Fiber Connect 2019, sponsored by the Fiber Broadband Association, is a great opportunity to meet some of the leaders in Municipal Broadband. In this episode, we speak with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight Community Broadband in Wilson, N.C. as well as Christy Batts with CDE Lightband out of Clarksville, TN. Will and Christy share their community’s broadband journey and provide insight for other municipalities considering broadband. Click to listen or read the transcript below.
Craig Corbin: Will Aycock is the general manager of Greenlight Community Broadband in the city of Wilson. Welcome, Will.
Will Aycock: Thank you very much, appreciate the opportunity to be here.
Pete Pizzutillo: Why don't you give us a little background on your journey to Fiber Connect 2019?
Will Aycock: I'm the general manager of Greenlight Community Broadband in Wilson, North Carolina. We are North Carolina's first fiber to the home network and first gigabit city. We are serving 10 thousand customers, ranging from residents to major employers, community anchor institutions, other government agencies, sort of the full gamut across our community. We launched in 2008 and had begun the planning and design and construction a few years before that. So, we've been engaged in this about 15 years all-in now.
Pete Pizzutillo: Take us back to the primary motivation for you, and for the city to start on this journey?
Will Aycock: For me, it's about serving the community I grew up in. Wilson's my hometown, it's been the hometown for my family for generations. So being able to live and serve the place that I grew up and where my kids are growing up, and hopefully where they will one day serve, has been a tremendous opportunity. For us as a community, we have a long history of belief and investment in public infrastructure. When you talk about the electric distribution system, that was constructed in the 1880s. Natural gas, a couple decades later. The water distribution system with a huge reservoir, expansion project back in the early 90s. There's just this long-term commitment to investing in the public infrastructure that's going to help our community grow, remain relevant, and remain in local control. Part of it's the evolution from being the world's greatest tobacco market, where more pounds of bright leaf tobacco were bought and sold than anywhere else in the world to North Carolina's first gigabit city. So, then investment to drive relevance, and never lose those aspects that have made us strong, continuing to focus on those, but to add new aspects of what we're doing as a community to continue to grow and thrive.
Pete Pizzutillo: There are a lot of communities here at Fiber Connect each at a different stage of maturity. What's the biggest observation that you have from 10, 15 years ago to today that you can share?
Will Aycock: I would say that we went around, and we did the roadshows, and we met with those that came before us. The more we took the advice of those who came before us the better off we were. It's always very dangerous to decide you can do it better, smarter, faster, and all that. Chances are there's a reason those lessons learned were learned, and perhaps it's not because those that came before simply weren't as clever as you are. So, reach out, use the networks, and benefit from the knowledge community. We're always happy to meet with anyone and help them from any sector, because we do believe this is critical infrastructure for all our communities, and we want to help support people in deploying it.
Pete Pizzutillo: There are many conversations around funding, any advice about how to navigate that, the many options that are out there?
Will Aycock: You need to look at the options that are out there, talk to different people who've deployed the different models, have those frank conversations about how this works. And not that you always want to rely on consultants but have some perspectives out there. Talk to these people who've been around and worked on many projects, because there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution, and you can't say, well Wilson did Cox, and that's how we funded it, so that's what we're going to go do. You've got to talk to everybody and see what fits in your community.
Craig Corbin: It was not an easy process to be able to get into the world of broadband. A lot of people don't know the full story of how that came into being, and the challenges that you faced right off the bat. And many people look to the effort that you made to battle the powers-that-be to make it happen as sort of being a pioneer in that effort. Take us back and relive the mindset that you had in going through those challenges.
Will Aycock: I was 100% involved in the operation side of things, getting it up and running. And there was always this commitment to the idea, we're serving the community. This is about what we're doing for Wilson and for our future. And there was always, and there continues to be. We focus on serving our citizens and helping to grow Wilson as best we can. And understanding too, nobody said that broadband was a panacea. What we said was that it's an additional layer of infrastructure that we want to make sure our citizens are not left behind. And so by keeping that focus and by having very good elected officials who both had the vision in the beginning to set us down this path, and then most importantly had the courage. The courage all these years to continue to support us as we've grown. It's made my job very, relatively speaking, positive and easy, because I knew I had that support.
Pete Pizzutillo: What are you currently working on, and where do you see Wilson going in the next five years?
Will Aycock: We're currently constructing the Exchange, which will be a home for our innovation efforts in downtown Wilson. We are working in partnership with ETI to support interns who developing software and will eventually move into that new facility. It is going to be the focal point for our accelerator programs, a kind of regional internet of things, and other partnerships we're developing through East Carolina University, Barton College in Wilson, building this ecosystem to not just have the infrastructure, but now understanding how to manage of it, and then to share that knowledge around the region.
Craig Corbin: That is exciting when you look at how the city has benefited already in the relatively short period of time that Greenlight has been in existence. Talk about how you see the day-to-day existence of the citizens of Wilson benefiting from what you've already done.
Will Aycock: When we talk about that day-to-day benefit, I want to be really clear that this is a body of work by the community at large, and it's not Greenlight and it's not the fiber alone. But when you go to downtown Wilson today and you see Whirligig Park, and when you see the newly-renovated tobacco warehouses with apartments filling up, when you see the Exchange coming out of the ground and these technical entities coming from the triangle and partnering our community, all of that goes to the efforts of the community overall. When you see BB&T and other companies reinvesting in downtown, building a new $35 million facility, those types of commitments to our community are breathtaking, and it's something I'm so proud to be a part of, even a small part of. And I think if you go backwards 15 years and said to people this is what's going to be going on in your community 15 years in the future, people would've been a bit skeptical.
Pete Pizzutillo: The broadband business case is something a lot of communities are struggling with how do you make that value justification? And Wilson is a great template that people can see, feel, and touch. And I think you've had some visitors come and walked them through your operations and the growth there. And hopefully people listening today will reach out to you.
Will Aycock: I certainly hope so. We're Greenlight Community Broadband in Wilson, North Carolina. My name's Will Aycock. Easily found on the internet. Reach out anytime, because we're here to help and we're here to serve those that we can.
Craig Corbin: The Broadband Bunch welcomes our special guest, Christy Batts with CDE Lightband out of Clarksville, Tennessee. Welcome.
Christy Batts: Thank you. I just had an incredible luncheon with the women in fiber program with an incredible speaker. I'm completely inspired and ready to take over the world, so y'all just kind of watch it.
Pete Pizzutillo: That's great. What's the biggest difference that you see this year over the past few years?
Christy Batts: The speakers and the topics are more geared this year a little bit more toward startups, and I think it's because of so many new entities getting into the business, which is great and exciting. For those of us who unfortunately now labeled as a legacy system, it makes it a little bit more interesting for us as far as the topics go, but it's been an incredible show and I'm encouraged to see some of the folks that are getting involved now in taking this path. I've enjoyed sharing some of our experiences with them. We can certainly share the right things to do, and we can share a little bit of the things not to do.
Pete Pizzutillo: Well I won't use the term legacy, but a seasoned vet. You were telling us a about your journey starting back in 2007, maybe you can take us back. What was the primary motivation for your community or the utilities to get into this business?
Christy Batts: We build a fiber network in 2007, and it was designed for our Automated Meter Interface (AMI) project. We wanted to be able to read meters remotely, and then also remote connect and disconnect. We're in Clarksville Tennessee, sitting to the north of Nashville right on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, we're home to the 101st airborne division and Austin Peay State University. We have a very transient population folks move in and out of the area on average about 30% of our population annually will move in and out of the area. We did some analysis and of our 70 thousand electric customers, only 30% of them have been in their homes for more than five years. So as it is a transient market, it made sense to build a fiber network not only for the AMI, but also for our SCADA system. We've put in a self-healing grid, so if we have a section of the system that goes down on electric services, the fiber will connect and will tie everything back together and heal itself and restore and isolate the number of the customers who are directly affected with the power outage.
Craig Corbin: You look at the speed with which CDE Lightband has become a phenomenal success, and I think that's part of the view within the industry, that you guys are leaders in more ways than one. And you talk about sharing the story with so many people over the years. Has to be a sense of pride knowing that your group was able to envision the plan, and then work that plan to great success.
Christy Batts: Yes, we have. The first initial phases of the plan didn't pan out the way that the folks that came before us chose it to do or planned for it to do. We did a lot of adjusting, a lot of retooling of the system. It's an incredible fiber network. It was going to do everything it needed to do for the AMI, for the electric side, but it was not going to deliver the demands and the needs of a growing customer base for video, internet, and phone. SWe had to retool a lot of that and restructure a lot of that relatively quickly. We did, and have stayed focused on customer growth and developing new product lines to retain customers, manage the churn in a high-churn market, and have taken this system to where it needs to be with the initial investment from the electric side, with $17 million, to get the broadband side of the business up and going, and to meet the needs of what the consumers in the market wanted. Since our launch in 2007 and that first initial loan, we have paid back $52.6 million return on that investment. The electric utility is now able to build substations and make campus improvements and retool their substations out of cash as opposed to going to the bond market, which is what utilities do when they want to do those things. And we're delivering a solid product. We deliver gigabit internet residentially, and deliver 10 gig commercially, and full video services.
Pete Pizzutillo: You've seen a lot, and there's a lot of utilities kind of in the early phases, feasibility, thinking about the same thing. Any insight that you can provide to them?
Christy Batts: The main thing is set your plan and stick with it. Do your research, make sure it's the plan that meets the needs of your community. I spoke with a gentleman yesterday that's with one of the companies that's looking to start up, and he was faltering back and forth between a PON network design, and ours is an active Ethernet network design. And I said it really depends on the type of community you have. If you've got a quickly growing community and you've got rapid growth that's going to continue to happen, do you build a system that's great for the next 10 years, or do you build a system that's going to manage the growth for the next 20 years? Find that mix and stick with the plan, and just push forward. It is a huge, huge leap of faith to do these kind of projects but I assure everyone, it's scary the first few years. You're going to have a lot of people looking at you going, what have you talked us into doing and why are you here? But just hold the course, and it turns itself around and it does what it's supposed to do, and you'll have something when it's over with that you can be very proud of.
Craig Corbin: The result is that you are serving the community much better than anyone else has done before, and so that's part of that success that you talked about. One of the things with regard to CDE Lightband is the involvement in the community. And most recently, F2Con, the big gaming competition. You're number two. I was privileged to be a part of that and be able to see exactly what was going on. I was amazed at the scale, the scope, of that event. Tell us a little bit about your involvement with F2Con.
Christy Batts: F2Con started out on a much smaller scale. We had a festival that went on downtown, which a dear friend of mine who heads up our convention and visitors bureau put on every year. And she approached me looking for ideas of something to put in one of our underground parking garages. And she said, "I've tried different types of things in this area, and nothing's taken. Can you think of anything?" And I was like, "Let me do a gaming event. It's everybody's mom's basement," which is where they like to play. We did that on a smaller scale for several years. The festival hit its 15th year, and had grown to 40 thousand visitors, and was really beyond the capacity of our volunteer base and community base to continue to manage. So she said, "I'd rather go out on a high note, 15 years and final." And so she did. Then immediately two weeks after the last festival, she came back to me and said, "Can you take this gaming event and turn it into a weekend-long standalone event?" Which we did. And we did a partnership with not only our convention and visitors bureau, but our Parks and Rec department and with the university there. And now Fort Campbell's gotten involved this year, and it's turned into over 1500 visitors at any given moment playing video games-
Craig Corbin: With prize money.
Christy Batts: ... with up to $10 thousand in prize money, and we've got professional gamers that are coming in and winning, and we've got local guys that are winning. And it's been just an incredibly fun thing to do, I really appreciate ETI coming in this year and supporting us and helping us, because those sponsorship dollars is what helps us to do extra things. We brought in a couple of our STEM academies from some of the high schools. One of the academies learned how to run CAT5 wiring and connect all the consoles, and ran a concession stand for us. It was a business academy, and they ran the concession stand for us. Then we had another academy that was doing video production work. They came in and did all of our streaming content. And so when the event was over with, because of our generous sponsor dollars and because of the way we were able to ... the attendance had grown so much, we were able to go back and give those students, each of those classrooms, $250 to put towards their programs for some cool things. I told them I don't care if you buy a pizza or you go buy some cool piece of equipment that's not funded by the school budgets, but have fun with it, and they just were so thrilled. For those that aren't in the gaming world, the F2 stands for fiber fast. We run a straight fiber connection in there, and we game off of two 10 gig connections. If you've seen all of the conversations going around about latency and delivery of the service, that hasn't happened there. In fact, the odd part about it is we got bandwidth all day long. Man, trying to get power into that building to power it all ...
Pete Pizzutillo: One more thing about this event, noticing there's the whole ... soup to nuts, you can walk around here and see anything from infrastructure to design, planning, some of the software stuff. So you were talking about the people that are startups, kind of thinking about that, I mean, what's your advice about this event for those types of people? What do you get out of this here the most?
Christy Batts: Talk to as many people as you possibly can. Look at any opportunity that you possibly can. I think we all have our vendors that we like and we trust and we appreciate, but there's always something else new out there too, so take a look at what's available to you, especially if you're starting up. Listen to everybody. Ask lots of questions. And then build those contacts, because you never know when you're going to need that next person. When they hand you the business card, don't throw it in the drawer when you get back home. Find a place to find that later, because you may need them.
Craig Corbin: CDE Lightband, a shining example of how broadband is done right.
Pete Pizzutillo: That's right. Thank you.
About the Fiber Broadband Association
Established in 2001, the Fiber Broadband Association is the only all-fiber trade association in the Americas. It provides advocacy, education, and resources to companies, organizations, and communities who want to deploy the best networks through fiber to the home, fiber to the business and fiber everywhere. Our member-led association collaborates with industry allies to propel fiber deployment forward for a better broadband future here and around the world.
Fiber Broadband Association members represent the entire broadband ecosystem: providers, suppliers, consultants, consumers, policymakers, device makers, and application providers. More information about the Fiber Broadband Association here; www.fiberbroadband.org
About ETI Software Solutions
Adapting to diverse and varying network environments is a key differentiator of ETI Software. We continually leverage our customer’s legacy investments in FTTx, HFC, Copper and Hybrid systems while extending to next generation technologies and services.
At the core of our long-term success is our expertise in providing zero-touch provisioning, automation, service orchestration, network configuration, inventory control, performance management and professional services that are network, device and technology agnostic. ETI’s service assurance and advanced analytics software provides a single point of control, enabling communications service providers to monetize the entire life cycle of the customer journey.
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