September 28, 2021

Fiber Connect 2021: Interview with Tom Counts, 3GIS

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

Great conversation between Brad and the founder of 3GIS Tom Counts at Fiber Connect 2021. Even though everyone is competing against each other at the end of the day the goal for everyone is the same – bring broadband connectivity to those who need it.

Brad Hine:

We have Tom Counts from 3-GIS with us today.  Tom, share with our audience a little bit of your story.

Tom Counts:

I started the company back in 2006, always knowing that… I’ve been in this industry for 30 years now. So knowing that I am going to be probably ending my career with 3-GIS, and it happened. But my career is not over. I hope not. Maybe I should ask somebody, but we actually sold to SSP Innovations last December, December 23rd, is when we made the transaction happen, and I was no longer the CEO. I’m the artist formerly known as CEO.  We talked to literally over 200 different suitors that were interested in 3-GIS and we really found the perfect fit. I mean, I still say it’s like finding a unicorn, when we met SSP because they were culturally aligned, they understood Esri, they understood our market. Now they’ve always been utility focused and not so much in telecom. And so, when we said, “Okay, we can put two and two together here and get 22, and it really did work well. And Sky Perry, part of… I mean, he’s the CEO of SSP. He is just a super guy to work with, and work for, which is kind of interesting for me to say today. I haven’t worked for anybody in a long time.

Tom Counts:

Just keep everybody safe and moving forward. I think, just what you’re doing here with the Broadband Bunch. I really think about marketing, messaging, getting the word out, letting people understand what we’re doing. I think we all need to do a better job at that. I walk around and I see companies I’ve known for years and still don’t really know what they did.

Brad Hine:

Refining that message on an annual basis is so crucial to what we do. So just for some of our audience, explain to them exactly what 3-GIS does in the industry.

Tom Counts:

Well, so my wife asks me that all the time, “What do you do?” I said, “Okay, we’re an asset management company at the end of the day.” Every telephone company, they don’t keep their assets in a warehouse. They’re out there in the world. They’re spatially connected. They have impact. They have from tax consequence to continuing property records, to understanding Sarbanes-Oxley, all the way to how’s the knee bone connected to the thigh bone. And so, back from my days at Intergraph, to Mesa Solutions, to Telcordia Ericsson, to 3-GIS, inventory has always been a challenge. And then what we talk about so many times… And actually I got into a big discussion about it earlier yesterday about posting, because the data gets old if you don’t do constant posting of your work orders and keeping your data up to date.

And so, we’ve always wanted to build an ecosystem that works with mobile tools, that they could get data from the field, put it into the GIS, share that data out to the OSS, BSS. Right? Years ago, the magical term was flow through provisioning. Really what it means, is a common sense of record keeping that is the truth, a single truth. And provisioning always says they’ve got it, activation says, “I need it.” GIS always says, “I have it.” Right? And how do you make all that work well together? And so, when we started 3-GIS, actually I came after coming out of Telcordia, I said, “I wanted to do something simple. I don’t want to do that anymore.” That was really complicated at heart. So we started building a thin client, web-based, scalable… It’s still scalable, but not so complicated fiber management tool.

And not knowing any better, we kept going, we kept going, and now 3-GIS is completely an enterprise capable, complex, but not complicated system. And I think that’s what I’m most proud of, is we took a really hard problem and made it pretty easy to use.

Brad Hine:

Gotcha.

Tom Counts:

So, I mean, a user manual shouldn’t look like the New York City phone book.

Brad Hine:

Right.

Tom Counts:

And I don’t want that. So it should be Google obvious, I’d say. If you sit down at our system, you should be able to use it without really having a whole heck of a lot of training.

Brad Hine:

Right. So plan, design, construction, and end-to-end management-

Tom Counts:

Maintaining it, right. Yeah, that’s right.

Brad Hine:

Visualization of all your networks assets.

Tom Counts:

The whole kit and caboodle.  So historically we weren’t so much in the planning and designing side. It was really letting other people do that. It was usually Esri based, to be honest with you, and then sucking that data in, and then managing the assets through construction and post construction. So now we’ve gone, what I call to the left, to the actual really planning and design. Because so much of that is becoming automated now, and we’re working with our own technology and working with partners, such as COMSOL, Latizio, Vasari, to use their auto-planning engines.  We can consume that in our system, do the auto planning, do the design, create what I call work packets or permittable designs. So you can go from the design, get it permit ready, and you can always have a consistent package that you can produce for the city or the county or whoever, to review it. And those consistent packages make your designs go through so much easier. Instead of them seeing 12 different contractors, selling 12 different packages, that all look different, and they all have to figure it out, and some get approved and some don’t, once you start getting that consistent package over and over and over again, the approvals happen faster and faster and faster.

Brad Hine:

So you are the central system of record for all of that?

Tom Counts:

We hope to be, yeah. I mean, so some of our very large customers have positioned us that way. That’s what we always wanted to be, but it was always a hard fight because the provisioning guys always said, “Well, that’s us.” And I said, “Well, let’s work together. Let’s work and very much support in the world of ETI.” Right?  Let’s share that data in a common geospatial database. But I mean, you may not really worry about all the splice points, and really you’re worrying about A to Z. What are my end-point connections and sharing that with an OSS and BSS is a whole lot easier today than it used to be.

Brad Hine:

Agreed.

Tom Counts:

So now, with 3-GIS web, we’re just launching our, what I call our true APIs. We were using rest end points. We were very… We’re still very Esri centric, but to integrate with our system, you always needed to understand how to connect without system just through rest end points and get into the data. That’s dangerous because you can also screw things up and break things. And so, what we’re now releasing is a very detailed and thorough API library. So people with their OSS and BSS systems that want to integrate with 3-GIS, it becomes very natural.

Brad Hine:

That is the key to working openly with everybody that we’re seeing on the floor right now, as we sit here and chat.

Tom Counts:

I’ve sat through so many of these presentations for the software defined network, the SDN and the network feature virtualization. And it’s all Web 2.0 architecture, and much like ETI. And so, we completely embraced Web 2.0 when we started the company, but it’s taken a long time to really mature to the point where it is today. And it took a lot longer than I really thought it would, but it’s a complicated industry. It’s a complicated market.

Brad Hine:

Telecommunications. I mean, we want things to change overnight, and we’re happy to refine it a little bit quarterly and annually, and it’s great to hear that you guys are getting there. As you walk around this conference, I’ve been joking, and I’ve said it a few times, that we’re all coming out of hibernation now. And now we’re finally face to face. In Fiber Connect Now we haven’t been this way in two years. So what are some of the new things that you’re seeing? Are you excited about being here?

Tom Counts:

I’m excited about just being here.  I’ve got my mask in my pocket, but I think everybody here is vaccinated you talk to. I’ve had more hugs and I mean, grown men, walking up, giving you a hug, it’s just not something that you’re used to doing at a fiber show. Right?

Brad Hine:

We live for these things and face to face and contact and physical interaction like that.

Tom Counts:

Well, you forget all the people you… I mean, you don’t get, but you take for granted the people you used to see it shows all the time and then you don’t, and you realize, “I miss these guys.” And then you start walking around and seeing each other. I mean, standing right here next to the Inch House guys. They’re competitors, but I love them. I’ve known them for so long. So, you don’t have to be enemies with your competitors. You can still be friends.

Brad Hine:

That’s a great point. There’s enough out there. And especially with all the government money we’ve seen that’s being shared over the last few years. We had the Connect America fund and then there’s the CAF2, we have RDOF. And I mean, the list goes on. There’s enough for everybody and everybody has their niche.

Tom Counts:

Well, that’s where we find ourselves now. Historically, I’ve always sold to the carrier. I have more activity in my booth now with the DICOM, the contractors, the construction people, because they’re wanting to be able to produce these construction ready packages, permittable packages, and they know that, “Hey, I can’t do that with CAT anymore.” I can, but it’s hard, it takes a long time, and more and more, thank heavens, of the carriers are using 3-GIS software. And they would love to be able to create permittable designs in a system that will automatically be loaded right into the carrier’s data bank.

Brad Hine:

That API is going to help you with a lot of those guys too.

Tom Counts:

Yes, it will. Yes, it will. We just got off a call with one of our major customers and they have built a bunch of, let’s call it connection points, into our software, and it was painful. Right? Because we didn’t have all the APS at the time. And now that we’re releasing the APIs, they’re so happy because they can drop that entire development group… Not development group but development effort. I’ll put it that way.

I think that’s one of the biggest changes. I mean, even two years ago we saw the contractors, the construction companies, seeing more and more interest in our software, but they were never what I would a focus customer… A market we really were attacking.

Brad Hine:

You’ve spent 15 years just at 3-GIS, but before that, you said 30 years in the business, so a lot of knowledge has gone into where you are today, to have these folks recognize you.

Tom Counts:

We were talking about MCI a little while ago. I mean, I remember I thought they were the smartest guys in the world when they were building their right of ways down the railroad tracks. I thought that was genius, because that’s a straight line.  Anyway, that’s a whole other story, but yeah. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen a lot of changes. A lot of the same people are still here, sometimes their shirts change, but-

Brad Hine:

We talk about broadband as a general term for lots of different types of technology and infrastructure. So are you guys working with any wireless fixed, wireless type of network and infrastructure? Are you planning for that?

Tom Counts:

So we’re doing a tremendous amount of dentification.  If you think about fiber consumption today, you’d run four strands to a fiber tower, a 4G fiber tower, and they’re a mile and a half apart. So with 5G rolling out like it is, as fast as it’s going, especially for 5G high band, these antennas are 300 feet apart and some taking up to eight strands of fiber cable. So now I start doing the math… That’s some crazy numbers you’re having to deal with. And when I talk about 3-GIS being scalable, when we started, we had no idea that was coming. We just wanted to be able to scale for the likes of a major carrier; like a BT of the world. Because when I moved, we did BT with a network engineer. It almost killed us, just trying to scale up to their needs.

And so, we wanted to make sure we built a system that could scale up like that from the ground up, never thinking about 5G. And so, now with the carriers out there that are really starting to embrace… And cities and municipalities even.  They’re saying, “Hey, I want to do this instead of having the carers do it in my city. I’ll dig it once. I’ll make it an open network. I’ll lease it out.” But they’ve got to put in a lot of fiber cable. I mean-

… it’s a staggering amount of fiber they’re putting in, right?  But if they do it, they’re in control of their destiny and they’re not going to have their city dug up and destroyed by the carriers, which I think is pretty smart. But at the same time, you’ve got to have a system that can manage all that data. And we’re going from, let’s call it tens of thousands of records, to tens of millions of records, and I never saw that coming.

And to be honest, since our system is architected the way it is, where we are on AWS, we have not had one hiccup in scale.

Brad Hine:

That’s fabulous to hear.

Tom Counts:

Yes. I agree. Because I was terrified when I started thinking about the number of records that were coming, because there’s all the ports that go in with it, all the splices, connection points. I mean, attachment points on poles, all that has to be kept up with. And so, when you’ve got so many more records to deal with, I thought, “This could really be bad.”

Brad Hine:

It’s great to hear that you guys are working with new 5G technology and designing that as well as our traditional fiber, like we talked about here, at Fiber Connect, but I think the first time you and I met, I think was here back in 2008. I’m always curious for a company that’s journeyed like yours… I want to ask you the back to the future question. So, if you knew then back in 2008, something really important that would have helped you over the last 13, 15 years, or so. What are your thoughts on that?

Tom Counts:

That’s a hard question. So, if I knew then what I know now, what would I do different? I think I would have approached mobile differently, and I think we would be where we are today, but I think we wasted a lot of time and a lot of ground getting to where we are today, inefficiently. We built a product called Field Express Chameleon. I don’t know if you remember that. I still think it’s a beautiful tool, but it’s a mobile tool that would do anything for anyone, anywhere, anyhow, disconnected or connected. It was a mass… It’s a chameleon. It would change its skin based upon what you wanted it to do. A lot of money and time went into that, right? So here’s-

Brad Hine:

That’s an education, right? You pay for your education though, right?

Tom Counts:

I think about this in the sense, when you market something that says, “I could be anything to anyone, anywhere, anytime,” nobody’s interested because it doesn’t speak to them. And so, if I had spent a 10th of the time… I’m serious, a 10th of the time developing a mobile tool that just helped you see your fiber, I’d be done, I’d have sold it right out of the gate, and people would say, “Oh, that’s a mobile tool provider. I know exactly what I need to do.”  But we could not give it away. And so, now we have what’s called 3-GIS mobile. We don’t call it Field Express Chameleon and 3-GIS mobile is very focused and it’s great. It sales like crazy because it’s a fiber documentation tool for the field. Period. End of story.

Tom Counts:

But Field Express Chameleon, dadgumit… As Bobby Bowden would say, “Dadgumit,” it was everything to everybody and everybody should have it. You should have it on your phone right now, but no. That’s one of those little lessons you go, “Holy crap.”

Brad Hine:

We always look back and we figure out how we could have made better decisions, but I always like to ask that question because I think there’s some great nuggets in there for all the vendors out there. And thanks for much for joining us today. Tom, I wish you, and 3-GIS all the best; and SSP innovations, now also.

Tom Counts:

Yeah, it’s a great pairing. Thanks so much.

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