Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 157 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Blake Mobley on FTTH in rural Rio Blanco County. Listen to this episode here.
Blake Mobley: The county needs to make sure that the infrastructure remains in our control -- that we own it. So that IF the county chooses to remove our current network operator, as an example, and implement a different one, we can do that without breaking the network.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
Last fall, voters in Rio Blanco County were one of several Colorado communities that chose to reclaim local communications authority. At the time, we thought it was the beginning of local efforts to improve connectivity. As it turns out, people in Rio Blanco County started taking steps to deploy fiber infrastructure fifteen years ago. They're now in the midst of a project that will improve economic development, encourage competition, and bring broadband to this rural area of Colorado. Blake Mobley, Rio Blanco County IT Director, talks with Chris this week. He provides the story behind their current project, provides details on how the network will be managed, and tells us why the county chose this type of open access model. There's more information about their project at their website, rbc.us/wtitc. Now, here are Chris and Blake.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Blake Mobley, the Rio Blanco County IT Director, in the state of Colorado. Welcome to the show.
Blake Mobley: Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me.
Chris: Absolutely. We met at the rural -- well, I think of it as being rural, but it's actually the now all-kinds-of-broadband conference in Colorado -- Mountain Connect -- where you gave a presentation about the county's doing. And I think it's really interesting. So I'm excited to jump right in. But I want to ask you first, for people who aren't familiar with Rio Blanco County, can you just briefly tell us, is this a very metropolitan, busy kind of place?
Blake: Rio Blanco County has about 6,200 people across about 3,000 square miles. So, we've got basically two people per square mile. Very rural. One of the largest counties in Colorado, in the northwest corner.
Chris: All right. So you're facing a different kind of problem than in the Denver metro region. The -- I think -- ordinarily, I sort of start from the beginning with these interviews. But as I was just mentioning to you beforehand, I think it would make sense to just give people an overview of what you're moving toward. So, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of what you're about to kick off?
Blake: Yeah. Our project -- you know, we use the term "broadband" very broadly -- no pun intended. It's broadband, which is high-speed Internet, across the entire county. So that's the two small municipalities, as well as the very large number of rural square miles. But the broad definition of our project is, it's not just broadband -- high-speed Internet. It's also emergency services. So, radios for police and sheriff and school buses and ambulance. It's preparing space on our rural, our tower assets, for future emergency services, like FirstNet. And then it's also providing space on our towers for cellular, to enhance our cellular coverage. So, when we say our broadband project in Rio Blanco County, we mean broadband, emergency services, and cellular. And we mean the two small communities, as well as the many, many miles of rural.
Chris: And you're looking at an open access solution, ultimately. We're going to be talking this about this a lot more later. But -- so people sort of have a sense of where we're going. You're actually looking at fiber-to-the-curb, and ultimately having other providers extend fiber all the way to the home in your two municipalities, with open-access wireless services available to a majority of people in the rural areas as well. Is that right?
Blake: Yes. That's correct. You know, the county is looking at this as purely an infrastructure build-out -- our role in the open access public-private partnership. So, being that public entity, we -- our role is to fund the build-out of the fiber infrastructure in the two communities, to the block. And then through our partnership, our partners will continue that build-out to the premises. And in the rural areas, similarly, the county's going to build the tower and wireless infrastructure, to build out that network of towers across our county. However, our private partner will do the last-mile wireless service down to the home or business. So, it's a similar open access public-private partnership in both the community fiber arena as well as the rural wireless arena.
Chris: Excellent. So, let's go back in time, now, and let's figure out how you got here. And, as I understand it, it started on the order of fifteen years ago, with -- where so many of these projects start -- schools and community anchor institutions. Tell us about it.
Blake: Yeah. I was the IT Director for our local school district in one end of the county, Meeker, for about twenty years. And back in '99, the school district leveraged a fiber optic network between their school buildings. And in 2001 -- so, just a year and a half later -- the community anchor institutions in Meeker approached the school district -- specifically, the town, the county, the hospital, and the public library -- and asked if, since we'd implemented some dark fiber, if we could leverage some of those to help connect up some of their facilities. And the school board approved of that measure. So, since 2001, we've run a small community anchor institution fiber plant, just incumbent CAIs -- community anchor institutions -- connecting up some of those facilities. And so we, you know, met regularly, every month or two. We did our own fiber termination, our own splicing. It was a very home-grown project. But that resulted in some huge benefits to our current county project. It leveraged those entities and those groups having conversations around this topic for the last decade and a half. It leveraged our knowledge set, so that we at least have fundamental knowledge of fiber optics and, you know, the different styles and methodologies and approaches. And so, when I was hired for the county, a little over a year ago, I brought that background and those conversations and those stakeholder committee meetings with me to this project.
Chris: I find it kind of striking that in a number of cases where we're talking with communities, local governments, that are thinking about doing this sort of thing, they'll often say, you know, this seems like a very complicated area, it's moving quickly. Um, you know, you're in a small, rather remote area. How did you have the confidence to just say, we're going to do the fiber splicing in-house? We're going to learn how to do all this stuff? And, was it very difficult along the way? Like, you know, you've got pretty far up the learning curve, it seems like, at this point.
Blake: We had gone and looked at another community in Colorado -- Montrose. And they had done a similar project, and utilized a company out of Mexico to supply them both the fiber. Real basic, but functional training on splicing and termination. And then come in and implement that design with the cooperation of their rural electric association. We followed that same model here. So we had the same company supply our fiber. We had our local rural electric hang the fiber on their poles for us. And we got that same training. And then literally we trained up. Like I, as the school district IT director, trained high school students. We got our local techs from the hospital in town, and got a school bus underneath the telephone poles, and started doing our own splicing and terminations. And it worked surprisingly well. Like you said, it seems very technical and challenging. And I would not recommend that solution and that model for a more high-end network, where you're going to have public and private entities -- especially the private -- reliant on the quality. But for a core, small community anchor institution group in a rural town, it worked well.
Chris: Well, that's fascinating. And I appreciate you going into that level of detail. So, one of the other things that came out of this, you said, was the group of people. And one of the details you mentioned at Mountain Connect was that it would have been harder for you to get this project rolling -- this more recent project of doing the fiber and the wireless towers and all of that, the one that's coming online very soon -- if you did not have that group of people meeting. Why was it so important to have these people having relationships that were already from the community anchor institutions and all of that?
Blake: When you're looking at a project like this, with a countywide project -- or any project that's countywide, whether it's fiber and IT and broadband or not -- getting all of your stakeholders -- all of your key people and key entities -- together, on the same page, having a regular conversation, and that buy-in -- and it's -- that's the important part, getting that buy-in with your greater community on the project -- is critical and key. And having, you know, a decade and a half of conversation around this point, where we are really familiar with each other, we had worked side-by-side on the previous, you know, kind of initial seed of the project, we had those relationships and those conversations formed. So it was much, much easier for Rio Blanco to ramp up rapidly with this countywide project than it would have been otherwise. Otherwise, I would have had to have spent, you know, multiple months having conversations with groups, and trying to get their buy-in on the approach and the style and the scope of our project.
Chris: And is there some level of trust that needs to be established as well?
Blake: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. In many ways. One, the county has to have the trust from the commissioners to the IT department of the community that we're utilizing a fairly significant amount of their tax dollars responsibly. The community anchor institutions, from the IT folks up to the administrators, need confidence that the county's, you know, IT department and their leadership is moving towards the right solution and the right approach. There are many of each. And so there's a lot of trust.
Chris: So, let's talk about how you're financing this. This is one of those projects where, I think, a lot of times, people have this impression that, in rural areas in particular, fiber-to-the-home and this wireless to go across such area would be just too expensive. So, how much is this going to cost? And how are you going to be able to pay for it?
Blake: Well, we have three stages of our project, laid out across three years, as a project plan. And stage one is, by far, the most expensive and largest phase to implement. Stage one's current estimate is about $13 million. We are going to -- we have already leveraged our Department of Local Affairs in Colorado -- DOLA -- energy impact funds. And DOLA set aside $20 million in a pot of money specifically for broadband infrastructure in Colorado, for certain counties that qualify. We were awarded a $2 million matching grant through DOLA for the fiber-to-the-block part of our project. We have a request out to DOLA right now for another $1.6 million match for our tower and wireless. The rest of the money -- we have some local community anchor institutions and other partners that are going to be helping us with elements of the project. And then, the bulk of the money, however, is going to be coming from internal county funds. And that took a lot of discussion, and a lot of devotion on our commissioners and our budget office, to come up with the financing scenario that would allow us to do that. And then, lastly, in our version of the open access public-private partnership, our network operator is going to -- it's complex, but they're going to indirectly carry the expense of the drop runs, at first, with county obligation to fund those if our partnership should break up. But that will be basically $1.5 million that the network operator is going to front on the project.
Chris: You know, in a lot of places in the country right now, it's assumed that, particularly, people who vote Republican are really opposed to using taxpayer dollars for -- well, sometimes, for anything, but, in many cases, for broadband infrastructure. And so, I guess I'm curious if it's at all controversial, or how a decision was made to use that source of funding?
Blake: You know, that's a great question, Chris. Particularly, our county being a rural county, and being a very, very Republican county, we've met virtually no resistance. But I think the reason is because this was a grassroots initiative. The community came to the commissioners and said, hey, we need faster Internet. We need broadband. And then the commissioners went to look for someone to be the project lead, and I was hired, because of my community tie-ins and my past success with that school district and then CAI network. So it was already community-driven. So, we didn't have to work that problem in reverse, where the county had to go out and convince the community.
And in Colorado, we have another roadblock to projects this, and that is Senate Bill 05-152, which, simply put, says that unless you're a large telco provider, you're not allowed as a -- for example, as a county or municipality -- to supply Internet service -- you can't provide that -- without doing an override vote. So last November, we went to an override vote. And it passed. Out of the voters that voted, 82 percent of them voted to override that. So, there's another statement by the community that they're very behind the project.
So, back to your question, though, from a different angle. Part of the reason that I think that the Republican element -- the conservative element -- isn't concerned about our approach is because of the open access public-private partnership, and our four-tiered approach. The county is going to be the network owner. So our entire goal -- just like building county roads -- is to build out the infrastructure. And then, the county, effectively, is done at that point. We're not trying to operate the network. We're not trying to leverage service across it. That's not our role. That's the role of our network operator, which is a private entity, hired through an RFP process, so everybody could compete fairly across that network and that process. And so, I think it's a combination of those things that kept us from having issues with the Republican element in our county.
And, another aspect to this, for all rural communities everywhere in the U.S., is that the big roadblock to modern broadband in a rural area -- and in larger municipalities, as well, but particularly rural -- is that large initial cost of modern infrastructure build-out. It's beyond what the incumbent companies -- the big cable companies and big telcos -- are willing to invest in a small rural place. Because our market share is so small, their return on investment is very poor. So, unless someone stepped up to that plate and implemented that initial infrastructure, it wouldn't happen in the near future. It might -- it'd be decades instead of years. And, again, it's those types of decisions and elements that prompted our county to implement the broadband infrastructure.
Chris: Well, I think that leads us right into the particular approach you're using with open access, which is, I think, somewhat unique in the United States. In that, in many places that have an open access approach, you would be -- you -- you know, Blake, the IT Director, would be in charge of recruiting businesses to offer services. And you'd be doing the headaches kind of work to make sure everything was working right. But you have a network operator, which is another level, that is then going to be recruiting people. Why don't you tell us how this all fits together.
Blake: There's two parts to the approach we're taking. The open access, and then the public-private partnership. The open access is a concept that you have a network, or you have infrastructure, and you open that up to others to utilize or compete across. And the particular way you do that is sub-versions of open access. And our approach will be through RFP process, as far as acquiring the network operator. And then the network operator will utilize a process to go and secure the other partners in the public-private partnership to provide services across that network.
To put this into context, I need to talk about the PPP -- the public-private partnership. We're doing a four-tiered approach. And the four tiers -- the four primary roles -- which is what I mean by tiers -- are:
- a network owner -- someone to own the network -- build it and own it;
- a network operator -- someone to make the network available to others; and then there's the
- service provider. And the service provider is the large, middle-mile supplier of service, whether that's traditional broadband, VoIP, IPTV. So in a rural county, like ours, the service providers will be companies that exist beyond our county that have the services we want to deliver -- you know, our network operator wants to deliver -- across this network; and then, lastly, because our network operator only leverages the network -- only utilizes that network as a wholesale solution to others, the network operator will also go out and -- our last tier -- and acquire
- value-added resellers -- VARs. And so, that's the four partners -- four tiers of partnership that we have in our model.
Chris: And if I understand it correctly, then even though the first phase that you described, the most challenging and expensive phase, is fiber-to-the-block, the county will ultimately own the fiber all the way to the premise as well. Because then you can make sure that no one operator would be able to -- or, no one service provider, or anything, would be able to monopolize that customer, because they owned the fiber. Am I remembering that correctly?
Blake: You are. And then, that's critical, for the reasons you just stated. The county needs to make sure that the infrastructure remains in our control -- that we own it. And that involves the data center in each of the two communities, the fiber that goes out to the block. And even though the network operator will implement the drop-run fiber that goes from the block to the home or the business, and the device in the home or business -- called an ONT -- the county needs to own that entire system, from the data center clear to the ONT. So that IF the county chooses to remove our current network operator, as an example, and implement a different one, we can do that, but without breaking the network -- without concerns that the network operator's going to take the drop runs or the end-user electronics -- the ONTs -- with them. Also, so that that network operator can leverage a good business model. When they go the value-added resellers -- the VARs -- the end-customer suppliers -- they have to build to hand them over a network that's going to run seamlessly across one strand of fiber. Which means the electronics in the home need to match the electronics in the data center. Otherwise, you end up with VAR-A using, you know, a certain version of electronics, VAR-B wanting a different version, VAR-C another. And you have a network that's so dysfunctional. If a different VAR comes along, you're constantly replacing the electronics. That doesn't meet our goals, for our model.
Chris: And let's end up with a simple question that has a probably not-so-simple answer. Which is, what is success, at the end of this project, for the county?
Blake: Well, the county's version of success will be very different than the other partners in our four-tiered public-private partnership. Our version of success is, do we successfully build out the infrastructure? Does it exist as a credible alternative than to the current services that exist in the county? So -- which is an unusual end-goal. So, we are not looking at a take rate as one of the county's goals. We're not looking at a return on investment. We're looking at this as a single purchase to build out modern infrastructure. And then, I suppose I should say, also, in order to make that a success, contract with a successful network operator, who then goes out and deals with the rest of that. And we've already contracted with the network operator, through our RFP process, Colorado.Fiber.Community. And we're gearing up to build out the infrastructure. And then, that's success. We're done. There's a credible alternative to meet modern broadband, and other services, needs in our county.
Now, if you ask the same question to our network operator, they're going to give you a very different answer, of course. Because they're a private partner, a private business that's, you know, here for profitability. So they do have a take rate goal. They do have a return on investment goal. They do have a build up the customer base and, you know, and have adequate services and create the contracts they need to deliver their business model. But that's one of the u- -- that's one of the very unique approaches -- unique aspects of our approach -- is the fact that the county is just the network owner. We're building it out. Then we're done. Simply put.
Chris: And when you say that you're not looking for a return on investment, I -- am I to understand that as being, you're not looking for a specific monetary return. But you are expecting, I think, some economic development, some better quality of life, and those sorts of things, right?
Blake: Oh, absolutely. So, if you move into policy goals -- which, we have a lot of policy goals. Policy goals, you know, faster service, lower price, kind of meeting that Google standard -- gold standard they set in the U.S. -- of gig to the home, gig to the business for a $70 price point. You know, yeah, we are working hard towards those type of policy goals in this approach. And then those go beyond, you know. Creating a world-class destination in our county for tourism, business growth. Healthy, happy living. Ideal place to raise, educate, retain your family. Those are actually statements directly out of our broadband vision statement. So we have a lot of goals that are more on a policy or vision approach. Or else we wouldn't have, you know, approached such a expensive and large and complex project.
Chris: Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on to explain it. I think that the approach you're taking is a terrific model for a lot of communities, whether they're urban or rural, frankly, in terms of the way you're approaching it, you're ensuring competition and a high level of service for the future. So, thank you so much for telling us about it.
Blake: Sure, Chris. And thank you for having me on your program.
Lisa: Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at email@example.com . You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . If you're on Facebook, search for Community Broadband Networks. Once again, we want to thank bkfm-b-side for their song, "Raise Your Hands," licensed through Creative Commons. And we want to thank you.