Revolutionizing Connectivity and Building the Future of Fiber - ETI
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February 1, 2024

Revolutionizing Connectivity and Building the Future of Fiber

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

Joe Coldebella:

This episode of The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software and VETRO FiberMap.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. We are at Fiber Connect 2023 in Orlando, Florida, along with my co-host, Pete Pizzutillo. I’m Joe Coldebella. Joining us is Kyle Glaeser, director of Emerging Networks for Underline. Kyle, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Kyle Glaeser:

Morning. Thank you.

Joe Coldebella:

Hey, it’s great to have you here at the show. Before we dive into the topic at hand, I would love it if you could just paint a picture for the audience in terms of who you are, where you work, and all that good stuff.

Pioneering the Future of Open-Access Fiber Networks

Kyle Glaeser:

Awesome. Yeah. My name’s Kyle Glaeser. I’m the director of Emerging Networks, like you said, at Underline. My focus is on outside plant architectures and smart city applications, ensuring our networks are designed for the next 50 to 100 years and helping foster an environment for new applications across our network beyond traditional internet services.

Underline is a venture-backed startup. We started it four years ago now, which is hard to believe. We finance, operate, and construct open-access fiber networks around the country. And we have a capital partner whom we go and do market assessments for, and we come up with markets that we think are interesting and satiate their needs but also fill our social desire to solve the digital divide.

We’re looking for markets that are underserved, un-served, but also accretive for financial purposes. But then, we also have our own software platform that we’ve developed. It’s an orchestration platform for the open-access network. It’s an SDN that every user on our network is an administrator of, which we can dive into a little more later because that’s kind of interesting. That’s a little bit about Underline.

Adapting to Challenges

Joe Coldebella:

So nothing happened when you guys started this up in terms of world events. It’s just been smooth sailing the whole time. Right?

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah. I always say we’re not pro-COVID, but it actually worked out kind of nice for us. We were looking to finance a few markets whenever COVID hit. And ultimately, that led us to take a bit of a pause and say, “Maybe we should refocus.” And we have spent the last two and a half years, or during that time, developing our software, which turned out to be of tremendous value to us. We took advantage of that time while we could.

Pete Pizzutillo:

What are some of the markets that you guys are currently active in?

Kyle Glaeser:

Right now we’re building in Colorado Springs and Fountain. And then we have a number of markets in the pipeline, but we don’t announce markets until we have a shovel in the ground.

A Rapidly Evolving Industry Landscape

Pete Pizzutillo:

Okay. We’ve seen you at Fiber Connect and other shows before, right?

Kyle Glaeser:

This is my first time at Fiber Connect.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Oh, is that right?

Kyle Glaeser:

But yeah, I’ve been to a lot of the regional shows.

Pete Pizzutillo:

The other round. Okay. What was your perception of this event?

Kyle Glaeser:

It’s a lot bigger. I have really enjoyed it. It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve been in this industry for 11 years, and I’ve been in and out of conferences most of that time. You can’t take 10 steps before someone pulls you aside, and you’re in another meeting. It’s been a whirlwind.

Pete Pizzutillo:

What’s your biggest takeaway? What’s the state of the other operators out here from your perspective?

Kyle Glaeser:

Well, I mean obviously the big thing in the industry right now is everyone’s gearing up for the BEAD funding, and that’s more apparent than ever.

Lessons from the Field in Colorado Springs

Pete Pizzutillo:

Some of the things that we’ve been talking about are I feel like up until July, there’s a lot of uncertainty about getting that money. And then the money is starting to trickle out, and there’s this challenge process. But in the meantime, there are private folks like yourselves that are getting stuff done. So people are past, I guess, some of the design and supply chain issues and starting to build out and running into those challenges and trying to figure out how you accelerate those and get past some of those obstacles. What are some of the lessons learned that you’ve seen in Colorado Springs in terms of just the operational side that you weren’t anticipating or maybe were anticipating?

Kyle Glaeser:

I would say planning is everything and always has been.

Joe Coldebella:

Great point. Yeah.

Kyle Glaeser:

We take our market assessment process very, very seriously. Before we even started our network, we had created a 3D model of the entire community we were looking to build, doing terrestrial LiDAR scans. And we measured everything within two centimeters of accuracy.

Pete Pizzutillo:

What?

Kyle Glaeser:

I know the height of every curb, the distance of the sidewalk to the curb, and the amount of green space. I know where every tree is. And I know every pole of course and every height of attachment on that pole, where every manhole on the road is, and every fire hydrant. We mapped everything.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Wow.

Innovative Approaches to Market Success

Kyle Glaeser:

We built some algorithms on top of that to determine with different construction methodologies across that footprint, what those potentially would cost, what kind of hurdles would be in the way, and what kind of schedule would be associated with that. And ultimately, that’s allowed us to, I won’t say glide through the market hiccups, but we’re on budget and on schedule.

Joe Coldebella:

Well, so when you’re describing that, I was like, wow. But the objective was no surprises, is that the idea?

Kyle Glaeser:

Exactly. This was a market we did with private equity. Ultimately, one of the risk mitigators for those guys is they have to understand everything about it. And that gives us a leg up in that piece of the industry to bring them an enormously thought-out project.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That’s innovative. And I’d never heard of anybody doing 3D modeling of the whole community. I would love to see that if I could see that. What else do you find is an innovative approach that differentiates the way you guys are going to market?

Kyle Glaeser:

Before we entered our first market, we put together what we call our infotech consortium. We went ahead and put our partnerships together and convinced them that we were worth investing some time in. Having that group of partners, which right now is like Meres, Corning, Duraline, and Fujitsu, and getting that ecosystem put together beforehand and including them early in the planning process, allowed them to prepare for what we were forecasting. And it’s made it much smoother than what I think it would’ve been.

Aligning Interests and Capital Flow

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, because people talk about that, the partnerships and creating novel partnerships. And you’re starting to see some of that now. I mean, there are some people late… Not late to the game, but reactive to trying to build some vertical integration and that type of thing. What are some keys to really nurturing that partnership? It’s all commercial interest, right? And there’s a lot of good intent there, but at the end of the day, it’s dollars that come down. How do you really get people aligned around that mission?

Kyle Glaeser:

I think first understanding how capital is going to flow through the process and figuring out where everybody sits in that flow. It helps you immediately realize these are the risks that we have in this market or this potential project. If this doesn’t happen, then capital will stop flowing in that direction and that causes work stoppages, procurement slows down, and whatever. In my experience, that’s been ultimately the underlying cause of a lot of project delays and the cost of the bill being too high, getting over budget because work stoppages are the most expensive thing you can do.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Getting everybody to understand the root cause of poor performance or underperformance so that we collectively solve those and tackle those problems ahead of time.

Contract Alignment

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah. Also, this was huge for us, ensuring that throughout the entire partner stack the contracts align. I might give a contract to a partner, and then they bring in a subcontractor or somebody else. And the terms of that contract don’t necessarily align with the terms of our contract above that.

That can cause enormous problems. And it’s something a lot of people overlook because they’re just throwing out whatever was standard from the last project they used. And when you get enough parties involved in a market, it gets confusing.

Joe Coldebella:

Now, does it feel like it’s herding cats or do you guys think you’ve got enough of a handle on it that it becomes a little more manageable? Because it’s amazing. Just in terms of looking at all that needs to line up, sometimes I’m just like, how do you guys do it? It must be overwhelming at times.

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah, I mean, we’re a relatively small company. Well, we’re 70 people now. But when we started in this market, we were a bit smaller. And we were very reliant on our partners to organize the whole thing. And I think it was crucial for us to just have the types of folks who love complicated problems.

Leveraging Cross-Industry Talent for Telecom Innovation

Pete Pizzutillo:

Pain.

Kyle Glaeser:

And if you look at the makeup of our employees, only about a third of our company comes from the telecom world. The rest of our company are data scientists, software developers, marketing professionals from outside of this industry, and campaign managers. I think they brought in a really interesting take on the problem. And said, “We’ve solved really complicated problems before. Let’s try doing it this way in the telecom space.” And so, our focus is finding people who have the skill sets we’re looking for, and then we’ll teach them telecom.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Right. That’s a great point because we spend a lot of time talking about resourcing and everybody has a dearth of resources, skilled resources. But I do feel like, and this is something that Joe and I talk about too, is the industry needs to do a better job stealing talent from different industries.

Joe Coldebella:

Absolutely.

Pete Pizzutillo:

I don’t know if that’s okay to say.

A Unique Administrator Model in Open-Access Fiber Networks

Joe Coldebella:

I always equate it to a restaurant or the back of the house. If you want the food to be good at the front of the house, you have to make sure that everything back there works. And obviously, right now, there’s a talent shortage, and there’s also the problem that there are a lot of folks that are going to step away in the next five to seven years just getting out of the industry. We have to steal liberally and don’t feel any shame doing it.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Well, thank you for that. I want to go back to something you said in your introduction. You said that each user is an administrator on your system. Is that correct?

Kyle Glaeser:

Yes.

Pete Pizzutillo:

What does that mean?

Creating Private Substrates for Data Security

Kyle Glaeser:

We designed our platform to create layer two networks dynamically in order to hand off traffic from a subscriber to an ISP because we are an open-access network, and we have an open-access marketplace. And we could have done it other ways, but we wanted to make something that was appropriate for what we think is coming. You know, new types of network applications that go beyond traditional internet.

What do I mean by that? I think the world needs two kinds of networks. You have a network for your general access to the World Wide Web. And then you have a network for all of the things that don’t belong on the internet, which is amassing rapidly. And those should be delivered today.

Hopefully, people are practicing good data hygiene and are delivering those types of things over VPNs and things like that. But I think it should be an inherent property of the network that they can create these private substrates in order to deliver private information.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Like electronic health records?

Kyle Glaeser:

Exactly.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Okay.

The Power of Private On-Demand Networks

Kyle Glaeser:

On Underline’s networks, say you are a regional clinic, and you want to deliver patient information to all of your patients within a — I mean, it could be a fairly large region, it could be national, but on one of our networks.

You would go into our marketplace, and you can manipulate our network through software without our involvement and stand that up, transfer that patient information, and then destroy that network. Not only was it a private network that you made for the particular use case, but it also only existed for a small period of time. We think that changes the cybersecurity game. We call that security by obscurity.

Joe Coldebella:

I like that.

Kyle Glaeser:

I wish that I had come up with that.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That’s one of those marketing people that you get from the other world.

Kyle Glaeser:

I don’t remember where it came from. Somebody at a different company ages ago said it, and I was like, “I love that.”

And then we narrow the battlefield of where cyber threats could exist.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Could you do peer-to-peer?

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Oh, interesting. Okay.

Seamless Learning with On-Demand Networks

Kyle Glaeser:

A use case we’re particularly fond of is, that we’re moving towards a pilot with a school district where we’re going to help students that need to be tutored during after-hours from home. If their parents can’t afford their internet bill and they don’t pay their internet bill that month, so they no longer have service from us, but we’ve already connected them, the school can still create that layer two substrate for the student. And that student can go through the school’s DIA and firewalls from home. It’s an educational walled garden at the home which people deliver now over the top. But we want it to be, again, an inherent property of the network.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Wow.

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah. That’s great. I love that you guys focus on security. I think folks ignore it, and we’re moving at such a rapid pace. And it almost seems like an afterthought. But it’s as we become more and more connected, it really should take front and center.

Kyle Glaeser:

If you talk to our CEO, Bob, he’ll say one of the things that keep him up at night is the fact that when we move into different communities and we bring more and more connectivity, more and more IoT devices, we’re increasing the threat plane to that community. And we believe it’s incumbent on us to ensure that’s done in a responsible manner because they may not have the expertise to protect themselves from this emerging war.

Envisioning a World with Free Internet Access

Pete Pizzutillo:

But even that, I mean, that’s the threat landscape that rolls back to municipalities and to private companies. We were talking to the utility folks. They’re saying that people have these smart meters and all this DIY stuff, and they become access points to get into the grid. So I guess what you’re saying in that use case then is that there would be my gaming and my email, through my home. And then anything that’s tied to a municipality, or they need some kind of higher credentials could be in this separate — What did you call it?

Kyle Glaeser:

Layer two substrate.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Layer two substrate. Okay. That’s really interesting. Your job is to think 50 to 100 years downstream stream.

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah.

Pete Pizzutillo:

What does life look like 50 years down the road here?

Kyle Glaeser:

I believe the internet will be free.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Oh, okay.

Kyle Glaeser:

Let me walk you through a thought exercise I use to justify that.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Okay.

Collaborative Models for Affordable Internet Access

Kyle Glaeser:

Advertising subsidizes the cost of content today. Why don’t they subsidize the cost of connection? Insurance subsidizes the cost of telehealth today. Why don’t they subsidize the cost of connection? And you can make a pretty long list using that model. And say, “Well, why can’t we figure out how to get all of these parties that benefit from people being connected involved in the cost of connectivity to these homes?”

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. It should be pretty simple, actually.

Joe Coldebella:

It sounds simple, but yeah. Because then people enter the equation, and then it gets really, really hard.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Right. But we’re at that forming and storming stage of the internet so that there are all these privately created access points that people are trying to monetize. They’re taking money from whoever they can for their own value, but you’re creating this layer two substrate potential, these different pathways that telehealth can just own and operate and build as part of the cost of doing service. Right? I mean, that’s pretty interesting.

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah. What else do networks look like in 50 years? I am a big proponent of fiber optic sensing.

Joe Coldebella:

What exactly is that? Because I’m a newbie, so please unpack that for me.

Fiber Optic Sensing

Kyle Glaeser:

There are these sensors that are called Fiber Bragg Grating sensors or distributed acoustic sensors. You can plug a fiber into it. And it’s a bit like an OTDR, but more high fidelity. What it does is it shoots a pulse of light down the fiber for up to 50 kilometers. And as acoustic waves interrupt that pulse of light as it travels, it creates backscatter.

That back scatterer comes back to this interrogation device. It determines the origin of that backscatter. And then, and I have no idea how they do this part. It converts that backscatter back into sound waves. Then it gives you an acoustic profile of what sound caused that scatter. And it does that in real-time across 50 kilometers with a meter of accuracy on where it’s occurring.

You can listen to several acoustic profiles like the speed and weight of every vehicle passing the road that your fibers are on in real-time. You can hear electrical lines beating into fault. And you can hear the laminar flow breaking in water lines that are nearby. There might potentially be a leak forming.

Joe Coldebella:

What?

Kyle Glaeser:

I mean, it’s in a long list of things you can do with this.

Joe Coldebella:

What the? I mean, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Wow.

The Future of Data-Driven Insights

Kyle Glaeser:

In some academic settings, this is not commercial yet. With fiber in the waterline, they’re able to hear the bacterial makeup of the water changing based on the flow sound, so they can tell if there’s been a chemical shift in the water.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That is crazy.

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, that’s bananas. I mean, just wrapping my head around that in terms of just like, wow.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That is freaking crazy.

Kyle Glaeser:

I can get pretty out there on this stuff.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Bring it, man.

Kyle Glaeser:

I think for artificial general intelligence to advance dramatically, it needs more appropriate and pervasive sensors throughout the world. If you look at how our brain works, we require sensory input to do everything. Everything is in motion. Learning is motion; thought is motion. And we need to provide a space for motion for AGI. And I think networks are absolutely the appropriate place to achieve that.

Joe Coldebella:

Wow. The interesting thing is it seems like there are also two parallels. It seems like the internet and everything evolved with it is going to become so ingrained in everything that we do. To your earlier point, it’s also really important to protect the data and the privacy of everyone.

Kyle Glaeser:

Right, right.

The Challenge of Crafting a Coordinated National Strategy

Joe Coldebella:

It’s exciting, but it’s also a little, at least from my point of view, a little scary.

Kyle Glaeser:

I agree.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. And I can’t help but think that one of the issues that we were talking about earlier is there’s still no national strategy around this configuration of this feature network. It’s all these random acts of innovation or random acts of commercialization. In a perfect world, they do add up into the fabric which enables an affordable way to do the things that you’re talking about. Are we going to overcome those thresholds? I mean, we don’t think about the electric grid that much anymore. I mean, I never did actually, but somebody figured it out, right?

Kyle Glaeser:

Last winter in Texas, I was thinking about it a lot.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Okay. Right. Resiliency and cost are kind of the things that we do think about, but we’ve overcome over 100 years of electrification. And it’s a really powerful fabric that we all benefit from, and there’s amazing things coming from it. It’s hard for me right now sitting here today looking at all the things that are going on and all the conversations about what’s happening in different communities and different geographies and different technologies to see that we’re going to get to that mature state of enabling those advanced capabilities. Am I just being cynical?

Bringing Visionaries to the Forefront

Kyle Glaeser:

No, but I disagree. I mean, it’s difficult to see how we’re going to get there, but it all comes back to capital. The parties who are going to drive a lot of that change aren’t in this industry yet. And we must show them that there’s a benefit to their industry by moving into this space.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Right.

Joe Coldebella:

100%.

Pete Pizzutillo:

This is why we need to go to CES.

Kyle Glaeser:

No, exactly.

Joe Coldebella:

I keep trying to get them. We should be at CES because everything at the commercial or consumer electronics show depends on the stuff that we’re doing here.

Joe Coldebella:

Well, they should be inviting us. That’s the thing.

Pete Pizzutillo:

All right. CES, call us.

Joe Coldebella:

They’re not the visionaries. We’re the visionaries.

Pete Pizzutillo:

We’re the visionaries. Yeah.

Kyle Glaeser:

Maybe you shouldn’t go.

From Internet Delivery to a Multifaceted Proforma Approach

Pete Pizzutillo:

But that’s a great point. We’re being a bit myopic, and we’re thinking about the people who are really digging the trenches right now. But your point is that they’re going to evolve to these business models, these innovations, these different lifestyle models, really.

Kyle Glaeser:

Yeah. Right now, I can’t speak for the whole industry, but I imagine most of our proformas center around delivering the internet to the end consumer.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Right.

Kyle Glaeser:

Right. Well, one day that’s going to change, and our proforma’s going to be centered around so many other things.

Joe Coldebella:

We don’t see it now, but eventually, mankind will figure it out. After it happens, we will be able to see the dots. But before it is drawn out, we have no idea how we are going to get there.

Pete Pizzutillo:

I agree, but this is me being a nationalist. This is where I always talk about what is the economic engine for the United States. And I think there’s a huge opportunity. This isn’t a generational citizen-level opportunity. This is a federal, national level opportunity to be whatever country figures that out.

I mean, there’s equality of life, and there’s another kind of global impact. I think that’s the urgency. Given enough time and enough random acts of investment and random acts of innovation, we’ll figure it out like we did with the electrical system.

But if we had an orchestrated vision moving towards some of the things that you’re talking about, that’s a global competitive advantage in a lot of ways. Quality of healthcare, quality of education, and technological advances. That’s the opportunity I think that we’re missing. Does that make sense?

Fostering Global Solutions

Kyle Glaeser:

I agree.

Joe Coldebella:

I think it does. Not to be nationalistic, but I think that the US figures it out before anybody else. For as many hurdles as we have, we have a lot more than other places. I think you’re going to find that out when you travel in Europe in terms of interviewing folks.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Honestly, I don’t think this is a US problem only. I think every nation is facing this right now, so whatever country can figure out how to get that aligned.

Kyle Glaeser:

I think it’s a problem that gets solved globally in different locations. And the US is in a position where we benefit from innovation that occurs everywhere. If you come up with something in Eastern Europe that works great on a network, it’s going to be in the US soon.

A Look to the Future and Ongoing Collaboration

Pete Pizzutillo:

Right. Well, I’d ask you what’s going to happen in 102 years, but I’m afraid to go down that road. It was great to see you again. And good luck with everything in Underline. I know you guys are doing some amazing work, so thanks for sharing that with us.

Kyle Glaeser:

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Joe Coldebella:

Kyle, thanks so much. We really appreciate your time. Hopefully, we’ll circle back, not in 100 years, but maybe a year from now just to just get an update. Because really appreciate all the cool things that you and Underline are doing.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah.

Kyle Glaeser:

Thank you again.

Joe Coldebella:

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

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