May 28, 2020

Deploying Municipal Fiber Broadband Networks Economically

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

Pete:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. Today we speak with Brian Snider. He’s the CEO of Lit Communities. Brian walks us through the mission and the origin of Lit Communities. He helps us understand how he’s working with municipalities to think differently about network approaches, the value of broadband and funding for broadband initiatives. He explains a little bit about the partnership, Medina Fiber, that they’ve recently formed with the Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN) in Ohio, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on telehealth and distance learning. And he provides some advice to community leaders about how to move quickly in the short term, but to plan for long-term sustainable broadband.

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Pete:

I’m looking forward to our discussion and digging into the interesting work that Lit is doing in the marketplace overall and in Ohio specifically. But before we jump into that, it would be helpful to learn a little bit about you and your journey.  You have a robust background in broadband so maybe give us the highlights of how you ended up as the CEO of Lit Communities.

Lit Communities CEO’s Journey to Fiber Broadband from Professional Golf

Brian:

My path into the telecommunications industry was interesting. I actually started as a professional golfer out of college and tried to play mini-tours for a few years. Unfortunately, I got sick and had to go back to finding a different path. Luckily when I was in high school and through my summers, outside of playing golf, I did a lot of drafting, design, and architecture work, and the telecommunications industry really piqued my interest. So, I started working with AT&T as a contractor and eventually worked my way up to where I was managing multiple projects. I was really learning about the overall design, engineering, construction management and construction operations, when AT&T actually came out with their U-verse program.  U-verse was a program where AT&T was ultimately trying to get a universal service through fiber to a certain distance and then using copper from there on out.

Brian:

We set up a design center in Birmingham, Alabama, where we handled the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, and were very successful there. Then we started working with Google Fiber in Austin, San Antonio and Salt Lake City. That’s when we really started shifting our focus into asking ourselves how this could be done differently. We were working in a lot of larger cities and seeing how some of the other municipalities in rural areas were being left out.  We felt like we could create a plan to ultimately get it done for them using a lot of our experience and what we accomplished in handling networks from start to finish. One of the big differences of working with some of the bigger carriers across the country, and then working with municipalities, that we saw early on was you got to create that relationship with the municipality, with the community.

Brian:

It is so important for the right public private partnership and to have a full understanding of what both parties are all getting into. So, about five years ago we started developing a process where we strictly focused on municipal broadband, especially in underserved or rural areas. We built a process of being able to take them from cradle to grave of how to get this done. Starting out with analyzing the market, working with the community to create what the ultimate partnership would be. We work on building auto-designs for financial models, then creating a business plan and really focus on how they can move forward quickly and be able to make well-educated decisions along the way. And so we worked with multiple communities across the country.  Eventually we found one that fit into our model that was the vision of Lit Communities, five years ago when we started this path.

Brian:

During those five years, we knew there was going to be a private investment into the type of model we were building and that was when we started working with Medina County, Ohio.  What they had already done in that County, and I know we can get into that a little bit later, but it was the perfect time to create Lit Communities and also Medina Fiber to ultimately build a private network across the whole County, connecting all residents and businesses to more of an open access type platform. That’s how Lit Communities came to be started. We’re also looking at a couple of other markets that we’re going to be rolling out to pretty soon.

Pete:

So, you have this journey and you’re helping Tier Ones and folks in large markets along the technology spectrum to roll out some pretty interesting new services and new networks. Then you pause and you think about how you can influence the underserved or unserved marketplaces. That’s really encouraging that there’s folks like you that have that passion.

Deploying Municipal Fiber Broadband Networks – A Different Model

Pete:

When you first started communicating with the municipalities about this concept and there’s different ranges of maturity and sophistication, from a broadband perspective, across those different markets. What are some of the misconceptions or some of the things that you really needed to help people get their head around in terms of how you could help them – rather than the traditional model that utilities or municipalities were funded or developed, the models that they were used to?

Brian:

Obviously, municipal broadband has grown exponentially over the last five years, which has been really exciting. When we started this five years ago though, it was really just starting to gain momentum and it was an educational process that took us time ultimately to get going. When we set this out, we knew that our process was going to be different. We wanted to take all the lessons learned and the experience that we had with some of the larger providers – seeing both the successes and failures in some of those markets and the way they were rolled out – and build something that brought a municipality quicker to the end goal of trying to get better connectivity. But our model of separating the infrastructure and focusing on that was early and a lot of the communities were just trying to wrap their heads around broadband on what they could do with it.

Brian:

It was a challenge, from our side, getting them to understand that we could actually partner in more of a potential P3 (public-private partnership) model or our ultimate approach as a community network. So if we could bring in private investment into the community as well, if the community was unable to pay for it, that would really help spur things on. But it was out of their comfort zone, it was out of what they were typically used to doing early on. Then you also had a lot of communities that were starting to look into this and they were having feasibility studies done, that would have a lot of good information, but it wasn’t specific to how the community could move forward.

Fiber Broadband – “Limitless” Utility

Brian:

We look at this as a utility that has more power than I think really any other utility that’s provided to your home if you think about it in that sense. I mean if you have water at your home, you’re using it for your showers and you’re using it for water. If you’ve got fiber at the home, the uses are limitless when you think about what the technology is evolving to. Wrapping the whole package of what a properly monetized fiber infrastructure network could do, in the process that we were showing, and trying to demonstrate that early on, was a little challenging in getting things going. But we were also very, very selective in who we worked with starting out. We really analyzed the country and looked at communities to say, “If they’ve run their own utility, they understand ultimately what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Brian:

And if they’ve looked at broadband in the past, does their state have restrictions on it?  So we are actually able to provide meanings, ways around that, so that’s not necessarily a restriction – it’s more about how we have to handle it. Then once we get the communities in a room face to face explaining what we’re trying to do, you can see the light bulb come on to where this makes total sense. Once the community buys in and we all go through it together… and like I said, we’ve been very selective in those regards too because that community relationship with our overall business model has to sing in harmony…it took about five years to really get this momentum going. But now we’re seeing it accelerate like crazy to where it’s evolved where we have communities reaching out to us! Instead of five years ago when we were reaching out to about 120 of 35,000 cities or so that fall into this category of less than 50,000 population that probably does not have the best connectivity and what they truly need to get by in this digital age.

Pete:

Not only are you coming to a market that’s maturing, five years ago, with a different approach to the network, in terms of separating the infrastructure from the service but also providing ideas and access to private funding, which is outside of people’s comfort zone. That last piece is really interesting, that cost to value benefit.  The conversation has shifted from getting connected and getting cable.  The current crisis, where we’re all forced to work from home and forced to learn from home, has really punctuated the need for broadband.  I’m still wondering if people understand the digital ecosystems and communities that broadband enables?  For example, elections are coming up and we can’t really vote if you don’t have an internet connection. With the folks that are coming to you now, is the question less about do we need broadband but how do we get it and how do we get it affordably?

Maximizing Usage of Fiber Broadband

Brian:

Especially now, with what’s happened recently, it’s been more of, “this is a need for us to be successful in whatever the new normal is going to be.” One thing we learned through a lot of the networks, and even some of the fiber networks that were built by municipalities over the country, how you truly maximize that infrastructure. And I say maximize from a usage standpoint. We see a lot of networks that are set up and they’re connected but are just providing internet.  You can do so much more with Telehealth, with Smart Home applications, with Smart City applications, with helping immediately with the homework gap that we’re seeing right now from students being unable to connect to a network that’s decent enough for them to actually complete all their schoolwork.

Brian:

That’s one of the things that’s becoming a wakeup call now. A few years ago, before this happened, we identified that this was going to happen. So ultimately what we create can be the city’s utility, from their perspective, but the way you leverage it is looked at a lot differently than what you’re doing with power, gas or your typical utilities. How you build those layers properly within your network needs to be properly handled through a very systematic process. Communities are starting to realize that but one of my concerns is because of all this that has happened recently, you’re going to have some communities that still rush.

Brian:

You have networks that are built that still aren’t monetizing the infrastructure, monetizing meaning benefiting from it from a workforce, economic development, new industries coming into town etc.  It changes your whole city if it’s done properly for multiple layers. But if a community rushes and builds the network that doesn’t have the capacity for what some of the future holds, you’re going to have issues.  We’ve seen that in other markets already and we want other cities and communities to try to avoid that as much as humanly possible coming out to whatever this new normal is about to be. We all know the new normal is going to be a lot more online.

Medina Fiber – Broadband Public-Private Partnership

Pete:

Can you give us some background on your work with Medina County? We interviewed David Corrado from Medina County Fiber Network and he talked about some of the work that you’re doing.  How do you plan to extend that network and what were some of the drivers that brought Lit Communities and Media County together?

Brian:

We call Dave, “St. Dave.” He is awesome. What he’s accomplished there at Medina County Fiber Network has been very impressive. What the whole County has done in rallying around it has been one of the reasons that was ultimately the market that we selected to kickstart Lit Communities. What we will be doing in Medina is they have a 151 mile network that goes all throughout the County that will get our connectivity into every city within the County. We will connect to their network and our, if you want to call it our layer one approach, will be building out fiber to every single home and business. Day one we’ll be bringing in your typical triple play with internet, voice and TV.  Then we’ll bring in a Telehealth package and a smart home package (that we’re currently working on finalizing), but initially we’ll have Docity as our Telehealth provider.

Brian:

Then as we expand across the network, we’ll look at bringing on additional services. We’ll be starting out in the villages of Seville and Westfield. We were actually planning on starting this month, unfortunately with COVID and materials delivery issues, we’re going to be probably starting construction in July. But this has allowed us to do a lot more engineering, getting a backlog of construction packages and things like that in place, to where we’re going to be expanding what we’re doing and going into the city of Medina and the township of Montville, a little bit quicker.

Brian:

Then eventually over the course of three to five years, we’ll have the whole County hopefully connected. But we’ve spent about, golly, this is going on now our third year of really working with the County. That’s been one of the things that I continue to emphasize is that we work together to build the partnership and to build the understanding of how this can work together efficiently.  If the County and us, from more of a private side, see the end goal of what we’re trying to create.

Brian:

We’ll set everything up there, long-term, with local engineers, local construction managers, and local construction vendors. Eventually we want to turn this into something we’re going to replicate into potentially other areas of Ohio. We also have two or three other markets that we’ll be announcing here pretty soon and hopefully with plans to start building those out in 2020 or when COVID-19 gives us the freedom to move at the speed we really want to right now.

Fostering Economic Development – Medina County Fiber Broadband Network

Pete:

What is it about David [Corrado] and the Medina community that you think lends itself to being at the forefront of this effort? Is there a DNA issue? Is it a certain social economic combination?

Brian:

Well I think it’s a combination. Kudos to Medina County. They saw this as something that needed to be done and started their network back in 2012. They always had the plans of expanding their network to the home and business and they were trying to find the right partner and ultimately we were the right partner in that approach. What they have done already, in establishing the groundwork of who has been connected to Medina County Fibers middle mile network, has brought in so much to the economy of that County. It’s staggering. The County continues to thrive just because of the middle mile network. We look at it as, let’s build on that momentum. Our model is very, very similar to theirs. Again, with what they’ve done and what Dave’s done since 2012 on that network, it’s setting up the rest of the County for what they’re about to get – better fiber to the home connectivity.

Brian:

Honestly, that’s an area that’s been left out. So, we’re happy to come in there and help complete their overall vision, that they had in 2012, of bringing connectivity to everybody. But they started, and I think that’s something that we stress every community is that you’ve got to start, you’ve got to keep moving because technology is moving faster than what you can build fiber. If you’re not building fiber today, technology is passing you by. They identified that in 2012, but also built consensus to where they got all the villages and townships and cities within the County to buy into this network first, before they went and did it.

Brian:

So now, us coming in over the past three years, it’s what they have already put in place and the groundwork they put in place that has helped us accelerate that much more. You can’t speak to a better partnership with them – not only David Corrado with the Medina County Fiber Network, but the local commissioners there, all the way down to the local mayors, Bethany Dentler with Economic Development and the Port Authority – they all really have built a partnership that is a model of how this can work in every area across the country.

Delivering Telehealth and Distance Learning on Fiber Broadband

Pete:

Let’s talk a bit more about Telehealth and education. Everything’s shifting because of COVID, are you starting to get requirements? Are you starting to do some brainstorming in terms of what you think Telehealth will end up looking like or how education would look like? We’ve been preaching about the capability or the ability to work from home, to teach distance learning, for Telehealth, but there’s finally this kind of push versus pull alignment between the technology and the cultural and the institutions themselves. A lot of schools have been shocked into reacting and hopefully proactively thinking about the next years moving forward. The same with local physicians all the way up to the hospitals. Did some of those conversations happen around what Medina is doing and potentially what other communities may be looking at?

Brian:

From the Telehealth side, what we’re doing with Docity and then MetroHealth there locally… I wish we had it in place before COVID started from that scenario. It will help in the future because you’re able to sit and have a, basically, full physical online. This isn’t your typical “tel-a-doc” services that are going to be provided. We’re going to see that being pushed and a driver of the network like never before now from the Telehealth perspective. We always thought it was very important to bring that service, on day one, onto these networks. We identified early on that you’re going to have a transition into the way health care is being used from a technology’s perspective and now what’s just happened has accelerated that. From a schooling perspective, with all school age kids trying to eLearn, [COVID] has really generated the biggest, I guess, push both politically and locally by the school districts, in the past two months, than I’ve ever seen.

Brian:

We have multiple school districts reaching out to us, ultimately wanting to build a Wi-Fi network out to all students because who knows what this is still going to look like in the fall?  We’re not talking about rural areas here. We’re talking about urban areas that just have huge digital inequality gaps and the lower income areas that can’t afford the incumbent service there. Are those incumbents giving them help or not? You’re starting to see school districts take it into their own hands and try to figure out solutions. We’re actually approaching this in a few different markets right now as a three layer type approach into a few different communities where the first focus is getting Wi-Fi to all the students. In certain aspects – if we have fiber, if we have access to potential towers, if we have access to get a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) up and created – we could do it fairly quickly.  At the same time, if you do it efficiently, that layer one approach can then properly build off of a layer two approach, of your fiber to the home and fiber to the business network.

Distance Learning Services on Fiber Broadband After the Current Crisis

Brian:

But from the school and e-learning side, you’re going to be looking at States and school districts creating new programs for the fall. I think even if students go back in the fall, in certain areas and even my local school, have classes in a trailer outside of the school because there’s overgrowth in schools happening all over the country.

Brian:

Now, because we’ve had the ability to be online, instead of building a trailer, we allow a certain amount of kids to actually do all their e-learning online. But we have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared from the school district with the curriculum and not only the connectivity that all the students have to have. It’s really positive to see some of these school districts taking the initiative and saying, “We’re going to go get this, we’re going to go get it done, we’re going to find a way to get folks connectivity”.  Lit Communities is trying to help them figure that out and structure it. You can also then structure it into the overall program that you want to create for the community too.

Pete:
What you’re describing is a rational thought out approach.  But teachers are going to be teachers and they’re going to be worried about the transformation of their processes and culture and training and getting more IT staff. Is there a knee jerk reaction coming even if it’s minor in terms of how we’re going to try to solve these problems? Because now all of their requirements are going to be rushed to be performed and then they’re going to want these capabilities with a more sustainable, fiscally responsible approach. What’s going to be top of the list?

Deploying Sustainable, Fiscally Responsible Fiber Broadband Services

Brian:

You’re going to have a lot of things that are going to be rushed coming out of this and you’re going to see different cities in different areas succeed and other ones fail. And it’s sad to say that but things are going to be rushed unfortunately. That’s just one thing I’ll continuously stress is, you got to choose the right partners who understand this and can work through it the right way.  You’ve got to make solid decisions on your path or things are going to get much more complicated for them. What I just said, at a high level, sounds easy. At the end of the day it’s still not easy. You’re building a brand-new infrastructure, so you’ve got to handle it the right way. I think things are going to be rushed coming out of this.

Pete:

Do you think the supply chain can handle this type of rush?  There’s a materials issue too but do we have the skills and manpower to pull this together?

Brian:

The reason why we started focusing on municipal broadband is that, over the next 5 to 10 years, we felt we were going to see a huge push in rural and municipal broadband spending from a private and public level. In the last two months, we’ve accelerated that by two years. Coming out of this, I don’t think we’re going to have the resources necessary to keep up with the construction, the amount of infrastructure that’s going to need to be done. At first, you’re going to have materials that will be probably backed up a little bit, in regard to orders and things like that, but I see that rebounding really quickly. The bigger issue will be construction resources to build, quality engineering firms and network designers that can design, and quality operations companies that can ultimately operate it and maintain it. That resource pool has to get built.

Brian:

So, even from the education side on that standpoint, some of these schools probably need to look at potentially different curriculums to help that along the way. We partnered with a community college in New Orleans, to actually build a Fiber Academy two years ago, where we trained local students on how to ultimately plan and engineer a fiber network. Local communities are going to have to start building new curriculums to support some of this infrastructure work, so we do have the resources when the timing’s right. If you don’t, you’re going to struggle from that perspective or you’re going to struggle with capex to be able to pay to get a construction crew to go from one project to another.

Bridging the Digital Divide – Technology Options

Pete:

You’re not talking about the non-fiber solutions to this approach, like satellite and maybe white space. Do you think there are feasible alternatives that’ll help bridge this gap?  If I’m a community leader should I be considering some of these?

Brian:

There are ways to where like even what we’re talking about with the Wi-Fi networks for the schools, there’s no reason why you can’t start getting fixed wireless connections, especially in rural areas that might only have satellite as their choice. You could still start out and be efficient with more of a fixed wireless approach and then using that, that gets connectivity out to a wide area. In parallel you’re also building fiber deeper into your community because still it takes time. So there’s ways to bridge the gap on time with different technology approaches to ultimately getting it to the end user.

Partnering and Planning for Fiber Broadband Network Buildouts

Pete:

What can community leaders do in the next couple of weeks?  I think people are adjusting their brains and starting to think beyond putting out fires and moving forward. What are a couple of things that you think folks should be thinking about next week and the week after?

Brian:

In the short term right now, it is really trying to work on, even where we start, is to develop the plan coming out of this crisis from an infrastructure standpoint.  Then determine what can be done short term and what can be done long-term and make sure you structure that the right way. Like I said, select the right partners to help you. Nobody can do all of this by themselves, so you’ve got to do research, make sure you work with the right partners, but start. If you’re not looking at it now, they got to start and really focus on, okay, what’s going to be the plan coming out of this? How can we execute it? And then what are the ultimate goals of the community that we want to accomplish?

Brian:

You’re going to have communities that have better connectivity than others. You’re going to have communities that have digital inequality gaps that they will have to figure out how they are going to bridge in both the short term and long term. Over the next week or two, I really think they’ve got to be in the planning process.  We see a lot of communities out there like that right now. It is refreshing to see.  From our standpoint, we want to get out there constructing in some of our newer markets in July and August and that’s our timeframe to get going. But you’ve also have these school districts – school’s going to be starting pretty quickly – you’ve got a summer where don’t waste it from what you could do both from a planning standpoint and an execution standpoint.

Brian:

One of the things we’re also dealing with is how does E-Rate for schools really help this out when there is fiber to the schools, but there isn’t fiber everywhere else. There’s got to be some changes at the FCC level to where dollars spent on E-Rate gives the ability for the school or the community to provide service out to the residents to get them connected, to be able to have the same access as somebody that’s living in downtown Austin and has Google Fiber.  Use the summer very, very wisely I guess is what I can recommend from that standpoint. From the community standpoint, find the right partners and build approach and go get it done. There’s no reason you can’t do it. Our motto is, “It’s always feasible.” Go build the proper plan and go execute from there.

Learn from Successful Fiber Broadband Leaders

Pete:

That’s really sound advice. People like Dave from Medina and a lot of the other community leaders are great resources. There’s a lot of collaboration and no need to reinvent the wheel. Reaching out their peers, I think is invaluable to get firsthand experience and input from those folks.

Brian:

You’ve got so many municipal networks that have really been successful. You’ve got Longmont in Colorado, Dave is always happy to reach out and talk to anybody that wants to talk about what they did at Medina County Fiber Network, NoaNet in Washington, UTOPIA in Utah, EPB in Chattanooga, those networks that have been built out and have been successful, those are the ones that I would recommend communities reach out to.  Then you’ve got a wealth of knowledge with Next Century Cities and Chris Mitchell at ILSR (Institute for Local Self-Reliance), they can really help guide folks in the right direction and that’s really important.  Obviously, you got a lot of municipalities that are stepping into this that don’t really have a clue, to be blunt, about what they’re doing. It takes a proper path to get there, but the resources are out there, that’s for sure. That is the good thing and something really positive that’s going to come out of this, the resources are there for you to do it the right way.

Learn More

Pete:

How can the listeners learn more about you, your work and Lit Communities?

Brian:

Our website is litcommunities.net and we’ve got everything on there. We also have a link on that site to our Medina Fiber site. We’re on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook (Lit Communities) and Facebook (Medina Fiber Facebook) as well.

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