Insights from Industry Experts on Mapping, Data, and Bridging the Digital Divide - ETI
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March 14, 2024

Insights from Industry Experts on Mapping, Data, and Bridging the Digital Divide

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

Joe Coldebella:

Hello. Welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Joe Coldebella, and we are in the Harrison Edwards Media Center at Mountain Connect in Denver, Colorado. Joining me are Brian Mefford and Andrew Eubank with VETRO Fiber. Guys, welcome to The Broadband Bunch.

Brian Mefford:

Thanks, Joe, great to be here.

Andrew Eubank:

Awesome, I’d second that.

Introducing the Guests

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, you’re almost a co-host with me, Brian. You’ve been on so many times. Andrew, this is the first time you’re on the show. Before we dive into the topic at hand, which I think is a really important one, I’d love it if you guys could just share a little bit about yourselves.

Andrew Eubank:

All right, yeah, aspirational. I’d love to be a co-host someday. I want to be like Brian when I grow up. So I come from an ISP background. Right now, I’m overseeing the services and solutions group for VETRO FiberMap. I was born and raised in Telco, and I think, like everybody else, it was something like responding to a Craigslist ad that got me into the industry.

Joe Coldebella:

Really? Okay, so you were born and raised in this field?

Andrew Eubank:

Yep, absolutely, yep.

Diverse Paths to the Telecom Industry

Joe Coldebella:

It’s funny.  There seem to be two tracks. Some people are lifers who have been a part of it since they started in the field. Then there are folks that are pulled into it from all different directions.

Andrew Eubank:

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think there’s a lot of established tracks. We’re getting better. We’re getting better in the industry at establishing those things. But I think a decade ago it was exactly as you outlined it. So you either know somebody or somebody comes and grabs you.

Brian Mefford:

My way into the industry came a bit from exposure of my dad’s career. He was a Ma Bell guy. He was with BellSouth for more than 30 years and worked his way up from a lineman to doing government affairs toward the end of his career. And as a teenager, he was doing this cool work with the University of Louisville. I’m from Kentucky. They were doing a public-private partnership to demonstrate how fiber optics could be used to support entrepreneurs in Kentucky. It was 40 years ago or so.

A Journey into Telecommunications

Joe Coldebella:

That’s crazy.

Brian Mefford:

Yeah. And so I remember going into this room, this building. They had fiber optics around the ceiling, lighting them up. And it was kind of decorative. It was cool. And they had mannequins grabbing onto the fiber. It was kind of crazy. But I mean, in a practical sense, I got to spend time with these entrepreneurs who were moving to this space because they had access to cutting-edge telecommunications technology. And they were building their businesses. I learned to code HTML. That was a brand-new thing at the time. They were just jazzed and excited. And I was like, “Well, that’s interesting. I would like to figure out how to do that myself one day.” So I’ve spent the past 22 years working on similar public-private partnerships across the country.

Joe Coldebella:

Isn’t it crazy that we’re still trying to solve that use case? I interviewed Wilson, North Carolina. And one of the local businesses, 90% of their business was local. Then they got online. Now 90% of their business net is online. Wow, it’s just incredible.

Brian Mefford:

What a shift.

The Imperative of Comprehensive Mapping

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, it is really incredible. But we’re here to talk about mapping. So this is kind of an open-ended question. Does it all need to be mapped?

Andrew Eubank:

Yes. And there are so many reasons why.

Brian Mefford:

For good reasons.

Andrew Eubank:

So I’m an operations guy coming from a telecom background. At the end of the day, you can’t just build something to a customer and then walk away from it. You have to go out and repair it and be a good steward. You have to make sure that you’re actually doing what you said you would do at the beginning of whatever process. Whether it’s investment or whether it’s a grant program, you have to actually be a good steward and operate your network. So yes, it all has to be mapped, but how?

Evolving Beyond Broadband Mapping

Brian Mefford:

Yeah, I’ll add that. For the past 20 years or so, we’ve used the generic term “broadband mapping”. And for forever that basically meant we want a map that shows us where broadband is and where it isn’t. We’re so far beyond that now. And to Andrew’s point, yes, there’s so much data that needs to be on a map so that we can make smart, strategic, informed decisions.

And really, now we can answer questions like, who doesn’t have service? Not where, I mean who? What homes, what businesses and at what addresses don’t have adequate service? And who should build that service? What should we expect it to cost? How long should we expect it to take to build those areas? And then the more theoretical, what’s going to happen once they get it? We’ve gotten to a place where it’s much more practical and tactical given the data that we have. But it’s a ton of data that has to be, to your point, Joe, quote, unquote, “mapped in the right way”.

Multi-Use Connectivity Mapping

Andrew Eubank:

I would also contend that we have to be futurists with that data as well, right? So we think sometimes narrow-mindedly about servicing customers, but also what about smart traffic signals? What about all of these other various connectivity things that require data? They require a signal for your autonomous Tesla to drive down the road. At some point, this is a multi-use case scenario. So it’s not just identifying the customers we’re going to serve, but also the other industry uses that we’re going to serve with that.

Brian Mefford:

Great point.

Joe Coldebella:

That’s a great point. When you hear the word “map”, you think that it’s finite, and you’re locked in. But these are living documents, right? In fact, it’ll never be done in terms of the mapping because it’s just all the different things that are happening.

Infrastructure Nodes

Brian Mefford:

Yeah, and to Andrew’s point, I made a similar one in the session we just came out of. If you think about electric poles, utility poles, light poles, street lamps, and rooftops, there are nodes that will go on each of these pieces of real estate. Over time, those need to be mapped. They’re going to offer solutions that we can point to today, but then some that don’t exist yet. We need those in a visual map so that people can gather around the map and say, “Oh, here’s this new technology that we didn’t know about five years ago that, if we can aggregate all these connection points, we can provide this service or this product.” Having those visually on a map so people can see them is sort of mission-critical.

Joe Coldebella:

All right so, and I apologize if I’m being a little too rudimentary here, but I think there’s a lot of confusion on a lot of things in regards to broadband. There are so many different ways and so many different paths that people take. Is most of the country mapped?

Understanding Levels of Innovation and Education

Brian Mefford:

Well, it depends on what you’re talking about being mapped. I mean, in terms of where services are available, we’re further along now than we’ve ever been. In terms of knowing at an address level who should be eligible to receive a subsidized grant to get a project built out to them, yeah, we pretty well have a reasonable handle on that now. And it’s because of a lot of effort that was done initially sort of modeling that out theoretically, but then putting that data out to ISPs and asking, “How right or how wrong is this?” But then gets to a point where with FCC changes in how they collect data. Again, that’s changed to collecting data at an address point so that we have a better idea of who’s serving what to whom.

Andrew Eubank:

You could almost scale it by levels of innovation and then levels of education, right? So I think Brian makes a fair point. It’s safe to say that most of the country is mapped, and now it boils down to how can we quickly and economically educate all the stakeholders on how it’s mapped. That sets your levels of education.

And then your level of innovation is, how do we take and consolidate this and, for the next use case that we don’t even know about, make it just so quick to actually do something with that data, right? So we don’t end up in a scenario 20 years from now where we come back, and we’re like, “Man, we disaggregated everything. We don’t know where this stuff is. We’re going back to the drawing board.” So we have to be mindful of, how do we stay in this state of innovation for the next several generations?

The Never-ending Quest for Data Quality

Brian Mefford:

So I might add, going back to the drawing board makes me think, I mean just to clarify my point, that we never check the box. I mean, we’re never done with this, right? And so we have a level of data now that we’ve never had before, truly. And it’s better quality data. It’s far from perfect. And so that’s why in some of these major government grant programs, there’s a process built in to sort of check the quality of the data. Not sort of, I mean it’s a sort of multi-level process, where the government has the ability to dip in and do quality checks.

But really there’s a call on states to manage what’s been called the challenge process to publish this data out to constituents, local governments, nonprofits, and other ISPs, to then start opening up the ability for them to challenge and say, “That’s not right. Here’s why it’s not right.” And then have a process to adjudicate that.

Joe Coldebella:

This is great. When I walk through the halls here, people are running around with their hair on fire and saying, “Oh, it’s so bad. It’s so dire.” But it sounds as though there are things in place. Obviously, it’s not perfect. But everyone’s trying to do as best they can. It’s not an easy sort of thing. So speaking of the challenge process, why is the challenge process important then?

The Vital Role of the Challenge Process in Broadband Funding Programs

Brian Mefford:

The NTIA did a great job when they designed this program to say, “We want to get this money deployed and invested as quickly as possible. But we want to make sure there are checks along the way.” And so this challenge process is just that. It’s a very prescriptive way that states are guided to allow others to come in and look at the data and, again, provide feedback to say, “That’s wrong or right. Here’s where it’s off on the edges.” And then to then iterate with the ISPs that have provided that data to say, “Tell us, you weigh in. If somebody’s challenged this, can you defend what you’ve told us about where you serve and what you provide? And if not, we’re going to change how we decide to invest in a given area.”

Joe Coldebella:

So it’s sort of like the Cold War “trust, but verify”?

Brian Mefford:

There’s definitely some of that going on, for sure.

Challenges and Responsibilities for State Broadband Offices

Joe Coldebella:

But ultimately if someone says that an area is served then all this money goes away, and they’re not really served. Then the digital divide unfortunately grows as opposed to narrows.

Andrew Eubank:

Yeah, I think it’s something we all contemplate and dread. And it’s a deeply important process. And I would say, with the current round of funding and any future rounds of funding, it’s going to require a depth of investment on those who are controlling the process to evaluate those challenges and to be just hyper mindful of any political aspects behind those challenges. I mean, that’s the realm we live in, tons of money, tons of politics involved.

Brian Mefford:

There’s a lot of risk here for these state broadband offices, right? I mean, some of these offices, a lot of them didn’t exist a year or two years ago. Most of them didn’t exist five years ago. And now, many of them have a billion-dollar mandate.

Joe Coldebella:

I just talked to someone from Mississippi. They got $1.2 billion for BEAD, and they’re ramping up. I’m rooting for them.

Andrew Eubank:

That’s my retirement fund.

Implementing High-Quality Processes for Timely Deployment of Broadband Funding

Brian Mefford:

But as Andrew was saying, I mean, they have to be cautious while assertive. This money is on a timeline. It has to go out the door according to the bipartisan infrastructure law. So there’s a tight timeline for it to happen, but also these checks are built in.

So to Andrew’s point, they have to have just a high-quality process for allowing folks to gather around the table, making it easy for them to engage in this map and this data in a way that is meaningful, that they can provide feedback through, and so that they can then make good decisions. Or else, you’re exactly right, Joe, we would get on the other side of the equation. And an area that looked like it was served on the map and we didn’t properly challenge it and it wasn’t truly served, then it’s not going to be served on the other end of the process.

So there’s risk there. Fortunately, there are tools. There are technologies. I mean, we’ve developed one at VETRO through our broadband intelligence platform. We’ve added a component that is a challenge portal for states to be able to use that’s built on the frame that we’ve had in place for some other state government customers. Still, it’s that kind of high-quality tool that allows folks to engage in a way that gives them the ability to provide clear feedback.

Balancing Innovation and Realistic Timelines

Joe Coldebella:

So I’m going to ask a question that’s going to sound a little crazy. Is five years too short of a time? You’re just talking in terms of these broadband offices. It sounds like, wow, five years, that’s a long time. But when you’ve got $1.2 billion to spend, I don’t know. I do not envy the process. You guys are laughing and smiling.

Andrew Eubank:

I don’t want to end up on a hit list. It’s a long time and also a short time, right? So I’m going to approach this from the ISP perspective and trust Brian to fill in any blanks that I miss. To plan something well usually requires a good six months to a year. And that’s inclusive of all of today’s advanced toolsets. At some point, you have to get somebody, boots on the ground, saying like, “Yes, this is feasible. No, this is not feasible.” And so there’s this window of opportunity to where you’re making these crockpot-level meals in microwave time, right? You have to. That’s the mandate in today’s world.

And so I think we’re seeing these periods of hypercreativity, I would say, from the stakeholders. We’re seeing that from ISPs, public-private partnerships, cooperatives, municipalities, and we’re also seeing that from state broadband offices saying like, “Because we’re in this crunch, we’re going to have to not necessarily just power through, but we’re going to flip the paradigm on its head. And we’re going to find different ways to use these tools and different ways to perform analysis.”

And I think in that sense, it can be a very positive thing. But I think it can be mentally overwhelming for stakeholders. So there’s this aspect that you have to deal with of saying like, “How can I take the ingredients I’m given and make a really delicious meal using it?”

From Planning to Implementation

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, because everyone’s going to be flying the plane while we’re building it, right?

Andrew Eubank:

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, yeah. You probably should have a plane by now, or at least the outline, the frame.

Brian Mefford:

Well, and there’s also the aspect that, I mean, five years sounds like a lot of time. But everything that has to happen between now and then, not to restate the obvious, but the idea is the money needs to be spent by then. So there has to be a sort of competitive process. The data has to be adjudicated, meaning we have to make the data stand still about who’s eligible, what areas, and what address points are eligible for grants.

Then the states have to have a competitive process to invite ISPs and communities to come in and bid on those areas or propose a cost for those areas. Decisions have to be made about what’s the best use of those funds, and who’s the best provider to grant those funds to. There’s going to be challenges to the challenges. There’s going to be challenges once awards are made. Then that money has to be allocated to those projects. So there is lots of ground to cover between here and there.

Staffing Struggles and the Race Against Time

Andrew Eubank:

And then you have to actually do something with the money.

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. As you guys were both discussing that, I was thinking about, I think it’s called the Parkinson’s theory, where you’ll basically fill in the blanks. If you give somebody three weeks to do something, they’ll do it in three weeks. If you give somebody three years, it’ll take them three years. So it’s almost good that we’re putting this stress on folks and on everyone, because then it’s going to get done. Obviously, mistakes are going to be made, but hopefully, we’ll have moved the ball way downfield.

Andrew Eubank:

I’m an eternal optimist, and so yes. And then I also just think we have to be mindful of those hidden areas that are coming to light. They’re probably not so hidden anymore, but staffing, right? I think you have to, have to, have to not just have the money to do it, but you have to have the people who are going to look at that money and use the tools and say, “All right, I know what to do here. I have the end in mind.” And that to me is, I think, the biggest looming threat that I feel in the back of my head for providers out there or even governments out there. How do we staff this properly?

Strategies for Recruitment and Retention

Joe Coldebella:

That’s what everyone is saying. I’ve only been in the industry for about two-and-a-half to three years. And towards the beginning of the pandemic, there were whispers like, “Hey, guys. There’s going to be a problem with staffing.” Now it’s like a full-on battle cry. But how do you solve it? Unemployment is at 3%. And I was just talking to someone else before this podcast. And I don’t know if the broadband industry does a really good job of promoting themselves in terms of saying, “Hey, listen, this is not only a job, but it’s a career.”

Brian Mefford:

Let’s do our best to not get too negative here. But to Andrew’s point, you have to be realistic. And so what you’re framing is a decade-long situation. It’s a two-decade proposition of backfilling the talent gap that we have in this space. I mean, hiring people that are capable of doing a job, unfortunately, is a zero-sum game. So if we have engineers who are working on one project, that means they’re not working on that project. And so there are only so many of those people to go around right now. There is lots of effort underway to be creative about how we fill the gap. I tend to mention Kelley Dunne, who leads AmeriCrew. They’re bringing servicemen and women back stateside and redeploying them to projects. Things like that are awesome.

Joe Coldebella:

So awesome, yeah.

Addressing Talent Shortage with Creative Strategies

Andrew Eubank:

In that vein, to paint a rosier picture, yeah, it’s a problem. But there are also so many people who are creating solutions for it today. So many people are saying like, “How can we take these processes and these outdated things that we’ve been doing with spreadsheets or with, God forbid, these hand-drawn, back-of-the-napkin designs.” They’re saying like, “Look, we can save man hours. And we can send qualified people out to do jobs that actually need to be done. We’re going to bring in people and get their feet in the door into the industry and get them started here.” So there’s this massive push. Yeah, it’s an issue. But I’m hyper-encouraged by the innovators in the industry.

Joe Coldebella:

You know what? And it’s so true in terms of finding creative solutions. I was talking to Brian Hollister with Bonfire. He said he had someone go to the local high school to the coach and ask the coach, “Listen, obviously some of the guys are going to be going to college. But the ones that aren’t, point them out to me. There might be an opportunity for them.” And just little things like that are just phenomenal. There’s an opportunity here to solve the problem when you start at the root.

Fostering Youth Engagement in the Broadband Sector

Brian Mefford:

I volunteer in various economic development roles in my hometown. One of the things we do annually is have a job fair for middle school-aged kids. This past year we had one of our local fiber construction companies, ISPs together at a table with a fiber splicer. And it was one of the more popular stops on the tour. And every time I went by and I’d see these young boys and girls splicing fiber, I was like, “Job for life; job for life.”

Andrew Eubank:

I’ve got a group of drafters back in my hometown actually that works for a civil engineering company. They’re like, “Hey, can you teach us how to design fiber?” I was like, “Absolutely. Let’s go. Let’s go.”

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. That’s great. It’s funny. I thought you were going to say that they put them all in bucket trucks and sent them up top.

Brian Mefford:

That’d be another way to inspire, for sure.

Broadening Horizons Beyond Traditional Professions

Joe Coldebella:

Or you bring in the VR sets, and say, “Hey, listen, you’re going to be working with this stuff all the time.” That’s stuff to get those kids excited. Everyone knows about doctors, firemen, and what have you. But there’s a whole other world out there, and there’s opportunity.

Brian Mefford:

Well, we were just having that conversation about an hour ago. Given that the labor shortage rates are going to go up and that there are negatives to that. But for those who are qualified to do the work, that’s going to be great. So to your point, opening eyes to that could mean somebody could go to college and pay however many thousands of dollars a year. I have a couple in that boat now. Or they might graduate high school and start making $70,000 to $80,000 a year in a highly technical job.

Joe Coldebella:

Right, we were talking about that earlier today as well. Do you bring back technical schools in terms of creating two tracks? I mean, my father went through technical school. He had a job for life because he had the hard skills. Right now, with AI, a lot of jobs are going away. Not all of them, but we’ve got to create different paths. To your point, Andrew, we’ve got to be more creative in terms of just giving folks solutions.

Redefining Roles and Expanding Opportunities

Andrew Eubank:

I mean, even when it comes to mapping, right? That’s historically a job that’s been done by highly experienced professionals, people who have to know the ins and outs of the geography that they’re dealing with. That data just hasn’t been widely available for a very long time. And so there’s been this paradigm shift in the industry which is how humans operate. You and I, when we look at things, want to know where’s the closest McDonald’s or the closest Taco Bell. It’s geospatial. It is the same way with fiber design.

And so I think we are seeing the gains in the mapping world. We can bring in — I don’t want to say unskilled, but less skilled labor. You can cut the cost of this fiber build, make this a capitally reasonable fiber build, with just a few people who are working in the right program set and push something to production that much quicker. That’s a massive area, I think, where we’ve seen improvements in the industry, even in my time. I haven’t been doing it for 22 years, like Brian. I’m barely 22. No, I’m kidding.

Redefining Training and Amplifying Efficiency

Brian Mefford:

But that does turn the page on the whole zero-sum point I made earlier. To put a finer point on your point on creativity, if those folks can come in and they can be trained in the latest technology, Joe, to your point, maybe that’s in a, quote, unquote, “technical school”, but it’s bringing all these things together.

The available technology that wasn’t available five, 10 years ago — I mean, not to make this a commercial about VETRO, but the software that we’ve developed just allows somebody to come in, learn a new way of doing things that’s not spreadsheet oriented, that then does make them able to apply that know-how not just to one project in the same amount of time, but maybe it’s five projects, maybe it’s 10 projects. So that is one way to flip the script.

Joe Coldebella:

So that’s an excellent segue in terms of the talk that you guys just completed, “Seizing the Opportunity: Leveraging Federal Broadband Funds”.  I would love it even if we just touched on it a little bit. You said that the US Treasury has noted that mapping and data gathering is a possible expense.

Recognizing the Strategic Value of Data and Mapping

Brian Mefford:

So specifically, not to get too wonk-ish here, but that is a learning from the last stimulus, the idea of data gathering and mapping. There was the Obama stimulus that put it in, I don’t know, it was like $7 billion total. But this mapping and data gathering was sort of viewed as an administrative activity. In government speak, that meant that it was in overhead. So there’s a cap on overhead.

And so it came down to, do I hire more people, or do I gather data? And do I do mapping? So the Treasury actually addressed that specifically and said, “Look, this is a strategic activity. This is not an overhead activity. You have to do this for these programs to work properly and to be successful.” So they made the distinction to say, “We’re not capping the costs of these kinds of technologies, these kinds of activities.” Basically, their signal to the market, to the states was, “Go invest in these and pay what you need to pay to have what you need to have.”

Joe Coldebella:

That’s awesome. Maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m thick-headed, but I think that there are a lot of people who don’t understand the fundamental importance of data and mapping.

Understanding the Critical Role of Data Management and Analysis

Andrew Eubank:

Yeah. I just want Brian to explain the word wonk-ish. Can you define that for me?

Brian Mefford:

It’s my walking around state. Wonky, oh.

But in seriousness, I mean, this is important because there’s more data every day. There’s more data than we can fathom. And so that’s as true or truer in this space as it is anywhere. And again, more data is coming into the machine every day. We have to have the ability to make sense of it, own it, track it, question it, call it into question, and report on it.

In total, over the last three years, there have been multiple federal programs that have flowed out, and in most cases flowed down to the states. I mean, we talk about BEAD being $42 billion. There’s already been probably $100 billion spent in one way, shape, or form on broadband networks through federal funding over the last three years. We need to know how well that’s been done, I mean, for the sake of our next generations, the next stimulus program, whatever it may be. And so tracking that, having people comply with how they report back on that, that’s just going to keep producing more and more data. We have to have the ability to visualize that and understand it.

Strategies for Managing and Utilizing Data in an Expanding Network Landscape

Andrew Eubank:

Yeah, and Brian uses the word data debt, and I think that’s such a good way of explaining it. While we are moving fast, we have to be obligated to know where we’ll be next. And in that way, just make sure that the data that we accumulate is minimal, the reporting that we have is accurate, and what we display is truthful.

Joe Coldebella:

As you guys were both discussing that, it almost felt like a little bit of a catch-22. As we build more networks, the data will just grow exponentially. It’s crazy how there’s going to be more data. Because we have that much data, we’re going to have to be better at controlling it and understanding it.

Brian Mefford:

Well, Andrew made the point earlier, it’s a call to creativity. It’s why our company exists. Will Mitchell is our CEO. He went around to trade shows like this a decade ago and started realizing there was this emerging need because of the amount of data that was going into network planning, design, operating, and construction and operating. He saw an opportunity and he understood that spreadsheets were not going to be capable of growing with the requirements of this space.

That’s just one example. There are lots of other solutions that are being developed that will have to help deal with the data situation. But, again, regarding how we deploy new technologies and operate and maintain and manage those, the smart city applications come to mind, autonomous cars, vehicles, all of these will be feeding data just constantly back and forth through these systems.

Reflecting on Insights and Looking Ahead

Joe Coldebella:

This is a perfect place to end it. I want to thank you guys for an absolutely awesome visit. I really appreciate you guys just breaking things down for the listeners and myself. Let’s be honest, it’s all for me. But I really appreciate your guys’ time. Thank you so very, very much.

Brian Mefford:

Thanks, Joe. Good to be with you.

Andrew Eubank:

Absolute pleasure. Thanks, Joe.

Joe Coldebella:

All right, that’s going to wrap up this episode of The Broadband Bunch. Until next time, we’ll see you guys later.

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