March 26, 2021

Wireless Network Providers Working Together Enhance Rural Broadband

The following podcast discusses Rural Broadband, Broadband Billing, Broadband Legislation and Funding, Wireless Networks for Municipalities, 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.

Craig Corbin:

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Along with my colleague, Trevor Odom. I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us today. Our guest is the president of IPpay, a wholly-owned subsidiary of ConVergence Technologies Incorporated. IPpay is a global electronic payment processor and was founded to solve the card not present, or CNP issues, for recurring payments with the platform providing simple implementation and seamless integration. Our guest has also served in a number of capacities on the board of directors for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, or WISPA, and in October of last year was re-elected to their board. It is a pleasure to welcome the president of IPpay, Brian Young. Brian, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

Before we get started, give us a quick overview of your background in the industry, and what you’re doing today.

Brian Young:

I started in the industry about 25 years ago with an IT consulting company and ended up getting introduced and requested by one of my consulting customers to multi-dwelling units. So we ended up building out MDUs in the late 90s and early 2000s in Chicago and Washington DC. And I was really just aggravated with paying Ameritech at the time $700 for a T1, and all these customers needing more and more broadband. And ended up getting introduced to wireless technology through ConVergence. ConVergence actually was a vendor to me for a number of years.

Brian Young:

Mark Kruer, our CEO, decided to reach out to me and say, “Hey, you’ve got a cool little business here. Tell me more about it.” Because I had really tall assets being on these MDU buildings in large cities, and they needed vertical assets for their wireless network and I needed less expensive broadband per megabit. I ended up merging my business into ConVergence a couple of years later. Since then, I’ve been with ConVergence for almost 20 years and held roles all the way from chief technology officer through chief revenue officer. Most recently, for the last 16 months, president of IPpay, our payments platform.

Craig Corbin:

You mentioned ConVergence Technologies, and a very diverse organization. In addition to IPpay, a couple of other members to the ConVergence family.

Rural Broadband Providers 

Brian Young:

We’ve got four subsidiaries total. We have IPpay, which we just talked about. We have CTIconnect, which is a hardware distributor that supplies fiber and wireless antennas and radios and stuff for rural broadband providers. We also have a group called MitoTec that provides wholesale services. Those services are wholesale, white label VoIP, the exclusive provider for Viasat’s wholesale white label solution so that rural broadband providers can actually own their own customers. The fourth company is iNetCapital that does capital leasing for, mostly again, rural broadband providers, trying to build out further and enhance their network with access to capital.

Craig Corbin:

That’s a very active sector today, and we’ll certainly get to that in just a bit. Just out of curiosity, for those that might not be familiar with the broad array of companies and the technologies that the CNP topic is applicable to, where does that fit with regard to the world of broadband and communications?

Broadband Billing

Brian Young:

IPpay in the card not present scenario, most people don’t walk in anymore to pay their broadband bill, right? It’s done through enterprise software that actually operates these rural providers’ networks as their business. And some of them just do billing, and some of them just do customer care and support. But really what we had found 12 years ago was that many of our customers were not having the best experience with trying to accept credit card payments. Some of them were still either paper mailing a bill, or they were actually sitting down once a month in front of a credit card machine and just started entering all the card numbers. We saw an opportunity to enhance our customer’s operational scenarios, as well as some of their financial scenarios. As a vendor, when you can have solutions to build strong customers, then they’re going to be stronger and you’re going to have a better business yourself.

Brian Young:

We started IPpay to help try to mitigate these operational nuances that existed. As these broadband companies grew, it just kept getting and worse. It was not scalable. Shortly after we got into the payment space, we actually built our first gateway to actually securely store and tokenize all the credit card numbers. This was 14 years ago. We integrated with all the billing platforms that we could. We made it very simple and easy for many of these operators to be able to sign up with IPpay. At that point forward, the system just did the work for them so they were able to go ahead and have a customer sign up, or they would enter in the credit card number. Then at that point on the first of the month or whatever day, the software decided it was time to bill that customer, they did it. They no longer had to stuff envelopes and put them in the US mail or have somebody sit around with a list of credit cards trying to run people’s credit cards. I mean, that’s how it started.

Brian Young:

Today, IPpay has evolved through the growth of our customers and the growth of the industry. We service about 1,500 ISPs and telcos and cable companies in the US, about 300 in Canada, and are continually looking for different ways to build a better mousetrap to make our customers bigger, better, stronger. Over the years, we try to come up with one scenario to help them do better. One of the ones that we did last year was building up the ability for somebody that has a bounced check to automatically suspend the service and notify the system that they can send an email to the customer that you’re a bad customer, you bounced a check, instead of trying to manually adjudicate that scenario. We look for things and try to be as innovative as we can and listen to our customers because if we do hopefully then we can become a stronger company too.
Craig Corbin:

I’m also curious, obviously you’ve been involved with WISPA on their board of directors in a number of capacities. Give us a brief overview of how that relationship came to be.

WISPA Involvement 

Brian Young:

We’ve been involved with WISPA as a vendor member pretty much at its inception and have always wanted to support that association because that association really has been the bread and butter and lifeblood to many of our members. Dealing with the regulatory hurdles of DC and just having a small company of any size, trying to fight with local incumbents and the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world is very difficult. WISPA’s charter, very early on with its founding members, was to be able to support these types of operators.

Brian Young:

We got involved at WISPA, again, at the very beginning and have supported and supported. And we saw an opportunity to invest even more time. With a vacancy on the board of directors that I ran for, wow, I guess it would be six years ago now, and was elected to a term. And then the second year I stepped up even more and invested more time as the vice-chairman of the board. Was vice chairman for five years. And this fall was recently re-elected to a third. Because of term limits, my final term, to bring some new people in. It’s funny because I’m the bylaws chairman. I’m the one that put that in place. I’m the first one to roll off. I guess it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Brian Young:

I was re-elected for a final term. Happy to serve and grow the association because again, just like my opinion as a business, if you can help your customers grow stronger, then you will, WISPA has similar principles and philosophy, right? If we can make the member stronger, that allows more for WISPA to grow and more things that can be done to support the thousands of operators that exist in the US.

Broadband Legislation and Funding

Trevor Odom:

You mentioned something about regulatory hurdles, and I know that can be a challenge for any tier two and below provider. Do you feel like things are getting easier within that space within working with DC and legislation, or kind of what are you seeing in the landscape right now?

Brian Young:

There are definitely some surprises and successes that WISPA has been able to achieve in the last several years. There have been some losses, there have been some wins like anything else. I do know that without an organization with the staff leadership… I mean the board’s one thing. The view’s good from the cheap seats. We’ve got incredible staff that has been onboard working on both regulatory and government compliance standpoint to beyond feet and street and lobbying in DC. And they really are the ones that are doing it. Without that, it would be a lot more losses than wins.

Brian Young:

Is it getting easier? Only because we’re getting stronger. The one phrase that I do hear quite consistently when talking to people in DC is that from a dollar standpoint and an investment that the WISPA group and our community definitely is punching above its belt. Because we’re going against some really, really big people with lots of deep pockets and lots of infrastructures to be able to do that. I would say it’s getting easier only because of the great staff that we have and the vision that is going forward. It’s definitely effort.

Trevor Odom:

I would imagine too, that with the RDOF and the funding and things like that going on, that there’s more spotlight on the smaller guys trying to provide access to more rural areas. I’m sure you’re seeing that as well.

Brian Young:

Trevor, it’s a big spotlight. The recent funding scenarios are evolving. Our company ConVergence actually participated for the first time, a number of years ago, in the BIP and BTOP programs that were part of the Obama stimulus package. We actually authored 21 grants for our customers. Fortunately, six of them were approved. Six out of six were successful as far as RUS and NTIA were concerned, which led to other people in that same program being successful. The next programs that have come out for funding, you’ve kind of seen more and more of these smaller operators having success with going after the funding that they choose to. It’s almost like the proverbial glass ceiling in corporate America is kind of getting broken a little bit, especially when you look at RDOF and some of the most recent wins with many of the operators in the top 20 list of funding, getting awarded monies.

Trevor Odom:

Do you feel like things have progressed substantially within that space? Or do you feel like when it comes to the funding, that there’s still a lot of legwork to branching that divide, getting it closer and closer?

Brian Young:

The first step is trying to be awarded the money. Being awarded the money is the first phase of things, right? Delivering is another issue. Over the last decade, we have seen more and more success from smaller operators being able to successfully deliver what they committed to, which has also helped the government make some of the programs more flexible and available to the smaller operators, which is why we see more and more of them actually getting awarded these dollars.
Craig Corbin:

You’re listening to the Broadband Bunch. We’re visiting with Brian Young, president of IPpay and a member of the board of directors for WISPA. Brian, we talk about the tremendous pot of money, the $20.4 billion with RDOF, the other funding programs that are out there, and there obviously are challenges inherent with any federal funding program. From your perspective, what are the biggest hurdles for wireless providers, any kind of providers, in obtaining those funds?

Wireless Network Provider Hurdlers

Brian Young:

Getting the funds is a big enough challenge in itself. Over the years, these programs have adapted. I had mentioned going back a number of years ago with the NTIA and RUS and BIP programs, there was so much oversight that was put in place, we actually participated with one of them ourselves, where every serial number had to be documented, and where it went, where all the dollars went. If something wasn’t exactly filled out with black ink and the I’s dotted and Ts crossed, then they’d hold the funding. It was a very, very red tape type scenario where it was very difficult to actually operate even if they got you the money. We’re aware of some people that actually said, “No, we don’t want the money because of the oversight that was incurred.”

Brian Young:

Now as things of these programs have progressed with CAF and CAF II, and now with RDOF, it seems that the pendulum has swung the other way, right? So being able to get the money, they have reduced some of the oversight, but they’ve increased other things like letters of credit. For some of these smaller operators, it’s very difficult for them to get a letter of credit basically equal to the amount that they’re being awarded. That was a very cumbersome situation and a tough discussion for CAF II. RDOF’s kind of swung the other way a little bit. The pendulum is kind of leveling out in the middle for the smaller guys because they are delivering. We don’t need that much oversight per se. We just need to have good strong businesses that are willing to serve America and do what they need to do.

Craig Corbin:

The need for connectivity is at an all-time high. The global pandemic has shown a spotlight on that. From my perspective, wireless providers would seem to be in a wonderful position to be a bit nimbler perhaps, and the speed with which they can roll out service.

Wireless Network Operations

Brian Young:

Wireless operations is something that’s very, very nimble for two reasons. One the technology and the amount of area that you can cover. But two, typically the types of businesses that are deploying it, right? The smaller businesses that are a little more open-minded, not so structured or rigid with some of their things, can adapt a little bit to serve the community better versus saying this is the way we do it. This is we’ll have to wait and get stuff done.

Brian Young:

In general, the broadband market and the need for broadband speed, especially given the pandemic, have obviously shifted the tables quite a bit. There’s a little too much knowledge in DC, in my opinion, personal opinion, need to clarify that, is trying to push for symmetric speeds, 100 by 100, gig by gig. That’s just not required. I mean, as a broadband consumer at home with a 16-year-old daughter and my wife and whatnot, if I have 10 by 100, I’m good. I’m more than good actually with three people working from out of the house.

Brian Young:

This undue stress that’s being put on symmetric speed, I think is difficult. That’s not to say that people don’t need more upstream. As more and more people are video conferences, their video stream has to go up. I’ve even participated in some where I’ve seen some people where their camera looks like they borrowed it from the old Logitech eyeball days that was hooked up to their serial port. What’s going on? Well, my upload’s not working. Well, okay, you need some of that. I’m not sure we just need to go all the way to a symmetric gig by gig or 100 by 100.

Large-Scale Microwave Broadband

Brian Young:

It means a lot to cover areas. Having additional spectrum is going to benefit both wireless and mobile operators immensely because of those abilities to have assets at a tower where they’ve already got fiber, or they already have large-scale microwave broadband coming into a facility, then they can add more access points and they can build out a little more to deliver service to twice the amount of customers. Where it would take a company that was doing either DOCSIS with cable or fiber in the ground, a long time to actually get that system upgraded to be able to serve all those people. There’s a lot, a lot of un-served people in America that really, really do need it more than ever because of the pandemic and people choosing to work from home, or their employers or schools saying you can’t come in, but you have to participate.

Trevor Odom:

Brian, you mentioned something that had my curiosity spark, with limited resources and being nimble, and me coming from the wireless community and from the carrier space, do you feel from a deployment perspective, like the WISP community, the microwave point to point type technology, does that seem the more rapidly deployable for broadband in certain areas compared to laying the trenching, the fiber, and things of that nature, and consistency.

Fixed Wireless Networks

Brian Young:

It’s not just the fixed wireless operators that are doing it. As a company that serves not just fixed wireless, but also mobile providers and ILEX and CLEX, and many of those other types of broadband providers in America, we’re seeing it across the board. I mean, just look what some of the most recent RDOF awards. There are electric co-ops that are starting to get into delivering broadband. A lot of them, not all of them, but some of them, they’re starting with some fixed broadband so they can at least cover the area. And then when their drill comes by, they can take them off fixed wireless and put them on a fiber.

Trevor Odom:

Are you seeing that being a challenge with utilities and municipalities trying to get into a space, I would say, relatively new to them, or do you see the adaptation pretty easy?

Wireless Networks For Municipalities & Broadband

Brian Young:

If I could take those separately, I’ve would. Municipalities definitely are seeing a very, very challenging move to be able to try to deliver broadband. For a couple of things, a lot of the local businesses don’t like to compete with the money they give their tax revenue to. Number two, they’ve got a different mindset of being able to operate a network and deliver services, let alone deliver mission-critical 24 by seven services. Some of the municipalities that actually have some electric infrastructure, kind of migrating in between utility and municipality, they’ve got a better mindset, but they still are trying to figure out how to really deploy this and what to do so they do it once, and they don’t have to do it again and again.

Brian Young:

The utilities, the electric co-ops, and so forth, they’re smart cookies. They know their footprint, they know their land, they know where the poles are. They know where the trees are. It’s going to take them longer to be able to deploy, even if they are deploying fixed wireless because they’re a little more pragmatic about what they do. And again, they want to be able to deliver good service versus service that might not be at least standard for a user to accept.

Trevor Odom:

Now, switching gears for a minute, you piqued my interest earlier, ConVergence has multiple sister companies. Getting into the financial services or the payment industry, I mean, I know that’s kind of different from providing infrastructure, network services, things of that nature. Tell me, what challenges did you guys have there? Was it kind of a rocky road at first jumping into something entirely new, or was it pretty common there? I guess common ground you could say.

Brian Young:

Trevor, it’s interesting because when we started with this idea that we were going to be getting the payments business, which was the first entrance to having a financial product that we had was a long time ago. I was part of that team to help do that along with some other principles here. We went to this credit card, financial space, and said, “Here’s what we want to do. We have all these customers, and we’re going to build our own gateway and our own switch because we think we know how to do this.” They all kind of looked at us and laughed, and said, “Go away. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Brian Young:

We had to kind of scratch around. My background, being tech, and most of our employees being tech, being a tech-oriented company, it was tough walking into a bunch of suits with financial backgrounds that were going to tell us no, and why we couldn’t do this, and that we couldn’t figure payments out. Luckily for us, we were able to find somebody that kind of said, “Yeah, I’ll take a chance on these guys.” Once they actually did, and we went through some of the things and got through the regulatory hurdles, which it is highly regulated. I mean, we’re dealing with money, right? We were able to hit the ground running and have built a great business to serve a lot of customers, not just in the US, but globally.

Trevor Odom:

Coming into the challenges that, so far, being a part of the ETI brand, as you see a lot of these legacy telco providers, they have a lot of legacy systems, and integration can be challenging at times. It sounds like you guys have overcome that as well, as far as having your own platform and being able to accommodate those situations.

Brian Young:

It has helped having that experience from both trying to understand what it takes to be in the driver’s seat of an operations team for a broadband company. Which we do have that experience and through consulting and even some of our own networks that we had once upon a time. It allows us to have both sides of the view of the fence so we can see where the pain points are and talk to the software vendors that have built something that wasn’t meant to do some of the things that it really needs to do and be able to help as a team have that mentality between the broadband operator, the software developer, and us trying to move the payments to make sure that it’s successful.

Brian Young:

I actually had a call on Monday this week with a company out on the West Coast that had a very old software package that I had never even actually heard of. We had talked about the tools and hooks that we had and the different ways that we could do things. They were a little unclear as to how they wanted to proceed with trying to integrate with IPpay. And I said, “Well, we have this option, this option, and this option.” And they’re like, “Oh, number two, we’ll take that.” We were able to kind of guide them down the path of, here are the things that we’ve done and here’s what we’ve seen through our years of experience. Then actually go through to make at least the vision of a successful project plan that can be executed upon.

Craig Corbin:

In those years of experience, you’ve seen an evolution in the industry. I’d be interested to know, if you take out the crystal ball, what new technologies and services do you see forthcoming in the next few years?

Brian Young:

The consumers are being more and more innovative by the day. And partially, honestly, it’s because of the pandemic. I don’t know anybody that has gone, okay, what’s next on Netflix to watch, right? Because they can only do so much of that. I think that the consumers are going to be innovating a bunch of things that aren’t even been thought of yet. Because you have creative people in America that will try to strive to come up with something new, or better, or cool. The biggest things probably haven’t even thought of.

Brian Young:

If you’re asking me about really where the innovation’s going, I think a lot of it’s in ending up in the laps of the homeowner, and the consumer is trying to figure out how to make their environment better. The smart home thing was just a thing 10 years ago for the people that had $25,000 to kind of dump into some stuff for their house. Well, now you’ve got some companies like Wyze that are making $19 cameras so you can have a whole surveillance system in your house for $300. They got time because they’re sitting at home so they can actually install it and manage it.

Brian Young:

Building upon those infrastructures with software, for example with surveillance, I think is going to be the next application to have somebody come up with, whether it’s facial recognition that’s available to the consumer. Or you walk up, or your car pulls up and it reads your license plate and opens the door. That technology was really only afforded to police and public safety for trying to write tickets or toll utilities. If you could pull up in your car and your garage door opens, you never have to touch the button, there’s a lot of people that’d probably pay for that software, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. And so, I guess I should go start cutting code, write some license plate software. But Craig, I think it’s really, the best stuff really we haven’t seen well. And that’s consistent with history, right?

Brian Young:

When you asked somebody 10 years ago, what it was, the crystal ball’s a little murky, but you can see a little short term. People are innovative, and thank God we are where we are.

Craig Corbin:

Before we let you go, as we begin to wrap things up, obviously you have a passion for serving the industry and a lot of experience over the years. Is there anything that has been a driving force for you with regard to your career path, what you’re doing now? Share with us about that.

Brian Young:

It’s a little cheesy, but it’s the people I get to work with every day and serve. If I didn’t like getting up and going to work every day, it would be very difficult. I like being able to come up with things that help people. The group is a fun group. If you look at WISPA and the trade shows that have been basically decimated over the last 12 months, WISPA had to make a choice to either cancel or try to have the show in the fall in October. WISPA planned for a full show. The Las Vegas Health Department didn’t quite want to see it our way. WISPA announced that we were canceling the show so that people could make plans well enough in advance.

Brian Young:

It was almost like a coup. There were a lot of the people that are members that have been family friends of mine and friends through our industry and customers and those types of things go, “We’re going to Vegas anyway. How about that? I haven’t seen you guys in about a year, so we’re going anyways. We got a hotel room and an airline ticket. We don’t need an exhibit hall.”

Brian Young:

It’s people like that that have the same passion and share the same things that allow us to do what we do, I think that kind of keeps a lot of my fire going and wanting to do more every day I wake up. And I’m thankful to be able to.

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