the answers, but I do think it’s important to discuss.

Building Broadband Partnerships

Craig Corbin:

Without question. Raise the level of knowledge for everyone, make it top of the mind awareness. So many other things on the agenda, Jeff, that I know folks are going to want to be able to take part in, the five broadband partners your municipality needs and how to find them, obviously extremely important. What it means to be a gigabit society. That is one that I think is of tremendous interest. And then, again, one that falls into the category of we know that it could be an issue, but we don’t want to think about it so we’ll play like an ostrich and put our head in the sand, and how resilience to climate change re-frames your value proposition. That’s something that is an issue for everyone, regardless of where you’re located across the country. And you have a phenomenal keynote speaker in that particular item. Talk about that.

Jeff Gavlinski:

Well, I’ll go back to last fall. I moved from Durango up to Fort Collins, and I can remember in the September, October, timeframe getting calls from folks who were looking for help to set up temporary networks just west of where I live because of the fires we had out here. And so, it’s not just connectivity for the folks who may be living near the fire, or in the periphery of where the fire was, but certainly the 911 network because the existing infrastructure was being destroyed. This is certainly could be applicable to earthquakes, could be applicable to hurricanes, flooding, et cetera. So what do you do? And are a lot of ISPs actually thinking about network disaster and backup recovery options, because a lot of this stuff could happen just about anywhere. And I didn’t throw in tornadoes. I forgot tornadoes, but we can’t discount the impact of a tornado.

Wiping out a city. I think if you look across, my agenda is not complete because I’m still, I think one of the things you go through as a facilitator of a conference is it ages you as you get close to the event because your speakers’ kind of hold you hostage, right?  It’s typically the last thing that gets done, much to the chagrin of the attendees.  But if you look at my agenda this year, I think what I’m going to focus on is the fact that we have a lot of great things that are happening in the industry. And we have an opportunity for future greatness if we execute and do the right thing, especially with the infrastructure bill that’s coming. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing.

The question is, do we do the right thing, or do we repeat our own history? And I think if we repeat our own history we’re in for some challenges, because the other things on my agenda that we’re going to focus on are, for example, the impact of emerging technology applications. If you think about extended realities, immersive teleconferencing, home healthcare diagnostic, technology innovation, 8K and beyond cloud gaming, 8K and beyond video content streaming, all those applications used in the aggregate are going to profoundly change the way we define broadband, and certainly, the way we design, build and deliver broadband services going forward. And I don’t think a lot of people are thinking about this.

As an example, I think it’s important for people to stop using one-off applications in terms of a requirement for broadband speed. So it doesn’t necessarily matter how much a 4K video on Netflix, how much bandwidth that consumes, because if we learned anything during the pandemic was people were doing multiple things in aggregate in their home. But I think it’s going to be like this was put on steroids going forward because if you think about somebody in your home using extended realities, extended reality application, sorry.

At the same time, someone is gaming, using their controller, an 8K cloud gaming application. You’ve got perhaps some healthcare diagnostics. Someone is on a conference call. Someone’s watching a movie. All of these things are possible in the home in terms of when they’re being used, and they all could be used at the same time. So if I believe the research that’s been done in this area, now we’re talking about potentially a 700 MEG symmetrical connection that’s supported by low latency and edge computing. So when you think about it from that perspective, the conversations we’re having today, and the broadband definition that we have in place today at the federal level is underwhelmed and insufficient.

We need to change the dialogue in terms of how we define broadband as well because it’s not what we got to get out of this is what we’re doing today. We must start thinking about what we’re doing in the near term and long-term future. And one of the other things I haven’t even brought up yet is robotics. Now, that’s further out as a consumer application, but when you start adding in cloud-based robotics, now you’re talking about multiple gigabit connections required to support just that application alone.

Craig Corbin:

Well, I so appreciate the fact that you are such a strong voice in the wilderness, if you will, for what you just mentioned. And a term that you used I thought was so appropriate, that we have the opportunity for future greatness. And I could not agree more that this is the opportunity, that we have right now. We’ve got to get it right. And we’ve got to spend those monies, the funding, in all its various forms, we’ve got to spend it wisely, because we may not ever have a chance to get it right again to this degree. And I think that is part of why events like Mountain Connect are so important because you are providing a venue to gather people in one place and be able to allow the subject matter experts to expound on so many different topics that will benefit so many different people across the country, across the world.

We can’t thank you enough for the dedication you’ve given to this concept because it truly is making a difference. And it’s really been a pleasure, Jeff, to watch the event grow over the years under your leadership and guidance. And I know that from a personal standpoint, you take great pride in, and well should, in how it has evolved over the years. As we begin to wind down this preview conversation of the event, your thoughts about what Mountain Connect is positioned to accomplish, not only this year but in moving forward?

Jeff Gavlinski:

Well, one thing I’d like to say is sometimes I question my own sanity trying to balance putting together an event. I mean, truly if we’re not adding value to the folks that actually need the help, and, listen, if we’re being honest, larger cities, NFL cities, if you want to use that term, don’t need my help. Now there are lessons that we can take away from some of the things that they’ve done, but they’re always going to get the help they need because of what they represent. It’s the other folks who need help. It’s tier two and below municipalities, counties, ISP’s, WISPs, those folks need the help.

Jeff Gavlinski:

So our first priority should be finding content that’s relevant today, but I really believe that’s relevant looking forward, and you probably haven’t paid attention to this, but behind my madness, there is a strategy. So I think this year, for example, some of the things that you and I have touched on here will become staple topics and content going forward, because we’re shifting. So I was doing some reflecting. I think if you go back to 2015, 2014, it’s interesting to see what happened to the wireless discussion, for example.

There was a time where that was a principal priority, simply because we were still struggling with copper networks, for example. And then it kind of disappeared a little bit and it has come back again. And I think that’s important to the industry because, in my mind, people often ask me why do I give a platform to wireless technologies? Well, in my mind, they’re relevant until they’re not. And I do think they serve a great purpose. And I think we’re foolish if we ignore what they’re trying to do, as well as where the technology innovation is going there.

Craig Corbin:

I would be remiss if I did not mention that one of the highlights of day number one, the conference welcome reception, will have some phenomenal musical accompaniments in the form of the Elements Jazz Quartet. I have it on good authority, Jeff, that there is an extremely talented pianist as a part of that quartet that you might know a little about.

Jeff Gavlinski:

Yeah, well, she happens to owe me a lot of money, the person you’re talking about. Actually, I appreciate you doing that. You didn’t have to do that, but the group, the jazz quartet is called The Elements, it’s named after my daughter who just finished her first year of college. She is obviously a jazz pianist. And she’s a very gifted jazz pianist, so much so that she’s played with the Marsalis family and some other Grammy award-winning and nominated jazz artists.

But she certainly doesn’t get it from her father. Her mother and I often scratch our heads and say, “Where did this come from?” But anyway, I’m very proud of her and her jazz quartet agreed to play, so.

Craig Corbin:

That’s fantastic.

Jeff Gavlinski:

I thought it would be a nice accent to the welcome reception this year.

Craig Corbin:

Absolutely.

Jeff Gavlinski:

This will be, weather permitting, because it is monsoon season here in Colorado, weather permitting it will be outside under the very large gazebo down by the lake.

More about Mountain Connect 2021

Craig Corbin:

Nice. And that is such a phenomenal backdrop visually. Can’t wait for that. Just a way to get things started for Mountain Connect 2021. For those who would like more information, I am assuming that one of the places they can start would be mountainconnect.org. Beyond that, any information on how to get more info?

Jeff Gavlinski:

Yeah, please. I’m here to help us. So there are two ways that you can connect with me. You could send an email to info@mountainconnect.org, or you can certainly email me directly at jeff@mountainconnect.org. I’m happy to help in any way I can. And we’re happy to, the other thing that’s really important is creating great customer touchpoints at the event.

And making sure that everyone, their experience is worthwhile. So anything that we can do at the event as well, we’re here to help.

Craig Corbin:

That is fantastic. Jeff, I can’t thank you enough for what you do, how you do it, and for making Mountain Connect such an invaluable part of the industry for so many different organizations. It is always great to visit with you. Wish you the absolute best with this year’s edition of Mountain Connect. And can’t wait to see you in person and looking forward to it. Thanks so much for spending some time with us today.

Jeff Gavlinski:

My pleasure. Thank you, as always, I really appreciate the support of The Broadband Bunch, as well as ETI. It’s great partners like you that make this worthwhile.

Craig Corbin:

Absolutely. And thank you for that. And that’s going to wrap up this visit. Our thanks again to the sponsors, UTOPIA Fiber, DxTEL, and ETI Software Solutions. On behalf of Jeff, I’m Craig, thanks for letting us be a part of your day. We’ll see you next time right here on The Broadband Bunch. So long, everyone.