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September 5, 2023

Reflections on the UTC Conference 2023

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.

Brad Hine:

Hello, everyone in broadband land. Welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host, Brad Hine, bringing you stories, stats, and samples from the world of broadband. This week I’m on-site in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the UTC Annual Conference,
It is an amazing conference and an amazing celebration too. It’s the 75th annual conference. I’d like to welcome Ron Beck, the interim president and CEO of UTC, Ron. Welcome to the bunch.

A Week of Strategic Planning, Educational Programs, and Networking Opportunities

Ron Beck:

Thank You. Much, much appreciated. Indeed, this has been a terrific week in Fort Lauderdale. I arrived last Friday. I had some time with the board of directors. We did some strategic planning, you know, all the things that you have to do. While we were doing that, there were some pre-conference seminars, fiber optic hands-on training, RF engineering training, and just great opportunities for folks that are coming in to experience Fort Lauderdale and at the same time get some training. On Tuesday we had some more of that training. But we took the opportunity to help fund the UTC foundation that we’ve used to develop educational programs for new engineers, scholarship type of programs. But we did a golf tournament. So while it sounds a little gratuitous to play golf in South Florida, it is something we’ve been doing for 18 years now.

The foundation has been around for 10. We’ve been very successful with this. And it’s just been great. But Wednesday we kicked off with the opening general session and elected new officers. We are member driven. So these are volunteers from utilities across the United States and Canada that volunteer their time for this extracurricular. And then today, you know, we’re here on the trade show floor wrapping up the second day of being able to visit with our associate members who are the people that provide the equipment and the building blocks, if you will, that we put together to put those telecom systems together.

Highlights from the Spectacular 75th Anniversary

Brad Hine:

Congratulations, again, on the 75th anniversary. I know there was a big gala last night. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that went down?

Ron Beck:

Absolutely. I’ve been with UTC for about 33 of those years. So another gentleman, who has been here quite a bit longer than me, and I did a little recap. We had a good number of our members. It was a black-tie event. Jeff Sheldon and I were both in tuxedos, and we did a recap of the 75 years and the things that brought us together originally. The people, the DNA that established so many of the practices that we have in this member-driven organization. And then we had a few drinks and celebrated. There may have been some dancing a little bit later at the after-party. You know, we’re in Fort Lauderdale; we’re on the Intercoastal. There are big yachts going by. It was a beautiful evening. And we had a great time at the 75th-anniversary gala.

From Unexpected Offer to Embracing the Challenge

Brad Hine:

That’s wonderful. At the beginning of the conference, you and I talked a little bit about your current role as interim president and CEO. It is a bit new to you. Tell us how that all went down. I liked the story that you told me a little earlier.

Ron Beck:

So I’ve been involved, as I said, with UTC for about 33 years, actively for about 31. I worked for a power utility for those 31 years on the coast of Oregon. I’ve been in electronics and telecommunications for about 44 years now. So I’m getting to the point where I’m ready to take a pension and pass it on to the next generation of folks to build these networks. I walked into work on May 1st. And I thought I’ve got 35 days to go. I’m going to make every day count, make every hour count. Let’s get everybody up to speed; let’s leave nothing on the table. This was five weeks ago, right? Five weeks ago, I get a call from the chairman of the board.

He says, “Hey, we’d like you to be the interim president, CEO.”

And I was immediately, “Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.”

I’ve held a lot of roles in this, in this organization over the years. I was chairman of the board in 2012. But in my wildest dreams, I didn’t see this one coming. So immediately they’re scared, but there’s also whoa, a challenge. And that room is full of people who answer challenges, answer that call to service. Right. We’ll talk about that some more. But I told them to let me think about it.

 Embracing the Call

I called my wife and said, “Hey, I just got this call.”

She says, “Oh, you’ve been training for this one all your life.”

So laughing, I was like, “Alright, good.”

So I went to talk to my general manager and said “Hey, this is what’s happening.”

And he’s like, “Uh, I know that I’m not going to be able to talk you out of it. I know who you are. I know what you’re about here, how you like this organization, and how much of your own person you have put into this organization. So, give me a few minutes to talk to the staff.”

But then I called Dewey Day, Chairman of the Board, back and said, “Let’s talk.”

So May 8th, I flew to Washington, DC, and sat down with the staff and the outgoing CEO. And by the 11th, I’m in.

We were a month away from Fort Lauderdale. And, you know, I must admit, I get to enjoy the work that the crew has done in Washington, DC, over the last year putting this conference together. And I can tell you about a month ago, they started working on the 2024 conference in Mobile, Alabama. They’re already working on getting everything ready to go. They’re a fine-tuned machine. They’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and they are just an incredible group.

Ron Beck’s Journey into the World of Connectivity

Brad Hine:

Well, that’s quite evident. It’s been a fabulous conference. This is my first time attending on behalf of The Broadband Bunch. UTC is very new to the West. Your staff has taken amazing care of me. You set us up in a booth so we could speak to the folks walking by and get the opinion of everybody that’s attending the conference.

Can you talk a little bit about your history and how you got into this industry and then eventually got connected with some of the UTC appointments?

Ron Beck:

Sure, sure. So in the late seventies, I was in high school thinking about universities. I was thinking about a number of different options as many of us do. Back then, tuition to a university was not nearly what it is today. So you had a lot of options, but there were also certain expectations. So I chose to join the US Navy and go to electronics school, electronics technician school. I found that there was a certain knack there, something I was able to do that I had no idea I was capable of doing. So, fast forward 10 years. I got out of the Navy and met my wife, who’s also an electronic technician in the Navy. We started a family. Uh, life is good. And I went to work for a utility because you know, at the time, utilities paid very well.

And I go to work for a utility in California working on telecom systems. Well, the telecom systems weren’t the difficult portion. I already had all of the skills I needed for electronics and troubleshooting. The mission was different. I went from preparedness for something. In the military, it’s preparing for what you hope doesn’t come –the war — to preparing for a storm, a snowstorm, an outage, or just maintaining the system so that what you’re working on, the hydroelectric generator, whatever can be maintained by the grid as it is this connectivity.

Enhancing Efficiency and Ensuring Quality of Life

So, fast forward a couple more years. Now, I find myself moving to Oregon, a beautiful country. I wanted to get the family going a little bit bigger, so I took a job working for a smaller utility. I spent 31 years there. We needed to connect substations together so that when an outage occurred, we had a communication system that would tell us where the outage was.

Over a period of years, we got more and more efficient. So the efficiency of the utility, not fewer bodies, our ability to respond faster to an outage. Ultimately in the power business, it’s such a critical resource to everybody’s day-to-day life. Outages impact people whether it’s a person on a home oxygen unit or it’s someone with meat in a freezer or whatever that happens to be. That quality of life decreases very quickly. When the lights go out, there’s helplessness.

So the efficiency of the telecommunication system that the electrical company is using has a direct impact on that quality of life. And ultimately, those are our ratepayers. The people we answer to. This is true of gas, water, and any number of other systems that have that communications piece that helps you as an operator understand the situational awareness of how your system is operating, and what’s the health of your system while you’re operating.

Uniting Nerds and Fostering Knowledge Exchange

It’s kind of like the yellow light that comes on in your car dashboard when something’s wrong. You take it to a mechanic, to a utility with a telecommunication system when the light comes on, and we know very specifically where the problem is. And we can diagnose and discover if there is a way around it. How fast can we get the power back up?

That’s been kind of my role over the last 31 years working for a utility. But all that time, I was working on the side as a volunteer with this group called UTC because, in a small community, there are a few telecommunications engineers. How do you bounce things off each other? Well, the fax machines we were talking about, right? As email developed there were bulletin board services. Today, there’s Reddit. I mean, it’s an entirely different world. But ultimately, it’s that connectivity, that networking, that friendship, that common thread.

We’re all nerds. We’ve all got that geeky thing about us. You have gaming nerds and laptop computers, home computer nerds. Well, our people are, you know, long-haul RF engineering nerds and optical engineers. And it is still all the same kind of genre. Well, you get all of us together and the common thread is nobody in the room knows everything, but we’re going to try hard by the end of the week to know everything because there’s just this information to share. It’s phenomenal.

Answering the Call and Embracing a Lifetime of Service

Brad Hine:

Right. You mentioned a theme of the Conference, “Your call to serve.” You were called to serve in the Navy; you were called to serve in your community, UTC, and the utilities or local groups providing, like you said, utility services, the communications being the glue that kind of ties them all together. What are some of your other calls to service?

Ron Beck:

The comment I was making is that at our earliest ages when you’re out on the playground on a sunny day, having a good time and the teacher comes up taps you on the shoulder, and says, “Ron, Brad, can you take the class back into the classroom?” And suddenly now you’re like, wow, I was selected. This is great. What did she see in me? How am I different from the others?  Well, it was just my turn. So you lead the class in, and you’re thinking to yourself, “It’s been a great day.” Everybody arrives safely.

Or maybe your pastor says, “Hey, can you help me set up a couple of tables?” And it starts to morph into this for the greater good, not for your own. You weren’t selected; you were available. But you could contribute.

There was a piece that was needed at the time, you responded, and you moved on. But ultimately in life, you get to a point where there are more and more of these opportunities.  Volunteer firefighters are along that line. I was a volunteer firefighter for 10 years, and it was really rewarding. There’s something about the adrenaline, but there’s these callings that you get over your life.

The Power of Member-Driven Leadership in Shaping UTC’s Future

UTC is member driven. They’re individual members who volunteer their time. Inevitably, sometime in your life, there will be an opportunity for you to chair a committee or to lead a discussion around a particular technology because it’s part of your work. So you’ll gain this. It’s an interactive experience where you get to communicate with people in other utilities across the United States who are doing it slightly differently. They may have a different geographic model, different governance model, and different funding model. But we all have the same goal in the end, so by responding, it builds.

I chaired a couple of committees and the division above and was noticed by the leadership advisory council. The former chairs of the board were given an opportunity to go be the chairman of the board. And in 2012, it was great. It was a huge experience, but it wasn’t about me. It was about how I was chosen to lead this organization that I like so much. So when I got that call on May 1st to be the interim CEO, it’s like, wow.

My wife joked that I’m Aaron Rogers right now. I’m hoping to lead the Jets to the Super Bowl. Right now I’m just the interim. We’re going to get it done. I’m going to start working for the next CEO. But I think the industry is in a good place right now. And UTCs in a great place.

A Look at the Evolving Landscape of Utility-Driven Connectivity

Brad Hine:

That’s a great statement. I’ve spoken with a lot of folks this week throughout the event passing through the aisle or in front of the booth. I have been asking for stories, stats, and samples and about the connection from utility to broadband, fiber connections, things like that. Where do you see the broadband parts of the industry right now? Do you feel like it’s at its front end? Do you feel like, uh, it’s more advanced than that? How do you, how do you feel the ECs and all the utilities are kind of grasping this?

Ron Beck:

There are some models out there that are very advanced that have been around for quite some time. I think of Northwest’s open access network up in the Pacific Northwest. Twenty years ago, Bonneville Power was building fiber optic cable to tie their substations together and decided at the time that of the 144 fiber strands, 12 of them would be set aside for public-purpose fiber. Well, the peoples or public utility districts in Washington are all Bonneville connected. Therefore, they were fiber optic connected in a ring.

Now, this doesn’t serve the community. It serves the substation at the edge of the community. Each one of those groups took the opportunity in a different way to utilize that to provide maybe internet or maybe just more efficient communications with their own network. Today, with so much of the funding that is coming out, it’s a model that can be used to extend the fiber to the home fiber into the community.

Now you take the parallel to the electric grid. You look at the Rural Electric Association and the unserved areas. Well, is broadband the new utility? I mean, it’s clearly making a difference in our life. If you’re building a house or buying a house right now, you look to see if there’s a septic that’s got electric service. Do you look at broadband? I think more and more are especially if you’re buying a house right now and you’re under 30 years old, connectivity’s been a part of your life, all your life. So now you get into that mode of, I would look at that versus maintenance on the septic system. You’re looking solely at your ability to connect and the quality of life that comes with it.

Empowering Communities through Broadband Access

Because your quality of work is work from home capable from where you’re at. You know, we just went through a pandemic where if you couldn’t work from home, you had an entirely different issue, potentially from a public health perspective. By no means am I saying that communications and public health are exclusive. But it’s an interesting world when you don’t have connectivity. But with connectivity, it’s a basic human service.

If you get into the rural world, rural telemedicine, the ability to read X-rays by an expert somewhere else in the world, was taken out in the middle of one of the counties in eastern Oregon. Right. Where you have a few people per mile population, but you still get top-notch, radiographic readings on an X-ray. I mean, it’s phenomenal when you think about what is possible out there with data flowing back and forth.

And the other piece of it is motivation. If the incumbent won’t do it, this is America. There will be an organic “we’re going to do it ourselves” response. And I think you’re seeing that now, this recognition that that’s going to happen. And with that, these smaller utilities are getting funded through various initiatives within the federal government and the state governments to do just that. Take broadband that last mile to the unserved and underserved areas. Let’s make it an equal playing field for all the citizens.

The Role of Utilities in Ensuring Ubiquitous Connectivity

Brad Hine:

Right. Great comment. Utilities are in DIY mode, do it yourself. If the larger carriers aren’t going to handle it, they’ll use it. They’ll monetize it, they’ll make sure it works for their community, and keep that community tight.

Ron Beck:

When you put a cell site out somewhere, a cellular site that the carriers build, it takes power. So the power company’s already building out there. The other thing that the cell site needs is a fiber optic connection. If they’re on the same poles or in the same trench, the utility might as well be the one who does it.

So we pass a number of houses on our way to that cell site because ultimately, we don’t want just to be connected at home with broadband. We want to leave our homes, drive down the road, go to the store, go to our neighbors, go to our in-laws, and never lose connectivity along the route. And that is enabled by that ubiquitous service across the United States. That’s going to be hard to do if you drive into places that don’t have cellular or stay at a hotel that does not have the same level of what you have at home. You’re going to make economic decisions based on your connectivity wherever you are at the time.

The Power of Real-Time Connectivity and Analytics

Brad Hine:

Right. You and I were talking a little earlier about some of the efficiencies that are going on and the software that is allowing us to do that. You, you mentioned fiber to the meter. We no longer need to send somebody out to read the meter. And we see other examples in the industry, but we’re not really replacing the human element.

Ron Beck:

We’re making it more efficient. Absolutely. I was speaking of my experience. We put an automatic meter reading in, so over the air meter reading, which allowed us to present data to the customer of what their usage was at a given time instead of it just being once a month when the bill shows up. So this new interactive of the utility speaking to the meter on the edge of your house enabled several other things. One of them is we didn’t need the person that drives around once a month and reads your meter, but we repurposed them. They’re still employees. Many of them became technicians working out on the background or found other jobs within the utility. Because ultimately these are your neighbors. These are the people that coach the little league softball team, and your public utility probably sponsors the other side of it.

But ultimately this led to any number of other technologies like pay-as-you-go electrical usage or water usage. Let’s say one of the barriers to you getting an apartment is you have a large deposit that you need to put down for connection to service. Well, in a pay-as-you-go world, you can put a little money down. We don’t need a deposit. You’re not going to short us money. You’re not going to leave us owing because you’re going to pay ahead of time. Most people don’t think about this, but in the electrical or water industry, you pay in arrears. You’ve already been provided the service. There’s nothing to repossess. Right. So in this world, we flipped the model and the only way to that that was allowed is technology, connectivity, real-time connectivity, and some analytics.

Predictive Analytics and Enhanced Connectivity

With predictive analytics, we can look at it and say, “At your current rate of usage, you’ve got about two more hours of usage on your account.” And we can send it to your phone. So then you can transfer $5, $10 in whatever you can afford at the time and continue along instead of showing up home one night and finding out that you were disconnected for non-pay by your utility maybe through no fault of your own. But in this case, it makes it far more interactive.

So you get to the point, you may not need as many customer service representatives. You may not need as many of those human factors on the customer side. So we’ve enhanced the customer experience with less human-to-human interaction, which seems counter-indicated, but the jobs are still there. The community action is still there. It’s just funny the way a lot of this has gone. I can only imagine where it will go next.

Unleashing the Nerdy Side of Energy Management

Brad Hine:

Right. Well, I think it’s fascinating, and being a data analytics geek myself, I like that you’re arming your subscribers and your customers with data-driven facts so they can make better decisions on their usage. Also, they cannot just get a bill at the end of the month, but they’re seeing hour by hour, day by day how it’s shaping up in all the services, not just electrical.

Ron Beck:

Yep. And most of them are 15-minute increments. So you’re seeing relatively real-time information about your usage. There is a technology that you can install on the panel in your house that has a small Wi-Fi box attached to it and it attaches to your Wi-Fi at home that then as an app goes out to your phone that has machine learning attached to it. So they have a database that will pretty much tell you what television you have and which one in the house it is. So if you have questions about your power usage, it isn’t a 60-watt bulb versus a 45-watt bulb. You know exactly which bulb is on in the house. You can go around and map your house and you get this app and you see your usage.

And as we were talking before, you can almost figure out that your son is still gaming on his laptop when he should be in bed because it’s plugged in. And the machine learning knows what that usage profile happens to be, but it gives you that granularity that you can use to manage your own home in real-time and monetizes it. You punch in what your kilowatt-hour rate is, and it’ll actually tell you that thing is costing you 23 cents an hour to operate.

That doesn’t sound like much, but some of it can be a game, as you said, the data side. I know people who really geek out on the pennies per minute that they’re spending. It’s almost like a Fitbit. How many steps did you get today? How many kilowatt hours did I not use? Which is actually good from an environmental point of view. It’s just great that those kinds of games exist. But again, we’re nerds.

From Gas Tanks to Energy Tanks

Brad Hine:

Right, right. Well, I think that phrase just spoke to every person that has to write a check or pay for a utility bill and wants to know what’s happening on a monthly basis when they have kids in the home and they’re saying, “Why are your showers so long? Why are you on that device for so long?” You just want to know. You actually want to have that visibility as a homeowner.

Ron Beck:

The analogy that I gave people very early on when I started to get my head around this was if you have a car and you fill your gas tank up, you have a pretty good idea. There’s a little computer that tells you that you have 500 miles to empty. Well, these apps that we’re talking about have a similar type of thing. You have so many minutes to empty and you plan your week. You know that you must drive to work five times and you may have an extra trip to get milk or whatever the case may be. So there’s this efficiency that becomes part of the way you operate because you only want to fill your tank, whatever, so you can plan this. Now we have these computers, it’s the same thing in the power world.

You have a really good idea, minute by minute, how many miles you have left of the tank instead of waiting till the end of the month and seeing a number grumbling about it as I’ve often done and then just doing nothing about it. This is far more interactive than how you could do reduction before you must write the check. And it’s just phenomenal.

Empowering Consumers for Energy Efficiency and Grid Optimization

Then you factor in rooftop solar. You factor in all the options that people have around, again, interacting with their utility around load shedding. You know, utilities will give you an incentive if you don’t circulate your hot tub during a specific time or your swimming pool or whatever the case may be. Those are monetary; there’s feedback there.

They’re trying to control the grid and minimize what they pay for power which translates to the customer getting you an incentive to not do something that’s probably automated anyways, and you won’t even notice. But that’s all done through that same device, that same interface that’s helping you predict what your bill’s going to be.

Energizing Discussions and Innovations in Utility Communication and Resilient Grid Systems

Brad Hine:

Fascinating stuff. I know every year is a little bit different. There’s more technological innovation here and there and different speakers. But give me some of your personal highlights of the week here.

Ron Beck:

Coming off of Covid, we weren’t able to get together as much, but this show looks like a really big bounce back. We’re back to that personal networking and exchanging of ideas that you can do in a virtual meeting, but it’s so much more meaningful when it’s in person. We understand how that works, but there are so many other good things happening here.

Broadband, obviously, is a hot topic. Fiber to the home. What roles do the utilities take? It’s continuing, but at the same time, we’re seeing innovations in technology. We’re seeing the power supplies that our systems use. The wireless systems become more capable, less power draw themselves more resilient. So, you know, when you look at the system that controls the grid, it must work when the grid is down. So those discussions we have are interesting. How do you build this resilient communication system that you need to have to put the grid back up?

And the grid is what runs the pumps for water for fire hydrants, for the x-ray machine. I talked about it right in the remote, but it’s also there for the gas. Now they have residual pressure and one that they’ll last for a while, but ultimately the entire economy at some point runs on electricity. Even the cell system with batteries. You have a battery in your phone, and they have batteries at the sites. But at some point, the generator and the battery that they have will run out if we don’t get the power restored. It’s our members here who are responsible for that communication system. You can just feel the energy. Ideas are being exchanged about how we do it and how we do it better each time we meet and have an opportunity to talk.

Ron Beck’s Future Journey and Ongoing Engagement with UTC

Brad Hine:

That’s great. So it’s been a fabulous week and as we start to close this episode, tell me this with your crystal ball in your hand, what’s next for Ron Beck? You mentioned to me earlier that you’re moving, but I know you’re going to continue to participate in UTC for years to come. What’s happening next for you?

Ron Beck:

I’ve 31 years at a power utility, and it’s time to pass that torch. I think it’s been great. And so this is a great opportunity for me to remain engaged with UTC. So that’s the magic question. I am moving, I’m moving down to Georgia to be with the grandkids. I’ve got a son and a daughter down there.

My wife and I have decided that it’s time to relocate and let somebody else enjoy that beautiful property that we have on the Oregon coast. We’re going to do a little bit more travel, but you’re spot on. One of the advantages or perks of being the former chairman of the board is that I get to attend these meetings and there are great friendships out there. I see many familiar faces that have long since retired from their day jobs and are still working in one way, shape, or form.

I suspect I’m going to find another home somewhere to keep this conversation up. It’s just become so much of my life, my day-to-day. I can’t just shut it down. I said to somebody the other day that retirement is a state of mind; it’s not a state of employment. And at the end of the day, whether I’m getting paid or not, I’m still going to be working. I don’t know if any of us can ever retire from the commitment that we have to an organization such as UTC.

A Night to Remember at the Closing Party

Brad Hine:

Well, I thank you for speaking to us today. For those who are listening to some of the background noises, we are literally set up at the end of the exhibition hall and the teams are breaking everything down. And we’ve closed this party down, so to speak.

Ron Beck:

Well, not really. So there’s this portion of it, but we have a final event before most people will fly out tonight — the closing party. We literally have a party planned here at the hotel at the convention center to commemorate the 75 years. The gala was a little more, like I said, black tie.  Tonight we’ll wear shorts and T-shirts, and we’re going to have a good time. We have a “Cigars under the Stars” event that we do each year as well.

As I said, we’re member-driven, and years ago, several of our members would get together and enjoy a cigar. There’s some ceremony there; there’s some luxury there. But ultimately one of our members decided to sponsor it. And that sponsor is ongoing, and now it’s become a full-blown nightcap deal as the outgoing chairman of the board and the incoming chairman of the board have an opportunity to celebrate this moment before we go back to our jobs and continue working for the next regional meeting, for the next national meeting. I get to move and then go back to Washington, DC, and work with the crew to put the next one together.

Building Lasting Connections

Brad Hine:

Fabulous. Well, thanks again, and congratulations on an amazing week for you. The broadband bunch felt very welcome and a part of the gang. We look forward to seeing you at some of the regionals or even in Mobile next year. We need to keep in touch and get an update from you soon.

Ron Beck:

Thank you so much.

Brad Hine:

Thank you, Ron.

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