September 28, 2021

Fiber Connect 2021: Interview with Luke Burkhard

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

Brad Hine:

With me, I have Luke Burkhart from CNI ComNet Inc. Where are you from Luke?

Luke Burkhart:

I’m from Wapakoneta, Ohio. It’s the home of Neil Armstrong and The Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum.

Brad Hine:

Fabulous. I appreciate you pronouncing the name of your city, but hey it’s great to run into you. Is this your first Fiber Connect?

Luke Burkhart:

It is my first time here at Fiber Connect and it’s such an eye-opener.

Brad Hine:

I bet. I bet. So first time back, face-to-face in a conference, so you were probably here surveying this for your team back home. Is that true?

Luke Burkhart:

I was, yeah. So we actually had a few folks that came from our fiber side and they asked me to tag along to evaluate the Fiber Connect show to see if that’s something on our services side that would make sense to the booth and we definitely will be doing a booth next year. This has been an amazing show.

Brad Hine:

Oh, great. Glad you liked it. So what are some of the things that you saw this year, specifically that you really liked?

Luke Burkhart:

A lot of what I really liked was there’s a good variety of broadband providers, everything from your traditional facility-based ILAC to your hybrid, wireless fiber provider, municipalities, electrical co-ops, people that are just looking to get into fiber for the first time. And it’s a great time to do that with the funding that’s out there and available, fiber broadband is the way to go. As it says on the Fiber Broadband Association, if it’s not fiber, it’s not broadband.

Brad Hine:

That’s a great point. There’s a lot of federal money going into this now, obviously, because the last 18 months, what we’ve been coming from. So you’re starting to see a lot of talk about economics around this. You had some conversations about that this week also?

Luke Burkhart:

I have, yeah. And both our existing partners that we work with, as well as some potential new ones, I’ve had a chance to interact with here at the show. We’ve been able to hear about what they’re doing, both at the state level with items in Indiana, where there’s the next level grants and stuff on the state level there. And then also in the federal level where they’re doing some broadband items now to in infrastructure. And they’re taking advantage of it, which is great.

Brad Hine:

That’s great to hear. So how about the sessions this week? So did you attend some sessions and maybe what caught your eye or your ear this week?

Luke Burkhart:

The sessions were really good at this event. I really enjoyed, not just the information, but you could tell it was pertinent because it was standing room only in almost every single room. For every single item and they covered everything from outside plants to integrating software and APIs, fiber general deployment, those kinds of things. They even had a General Fiber 101 class for those that weren’t sure. So it’s an educational not to be missed.

Brad Hine:

So there’s something here for an any-stage fiber deployment then?  So what do you think now CNI is going to do next year? You said you’re going to have a booth, so what will your strategy be coming here with them and what’s the market that you serve specifically?

Luke Burkhart:

So the market we serve specifically is really the broadband or internet providers as a whole and it’s those backend services. It’s that call center, the radius authentication, backend, ISP in a box, Knock, CALEA Trusted Third Party, all that lawful intercept type items, video headends, virtual video headends, multicast both as well through being able to replace those satellites that had the 5G issues. Or being able to help people with those. And that’s a market that I think this Fiber Broadband Association, having the Fiber Connect show, having people both from even existing MSOs and fiber hybrid coax solutions for video. So I see potential here, both on our video side, as well as our fiber support side, as well as our operation support side, that it’s really a no brainer for us to make sure that we’re here and here in force as a sponsor and as a booth’er! I didn’t trademark it.

Brad Hine:

So for your communities back home, we all know this is important, but what’s some of the direct feedback that you’re getting from your communities back home about getting fiber services? I’m very fortunate to live in an area, I have a gig coming right to my house. That’s not always the case across the nation, so talk a little bit about what that means to your community.

Luke Burkhart:

So the beauty in the community where I live is it is well-served with fiber to the home, as well as the neighboring… A lot of the neighboring communities are almost all fiber to the home now. Rural Ohio, where I’m from, has a lot of really great partners, a lot of really great communications companies that are just putting fiber in the ground left and right to serve those rural and unserved areas. And as we’ve been growing over the last few years, we’re working in 20 different states besides Ohio now with companies.

That’s their sole goal is they’re working together with partnerships, both public, private partnerships, to say, “Hey, how can we make an open-access network or how can we further make that connectivity for the end-user, for that subscriber who maybe I can’t serve directly, but maybe somebody can come in and use our open network to serve that customer.” But with the ultimate goal of serving that customer to have a gig, or at least a half gig, whatever it might be, to be able to work from home or to be able to do schooling at home or whatever it might be.

Brad Hine:

Wow. So it sounds like you’re serving both residential and commercial at this point then.

Luke Burkhart:

So, on the support backside of that. Yeah, we have companies that are doing that all over. Our fiber network within Ohio and Northeast Indiana, Southeast Michigan we’re that middle mile provider. We’re providing the internet to the people who provide internet to the people. That’s what we’re doing. And so it’s been a great show from both aspects. Both our fiber side, where we are doing those types of things, as well as the side where I represent on the services side, to be able to see the needs of what… Just having general conversations, meeting new people, and saying, “What are your takes from the show?” And learning to be able to say, “Hey, yeah, this is a good fit for us. We need to be here and we need to help people.” That’s really my goal, is to help people.

Brad Hine:

So I had a thought about that. So clearly you’ve done this for a while. So for our audience, tell them how you got into this. Were you a techie growing up? How did you get into this line of work?

Luke Burkhart:

I won’t go into the whole story because we don’t have two hours, but we’ll put a teaser out there that the good Lord gave me the ability to play the tuba and that’s how I got into it. The short story is that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was a techie growing up, but I played the tuba for the Lion State band in Ohio and I had to go back to my local Lion’s Club and do a report. The head of the Lions was the general manager of a local telephone company who then said, “Hey, would you be interested in working for our local internet provider?” And I became their technician in 97 and I’d been in the industry since 97, 9 years as a network admin and technician. Now I’m in technical sales and have been doing that for 15 years. So, a little over 20 years in the industry working. Doing everything from initially doing 28.8 modems all the way through to now we’re doing 10 gig, 100 gig connections, as we have several 100 gig connection backbones within our own networks.

Brad Hine:

Wow. So it sounds like from what you’ve said, anyone that has a will and a passion to do this can do this, so that speaks a lot to our greenfields and folks trying to accomplish this throughout the rural U.S.

Luke Burkhart:

That is correct. If you have a passion and you’re willing to learn, there are jobs out there in this industry for you. It doesn’t have to be sales. If you have that ability to talk and smile and people can hear the smile through your voice, you can do anything.

Brad Hine:

Well, thanks so much Luke for joining us today. I appreciate it. I know everyone’s starting to pack up here, but I appreciate you coming over and giving us some thoughts and we’ll be reaching back out to CNI in the weeks to come and we’ll try to get a longer-form story from you guys.

Luke Burkhart:

Sounds great, I’m looking forward to it. Thank you very much.

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