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June 28, 2022

Broadband Mapping is Creating a Foundation for Simplifying Complex Networks

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

Pete:

Welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. We’re here live at The Broadband Community Summit 2022, in the Harrison Edwards Studio. I’m joined today by two folks from VETRO FiberMap, Will Mitchell, the CEO. Will, welcome. Thanks for joining us. Are you guys enjoying the show?

Brian:

It’s been great so far.

Will:

Yeah, a lot of energy. A lot of people here, a lot of excitement in the air.

The need for better Broadband Mapping

Pete:

Yeah, I agree. I think there’s been a lot of great conversations, great turnout, and a great mix of policy, issues, and practitioner stuff. There are playbooks being rolled out. There’s some really interesting stuff. The things that I wanted to talk to you guys about are some of the higher-level funding conversations talked about the gap in understanding where there are underserved areas in communities. There are a lot of conversations around mapping and understanding the different data sources that are out there. And I know you guys are dealing with some of your clients to help solve that problem and we’ll get into that. But from your perspective Will, what do you see as some of the bigger problems that your customers are asking you to help them solve around understanding where the underserved areas and the areas of opportunity for growth?

Will:

Yeah, it’s a good question, Pete. What’s interesting, I would say from VETRO’s perspective is that we’re serving or delivering a mapping platform really to network owner-operators, small and mid-size ISPs around the country, but also to government actors and state broadband offices now. So it’s kind of a surround sound play where everybody’s in need of mapping and mapping data. Everybody’s kind of looking for the same answers about gaps in coverage and where the needs really stand out.

Will:

And we’ve been able to supply tooling to deliver mapping data visualization, to allow all those parties to really get at the answer to that question, where do we want to expand? It might on the ISP side, be a business case, does it make sense to build over here? Where’s their biggest need to connect would be subscribers? Or from the state’s perspective, it’s really looking at those gaps and coverage to see where to target subsidy funding. And yeah, again, in both cases or in all cases, people surround that map and make business decisions from it. And we can talk more about the data sources because that’s really critical here, but I’ll just start with that.

Pete:

And Brian, anything you want to add, from a state perspective, that you see?

Brian:

We’ve just been encouraging our state clients and our state friends, as well as our friends at NTIA to think about this in terms of not just the traditional perspective on, quote-unquote, broadband mapping. We’ve encouraged NTIA to really sort of elevate the thinking and to have states and even local communities and ISPs thinking about a platform of record. I mean really as Will just described, it’s a place where all of these parties can come together and surround a single source of truth and have that be the arbiter of decision making and tracking where funding is going and being able to defend or challenge out of this single platform of record that the state operates from. And the states that have moved in that direction are seeing early success. They’re seeing internet service providers who are now partnering with them because there’s a mystery that’s been removed. They’re basically working with the same set of facts. May not always agree on the facts, but, but there’s no shifting of the ground.

Pete:

Yeah. Just that data that you mentioned Will, and getting everybody on the same page is so critical to starting from funding, to growth, to the build. What about the folks that you’re seeing that are doing it right? What got them out in the leading edge in terms of just figuring, okay, we got to get everybody on the same page, we got to stop wringing our hands about this problem and start attacking this problem? Is there any characterization that you have about what got them there?

Brian:

I think I’ve talked about this before, and leadership is what is making a difference in states that are sort of ahead of the curve. And there are a lot of states that are on the move. But really those that have put good leadership in place, and I think you used the words earlier, had the courage to move out, make decisions, start moving to fund, they’re doing it in an informed fashion. So they’re doing it with good data. The course has been set with the B program and with the FCC maps that are coming. We know that now this fabric data is going to sort of set the pace for decision making and set the parameters for decision making.

Brian:

And so those states that have embraced that, that data is accessible to all states now. And so they can get ahead, sort of jump ahead of the curve even now. The window is closing. These are decisions that need to be started now. But those that have, they’re doing it in an informed way. They’re doing it by partnering with their internet service providers, as I mentioned. We have multiple states as customers. Maine is our flagship. And I know you’ve talked to Peggy Schaffer recently. But just to use an example that she led in the State of Maine a few months back when NTIA released a big tranche of funding, it was competitive. Don’t remember the exact amount of money that was available, but it was oversubscribed by 10x.

Brian:

So every state practically submitted applications. I think five ended up winning. Maine won $28 million worth of projects. And it was basically because the data was well grounded, and the applications were tight. ISPs were part of the process. And it was just really, you could see how well informed it was and how providers who would apply in one part of the state, Peggy was able to say, “Well, there’s NTIA preferences that are adjacent to where you’ve applied. Let’s pull you over and let’s expand the scope of your proposal.” That’s how they did it and they won. They basically got everything they asked for.

Pete:

Wow. And Will, you mentioned kind of getting into the data, the source of the data, kind of data. Help us understand how you guys think about that.

Will:

Yeah, sure. VETRO, our origin story, and our core is it’s a fiber management mapping software platform down in the weeds of the network details, the asset management level of network information, splicing strands that the outside plant, and the physical layer of the internet. And so our customers who are designing and documenting their networks in VETRO have the most granular data possible of where services, where networks are, and where their infrastructure goes. There are layers of abstraction up above that. And things are kind of converging at this point, right? So a broadband office doesn’t particularly have an interest in fiber 12, is spliced to fiber 11 over here. But they do care about address points and address locations.

Will:

And this is what Brian was mentioning. This location fabric is the new data platform, if you will, coming out through the FCC and sourced from CostQuest Associates. It’s a nationwide data set of address points. Essentially, it’s a dot on every rooftop with an address, and string associated with it. But importantly, what gets hung on is service availability and some other modeled attributes that CostQuest delivers. At the government, the federal, and then state level, we used to be thinking about census blocks. Now we’re thinking about addresses. And so the network builder, owner, designer, and planner might be coming up from the bottom with that super granular detail. And now the oversight or funder interests are coming down to the address level and meeting there. That’s where it all converges.

Will:

CostQuest is able to deliver what they call the technology availability model. Essentially, it’s an estimate or a rating or score. It’s a true-false assessment of whether that address has fiber or not, whether it has DSL or not, or what type of network technology is available at that location. And that’s what some of the states are adopting at this point, as well as some of the network builders and the ISPs. And the question of served, underserved and unserved is prevalent. Some folks are just taking the stance that it’s a true-false, black and white, fiber or not fiber slices our view. That’s one way to look at it. Of course, speed tiers are how things have been measured. Those speed targets, both down and uploads, have been changing and rising. And so it’s a moving target really to define what’s served and not served or underserved, but that’s important to the funding criteria ahead.

Will:

And so states are taking various approaches to it. You can talk about the state-level approach to this, as well as the federal level, and there figuring it out, but there are new rules and requirements for reporting. The old 477 methods are being replaced. And the folks building fiber, building networks out there are going to be submitting address locations, address points, and mapping those, matching those to this national fabric. That’s the first cycle that hits in July and August of this year. So there’s a whole change in regime and in approach to a definition of served and not served, coming our way in short order.

The Broadband Mapping guide aka the broadband intelligence platform

Pete:

Right. So, Brian, there’s a lot of, you guys talked about kind of having a single source of truth, right? And then, Will, you talked about the different types of data and having the different players and that ecosystem working off the same platform, if you will. Now, how do people learn more about that? I think the biggest problem that we’re solving right now is we’re not getting to the people that need the most. And if you look even at these conferences, there’s a lot of the same 85, 90% of the people are same people that we see at the other conferences. It’s that silent majority. How are we going to reach those folks and how can they learn more?

Brian:

Yeah, that’s a great question. Before I answer that, let me back up to the phrase single sorts of truth, because that’s a loaded right term. One thing that we’re able to offer through the platform that we’re marketing to states is the broadband intelligence platform. It’s really a single source of truth made up of various layers of data. Will just describe the sort of foundational layers. But certainly, our state clients are adding data that’s important to them. Because each state does have its own set of preferences or requirements that they’re solving for. And so they’re bringing their own data. And that could be related to where schools are and where pockets of poverty are. But you can see how those additional layers create a state-specific perspective through this broadband intelligence platform.

Pete:

So I see, taking the technical data and some of the demographic and business data, they create the trade space that they need to make better decisions, better funding, and allocations.

Will:

So some of the states rather than inviting would be grant applicants to define an area that they intend to serve and have the state evaluate that area, they’re flipping the script and predefining all eligible areas in their states. I talk about it like a jigsaw puzzle and then invite the grant applicant to pick a piece of that puzzle.

Brian:

Love that.

Will:

Yeah. So that kind of eliminates a step if you will, and the targeting is done in advance.

Pete:

And I think that’s interesting because I talk about adult supervision. And if you give the guys a lot of money to go to the candy store and buy a bunch of stuff, they’re going to buy all the good stuff that they care for. But what’s the net result? Are we taking care of the underserved folks or the unserved folks? And I think if you build it backward at that state and local level saying, let’s get these guys access, we’re not talking about gig speed. Let’s get access where people don’t have access first and then raise everybody together. I would love to see more of that state prescriptive approach to the planning and the building out of broadband.

Brian:

It allows for a more sort of practical or pragmatic approach too, because you can look at that jigsaw puzzle and a state can say, they’re not all the same. And so we may have to apply a different set of financials to parameters to this set of puzzle pieces. We know there are areas that are much more costly to serve than other areas. And so it just makes sense that we would take those pieces and apply more funding to those, or more flexibility, more assistance to go solve.

Pete:

We know why people don’t go where they don’t want to go.

Brian:

Yeah. Think about it in these terms? If we have a blanket match requirement, for instance. People are going to apply for grants and across a state, wherever they apply, they’re going to have to, let’s say apply a 25% match of their own. Well, in those high-cost areas that we’re trying to get served first, that’s most costly, that the business proposition is the least desirable, but yet we’re going to apply this same match requirement. And so, if we do that, if we take that approach, then we’re going to end up the same place we’ve been forever, which is unserved areas because they’re too costly to serve and there’s not a great business case for it.

Brian:

Having a platform where you can look at that and look at that data and have intelligence about where you’re going to direct your investments is what this is all about. And getting back to Will’s point about the address points, there are going to be backend requirements too now. So reporting, the federal government, and state governments, are going to be required to track where basically the status and the progress, and the outcomes of all of this.

Pete:

Yeah. It’s a great point. And we talked about that in our earlier session about auditing, right? At some point in time, after all this fanfare fades, people are going to say, “Hey, how did we spend $100 million in each of those states?” How do you backtrack and figure out, that the data works both ways, right?

Will:

Yeah. I think that’s critically important. A lot of people are going to want to know what they got for that money. Who got connected and where that infrastructure went and bang for the buck, kind of rubber meeting road there.

Brian:

And we think you should be able to do that in near real-time. If you have a cloud-based platform.

Pete:

Right, you should.

Will:

So we’re talking six-month cycles for the FCC, that type of reporting of who’s got service where, who’s covering who were, which addresses. We are literally talking to a state now that wants to do a system-to-system API-based real-time data update process. It’s a cool concept. We’re a product company and we’re a platform delivery company. And we think about that stuff all day long, both data at scale. We used to serve small ISPs who might have 5,000, or 10,000 homes in their network. Now we’re talking millions and millions of data points nationwide. And we’ve tooled up with the data lake, and data pipeline capability. So it’s pretty interesting and exciting to be able to bring that stuff built for those private operators into this new context and deliver it through this broadband intelligence platform to the states. Now, they don’t necessarily really need a real-time connection. However, facilitating that stuff on a tighter timescale more frequently, or even just more seamlessly, Brian likes to call it an easy button. We’re going to build an easy button for that data to flow.

Brian:

Highly technical term.

Pete:

Well, even at the individual operator level, we’re seeing the same kind of requirement from the ETI side, whereas networks getting built and lit, letting the sales and marketing team understand what’s now serviceable, right? So it’s not necessarily real-time, but it’s pretty darn near real-time because that’s your return on your investment. And so it’s crazy to think about it, potentially if you have the system where every six months you’re getting real-time updates about what was built and was it built to meet the requirements, it gets to kind of like performance-based contracting from a government level. And that’s how I would love to see future funding led out that way, like, “Hey, you said you were going to do this. You exceeded it. Here’s more money, more incentive to get there.” But that’s crazy talk. We won’t go there.

Brian:

Well, to a degree, but not completely. Given the context of this unprecedented spending, there are going to be pockets of money that are basically leftover or at risk of not being invested. And so I think there is room and there will be some sort of creativity in making sure these funds get deployed. And Pete, back to your question I think you asked about 10 minutes ago that we haven’t yet answered, how do we get the word out? It is a challenge. There’s so much noise and understandably so. These states are inundated. One, they’re having to spin up new offices in most cases. So it’s just very practical human challenges of hiring people, making sure they’re up to speed, and understanding that they’re taking on a risky proposition of being responsible for allocating, at a minimum, $100 million.

Brian:

And so it’s challenging and figuring out the partners and the technology and all the different pieces, how that has to come together, it’s tough. I think it’s incumbent on us and I’m looking at the three of us and all of our friends in the room here to really sort of creating a best practices kind of manifesto. That’s something that we here at states are hungry for. There are different versions that are percolating right now. But I think to have sort of a practical response to say, this is what works in states, and here’s proof of it. And that’s possible now. We have enough sort of state models that make that feasible to do. And folks like Peggy Schaffer and other state leaders who are interested in sounding that trumpet for her peers and colleagues.

Pete:

Yep.

Will:

Yeah. To add a little bit to that, one thing that we are proud to be sporting is the productization of some workflows that these state offices need around grant targeting and around grantmaking. We don’t do consulting services or that kind of thing. We partner with others who do, to support setting up the programs and helping the states implement them. But as far as the tooling and the mapping and the data goes, our platform now supports a productized approach to disseminating information, to displaying maps out to grant applicants and having them select these jigsaw puzzle pieces and submit and say when it gets productized, it gets very repeatable. And unfortunately, we’re a little early in the game in terms of being able to talk about some states that we’re working with. But in short order, I think we’ll be able to share the word about how that’s coming together.

Pete:

Yeah. That’s really interesting. Starting from early on, all the way through the process to looking back, having a platform and ecosystem that’s attached to the same platform, that’s pretty powerful.

Will:

Yeah. One more thing about that too, is that when the states are in the process of awarding a grant round, they’re required to publish where they’re going to spend that money, where it’s going to drop or where people have applied for it, and solicit feedback. So the challenge process is really important. There are various flavors of it, but it might be the case where the ISP has a capital plan to build a neighborhood or an area that is targeted for a grant. And they can raise a hand and say, “Wait a minute, we’re going there already.” And I think that becomes a virtuous circle that we’re trying to support through some map tooling.

Pete:

Yeah.

Brian:

I was just going to add that, we’ll make a little news here today at the end of our time together. We’ve been talking about CostQuest. We haven’t formally said that we’re partners with CostQuest. We’re their data visualization partner, for their data. And so to your point about how do we get this word out, states can call on VETRO today and we can deliver CostQuest data that’s going to be basically the same form, that’s going to be published by the FCC, but then will detail that the add-ons that elevate even the insights and the quality of that data that we can deliver today. So states can get a head start, a jump start on designing their challenge process that’s going to be required, and just create their own perspective of what this data tells them about their state.

Brian:

As a state, they’re going to have the opportunity to challenge the fabric data. They may say this underrepresents the unserved areas of our state. And they’ll then hopefully have a platform that they can load the data that demonstrates why it’s undercounted or underrepresented. That’s going to be the process that’s going to refine and perfect the FCC data.

Get help with broadband funding with Vetro’s broadband mapping intelligence

Pete:

Yeah. That’s great. Just to wrap it up. So how can people find out more about VERTO and what you guys are all doing with the states?

Will:

Well, they can certainly Google VETRO FiberMap and come to our website. They can call us. We’re at a lot of shows too. This is a big one. Fiber Connect is the next big one for many of us, including VETRO. That’s a great place to connect actually. And calling into CostQuest is another way to go, to find out about their data offerings.

Brian:

And we travel.

Will:

We do.

Pete:

You guys are everywhere, actually. And I think that’s a great point about getting people off the dime is we’ve seen Indiana and California, Maine here. I think LA County you said was here. Right? So getting out and there are people that have already ahead of solving this problem down the learning curve. And this community, the one thing we do love about this community is they’re really willing to help each other. So there are a lot of folks that are kind of stuck. And there’s a big issue, as you mentioned, Brian, there’s a lot of people to lean onto and tap into. So get out into the ecosystem.

Will:

Peter, is it okay to add one more thought here?

Pete:

Absolutely.

Will:

I just wanted to mention something that I thought I neglected to bring up before. But the word convergence keeps coming to mind. And so when we’re selling the platform into a state broadband office, traditionally, they might have been looking at calling it broadband mapping or looking at these gaps only. More and more now, they’re going to be building middle mile infrastructure and owning and operating assets. And for us, it’s a thing of beauty because that’s where we came from, fiber management and asset management. And to have those worlds come together at the state level, it’s kind of an unprecedented opportunity. And that middle mile investment that’s coming down is really important. It’s going to facilitate all the last mile builds that are going on or many of them, and to have it all kind of come together in one place, I think is very exciting.

Pete:

Yeah. And that’s a great point. And I also think it’s pretty key to sustainability, right? That’s the other part that I love about the open access middle mile is not only can you put it where the problem is, but then you have shared resources that just reduce OPEX and make it affordable for the folks that you’re trying to serve. You can’t put unaffordable broadband in places where they can’t pay for it. It doesn’t make any sense.

Pete:

So great to have you guys. Enjoy the rest of the show. I know you guys are off to some plans this weekend. So have fun there this weekend and I’ll see you guys in Fiber Connect.