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April 25, 2022

Broadband Infrastructure: How SIP Is Driving The Future Of Broadband Technology?

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.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Hello, and welcome you to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. My name is Pete Pizzutillo and I am joined today by David Gilford. David, thanks for joining us today.

David Gilford:

Thanks, Pete. It’s a real pleasure to be on the show.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, I’m excited to dig into a little bit about your past since you have a really interesting background, as well as who the Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners are, and where you’re leading the policy and strategic partnerships. And you have a really interesting background, you’ve been in these private-public sector areas for infrastructure for some time, and did some work with HR&A Advisors. You co-founded two different organizations, Broadband Equity Partnerships, and Connected Communities, and have some experience working with the city of New York. So thank you for joining the show. Hopefully, I didn’t instill too much of your thunder, but just to give a little bit more context about those different roles that you had and really what’s driven you to help infrastructure in America would be great for our listeners to hear.

David Gilford:

Great. Well, thanks for that introduction, Pete. My journey into broadband really starts before broadband actually existed despite being a card-carrying member of Gen X, I was lucky to have access to computer networks from a pretty early age, first on dial-up bulletin board systems, then CompuServe, and systems like that. But when I did finally get access to the internet in college, I was really struck by the kind of opportunities that it created for people regardless of location. Started working on it first as an economics major, thinking about the increases in connectivity in developing countries, and what that would mean from an economic competitiveness perspective, but then really throughout my career, despite not being a technologist by training, found myself drawn to thinking about the ways that innovation is sort of the “digital world” could have real-world impact.

David Gilford:

And that drew me both to, as you noted public sector opportunities, as well as private sector opportunities and really with kind of the connecting thread being this recognition that the fundamental infrastructure, whether it’s, we’re talking about energy or broadband or transportation, that connects people to each other and to opportunities, is something that needs to grow despite the challenges that deploying infrastructure and moving atoms can really cause. So, I was just thinking about the difference between how easy innovation is relatively speaking in software, as opposed to how long it takes to get things done in the built environment.

Broadband Infrastructure mission and origins of SIP (Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners)

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, it’s really interesting, we talk about broadband as kind of the next utility, but I think infrastructure, the fabric, the foundation of a lot. And that’s something that we like to feature on the show is all the potential ways that broadband touches communities, such as people innovation. You’re currently working with Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners or SIP, and it’s a pretty interesting organization. It’s a lot of different facets. Maybe you can just help us understand what the mission is currently and kind of the origins of the organization.

David Gilford:

Sure. So SIP as we call it is a pretty unique organization in that we’re structured as a holding company focused on the future of infrastructure. And what that means is that we think across all the different verticals that make up infrastructure, from energy systems to digital infrastructure, to transportation and waste and things like that, and think about how technological innovations are potentially coinciding with the needs of cities and policymakers, to identify where technology can make radical improvements to infrastructure, particularly focused on how to make things more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

David Gilford:

And so what we do is a mixture of what you could think of as more technology investing type work. So actually funding the development of new technology or acquiring technologies, but also project development, looking for opportunities to do real flagship projects at scale, that can take innovation out of the laboratory and really show the impact when it gets into an infrastructure system that can be in partnership with a state or city government. It could also be something that is done with the private sector, but in every case, it’s really about taking innovation and combining it with some capital and a business model and deploying it in a way that can be an improvement over the status quo.

Broadband Infrastructure is not about being shovel-ready but being connectivity ready.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, it’s a really interesting mission, and I think about a lot of the infrastructure projects going back, shovel ready is the term that a lot of the industry uses. Right? And I think connectivity ready is probably kind of the next evolution of that whole piece because I think our idea of infrastructure has been so grounded in just kind of the civil engineering roads and construction pieces of it and adding the technological… It’s hand in hand, right? I think that’s part of what I think we’ve all kind of understood, but not really recognized and planned for. Does that make sense?

David Gilford:

Yeah, that does. And thinking back, SIP as an organization was founded in 2019 as a spin-out, and really at the time, this approach wasn’t yet proven, but with this belief that technology could fundamentally transform infrastructure. I think it went hand in hand with an expansive definition of infrastructure and that’s something that has really manifested itself through things like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which take a much broader definition of infrastructure than people often did in the past. And so that means, I think, so kind of the natural segue to broadband is that quite separate from any debates over whether broadband, should legally be a utility or not, it has truly become something that is critical to everything from medicine to education.

David Gilford:

And so thinking about what does that mean, given that criticality, how should a city government, for example, be thinking about connectivity, it’s both become more central, but also there are new tools at the disposals of say, municipal leaders through this coincidence of the availability of federal funding, as well as new forms of technology. So I’ll have to go a little bit deeper in that, into this conversation of just thinking about what does it mean that now you have the innovation of broadband connectivity itself that has been happening, combined with now more of a political will and some meaningful dollars being committed at the federal level.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That’s a billion-dollar question, right? You guys are involved in a lot of different things, initiatives, and a lot of educational summits that you guys provide to try to foster this conversation, logistics systems, or looking at the logistic ecosystem, excuse me. One of the topics I want to dig into was around Community Wireless Coalition. There’s kind of a thought paper that you guys have put out there. Some interesting ideas, one of which is talking about reimagining urban broadband deployments, can you just kind of frame that up and what that’s all about?

David Gilford:

Yeah. And the work with the Community Wireless Coalition, I think is sort of an interesting case study because it cuts across the sort of traditional types of silos. And this work actually dates back to work that I was doing with the Broadband Equity Partnership prior to joining SIP, but in collaboration with a number of other organizations including SIP, and what this really was in response to is sort of both the centrality of the need for better connectivity to serve community residents, along with the sort of relative lack of success of the status quo in closing persistent digital divides even in the most urban environments, including New York City, where I am.

David Gilford:

And to some extent, the civic leaders who hear complaints from their constituents about either the cost of broadband service or the lack of reliability, which certainly became a central factor during the first wave of COVID-19, kind of belies the fact that typically a municipal leader has had very little ability to shape the deployment of broadband within their community. There are franchise agreements, there are incumbents, and there are a number of mechanisms through which broadband is deployed, but in very few of those does a civic leader, let alone a community leader have much of an ability to shape where deployments happen, what services are provided and so forth.

David Gilford:

And rather than being locked into a debate about municipal ISPs versus private sector ISPs, we saw an opportunity to really think about what does a community wireless network look like? What are its objectives and how might a partnership between the public and private sector be able to develop a more locally tailored solution. And our thesis in the Community Wireless Coalition is in part that the assets that a community controls, whether we’re talking about light poles or building rooftops and so forth, can be harnessed to provide a base level of wireless infrastructure that can be shared.

David Gilford:

And really, if you think about the developments in open access fiber networks and how that has led to some vibrant competitive markets in a number of jurisdictions, what might be the equivalent for the wireless world, where you have not just shared towers, but on a small cell basis, shared infrastructure that includes virtualized radios, whether it brings your own spectrum or a shared spectrum, the ability to share not only physical space but also fiber, also power and even the radios themselves. So the Community Wireless Coalition published a white paper in early 2021 that outlined a bit of this thesis. And it’s something that I’ve continued to be very engaged with today.

Can the digital gap be tackled better with better broadband infrastructure driven through public-private partnerships?

Pete Pizzutillo:

So yeah, there’s a lot in there. So two aspects that I would love to dig into are, that there’s a lot of hesitancy concern, and anxiety, if you will, around civic leaders to lead this broadband digital gap closing, there’s just a lot of pressure on folks that have to step into areas that they’re not necessarily trained for, but they understand the need for, so that’s one. So how are we helping there? The other is in that model, just like in an open-access network model in the fiber space, the ecosystem is key, right? To have a kind of shared assets and collaboration among entities, you need to bring the private folks along as well. So can you talk about those two aspects? Civic leaders, how are you helping them kind of A, understand the issues, the importance, and then gain the courage or confidence to move in that direction? And B, how do you see the private side of this equation playing out?

David Gilford:

Yeah, I think one thing that’s common across both of those questions is just the need for more trust and understanding about both what is technically feasible as well as what makes sense from a business model perspective and what are people’s incentives in doing this. On the civic side of things, one city versus in compared to another, or a county versus a rural area, there are tremendous variabilities in local capacity on the governmental side. And so understanding where you’re coming from, I think is critical there and setting the appropriate expectations in terms of what really can be within the civic leader’s control or sort of sphere of influence as opposed to something where they have to take a little bit more of a backseat.

David Gilford:

I think that one of the possible good outcomes of this federal infrastructure funding is the ability to build more capacity at the local level that may be in partnership with philanthropies. For example, some of my former colleagues have launched the National Broadband Resource Hub with support from a number of national philanthropies to provide two civic leaders, templates of successful RFPs, public-private partnerships, example studies, scopes of work, and things like that. Because even though every town or every city has differences, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel in each jurisdiction. And so being able to share lessons learned and best practices, I think can enable people to feel more confident in taking that more active role.

David Gilford:

On the private sector side of things, I think there’s a bit of a phased approach that’s needed. I think looking at what has been done in other countries, including in Europe and in places like New Zealand, where carriers have a history of sharing infrastructure. I think that there are some lessons to be learned from that, but I think there’s a bit of incrementalism that needs to happen here. So that even if you were to have a new project launch tomorrow, having some anchor tenants or anchor carriers is important, I think a mix of having a public sector use case. So whether it’s a school district is trying to provide connectivity or a municipality’s trying to provide better IOT coverage for whatever smart city use cases they’re developing, combining that with a forward-thinking ISP whether it’s a national or a local entrant, I think is kind of a way to prove that these works prove the security, the stability, and all of that, because the system as we have in the United States, of course, was built over decades if not longer. And so rather than attempting to change things overnight, I think there’s really a need and an opportunity to take these new technologies, test them at a meaningful scale and learn and develop and sort of build the ecosystem as we go.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, I think you’re right. I think an evolutionary approach is inevitable. Do you see any language in some of the federal bills out there that are encouraging, the kind of partnerships so that we bring people to the table? Because I think Goodwill will happen. There are some disruptors in the marketplace on the private sector side, which, I think would be more likely to make these partnerships more possible, but it’s, there are still some major players that I think if we can figure out how to get them to the table and more collaboratively, you start moving the needle more significantly.

David Gilford:

Yeah. So the language that was contained in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or the IIJA certainly welcomed public-private partnerships and explicitly referenced that they’re an eligible use of funds, which I think is certainly a start. I think of the challenges of implementation of federal infrastructure spending more broadly is the degree to which the United States is pretty decentralized. So the fact that money often gets transferred to a state and then the state has its own policies and programs for deploying it down to the municipal level. And certain states have different restrictions on municipal broadband end and things like that, means that we’re not going to see a one-size-fits-all approach, but that’s probably just as well it means that some places are probably going to take more of an innovative approach and prove what can work and what is possible.

Identifying the broadband infrastructure needs of different communities is the key to being successful in handling the digital divide

David Gilford:

A number of states of course have set up broadband offices over the past decade. And so some of those that have already done a bunch of work to identify the different needs of different communities and to begin that sort of outreach, including with the private sector, I think are well-positioned now to take advantage of some of this funding as it comes along.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. So let’s help some of our listeners kind of self-identify. So what’s the sweet spot in the motions and movement that you guys have had so far, what do you see are great characteristics of areas where this model can be most successful or at least start being successful?

David Gilford:

Yeah, I think midsize cities generally say maybe in the 100,000 to 500,000 population range, I think are in a pretty sweet spot for being early adopters of some of this type of approach, both because they have the scale, that means that there is a market demand from national carriers to provide 5G service, for example, but they also tend to not be as complex of entities as a place like New York or Chicago, or some of the largest cities. I think though, that thinking in a regional approach, as opposed to a one-off city by city approach is really important, though, whether we’re thinking about how a number of municipalities in through a county mechanism or through a nonprofit sort of smart regional alliance, how they can come together to find a solution.

David Gilford:

I think that is also something that’s quite promising because really it is a matter of finding the kind of combination of market demand and assets that are within a city or jurisdictions control, that is critical. And just to make it clear in terms of what are the assets that cities do control today, that could bring a lot of value to these public-private partnerships and for which they should be compensated include, of course, things like polls and rooftops, but also includes municipal fiber networks, even if they currently exist, primarily for say, connecting city buildings to one another, thinking about how to use those as ways to provide value to a public-private partnership that in turn can serve both commercial and local governmental and non-profit interests.

David Gilford:

I think cities that have both built assets over the past decades, but that also have a real understanding of what exists and what doesn’t is certainly important. I’ve certainly seen a number of cities where there’s a disconnect between what actually exists and what has been mapped and what is easily accessible. So I think it’s a microcosm of the challenge that we have as a country where the data, it’s the federal level about where broadband and exists and where there’s fiber and performance and all that doesn’t quite match the neat numbers that can show up when you sort of Google it and look at an FCC database, the difference between that, and what’s actually happening on the ground can, of course, be stark.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. It’s a whole nother conversation there. So you talked about investment. I see SIP has made some investment in Dense Air, what’s the motivation for that. And how do you see that fitting into some of the issues that you’ve outlined already?

David Gilford:

Yeah. So we’re excited about Dense Air for a number of reasons. One is that they’ve been a leading provider and developer of shared neutral host wireless networks. So essentially, as we were talking about earlier, the concept of an open-access fiber type model on the wireless side of things, they’ve developed technology that enables the shared use of a single architecturally consistent wireless infrastructure across a number of users. And they’ve proven that through projects operating in Europe, for example. And so we’re excited to combine that with SIPs focus on the digital divide and really on being a partner to the public sector, to combine not just the technology that exists, but also a business model that takes a long term approach to think over the course of a decade or more, how a network can be operated and run sustainably. So it’s not to require ongoing financial support from say the federal government.

David Gilford:

I think one lesson from the first generation of wireless networks that cities deployed, particularly wifi networks, is that it’s one thing to build a network and to get people to use it. But over the course of saying the next five to 10 years, an approach to maintaining and upgrading it has often been challenging for cities because that requires ongoing financial contributions that may not be covered by whatever the initial funding source was that made the project possible in the first place.

Pete Pizzutillo:

And I think you put your finger right on it, right? That’s something that we talk a lot about, not to be pejorative, but who’s the adult supervising all this money and planning that’s going on. People get concerned about overbuilding, but I’m more concerned about what you just described in of affordability, and sustainability, right? And so in lieu of having a federal voice or body, that’s kind of helping folks calm down and figure out how to make the most sustainable path forward, where everybody achieves their goal, having a private body that can have pockets of influence because obviously, you can’t do this federally nationwide. I think it’s really a great need that we all don’t know that we need yet. Maybe in a couple of years when we are asking the same questions, like where’s the next round of funding to keep these systems that we’ve deployed in a hurry, running.

Bringing awareness to the importance of broadband infrastructure and making use of public, and private funding effectively.

Pete Pizzutillo:

And that’s one of my fears, right? But what keeps you up at night? So there is a big awareness, there’s a ton of money coming, both from the private side, the public side, are we going to be able to close this gap? And if not, why, and then we could talk about how we can get ahead of that.

David Gilford:

I think we absolutely have the ability to close the gap, but there are some significant risks and challenges ahead. And the fact that we’re measuring federal support now in tens of billions of dollars, if not a 100 billion-plus is a real cause for optimism. But that said, this is not an opportunity that’s going to come around multiple times in the near future. So my biggest fear at the moment is that the allocation of funding ends up building networks that either is unsustainable or that don’t meet the needs of the users. And I don’t think that a focus on what technology is best is the right approach because there are always people that are going to argue for one particular technology over another, the same I think goes with overbuilding.

David Gilford:

Really, it’s a matter of making sure that the people who don’t have internet access that meets kind of the basic standards of today, that they get that access. And that it may be wireless in some cases, it may be the fiber in others, but that really recognizing that sort of the final link, we like to talk a lot about the last mile in this industry. I think there’s another last-mile challenge here that we don’t talk about as much, which is about actually getting people to sign up and use the service that requires real on the ground, local partnerships with digital equity organizations, with others, to understand why is it that in a city like New York still close to a third of people don’t have broadband access at home, even though in most cases, technically it is available.

David Gilford:

Is it affordability? Is it education? Is it a lack of devices? In my view, it’s a mixture of all of those things with sort of different things, being the deciding factor in different neighborhoods and making sure that as we deploy infrastructure, we are not losing sight of that piece of it, I think is critical. And that’s both in terms of deciding what places are worthy of new infrastructure investment, but also making sure that as connectivity is built out, there’s both the funding and the local knowledge that is needed to make sure that people actually are able to take full advantage of that service.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. It’s in digital equity and getting folks educated on how, what, that’s going to be massive. I don’t know how you do that at scale, especially when people are disconnected, but it’s a good point. So you’ve been involved in a lot of areas of this problem, set on the policy side, and on the municipality side, on the investment side, you had an interesting journey along the way, and this is our back in time question, right? So you go back early, you starting your career what insight or suggestions would you give yourself knowing what you know today?

David Gilford:

Well, first and foremost, I think I’d just reassure myself that some of the things that I struggled with at the time were, is this the right time to be in the public sector? Is this the right time to be in the private sector? That not to worry as much about those that the… I feel very lucky to have had the career that I’ve had to date. So there’s not a piece that I’d go over and say, “Oh, I actually I should have gone to this company instead of that company.”

David Gilford:

But really, maybe thinking about the education side of things, I was a liberal arts major, and I always had an appreciation for technology. It might have been interesting to go a little bit more in-depth into whether it’s a computer science or engineering side, a class or two, I don’t think it would’ve changed students’ things dramatically, but really just to have felt that freedom to continue to exploring I think from a just truly practical perspective, I think if I’d realized a little bit more about the financial implications of watching the growth of connectivity, I probably could have made a lot more money if, for example, I was a very early user of like eBay and Google and Amazon and stuff like that in the ’90s, but I didn’t ever buy stock or anything in that.

David Gilford:

I was just really focused on thinking about what it can do and enjoying using those services and helping others, helping my family get connected, and things like that. But it is interesting to think hypothetically around what that means and how to kind of translate that into everything you see today with Web3 and Blockchain and all the kind of hype around various new technologies and kind the often a sort of disconnect between the sort of wealth creation of some of these new types of technology and the application of it for solving real problems.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, no, good advice. I’m glad it was honest advice too, right? Invest in Yahoo, right? Yeah. And in Google and everybody else. Yeah. No, I agree, I think going back and realizing that it’s not just kind of an innovation or technology that it’s going to be a platform, right? That is what you guys are all describing. I think that’s really critical. And I think the majority United States still hasn’t gotten that message yet. Right? So this should be interesting.

David Gilford:

And I think that thinking about infrastructure as a platform is probably a good framing generally too because so many of the technologies that have come to dominate our lives are built on pretty ancient platforms. Right? If you think about even Uber wouldn’t be possible without the smartphone, or without GPS, but it also wouldn’t be possible without sort of the roads and the street grid and all the innovations that came before. And these things can be both positive and negative, but it does mean that as we’re planning where broadband is going, for example, or what is kind of “sufficient” level of access or speed that it does set the parameters for a whole range of other businesses and other use cases that they’ll ultimately run on top of that technology. We saw that kind of with the dot-com bubble and companies like Global Crossing, putting fiber all over the world, even though people didn’t really know what to do with it yet. And then those companies didn’t make it in many cases, but they laid the groundwork for incredible decades of innovation to come after that.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. Amazon, Jeff Bezos wouldn’t be a trillionaire without the roads. Right.

David Gilford:

Exactly.

Pete Pizzutillo:

How many trucks do you see out there? You’re right. And I think that’s what I love about the effort that you guys are putting together is really just pulling it into the infrastructure conversation. So it’s part and parcel of the conversation, not an afterthought or an extension of it. So thank you for sharing all that and everything that you’re doing. I’m looking forward to kind of revisiting some of the progress that you guys make over the next year. How do our listeners learn more about Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners?

David Gilford:

Well, I’d recommend first starting with our website, which is sidewalkinfr.com. We publish a monthly newsletter and there’s a link to sign up for that at the bottom of our news and insights page, which also has a bunch of information on some of our work. And then suggest certainly following us on LinkedIn and Twitter and things like that, as well as I’m personally easy to find on either of those and try to share a bit of my thinking as much as possible.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. We’ll include the links to that. And you’re also speaking at a couple of places as well, so keep spreading the word and hopefully, we can add to that momentum. And thank you for joining us, really enjoyed unpacking everything that you guys have been doing, and best of luck helping close that divide.

David Gilford:

Thanks too. I really appreciate the opportunity and I just want to thank you also for publishing the Broadband Bunch, because it’s been a great personal source of information and conversations over the years as well and grateful for this opportunity to appear on the show.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Aw, thanks. I appreciate that. Hopefully, I have you back. Thanks, David.

David Gilford:

All right. Thanks, Pete.