March 18, 2021

“Open Access Networks are as Different as the Communities They Serve”

The following podcast discusses Open-Access Networks for rural areas, Municipal Broadband, Dark Fiber for Smart City Applications and, more!

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.

 Open Access Networks For Rural Areas

Craig Corbin:

While the vital need for broadband connectivity and approaches for how to bridge the digital divide is certainly top-of-the-mind issues today, the concept of open access networks has been with us and in use for more than a decade in Sweden, across Europe, and in South Africa. Here in the United States, Lit Communities is helping to lead the charge. As a forward-thinking builder and operator of next-generation network infrastructure, Lit Communities is also a consultancy that guides municipalities across the country as they navigate the complex process of deploying their own open application and fiber optic utilities.

Craig Corbin:

Our guest today, Brian Snider, is the founder and CEO of Lit Communities. With more than 15 years of experience in wide-area network deployments, Brian led build-outs of the entire Southeastern United States for AT&T’s U-verse along with Google fibers builds in Austin, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and Huntsville, as well as Verizon’s network densification in Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, Nashville, and Knoxville, with municipal projects throughout the country too numerous to list. It is most certainly a pleasure to introduce the founder and chief executive officer of Lit Communities, Brian Snider. Brian, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Municipal Broadband & Open Access Network Models

Craig Corbin:

One of the things that we always like to start with many times is an overview of the career of our guests, and where things are, in this case with the Lit Communities, and for those that might not be familiar with Lit, if you could give us that 30,000-foot overview.

Brian Snider:

Lit Communities we’re focused on trying to get municipal broadband and more people connected across the country in any way possible. Our overall vision is just to connect the unconnected because then different things can happen in the technology age that we’re currently living in. We start that out with, we have two main practices right now, one where it’s the consultancy side that you mentioned where we’re working with municipalities when they’re getting into this from the early stage. Then the other piece is we will own the physical infrastructure and set up a model that is unique to that community based on everything that we work through to get to a certain point. So we also deploy physical infrastructure, own on it, and provide different services across that network and the open-access model you’re describing.

Craig Corbin:

How things are now with your approach versus what it would have been five, 10 years ago.

Brian Snider:

I’ve gone through this process through my entire career of really adapting and learning. I got into the telecommunication industry really, I guess, strange in my early career. When I was in high school and early college, my only thought process was always playing golf, and I was going to be a professional golfer.

Brian Snider:

Whenever you want, I’m game to go play for sure. I raised some money, went and played many tours for a little bit, bought a $3,000 RV that leaked, traveled the country, it was amazing. Unfortunately, I got diagnosed with Crohn’s and colitis, which pretty much I suffered from that for about five years, but during that five-year period, I basically had to get a desk job. I started working as a drafter for AT&T because, in high school, associated with our high school, there was a technology center called Dothan Technology Center. A lot of people were taking those classes and I guess, just picking them and doing it for one semester, and they were done because they had to. All of my friends were choosing carpentry and I was like, I want to learn drafting and design because it was on offer there.

Brian Snider:

I stayed with drafting and design through all four years of high school at that tech center. I did so much of it that I didn’t have to take a math class my senior year because I was advanced enough in what we were doing, and we were drawing architectural plans, I was interning at an architecture firm. When golf ended, and that was a big lesson learned for me too, Craig, even in what I implemented in the future with some of my other jobs, having that specialized curriculum to teach students that were outside of history and English and things like that, to really help potentially get people in the tech field can’t be overstated right now, especially with how fast we see technology changing, we have to see education train that’ll change that fast as well.

Brian Snider:

We implemented different training programs at different projects that we worked on in the future, really because of what I learned back in high school at that stage. When I got heavily involved in a lot of outside engineering projects and construction projects, there weren’t many classes that taught you that.

Brian Snider:

We had to do it ourselves. We created an internal fiber academy. We actually did that in New Orleans. We had to create our own resources because they weren’t out there, and that was a big lesson learned throughout that process. When I couldn’t play golf, I got lucky to get a job as a contractor with AT&T and we were doing the, back then they called it Project Lightspeed for getting customers connected to their U-verse product. One thing that I learned during that project, so we were getting paid early on based on how much we produced. I was very fast at drafting, but the rest of the job that was, really wasn’t that difficult was convoluted in a sense because of how many different systems we had to use for AT&T.

Brian Snider:

We worked really hard on creating a streamlined process that we created our own tools with the team that I was working with at the time, a lot of just where my colleagues and other engineers that we worked with. We produced more jobs with better quality than anybody in the state and actually in the South. I was quickly promoted to where I was managing the state of Alabama for that project and Southeast Louisiana for that project. Then AT&T, unfortunately, pulled the plug on that, but it was for reasons into other investments that AT&T was shifting towards, it was slightly different fiber, fiber, copper combined architectures, but from what we were learning there during that project, it taught us that no matter how things were done in the past there’s always a way to improve it, and if you really break down the things that we do consistently from engineering to construction, to things like that, you always have to be thinking about, could we do things differently to lower costs, to improve production, and I’ve always continued with that philosophies in everything that we do.

Craig Corbin:

Brian, the phrase that stuck out to me, unique to the community, how whatever is, is being done, it has to be unique to the community, not a one size fits all approach. Obviously, there are tremendous advantages with the open access network model that separates the physical network infrastructure from the services that are provided. It struck me that, the phrase that you used was unique, it must fit the community that’s considering it. Talk about how that particular concept has shaped what you’re doing at Lit Communities.

Open Access Revolution

Brian Snider:

I’ve had a, I guess, a roller coaster of open access, I think, evolution throughout the years, for sure. And it really all started when Google disrupted the industry. We started working with Google more in Austin, San Antonio, Salt Lake City. One thing we saw is Google was diving into space they were still learning about. One thing that struck me was the relationships that really needed to be built with a new entity coming like that with the cities and with the municipalities because it was handled completely different than what I was used to at AT&T. That’s when we really started looking at, okay, there should be ways to do this different, and there should be different processes that could improve getting Google to provide service to customers because from a service side, Google’s awesome, that’s what they do, they provide

services.

Open Access Networks For Municipal Broadband

Brian Snider:

As we see since Google did that, they’re not really building out as many networks and things like that, but I think they put a great spotlight on fiber and the need for it. We started looking and that’s when I was basically determined that we were really going to focus on municipal broadband networks, and we just basically spent a year taking crash courses from business plans to how you can structure an overall deal, to the architecture of the networks. We studied a lot of the networks that were over in Europe with open access and, open access, honestly, no pun intended, but it opened my mind into this business plan is really, really unique. Everybody initially thinks of open access as, you have multiple choice of ISP providers and it brings in a different competition.

Brian Snider:

We were pushing that very, very hard in our approach with municipalities, but the first gap that we saw back, five years ago, and after we went and studied a bunch of municipal networks that were starting, and even just five years ago, the municipal or more rural networks were still, were just starting to take off, but you could see that, and we wanted to dedicate ourselves to that. We felt municipal broadband cooperatives that were going to take off because all the big carriers weren’t looking at those areas anymore. We first started with, we got to educate these communities on the option that they have and ways to move forward. So we streamlined a process to where our consulting services, it wasn’t a feasibility study, it was more of a focus on how much does the network cost in your area? What’s the demand? What are you hearing from your local residents and business owners, get a good feel for that, and then create a business plan on how to go execute from there.

Brian Snider:

We were always pushing open access and that model started to evolve more based on the demographics of where we were at. Especially as we started talking to more ISPs and other open access providers like UTOPIA and some of the networks out in Washington, where it’s more with the PUDs, middle mile open-access networks. One thing that I’ve learned and shifted towards now is that open access networks aren’t just about being able to switch ISPs unless you’re in a market that has the ability to allow the ISPs to succeed also. Where are those areas? They’re in more of your urban, larger city areas because you have access to hundreds and thousands of homes.

Dark Fiber For Smart City Applications

Brian Snider:

Then multiple ISPs have access to provide, be able to make money because everybody has to make money in the open-access approach. If you’re in a rural area that only has 15,000 homes, 10,000 homes, 5,000 homes, from an ISP standpoint, it didn’t really make sense to be open access from that scenario. If you’ve got a good fiber connection to a home in an area that’s that rural, or that amount of homes, as long as you’re getting a good fiber service, I think those people are going to be really, really happy. What we started focusing more on based on where the areas we were developing, and working with all across the country is, let’s also bring on all the other applications that truly make the network open in the way we envision things, in the way we build our business plan.

Brian Snider:

It’s the dark fiber for smart city applications, it’s potentially Lit services for smart city applications. It’s being able to provide wireless application uses outside of all of that from cellular to 5G. You’re leasing the infrastructure and you’re monetizing the fiber and that infrastructure to the fullest extent possible. That was one lesson learned when we looked at a lot of networks, municipal networks, in general, are they’d go out and provide service to their local community, good internet service, TV offering, maybe a TV offering, phone service, but that was it. To me that it was if you’re open to also provide smart home applications and give the residents a choice in what smart applications that they have, telehealth, that’s being an open network to where if you find a good ISP that’s able to be open and bring all kinds of different options onto a network, I think you’re winning in that scenario.

Open Access Network Definition: A Case Of Multiples

Brian Snider:

Open-access, and that’s why I think open access, just the definition of it, sometimes needs to change and be thought of differently. You can have, what I would guess call a fully open access network where it’s different ISP providers, it’s different applications on the network. As I said, those are going to work in your bigger cities. They’re also going to work in your areas that have the ability to expand, but then you also have this other definition of open access where it’s might be in a rural area with one ISP, but also bring all the other services that are going to benefit that community, that are going to still benefit the residents and business owners, then you can create a unique business model that the community’s going to love. That’s what makes us really happy at the end of the day when we’re able to build all these moving pieces and put them together into a puzzle, and then go execute after that.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Craig Corbin:

You’re listening to our visit with Brian Snider, the founder chief executive officer of Lit Communities. I’m obviously interested in the mindset toward a focus on bridging the digital divide. That’s a big part of the stated goal of bringing broadband connectivity to communities across America, I think is how it’s put in one spot on your website. But without question, that digital divide in many areas isn’t shrinking, it’s growing. And so it increases the importance of communities, municipalities, embracing the idea of how they can provide that connectivity. What, from your perspective, is the shift that you’re seeing across the country from the standpoint of communities and municipalities toward broadband?

Brian Snider:

When we first started this five years ago, when we were looking at this, it’s such a more granular detail, there were still 200 municipal networks back then, but now you read something every single day where X community is looking at a municipal broadband network. It’s political now, it’s to the point to where you can’t live unless you have a proper connection, and not saying it from a life or death scenario, but it could be if you can’t connect to the right people in a rural environment. The digital divide is only going to grow the way we have certain policies set up in States, the way we handle some things at the federal level that we can get into that’s a whole other conversation.

Changing Minimum Broadband Speeds

Brian Snider:

It’s just like the 25/3 as a minimum speed. How long has that been around?

Brian Snider:

How much has changed in technology? You have more devices connected now in your home and what you have to do for schoolwork, and what you have to do for your general work. To me that just minimum broadband speed needs to change and things could change. In general, the exciting part that I have seen is the local level is stepping up, and we always had this vision this was going to happen in this timeframe, but I still didn’t think it was going to happen this soon, the reason it’s happening faster now is because of COVID.

Bridging the Digital Divide the Right Way

Brian Snider:

COVID, we would talk to communities and they’re saying, we’ll be thinking about it next year. Then all of a sudden once COVID hit, we were getting phone calls left and right saying, we’ve got to move forward now. And it’s sad where we’re at across the country, but I think that we’re starting to see people take it into their own hands, and that’s exciting to see. It’s more of a grassroots approach now, and you’re building local equality and digital equality by bridging the digital divide the right way. And you have to use unique structures to be able to do that.

Craig Corbin:

True. Well, and you hit the nail on the head. It is said that unfortunately, we, as a country are so far behind the curve from where we should be. We should have been leaders in this realm. And you look to what has been accomplished, you mentioned Sweden and parts of Europe with open access networks, the success that has been brought there and the connectivity across the map, I really hope that the opportunity that we have now with the focus because of the pandemic that you just mentioned, bringing that quite hot spotlight on the need for everybody to get it right, take advantage of the tremendous funding opportunities that are available, but make sure that those dollars are spent wisely and going forward.

Brian Snider:

That’s even the same message with my concern about RDOF and things like that. The repercussions of some of those things, if they’re not handled properly, and the longer divide that could be generated because of it. There’s pushback in those scenarios too, but even the evolution of how we fund these networks is changing to where if you’ve created the right business plan with a local municipality, and again, it’s not one size fits all, we will be able to structure a financial model that’ll be able to make it move forward. There’s going to be a lot of different grants and federal stimulus programs that are going to be coming out to build it, but then you have to look at it at the local level, what you’re getting is it truly enough? You see some communities just wait; they’re waiting on grants. You can’t wait. Everyday technology is moving too fast. If you’re not building fiber infrastructure, you’re falling behind.

Brian Snider:

That’s why, again, when we set this out, we knew private investment had to get involved, and we wanted to find the right market where that needed to happen. Once the private financial side of things started working really well with the government side and creating a really unique PPP structure, and I say it as a, not just a public-private partnership the way people would think of in just the finances of it, but also in just the physical infrastructure way of the public-private PPP that you can ultimately set up.

Brian Snider:

That is a lot of what our models built behind. I guess I’m rambling off of your original question, but the layers of how some of this financial money that’s going to be received, you have to find the right consultants that are going to guide you the right way. You have to find the right partners. There’s a lot of folks local that know this stuff that you can just, see them create a task force all the time right now. That can really have input on how to do this the right way. If you go about it with the wrong business plan, potentially with the wrong consultant, with the wrong partner, you could be setting yourself back even further, and that doesn’t need to be the case.

Broadband Funding

Craig Corbin:

You made mention obviously of the importance of the funding component to the equation. And you’ve also referred earlier to the need for municipalities to be focused on not waiting. You need to be putting fiber in the ground. You need to be embracing the technology because of how rapidly it evolves. Touch a little bit on where you see the evolution from a technological standpoint going.

Public Municipal Networks

Brian Snider:

I firmly believe in the structure that’s going to help bridge the digital divide, in my opinion, is public municipal networks, to me, must build and own their own basically backbone or middle mile networks. They should. They should control the facilities that are essential to their community. They should tie into their anchor institutes, they should own that infrastructure. They should be the backbone of the community if something happens. They’re able to make revenue off of that if work the right way. Then from that standpoint as well, because that’s a lot of things that private companies are lacking. If they had a good fiber connection in a rural city then the cost could be justified to build-out to those homes. Creating that public-private partnership from a physical infrastructure level, I think is one of our best approaches to bridging the digital divide.

Public-Private Partnership Bridging Digital Divide

Brian Snider:

And I think if you get a local community to build out a network that they own, they control, it connects their police stations, it connects their schools, it connects their fire departments, it connects their water facilities, it also allows them to implement smart city applications, and do it the way that the city can control it from that aspect, but then have partners that they find that are going to bring their city what they want to see from a last-mile partner. And that’s where the private industry comes into play then. If they have a network that’s sitting there that a private partner is able to connect to, and they’ve truly worked on the partnership side of this to where the private partner connects to it, they build the fiber to the home, connect all the homes and businesses, but do it on a sense that it’s helping the community, it is helping the residents and the business owners just at their home and business, but it’s also providing all the other services that are going to continue to change as we move on.

Brian Snider:

That’s been really just learning from working with all these different municipalities. You see the ones that back in 2012, and when BTOP grants were out and they took advantage of going and starting to build middle mile networks. They are the ones that are going to be having the last file networks connected faster than areas that are just starting now.

Fiber to the Home Partner

Brian Snider:

That’s also one thing that we recommend with the communities we work with. You can still start now and because of how the anchor institutions are connected, you’re usually doing it multiple rings. You build out one ring, fiber of the home partner can then attach to that one ring and start building out in that area. So in sequence, you could build out an entire network where you have the public entity owns the middle mile network and right behind it, as that’s getting built you’re connected, you’re also connecting homes and business. Even if a community has no infrastructure, you could still potentially get this done in five years. And that’s racing in this industry.

Craig Corbin:

Well, and the beauty, of going with that optical ring topology is that you’ve got the built-in redundancy and all that adds to the equation. You’re Obviously so much importance on this topic, and unfortunately, we don’t have the time today in this visit to go in-depth on all of the areas that we want. Definitely looking forward to the next opportunity, Brian, to circle back and visit with you and explore some of these topics in a lot more depth.

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