May 17, 2021

NoaNet: A True Leader in the Open Access Network Model

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

Craig Corbin:

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

Craig Corbin:

Hello, everyone. Welcome to another edition of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us. More than a century ago in Washington State, public utility districts, or PUDs, were created to provide utilities to unserved and underserved communities. Then the major utility needed was electricity and PUDs helped build out this critical infrastructure to rural areas. Two decades ago, member public utility districts had the foresight to understand that bridging the digital divide in underserved areas of Washington State with broadband as a utility would impact local economies in unimaginable ways. It was that vision that led to the formation of a statewide not-for-profit broadband network, the Northwest Open Access Network, or NoaNet.

Craig Corbin:

Today, NoaNet operates a fiber network totaling more than 3,300 fiber miles throughout the state connecting local PUDs, anchor institutions, and other independent communications networks. That work touches each and every county across the state connecting hundreds of communities and businesses, and for many, providing their first-ever access to advanced telecommunication services. Our guests today are part of the NoaNet team, which continues to transform communities through broadband. It is a pleasure to introduce NoaNet’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Claire Ward, and NoaNet’s Chief Security Officer, Mike Henson. Claire, Mike, welcome to The Broadband Bunch.

Claire Ward:

Thank you for having us, Craig. We’re excited to be here.

Mike Henson:

Thank you very much.

Washington State Embraces the Open Access Model 

Craig Corbin:

It is exciting when you look back at the history of NoaNet, what has taken place through the years, again the vision that was required to bring it into existence to start with. But Claire, I’d love to start with you. For those who might not be familiar with the complete picture of NoaNet, give us your thoughts there.

Claire Ward:

Well, I mean, I think when you say the word foresight, that’s the thing that hits me is that 20 years ago, when broadband was not the hot topic that it is today, there were a few of those in Washington State that saw what it was going to mean to Washington State to have this asset and who banded together to get their independent networks to link together and create this statewide asset that really has positioned Washington to be a leader in telecom infrastructure nationally.

Craig Corbin:

Mike, I’d also pose that same question to you in that you were one of the very first employees of NoaNet. Give us your memories of that time.

Mike Henson:

Well, those memories are incredible. I was hired 20 years ago by NoaNet during its first year as starting up and I was hired primarily as a consultant, and fascinating enough, I expected to be there somewhere between 18 months and three years. And here I am, 20 years later still engaged and more excited than I ever have been about it. It was great.

Mike Henson:

When they hired me, the board, and then subsequently the CEO, the CEO hired and said our job here is simple. When you go to work, do the right thing. It’s been a mantra since, and it’s been a pleasure to have been engaged this long.

Closing the Digital Divide through the Open Access Model

Craig Corbin:

What’s wonderful about an effort of this type is the fact that there was an immediate positive impact on all the member PUDs, their respective members across the state. You know when you talk about putting together a network that literally touches every county in the state, you’ve blanketed the State of Washington. I know that it’s something that truly has been life-changing for so many people across Washington State and, Claire, you know, we talk about impact. And if we shorten that timeframe just to the last 12 months, obviously a lot of extraneous factors that everyone in the world of communications has had to deal with, but I know that it’s been a tremendous year, as far as strides that have been made by NoaNet. Give us your impression of the last 12 months there.

Claire Ward:

Well, I mean, there’s plenty to say that went wrong in 2020 and the beginning of 2021, but something that I’m personally grateful for is that I will no longer ever have to give a speech that broadband is important and that broadband is a utility. I think that is understood today, as we’ve seen the impacts of the folks who did not have it during this impact when we were all asked to work and learn and live at home. So it really made just an incredible difference in highlighting those differences. Also unfortunately It showed us how much there is left to do. There have been incredible strides made, not just in Washington State, nationally in broadband access in the last 10 years, but there are lots and lots of rural communities and even in urban areas as well, where residents and businesses don’t have what they need to thrive. So there’s a lot left to do. And I hope that the highlight of the last 15 months has really shown us that this is a place where we need to be putting money to solve this very, very real digital divide.

Craig Corbin:

Of course, a big part of the approach there at NoaNet, obviously open access, and Mike, there are so many people that have an inkling of what open access means, but it’s not a one size fits all. There are many different approaches to that. If you could give us the 30,000-foot overview of the approach that NoaNet has taken to open access.

Open Access: The NoaNet Approach 

Mike Henson:

Certainly, the open-access principle is really about having a common infrastructure to allow multiple services and service providers to offer their products and services over. So you invest once in the fiber infrastructure or the wireless infrastructure to reach a high capacity method so that they can have any type of services that someone can imagine. And then it allows service providers to come in and offer their services, and in some forms, they compete. In other forms, they have different services. So there’s no competition because they’re not offering the same service to the customer. In the end, the end-user on an open-access network gets to pick and choose from the range of service they want and the quality of service they want from a provider. If someone’s not responsive, they can go find someone else. They’re not held to just one option only. And that’s the principles that we operate under open access.

Craig Corbin:

You know, when you look at that approach, a big part of the success of NoaNet has been the ability to provide network diversity redundancy. I know that in earlier conversations, you had talked about the three things that you needed to avoid in any effort of this type and that’s an electronic failure, the physical failure, and then operational or human failures, but the network diversity that’s inherent with NoaNet truly is a huge part of your success. If you would talk about that.

Mike Henson:

Certainly, we build often times, we try to build physical diversity in and in rural areas, that’s tough. And that’s why open access is so important because a common infrastructure is much more affordable when you do it once versus multiple times. So getting that diversity allows us in a physical fashion to have multiple paths to a location. And then in order to build upon that, we use electrical diversity and that would be having protocols and systems in place like MPLS in order to allow multiple different paths from an area to give you electrical diversity. And then of course the biggest issue is no matter what else you do in this world, people make mistakes. So you try to build your system around having multiple layers so that if one layer is impacted by a human error, the other layers are not. We spend a lot of time at NoaNet trying to think about how to build our systems to accommodate for those three types of failures to provide the maximum uptime for a customer.

Craig Corbin:

Being able to depend upon that as something that is priceless, both from a commercial standpoint and from a residential user standpoint. I wanted to shift gears back, Claire, again, we touched briefly on events of the last 12 months, and things that have gone on and the immense laser focus on the need for connectivity for everyone across the board. And so much of what has been done there in Washington State has made a tremendous impact on that through the implementation of Wi-Fi hotspots. And I know that, I think dating back to last summer, there was a huge statewide push for universal public access. Tell us about the Wi-Fi hotspots program there.

Claire Ward:

This was an incredible effort and really an effort that shows the power of folks working together. We had NoaNet, the library system, the states, and private providers, big companies like Microsoft, our universities, all jumping in together to create a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots available across the state to help folks who needed internet during this really critical time when everyone was scrambling to figure out what to do since all of a sudden we were in the middle of a global pandemic. The result of that was inspiring.

Claire Ward:

We had over 600 Wi-Fi hotspots up within a matter of months. There was data collected on how people were using those deployed hotspots. People were jumping around to do their work teleconferencing and they were jumping on to access their schoolwork. And also in a pandemic, you need release. People were jumping on to watch Netflix sometimes. Right? And I don’t want to undervalue that because we have all binged Netflix this year.

Claire Ward:

So we have all done it. It was really a tremendous effort and something that I think brought a lot of value to those areas that don’t yet have just universal good internet.

Craig Corbin:

As part of that also is, Mike, providing the assurance that there is security in place with those hotspots. Talk about the security protocols that are incorporated with this effort.

Mike Henson:

Well, we’ve been doing a number of things online for security purposes, including DNS monitoring and screening and trying to allow people to understand what risky sites are in places where we were expecting students, in some cases, we implemented content filtering in order to be consistent with the Child Internet Protection Act, in order to allow them to feel safe in letting their children use it. And in other places, we continue to try to post notices and educate people about the risk that comes with getting online in a public forum.

Open Access 9-1-1 Fostering Next Generation Public Safety 

Craig Corbin:

You are listening to The Broadband Bunch. We are visiting with the Marketing and Communications Manager of NoaNet, Claire Ward, and NoaNet’s Chief Security Officer, Mike Henson. And I know that there are so many topics that we could delve into today. But one thing that I really have been so impressed with is the statewide 9-1-1 project, because that is something that has a direct impact on every citizen across the state. Mike, from your perspective, give us a little bit of the early thinking on what you wanted to accomplish and how you approached this particular project.

Mike Henson:

Well, that project is a pretty special one to me. We started over 10 years ago in this idea of public safety and how to do things in a consolidated fashion. And we wanted to see where the next generation of communications were going. And through that, at that time, 10 years ago, people were still figuring out the standards and figuring those parts out and the State of Washington has an office that’s focused on 9-1-1. And that office kind of led the charge towards the next generation. In 2016, they put out an RFP to actually ask for proposals for a next generation system, and through that timeframe, we were able to be partnered with Comtech, which was a company that provides selective routing and a bunch of other safety services for people around the world. And we were actually, they were successful in getting a contract award from the state and over the past two years prior to this year.

Mike Henson:

There in 18 and 19 and then into 20, we were implementing that next-generation system. So it touches every county and provides for all calls for 9-1-1 coming into and then being delivered to the emergency access answering points so that you can get help when you need it. And it’s really been a joy to be a part of that, because what we’ve seen now is that they have, of course, you can get 9-1-1 calls, but now you have integrated text so that they can text too. If they can’t call, they can text. We’ve already seen a couple of different instances where people were able to text because they were in threatening environments, but they couldn’t make a call, but they could sneak a text out. It’s already starting to have that type of impact. And then the next step of that is being able to receive video.

Mike Henson:

That’s got its challenges in how to manage that, and where that video goes. As over the next couple of years, the network is all in place to accept video and to accept 9-1-1 data from any device anywhere. And for me, that’s become life-altering because even this weekend while I was camping, I was at a place where try to get 9-1-1 help. It sure would help for them to have my GPS coordinates because if they’d have asked me where I was in the woods, I couldn’t have told them. So it’s going to be great to have this next-generation capability with latitude and longitude, so they can find you anywhere with any device, as long as you can get the 9-1-1.

Craig Corbin:

And to your point there, I think that’s a great example of, and using your camping trip as an example. If you just happen to be near a county boundary with the new next-generation 9-1-1 ability, that system is able to, with pinpoint accuracy, detect exactly where the call originates or the text originates. And so that goes past what was very much an imperfect system that many times had 9-1-1 calls routed to the wrong call center. Talk about that.

Mike Henson:

That’s very true. So as they go through this with the way things have been done, even on cellular service, a lot of the cellular companies are really leading the charge to get this more precise information available. And they, when you see it in those boundary areas, and it happens right now between states because people that are close to the boundary if they’re using a cell phone, they may actually be working, that cell phone may be registered to a tower in another state. And so they send it to the wrong PSAP, or it could be registered to a county, another county. And that’s been where they’re trying to consolidate this down, using the technologies that were defined under the NG9-1-1 standard, you now get more precise information of whereabouts so your call gets routed to the right place, and that can save sometimes it’s seconds other times it’s minutes off of their response time.

Mike Henson:

Because when you get to the wrong PSAP, they can transfer you. And they do a very good job of that, but that’s still delayed time in your response. And when seconds count, minutes aren’t acceptable. So this, as we get better at this, and as this in NG9-1-1 is rolled out across the carrier platform and the cellular companies and the wire line companies, those types of mistakes will be reduced and going towards zero. And it will improve response times across all of those areas, particularly in those border regions and states or counties and other jurisdictions.

Craig Corbin:

Well, and that is such a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of everybody across the state, but a nice side effect of that has been that that will also help cut communication expenses for the state because you’re offering larger capacity and a lower-cost network. It sort of goes back also, another benefit we were talking about is the inherent redundancy built into the network, and that really has an impact on the NG9-1-1 effort, and that’s just a tremendous advance. It really puts, I think, NoaNet sort of on the leading edge of this type of approach, and I will be curious to watch as this gets complete implementation across the state, very excited to look at that.

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Open Access Networks Expanding Services

Craig Corbin:

Claire, I know from your standpoint in marketing communications, there’s always interest in what is going on across the state, how things are received with advancements made by NoaNet, and I’m also curious about any efforts that might be underway there in Washington State that might allow public utility districts to actually provide communication services directly to consumers. What’s the latest there?

Claire Ward:

That’s a great question, and a big topic in the Washington State legislature this year. So Washington State is actually one of 20 some odd states that has restrictions on public entities providing telecommunication services directly to end users. So currently we’re allowed to do it on a wholesale basis. Yeah. But not directly in a retail fashion. So that’s up this year and there’s a, you know, people are coming at it from different perspectives. Should there be limited ability to provide those direct services? Should it be an all-out open season, and go serve folks or should we pivot and see if there’s other ways to support the private sector to continue to help them deploy services? So it’ll be really interesting to see how this plays out. There are bills for every one of those potential solutions. And we’ll see what happens at the end of the session.
Craig Corbin:

I’ll be anxious to watch how that develops in the coming months and years. Mike, I’m also curious about looking back at so many efforts that have been made in many different ways to take advantage of programs that have provided funding to increase connectivity and broadband programs around the nation. And you go back more than a decade, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration established the broadband technology opportunities program, BTOP. And that was a huge part of what you were involved with there at NoaNet, and an extremely successful program. Give us your memories of BTOP there at NoaNet.

Mike Henson:

BTOP was a wonderful opportunity during a very bad time. So coming out of the financial crisis, of course, the federal government created the stimulus plan and of that, there was the National Telecommunications Administration gave a round of competitive bids in order to allow you to do a grant program. NoaNet at that time we looked at all of the different entities around us. We took 23 other public and private companies and joined together in a consortium proposal for the grant. We did two rounds of that. BTOP round one, round two, and between those two, we had a total of $180 million of grants for broadband infrastructure to focus on middle mile build-out, so not to the home, but to the middle mile in order to get closer to the home. That was an incredibly successful program between 2010 and 2012. It allowed us to build more than a thousand miles of fiber around the state to close some gaps.

Mike Henson:

It allowed us to close gaps in certain areas that didn’t have any diversity before. When they would have some type of fiber cut, they would be out, and their credit cards wouldn’t be used. They couldn’t even buy gas because their telecommunications were gone. So this allowed us to put in redundancy so that those telecommunications companies would have failed over capabilities now because they couldn’t afford in those rural areas prior to this. So, to me, it was a great program to allow us to close some of those gaps to make a more resilient telecommunications infrastructure. That program now looks like they’re doing it again with the NTIA. The new rescue plan has money set aside for the NTIA that is going to be doing a similar thing, but it’s going to go from the middle mile now instead to the home. So they’re going to be looking at those unserved areas and doing the same thing again. And we’re excited to be looking at how we can help do that again for Washington State.

Craig Corbin:

There are wildly varying estimates of how much investment would be required to finish building out any state around the union. But I think there in Washington State estimates are that it’s better than $1.2 billion to finish building out high-speed internet. I know that the funds you talked about are a good starting point for that. Obviously, an important effort to take advantage of every single source of funding that is made available. As we begin to wind down our visit today, and it has been very enlightening, and one that I hope to have an opportunity to visit again down the line. But I’m always curious, and I’ll start with you, Claire, about what drives each of our guests here on The Broadband Bunch. What brings the passion for what you do and the success at NoaNet? If you would share with us those thoughts.

Claire Ward:

You might have heard at the very beginning of this when Mike was describing the original CEO saying, go out and do the right thing. And that was the sort of driving compass of why NoaNet was founded. And then I joined in 2015, this team, so I’ve been with them six years now. It’s amazing how alive and well that guiding compass still is in every conversation that’s happening at NoaNet is how do we do our very best for Washington State? How do we bring these services to communities in a way that’s going to serve them today and into the future? What more could you ask to hang your hat on at work that you really feel like you’re able to make a tangible difference in the lives of your local community?

Craig Corbin:

Mike, I think you were quoted in a recent article as saying, and the direct quote, “creating high-capacity networks that improve the quality of living or even save lives is the best part of what we do at NoaNet. It’s what we’re supposed to do as human beings. We’re supposed to help each other. We’re supposed to take care of each other.” I mean, that’s such an elemental approach, but so important. Share your thoughts, and what drives you to succeed there at NoaNet.

Mike Henson:

Well, in large part, the quote is what drives the company to allow us each day to put our creative thoughts together to try to improve people’s lives. It’s doing the right thing and it is invigorating every day to get up and do that. It makes it just a pleasure. You look forward to it. Sometimes you lay awake at night thinking about it in order to, you know, tomorrow you can’t wait for the next day to see what you’re going to be able to do. And it really is about helping your neighbor across the state and trying to improve their lives and see how we can use technology to help do better things for the future.

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