Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 206

This is Episode 206 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Christopher Mitchell introduces us to Bob Farmer, Information Systems Director from the city of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. They discuss what lies ahead for the municipal network. 

 

Bob Farmer: Since we've started providing that direct access we've seen our products related to fiber grow consistently by 20% annually for the last 7 years without really marketing, just from improving the customer service.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to Episode 206 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In this episode Chris introduces us to Bob Farmer, Information Systems Director from the City of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Bob shares how the municipal network has benefited the community and how it's evolved over the years. He also describes how they've dealt with specific challenges to improve services to the community and discusses a few of the problems Glenwood Springs contends with today. Now let's listen to Chris and Information Systems Director Bob Farmer discuss potential solutions and lessons learned in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Bob Farmer, the Information Systems Director for Glenwood Springs in Colorado. Welcome to the show.

Bob Farmer: Thanks for having me on your show.

Chris Mitchell: I was excited to book you after we had such a fun panel last week in Mountain Connect. We were on with several other folks from Colorado that are doing great things. I'm a little bit ashamed that for all the years that you guys have been operating we haven't spoken with you, so we'll rectify that today. Let's start with just a little description of what Glenwood Springs is like. It's pretty nice, if I remember correctly from the last time I drove through.

Bob Farmer: I think it's really nice. Every time I go on vacation and I come back, no matter where I've gone I feel happy to be home because it's so beautiful and it's such a great place to live. We're located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, 45 minutes north of Aspen and an hour to the west of Vail, so we're kind of right in the middle. Our population is about 10,000 people. We can't really build out because we have mountains all around us. We can only kind of build up at this point. Our daytime population actually swells to about 30,000, because we're a local hub for retail, for banking, and we have a large population of lawyers too, probably too much so.

Chris Mitchell: I was going to say there's got to be a joke there somewhere.

Bob Farmer: I just can't come up with a good one. Probably our primary industry though is tourism. Examples of that is we were voted The Most Fun Small Town in 2012. I think it was by Rand McNally. We have the world's largest outdoor hot springs. We have another hot springs that just opened that complements the world's largest outdoor hot springs. We have an adventure park that takes you on a tram up the hill. There's an Alpine slide. There's a roller coaster. Then there's this giant swing that kind of throws you off the cliff and then swings you back in. It's kind of a great place to bring the family and definitely a great place to live.

Chris Mitchell: Great. For a while now you've been working on improving the internet access locally. Why don't you just start at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about how that came to be.

Bob Farmer: Glenwood Springs started electricity way, way back, so we've had electricity around the same time that New York City had electricity. We were kind of one of the first towns in Colorado to have electricity. That kind of shows that we're a little bit progressive in that sense. Fast forward to 1999 and 2000. We had dial up service. We didn't have much of anything else. We had some wireless providers providing like 128 kilobytes, maybe 260 kilobytes if you were lucky. We had Century Link -- It wasn't Century Link, I think it was Qwest at the time, or whatever Qwest was before that.

Chris Mitchell: Right. We're not going to get all the way back into that. That takes too long to try and recount the ancestors.

Bob Farmer: Right. We had actually gone to them at one point and asked what are you going to do to upgrade our community, and they basically told us we have no plans on the horizon for your town, so a citizens group, I think it was the Two Rivers Telecommunications Group, formed. They were talking about improving broadband throughout or valley, and it caught hold in Glenwood Springs and 2000-2001 they started working on a business plan and we started doing fiber in 2002, fiber and wireless. The original plan was only for fiber, so fiber, phone and television. We had a bunch of wireless internet service providers and some other local businesses that said government shouldn't be doing this and you shouldn't be doing this. At the end of the day, our business plan changed to providing a fiber backbone with a wireless overlay. Not necessarily the most ideal network or a way to spend your money on if your ultimate goal is to improve connectivity, because at that point we were directly competing with the existing wireless providers and many of them became resellers on our network. We kind of treated our fiber network like a utility. Our anchor tenants would sign on, we would serve them directly, but they'd have like a $5,000 install fee. At first they were even trying to get businesses to pay $5,000 to have them come onto our network, when they could go to Century Link or Comcast and buy a much slower service, but get it basically for free.

Chris Mitchell: That was if you were connecting directly with fiber? You basically would do fiber to the anchor institutions and the businesses, but residents would most likely get the wireless service, right?

Bob Farmer: That's correct. The fiber at that time was only anchor institutions and businesses.

Chris Mitchell: Then the cost dropped after that? You said it was $5,000 first and then it came down a bit?

Bob Farmer: Yeah. After I started, or right as I started it dropped down to 900 bucks, which I thought was still too high, so I lobbied it, and lobbied and lobbied. I was like we're in a competitive industry. We can't treat this like a utility. We need to take away that barrier to get people onto the network if you want to have more revenue and to grow that network. Ultimately it dropped down to $50 and then I was given the right to waive that fee, so for many years we'd install anything.

Chris Mitchell: When you say treat it like a utility, I always just assumed that because Glenwood Springs has a municipal electric utility that you probably had your internet service through them?

Bob Farmer: Originally that's actually correct, and technically it's still correct. Broadband is a functional department of the electric utility, so a sub-department. It's interesting because our sales, support and technical operations are done by the broadband department, that sub-department, under my guidance in information systems. I'm not in electric at all. I don't report to the Public Works Director. Broadband is kind of technically under his oversight a little bit and mostly under mine. There are some joint responsibilities, where we do the sales and support, and electric has to do our outside plant work. After many years, it gets to the point where we haven't really done a whole lot in the last 10 years since it was originally built. Our growth has been pretty small. Our budget is small. No real capital has been infused in it. Our electric department is kind of to the point where they're tired of doing that type of work. They didn't want to do fiber work. They don't want to be fiber splicers. I think that's more of an organizational issue from our standpoint, issues that we have. At this point we only have one trained fiber splicer and it's hard to get them to do our outside plant work, so our growth is restricted because of that.

Chris Mitchell: I think that's a really important lesson for places that are looking at how they're structuring these kinds of investments. You have this kind of bifurcated leadership. This is such an important job and it's something that, as you noted, it's more market oriented. I think none of us would say it's a properly functioning market, but it certainly has market aspects in terms of people having at least a limited choice. If you try to force an electric utility to do something it doesn't want to do, odds are ... It's true for anyone. If you're forced to do some thing you don't want to do, odds are you're not going to put your best effort forward unfortunately.

Bob Farmer: You're completely right, and that's where we're at today and we struggle because of that. My lesson learned from this, if I were structuring it again I would make broadband it's own separate department with it's own splicer outside plant guys, et cetera. Furthermore, I frankly would want to get it outside of city government if I could, get it into its own broadband authority or something to that effect. That way, you're not dealing with the other organizational issues that cities go through, changes in leadership, inability to hire or unwillingness to hire people in one department because you're not really hiring city-wide for example. Salary comparisons. You start comparing your salary for your people in broadband to people in other municipalities, and there's really not much to compare to.

Chris Mitchell: I think we'll soon have an example of that in southwest Colorado, where as we discussed in the conference, Cortez is looking at forming an independent authority and will have its own financing mechanism. I think one of the things that we've seen where that's happened elsewhere in Virginia with BVU, the Bristol Virginia Utilities, they formed an authority. Unfortunately, I think that's led them to be a little less connected to the population. They seem a little less accountable to the public. I feel like it's kind of a tradeoff. There's no perfect situation. We've seen that problem in a number of places, where either being too connected to the rigid procurement policies for local government, or being at risk from day-to-day politics. You don't want a mayor to just sweep in and make a sudden decision. This is a long-term infrastructure. You need to have some stability and decision making.

Bob Farmer: Yeah, and you also have to have your leaders interested in it. That's one of the concepts I thought might work in an authority. If you had representatives from your communities as your board of directors that are interested in broadband versus the city council that might not be not doing much for a number of years. The city has other infrastructure issues and other products going on and we're not that priority anymore.

Chris Mitchell: Right. One of the things that we've found is that of course what might work really well for Glenwood Springs might not work for others and vice versa. I want to jump into one of the things that I found really interesting, which was the open access wireless and some of the lessons that you learned over the many years of working with that model. Tell us what happened after you got a number of those wireless providers on the network.

Bob Farmer: At one point we had 7 service providers providing wireless service to residents in our town. We had about 500 to 550 wireless subscribers divided by 7 companies trying to make money off of these subscribers. There's some economies of scale to be gained when you have a large customer base, and when you don't have that large customer base it's hard to have 7 players in this market. What we started to see is these companies would merge with other resellers on our network, other providers on our network, or they would be bought up by regional wireless high speeds. That led into kind of a multitude of problems. One is the regional ISPs, open access wasn't really their focus for the model and they didn't really want to sell fiber, so our fiber growth started to become limited. The other companies that were still surviving that didn't merge didn't necessarily have great resources. One of the companies doesn't have a sales staff, hasn't for about 7 years, so they're very slow at pulling in new customers. We also kind of got into this game of if there was a service issue, if their customer was having a service issue we would hear about it from the customer, but we would never hear about it from the service provider. If it was an issue that we needed to fix, it's frustrating to both us and the customer that the service provider isn't taking them seriously. We actually still have a reseller on our network and just yesterday we had a customer cancel and we called the customer to schedule time to pick up our equipment on the fiber network and they said the service is poor. Every time we try to contact the reseller it takes them 2 to 3 days to get back to us. For me, that's an example of how open access has failed. I think it can work. I think it will take a lot of effort and I think you have to remember why you're doing open access. You're doing it to provide some competition. Not necessarily completely open to anybody, but you're really trying to better serve the customer. I think there's responsibilities for the municipality and for the service provider that need to be maintained throughout the relationship of serving that customer.

Chris Mitchell: What's the response then with not being able to count on the open access providers? Have you taken more operations in house then?

Bob Farmer: Yeah. We've effectively starting providing service in 2008. In Colorado we had Senate bill 152 as our barrier. Although we were grandfathered in, we went out for election in 2008 and it passed, so we saw that as the citizens wanting or allowing us to provide direct access. Since we've started providing that direct access, we've seen our fiber products, or products related to fiber, business internet and enterprise internet, grow consistently by 20% annually for the last 7 years without really marketing, just from improving the customer service and providing what you're promising. Maintaining relationships I think is most important.

Chris Mitchell: Let's talk about the relationships then. What is the solution for communities that would like to do open access? Let's start with the basic question, which is is your population just too small do you think? Do you need to combine with others or could you make it work in a community of 10,000?

Bob Farmer: I don't think you can make it work well in a community of 10,000. If you had 10,000 residents, about 6,000 homes, and you had 2 providers and you had 100% coverage with no competition, that would be 3,000 each, maybe you could make that work. When you throw in having a Comcast, a Century Link and 6 or 5 or 4 other wireless providers in addition to you trying to provide open access, there's just not enough customers. I think open access really should be a regional approach. I think to best serve our communities once we get through the initial efforts of building out our networks, I think a regional broadband authority or regional efforts at providing open access could make it more beneficial, where you have an internet service provider that can service 10 communities instead of just ours. Then you can start having some economies of scale to make it affordable.

Chris Mitchell: I want to change subjects to something that's more hopeful. I think it's really good to get an eyes wide open approach to how challenging the open access model can be in a number of communities, but what I'd really like to do is to talk a little bit more about over the years you've been there what's happened that's made you think this is all worth it, that I'm really glad that we've been putting our effort into this?

Bob Farmer: Really what makes it worth it to me is the fact that we do see progress, even though it's slow. For example, we serve our School District with 1 gig internet in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. We have gigabit connections between all their schools in Glenwood. They don't have that in the upper valley schools, in Carbondale or Basalt, our neighboring communities. They don't have that high of speeds of connecting their schools together.

Chris Mitchell: Colorado is one of those places, it's not just a matter of not having a gig. There's school districts that are struggling on T1s and they're paying a 100 bucks a mg for internet service. I think it's remarkable how some districts in Colorado really have it hard, and to be one of the ones that's doing well, that's got to be good. It makes you feel good.

Bob Farmer: Yeah. The other part of that is the more bandwidth we buy, the lower our cost gets and we pass that savings on to the school, so our school is paying less than 350 per mg for bandwidth, which I think is incredible, since our cost is right over 300, and we also pay for redundant connection.

Chris Mitchell: Right, especially in that location. In rural Minnesota it's remote but it's not hard to get fiber there. You're talking about the Rockies and it's pretty difficult.

Bob Farmer: Yeah. Yeah. It's expensive trenching, getting conduit, getting fiber up here. The State has done a lot recently with broadband, but the vision really wasn't great necessarily in the past, so that fiber that has been laid for [inaudible

00:16:43] and what not hasn't been used to benefit the communities with low cost bandwidth or low cost transport. It is really costly to get middle mile into the mountain and we're lucky I guess because of where we're positioned.

Chris Mitchell: What else is inspiring aside from the schools?

Bob Farmer: We have a small regional technology company, they provide managed services to resort areas, and they have an office in Glenwood Springs. They have an office here specifically because we have the type of connectivity that we do. To me that's jobs that are brought into our community, people that we interact with, people that we see at the supermarket that can now stay here. Also it's really just a little bit of effort to get our community better connected and trying to make a better future. My wife's a third-generation native to Glenwood Springs and our son is going to grow up and at some point he's going to have to make that choice do I stay? Can I live in Glenwood Springs or a surrounding community or do I have to move somewhere else? I'm hoping that bandwidth is not the criteria for that decision, that he has plenty of opportunities because connectivity is widely available.

Chris Mitchell: It's such a common sentiment across these efforts, is that feeling of parents and just making sure that the younger generation can stay rooted locally. As we're running out of time, I would like to just ask you briefly what you look for in terms of if you were creating this project from scratch, a common question that we get is it's hard to find technical people or I'm not sure who we would hire to work on this. How would you advise a community that's trying to figure out to staff up to build a community network?

Bob Farmer: Expanding on that question and talking about what it takes to start, I don't necessarily think you need the most technical person to do so. I think you need somebody that's really dedicated to that platform. Expanding that out to who do you want to have as staff, no matter what their position is you want to look at those intangibles. Do they have that entrepreneurial spirit? Do they want to get the job done? Are they willing to work until it's done and do what it takes to do the job? Are they loyal to the organization? Are they quick learners? Can they learn about different technologies quickly or different deployment methods? Getting that person to run your organization, you also want somebody that's good politically, that can make relationships with key people to identify who your champions are going to be. From a technical skillset, that's a little bit less important. That can be learned, especially with the right person.

Chris Mitchell: That actually reminds me of a problem that the Geek Squad had to wrestle with, which was, to engage in a little bit of stereotyping, do you take very technical people and try to teach them customer service skills, or do you take people who are good at customer service and teach them technical skills? It sounds to me like you're saying, and this is blatantly my experience as well, is that you find people who are passionate about solving this problem and about connectivity and then you figure out how to get them the education that they might need on these technical matters.

Bob Farmer: You're exactly right. If you have somebody that's passionate about what they're doing they're going to be able to learn it because they're going to want to learn it. If you find somebody who already has the knowledge technically and they're not very good at the customer side or the relationship side, that's harder to teach. That takes a lot more time I think, if it can be taught at all.

Chris Mitchell: Right. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us a little bit more about the network. I'm looking forward to seeing you next year at Mountain Connect again.

Bob Farmer: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I think what you do is great and I enjoy our panels every year. Hopefully we can do it again next year.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris with Bob Farmer, Information Systems Director of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, reviewing lessons learned from the community's experience operating its own municipal network. You can watch Periscope Video of the Mountain Connect presentation from Bob and the other panelists. Just check out the @MountainConnect on Twitter and look for the presentation on public sector broadband. Remember, you can read the transcript for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories, where the handle is @muninetworks. Thank you for the group Forget the Whale for their song I Know Where You've Been, licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks again for listening to Episode 206 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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