This is episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. President and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority joins the show to discuss the award-winning open access fiber-optic project. Listen to this episode here.
Frank Smith: We need to be an ingredient in what people need to be able to do what they want to accomplish.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Roanoke Valley, Virginia, has had some ups and downs as they planned and deployed an open access fiber-optic network, but they're now on course. This year they began providing a range of services for Internet service providers and local businesses. They're also bringing better connectivity to public facilities and community anchor institutions. Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, talks with Chris this week. In addition to explaining what the authority is, and describing its function, Frank explains the situation in the Roanoke Valley, which led to the decision to invest in the network. Frank provides information about how the authority is working to collaborate with different partners, and he also reflects on challenges and shares plans for the future. Learn more details at highspeedroanoke.net. Now, here are Chris and Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Frank Smith, the president and CEO of Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, in Virginia. Welcome to the show.
Frank Smith: Thank you very much Christopher. It's a pleasure to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm excited to talk to you because I remember looking into this project in years back and seeing some fits and starts and hoping that someone would pull it all together. Over the course of this conversation, I think we'll discuss that. Let's just start off and let people know what is going on in Roanoke Valley and even more importantly, where and what is it.
Frank Smith: The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, just to give you kind of a background, as far as where we are geographically, we're approximately three hours due north of Charlotte, North Carolina, and approximately three and a half hours southwest of the Washington DC metro area. Not too far down the road, forty minutes is Virginia Tech. When we go out about a thirty mile radius, we probably pick up a population between three hundred and fifty and four hundred thousand people. We have various industries that are here, both on the medical side, the education side, technology, all sorts of other things. We're home of Advanced Auto Parts and we've got the Virginia Tech Biomedical Institute, and the medical school they've built here in the Roanoke Valley. We have a lot of things going on. The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority actually was created approximately, I think it's about three or four years ago by a group of -- It was driven by citizens who saw a need to provide greater access and more competition and a few things within the broadband network provisioning side of things. The interesting thing for us is that they called us a doughnut hole. I actually like doughnuts and probably too much, but liked the fact of the analogy of the doughnut holes because that I can understand pretty easily.
Christopher Mitchell: Also doughnut holes are much more healthy than entire doughnuts.
Frank Smith: Yes, that's a great rationalization. I like you already. This is good. Just don't tell my wife, if that's all right. Krispy Kreme has a store here and I have to try to stay away. The one thing is about the doughnut hole is that we are not big enough to be what we'd considered an NFL city, to get a large investment to come in there, from a provisioning or from a network planning standpoint. We have some good existing providers that are here, but we're not getting the same level of investment, which leads to additional competition here because we're not of that size. At the same time, we're too large to get a lot of the federal funding and other state and local funding. We have urban areas, we have suburban, we do have rural but for example, when we get Tobacco Commission money or other types of things, which would be part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we're too big.
Christopher Mitchell: I sometimes simplify that in terms of saying that you're basically big enough to have some good cable, decent cable systems, but you're not good enough to really expect that there will be a better option beyond that. You're in a challenge in that because you already have decent service. No one wants to fund you to get better service, whereas places that have practically no service, they do tend to get some source of help.
Frank Smith: We've got a fairly unique situation and I think that's where the business community specifically drove this. It didn't come out of the government side first. The government side became a partner with the key leaders within the government community driving this. The one that we talked about is the importance for us to recognize that there was a requirement for an open access network. An open access network is not a sole-source provider. It allows other people to ride on that network, so we wanted to encourage competition, but also we wanted to encourage companies to be able to come in here and provide different types of services, and also work with existing providers too. We look at it a couple of ways. We look at partnering with the existing providers that are here, providing additional backbone for them to use, but also for us to provide services as required. We look at three verticals: government, education and business. Our goal is not residential broadband. That's not our play right now. Then, in addition to that, we're looking at different ways to partner. For example, we've already been approached by companies who are local in the area -- wireless Internet service providers who are interested in providing the last mile. We've had land line Internet service providers looking to use the physical infrastructure to then build out to communities, so they could in that case, take a look at providing residential service. Now we'd be the enabler if they wanted to use our middle mile. Then we also have groups that have taken and looked specifically at what we've done, we've formed a group down here, created a chapter what they call the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. This is a huge group. It's been around for seventy years. The point is, we've got a growing defense industry here, both figuratively and literally above and below the radar. What we're trying to do there is saying, look, we've got a great infrastructure, we're building it out, and also the equipment we're using -- our particular network is all certified, the switches and the routers, they're all certified under Defense Department process called, not getting too far in the weeds, but called JITC, Joint Interoperability Test Command. They come in and take a look at vulnerabilities. We made sure that was a table stakes requirement for the vendors that we put into the network. The key thing is that we're close enough but far enough away from some of the key centers such as Charlotte and DC. We've seen success right down the road, several hours from us where people have been able to put in disaster recovery sites, or data centers in service of both state and federal players like the US House of Representatives. The key thing is there are different things that we look at. We have groups here that need to be aware of who we are, they need to be aware of each other. At the end of the day, our purpose, our primary purpose is economic development.
Christopher Mitchell: A lot of our listeners, I think, are more familiar with municipalities doing these sorts of things. You're actually an authority. What does that mean?
Frank Smith: We were able to create this under the Wireless Broadband Act. I think it was 1999 which was passed by the state legislature. The Authority, we are technically called the Political Sub-Division of the Commonwealth of Virginia. What that allows us to do is we brought together four municipalities, the county of Roanoke, the city of Roanoke, Botetourt County, and then the city of Salem. Three of those are financially participating right now. A fourth I think will be coming down the road as they take a look at how they want to expand into their particular area. We called it an authority, we've done something very similar. It's actually an organizational construct that's authorized within the Commonwealth of Virginia. For example, we have a local water authority, and that's similar to the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority. We are subject to the procurement integrity rules of the Commonwealth of Virginia, so obviously we have fully transparent books. Everything is -- We have primary, secondary, judiciary checks for how we spend and account for things. Those are all subject to Freedom of Information Act, so everything is clear and open. We are subject to oversight.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk a little bit about your plan. You're very enthusiastic about open access. What is currently happening in terms of where you're able to build out and target and that sort of thing?
Frank Smith: There are a couple of things going. We've been in production for, I want to say full-on production live for four months. I've been with the authority for almost fourteen months. During that time, we took it from bidding out and selecting the first (for the first phase of the network) the first fifty miles, a hundred and forty four strands of CommScope microfiber. Then we put in a four channel conduit and we're using one of the four paths. The key on that is that we can lease that out, we can expand our existing fiber, we can do all sorts of things, so there's capacity that's build in. That means that other folks can come in and use both our fiber and our conduit. We've also, under the first initial hundred forty four strands of fiber, we've taken part of that and just said okay 25 percent of that or approximately 34 strands will be used for dark fiber. For those who are not familiar with dark fiber, it's the unlit glass or unlighted glass that we've had several carriers approach us and are taking a look at leasing dark fiber from us, so they can get to different points in the network, serve different customers without having to build additional infrastructure. That is good on a couple of things. First it's good for us because it's a revenue stream and we have an operating budget, and we have a pro forma, which is basically our business plan that we need to stick to. We need to be breaking even from an operating expense standpoint (Opex) within a five point nine years. That started in May of 2016, so that clock is ticking. It helps us generate revenue, but also allows other folks to use facilities without having to come in and build. That goes for both the carriers that are here and also carriers that want to come in or entrepreneurial carriers or start ups that want to use our facilities. That's one, that's the dark fiber. We've got 25 percent allocated for that. The second thing we have, specifically is what we call transport services. Let's imagine that you got the dark fiber, or the dumb glass. You've got to be able to connect that, you got to put electronics on it because it takes lasers to send the light that transmit the data. Let's say you've got two or three locations in the area, and you need to get from point A to point B to point C and you're not interested in Internet traffic or passing packets out the area down the backbone of the Internet, but you need transport. You might have data center facilities or things like that, or you want to be able to run other applications. You could strictly get transport from us or take a combination of different things. That's where we would use our electronics to light up the glass and allow dark fiber and allow you to pass traffic. The third option is really taking a transport, or the stuff that's illuminated with our lasers or switching equipment, the optical transport equipment what they call it. Then taking it and taking it then taking it up to what they call a Layer 3 service, or being able to take it out onto the Internet, get Internet service. We have redundant. We've build in disaster recovery, redundant paths, diverse routing. These are all table stakes. If you're not familiar with them, these are things that when you build a network, they talk about carrier grade. They have things like, you hear the words NEBC=S, network equipment building compliant. You look at a network, you've got to have redundancy, you got to have ability to restore quickly because otherwise you're out service can cause all sorts of cascading failures in the network, and the third is resiliency. We've got routes going up north, and we've got routes going south. We recently had a storm here, not in the area, that hit one of the surrounding states which took out a lot of service, a lot of backhaul service and poles, and things like that. We were not affected, which was good. We were able to maintain our service. We didn't have an outage, and that's because we had redundancy. Now fortunately both our paths were not affected, but if one is, it automatically switches to the other. The key thing is that for a carrier, for somebody who wants to come on our network, we have to have those standards. Those standards have to be met because otherwise we're not carrier grade, we're sub-standard. That's one of the things that we built into. Open access really has a lot of facets to it. The key thing is that everybody can ride on it and use it, which then generates interest, shows businesses what they can be doing. They can use other folks to supply that service to them, they can be providers for themselves. You've got more choice. I think from a consumer standpoint, regardless of what market you're in, and the markets that we address are business, government and education.
Christopher Mitchell: If I'm a provider and I'm trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B, about how many locations do you have where I could hop on and hop off?
Frank Smith: It depends on where they want to connect. There are many places. There are places where they could splice into us, into our network, depending on where the equipment is and where they want to connect. There are things called handholes, and if you're walking along the street and you see a box that's level with the pavement, you'll see, for us, it'll say RVBA Fiber, Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Fiber. Those are places where we have connection points, in some cases. We have over three hundred of those. That's places where the fiber's connecting and people can also be able to splice in if we need to connect customers or other locations. The other way is we do, called colocation facilities, co-locates. We have five optical switches, or main switching centers. We have one that's called the, it's a colocation for Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities or MBC.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, we've had them on the show before actually. Tad Deriso.
Frank Smith: We work with them. They're a great partner. Specifically we co-locate in one of their facilities. We actually hand off to them, they hand off back to us. Then in addition to that, we also have other places, there's what they call the higher education center, a beautiful building. They re-purposed that building to be the higher education center. I think it's the Roanoke Higher Education Center, if I get that correct. Multiple universities in there are teaching, but they do that as a remote teaching site. In addition to that, we have a great facility which is a used as a POP, point of presence, or switching center, which is hardened. We put switching equipment in there, that's another place they can connect, and some other carriers come in there already. Then in addition to that, we actually manufactured a telecommunications hut. You sometimes see these, they're about maybe twelve by sixteen, about eight feet tall. We put those in, and there's a place where folks can connect in there, if they want to co-locate. Then there are two others, at the Salem Data Center. Salem is one of the municipalities. They were actually in their data center and that's a place where we can cross-connect to other carriers who want to use our facilities and we can cross-connect to the facilities from other carriers, if we need to get at them. We've done that. The one that we, I think is probably the crown jewel, and this is where it gets interesting from a community stand point is Blue Ridge PBS, and Blue Ridge PBS is public broadcasting, I think it's public broadcasting service or system. Blue Ridge PBS, and their facility was built in the '60's. They are a great local asset. Nobody can be against Elmo or Big Bird, so I look at it that way. They've been great. We've been working with James Baum and he is the present CEO of Blue Ridge public television. We've been working with Will Anderson, who's their vice-president over there. I think he's actually technically the COO. Then Dan Ullmer, who's their Director of Network Engineering. These guys have been tremendous. We have put one of our main switching centers there, but we're also developing a colocation/data facility there because their television operation center is a hardened facility, raised floor. Basically it's a computer room. They've got back-up, huge back-up Caterpillar diesel generator, and all these great things. They are consolidating their equipment. Their equipment has gotten smaller and smaller so that's freed up a lot of space. We have worked with them and we've been able to put a series of Great Lakes cabinets in there and one of our switches in there. In addition to that we have room to expand, so we're talking to several providers right now. We want to co-locate there and be able to cross-connect into our system. That's great because it's a revenue stream for Blue Ridge PBS because they own the facility, we’re leasing parts, so they can rent and gain a new revenue stream to help them in their budget. The other part of that is we're selling capacity. It's a win-win. We've got a great partnership, and they're an integral part of the community. The other thing which is good about this too we think, how we play, it's just not about technology, but it's how you're going to impact the people in your community that you live with, and that you want to support. Blue Ridge PBS is a good example of that. Right down the road is Virginia Western Community College which is part of the Virginia Community College system. One of the things for us, they've connected into our network, and they're using a series of different things to be able to take advantage of it, so there are potential things down the road. We're a facilitator. We're providing an open access network to stimulate growth and economic development which translates into we need to be an ingredient in what people need to be able to do what they want to accomplish. That's our goal. We're there to serve. This goes back to Virginia Western. They have a program, on mechatronics, which I guess is more how things work in a system as far as assembly, manufacturing. Due to fact that they were able to do this and have this ability, that became a key ingredient in attracting an overseas Italian maker of, I think a battery or transmission systems for electric cars, hybrid cars. One thing leads to the other, so we want to make sure that we're providing or enabling different groups to support their missions, execute their missions by providing telecommunication services in an open environment which stimulates growth, stimulates creativity and more important for me, is innovation because that makes a difference in the community.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I love hearing from people is this idea of the open access, of building a network that's open to many people and encouraging innovation, so I certainly salute you for that. We don't always find that the existing providers are so excited about dealing with the competition of the providers that you may well facilitate coming into town. Although I'm sure that you, as you've said, you're network is open to the incumbents. They just tend not to like that business model so much. I'm curious if you've seen any push back from them?
Frank Smith: Oh well sure. We're the new kid in the block. We're new and we are a disruptive force in a medium size to smaller market. Usually, and any time, regardless of who it is, it creates waves. The question is what do you do with that, because waves have energy. The question is how do you translate that into something productive? Again, as I said before, we've got a couple of carriers who we're working with. We just hired a vice president of network engineering and operations, a guy by the name of Dave Armentrout. He's been in the industry for a long time, knows how to work specifically with the existing providers. My belief, all boats rise and fall with the same tide. If we're generating new abilities to track customers, retain customers and grow, the network usage that customers require, that benefits everyone in the community. That includes the existing providers. We have places where we have existing providers already leasing facilities from other providers. In this case, a municipal provider who already has some fiber. It's one of the municipal providers that we partner with, or actually part of our network. It's a question of its time, education, and most of all, patience but probably the bottom line is perseverance. I am rationally optimistic. We will grow a relationships.
Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you about something that, I'm wondering if it's an old joke yet with the ice cream. When we spoke last it was still something that you were laughing at. I'm assuming that at a certain point you're going to say, "Oh I just wish we could get beyond this," but for my listeners, tell us about the ice cream.
Frank Smith: I'm a public servant. Regardless of what I think personally or professionally, I'm here to serve. That's the other difference of the authority, I am a public servant. Folks, remember part of the interesting thing is, it's kind of public private thing that we're going on here because we're entrepreneurial in how we're running the business, but yet we're also sticking to good, practical, fiscally responsible spending and planning. That's at the core of this. That's just table stakes, we can't get away from that. Then we carry over on the more of the public policy side, so you have elected officials who are elected by their constituents to serve. Part of the course of the politics, is always discourse. Whether you like the discourse or not, that's their job and they can speak their mind because we live in a democracy. Technically republic, but we have a democratic system. As far as the ice cream, the ice cream authority, somebody had said that we should be selling ice cream -- we'd like the government getting in that business.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you were talking about earlier is just how important redundancy and reliability is. One of the arguments that we saw raised is this idea that you aren't doing anything that isn't already available in the market. Therefore, it might be similar to the county or the city or any public entity deciding that they were going to open an ice cream shop and try to perhaps run the other ice cream shops out of business.
Frank Smith: The short answer is that redundancy is basically a table stakes requirement in telecommunications. You need to have multiple paths, you need to have multiple providers. That argument does not hold water because at the end of the day, the more competition they have, the more options you have, the stronger your community is, the stronger it is for those who need to rely on that service. It's an interesting illustration, it's entertaining, but it's not accurate.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I enjoyed was seeing that the local newspaper actually did an editorial on it and for me it's always important to see that, if it's something that the local paper feels strongly about, it indicates something to me I think.
Frank Smith: The paper is for the state and I have a lot of respect. Sometimes I agree with what they put in the paper, sometimes I don't. At the end of the day, that's their job. A very good job and their op-eds and other things have been very supportive, but they've also asked a lot of questions. They've gone through our books and done other things, and we've opened our books. Particularly they've ask for, they wanted to do FOIA or Freedom of Information Act requests, and we said "No, don't worry about. Just come in and see our books." We have a good team and we are doing what I consider the right thing for the community. Part of that all goes back to what's the motivation? It's economic development through, in this particular case, an open access network which is built upon a desire not just from the government side, but really both from public private on the business side, government, education and business to go forward and create something that's different that's a competitive advantage for the Roanoke Valley.
Christopher Mitchell: Well that's one of the other things I wanted to mention is actually as you leave the Roanoke Valley, I think one of the challenges you face is that heading over to Richmond, you're going to run into some pretty powerful lobbyists. A lot of times local governments, your authority, you don't have the capacity to be there every day, every night when these arguments are happening. Are you seeing anything coming out of Richmond that worries you?
Frank Smith: Well I think the thing is, it's not a question of stuff worrying me out of Richmond. It's being aware. We can't keep our head in the grass. We need to make sure that our voice is heard. We need to make sure that we do it accurately, succinctly, and most importantly, that we don't waste people's time. We've got to be on the mark as far as what we're about. Part of that goes to making sure we have an obligation to our customers. I have an obligation to my board and to the community. We're making sure that we are following things. There are different channels. We have things that we can use specifically, if that makes sense, so that those who are in the public policy arena are aware of who we are, what we're doing, why we're doing it, and most importantly, why is it important to them because of the impact it has on us as citizens.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Is there anything else going on there that you want to make sure we cover that we haven't talked about yet.
Frank Smith: Well we're really excited about trying to develop new verticals for this area, and in particular on the defense side because we've got great cooperation with the folks down there in the Blacksburg community, which is only 30, 35 miles away.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's Virginia Tech. I mean that's --
Frank Smith: That's Virginia Tech and Blacksburg and they got their corporate research center. We've got strength in our region, we've got strength in our individual municipalities, and we've got strength in the region that is here as a whole. That region is technically considered the New River Valley, but we're working together. We see even a good play for us, just the strength of the southwestern part of Virginia. The chapter with the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, which is actually headquartered out of the northern Virginia area, will gain greater awareness as far as what's down here. More importantly, what can be brought here. I'm really excited about that because that's something that's going to be a benefit for both the area here and also for the greater region.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Frank Smith: Thank you Christopher.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Frank Smith, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority in Virginia. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send an email to podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thanks to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song “Bodacious” licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.