February 2, 2021

Necessity of Fiber Broadband Not a Mystery

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

Craig Corbin:

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of The Broadband Bunch. Alongside my colleague, Trevor Odom, I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us. At no time in history has the demand for and expansion of fiber optic networks been greater than now, a trend with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Connectivity demands, fueled by the global pandemic, have focused a spotlight on the need to quickly bridge the digital divide. With plentiful funding opportunities available, countless broadband infrastructure projects are either in construction, in planning, or under consideration. But the process of bringing a fiber network into existence is an extremely complex undertaking, certainly not for the faint of heart, and most definitely a journey best made with proper guidance.

Craig Corbin:

VETRO FiberMap has worked with providers on every continent around the world, with the exception of Antarctica, utilizing an intuitive, cloud-based, fiber management GIS mapping platform for building next generation internet infrastructure from strategy to splice. Our guest today, Brian Mefford, joined VETRO FiberMap in October of last year as Vice President of Broadband Strategy. Years ago, Brian founded Connected Nation, a nonprofit focused on enriching community broadband access and served as the organization’s Chairman and CEO. Brian has served on a number of high-impact boards, including the New York Academy of Science’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council, along with the Centre College Board of Trustees and the Center for Gifted Studies. It is a pleasure to introduce VETRO FiberMap’s Vice President of Broadband Strategy, Brian Mefford.

Fiber Broadband Fueled by Demand & Funding

Craig Corbin:

It is an exciting time to have this conversation because it is sort of the golden age of broadband connectivity. The need is there and there is funding available. There’s great assistance in the process too so there is no better time to be having this discussion.

Brian Mefford:

I would agree. The amount of funding, the scope of projects and just the sense of urgency, all those things combined, makes it feel like we’re in the golden age of broadband networks.  And it’s at a pace that was hard to imagine just a couple of years ago.

Craig Corbin:

You talk about the pace of growth. The demand is off the charts. It’s not just something that happened in the last year. Obviously, it’s been exacerbated with the connectivity demands, but there was a realization long ago that fiber networks were going to be the foundation for everything in moving forward with growth for broadband access and bridging that digital divide. There are many different components to that. How did you begin formulating your approach to this problem?

Brian Mefford:

Going back nearly 20 years ago, I was leading community broadband efforts. It was, of course, a different world in this realm then. Our step up, if you will, at the time was getting people off of dial up and onto an ISDN connection or a one megabit DSL connection.

Brian Mefford:

When we started in Kentucky, I think it was 15% of those who had access to a megabit connection, 15% subscribed to it. Even at that low level, of connection speed, we were going into communities as cheerleaders first and foremost, evangelizers is a better word, to promote the benefits of connectivity across the economy, across the community.

Brian Mefford:

That sometimes took months or even a year or more. Now, we’re talking about fiber-level connections as being what most folks are aiming for and we don’t have to convince key folks in a community or in a state that it’s worth the investment. It’s truly been a paradigm shift. We’ve all been in the same boat over the last 12 months roughly. There’s no mystery about the need for broadband any longer.

Fiber Broadband – Forward Thinking

Craig Corbin:

When you began having those conversations at the ground level (with local communities around the country), it’s a matter of not just being able to thrive but survive long term. We use the term digital divide pretty freely, and we think that it’s limited just to rural America, but that’s not necessarily the case, which means that there are needs everywhere you turn.

Brian Mefford:

There’s no doubt about it. You know what? People are looking to see that the broadband economy, the connected economy, is a priority for the community that they’re considering moving to, because we know now that what’s sufficient today may not meet the community’s needs a year from now, two years from now. They want to see that community leaders, state leaders are forward thinking in that regard. That’s another shift from the past. There was a thought in the past that we could dump a bunch of money or spend several months gearing up towards the next level of broadband. Well, broadband is like a bridge. The size of the bridge is going to be consumed by the number of cars it can accommodate pretty quickly. That’s what happens with our broadband networks. People are smart to that now. To your point, regardless of where they’re deciding to move, they want to know that community is going to be broadband forward thinking for years to come.

Trevor Odom:

It’s interesting dialogue Brian.  When you’re talking about the rural areas, are there certain parts of the country that you’re seeing that are more adaptive to this than others? Or is it equally widespread all across the board?

Brian Mefford:

There are similar rural gaps in nearly every state in the country. The patterns are similar and ones that you guys are very familiar with, of course. The economics have worked over the years to get networks built out to a certain threshold, density threshold, household density threshold, and then it just hasn’t worked. Now as the need to reinvest in networks in the denser areas, more densely populated areas, we’re even seeing some level of pullback from future planned investment. Not only in some cases are those rural gaps pervasive, but unfortunately, they’re actually growing as some providers walk away from that fixed investment.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Funding

Craig Corbin:

When you look at the funding component of the conversation, obviously that’s something that you have a tremendous background and from the years of effort at Connected Nation. It’s something that has a direct impact on the conversation. Now there are so many different sources of funding available, more than ever before, how do you talk with organizations, with groups, about how to approach that daunting task?

Brian Mefford:

Money has always been probably the primary barrier to local enthusiasm or state enthusiasm about expanding broadband because it is expensive. When you look at the initial pandemic response and how the federal government and state governments mobilized and invested to start filling gaps, it’s impressive and unprecedented. In a lot of cases, already, for projects that had been on the drawing boards, that financial barrier has come off the table. It was no longer a barrier.

Brian Mefford:

I’m convinced, as are plenty of others, that now that’s going to become a pattern. The federal government, state governments are stepping up to say, “We’re taking that [funding] variable out of the equation.” If we have good state leadership, good local leadership, good private sector investment, all of the things that can come together, then we’re going to be willing to put the money into this infrastructure that we just have to have.

Brian Mefford:

That’s why we’re seeing community after community and multiple states now that have stepped up.  The states have governors who say, “We used to spend $5 million a year on broadband and now we’re changing that by orders of magnitude.” There are states looking at spending 300 million, 400 million, a half a billion dollars, with plans that they’re laying out. That doesn’t even include what’s coming down the pike, as we all can imagine, from a federal investment standpoint. Unprecedented level of funding available for these networks.

Broadband Mapping Funding

Craig Corbin:

You mentioned efforts on the state level. There are different barriers in place, regardless of where you look around the nation, but there also have been statewide efforts to jump into the data mapping effort as well, because that’s a part of the process with regard to qualification for funding. There have been some phenomenal efforts made. I’ll have to pat the State of Georgia on the back, collectively, for its efforts with data mapping, and the State of Michigan has done likewise. How has that impacted the funding process?

Brian Mefford:

It’s informed the funding process in a way that’s different than what’s been available in the past to states. They’ve largely taken matters into their own hands as you mentioned, in several cases. While there’s pressure, a new level of pressure to get networks built, get services available, so that we’re addressing the homework gap, so that we’re allowing people to work from home, what comes with that is pressure to make sure there’s intrinsic accountability, so we know where the money’s going, who it’s going to, and what the impact of it is.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Intelligence

Brian Mefford:

That changes, really, the whole conversation about broadband mapping. For a long-time broadband mapping has been about served versus unserved areas. Now we’re looking at a whole range of decisions and, as we were saying earlier, an unprecedented level of spending, dependent on the information that we’re deriving from those maps. That’s why I was so eager to join forces with Sean and Will, the co-founders of VETRO, because they’ve been about building this business that is about internet infrastructure intelligence in a way that just combines the sources of data that are needed and allows a state or a community to track the actual construction expansion of networks, specifically, to see what that return on investment is over time.

Wireless 5G Networks

Trevor Odom:

Just curious on other parts of the mapping business, regarding 5G build-outs – has that affected you at all, the rollout of 5G?

Brian Mefford:

In fact, that was how Sean and Will and I first came together was spit balling, whiteboarding thoughts on products geared towards 5G and just knowing that a state, a community, our entire country really needs to really manage assets more intelligently and in a way that public assets can be blended with private investment, so that we’re able to build these intensely dense wireless 5G networks. I think we’re seeing some of the early stages of that, where we’ve got also middle mile and back haul providers who are interested in more intelligently managing their infrastructure. We certainly expect a lot of growth in that area as we’re seeing 5G take hold.

Fiber Broadband – Impact on the Digital Divide

Craig Corbin:

Brian, you talked about the opportunity to join VETRO FiberMap, and to be part of their mission.  How is this opportunity rejuvenating to you, with regard to the dedication that you have to helping bridge the digital divide. Talk about that, if you would.

Brian Mefford:

Rejuvenating is right. That is exactly the kind of move I was looking to make, was one that would give me an opportunity to use what I’ve done in the past to make an oversized impact at this point in my career. I had come to know Will and Sean and their team, our team now, over the years. I think there’s a stage when you join a company that you can brag without it being bragging. You can brag about the team. It’s an awesome team at VETRO. Another example, another illustration of how leadership and founders, specifically, impact a culture. I came to know Sean and Will as just wicked smart guys who are just good human beings. That’s the kind of team that they built with VETRO. To get to apply those kinds of resources and that kind of passion to things like solving digital divide issues and getting more intelligent infrastructure built, it’s a pleasure. It really is. It is rejuvenating.

Brian Mefford:

When the pandemic hit, the band-aid got ripped off on our nationwide connectivity challenges and the deficits laid bare for all to see, there were several of us that said, “We take no pleasure in knowing that we’ve been ringing that bell for 20 years, we take no pleasure in being right that our networks were insufficient to be responsive the way that they really needed to be.” Now to be able to step in and be part of the solution, it’s rejuvenating. It’s exciting. I’m fortunate to be on this team.

Assisting Smaller Fiber Broadband Service Providers

Craig Corbin:

That’s a big part of what VETRO has done over the years – been part of the solution. There’s nothing better than those examples of when rubber meets the road and success has resulted from the relationship between VETRO and those that they’ve worked with. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

Brian Mefford:

The initial sweet spot for VETRO FiberMap, specifically, has been early stage to mid-tier internet service providers. These are companies that are out there, in some cases, starting up, scrapping it together. They’ve seen the need. They want to fill the need in their community. They don’t have a lot of resources at their disposal. They don’t have a lot of capital. To be able to have internet infrastructure intelligence that rivals the larger providers in the market, that’s just been a godsend for a lot of these early stage or mid-sized companies. The fact that they don’t have to break the bank to use it – because it’s a SaaS-based product which means its subscription-based and therefore affordable – has made a world of difference.  Now, hundreds of internet service providers, not just in the US, but like you said in the intro, around the world can have internet infrastructure intelligence.

Trevor Odom:

My family comes from rural Georgia and rural West Virginia, so I know there can be certain challenges related to rural communities. What are some of the commonalities and challenges you’ve seen working in these more rural areas? Is it just topography and landscape, or is there more community resistance versus that in a more metropolitan area?

Rural Co-ops Stepping into Fiber Broadband

Brian Mefford:

I don’t want to be too sweeping about the point that we’re beyond needing to convince communities that we’re working with today about the need for fiber broadband. I had a conversation, just before this one, with a community that is saying, “We’re still trying to build the support [for fiber broadband].” That continues to be part of the challenge, but certainly a lesser and lesser part. I think really local leadership is needed that can find ways to solve the problems. Each community is different. They’ve got their own unique set of challenges. The providers, the incumbents in that market can be different, of course, state to state, community to community. The appetite for supporting, shoring up a new provider is going to be different state to state, community to community.

Brian Mefford:

One thing that we’re very encouraged by is how rural co-ops are stepping into the gap.  We see that across the country and see it in the interest that co-ops expressed in the RDOF auction. We see that in a very tangible way where for years there were rural co-ops that said, “We know there’s an issue. We hear our members talking about it. We want to find a broadband partner who we can bring into the community. But we don’t really want to get into the business of providing broadband service.”

Brian Mefford:

We’ve seen a sea change in that position over the last handful of years. Personally, I’m coming to you live across a gigabit connection at my home. I live in the middle of a farm. It’s in the middle of a pretty significant sized forest. It’s truly awesome to have a fiber connection in our home. I’m eager for the rest of our county, the rest of our state, to get that kind of connection because it’s, as we all know, it’s a game changer.

Fiber Broadband Mapping – Visual Platform

Trevor Odom:

VETRO is very well-respected in the broadband community, which is kind of a small world. Do you feel that your partnerships have played a role with getting you integrated into the various ecosystems?

Brian Mefford:

It’s been an essential part of the growth of the company, but not by accident.  Again, I’m going to brag on our co-founders Will and Sean. We’ve built a product that is open to facilitating and welcoming a wide range of partnerships. To be able to connect to different parts of the full value stream of different products that are needed by those who are building networks and operating networks, and you’ve got this map-based visual platform in the middle of all that, that’s made a world of difference.

Brian Mefford:

Sean and Will founded their original company several years before launching VETRO. VETRO is still a relatively young entrant in the market. When you consider the growth around the world with hundreds of customers, that’s pretty extraordinary. To your point, Trevor, it has been fueled and continues to be fueled by openness to collaborate and openness to partner.

Craig Corbin:

Good luck to you, Brian, as you build out the Digital Divide Solutions practice at VETRO, assisting organizations around the country as they embrace the need for fiber networks.

Brian Mefford:

We’re on the cusp of an extraordinary time with what the federal government is doing. We have a new FCC. We have federal legislation that’s either been passed or is on the cusp of being passed and a lot of States extremely active in fiber broadband efforts as well.

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