In this episode, we interview leaders helping municipalities navigate, understand and realize the vision of connecting their communities through broadband. We speak with Jeff Gavlinski, CEO of Mountain Connect (www.mountainconnect.org) about his mission and observations into the market. Cat Blake from Next Century Cities (www.nextcenturycities.org) talks about how they are helping hundreds of municipalities and walks us through the Becoming Broadband Ready Toolkit. Mark Guillen from Crown Castle (www.crowncastle.com) joins us to explain what's driving use of small cell towers and impact of 5G. Dan Flemming from Render (www.rendernetworks.com) talks about innovative approaches to accelerating the time and effort from planning to building broadband networks. Click to listen or read the transcript below.
Jeff Gavlinski: Historically Mountain Connect has been about a focus on Tier 2, 3, and 4 communities. I think especially with smarter technology coming into the fray, the NFL cities are going to organically get the infrastructure they need just because of what they represent economically, so the help is really in the Tier 2 through Tier 4 communities and counties. Our goal is to educate our Tier 2 through Tier 4 communities on what's coming, and why broadband's even more important than it was three or four years ago. We have moved beyond talking about why broadband is important, because in my estimation, technology innovation's not going to slow down and wait for broadband to catch up.
We are one of the only broadband conferences that's not industry-specific to give equitable content to both wireless and wire line. We've always felt that that was very important, and we should be having discussions about hybrid infrastructure, especially out in rural communities. I've always maintained this equitable playing field for wireless, and so it's good to see that even though it's being inspired by 5G, nonetheless, it's still coming back up as part of an important relevant conversation as it relates to building broadband networks. Historically this conference was built around Colorado's BTOP grant, and it was narrowly focused on the impact of the western slope. So the gentleman who was putting it on, it was really a one day seminar. So the year before I took it over, I said there's so much more we could do with this conference. And we said, "Well if you want to do something more with it, you take it over." So I did. And that year there were about 90 people, so this year we have 500 some odd people so it's grown quite a bit.
We have been asked to replicate this model in the Midwest region of the country, so we started Great Lakes Connect last year and did it in Ohio, and this year I'm moving it to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at the Abbey Resort, September 30th through October 2nd.
Craig Corbin: I know that it has to be rewarding both professionally, but personally, for you to see how this even has grown and how the municipalities in particular that have embraced the opportunity to get into this world have begun to thrive.
Jeff Gavlinski: Content is key to these conferences. If we're still talking about why broadband's important, in terms of the content being presented here, we're doing a disservice to the communities. You have to stay a step ahead, and it's interesting to see how the content has evolved. You don't see anything close to what we were talking about, even three years ago. So I'm trying to keep this education relevant for what's going on today but also looking forward. Because I think if you're not looking forward, you could be in for a lot of trouble. It’s important to understand the FCC rules around what you can and can't do with 5G. Be really concerned about aesthetics, and really try to enforce colocation facilities on poles, otherwise you're going to have, or any municipal owed asset. I mean despite the federal rules around this, it's still your right of way. So I think you have to be very cognizant of what's being put in your right of way and how is that going to impact your city. So if we have all four carriers putting infrastructure one right after another, what might that look like, or how might it impact your citizens? And aesthetically it's not going to be very pleasing, so.
Jeff Gavlinski: I am the director of emerging technologies for Foresight Group. I run our BD efforts around the country, also help to manage, we're starting up a technology and master planning consulting service, so busy trying to stand that up as well. So we've got a lot of interesting things going on. Foresight's a full service engineering firm, so on the network side we obviously we design engineer networks, and then we have a wireless division as well. And historically they have focused on structural wireless engineering, but we also a tower company now. And then we do civil engineering as well, so we kind of do it all.
Cat Blake: Next Century Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization, and our members are cities, towns and counties. We work directly with over 200 municipal governments across the country, and we work with them specifically on issues of broadband access and adoption. We have cities that are struggling to get DSL, we have cities that are fully built out with municipal networks, we have metro regions that have a lot of competition, so they're really across the maturity spectrum. We have six guiding principles of Next Century Cities. One of them that guides a lot of our work is the idea that communities must enjoy self-determination. So we're a big believer that there's no one size fits all model for connectivity. I already mentioned that of our 203 members, they're diverse in their levels of connectivity. They're also diverse in terms of their geography, in terms of their size, in terms of their political makeup, and inclination. So we don't think that there's one model that is going to be able to successfully connect any city. There's no out of the box solution. So we are big proponents of local choice and we think that communities should be able to evaluate the different options that are available to them, and pursue the one that makes the most sense for them.
Pete Pizzutillo: Is that what led to the toolkit that you mentioned earlier?
Cat Blake: That is exactly what led to the Becoming Broadband Ready Toolkit. It is designed as a one stop resource for local leaders who want to encourage broadband access in their communities. So what we did was we looked at best practices across our hundreds of members, and while their solutions are different, there are best practices that run through each of the successful models. So while one community might be building a municipal network and one might be working with an incumbent, there are still local ordinances and policies that are very effective no matter what your network model is. And there are still things like community engagement that are going to be important no matter what.
Cat Blake: I would say that in general, cities are pretty risk adverse. I think that that's a big part of the process of thinking through what model is going to work well for you, is you want to make sure you have evaluated the market demand in your community and that you want to know what your community's appetite for risk is, and appetite for investment is. I don't know if I would say misconception, but I think that that idea of risk in any city that's starting out with a broadband project, they want to make sure they have all their ducks in a row, for lack of a better term.
Pete Pizzutillo: One of the interesting themes I hear is that if you haven't started in municipalities' planning for broadband, you're already behind. So there is the risk of doing nothing. How can we help people understand that this choice has to be brought to the conversation within all municipalities?
Cat Blake: I think a big part of that is understanding that broadband access is not just a conversation that should be happening in your IT department, but it's a conversation that should be happening with your economic development team, with your school district, with workforce development and the local economy. So I think even if you're not planning for the future with broadband, you are going to fall behind. And I also think that, you touched on a good point, which is that you don't necessarily have to be working on a full network build to be doing something about this. You can do something like put in a local dig once policy, and you get a little bit of fiber in the ground here, a little bit of conduit in the ground there, and you're still making progress towards a more future-proof community. A way that we combat that as a team is we talk to our communities. We're on the phone with our communities all the time, we try to get out on the road as much as possible, and I think that's what sets us apart as an organization, is that local involvement and local engagement. We try to stay up to date with what our communities are doing, and talk to them about the challenges that they're facing, and also what has been successful.
Pete Pizzutillo: I heard several conversation reframing broadband away from faster cheaper internet into a discussion about how openness leads to innovation and growth. Are you trying to communities think outside the box? And beyond just getting Netflix cheaper.
Cat Blake: You're completely correct that this isn't necessarily a cheap or an easy solution. I think if it were, we wouldn't have this problem, we wouldn't need a conference about how we can connect America. Taking on a broadband project is not easy for any community. It is a big investment, it can be risky. But I think that our communities know that they have to do this now in order to prepare for the future. And it's a bigger risk to not do anything.
Craig Corbin: You talked earlier about what drew you into this opportunity with Next Century Cities. Given the time that you've spent as part of the team, has it been personally, as well as professionally, rewarding for you?
Cat Blake: I got involved because of classes that sparked my interest but getting to work directly with local communities has absolutely furthered that. And I would say of all of the hats that I wear at Next Century Cities, one of my favorite parts of my job is when I get to talk to a community on the phone for an hour, whether it’s to write a blog, or otherwise, or solve a problem. Getting to hear about the work that they've done has been incredible interesting and inspiring to me.
Mark Guillen: Crown Castle has been in business since 1994 providing shared telecommunication infrastructure. What that means is, we have three sides of our business. We're building towers, we are also building the fiber network that the towers work with, and most recently we've been focused on small cell. Small cell are smaller antennas that will be placed closer together than towers, and that will be what the backbone for the coming technologies like 5G will be built upon.
Craig Corbin: It's mind numbing when you look at the projections for the infrastructure required for 5G to come into reality. Help us understand the scope of what you guys are dealing with.
Mark Guillen: Yes, the industry is rapidly changing. We deal with a lot of the mobile carriers, so when 3G and 4G phones were out, the infrastructure was built to handle those things. 4G is what brought in the avenue of using your phone to watch videos and to connect to the internet, and so that was a very big change, that was a paradigm change that changed many business models and many things.
And so now we're at the avenue of 5G. So it's not only that use and demand is growing, but the future will hold a number of different applications that we don't even know are coming. We call them IOT, internet of things, and those could be your watches, those could be your iPad, it could be your refrigerator, it could be the ring on your front door. So those applications will grow tremendously. They say that within the next three years there will be five billion additional IOTs that come in.
That's why we're building 5G, because it's a capacity issue that we're basically at capacity now. Building a more robust infrastructure will help to accommodate all of those new applications.
Mark Guillen: Crown Castle is building those out for the carriers. And so we've identified a number of cities, about ten, that have been identified because of the population density and also because of the data usage and the demand, and so we're building those out now. We perceive that most of those will be fully built out at the end of this year. Incidentally, that will also be when many of the phone carriers will drop their new 5G phones, and so that's kind of what's driving this. But the reality is that when we work with municipalities, it's become different because there's a patchwork of ordinances that oversee the deployment, and it is not friendly to the rapid deployment of the new technologies. And so that becomes a concern because this is a global race to building those infrastructures, and so as a country we don't want to fall behind. And so we have been working really hard behind the scenes to really facilitate policies that help to address that either state-wide or federally so that we can have that robust deployment that everybody is comfortable with.
Craig Corbin: And when you talk about the installation of infrastructure for 5G, there are many schools of thought for the minimum fiber count that's required to accommodate all the volume that inevitable will come. Give us your thoughts on what you have heard and what you are seeing with current deployments.
Mark Guillen: One of the things that have been talked about at this convention today, is that broadband traditionally has been the vehicle to deliver services to municipalities and to households. And it's been okay, and most recently they're realizing that it may be at the end of its term of delivering services, because capacity for them is about ten gigabytes. The reality is it's very soon that demand will be at the 50 and 100. And you just can't do that over copper, and so therefore fiber now becomes very important, because fiber, when we build it out, much greater than 100 gigabytes, I mean we're talking 500, and even greater. Again, working with different technologies like the wireless radio, as that comes in, those will facilitate even more and more. And the fiber is great because as the technology evolves, so let's say 6G, 7G, 8G at some point, the fiber will be able to accommodate all that. It will just be a matter of changing the radio and the technology on top of a pole or on a strand that will be easily changed. So the implication is that okay, so let's say the millennials or the younger generation, they're going to use more bandwidth and data than say, somebody of an older demographic. But the reality is as 5G comes in, and we're talking about delivering healthcare via the internet, as we talk about doing remote surgeries or emergency locations for people who fall in their home, or even for aging in place, which is the optimal way to age. The bandwidth for the use of that, it will become extreme.
Craig Corbin: Knowing that you're working with existing providers, putting in the small cell towers and the infrastructure along with that, any concerns about being able to keep up with the demand for that?
Mark Guillen: One of the things that we battle mostly is talking about the technology. So yes, traditionally towers were how we delivered services, and so the next generation is the small cell. Now just like you did, sometimes people say small cell towers, well it's not a tower, it's a very small unit that's on top of the public right of way. I want to make sure that we understand that. With the towers traditionally they were very good at providing data that would carry talking and text at very long distances, so we're talking two to three miles from a tower you could receive the service. So as we're talking about faster, lower latency, higher capacity, that now is at a different bandwidth, and that bandwidth does not travel very far. So we're talking about maybe 500 to 1000 feet from the small cell. In essence, in order to have good, robust coverage, you have to put them in closer locations. And so that's what's driving this. The reality is that there has to be multiple deployments. And going back to the municipalities, that's really the issue. It's not that they don't want it, it's not that they think it's bad, it's that they're not set up to process the number of permits to do this. So traditionally a tower would be one permit that would go through a process. Recently, it's been five or six small cell applications. Now we're talking about, say in a municipality like Los Angeles, five to six thousand applications. So there's a real learning curve of how do we create a process that works for everybody in a timely manner.
Mark Guillen: I like to say that the United States is a little bit more thoughtful in how they roll out their infrastructure. You know, we have infrastructure like nowhere else in the world, really. And so places like China, when they want to deploy, that's a federal government decision and they just roll it out. That doesn't happen here, because there's individual states who control certain aspects of what we're doing, and then the municipality also controls things like aesthetics and location, and things like that. So there's a more detailed process it needs to go through when we do it municipality by municipality. This is why things like state legislation and federal legislation become helpful, because then everybody's on the same playing field, and that helps for deployment.
Craig Corbin: You just touched on something you think is interesting with regard to aesthetics and the fact that with the small cells and that tight matrix that's required, how much diversity can you have in what the small cells look like?
Mark Guillen: This is one of the things that Crown Castle has worked very, very hard jurisdictionally, is to sit down and have a conversation about the aesthetics. So we take in consideration when we're going to deploy in a historic area, we want to be able to match the existing infrastructure that's there. So if we're going to build a new light pole, we want it to look like what's already there. But there's a gamut of things. Sometimes we just put up a pole with an antenna on top, and it's a appropriate for that area. And then there's other places like say, close to the ocean shore where they want something that looks like a palm tree. And for instance, here in Denver, we often deploy pine tree infrastructure. We can do a variety of things and that we also have that discussion about what's appropriate for your jurisdiction.
Pete Pizzutillo: You mentioned about the federal and the state legislation aligning. Is it not aligned at this point in time?
Mark Guillen: There are many places in the states that have adjusted their ordinances to align with the FCC. But there are other places who there's been some resistance, who are considering maybe changes to the FCC order, so those are the difficult places that we are trying to walk through, what is a good ordinance for this area, how can we help that to be as closely aligned to the FCC. And then also talking about the cost, the cost of attachments, the cost of fees to the process, those all become in play when we talk about changes to them.
Craig Corbin: Talk about what you've seen in your tenure at Crown Castle, and their ability to evolve so quickly with the expectations.
Mark Guillen: That's probably been our ability to adapt has been the key to our success in the last few years. So just some metrics about our company, so like I said we have three parts of our business. So tower, we're at 40,000 towers across the nation, for fiber we're at 70,000 route miles of fiber, and now we have 65,000 small cells, but that small cell number is rapidly growing. And so we have all three. Now that's not to say that there are some companies that provide just tower services, just fiber, just broadband. The great thing about Crown is that we can provide all three for them to work together. Additionally, our key is that we co-locate clients on one infrastructure. So rather than popping up a whole bunch of infrastructure along the public right of way, we've put up one or two or three, and then we co-locate many carriers on that. That not only lowers the cost to the carrier, but it really helps us when we have multiple tenants. That's been a real success for our growth and for the success of the company.
Craig Corbin: The Broadband Bunch back on the air and pleased to be joined by Dan Flemming, founder of Render Networks, one of the more innovative companies to come on the scene of late. Welcome, Dan. How's the event going for you so far?
Dan Flemming: There's some great thought leadership in the industry here, it's been great. I think the focus on rural broadband and the impact of the funding here on the willingness of people to invest rurally is a big difference between Australia and the U.S. And I think the willingness to innovate here is really refreshing. So there are similarities, clearly, because the industries are very similar, but the attitude and the willingness to do things differently is really refreshing. It's great to see.
Pete Pizzutillo: Render has been around since 2013, and I think part of the thinking was that you were looking to eliminate the complexity and drastically improve efficiency in the process of installing fiber.
Dan Flemming: That's correct. And a lot of it I think was driven a bit by my background. I'm a 20 year telecommunications industry person, very proud of that. I was involved with large scale construction projects. And I think we find ourselves, now, delivering different types of networks. And by that I mean we're building large networks from scratch, we're not growing networks organically, and that brings a different challenge for the people that have traditionally delivered networks. Suddenly you're building across and entire area, let's say as an example, to 50,000 new premises, in three years, not 50 years. And our observation globally is that that challenge is often underestimated. And yeah, Render Networks has come up with a new way of approaching that challenge.
Pete Pizzutillo: When you look at the ways that you've done that, from what I've seen and observed, you're making a tremendous difference on the bottom line with optimizing resources and manpower.
Dan Flemming: If we look at the scale of network that's being deployed, there's a lot of capital money required to build these things, and anything that can be done to make people more productive and therefore deliver efficiencies obviously makes sense. So what we're trying to do at Render Network is simply make people more productive and even more simply if I traditionally do four things in a day, but using smarter technology I do five or six things in a day, then suddenly I'm 15, 25, 30% more efficient. And if this project goes for two years, I mean there's an obvious impact of that, so. Yeah, our approach is to think a bit differently, use technology to make people more efficient, and when I say people, it's all stakeholders in the project. So yeah that's the approach, to make people more efficient every day. Again, these networks are complex in their scale, they're not that complex in what they are. An example, I'm building a fiber to the home network to 50,000 subscribers. I'm doing thousands of things over and over again, and it all starts with a design. That design takes a lot of effort to produce, and it's very detailed. Traditionally, what happens when design is pushed into construction, the level of detail that's in the design is not often utilized during construction. So what we do is we have this fundamental idea that said, hang on a minute, why don't we use the design to generate the work tasks? We come up with a whole list of instructions, that if you've digitally got that available, now you can push it to tens of scores, or hundreds of resources using some smart technology, mobile devices, real time visibility of data that in the traditional construction approach it was more construction prints that people need analyze, and they'll write down in red pen what they did. There's lots of paper handoff, so.
Dan Flemming: I think the market in Australia is clearly much smaller, but it's dominated by a small number of large organizations. As opposed to here where there's thousands of smaller organizations. And we're in Australia far more heavily regulated and have much fewer options in terms of competition. And I think importantly in today's focus on this cooperative market, we don't have a similar situation in Australia. So the opportunity here to help lots of small companies do what they need to do, possibly who haven't done fiber roll outs before, is really exciting for us. So there's actually a big difference in the market for us for that reason. There's lots more operators here trying to do the things that a handful in Australia protect for themselves, if you understand.
Pete Pizzutillo: I'm curious what reaction you get when you're working with clients and given the economy that you yield using the math-based visualization and the better use of resources, cutting the anticipated timeframe substantially from when they expected the build to last to what you're seeing with Render Networks. What kind of response are you getting from your clients?
Dan Flemming: Very positive, frankly. Very positive. If you look at what we do, we are different. So the customers that have sort of taken a chance on us, because they've seen some innovation, so there is a willingness for them to do things differently, and an expectation that it's going to yield some results. But certainly, the reaction when you simply do what I said, you change the output of a resource in the field from four to six, and you do that consistently, when they feel that and they see that, it's obviously very positive, it's very positive
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