April 24, 2020

Ting Charlottesville – Fiber Broadband Built on Community and Customer Service

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

Welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. Today we speak with Kara Chandeysson, and she’s the Ting City Manager in Charlottesville, Virginia. Kara helps us to understand Ting’s connection to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. She shares some of the interesting programs they are working on with the community, for example, bridging the digital gap, e-sports, inclusion, low-income housing, as well as the special programs that they have kicked off around the COVID crisis.

We are going to dig in a little bit about how you’re helping out the community, but it would be helpful to give us a back drop of your journey, how you ended up in broadband and how you ended up in Charlottesville with Ting?

Broadband Journey from Call Centers & Long-Distance Filings to Fios & City Manager for Ting Internet

Kara C:

I started my broadband career 30 years ago with Bell Atlantic. I worked during college in the summers, working for Bell Atlantic in a large call center. And I love to tell this story because I think a lot of people that I work with nowadays don’t realize that a lot of the work back then was with paper and not with computers. And I was in charge of taking all of the move orders – people that were moving their phone service from one address to another. I would take a paper copy of the from address and staple it to the to address and then give it to the technician that was eventually going to go out and move that service. Broadband has come a very long way since then. After I worked with Bell Atlantic during [my undergraduate years], I went to Frederick, Maryland and got my master’s degree from George Mason in public administration and then moved to Wilmington, Delaware for Bell Atlantic again.

Kara C:

I worked a 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM shift monitoring our alarms for central offices and the aerial network for Bell Atlantic. Did that for a few months and then moved into a couple of different positions in Wilmington. I was a provisioning manager and then worked with an installation team and then luckily was able to move back into the Washington DC area to work in the regulatory department, which is what I went to graduate school for. I went to live in DC, and we worked on the long-distance filings at the time.

Kara C:

Bell Atlantic was moving into being called Verizon at that time, and I worked on the long-distance filings, and then after that was done, worked in a wholesale call center for a few years and managed a really large team there.  Then moved over to business development for Fios, the fiber-optic product for Verizon, and did various jobs with the Fios team from performance metrics to marketing and sales. And then finally at the end of my career with Verizon, worked with the teams that sold Fios within the Verizon wireless stores. After 20 years with Verizon, I took a retirement package and my family and I moved to Charlottesville. I spent a few years home with my sons and then started following Ting in Charlottesville. And fortunately there was a job opportunity for my current position, City Manager with Ting and applied for that. And I’ve been with Ting for a couple of years now here in Charlottesville.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Ting is lucky to have somebody that has that kind of robust [background], who’ve seen not only the market and technology evolve, but also all aspects of the business…which is a rare, a lot of people don’t kind of have that path.  Help us understand Ting a little bit. You said it’s a national company, but your role specifically in Charlottesville, how is the parent-child connection there?

Ting, Ting Towns and Tucows – Delivering Superior Broadband Customer Experience and Value

Kara C:

Well, first let me tell you a little bit about our parent company, which is called Tucows. Tucows stands for The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software and was founded in 1993. Tucows has over 700 employees, of which 250 work with Ting Internet, which is where I work. All of our companies, (which we have three, the domain system wholesale business, we have a Ting mobile business and Ting internet business under that parent umbrella), are built on the premise of delivering superior value and industry-defining customer experience. Those are really the building blocks of all three of our companies.

Kara C:

Our Ting mobile company right now provides service on all major carriers’ networks, except for AT&T, and that company is built on the premise of pay for what you use. It’s refreshingly different than what other models and what other carriers use. And Ting Internet, where I work, like I had mentioned, has markets from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and actually a few in between. When I started with Ting, we had six Ting towns and now we have 10. Ting Charlottesville is the first Ting town, and we have two offices here in Charlottesville. We have a location where most of our technicians and our construction and installation teams are housed. And then we have a downtown location, which is where we have people that do marketing, to customer support, to business sales, business support. And then myself, I’m actually located in our downtown office as well.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Looking at Tucows, it’s a really interesting company. And then the growth of Ting towns, I like that name, up to 10. How did they focus on Charlottesville – out of all the cities? How did that originate as one of the Ting towns?

Ting Charlottesville – Fiber Optic Broadband with Community DNA

Kara C:

It’s an interesting story. Originally, there were two entrepreneurial UVA grads that started a company here in Charlottesville with the goal of building a fiber-optic network here in Charlottesville. And then quickly they realized that to reach that lofty goal of building world-class fiber in a small town was pretty challenging, and they looked for a company to partner with and that’s where Ting came in. Ting was able to provide them the resources to continue that build and that growth of fiber optics here. And so Ting became Ting Charlottesville five years ago.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That’s great that you guys are right out of the community in the DNA. You’re lucky to have the University of Virginia right there as a hot bed of innovation. And so you still came from the community and still connected to the community. Now right now is a really important time for communities to come together and perhaps more unprecedented activity and engagement is required. Now how are you all dealing with that within Charlottesville?

More Than a Fiber Broadband Service Provider – Ting is a Community Service Provider

Kara C:

I’m glad you asked that because it’s something that we really pride ourselves on. Ting has always taken the approach that we not only are selling fiber optic and fiber internet services here, but customer service and connecting with our customers is one of the most important things that we all share on our Ting team. So currently through the COVID crisis, we’re doing a few different things. First, that we did last week was we set up what we’re calling a Park and Wi-Fi at a central location in downtown Charlottesville. What we did was we connected a Wi-Fi access point in a large parking lot and it’s fed through our fiber-optic network. And so people can go to the park from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM seven days a week, and access free internet.

Kara C:

We felt this was a really important first step that Ting could do to support the community because as in many areas, children are now home doing online schooling, many people are working from home. And so we wanted to make sure that we were able to use our best resources to connect people with online schooling, working, video conferencing, checking on family members, as well as telehealth and telemedicine. That was one of our first initiatives that we did.

Kara C:

We’ve also donated to local organizations that we have a close tie with. For example, one organization is called a PB&J Fund, which is providing a bag of food and bag dinner options to families. We’ve been involved and volunteered as a team before at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. So we also donated to them. And then here in Charlottesville we have an organization called Feeding the Frontline. They accepted donations to buy local gift cards for food establishments and local restaurants. And those gift cards were used to purchase breakfast and lunches and dinners and snacks for all of our frontline workers in the health system.

Kara C:

Then we also just announced that with Ting Internet, we have two packages, we’ve thought a 5/5 internet package, and then we have our gigabit symmetrical speed internet package. And what we’re doing is we are upgrading all of our 5/5 customers at no charge for 60 days so people can fully take advantage of symmetrical speeds. And then we’ve also taken on to buying some local gift cards to support local businesses. And really this approach was just to provide some happiness and cheer and reaching out to customers that may not be able to afford having a meal delivered to their home or they want to recognize a local member of their society that’s working in the hospital or the police force where they can tag a friend on our Facebook page and we’ll be giving away thousands of dollars of gift cards to local businesses. We continually analyze the needs of the community and we’re just trying to tap into our resources to make sure that we’re supporting our local customer base and businesses in Charlottesville at this time.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That’s amazing that you guys are that active this quickly. And that perspective is really, I think, unique and rare. I don’t live in Charlottesville, but I’m happy to hear that folks like you in Ting Charlottesville are reaching into help, not only the disadvantaged families that need help, but the parents that need help, trying to figure out how they get these kids finishing up the school year as well, as the local businesses that are just being devastated.

Ting – Fiber Broadband Service Provider Connecting with the Community

Kara C:

It’s something that I’m so proud to work for this company, specifically the Ting Charlottesville team, is that every day we make it a point to connect somehow with the people of Charlottesville, the nonprofits of Charlottesville, the businesses, the public sector. We’re continually learning how to connect with our community, and that is the main differentiator between us and other providers here in Charlottesville, that we know our customer base, we know their needs. And being able to provide a fiber-optic connection for many that connects friends and families and schools and businesses at this time is so important. And us knowing our community allows us to act quickly in times like this.

Pete Pizzutillo:

The local presence I think is really special, but it takes the initiative and the insight to make the job right, because we’ve talked a lot and I’ve talked to a lot of people around the digital inclusion, helping people be a part of the digital economy or building digital ecosystems. But really what I think you guys are doing is building a digital community and linking it and helping the community itself survive. And in the end it’d be really interesting to look downstream, in a couple months, to look back at everybody’s reaction up and down, not only from the network providers, service providers, but also from the educational institutions and healthcare institutions, and gather all lessons learned and see all the interesting things that people are doing, what worked, what didn’t work, and really take that back into policy and procedures and the behaviors moving forward.  I’m glad that you’re helping us understand some of the things that are going on locally from your area.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Before this though, there was an emphasis on helping to bridge the digital gap. Every community has urban and rural that there are folks, like you said, having the 5/5, some of the lifeline folks. Maybe you can help us understand what kind of programs you had in place to help reduce that gap in your market.

Bridging the Digital Divide – Ting Charlottesville Signature Project

Kara C:

Ting Charlottesville is currently embarking on our first digital divide projects. They’ve taken quite some time to negotiate and talk to key members of our community here to determine where we can best help the community and use our resources. And what we’re doing is we’re partnering with two organizations, one, the City of Charlottesville, the second is the Piedmont Housing Authority, and we’re working on two separate digital divide projects, but they each have the same goal and that’s to enable the opportunities afforded by home internet access to people in Charlottesville who might not otherwise have those opportunities. This is a large project for us. We’re actually calling it a signature project, because as you can imagine, there’s so many team members that are involved and working with the public and private sectors to make this happen. But basically with each of these projects, that will take a few years to do, we’re funding construction for each organization and then providing an ongoing subsidy for gigabit internet service at significantly discounted rates in the public housing units and lower-income units throughout Charlottesville.

Pete Pizzutillo:

I was wondering what the impact of this crisis would be on programs like that? Because some folks feel that the awareness and the spotlight that’s on broadband as a critical infrastructure globally, not just in Charlottesville, will help accelerate programs. We’re shifting the conversation around –  from do we really need this capability to how do we get this capability today? Do you see any impact on these programs? We know it’s kind of early to help accelerate the bridging of that divide.

Broadband Connectivity is a Lifeline

Kara C:

It’s interesting that you asked the question that way, because throughout the last few days I’ve been talking to so many different community members that so need a strong internet connection. For example, I just talked to a social worker at a local elementary school yesterday who has 50% of the students at that local school are on the free lunch program, and those children have parents that predominantly work in the hospitality or the restaurant industry here in Charlottesville, and many of those people have lost their jobs. And the first things that people cut generally are your wireless or your mobile phones, and a lot of people don’t have the fixed internet connection at home because a lot of people rely on their cell phones to connect with people. What we’re finding in these daily conversations that I’m having with so many members of our community is that the internet really is the lifeline. It’s the lifeline, not only of communities but it’s connecting students with their teachers, parents with family members to check in on grandparents or the aging community, and also for people that are still trying to work and uploading documents and video chatting. I absolutely believe that this crisis will highlight the need that internet connections are absolutely needed by every group and every society member.

Pete Pizzutillo:

I think it’s going to highlight some other things too, in terms of socialization and inclusion, because we’re all kind of locked at home, we’re having virtual happy hours and virtual picnics just so we see a face and connect to people and kids because you kind of get tired of the three or four people running around your house.

Pete Pizzutillo:

This is a concept that you put out there. You’ve made me think differently about e-sports. Now there’s criticism that kids are locked away and they’re playing Xbox or whatever for 10 hours a day untethered, and the way you look at e-sports is a little bit different. Maybe you can help us understand what you see there.

Broadband Enabled E-sports – Promoting Digital Inclusion and Community

Kara C:

I learned about e-sports last year, learning about different ways that schools were trying to connect with all of the students in their high schools. And I’ve read that our Virginia high school league announced that they were going to try to pilot an e-sports program. And fortunately, one of our local high schools signed up for that pilot program and that’s Monticello High School. And so I met with the athletic director, just trying to learn more about e-sports, because as you can imagine, the gaming community really it’s a great community for Ting, selling gigabit fiber internet. It’s a natural platform for gamers. So it just seems like a great connection for us. But the bottom line is having an e-sports league out of school I learned gave the schools a vehicle and an opportunity to engage students who may not otherwise be involved with school activities.

Kara C:

And the more I talked to the athletic director, a light bulb went off in my head thinking that there’s so many kids that are involved with arts and music and sports teams that they are already defined at schools, and kids have those jerseys and they develop friends. But really there was a certain percentage of kids that found their strength with gaming, but also that these were the kids that were a little bit harder for high schools to reach and harder for the high schools to have those kids engaged and develop a sense of team. And so in talking to the athletic director, it quickly made me realize that this concept of e-sports was, although some people were naysayers saying that, “Ugh, these kids are just going to be sitting inside. They’re not going to be getting any movement. They’re not getting any socialization because they’re on computers.”

Kara C:

I really saw it in a different light after talking to Monticello that this was yet another vehicle that the school could use to help these kids and to give them a sense of a team and a sense of school. These kids have team jerseys, there’s various levels of gaming. So some students that are just trying a certain game, may come in at more of a junior varsity level versus kids that maybe have mastered certain skill sets of the game or on a varsity level, they have to maintain a certain GPA, they have practices just like the other teams. And for me it just made me realize that if as a school they could engage a child that may otherwise feel left out and lonely in a high school experience, I’d wanted to be part of that. I wanted to make sure that me as an individual and Ting could be a partner to help each and every child at a school feel special and feel that they were contributing to that environment and that high school experience in a good positive way.

Pete Pizzutillo:

That’s amazing insight from that community to be able to do that, the kids are almost self-organizing on their own, they have their headsets on and they’re talking to people and they’re doing stuff that none of us know how the heck they got there. So there was definitely the initiative and the craving from the kids. But being able to then from a differentiated learning and differentiated inclusion perspective be able to say, “Okay. Well, how do we lean into that and use that to our advantage to help these kids build a sense of discipline and team and belonging and community?” And it’s certainly something I never considered, but I’m hopeful it takes off, because I think e-sports are only going to be more and more as we continue this social distancing.

Kara C:

I think you used two really strong words that I connected with after meeting with Monticello and the athletic director, was a sense of belonging and a sense of community. And, as you know, we are community. We make sure that we’re connecting with community and that’s various age groups, right? So we’re connecting with the high school children, the young professionals, our seniors. It just made sense to me to connect and to help them by sponsoring the e-sports league and the e-sports team with Monticello.

Pete Pizzutillo:

You mentioned the schools. You mentioned the low-income housing authority or the housing authorities. You’ve mentioned a couple of different stakeholders within your communities. Just help us understand who you see as the primary stakeholders and how you think it’s the best for any organization to engage with them?

Ting Charlottesville – Broadband Service Provider Deeply Involved in the Entire Community

Kara C:

I think because Ting is so deeply involved with community, there’s various organizations that we support and attend meetings and try to continue to learn about the new organizations that are joining Charlottesville’s environment. We are quite active with the UVA community, as you mentioned earlier, Ting provides free Wi-Fi at the Scott Stadium, which is our football stadium for the University of Virginia, as well as John Paul Jones Arena, which is the basketball stadium. So again, quite active with the UVA community. And we also provide free Wi-Fi with the City of Charlottesville at our downtown area walking mall. So those are two very large private and public sector organizations that we partner with. We also support our local chamber of commerce and we make sure that we’re attending events and making sure that our local businesses understand that for economic growth and economic development many businesses are seeking that strong fiber connection. And so it’s important for us to stay involved and support our chamber of commerce.

Kara C:

And then we also have different organizations here in Charlottesville that align very nicely with Ting. One is our Charlottesville Business Innovation Council. This is a group that educates and celebrates the innovation and the technical-based entrepreneurs and businesses in our region. So of course trying to attract high-tech businesses into Charlottesville, they often seek Ting internet service. So that’s another nice alignment for us. We support our Charlottesville Bio Hub, which is the organization that supports the growth of science and biomedical community here in Charlottesville. And we support numerous nonprofits and of course our local businesses, large and small.

Kara C:

Part of my role here at Ting is to make sure that I’m not only working with the public sector, but that I’m working with various levels of the private sector. And I think much of our success is working with the private sector organizations, understanding the nonprofits, understanding the organizations that support businesses, because there’s so many various levels of membership within those organizations that all need a strong internet connection. We’ve found much success with celebrating and sharing our message through various organizations in Charlottesville.

Fiber Broadband Communities – Public/Private Partnerships and Funding Options

Pete Pizzutillo:

The private public partnership is an important conversation. The conversation is shifting away from, “Do we need this capability?” to “How do we get this now?” Funding is definitely going to be one of the challenges moving forward. There’s a lot of money coming both from federal side as well as from the private side. You’re introducing us to Ting Charlottesville and you have a more mature relationship with your community. For those that are just starting, for private organizations that are coming into communities – are their agendas aligned and do the private folks think the same way the community does, and is the community suspect of the private’s intention? Any thoughts on how to surface those things and make sure that they start off on the right foot?

Kara C:

We’re fortunate enough at Ting to have our director of governmental affairs that works day in and day out with these issues. And she’s much more versed on that topic than I am. But I will share that Ting has set up several different models with our Ting towns throughout the country. There’s not one Ting town that’s exactly like another. So for example, with Ting Charlottesville, we build on an aerial and underground network. We not only engineer and construct, but we install and maintain those customer accounts. We have other Ting towns that do strongly work with a private public partnership like Westminster, Maryland. But I think the environment and the stage is set right now that there’s so many various options for people to explore and it’s quite active with recommendations and people seeking funding and partnership with public private partnerships. But as mentioned, and as you mentioned, I think Ting Charlottesville is much more established or definitely on a different level at this point than starting relationships with other towns.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Every situation is going to be a little bit different. The opportunity in front of us, with this current situation, is that folks will be more amenable to finding ways to fund and getting their communities connected and staying connected in a sustainable, reliable way. I think the dialogue will be much more transparent and hopefully accelerated, because this is a long-term situation and it’s going to shift the way the world operates. Broadband is going to continue to be trusted, as you mentioned, as the lifeblood of our economy and daily lives. It’s really encouraging to see organizations [like Ting] this deeply steeped in their communities and really helping out. How can our listeners learn more about Ting Charlottesville and Tucows?

Kara C:

For those interested in learning more about Ting, we’re at ting.com/cville. We have a strong and active Facebook and Instagram following. I’d love to hear from people that have questions about Ting or Ting Charlottesville and I can be reached at kara@ting.com.

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