This is the transcript for Community Broadband Bits Episode 247. Ken Demlow of Newcom Technologies chats with Christopher Mitchell about what happened in Nashville and why poles are important for fiber. Listen to this episode here.
Ken Demlow: There's all that kind of communication that not only can improve what happens in electric and what happens in water, but also just such better communication with your customer, and it's all good stuff.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 247 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Ken Demlow, Sales Director of Newcom Technologies joins Christopher this week to talk about several topics. In addition to discussing engineering and design and how it relates to telecommunications networks, Ken shares how Newcom is taking advantage of new technology to offer communities the best results. Christopher and Ken also get into the details of smart-grid and some benefits and uses that you might not necessarily think of right away. The guys spend some time on what happened in Nashville when Ken worked on the Google Fiber project. He shares his inside perspective. You can learn more about Newcom at nucomtech.com. Now, here's Christopher with Ken Demlow from Newcom Technologies talking about engineering and design, smart-grids, and pole drama in Nashville.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of The Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Ken Demlow, the sales director of Newcom Technologies. Welcome to the show.
Ken Demlow: Thank you. Good to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Ken you're one of my favorite people at these trade shows. We're here at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, and as you know, I contrived an excuse to have you on because I think you're a fun person to talk to.
Ken Demlow: Thank you. That's better than I deserve, but thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: I think we're going to start with just a brief explanation of what Newcom Technologies does.
Ken Demlow: We are telecommunication engineers, and that's how we started 20-some years ago. What's kind of cool about Newcom is that design is design, but we design very well, but then what you do with that design and how you make it usable is where we've done a lot of excelling. We did all of our design work in CAD and then converted it into GIS. Well, that's something that can be used in different phases for projects, and so our customers had said, "Wait a minute. We want that." So, we do that. We do mapping, those kind of ancillary services, field survey work, all that kind of stuff that goes along with having really good engineering.
Christopher Mitchell: The way municipal networks or small providers might come across you is trying to figure out where they're going to put their outside plan.
Ken Demlow: Exactly. If they're thinking, "Okay. We know we need to do something," where that would go, how that would be, aerial versus underground, what impediments there could be. We work through designing all that, and then where would the cabinets go? How are the splits going to be? All that's recorded. Yeah, we have to do all of that stuff as part of our design.
Christopher Mitchell: In a recent conversation with Eric Lampland, we talked about the importance of getting this in a mapping program. Esri is what you guys use. That's an industry standard. Why is that important?
Ken Demlow: That's a big deal because a lot of engineering work is just we'll design it. We'll put it on a static platform. We'll print you a map, or we'll put it in CAD, which CAD's a good design tool, but then the end user -- It's static. They just have that done, and then they can refer back to it, but they can't really change it. Doing it in Esri, then if they want to add a section, it's very easy just to add onto that section, or if there's something they want to change-
Christopher Mitchell: Layers, the power of layers.
Ken Demlow: Layers, yes. Or if they want to do how they keep their splits and how they're splicing and how they are able to see it and change those kind of things. If it's dynamic, then they can change it and use it and adapt it along the way. If not, they got it once and then that's it. The last part of that, Chris, is that, also, there's these tools out there called fiber management systems, and those fiber management systems allow you to like put in OTDR readings and see where a problem is. The trucks don't have to drive as far. They don't have to go try to find something.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, this is like if there's a problem with the fiber, you shine a laser down. It tells you how far to wander to get to that problem.
Ken Demlow: Yeah, and if you put that into a fiber management system, you know exactly where to go. You know exactly, so the trucks can go there and not have to go hunt for it, and you can trace the fiber all the way through to the end. You can trace it through the splices. You can change your splices. Those are all tools that you only have if you use a mapping system like Esri. CAD, you can't do that. A piece of paper on the wall, you can't do that. It provides much more management functions and a dynamic instead of static platform.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Now that we know what you do, let's talk about some of the stuff you've been talking about. Today, you were talking about smart-grid here at the IAMU Conference. What's the deal with smart-grid?
Ken Demlow: Smart-grid is this cool, important idea that people have a hard time even defining.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think a lot of people are immediately thinking meter reading, right?
Ken Demlow: Yep. Yep, and that's where everybody starts. The reason people start there is because, if you have smart meters, meters that can send information back to you instead of you having to go do a meter reading, you can quantify how much does the person cost, or you can quantify how many truck rolls does it take to do that? Those are very quantifiable things, and people can say, "This is how much it'll cost. This is so much money we'll save," and that's an easy place to say, "Okay. That's smart-grid." Well, it's a tool in smart-grid, but the reason we got involved in smart-grid, Chris, is because what smart-grid is, is it's communication. It's data. It's sending information back and forth. It's communicating with your customer. It's understanding what's happening in your network. That all is telecommunications. We got involved in it because of the telecommunication side. Now, through the years, we've gotten more involved in helping set it up, helping to find how it's going to be laid out, how the data is going to flow. The biggest thing is that the industry, by necessity because of what was available 20 years ago, they've gone to -- If you're going to have a smart meter, you're going to have an RF system, a radio frequency system, that sends the information back that way, not using fiber. That's something that's been an issue of mine for a decade now, of saying, "If we have fiber, we should be using the fiber."
Christopher Mitchell: I think, in a lot of cases, what happens is you have a short wireless hop to a collection point. They're not using radio frequency all the way back to the central office.
Ken Demlow: Some are.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, wow. Okay.
Ken Demlow: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: But others are -- Tantalus' products, I think, were often doing a local collection and then using local fiber to get out of the neighborhood.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. The most common is to send the radio frequency back to a collector somewhere, and then you'll have a certain number of collectors. If the community is small enough and if there's not too many hills or trees or that sort of thing, then some do send it all the way back to the office. That's a shame because if you have fiber and you can use fiber for all of it, that's a good starting point for, "We're going to have these meters. They're going to send the information back over fiber." That's much more secure. It's much more efficient. It's much faster.
Christopher Mitchell: I think a lot of people might immediately think, "Well, that seems like overkill." If you have a ratepayer who's on your electric system, who's also going to be paying for Internet access, for television, then you can justify dragging a fiber to him. Can you really justify dragging a fiber to a home just to do these automated services?
Ken Demlow: No. That's a good point. Right now, if you were saying, "I'm going to go pay for fiber just to bring the information back from a meter," that really is not justifiable, no. It's when you can say, "Okay. We can bring back the meter data, and then we can also offer the other services." There's going to be a lot more coming, pieces of smart-grid, and what can be done with communication, with the ratepayer, with how you can exchange data back and forth. Those things are all coming, but as far as can you actually say, "That will pay for fiber," not really.
Christopher Mitchell: I think what you're saying, then, is, "Hey. If you've got the fiber there, do it. Use it."
Ken Demlow: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: "Don't also use RF." As an anti-pollution kind of person, I would also say, "Yeah. Let's keep it off the public airwaves if we can."
Ken Demlow: Yeah. It's if you have the fiber and if you have the fiber to use to do -- and you can do multiple things with it. It's crazy not to do that, too. I know of communities who have put in fiber and have used an RF system on top of that to bring their data back. Why? I don't think we really know. You were talking about the pollution and that sort of thing. If we have something that just -- anything we can clean up, why wouldn't we?
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Ken Demlow: That way, we can.
Christopher Mitchell: I think we're going to slide into the final topic, the one that perhaps people are really most interested in, because nobody really knows a lot of the details of this issue, with what really happened in Nashville and what happened with Google. Before we get there, let's just finish up on smart-grid. What are some of these other things? Let's just talk about a practical example rather than in theory of why having fiber throughout your electric plant is going to not just be nice, but actually save money and really be beneficial to the community.
Ken Demlow: I'll take the easy one first. If you're going to have fiber and you're going to have an RF system, you have to pay for both. You have to pay for the RF system because you have to pay for the collectors. You have to pay for the software to do all that. You have to pay for the module that's going to send the data out. All that stuff is stuff you have to pay for. If you're paying for fiber to go there too, you really are paying for two full systems. In discussion today, in the sessions where we are today, one of the manufacturers of the system that can take fiber all the way to the meter, they said that what they are working for is having equal money. What you would pay for the RF system is equal to what you would pay to connect to the meter in the fiber system. Well if that's even money, if you have the fiber and you pay for the RF system, you're paying double. That's one thing. Another, if you have the fiber, obviously whether it's RF or whether the data's coming back over fiber, the savings you'll have in truck rolls, the savings you'll have in people and all that kind of stuff, those are all areas where you can save money.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's just flesh that out for a second. You're talking about saving truck rolls. You're talking about, right now, electricity goes out on the grid. Your ordinary system, you might be sending a person to drive along and watch the wires and try to physically see where the outage is.
Ken Demlow: That's the way it works.
Christopher Mitchell: Having these meters, it gives you either a good sense or, at the very least, it dramatically narrows the areas where you have to look for it. That's a big savings.
Ken Demlow: It is.
Christopher Mitchell: It's a savings in time. It's a savings in labor. The longer your customers are out, the more angry they are, so you get them on faster. There's savings there. Ideally, then, you have dramatically less overtime costs.
Ken Demlow: Absolutely. Right now, in the present system, when a meter goes down, basically they have to wait for their customer to call them to tell them it's down, most the time. Whereas, in these systems, the meter has what's called a "last gasp," but that's actually an industry term, where it actually sends out a message saying, "I'm dying."
Christopher Mitchell: I wish I could have written that message. You actually want people to get that message and just laugh, right?
Ken Demlow: Yeah, because it could be funny. It really could.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, yeah.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. The thing is, if the meter's telling you we're out, then they can actually call or send a text message to their customer saying, "We know you're out. Here's what we're doing." For example, if you have 100 meters go out, then you can look around, and you can see those. In GIS, you can see where those are out. That will also probably tell you what the problem was, or at least it'll give you a real good idea of what the problem was. Again, that's just money savings, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Ken Demlow: Because then, as opposed to having the person driving around and trying to find it, if you can say, "Oh, well, this transformer went out," or, "This line had to have gone out, so go there." Those are all ways that, with technology, you just save time. Then, also, with meters and with smart meters and with being able to have the data going back and forth, the ability to see -- just take a water meter for example. We're talking about electric, but take a water meter for example. If you have a smart meter and there's spikes in the usage, then they could call or send a text message to the home owner and say, "Hey, look. Something's going wrong."
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. "Either you left the hose running," or, "Congratulations on that new pool you just built."
Ken Demlow: Yeah, or, "You really shouldn't take that long a shower. You really shouldn't."
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Right.
Ken Demlow: But being able to diagnose that right now, the money that can save or the customer and the customer service of that, there's all that communication that not only can improve what happens in electric or what happens in water, but also just such better communication with your customer, and that's all good stuff.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, absolutely. We were having a really great conversation earlier about what is going on in Nashville and one of the challenges that Google faced, in terms of getting on the poles. You have some firsthand experience having dragged your family there, in an RV, over a mountain, in order to be a part of this project.
Ken Demlow: Yes. Yes. We actually lived in Nashville for a while, in an RV. We did survive coming over the mountains, which could have gone either way.
Christopher Mitchell: This is a man that really wanted to be a part of the Google project.
Ken Demlow: Exactly. Google, when they went into Nashville, I think we all hoped for -- and I know they did, but I think everybody hopes that everything's going to be smooth and everybody's going to want the same things and all that.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Just to set the stage, Google has been in several cities by now. They've done different things. They've tried different approaches. Nashville is like seventh, eighth on the order of maybe communities that they're looking at. They've been doing it for several years, and just as a final note, you're going to be sharing with us things that are public knowledge already-
Ken Demlow: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: -- that people may not have seen, but you're not really breaking any news on this show or sharing anything that one couldn't find elsewhere.
Ken Demlow: I'm consolidating it from a firsthand perspective.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Ken Demlow: Yeah, consolidating the news. I think it all goes back to even when Google first decided they were going to do Google Cities, and 1,100 communities said, "We want it to be us." I think that set the stage for thinking, "Okay. This is all going to be wonderful in every step of the way." I think Google found out it's more complicated than that. There are a lot of factors that can go into what can happen. In Nashville, for example, when Google first went in, the local electric utility is Nashville Electric. The reason why Nashville Electric is so important is because they own most of the poles. They own most of the poles. AT&T owns some poles, and I think Comcast owns some, but the vast majority are owned by Nashville Electric.
Christopher Mitchell: This is actually why Google picked -- I mean, a lot of the cities Google went to were municipal electrics that they owned the poles, because Google didn't want to have to deal with a hostile pole entity, which I think would be a great science fiction enemy, sort of antagonist.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. I agree completely. Going in thinking, "Okay. We have the poles. We know who owns the poles. They really want us here. This is all going to be streamlined. It's all going to be easy, and we're all going to be able to just go hook onto the poles and all that." By the way, Nashville has a very high rock table, and so it really had to mostly be aerial because buried is really tough there because there's so much rock. Putting fiber on poles is cheaper anyway, but-
Christopher Mitchell: Especially when there's rock in the ground.
Ken Demlow: Especially when there's rock in the ground. When they went into Nashville Electric thinking, "Okay. We're going to be able to streamline the process. We're going to be able to put the -- We're going to be able to attach to the poles." We're talking about over 100,000 poles here. Not that they were going to use all those, but it's still a lot of poles that they're going to have to attach to.
Christopher Mitchell: Which is important for multiple perspectives, because if it was 500 poles or 1,500 poles, there's actually shot-clock rules. There are obligations that others on the pole have to move and do their activities within a certain time period. At this level of poles, it's anything goes. You've got to work it out yourself.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. Working it out yourself and working it out with them is -- Again, everybody, I think, hopes that process is going to be easy, but you've got several things that play there. One is, "What are the attachment rules?" Which means, "What does the local pole owner -- what are their rules for you to be able to attach?" That's a big deal because -- I mean, it's things like how many feet do you have to be below the electric? How many feet do you have to be above the ground? How much is that on a sidewalk, or how much is that over a street? There's all those factors of, "Here's who can attach," and then even, "Can the poles take another attachment?" If the pole can't take another attachment, that means you have to put in a different pole that's either taller or stronger. There's all those things that go into play, and when they got right into it with Nashville Electric, there ended up having to be a lot of replaced poles, and there were a lot of rules that they had to abide by that I think they just didn't expect to have to abide by, or it was more complicated, or it was more difficult. You don't necessarily know that going in, because you can look at poles and say, "Okay. Well, that's a lot of poles. Good, that's cheaper." Well, not if you have to replace every pole at 10, 15, 20 grand a pop.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. If you and I were going to go build in an area, that might have a hostile private company or a co-op or munis. In some ways, pole owners act like pole owners. They're trying to push their costs off on someone else, and the general industry standard is the new guy pays for everything.
Ken Demlow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher Mitchell: One might expect, going in to an arrangement with a hostile or a neutral pole owner, you're going to have to replace a bunch of poles. When you're going in with a friendly pole owner, you're thinking, "Oh, I'm going to get a break. I'm not going to have to replace that many poles." Maybe that happened. Maybe it didn't. Either way, there were still a lot of poles that had to be replaced.
Ken Demlow: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: You were saying that there's a lot of attachments out there.
Ken Demlow: Oh, yeah. In any given pole, there can be six attachments already, six communication attachments.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. That's just your cable and telephone type folks.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. If you think about it, you have the electric at the top. Then you've got a certain number of feet, and then you've got your communication attachments. If you've got six communication attachments -- and they all have to be so many inches apart, or like a foot apart or whatever. They have to be a certain distance apart. Well, then you get down to, "Do we have enough distance above the ground? Do we have enough distance -- " Pole attachment agreements and the rules you have to go by for construction -- We call it make-ready engineering -- what you have to go by there, there was a lot that had to be taken into consideration. There was a lot that had to be done and changed, and that ended up being a very friendly owner, but with a lot of rules. That ended up being a pretty substantial process. Working through that process -- and the way that process works is you go survey what's in the pole. Again, the person who wants to attach has to do this.
Christopher Mitchell: It's only 118,000 poles or something like that.
Ken Demlow: Yeah, exactly.
Christopher Mitchell: You go look at every pole.
Ken Demlow: You do. You go look at every pole and you measure all those things --
Christopher Mitchell: Of course.
Ken Demlow: -- already, so what's existing, you measure-
Christopher Mitchell: Why wouldn’t you?
Ken Demlow: Yeah. You measure every one of those things that's existing, and then you say, "Okay. Here's all the things that are existing. Here's where we'd have to attach, and here's the changes that have to be made to be able to attach to meet your rules." You submit that, and then the pole owner says yes or no. They either say, "Yes, we see that and agree," or, "No. We want you to change this." That ended up being -- When that's 100 poles, that's a job. When it's 100,000 poles, that's intimidating. There's a pole in someone's backyard. It's in an easement, but it's in their backyard. It's inside their fence. We have to go arrange with them. Again, when you're talking about 100 poles, that's annoying. When it's 100,000 poles, that's massive coordination.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. It actually seems like -- I mean, if Greek tragedies and Greek myths were being written today, one of our heroes would be stuck in purgatory where they were just doing pole analysis all day.
Ken Demlow: I like the science fiction route you were taking. I do. I like that. That was a difficult process. That was the first set of stuff to have to deal with. Then they got into who was going to make the moves of those six communications. One of them's AT&T. Another one's Comcast. You go down this list of who's there, and then the question is, "Who is going to actually do the actual move of their communication line?" Now, the argument from the perspective of the communication company is, "But we don't want somebody else to move our stuff, because what if they mess it up?"
Christopher Mitchell: Right. There's also some game, in terms of just, "We want to move our stuff because we can take longer. We can obstruct. We don't want to make it easy on anyone to come in and compete with us."
Ken Demlow: It's all competition. It is.
Christopher Mitchell: I would say there's legitimate and there's also legitimate but not something you want to play up, because it's not very favorable to your position.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. Not something that you want to have on the newspaper as much.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. When you start talking about who's going to do those moves and who will actually do that -- Again, if you're dealing with 100 poles, that's some difficult coordination. When you're dealing with 100,000 poles, just think of the nightmare of that. If you say, "Okay. We're going to go do these 50 poles over here, and we need all six of you to be there on the same day at the same time," and then it rains, whatever.
Christopher Mitchell: When it rains?
Ken Demlow: Yeah. That became a logistical difficulty, but it even got a little tougher, and where it got tougher was that the Nashville City Council, to try to make that easier, passed city legislation that said that we were going to go to a one-touch system, which means that they would have an authorized company who would do all the moves on a given pole. That is efficient. It's more efficient, because then you've got one path of saying, "Okay. You are going to go do all of them and go down through here."
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things to note is it's not just efficient from a perspective of the companies that are involved. A lot of these poles, you have to move traffic, and you have trucks that are in traffic. If you're doing that six times, that's a lot of traffic jams and problems you're creating. There's other reasons, aside from telecommunications reasons, to want to minimize touching.
Ken Demlow: You've got to remember that these are electric poles, is really what they are. They're actually electric, and they're just hanging coms on them. From the electric department's perspective, what if they take a certain section underground, or what if they know that they have -- say if a pole starts to fall or any of that kind of thing. Well, if you have this path of, "Okay. We're going to go do this section," but the electric department has to go out and change three poles before you get there. There's this whole logistics that's just crazy. The city passed that legislation, one-touch legislation. Well, some of the providers -- AT&T, Comcast -- they said, "No. We're not going to allow that, so we're going to -- " They went to court to say, "No. You can't do that." That also became a concern of Nashville Electric because they had contracts with all of them. If you already had a contract with somebody that says, "Here's the rules for the next 10 years," and the city says, "No. We're going to change the rules," what about those contracts? That's all now in court, and we won't really know what's going to happen until that all floats its way through court. Lastly, Chris, the other question with that is -- It's even a question of who has jurisdiction over that? Is that the Federal Communications Commission has jurisdiction? Is it the state? Is it the -- Those are all questions that have to be solved in court, and who knows how long that'll take?
Christopher Mitchell: I think those were the big show stoppers. There was also added problems. There were some egos involved, both with Google and the people that Google hired, where they all had a sense of, "We do things our way." I think this is something that the telephone and cable companies and everyone who's been in this field have said for a long time. "Google, you don't get it. You're not going to -- Everyone might love you, but there's still rules. You're going to have to follow the freaking rules," and I think that Google and some of its subcontractors or contractors thought that they could get away with not doing some of the rules because they're so powerful, and they found that pole owners also are pretty powerful.
Ken Demlow: Well, contracts are powerful.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Ken Demlow: Signatures on paper is powerful.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. It's nice to live in a society where that's true, frankly.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. There's a whole confluence of issues. You've got political issues. You've got contracts. You've got pole attachment agreements. There's a whole lot of things that get into this space, and you can't just -- No one can come in and say, "But we don't want to do that."
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Ken Demlow: You have to sort those things out, and that's not always a gentle process.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I think one of the things -- and you know this better than almost anyone, I think. When you hear commissioners at the FCC basically saying, "Well, we'd all have fiber everywhere if it wasn't for cities getting in the way with their dumb rules," generally, cities aren't even implicated. Let's just say that cities have inefficient rules. It's like the third or fourth problem on the list. This is poles, and it doesn't have to do with city rules. None of this had to do with city rules. The only city rule that was involved was one that was trying to make it easier. There's just a process involved, and it's very difficult to build fiber networks. That's one of the reasons why. I'll say, frankly, in my perspective, I think that AT&T, Comcast, these existing providers, have found ways to make it as cumbersome as possible.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. I would just add, to all listeners, if there's anybody who is looking at a fiber project or thinking about a fiber project or has any say in a fiber project-
Christopher Mitchell: Come to Newcom Tech for mapping.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. No. Yes, but I would also say that I've been involved in quite a few projects where dealing with the poles has caused big problems. Another one that had nothing to do with Google was there were some folks who were wanting to do a county-wide project, and they just assumed they were going to go over the poles. That's how they accosted everything, and that's the whole plan they had. When they go there, they found a hostile -- and it wasn't the city. They found a hostile pole owner, and that hostile pole owner said, "You're just not going to use our poles," and they just didn't do the project. That's one of the things that has to be looked at, is do we want to go aerial? If we do, can we use the poles we're thinking? That has to determine part of your costs.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, thank you so much. This has been fun.
Ken Demlow: Yeah. Thank you, Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Ken Demlow talking with Christopher about a few topics including telecommunications, engineering, smart-grids, and Google Fiber in Nashville.
Christopher Mitchell: Hey, everyone. I just wanted to thank you for listening and helping out to create a stronger Internet ecosystem, making sure everyone has high-quality access. Please tell your friends, tell others who might be interested, about this show. If you have a chance to rate us on iTunes, please do. Several people already have. We really appreciate all of the comments, and we really appreciate you taking the time to listen to us.
Lisa Gonzalez: We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. You can subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to Break the Bans for the song Escape, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 247 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. (singing)