Fiber Broadband’s End? Southern California Wireless Network Trailblazer Discusses RDOF Win and Expansion into Neighboring States. - ETI
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April 9, 2021

Fiber Broadband’s End? Southern California Wireless Network Trailblazer Discusses RDOF Win and Expansion into Neighboring States.

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

Wireless Network Communications

Craig Corbin:

Welcome to the Broadband Bunch, the podcast about broadband and how it impacts all of us. The Broadband Bunch, as always, sponsored by ETI Software.

Craig Corbin:

The challenge of bridging the seemingly ever-increasing digital divide is one of global importance, especially in light of increased demands for broadband connectivity, in order to support the virtual workplace, distance learning, telehealth, and so much more. One of the companies leading that charge is Southern California-based GeoLinks. The telecommunications company and CLEC public utility ranked among Inc. Magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing companies in America three years running, with seats on a wide array of national boards, coalitions, and working groups, including the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, or WISPA, Broadband Consortium of the Pacific Coast, and the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, among others. GeoLink is truly an industry thought leader.

Craig Corbin:

Our guest today is the Chief Executive Officer of GeoLink. He’s been honored as one of the 40 Under 40 by the Pacific Coast Business Times, Most Influential Leaders of 2018 and 2019 by the San Fernando Valley Business Journal, and honored by Insights Success as one of the 30 most inspiring entrepreneurs of 2019. It is a pleasure to introduce the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of GeoLinks, Skyler Ditchfield. Skyler, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Fixed Wireless Internet Services

Craig Corbin:

Always interested to learn a little bit from your perspective about how things all began with GeoLinks and your background there.

Skyler Ditchfield:

I’ll try to keep it short because it is a long story, but it really goes back to the roots of my childhood. I’ve always had a deep interest in communications, whether it was playing with a portable phone, CB radios, early infrared data communications, stringing up network connections with a 22 gauge speaker wire between homes in our neighborhood. Those are some of my early days stories that slowly translated into what became, in my early teen years, running a dial-up bulletin board system, dial-up internet service provider, and then ultimately led to me starting an internet services company here called GeoLinks in 2010. I had an IT services company prior to that in the early 2000s. I started and sold. It had grown pretty big in our hometown, and a couple of other business ventures in the IT field.  I had always had a desire for communications, but IT had been one of my focuses early on.

Skyler Ditchfield:

My cousin, who is my co-founder, we’re 10 days apart, we’ve grown up together and played with all the technology stuff growing up, got together in July of 2011. He had let me know he was doing some wireless internet services that were connecting rural residents back in a canyon. I asked him how much money he was making, and he said, “Nothing. It’s just fun.” I said, “Well, do you want to make it a business?” He said, “Yes,” and 30 days later we had put all those 45 people on billing and we were off to the races.

Expanding The Wireless Network Footprint 

Brad Hine:

Skyler, everyone knows that’s familiar with the fixed wireless industry, they associate GeoLinks with California. But talk a little bit about the footprint that you’re responsible for in California and those surrounding areas.

Skyler Ditchfield:

We started in Southern California here. We’ve been expanding our footprint out of the greater LA area through programs that we were awarded for construction for rural schools in 2016 through this year. We were the biggest award winner in California for network construction for K-12 schools and libraries. What that allowed us to do is really accelerate our rural footprint through those programs and build-out. We now operate the largest in terms of the total size of network coverage, the largest network in the state of California. We pretty much go border to border North, South, East, and West. Through some additional programs, like the $88 million contract we got with the federal government in 2018, through the Connect America Fund 2 program, and the one that we’re about to go from a provisional winner to a full-fledged winner, in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund which is a $235 million award that will continue to densify us in some of those more rural regions in California.

RDOF Wireless Network Wins

Skyler Ditchfield:

Beyond California, we’ve got an expanding footprint in Arizona and Nevada, as well. We picked up a lot of territory in RDOF in the state of Arizona, which is exciting. We were the largest winner nationally in that state as well. What I think has also been exciting is both the Governor’s Office in Nevada and Arizona have reached out to us and are working with us. I have a meeting actually later this afternoon with them, on how we can really accelerate broadband deployment in those states, and push our footprint out wider than what we’re just obligated to do with RDOF through other government programs. They have their accessibility to government lands and other RFPs and funding programs that they’re running as well.

Brad Hine:

One of the interests that we commonly have on this show, about federal funding that comes through for the fixed wireless business. You mentioned CAF2 and RDOF which we all know so well. In terms of fixed wireless, it’s just a general question, how viable is fixed wireless today. Then, moving into the future, I know it has many advantages over other forms of network infrastructure. Talk a little bit about that decision for you guys to move forward in the fixed wireless market then.

Viability of Fixed Wireless Networks

Skyler Ditchfield:

Fixed wireless has light shed on it, both in the positive and the negative out there in the industry. The negative was something that we had to deal with from a challenge in terms of some misconceptions out there into what it does and what it doesn’t do. Fixed wireless is a fantastic technology. It’s been used since the 1950s to bridge data communications gaps. It’s a great technology. It’s only unreliable when not engineered properly. Unfortunately, sometimes people or operators don’t engineer it properly. That gives people a bad perception of it when it’s not the technology, it’s actually the provider’s issue. The analogy I always use was if you had a landline circuit that was fiber cable and it wasn’t operating properly, you’d call the provider and you’d blame them and tell them to fix it.

Skyler Ditchfield:

For some reason, people have, instead of a fixed wireless approach, blame the technology versus the provider when they need to always hold the provider accountable. For us, fixed wireless has been such a flexible technology because it allows you to span great distances at a lower cost and with a lot less environmental impact than fiber. It was one of the reasons that we’ve been the big winner for four years straight in the state of California for rural schools, as these areas were just not viable from a financial standpoint or from an environmental impact standpoint to build a terrestrial service to these schools. There’ve been large amounts of grants available for them for a long period of time and no provider was picking them up and no fixed wireless guy really knew how to do the construction piece. We went in and we built not only the communications facilities but the towers and the solar slash electrical facilities to power these stations.

Skyler Ditchfield:

We see fixed wireless as a really, really exciting option going forward. Not to say we won’t bring other technologies like fiber into the fold because ultimately a hybrid network using each technology where it makes the most sense, we think, is the best technology going forward. There are some challenges getting to some of the higher speeds like in RDOFs. There’s a lot of people that went into the gigabit tier and gigabit is not a capability usually associated with fixed wireless in rural environments.

Gigabit Wireless Capable Connections

Skyler Ditchfield:

We actually developed our own radio. We started on that path a little over three years ago that we got type approval at the FCC in December. We’re rolling out our first significant batches of those right now that can do gigabit-capable connections at over two miles of distance on unlicensed spectrum, which is a huge, huge benefit. We also have a licensed spectrum version and we’re in the process of acquiring a large chunk of millimeter-wave spectrum. It’ll stretch that to about a four, four and a half-mile broadcast radius, which is even more exciting. We’ll be continuing to make other versions to utilize spectrum holdings of operators for that as well.

Brad Hine:

Obviously in the last year or so now that COVID-19 is a reality in our broadband environment. We’re hearing about school systems and those school systems, the priority and the need for them to remain connected, to keep people online, to keep classrooms moving forward in conductivity between teachers and students, what kind of requests are you seeing in your areas? Are you starting to see schools mandate that they have a more reliable system in place?

Schools With Their Own Wireless Networks

Skyler Ditchfield:

We’ve actually been working with a number of school districts. We’ve had a few papers for feasibility study projects on building their own communications networks, and it comes down to exactly the reason that you’re talking about. The spotlight has been shone on those that have connectivity and those that do not through COVID. Unfortunately, it was a lot of the lower-income students that did not have any connectivity or proper connectivity. Something like a cell phone is not really proper connectivity for long-term connections during the day.

Wireless Network Public-Private Partnership

Skyler Ditchfield:

We’re working with a couple of school districts on finding out what the financial viability is to do this, to build the networks. Right now, we’ve got about five or six school districts that are interested. One that is kind of leading the charge on it. Overall, the state of California’s spent over a billion dollars so far on the little mi-fi hotspots just to give out to students right now, which is really not a financially viable long-term solution because it’s so expensive. The data is used so significantly and the data rates aren’t great in a lot areas where the connections are weak. This is something that has to get solved, whether it’s through, probably a public-private kind of partnership like we’re looking at with some of these school districts or building an entire network from the ground up for the school district. It’s really about assessing what the financial capabilities will be of the school both for the construction and the long-term operation of the network. That’s what we’re working through now.

Brad Hine:

As we said, such a priority for the schools to remain connected. The two biggest industries that we see affected here, obviously, are school districts, school systems, and healthcare. Now, how is GeoLinks’ strategy in that now that you’ve mentioned being so flexible and being able to put up towers and get people online so quickly? How has that now affecting healthcare in these rural areas?

Wireless & Health Care

Skyler Ditchfield:

We’ve been responding to RFPs for healthcare for a few years now. I think we’re starting to get more traction in terms of building more rural connectivity options. We built a few very, very rural hospitals out over the last few years where we built the entire kind of pipeline of the connection from the data center all the way out to the hospital. We’re continuing to do that. We continue to be surprised at finding what kind of exorbitant rates some of these rural hospitals are paying for old copper connections. They’re bonding multiple T ones or they have a DS3 or something along those lines that they’re paying sometimes $10,000 a month or more for 12, 15, 25 megabits of access.

Skyler Ditchfield:

We’re able to build them out and those six to nine months for construction, a connection that can be a hundred megs, 200 megs, or a gigabit or more for less total cost. It’s really about getting the awareness out there to these hospitals. We’re working through some groups that represent them and do the procurement for their data circuits, that there are alternative options available. Because so many of them have gotten, I would say, discouraged because they’ve sat for so long with no alternative options, they’ve kind of got exhausted looking for them. It’s really about letting them know that there are things available. While they do require construction, they will ultimately radically crank up the data capacity and lower the cost.

Brad Hine:

As you are in the midst of all these infrastructure buildings and like we mentioned before, dealing with COVID-19, how has your staff responded to this? Did you have to make massive changes? How easy was that to get everybody on board and create some new processes for that?

Wireless Critical Infrastructure 

Skyler Ditchfield:

It’s been a little bit of a challenge, I think, like it has been for every company. We’ve been a critical infrastructure company, so there was never any shutdown for us. Everyone’s got to keep the internet connections on, but as the pandemic originally came towards us, we like everyone was adjusting with an abundance of caution. We sent everybody to work from home. That seemed to work well for a while. It was, I’d say a few months into it, that we started to notice some of the cracks. I think just people not being together, all being at home just started to strain relationships a little bit where people weren’t working as collaboratively. There was a little bit more of the stress going on from everything that everyone was experiencing and a little finger-pointing that within the organization that we started to see.

Skyler Ditchfield:

We moved to kind of your choice model, which is, if you want to come in, please come in; if you feel like you need to stay home, you can stay home. We obviously sanitized our office and did all the usual steps that we could take, provided PPE equipment and whatnot to our field staff. I would say about 75 to 80% of the staff are back in the office now. We’ve got a small percentage that is still hesitant about coming in, and we’re going to be moving to ask everyone to come back in fairly soon.

Skyler Ditchfield:

I think one of the most difficult things was during the height of it. In the middle was our customers were very concerned about having installations and we had this huge backlog of orders because they were putting them off. We were trying to figure out how to deal with that, how to get them comfortable for accepting the installations. We’re still moving through that backlog actually of orders because of those kinds of concerns. I think we were able to alleviate a lot of them. Overall, we’ve had, I think, five or six positive cases within our company, and we were able to navigate those quite well. Granted, we’re a pretty young company, our average age is 32 years old, luckily we haven’t been in a high-risk category.

Craig Corbin:

You’re listening to the Broadband Bunch. We’re visiting with Skyler Ditchfield, the co-founder, and chief executive officer of GeoLinks. What you’ve already shared Skyler is so exciting, but what you are doing at GeoLinks, certainly not limited to here in the U.S. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, an exciting announcement of a partnership and launch of a new platform that takes you to a different part of the world, in Slovenia, with a partnership with Globtel. Tell us about that.

Globtel, Geo Links Partnership

Skyler Ditchfield:

I think this was three or four years … Actually, that was four years ago now that it’s 2021, that we set out looking for a solution to the impending issue of utilizing five gigahertz as our primary delivery method. If you know fixed wireless, 5 gigahertz is the unlicensed spectrum that most points to multi-point operators operates in. It is increasingly congested, especially in urban and suburban environments. While the demand for data is going up, the amount of devices in that spectrum is also going up, which means the ability to deliver data is going down. We had to find a way around that. We looked at acquiring spectrum as one route, but that may not be affordable. It was very expensive. How do we work with the regulatory framework that’s put forward by the FCC to utilize lightly licensed or unlicensed spectrum to deliver gigabit-capable services?

Skyler Ditchfield:

We worked with a number of companies. Big names put forward our ideas on the solution that we thought would work for this. Unfortunately … well, or I should say, fortunately, those failed because we ultimately then wound up with a partnership with Globtel out of Slovenia. I’ve been working with a gentleman named Pavle over there who has been their business development lead. A fantastic guy to work with. A fantastic team all around. I have to say I’ve had a lot of working relationships with companies over the years. I don’t mean just to say this because we’re working with them, but these guys have shown a work ethic, a dedication to innovation, and a willingness to be flexible with us that I haven’t experienced with any other partner to date.

Wireless Point-to-Point Networks 

Skyler Ditchfield:

We developed a 70 and 80 gigahertz radio that operates in 69 to 71 gigahertz, which has allowed for unlicensed point to multi-point use by the FCC, which is very exciting. We’ve got a two-gigahertz chunk there. For the ability to house four of these 90 degrees sectors on a single broadcast space, we needed another two gigahertz of the spectrum that wasn’t in the oxygen absorption range, like the mid-60 gigahertz is. That led us to using the 81 to 86 gigahertz spectrum and the lower two gigs of that to do the point to point, which is the return spectrum from the client-side to the access point. We’re using a point to multi-point from the tower to the client, and then from the client to the tower, we’re using a lightly licensed point to point band, which has allowed us four gigs of the total spectrum to be utilized there, which is very exciting and allows us the ability to deliver actually up to almost four gigs of downstream from a single sector to a client. We’re operating that all on the DOCSIS 3.1 protocol, which is what cable operators work on today.

Want know more about wireless network management tools?

Cable Moves Towards Wireless Network

Skyler Ditchfield:

We think that’s very exciting because it’s a very known and utilized standard in the industry, but it also is going to provide a very exciting option for wireless extension of cable networks today. You see Spectrum participated big in RDOF. You got guys like Cable One that are making investments and wireless companies like Whisper and Nextlink, and a big movement for the cable operators towards wireless. We think we’re going to offer them an unlicensed approach that’s very exciting in the 70 and 80 gig bands to extend their networks wirelessly and cover more territory. Then, also be able to partner that with some of the spectrum holdings we have in the 28 gigahertz bands to extend their network as well. All around, we’re really excited to have a first of its kind and a radio platform that actually exceeds anything else out in the market by a huge amount in terms of data and broadcast radius.

Brad Hine:

That is fabulous to hear. We get a couple of different cross-sections of people that listen to our show globally, and it definitely speaks to the tech section. You guys are all over all those spectrums. It’s just amazing. A couple of things that I heard, what you just said was partnerships and innovation. As we know, being in business in America and globally, a business has to focus on their core competency and bringing partners into the loop that do other things that, so you can marry your skills together. How important is that to GeoLinks right now in moving forward and currently in your investment?

Wireless Innovative Partnerships

Skyler Ditchfield:

The point you said about sticking to your core competencies is something you have to kind of slap yourself in the face on every time you see an opportunity that’s outside of that and go, “Hey, pay attention to what’s in front of you.” You’ve already got more than you can eat because there’s so much opportunity in the broadband space now. I’d say either, “I’m going to say no,” or “I’m going to bring in a partner that can help us do that.” Did we initially have the thought of “let’s build a radio ourselves”? We did. We realized that that is not our core competency. We need to go find a partner that can do that.

Skyler Ditchfield:

We’re looking to that in other aspects of the business as well, whether it’s tower construction, fiber construction, and/or outsourcing some of our fixed wireless builds now, because we’re at a point that scaling our own teams internally is just it needs to go faster than we can hire and train as well. We were partnering with a college to do some training of veterans as well, to bring them in and get them certified as GeoLinks infrastructure builders. There are so many opportunities when you partner. It will cost you a little bit more than doing it in-house, but ultimately the ability to scale rapidly and avoid those pain points pays off better in the long run.

Brad Hine:

On that innovation vertical, as you’re growing your networks and now you have global partnerships and you’re going to be able to build your infrastructure, this fixed wireless infrastructure that’s a flexible and shorter time to deployment and things like that, how was that IoT piece going to fit into this? We talked about schools, we talked about healthcare. How has that IoT world come in? Is that varied? Is it coming in a lot of different types of industries? What are you seeing from that IoT area?

Flexible Fixed Wireless Infrastructure

Skyler Ditchfield:

IoT is something I’ve been hearing about for a long time and I used to brush it off and diss, like, “IoT, what the heck is that? Is it really going anywhere? Is it going to be connected cars or sensors in concrete?” I thought it was a far-fetched idea until about three years ago, we got our first hit on the line for that in terms of business opportunities. That was putting up camera sensors in a partnership with ALERTWildfire and the utility companies here in California, PG&E in Southern California Edison. We’ve been rolling those out now for the past three years. A very successful program where we’ve put up more cameras to detect wildfires, to provide situational awareness, and to inspect utility company assets together.

IoT Game Changers 

Skyler Ditchfield:

That’s rolling along really, really nicely for us. It’s now producing a lot of revenue and we’ve now, in the last year said, “Okay, where can we further take this IoT aspect? Really, how broad is it and what does the market look like?” In doing that, we formed a partnership with a company called Senet. We put out a press release recently. They are backed by a company who is actually our neighbor, we share a parking lot with, called Semtech. They’re a multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded company and they own the LoRa WAN platform, which is the number one IoT-based communications protocol in the world. It operates extremely long-range communications in the 900 megahertz spectrum. Very, very low power, so you can actually put a double-A battery in one of these devices and it can live in the field for up to 10 years doing low data communication. That is a game-changer because it opens up so many more opportunities and possibilities.

Skyler Ditchfield:

We are looking at opportunities now in oil and gas, everything from pipeline monitoring to tank monitoring, asset tracking. Everything from tracking beer kegs, because I just found out recently 20% of those go missing from manufacturing to the endpoint. And they’re 85 bucks a piece so sticking a $10 sensor on it and know where these things are and cut your loss, it’s a big deal.

IoT Connectivity Opportunities 

Skyler Ditchfield:

The amount of opportunities for IoT is just massive. I think we’re on the front wave of that right now where you got big utilities like gas, water, oil, that have piping and storage conditions that they can lose tons of money if they have a leak or a disruption in that flow and adding new sensors in has a big ROI for them. We’re looking at opportunities right now across the state of California and we’re rolling out the actual gateways that we’ll do the communications with these IoT devices across our entire network in the year 2021, so that when the customers come and raise their hand and say, “We want IoT connectivity,” we’ve got blanket coverage already in our entire area. Given that these broadcasts about 40 miles from a single tower, we will have blanket coverage across the whole state. But we’re looking at opportunities from 60,000 units to 400,000 units going out there for things like tank monitoring, pipeline monitoring, and things like that. It’s been forecasted over the next five years, there’s going to be something like 400 billion IoT opportunities in the piping industries alone across America.

Brad Hine:

That’s amazing and fixed networks will be supporting all of that.

Brad Hine:

Well, always on our show, we like to hear some of that impassioned side of your career path and where you’ve come from to where you are now. On a daily basis, what continues to keep you fired up about what’s going on at GeoLinks and the market and industry, also?

Skyler Ditchfield:

There are so many ebbs and flows day to day, week to week, and month to month when you’re in a fast-growing business. I was just on our weekly manager’s meeting that we conduct via Zoom now, this morning with our management team, and talking to them about the challenges that we face every day being in a business that is not static, that’s ever-growing and changing. That means you’re doing a different job every three months. It can be very stressful, but I try to keep them focused on our big goal, which is we want to be a company with a multi-billion dollar enterprise value. We have a clear path that we can see to achieve that. Continue to do well while doing well for ourselves.

Skyler Ditchfield:

What that means is providing good services for our customers, really treating our customers like we would like to be treated, that’s one of the mottos that I instill in our entire team, and make digestible milestones that we can feel accomplished on the way to that big milestone. Because if you just put one massive milestone out there, you feel like you’re never going after it. You need those small wins on a day-to-day, a week by week, and a month by month basis. I have to do that for myself as well, so that you feel like, “Okay, I got to win, I put something behind me. I got to win, I put something behind me.”

Skyler Ditchfield:

But what keeps me really engaged and excited is that we’re really on a hockey stick trajectory of opportunity in the broadband space. I’ve really had to talk to myself and our team members that we’re now in a place where it’s not an opportunity that that’s an issue for us. It’s really the discipline of saying no and picking the right opportunities. That’s a real mindset shift from being an entrepreneurial mindset where you’re scrapping for the opportunity for many years, and now you have more than you can deal with. That, I think, is a motivator as well, because it’s something that allows you to say, “Hey, we’ve made it. We’re doing well. There’s so much here now. Pat yourself on the back and realize that we’re now in a place that we need to be picky and choose what’s best for us.”

Brad Hine:

That’s great. How important or how fun is it that you’re sharing it with a family member and your organization also?

Skyler Ditchfield:

Ryan and I, we grew up together. We’re pretty much like brothers. I think the best part about it all is that we trust each other completely. I’ve had bad business partnerships. We’ve all had bad friendships and things like that along the years, but having someone that trusts me in what I do and I trust him in what he does, and there’s never a hint of any concern on that front, is the biggest piece of mind I think you could possibly have in a business. I’m very, very grateful to have him. He’s been a wonderful teammate and a wonderful partner. At the end of the day, we get to sit in our success together and that’s always fun as well. As you’re growing with a company and it goes beyond just your partner but to the rest of your executive team and your employees, it’s great for you all to feel that success because it’s not fun just winning alone. It’s fun winning with a team.

Craig Corbin:

It’s obvious, Skyler, that you have such passion for what you’re doing and the tremendous success at GeoLinks. There obviously are a lot of great stories that you could recall over the time that you’ve been in the industry.

Skyler Ditchfield:

I’ll tell one that’s kind of interesting and funny. In our early days, we had met a gentleman who owned a lot of tower sites. A very wealthy individual, I think he called himself the hundred million dollar man, was one of the names.

Skyler Ditchfield:

He was very anti-government which is an opinion you’ll find with some people. I find that I think you should have a healthy fear and a healthy relationship with the government. You should have a little of both. He was dealing with regulatory issues which we all find a bit constraining here in the state of California from a business aspect. The state was giving him a lot of issues at one of his tower sites. He decided, instead of dealing with them anymore, that he would put up a fence around the property and fill it with cougars. It led to a newspaper article and ultimately a big lawsuit which I think he enjoyed. I think he liked that. I remember him saying that one day he even left the cougars out of the pen to chase some of the officials off the mountaintop and they never came back. Very smitten with himself over lunch about that.

Craig Corbin:

That that qualifies as an all-time story here on the Broadband Bunch. Oh, my goodness. This has been great, Skyler. I wish that we had more time today to visit, but I would love to go ahead and be able to look forward down the road at a time where we can circle back and visit more because you have so much going on at GeoLinks. The work that you’re doing, you and your team, phenomenal, Brad, I know you concur. So impressed with what you are doing and we appreciate you sharing your time and the stories that you have with us today.

Skyler Ditchfield:

Thank you, guys, very much. I’d love to continue to share. There’s always so much going on. You only think of so much when you’re on the air for a few minutes, so I’ll look forward to the next session with you. I appreciate the opportunity.

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About the Author

Priscilla Berarducci - Sales and Marketing Coordinator

Priscilla manages digital content and supports sales/marketing efforts for ETI. She also serves as brand manager for the Broadband Bunch podcast where she books industry professionals who want to share their broadband stories.