Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 168

This is Episode 168 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure in Salisbury, North Carolina. Listen to this episode here.

 

Kent: We have been in conversation with a number of organizations that are very interested in our 10 Gig, and they've just kind of come out of the woodwork. That alone has been able to give us the attention to where economic development can really begin to happen.

Lisa: This is episode 168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Hello, and thank you for listening. If you're up on telecommunications news, you know that Salisbury, North Carolina, is now the first place in the nation offering 10 Gigabit service city-wide. Fibrant, a community's municipal network, began serving customers in 2010, and began offering Gigabit service about a year ago for around 100 dollars a month. Unlike many other communities with municipal fiber networks, Salisbury does not have an electric utility. Kent Winrich, director of Broadband and Infrastructure, visits with Chris this week to talk about the network, and how and why they chose to add a city-wide 10 Gig option. Even though the city just made the announcement, Kent describes how it's already string up interest in Salisbury. Now here are Kent and Chris.

Chris: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm speaking with Kent Winrich, the director of Broadband and Infrastructure for the City of Salisbury, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Kent:  Thank you, Chris.

Chris: Salisbury built a fiber-to-the-home network right before the North Carolina legislature decided to make it almost impossible for anyone else to do it, and now you've become the first city in the nation to have city wide 10 Gigabit service available. We're going to get into the 10 Gigabit in a little bit, but I want to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about Salisbury, and where it is, and what we should know about it for those of us who have not been there.

Kent:  Salisbury is a very historic town. It was established in 1735. We have a lot of historic homes, a very large historic district. A lot of history is going on here. We have a British graveyard for some of the wars that have gone on. There's a lot of history that has gone on here in Salisbury. We're about 35 minutes north of Charlotte, right along A85 and along rails, so we've got great transportation. We're on a corridor, if you will, between Raleigh and Charlotte, a little bit closer to Charlotte. There's a lot of history here. We have a lot of independent theaters, we have a large art district. That's not bad for a town of about 35 thousand people.

Chris: Why did Salisbury get into fiber optics? I have to say that your community, that not only committed to it, but committed to it during the depths of the downturn, which I thought took real courage.

Kent:  It did. It took a lot of courage for the people who made the decision to do that. I have not been here from the beginning, but taking a look back, it did take a lot of intestinal fortitude, if you will, to make that decision to go forward. How it all happened is that we went to some of the incumbents and said, "What are your plans for expanding broadband in our community?" They said, "Well, we have no plans." We went back to them again and said, "Can we pay and have you still expand within our community?" They said, "No". The city made a decision, since we weren't going to get any increase in service quality from the incumbents, that we'll build our own fiber infrastructure. That started out about 2009, and we've turned it up at about 2010.

We figured we needed to separate ourselves, differentiate ourselves from other cities. With all the other major metropolitan areas starting to sweating Gig or even, at the time, 100 Meg, we needed to do something for ourselves to ensure that we had the chance for some economic development here. Salisbury used to be, very much, a blue color town with a lot of manufacturing. A lot of that manufacturing went away, so we're in transition into more of a technology based economy. The fiber optic network was just perfect for what we needed to do, and where we needed … the direction … the city and the county needs to go in.

Chris: What I find really interesting is that in a time when there's a debate about Gigabit Cities, and is it a necessary, this and that, you've just gone right by a Gig. We've seen a number of Gigabit Cities. Comcast came out and offers this ludicrous 2 Gig, which the only reason that they're offering 2 Gig is because they're trying to justify the fact that they can't come anywhere close to reasonable pricing for 1 Gig, so they've masked it by making it 2, but you're offering 10 Gig at 400 dollars a month, which is ridiculous. There's places where people are paying 400 dollars a month for a T1 line for 1.5 megabits, still. Can you walk me through the thinking in terms of why the decision was made to go up to 10 Gig?

Kent:  A little bit of a history. My background is, I come from big data. I was managing 10 and 100 Gig fiber networks over in Europe, so I had that whole idea at the background. When I came to Salisbury, we were already offering a Gig. When you talked about Gig cities, you talked about other cities. You didn't talk about Salisbury. We've got to do something that would get the attention of business people, entrepreneurs, developers and the like. We're in the process of taking a look at our infrastructure, our core routers and the like, and we had the opportunity to update our core routers to more enterprise level routers. I'm thinking, “Well, since we have all this top horse power, why are we just offering a Gig? Why can't we offer 10?" 

Nobody has really talked about it, but for me, my history was, I'm used to 10. It’s like nothing. That's what I'm used to, so why can't we offer it? We went down that path and realized this was money that was already budgeted, so we didn't need to take out any loans or anything like that to make this upgrade. I start asking around, I said, "Why can't we go to 10? Is there anything holding us back?" We had to talk to a couple of manufacturers to helped us out to get the 10 Gig out to the rest of the city, but we needed to do our core infrastructure first. We did that and we kept asking, "Why can't we do 10? Everybody’s doing 1, that's great. The signal to noise ratio in the 1 Gig right now is pretty minimal, so let's knock it up to the 10 Gig, and let's give it a try, and have one of our colleges in town work with us for a couple of months to test it out" and here we are. We're sitting here with the ability to put 10 Gig anywhere we want.

Chris: When I saw some press releases or at least some discussion online that the college, is it Catawba?

Kent: Yes.

Chris: Catawba College is very excited about this. They see it as an opportunity to enhance specific areas of their learning, and giving students an opportunity to do things they would not have hardly anywhere else.

Kent: Right.

Chris: What's been some of the results that we've seen from Catawba College?

Kent:  Catawba was just our, look, our testing partner, making sure that we could live up to what we were saying we could live up to. They put the 10 Gig through all its forces. They ran like 10 Gig servers and ran them full-bore for about an hour, 45 minutes to an hour, to make sure that we were giving the bandwidth that we were promising, and in addition to that, how it affected the rest of the city. The fiber that we're working with covers all the city buildings in addition to all of our customers. We wanted to see how it would affect everything. It went through with flying colors, so we continued testing with that. 

With Catawba, we're in the transition mode now of going from testing to rolling it out to the college. They've got to do some infrastructure work at their end, but we're going to start passing the 10 Gig on, and they will work on their infrastructure to getting it to some of the other buildings. It was mainly in a data center area where we had the 10 Gig dropped into. We were serving one of their data centers. They have 2. We have plans to get to the other data center in the very near future.

Chris: One of the things that I remember from even, I would say just 4 years ago maybe, is that the Time Warner Cable plan, the maximum upload for a lot of people in the Charlotte region was still less than 1 megabit a second. At least that was the standard package upload, was less than 1 megabit a second. Now they've done some upgrades to do better than that. On the other extreme, you have 10 Gigabits a second. You hear all these comments from people that'll say, “What are you going to use that for?" To which, my car engine will go more than 70 miles an hour; I don't know when I would ever need to do that, but we don't manufacture cars to just go the speed limit. I think some people may even accuse you of it being a publicity stunt, but I see it as an opportunity for a city to say, "Look, we have the technology of the future. We can deliver it today and it's nothing else. It gives you a sign that this is a city that is prepared for the future."

Kent:  Exactly. We've actually had a number of developers come to us and are very interested. We have conversations with a number of organizations and individuals that are interested in the 10 Gig for application testing. Imagine you have a full city, that you don't have to be a small lab environment, you have a city you can work with. We can set up, let's say, we set up 10 different businesses, and 10 different homes with 10 Gig, and you want to test an application over real live network. Here you have the playground to do that. We've seen a lot of interest from developers, from big data users. 

It really adds up very quickly. If you have a large company or even a median sized company, you can overwhelm a Gig pretty easily if you've got a number of employers. You think about how many employees will come in and each person has more than one device? I personally have, I've got a ServicePro, I've got a laptop, I've got a tablet, I've got a cellphone. They're all connected. That's just one person. At home I've got 21 devices connected to my wireless router. The data needs, really, add up very quickly. If we're going to invest in new hardware, and make it enterprise quality hardware, we better be thinking about the future, what's going to be coming down the line. 

We've got large companies in town that have the need for big pipes. What we really want to do is attract those developers, and those companies that have the need for the data because Salisbury itself, the cost of housing is very low, the cost of living is very low, you have the ability to get into Charlotte if you want, big time entertainment. It's a perfect situation for people to come in and develop their product, to develop their application, to be able to utilize this big pipe to test those on, and to actually, "let's do business on." It was not a publicity stunt at all. It really was, "Okay, we need to look at the future. Everybody is doing Gig. That's grand, that's wonderful, but by time you put the Gig into the ground or in the air, the needs are going to be exponential."

Chris: One thing that people don't often appreciate is that if you have a business that's maxing out at 200, 300 megabits per second, then they need a Gig capacity because you always need to over-provision with these networks. If you have a business that's looking at 900 in a Gig, they don't need a Gig connection, they need a 10 Gig connection if they're regularly hitting those kinds of peaks.

Kent:  Right. We'll have some people coming into town and say, "Hey, we need 2 Gigs but we want to burst to 10." Fine, we're ready to do that. Now, this large data pipe also benefits the residential user who maybe have 100 or 50 meg connection. I used to live in a different town where we had a cable provider where, at night, about 9:00, you could set your watch about on it, where the bandwidth would just drop. Your Netflix would start to buffer, and YouTube wouldn't play. You know, whatever everybody is also using at that point in time. We've got enough head room now that that will be a non-issue for our residents. Residents benefit greatly even if they don't a 10 Gig.

Chris: Let's talk a little bit more about how this network in general, not just the 10 Gig benefits, the community, in terms of economic development. Is there anything you can tell us in terms of how businesses is responding or how Fibrant is different from other vendors when it comes to meeting business needs

Kent:  Let's start off with how businesses are responding. We have been in conversation with a number of small to median size organizations that are very interested in our 10 Gig, and some of them are interested just in the 1 Gig as well, which is fine. They've just kind of come out of the woodwork. They've contacted us and say, !Let's talk a little bit more about this." They've already been to town and started looking at potential areas to place their businesses. That alone has been able to give us the attention to where economic development can really begin to happen. One of our present companies ... We just had a meeting yesterday with a company that's already in town. They presently have 100 meg connection and they've said, "We want to take a look at your 10 Gig and see if we can go about doing that." We're in conversations with them about doing a 10 Gig connection to their facility.

Chris: I don't know if you have a similar anecdote. I know that, generally, municipal networks don't want to talk negatively about specific rivals, but I've seen Comcast quotes for a business fiber connection, in less than a mile of build, in the order of 100 thousand dollars. How many hundreds of thousands on dollars do you charge businesses to connect them to your fiber?

Kent:  If they're in the city of Salisbury, we don't.

Chris: That's a big difference.

Kent: If they're in the city of Salisbury, we have fiber in your neighborhood, and/or in your businesses. It's all built out. The longest build out, we have maybe 100 yards, 50 yards, something like that, because there is fiber going down just about every street.

Chris: I think that's incredibly important for people to understand because, when a community thinks about building a fiber network like Fibrant, they will hear from the existing cable and telephone company, "We can already do fiber. We'll be happy to do fiber if anyone is willing to pay for it." You're talking about being able to turn on these business on for 10 Gig, and they're not going to have to pay any sort of absurd upfront fee. They'll just be able to connect. That's remarkable.

Kent: Right. That's why we built the network, is to be able to do that, and to have a quick availability, quick connectivity.

Chris: You want to tell us about any examples where you know that your customer service has beaten the established standards for the national carriers?

Kent: Well, it's interesting because we are locally owned and run. One of my installers mentioned to me that we had a fiber that got cut, and that he couldn't go home until he fixed it because it affected his family's home. His wife said, "No, you're not coming back until you fix that." All of our customer service people are local. They shop in the same stores as everybody else, they walk the same streets, they drive the same streets. Everybody is local. They actually get to know people pretty well on a first stand basis.

Chris: One of the things that I understand, and I actually remember this from the debate that may have even been before your time there, there was a discussion from nearby communities that I believe wanted to be annexed into Salisbury to make sure that they could get access. Am I remembering that correctly or can you just tell us anything about the communities nearby?

Kent:  I'm not familiar with that, but I am familiar with that there are areas in town or developments that are getting annexed, or being chosen to be annexed for Fibrant, and for that service.

Chris: You are seeing that there people that are just on the wrong side of the political boundary, basically, and they're trying to figure out how they can get connected by your network.

Kent:  Yes. Weekly, I get emails from people from all over the place in our area, saying, "Can you help us, please. Google fiber isn't coming to us, so we have nothing else to go to. Can you help our city?" It's just from all over the little towns all around us, just asking for help. Of course, we've got the North Carolina law that was written after we developed our fiber system. We have to live within that law, even though it's been so called overturned by the FCC, we're still living by the law because we're not quite sure how that's all going to pan out yet, since it's still in the courts.

Chris: Right. Unfortunately your attorney general in North Carolina has appealed. It's not clear if the court of appeals was to accept the reasoning of them, and to overturn the FCC's order, then it's not clear what would happen to you if you had built out.

Kent:  Right. What we're trying to do is, we've got new people in the government here in the state, and perhaps if we just told our story a little bit better. We were overrun by the incumbents, and we're just a little city, so I'm planning on discussing, or trying to meet with some of the people in the government, say, "Hey, listen. Here is what's happening. Here is how it could benefit North Carolina. Actually, what we want to be a part is, since we're geographically locating between Charlotte and Raleigh, we'd like to take a look at partnering with" for example "the Google Fibers of the world. Partner with them and let's create a whole technology arc all the way from Charlotte to Raleigh." It's really a kind of a natural thing because we have, again, the Interstate, we've got the rail, we've got the fiber. Let's just connect everybody up and just create a whole technology pocket.

Chris: One of the things that I think you'll hear is that the lobbyists for the other, the established national carriers, will have told elected officials that, "Salisbury is a disaster. Wilson is a disaster." They'll say that you have all this debt and that you're struggling. What do you say to people who are going to make those claims?

Kent: You got to invest, make an investment into the infrastructure, and it doesn't pay for itself immediately. It does take a little while to recoup your investment. Take a look at how many cities right now are begging for, even Gig fiber right now. They are not going to get it unless they put it in themselves. In North Carolina you can't even do that. We've got this big benefit already going, and we've already cranked up to 10 Gigs, so we're future proofed. You have to invest a little money to make a little money. We've done that and we see it turning around, and we see the interest, especially in the 10 Gig, the interest of companies that really would like to move here and start growing here.

Chris: One of the things we've seen is that, in the cities that are begging for it, and maybe seeing a little bit of investment, some of these cities actually, not too far away from you in North Carolina, but in a variety of places where 1 or 2 vendors, often the historic, the big telephones companies, CenturyLink is doing this, AT&T is doing this; they will put fiber in, but they don't really have a plan to connect everyone. They're just picking a few areas of town. I think that's one of the areas where places like Salisbury are going to benefit, because you have every corner of town on the network. I don't know that we're ever going to see AT&T connect every corner of a town.

Kent:  That was a big deal. One of the things that needed to be accomplished was that we were not going to create a digital divide in our city. That's why every neighborhood, the poorest and the richest, all have fiber running to it. We're trying to create a situation where those less fortunate are going to be able to afford, or have some sort of support from the federal government, let's say, that can help us provide internet access to the less fortunate, or provide more hotspot areas. We do have a number throughout the city, but we know we need more. We're trying to help and develop that for the less fortunate. We try to eliminate the digital divide and we think we've done a pretty good job of that by at least giving the fiber into all of the neighborhoods.

Chris: One of the things that I wanted to congratulate you on was being a member of Next Century Cities. I think is exciting, and I think other cities are going to learn a lot from you, and I hope that you're going to be able to learn from some of the other cities. Is there anything that you want to tell us about the network before we wrap the interview up?

Kent:  First of all, we're very happy to be part of the Next Century Cities. We hope that we can help other cities in other areas develop 10 Gig as well, because we do need other cities to spool up to 10 Gigs for more benefits for everybody. The more 1 Gig and 10 Gig cities we have online, the more benefit this city will see, and the more developing we can do. We would like to partner with as many people as possible, and work together, and share information, and share how we've done it, and see how we might improve in what we've done, and do that with anybody who may be interested. Feel free to reach out to us. We'll be more than happy to help on what we can. Some of the local cities around us here are very interested in us expanding into their areas. We are legally able to do that if we're voted in. We can do some expanding and we're looking at how we can do that with education as well, and other research opportunities. We have some opportunities to do some expanding.

Chris: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Kent: Glad to be here, Chris.

Lisa: Learn more about the network and its history at muninetworks.org and at fibrant.info. We still want your ideas for the show. Send us an email at podcast@muninetworks.org. You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. Thank you again to bkfm-b-side for the song "Raise Your Hands," licensed through Creative Commons.

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