This is Episode 15 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews Geoff Daily, the Executive Director of FiberCorps. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast episode 15. This is Lisa Gonzalez with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I research and write for the institute and for muninetworks.org. Today, Christopher Mitchell interviews Geoff Daily, the Executive Director of FiberCorps located in Lafayette, Louisiana. We've covered Lafayette's Municipal Fiber Network extensively. Geoff's non-profit works to bring businesses and organizations together, and to help them find innovative ways to use the network collaboratively. Here are Geoff and Chris.
Christopher: Geoff Daily, thank you for joining me on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. You are the Executive Director or FiberCorps. Why don't you start by just telling me a little bit about why you moved to Lafayette, to start FiberCorps?
Geoff: Lafayette, Louisiana caught my attention from a number of levels. From a professional perspective, my passion has been, once you have a fiber network, now what? These networks are built with a promise of revolutionizing healthcare and education and government and business. Yet, there's a big gap between the rhetoric and the reality of, what's actually happening in these communities. A few years ago, I discovered Lafayette was ... While I was going on a little bit of a listening tour of Fiber communities, in search of innovation. Again, my passion is, "You got this network. Now what?" I wanted to go see what people were doing. Quite frankly, there was a big sense of, if you build it, they will come. That, if you just put the network in place, innovation magically springs up. That obviously wasn't working, that wasn't happening. The other challenge that the industry, I think faced was, a lot of the communities that had built these networks, were not of sufficient scale as a community, to really have a strong ecosystem for supporting innovation. I came down to Lafayette, and it was a very different kind of world down here. Down here, we had major industry, we had a major research university. We had committed community leaders, who actually knew how to work together. We had a general sense of the overall spirit of the community saying, "We're not afraid of trying to do something big. Really trying to go, push the envelope in that way." From a professional perspective, it really got my attention because it felt like, more than any place else in the country, this was a community that had the capacity to actually unlock all the potential that was tapped into that, their fiber network in that way. Then at the same time, there was also the personal aspects of it. I found, this was a community that I loved to be in. It's a place where, if you've heard the word Cajun. Most people don't realize, it actually refers to a specific physical area. That's right in the heart, Layette is right in the heart of Cajun country. Gumbo, Jambalaya, Cajun music, Zydeco music, festivals, Mardi Gras. All this stuff is just rich, throughout our culture down here. It became a place that ... I would have never discovered Lafayette, if it wasn't for the fiber and my interest in, from a professional perspective. Once I got down here, I wanted to keep coming back down here. Through a variety of circumstances, it led to an opportunity where I had a chance to go ahead, take my wife, take the plunge and move on down here, to start up this organization, FiberCorps.
Christopher: I'm incredibly jealous, having visited you and seen what a lovely place Lafayette is. How hospitable the people are. How wonderful the network is. It is an incredible network that you get to use on a daily basis. You started FiberCorps. What exactly is FiberCorps?
Geoff:FiberCorps is a community non-profit, focused on the goal of making Lafayette into a [bed] for next generation applications. We are made up of 6 community stakeholder organizations. Lafayette Consolidated Government, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Lafayette Economic Development Authority, the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, the Community Foundation Acadiana, and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise, a 3D visualization facility in our community. How we go about doing the work that we do? The theory that drives all of it is, this idea of social infrastructure. That, when you look at trying to push innovation and how we can utilize these networks to revolutionize our communities. Most often, people talk about it in technology terms. Technology is arguably, the easy part on a lot of this. The tough part are the social challenges. By social infrastructure we mean, the behaviors and relationships of individuals and organizations. You can have the best tool in the world, but if you can't get someone to use that tool. If you can't get organizations to change the relationships they have between each other, that these tools made possible, then you're never going to realize the full benefit of that. That was, what I saw, as one of the biggest barriers to more innovation happening in this space, which is why I wanted to create a non-profit organization that could serve as a fair broker in a community. A convener, someone who can pull people together, who doesn't have a profit motive at the table. Who simply has the motive of, what's going to be best for the community. Try to find opportunities for collaboration to occur between individuals and organizations, around projects of common interest.
Christopher: It's interesting in some ways. Your interest has long been, broadband. You weren't a municipal broadband guy from the start. I think you became more interested in municipal broadband because some of these networks have such an incredible capacity that, a Comcast doesn't have, and that a Verizon doesn't really, fully unleash. I am curious, would you have gone to Kansas City, would you expect the same sort of things from a network owned by Google, as you're finding in Lafayette, if we ignore any cultural differences of the people, presently?
Geoff: I think you definitely hit something on there where, I'm really not a municipal fiber guy, I'm a fiber guy. I'm excited about the technology. I started in this space as a Technology Journalist, writing for Trade Publication, about the business of online video delivery. That's where I first discovered fiber to home because when you're trying to send video down. This was 7, 8 years ago. Trying to send video to end users, that last mile bottleneck, is your biggest constraint at that point. There's all sorts of junk you have to do, to try to work with those little tiny pipes. When I discovered fiber to home, I went "Well wait a minute, that completely abandons that whole paradigm. Gives you all sorts of additional capacity." What led me into having a particular interest in municipal fiber was a recognition that, 1, there really isn't ... Other than the big Verizon FiOS and now Google, there really isn't a lot going on across the country, for fiber deployment. When you look at it from the perspective of, what is going to be the engine that allows us to get as much fiber deployment as humanly possible in this country? The economics of it only really work, if you are looking at it from a total value proposition of, what are you getting by making this investment. If you're looking at it, purely from a dollars and cents, you're not capturing the total value proposition of what this infrastructure can mean to communities. Which I think, is why you see communities take the lead on this, because they recognize that "Hey, yeah, you're a telecom provider. You may decide, it's not worth it because it's not going to make enough of a return for your money. You know what? It's going to make enough return for our community that, we can justify going and doing it." With regard to your question then, about Google and what they're going to be able to do, it's really hard to say, without one in particular. Google's taking such a different approach to it. I think what is likely to happen is that, you're going to be able to see a lot of big things happen because it's a bigger city, it's Google. They're going to be throwing significant resources at it. I think they're going to have some real challenges, overcoming this barrier of social infrastructure in that way. The challenge is, if you're too small, then you don't have enough resources to necessarily do really innovative kinds of things and have the ecosystem you need, to support that. Then if you're too big, it can be really hard to get everyone around the table, and actually working together. The fact that ... I don't know Kansas city well enough, to be able to say this directly. Aren't any kind of community that can get all these different community stakeholders around the table, on a monthly basis saying, "We want to collaborate, to achieve these common goals." It's something that I think, just getting to know who the people are, and then getting them in the same room together. Then, getting them to actually agree to work together, is going to be a challenge. I'd certainly wish the best for them, I wish the best for the all the communities out there, that are striving to either get fiber deployed or ways to maximize the value of that fiber. What I think is interesting about, unfortunately what we continue to see happen. It's happened to some degree, even in Kansas city. Even though we've seen a little bit, to try to address this is that, you continue to have people taking this, "If you build it, they will come mentality towards the process. While Google is going through the process of building the network, they didn't spend a lot of time talking about "How are we going to use this network?" You're now starting to see some of that happen more. Some of the folks in Kansas city have taken it upon themselves, to start driving that conversation. In my opinion, you need to have that conversation happening from, starting on day 1, and continuing through the entire process. Not saying "Hey, we want to build a network for all these great things." Then, "Let's go spend all our time figuring out, how to build the network. Then, once it's built, let's go figure out how to make some use out of it." You're going to be missing so many opportunities along that process, if you take that approach. Unfortunately, that is the dominant paradigm currently, in the country. My big encouragement to communities is, to make sure you recognize. You're building this for a reason, and it's not to have cheaper bandwidth and to have this infrastructure. It's to realize all these benefits in education, in healthcare and these kinds of things. The only way you're going to be able to achieve that. The infrastructure itself is, barely even half the equation because it's really about having your organizations that are part of your communities, be willing to take on an entire cultural shift in how they think. How they change the way they do business. That is not a minor challenge.
Christopher: No, absolutely, it's not. Particularly where you have people who feel threatened by change. Now, I'm curious how ... You've bit off a very hard task. I don't want to say, it's more than you can chew because I know that you have a very big mouth. I should also say, in case this does make the final cut that, you and I are old friends, so I feel okay insulting you to your face, over a Skype camera, with more than 1000 miles separating us.
Geoff: It's all good, finish the question.
Christopher: I'm curious, you took on a real hard challenge. You are an outsider, moving into a culture which is famous for having some distrust and putting up some barriers. You come in, and you have to try and bring these people to sit around the same table, and find ways of breaking down barriers. Maybe, you could tell us a little bit about, what FiberCorps has done. What lessons you've learned, for others who need to break down barriers? Get people around a table to really try and figure out, how you can get the most benefit out of a community network, a community fiber network specifically?
Geoff: Absolutely. There's no simple answer to that question and there's no clear-cut, "This is how you go do it." Really, the only way you can do it is, just to go get your hands dirty, and start doing it. You're going to make mistakes, and you're going to kick over. Basically, a part of what that job is, is you have to go into a community, and start kicking over rocks. You don't know what you're going to find underneath those rocks. It's your job to, not know any better, and to keep kicking.
Christopher: Do you think it's best for someone new?
Geoff: Actually, I honestly do. I think it's a big challenge, especially in smaller communities because everyone has history with each other. If you're trying to have someone come in and be a convener. Someone who ... Various different parties can build trust within a central entity. Doing that with someone who's from within the community, who has all the potential baggage associated with them, can be challenging. Now, I'm not saying it's impossible. I think, it's very much possible. You don't have to have a Geoff Daily, to come in to do this. I'm not trying to suggest that. There is a big advantage I think, to being an outsider actually. You made a comment about how, being in a smaller town, sometimes could be harder to get in. 1 big advantage that I had in Lafayette is, my relationship with Lafayette started about 5 years ago. That's when I first came down to Lafayette. I kept finding a variety of excuses to come back. I found, I could only go about 2 months, without real Cajun food, before I'd start getting the itch. You may have realized that Chris, now. Once you get to taste the old gumbo, you really can't get it anywhere else.
Christopher: It's very hard, it's a difficult burden. Those of us who have visited Lafayette and left, have to live with.
Geoff: Exactly, exactly. I had a unique situation in that, by the time I actually moved to Lafayette. I'd already been coming to Lafayette for 2 or 3 years. I already had a pretty decent network within the community. We had also been able to pull off a great event called Fiber Fete, where we got 75 experts from around the world, to come meet with 75 local leaders for 3 days. Got 26 local companies to sponsor it. We paid for all of our out of towners' hotel rooms, all their food. It was the works, it was a great experience. We had something that we had already accomplished, by the time I moved down here. We were also unique in the community in that, so many of the community leaders here, have a history with each other in the good way, not the bad way. They have a history of working together, and accomplishing things together. There was already, some of those networks to be able to tap into, in that way. To give you a sense of some of the things we've been able to accomplish, serving this role of trying to be a convener and addressing the social infrastructure. One of the decisions we made early on was to, not focus solely on technologies that can only leverage the fiber, or that are only optimized for leveraging the fiber. We're still in the earliest days, in terms of technologies that are really pushing the bandwidth envelope into the 10, 20, 100 meg kind of range. Most of what's out there, is still built for the old internet, of 1 meg, 5 meg, that kind of range. We really tried to look a it, from more of a strategic perspective of, what are some of the foundational technologies that are going to touch a lot of different people within the community? That, you need to be able to have a fair broker to pull people together, on collaborating on. An example of that was, we got Lafayette selected at the pilot site for the State Health Information Exchange or HIE. HIE is basically, just allows doctors to share data with each other in the most basic way. Whether it's test results or old medical records, or any of that kind of medical information. It's interesting because this is another example of the other big advantage we have in Lafayette. This has been a community of people who have been trying to push the envelope for a long time. Lafayette actually tried to build its own HIE, back in 1995, which is almost pre-internet in that way. The biggest challenge they faced, there were definitely some technological challenges at that point. The bigger challenge was that, healthcare providers did not trust each other enough, to share their data with each other. They thought, it's their data, "Why am I going to share it with my competitor, down the road?" Now that there's a big federal effort to, try to get statewide HIEs going on across the country, federally funded. Louisiana's one of the states to get money to do that. We saw that as an opportunity to say "Hey, rather than be a state organization and trying to go sell to all these individuals. Why don't we, as the local convener, non-profit who, our only interest is, trying to see Lafayette be on the leading edge of healthcare technologies. That, we can achieve the greatest healthcare results. Why don't we start driving the conversation around this technology? Start getting the dialog going on between the hospitals, so they can start understanding, what the value proposition of this is going to be? That we can start understanding, what are their challenges and motivators as hospitals, so that we can be a conduit of that information, back up to the state level at the same time. Really try to get some better communication going." It's turned out to be a real success for us because the simple act of, just pulling people around the table. Getting them talking to each other. Making sure they're educated about where things are at, with this technology. Using their feedback, and flowing that back up to the state level, has allowed us to be able to ... There should be a press release coming out in the next few weeks of, how our region, the Acadiana region is leading the state, in terms of adoption. I believe we're going to be significantly over 50% of hospitals who have signed up for the HIE, which is a huge win for us, in that way. While it's not a technology that, necessarily is going to leverage fiber in a huge way, you can use old broadband in order to do that. It's something that touches everyone, it's a foundational technology. If you want to be a place that's building the future of healthcare technology, you have to have the HIE in place first. Without that, you're never going to be able to do all the other stuff that, you may want to do. I think that'd be one example of, the kind of project of, how we came in and tried to directly address the social infrastructure. We didn't touch the technology, we didn't touch any of that. All we were doing was, trying to build trust within the system. To get a dialog going between people, and help push the process along in that way.
Christopher: As you talk about the HIE, I suspect that it's mostly what we might think of, as small broadband uses. You're talking about the social capital and the need to stay away form the technology. I'm curious, at what point, having such a robust network, will make a difference for these relationships that you've created?
Geoff: We're already starting to see that in a couple of levels. One of the projects that we've already accomplished, and then I'll share one that we're working on now. One is that, a few months ago, we went live with Lafayette's first Telemedicine clinic. Stuller Settings, the largest manufacturer of jewelry in the country, is headquartered in Lafayette. Another example of this great industry that we have. Because it's a jewelry company, they've got significant security. It's a pretty big inconvenience to go see the doctor, if you work in that company. They wanted to make healthcare more accessible, so that they could ... For 1, they just really care about their workers. They're trying to give them the best experience they can. There's also the fact that, if you make healthcare more accessible, you could end up with a healthier workforce, which means a more productive workforce. Which also means, lower health bills at the same time. We also have a hospital in town, Lafayette General Medical Center, the largest community hospital in the area. They really wanted to experiment with new ways of being able to extend care, closer to the patients, and into a more convenient fashion. They both had a desire to create this telemedicine clinic. The challenge was, the technology of it was simple, it was plug and play, basically. There's a little more nuance to that, but it was relatively simple. The challenge was, the social infrastructure of that project. First, we had to define, what level of services could be delivered through this telemedicine clinic. You can't do everything that you would do in a first person. Then you have to define, what's the legal agreement between the 2 organizations. Then you have to decide, what's the physical space going to look like, where this is actually going to be housed. Then you got to find the workers, who are going to go into that space. Then you go to come up with, what's your marketing plan for educating workers at Stuller, about the possibility of this clinic. Then you got to look at ways you can expand the clinic's functionality over time. This was a project that wasn't our idea, it came from the community. It ended up taking almost a year and a half, before we actually went live with it because of all these challenges associated with the social infrastructure. What the great thing was, the biggest challenge that we didn't have to worry a lick about, was the bandwidth because both of them were LUSFiber customers. They had plenty of bandwidth, going between the 2 of them locally. I believe, they didn't even set up any specialized connection. They just ... Since they were both LUSFiber customers, they were both locally here, they were able to set up a little VPN between the 2. They rocked and rolled. Normally, you want to do something like that, you're going to have to be able to set up a specialized connection, you're going to be paying a whole bunch of money. Then you got to figure out, who's going to pay for that connection. In this case, with the infrastructure already in place, that lowered the technology barrier even further, in that way. Then, something like an HIE becomes that glue, that makes sure that all the data that's flowing, it can now be something that we could ultimately look at expanding to other work places or other hospital providers. There's a whole bunch of ways you could expand it, but still have it be all interconnected, instead of it being a bunch of disparate individual entities. The other thing, the thing that we're aspiring to now, we announced earlier this summer is that ... It was inspired in part, by work we've been doing with FiberCorps, with these projects. Inspired by part, by an event we had in April, called the Cajun Code fest. It turned out to be one of the best coding competitions in the country. We had Todd Park, CTO of the country, into town. He did a great tweet, coming out of Lafayette where he declared us the best kept secret reservoir of innovation mojo of the United States. That got retweeted by the White House, which needless to say, is pretty cool.
Christopher: Very cool.
Geoff: Even beyond that, he made a comment about one of the things we said to him and pitched in our community, and saying what's great about us. That, we're small enough to be able to work together, but big enough to have the resources of a bigger city. He took that and flicked it on us, in a very powerful way. He said, "You're small enough, to be able to operate like a startup, but big enough, where whatever you accomplish, has national significance." For example, we can move the needle on childhood obesity or move the needle on making ours, the kind of place that you can age in place, way better than any place else. Everyone in the world's, going to want to learn how we did it because we're not a tiny town. We're a reasonable size town.
Christopher: Right, about 120,000 people, right?
Geoff: 1000 people in the city, 250,000 in the parish, about 0.5 million in the Acadiana region. The fiber network only goes to 120,000 in the city, but it does reach out to all the schools in the parish as well. That really inspired us to take everything we're doing, to another level. We're now starting tension, to become a living lab for health innovation. By that we mean, build a real world testbed, where these technologies can come into our doctor's offices or our schools and our businesses. Not just the technology, it's also the policies and procedures that create that entire ecosystem because the technology alone, the telemedicine is a perfect example. We're looking at some ways where we can be able to expand the reach of that, but we're running into issues of, not being able to get reimbursed for a telemedicine visit versus an in-person. If you don't have the policy partners at the table to say "Fine," you're not going to be able to invent the future of healthcare." The other aspect of a living lab is the concept of co-creation, where instead of going and building something in a vacuum, and then going and trying to engage end users. You go to the end user and say, "What are your problems?" Then, you build solutions to directly address those problems. This is something that we're still in more conceptual form, than operational form, I would say at this point. It's an example of the kind of thing that would never been anything we could have considered doing as a community, without this fiber infrastructure in place. At the same time, we could have never considered doing it, if we didn't have the social infrastructure that's starting to really bore our healthcare providers, in a way where they're looking for opportunities to collaborate. They're seeing the value of participating in something like that. I think that gives you a sense of some of the vision for what it is we have accomplished or are looking to accomplish. That leverages the fiber, as well as this concept of the social infrastructure.
Christopher: It does, it's incredibly helpful. As we run out of time, I want to give you a couple of moments to give our listeners some advice in terms of, how they can go about starting to create these relationships. Let's try and focus a little bit more on, maybe a smaller community that's say, under 50,000. What should they do, to start building these kind of relationships, to figure out how to best use the network? Make sure that these conversations are happening. It doesn't have to be a centrally planned kind of thing, but you can just have the people in the room, coming up with ideas organically.
Geoff: Some of the advice I'd give is, it really starts at the beginning of the whole process. Everyone who goes through the process of going and building a community fiber network, they do some level of a needs analysis, before they start. They look at the community, "What are the demands? How are people going to use it?" They may start some of that brainstorming process. The challenge is, too often, that process stops, once they start building the network. Then, it doesn't get picked up again, until once the network's built. In large part that's because the needs analysis is often driven by the people who are building the network. Quite frankly, they're pretty darn busy building the darn network. I think it's actually somewhat unfair to expect them, to go take the lead on, how you're going to use the network. I would strongly encourage any community, as you start that process, make sure that it's something that is being built in parallel with the network. More likely than not, you're going to have to have someone lead it, who is not the person who's building the network because they're going to be busy, just trying to get the network to work and get it operational in that way. In terms of defining who should be that person to lead it, I really think there's a variety of different ... Each community's likely going to be a different answer. You really need to look at it ... Someone has to be said, "Here's the person at the organization who's running the point." Who everyday, they wake up, they're thinking about this. This is what they're focused on, and worrying about." Now the question is, how can that person or that organization, be the kind of entity that people can rally around? That people can have trust in, and feel like it's their convener who has their best interest in mind, not to their own best interest in mind? That could be done, by creating at your own organization, there may be an existing organization that has a track record of doing that. An exiting organization who's looking for a new purpose. We actually took over an existing technology trade. An organization that had done some great events in the community, but had kind of petered out, and wasn't doing anything else actively. We were able to take them over, take their 501(c) sick status, rebrand them and then be able to move forward that way. Keeping that conversation going, I think is important. I think it's also important. This is something I've tried to put some word out, about. Get people thinking about, at least is, I believe that if, when you're budgeting for building your network, you need to include in that budget, some line item for, how are you going to drive utilization of that network. That's not just a marketing budget of, how do you get people to subscribe to your network. It's the innovation, the utilization, these much more, gets your hands dirty kind of deal. Again, what the heck is the point of building the network, if no one's going to use it, to do innovative things? It's just better ... As Joey [Jurela] I love how he says. "If it's just about cheaper cable TV, it's probably not worth the effort, that you're putting in to building the network, quite frankly." I think it's only worth the effort is, if you are serious about trying to really evolve and revolutionize healthcare, and education and these types of aspects of your community. That's not going to magically happen. You're going to have to take some really consorted effort, to make that happen. The thing that you'll see happen is that, you will have a whole bunch of individuals in any community, of any size, who are innovators. Who want to go do innovative things. The challenge is, how do you find those people and provide them the support structure they need, to go do that. Unfortunately too often, they end up having to innovate, in spite of the organizations that they're a part of, not because of the organizations they're a part of. Really trying to be conscious of that fact, as you're going through this. I'm also hoping that, we're going to start seeing some more collaboration through programs like US Ignite, between communities that have these networks because unfortunately, another big thing we've been making a big mistake on as an industry is, we're all reinventing the wheel. Every community has to do it their own way because they have their own unique constraints. It seems like, we're just making a lot of the same mistakes, over and over again, as an industry. I think this is an area that is one that, we can definitely move the needle on, because while there may be some differences in how the network needs to be financed, what technology people want to choose, that can be a qualitative decision. These different things where, maybe it needs to stay different. When it comes to revolutionizing healthcare, when it comes to revolutionizing education, government, there are a lot of core founding principles that are going to be the same in every classroom, in every doctor's office, in every Mayor's office. There's no reason, we can't be sharing in this information. Sharing in the best practices, and trying to inspire each other. Let's not look at it as, "Lafayette needs to be the hub of innovation and no one else." No, I don't want that, I want to have dozens of hubs of innovation across the country. We're all learning from each other and leveraging in that way. I think we're starting to see more of that happen now, through programs like US Ignite, and I'm very optimistic about that. I would encourage everyone to recognize that individually, none of us have all the answers. Collectively, I think we can solve any problem that's put in front of us.
Christopher: I'm very excited to see a network like Lafayette, having a champion that's out there, putting his focus on making sure, people are using it, developing the innovation that the rest of us will all come to appreciate, when we end up having the same networks you've had for a very long time. Thank you so much for coming on this show. Thanks for doing all the great work with FiberCorps.
Geoff:Thanks for having me, and I can say that, we down in Lafayette, look forward to everyone else and the rest of the country, joining us some day in our Fiber-powered future.
Lisa: That was Christopher Mitchell and Geoff Daily. Learn more about the organization and the projects its working on, at fibercorps.com. That's Fiber, C-O-R-P-S.com. If you have comments or questions, email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our handle on twitter is @comunitynets. This show was released on October 2, 2012. We want to thank Fit and the Conniptions for the music. Licensed using creative commons. The song is called Spellbound.