Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 232

This is the transcript for episode 232 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, General Manager Josh Byrnes of Osage Municipal Utilities joins the show to share how fiber connectivity has benefited the Iowa community. Listen to this episode here.

Josh Byrnes: Everything is live about it, you can lock in your commodity prices, all your inputs and all those things can be done. We've got to have connectivity, in rural Iowa.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 232 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute For Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In Osage, Iowa, the community's electric utility has served the town and some of the rural areas around it for about 125 years. Osage Municipal Utilities also offers natural gas services and invested in its own communication system in the early 2000s. They offer telephone, cable TV and Internet connectivity via their cable network. Clearly Osage is one of those rural communities that think about the future. In this interview Christopher speaks with Josh Byrnes, the general manager of Osage municipal utilities, who discusses their long term plans to bring Fiber-to-the-Home to the community. Josh who is also a former state representative spends some time discussing Iowa's approach to rural connectivity and its investment in the Iowa communications network. Now here's Chris talking with Josh Byrnes, general manager of the Osage municipal utilities and a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm speaking with Josh Byrnes, the general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa. Welcome to the show.

Josh Byrnes: Thanks for having me Chris.

Chris Mitchell: I'm excited to talk to you, as I was saying in our pre-interview I actually have this memory and I'm excited to be reminded of the story that you'll be telling us in a few minutes about these cattle prices and an app, around how it's important to have Internet access out on farms near your community. Let's start with a little bit of background for people who aren't familiar with Osage. Where are you in Iowa? What's the community like?

Josh Byrnes: Osage, Iowa, located -- I guess the best way to describe us is we're a northeast Iowa community, about 3,500 people reside here in Osage. About 30 minutes to the eastern side of Mason City I guess, and 30 minutes north of Austin, Minnesota. It gives you an idea that we are definitely a border community between the two states. I guess in terms of what people, a snapshot of what Osage look like, especially our utility, our utility is gas, electric and telecom. Our forefathers had some really good instincts there to add gas and telecom after they had started out with electric. We are known as a very progressive utility. We had a guy by the name of Wes Birdsall that was our general manager years ago. He was actually world renown for all his energy conservation methods and things that he implemented around the community of Osage, such as hot water blankets and light bulbs and low flow shower heads, things of that nature, kind of put us on the map. Over the years, we have added a wind turbine to our energy portfolio that we actually own ourselves, about a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine. This Summer we just got done completing a 792 kilowatt community solar farm. That's going to allow community members to purchase units or subscribe to units within our community solar farm. We're a very progressive utility and constantly looking at ways to bring in the newest, the latest, the greatest. Now here we sit with the next question is, how do we do Fiber-to-the-Home within the community? We're a very, as you can tell a very rural based community in Iowa. The one thing that you brought up earlier, the story about the cattle app if you will, we had some young entrepreneurs here in Osage, that cattle farmers came from longstanding cattle families. They said, "How can we better use technology to better market cattle? How can we do a better job of purchasing cattle on the fronted, and making sure that we're actually making money when we purchase these cattle." These two younger gentlemen went ahead and developed an app, and then that app basically you could sit at a sale barn as you're purchasing cattle, be live to the Internet and as those cattle come across and as the prices are going across you can plug those prices in, reference it against the commodities at real time and lock in your prices at the end when you finish out those cattle. You know while you're sitting in the sale barn, I can either purchase the cattle at X amount of dollar per head and make this amount for money, or I can purchase them here and lose this much per head. It's using real live time data to make those critical decisions so they have a positive net return on that. The other cool thing about that app is they can actually walk out in the feedlot with their smartphone, their tablets, whatever it may be, and as they're walking through the feedlot they can do inventory. Up here we have cattle producers that have multiple lots of cattle, maybe they forget which one was bought on what date. You can go back in, check that data, this lot here was purchased on this date, this is when they're going to market, this is when I contracted for. It's live. Everything is live about it, you can lock in your commodity prices, all your inputs and all those things can be done. How does that tie in into what this conversation is? We've got to have connectivity. We absolutely have to have connectivity in rural Iowa for these things.

Chris Mitchell: Those things that you described, I admit that they are very interesting and they are important and it's a reminder that I think some of the really great breakthroughs and innovation we get comes out of Silicon Valley but frankly a lot of the innovation that we ultimately use around this country comes out of communities that we hadn't heard of previously. It seems like a lot of things that you could over an LTE network. What makes you pushing for that Fiber-to-the-Home aside from your streak as a utility that's obviously thinking about the future more than the past?

Josh Byrnes: Right. I think a couple things. Yes, you can get connected through some of those other entities. I think one there's definitely some prohibitive costs that are associated with that. I have a lot of rural folks that come to me, they share with me what their cost are of once they start running through the data, what those costs that they're paying for that connectivity out in the rural areas, and that gets to be very prohibitive. Reliability, I think reliability is a big thing for some of these folks and we tend to have a pretty good track record when it comes to reliability when we talk about my division of telecommunication here at our utility. The other thing I think that you get is I have techs on site ready to go. If I can't get a tech to you within about 15 to 20 minutes I would be shocked. Customer service is a big component of that. Yes, you have some opportunities to go with some bigger companies and have some of that connectivity, but you don't get the full package like we can provide. I think that's a big deal. We have some pockets of our rural communities that are dead zones. I have dead zones within Mitchell County where people are not having that connectivity and the bigger companies aren't willing to make the investment to get them connected. It's going to take people like myself, it's going to take grassroots efforts to get some of those folks connected. Honestly in Mitchell County unfortunately we have the have and the have-nots when it comes to connectivity. That's unfortunate in the sense that our schools are going to be more one on one type school systems and you've got a kid that goes home after school to do their homework on their Chromebook or whatever it may be, they can't get connected. We have a discrepancy even within our school system of what kids have this access and which kids don't. We really need to level the playing field.

Chris Mitchell: Let's talk a little bit about the history of the telecom for the utility. How did you guys get started with doing some telecom? What's the current network that you have today?

Josh Byrnes: I want to say it was mid- to late- 90s I believe they made the commitment to I guess go into cable TV and Internet and those things. It's a coax system, the old -- I shouldn't say old but it's the copper-to-the-home here in town. We have got phone, Internet, and cable. It's an interesting setup in the sense that our cable feed comes to us from a rural telco that provides us with our cable feed. We're kind of at their mercy a little bit as to what our packages look like, which stations we can offer. If they have tiling issues or if they have an outage, we have an outage. We're at the mercy of them a little bit, which sometimes can prove to be frustrating and difficult. In terms of our bandwidth that we're getting in our community, we're getting from about four different entities, not all of which are the same prices. It's all over the board, we pay some folks just for transport fees. I think we're about a 1.3 Gig community is where we're at right now, but all these other companies are talking about increasing their bandwidth and we've got to take a look at that. As they increase we've got to increase, we've got to stay competitive.

Chris Mitchell: For people who aren't familiar tell me if I got this wrong, you say 1.3 Gig community that means that you make packages available, people subscribe to them but the people, they have habits and so you have a general sense of how much connectivity you need. On any given day you're pulling about 1.3 Gigs, is that what you meant?

Josh Byrnes: Yep, yep. That's kind of about our total package, correct. That's the next phase we're looking at, is how can we take a little bit control over our destiny when it comes to fiber bandwidth, Fiber-to-the-Home. How are we going to compete with some of these companies that are maybe starting to do -- Some of these companies talking about deploying these wireless systems and trying to get on top of utility poles and things of that nature. I guess I see some of that as more of like a quick fix type of connectivity for them. We have to be ready. We have to have a game plan of how are we going to control that destiny for ourselves. That's what we've been researching right now. We do have a wireless system that we provide to some of our rural customers as well. We do dabble in the wireless in addition what we do within the community.

Chris Mitchell: When you say that, does your electric territory go outside of the city limits?

Josh Byrnes: That is interesting as well because yes. How they drew these lines back in the day, I have no idea. It's a lot like your school district lines, they just don't make a lot of sense. Yes, we do have some little pockets where we do go outside. The nice thing is our neighbors that we have with electricity is a rural electric cooperative, which are great partners of ours. We work very good together, we've at times maybe had even exchange from territory. They've been great to work with. It's nice to have a good electric partner next door to be able to work with them. Yeah, it does, it gets to be -- My public purpose is the city of Osage and it does get a little bit interesting when you start talking about things like where could we go outside the city limits, because we do have electric territories now. Saying that we also provide -- We, OMU, provide the phone service, the 713 is our phone number there, or I should say it's 732. That is way outside of our territory. We're covering a large group of people out in the country with phone services. Can you go out and cover them with Internet or can you not? There's a lot of gray area when it comes to that side of the conversation as well.

Chris Mitchell: You guys are running a telephone exchange that's quite large, a cable network that's smaller and then also a wireless network as well. Is there anything that you haven't tried to do?

Josh Byrnes: No, I don't think there is. I know we're looking into maybe offering smart home technologies and getting more engaged in that. Again we're a small community and people have to drive 45 minutes, an hour away or they order it online. If they want, let's say for example, a Nest thermostat or the whole Nest system in general, it could be thermostat, the camera, the smoke detector, all of that stuff. It'd be nice if somebody local could help them with that stuff. We're getting younger people that want to do these things and it'd be nice if we could maybe even offer a service through our telecom division there to help those folks out with, just to setup the installation, maybe even the retailer for it. I don't know. It's just some things we're exploring there as well.

Chris Mitchell: Do you have residents and businesses that are pushing you and saying, "We really want to get this fiber soon?"

Josh Byrnes: Absolutely, in fact one of the first things -- I came onboard in February and one of the firs things that we did is we simply used SurveyMonkey and we went out and sent it out with all our bills and stuff and surveyed the community on their telecom wants and needs, and took that data back and started to analyze it to see what do people want when it comes to technology and connectivity. I found it interesting, one of the things that really back strong, not so much about speeds as much as it was about reliability. The number one thing was, "We just want reliable service. We want to be able to be connected all the time. We don't want interruptions. We don't want disruptions." I thought that was interesting. To me that says that we need to maybe do a better job with maybe just on our end, maintaining the system, maintaining the outside plant and the internal plant and doing a good job of preventative maintenance so that we don't have those outages. I thought that was very interesting, but definitely Fiber-to-the-Home is a big want out of our community. That is something that nobody seems to give me any objections on.

Chris Mitchell: I understand that the nature of the technology, there's fewer points of failure. It is harder to have higher reliability with a coaxial system than it is with a fiber system, according to my understanding.

Josh Byrnes: That is correct. Right now we've got different nodes, I think we've got about 12 nodes around our community. You've got the sweep and balance that you got to do, you've got a lot things that if those practices aren't being done your system can suddenly get out of sync. When it gets out of sync then you start to have a lot of those issues. Even like the wireless system, we actually bounce off, we have a south water tower and a north water tower, and so we're projecting out to two smaller communities to the north side and the south side and we're getting interference all the time. That's kind of where I'm questioning how reliable some of these wireless systems that they're talking about deploying are going to be because the interference seems to be one of our biggest issues. Around here we've got a lot of farmers, they've got a lot of GPS technology, they've got a lot of different systems in there with auto-steer and all the different things they've got that can interfere. We've got a couple smaller companies that have moved into our area that are trying to deploy wireless systems, they interfere with our signals. There's a lot of frustration there sometimes when it comes to that. The other problem we have, I have a river running just outside of Osage, a pretty good sized river, creates a valley. You've got trees, you've got a change in your geography, sometimes it's pretty dang hard to hit those people with the wireless system and it's really hard to bury a cable in the ground when they live on the side of a hill. There are some challenges there too.

Chris Mitchell: Let's talk about a different kind of challenge. You are finishing up six years in the Iowa house. Let's talk a little bit about that, what's your experience been in terms of broadband discussions in Iowa. Let me just say that I feel like Iowa is a state that has some remarkable networks despite I would say the state doing very little to help.

Josh Byrnes: I'd agree.

Chris Mitchell: Okay. Give me a sense of --

Josh Byrnes: Absolutely.

Chris Mitchell: Give me a sense of what happens when you talk about broadband in the Iowa legislature.

Josh Byrnes: I don't know that everybody understands it. I don't think that everybody understands how important connectivity is. Some of these folks that are legislators, maybe they're not in education, maybe they're not involved with economic development, they're not involved with things that truly rely on that connectivity. They don't get it. They don't understand the need for it. I think it's ironic in the state of Iowa we have done a pretty good job of deploying Fiber-to-the-Home and getting it going and it had nothing to do with our legislative body. It had everything to do with some of our folks, like our rural telcos that made the investment themselves, put the stuff in the ground and just took it on, and just that initiative. It's not because of anything we did legislatively. We have, and did, pass some legislation down there that I guest a great way to describe it, it was a shell, kind of a shell piece of policy in the sense that the infrastructure is there, the language is there and someday if the money is ever to follow you will have a mechanism for how to deploy those dollars. It was legislation that was passed that will help connectivity in the state of Iowa but there's no money attached to it. It really does no good. People can go around and say, "Yeah, we did some great things for connectivity and broadband," well, yeah you laid some groundwork but there's no money with it. It does nothing. Essentially it's a shell. That's about as far as the state of Iowa's gotten. Now I can tell you in the last month before the election Governor Branstad was up here in Osage and he and I had a conversation about connectivity. I was telling him about our fiber project that we're doing in Osage and at that time he was like, "All right, we need to get you on a committee and you need to be helping me out to get this done." Now, as of Tuesday he's the ambassador to China eventually, I'm not sure were that energy goes now.

Chris Mitchell: Yeah, I'm very sorry to hear that. First of all, he'll be dealing with fiber in China perhaps because they have hundreds of millions of people connected with fiber networks already. It's interesting and I don't mean to cut you off but my impression watching from afar is that Iowa's a state in which to succeed with broadband it's really going to depend on rural coops, some of the rural independents that are willing to be future thinking, although I think the independent companies are kind of mixed between those that are just trying to pull everything out that they can and those that really see themselves as wanting to be a part of the future, and munis playing a big role, but definitely not CenturyLink. When I see the legislation that seems to come through, and I would have even said, until you said that story I thought Governor Branstad was kind of in the pocket with CenturyLink, it always seemed like the legislature was so focused on what it thought it could to try and get CenturyLink to do more, rather than recognizing the real need for these rural local investments.

Josh Byrnes: Sure and I think that tune has changed a little bit. I think you hit the nail on the head because I will tell you that there was a couple bills, I was on ways and means and there was a couple bills that dealt with taxing of outside plant equipment for your rural telcos. It was crazy the lobbying efforts on behalf of Mediacom, CenturyLink, AT&T and those people, basically crying foul and saying, "Hey, you can't be cutting those guys any sort of breaks." But at the same time they were already getting the breaks. They didn't want to have the playing field leveled, they wanted to keep this competitive advantage that they had and not level the playing field. You're definitely right, in Des Moines those are some big lobbying groups. The minute you start to open up the dialog on leveling the playing field or trying to connect rural America, those guys won't take the initiative to do it themselves and the minute we start to do things they step in and somehow find a way to derail the conversation. I was too, I was glad to hear Governor Branstad make those comments to me that, "Wow, this is awesome that you're taking the initiative, that you're doing this yourselves. We need to get you more engaged on this conversation at state level." That was good, but now like I said, I don't know where that conversation goes with him leaving.

Chris Mitchell: This is one of the things in Iowa, this is not a partisan issue, right? One of the Iowa mainstay, someone I think everyone knows, Curtis Dean, he talks about how Steve King, who most of think of in the US house as being one of the most incendiary right wing, people on the left would call him unreasonable. He was very much in support of municipal networks while he was in the Iowa legislature, from what Curtis tells me. This is an issue that's more about local and whatnot. I hope that as time goes on we see that more people respect what the local munis have done in the state.

Josh Byrnes: Absolutely. You're starting to see that take hold in Iowa. Cedar Falls Utility has been a leader in this. Waverly is now connected to Cedar Falls Utility and bringing that connectivity to the city of Waverly. We're this Spring going to be putting in our 22 mile long fiber trunk line from the Minnesota border to Osage. Here's the other helpful thing, the cost are coming down. It's becoming more viable for some of us to do some of these – I mean, we could sit around here all day and wait for more stimulus money or more grant money, but at the end of the day the culture has definitely changed in Washington DC. I don't know what kind of dollars, I will say this, I was very impressed with the fact on the night that Trump gave his acceptance speech, he did talk about infrastructure, and, in my opinion, we, and I say we, that connectivity piece and fiber belongs in the infrastructure piece and the conversation, it's not just roads and bridges and runways and airports and things, it's also broadband. That has to be considered part of infrastructure conversations.

Chris Mitchell: Right, and he has said telecom, occasionally including that. I think many of us are concerned that nonetheless his focus on infrastructure by tweaking the tax code may not benefit municipalities and coops, but given that rural America is what gave him the presidency, I really hope that we see rural America demanding not to be left in the dark by this administration, or congress frankly.

Josh Byrnes: Absolutely, and he's a Twitter user. He needs to be connected when he travels.

Chris Mitchell: Let's finish up with one other thing about Iowa, which is that Iowa was one of these states that very intelligently early on built the ICN, the Iowa Communications Network, making sure that public institutions around the state would have access to high quality back-haul, to get their Internet delivered to them, not necessarily to every school but at least one point in each district, that's my impression of how it works. In recent years the Iowa legislature's been trying to sell it off to privatize it and it's never been available for basically furthering municipal networks I think. Can you tell us a little bit about what's going on with this debate over the ICN?

Josh Byrnes: Here's what I think, I think some people looked at it legislatively speaking as a quick fix. Boom, there it is, it's there already, let's just use that backbone, we can say we got some things done, let's open it up and get it out there. But I think there was also a lot of people that stepped in and said, "Hey, wait a minute," and you know, I had a lot of folks come to with these concerns. They're like, "Have you thought everything through? What are the unintended consequences of selling this off?" Suddenly you lose control over pricing, you lose control over a lot of different things that you had control over before, and at the end of the day we know that that thing has been awesome for school districts. It's been great for continuing education, it's been great for distance learning. There are so many things that have come from that and I think we just need to be very, very cautious that we don't dismantle something and take away that tool that these school districts have. I don't know, even though I'm leaving the legislative body, you still keep your hear to the ground, you still have a lot of people internally that you talk to, I brought this up the other day to somebody. I said, "Okay, so now that we've got the trifecta in Iowa," meaning Republican governor, Republican senate, Republican house, "do you think they'll go after that again?" Nobody seemed to really think it was on anybody's radar. I find that interesting, nobody's really talking about where the ICN is going to go. I'll be curious to maybe pick Governor Branstad brain's a little bit and see what are his thoughts on that. I don't know that he's going to be doing anything too disruptive before he leaves and I definitely don't think Kim Reynolds is too interested in selling that off.

Chris Mitchell: What is the problem that's been identified that makes people want to sell it off?

Josh Byrnes: We've had a hard time finding the money to put into infrastructure, funding for broadband and for that connectivity piece and if suddenly we sell this off and then create some more accessibility in the public sector, a quick fix. It's a quick thing, you turn it over and you disperse that connectivity and look what we did. I think that's part of it.

Chris Mitchell: I guess my lack of understanding is it seems to me that you could also just make it open to everyone. If this was funded by the Stimulus Act of 2009, the ARRA, then it would have had to be open to all kinds of parties. Is there a reason that the state doesn't just open it up to get those ends without selling it off?

Josh Byrnes: Sure. I guess I don't even know the answer to that one. I don't think we even debated much of it last year, I think it's been the last two to three years is when it was really a hot button topic. I guess I couldn't even say for sure why they don't go that route.

Chris Mitchell: Let's finish up then with a sense of why someone like you, who takes an interest in this, doesn't know that, is it just insanely overwhelming? What do you have, you have half of a staff person helping you out as you're trying to shape the future of an entire state?

Josh Byrnes: Absolutely. That is one of the things that was so eye opening for me when I went down there, is, I'm a former educator and so I'm going to go down to Des Moines, I'm going to change education in the state of Iowa, I'm going to find a blank check and I'm going to make sure that schools are fully funded, and all these different great things. Then you go down there and you're like, "Oh, we've got to fund the prison system. Oh, we've got to fund roads and bridges." There's so many different things that you have to fund and there's only so many dollars to go around and every single area wants more. It is so overwhelming to tell people no like, "No we can't get you to have funding." You have to share that pot of money and everybody wants more. That is tough. The other tough thing that you alluded to is that you cannot be an expert on everything down there. You absolutely cannot. Actually I was never on any of the committees that really talked about broadband, I was never in the sub-committees or in those internal meetings. The information I always got was always, once a bill is ready for the floor of the house then you'd get some of that information, and even at that it was very summarized. For myself, I ended up becoming chairman of the transportation committee, and that was a learning curve. It's like holy cow, all a sudden now I'm thrown into infrastructure funding and laws that deal with safety on the roads and things like that.

Chris Mitchell: Right, how the suburbs interact with Des Moines I'm sure.

Josh Byrnes: Yeah. It's just crazy like that and actually the fuel tax consumed most of my life down in Des Moines. That was my bill, that was my initiative and Iowa's very driven to increase the funding for our roads and bridges infrastructure. We did get that accomplished, and during that process you focus in. That's a big lift to get that done and it takes a lot of your energy. Sometimes you maybe don't pay as close attention to some of the other things but I don't have a personal staff. I think that's the funny thing, is that people think you go down there and I've had people say, "Oh, I can't believe you answered your phone yourself," well, I am it. That's it. Even on the emails, I do all my own emails, nobody does those for me. There's no form letters, there's no anything. Yeah, it takes a lot of energy down there to stay abreast of all the different topics and issues coming through.

Chris Mitchell: Great. This has been a terrific conversation, I really appreciate all of your time and all of the work you've done, both in the legislature and in Osage.

Josh Byrnes: I appreciate it.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Josh Byrnes, general manage of Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa. Learn more at MuniNetworks.org where we're following developments and reporting them to you. Remember we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcast available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter where his handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. Thank you to Admiral Bob for the song Turbo Tornado, licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 232 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.