Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 275

This is the transcript for episode 275 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Cheryl DeBerry and Nathaniel Watkins join the show from Garrett Couny, Maryland, to explain what their community has done to improve connectivity. Listen to this episode here.

Cheryl DeBerry: It's not something new, but it's something that we are excited to try and if it can work for us, we think that it could work for anyone.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 275 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. On the far western part of the state within the Appalachians, is Garrett County, Maryland. The mostly rural community has been working for the past few years to improve connectivity after the region has been neglected by incumbents for decades. Cheryl DeBerry and Nathaniel Watkins from Garrett County join Christopher this week, to talk about the community and their project to improve connectivity for businesses, institutions, and residents. In this discussion, Cheryl and Nathaniel describe what it's like in Garrett County, where some premises have no Internet access at all, and how their progress so far is already improving conditions in Garrett County.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another addition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Today I'm speaking with two folks from Garrett County, Maryland. Cheryl DeBerry is the natural resources business specialist for the county, welcome to the show.

Cheryl DeBerry: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: We also have Nathaniel Watkins, the CIO for the county. Welcome to the show.

Nathaniel Watkins: Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: Garrett County, Maryland. Cheryl let me start with you, and just tell us a little bit about Garrett County, is that over there right around DC, Baltimore area or is it somewhere else?

Cheryl DeBerry: Doesn't it sound like? No. We're actually about as far away from our capital as you can get in Maryland. We're in the western most part of Maryland. If you look at a map of Maryland, there's that part in the west that sticks out into West Virginia, with Pennsylvania above. That's where we are. We're as far west as you can go in Maryland. We're in the Appalachian Mountains. We are rural, and mountainous, and have many different challenges than the more urban parts of our state.

Christopher Mitchell: Nathaniel, could you just describe for me a little bit what the broadband situation is in Garrett County?

Nathaniel Watkins: Absolutely. It's slowly getting better. Historically, we've always kind of been behind the curve a little bit in terms of broadband. To give you a little background, when I first started with the county, we had about 128 kilobits to the Internet, so we're running on an ISDN circuit, powering the entire county and paying exorbitant amounts of money for that and it wasn't that long ago actually that we were running on DSL, so we had a seven meg connection running our entire government infastructure. More recently, the state's invested a lot of money to bring some fiber to the community anchor institutions as they call it. We have most of our buildings on fiber, I would say probably 90% county facilities and that includes some things like hospitals and schools, those types of things. We now have gigabit Internet at the government level. We're trying to figure out ways to help some of the residences that are still struggling with the very poor Internet options. There's a lot of people that basically have to use satellite connection and also cellular hotspots that have data caps. I would say, probably 30 to 40% of our population, our residents that live in rural parts are dealing with those situations now.

Christopher Mitchell: Cheryl, you and I were at the event in Marietta, Ohio talking about broadband in the Appalachians and we're going to talk a little bit later in the interview about what you all have done in Garrett County, but I'm curious, a lot of people living with broadband that's higher quality than you're describing for 10 years and they may have forgotten, and they might not even have a sense of how important it is today to have that. Why is this important to get better broadband access out to the residents?

Cheryl DeBerry: I want to stop you there, because we're not just trying to reach residents, we're actually trying to reach businesses as well. Can you imagine running a business in the year 2017, without broadband service? We have several businesses that are like that throughout our county. Just wanted to put that plug in there.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, that's a very important distinction.

Cheryl DeBerry: Yeah. It's not just the social aspects of broadband, like social media and being able to connect to news stories and sources as they are happening in the world. It's being connected to family members who are in other jurisdictions. It's being able to access healthcare through telemedicine. It hits a bunch of different parts of anybody's life. If you are trying to look up and find a part for a tractor or if you're a farmer, that's all online now. It's very difficult to exist in this year and not have that connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Cheryl, let me start with you and then I'd love to get Nathaniel's reaction to this also, but one of the things that we're seeing that's a bit worrying coming out the Federal Communications Commission is a sense that if you have 4G LTE, then you might have everything you need already, and there's also further concern that we might see satellite being legitimized as a appropriate point at which people have satellite, we don't need to worry about them anymore. How do you react to that?

Cheryl DeBerry: A lot of people are existing with those as the only option and they exist and not thrive because both of those options have pretty limited data caps and pretty severe penalties if you go over those caps. When you're talking about a rural area, with a low income area, with limited job growth, limited population growth. We're not talking about people who are in an urban area that can find a job pretty easily. We're in an economically depressed area and that means that not everybody has $150 to spend on Internet every month. My mom lives just over the border in West Virginia where there is actually no cell service. There are great, vast swaths of Garrett County that don't have cellular service, so the only option she has right now is satellite Internet. She's a farmer. She's trying to sell her hay online and advertise online, and she doesn't have much capacity to do that with the basic satellite service.

Christopher Mitchell: Nathaniel, I'm curious how you react to a sense from some that 4G LTE is sufficient.

Nathaniel Watkins: I mean, I would use the analogy of saying, "I need a vehicle to get to work." And they say, "Well, you can run an extensive bicycle." It's an option, it's just not probably realistic, so I would encourage anyone that feels that way, with the current technology out there, with the cellular and satellite is to try to live on that yourself. Once you realize you can't do video calls, changes how you can experience streaming media, all those things. It's really not the same Internet. It's really a different class of Internet that you're getting. That being said, it's not to say that those couldn't be solutions. If there was an LTE solution that offered truly unlimited bandwidth and you could get 15 or 20 megs, that would potential do something in the rural areas and if you had satellites, not as they exist today, but if you had low-orbit satellites that can provide high speed, low latency, that could be a technology that may help, but fact is, it's not here and it's not on the immediate horizon, so we have to do what we can to get those people using the same class of technology.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I know you're doing in Garrett County is investing in some fixed wireless. I know that you've been working with Joanne Hovis, she's very impressed with both your organization and your dedication to solving this problem. She mentioned you many times. I'm curious, where did this project come from and what exactly is it doing?

Cheryl DeBerry: Great to hear about Joanne, because she's been a huge part of our project and helping us figure out what to do and how to reach our businesses and our residents. Basically, back in about 2010, I'm going to say, our county commissioners, the three county local officials, asked the Economic Development Department, which I'm a part of. What are the top economic development initiatives that we could do to make the greatest impact on the people of Garrett County? The highest, and by far the highest, was to expand broadband availability for everyone. Once they looked at that list, they agreed and they said, "Okay, how are we going to do that?" So, we were able to find some grant funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission, matched with county funds, to hire a consultant and we ended up hiring CTC Technology & Energy with Joanne's team, to basically tell us what's the best way that we can reach more people with minimal broadband and how can we fund it? How can we get it done?

Christopher Mitchell: I just wanted to, I want to interrupt for a second to note that, in my mind, the ARC, the Appalachian Regional Commission providing money to help you study it, is one of the best uses of philanthropy that we see to improve broadband around. I just wanted to note that Appalachian Regional Commissions been essential for improving broadband in many parts of the Appalachians and it's worth just noting that. Please continue.

Cheryl DeBerry: I agree and that's not the end of the story with ARC at all with our project, too. After Joanne came back with this wonderful plan that said, "Hey, I think that we can reach our citizens, and our residents, in our business with this new technology." "New" in quotes, TV White Space. First we're looking at it, okay, does this really work? Then, we're looking at it, okay if it does work, then how are we going to get done? The commissioners decided that the plan looked feasible. The plan looked like it would do what we hoped it would and we started again, looking for more funding to start implementation of that plan. The plan included working with the county, working with a private provider to be the network operator. Basically, the county would purchase infastructure to offset the cost of our network operator to be profitable in the county, where no other operator is expanding, because it's not profitable to go three miles to the next customer. We went back to Appalachian Regional Commission and asked them for phase one, project area and they gave it to us. Again, the county matching dollar-for-dollar, the investment by our city. We have since gone back to ARC twice more, and so we have three phases of the project, in three different targeted areas. We are in the implementation phase now, with our partner, which is Declaration Networks Group, DNG we call them, out of Vienna, Virginia.

Christopher Mitchell: Nathaniel, can you tell us a little bit more about the technology and what kind of capacity our end users getting from the network?

Nathaniel Watkins: Sure. We have a mix of technology being used. We have fiber optics that the county has access to that kind of operates as the backbone and it goes to various locations, whether it's the roof of the courthouse, or cellular tower, or towers we've built. At that point, we transitioned to wireless network and we're using unlicensed spectrum exclusively, so not using any licensed frequencies. We're using five gigahertz, wherever possible, simply because the equipments less expensive, and it's fast, and it can go long distances. In scenarios where we don't have great line of sight or near line of sight, we transition to TV White Space technology, not as fast throughputs, but penetrates really well. A lot of times, we'll have scenarios where there's too many trees in the way, maybe a hill, and then we'll transition TV White Space to get that signal to the end user, to then provide service and share with the neighbors basically in that area. Primarily, those are the two different technologies we're using once we transition to a wireless infastructure.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of capacity do you get? In particular, I'm always curious about the TV White Spaces in the real world.

Nathaniel Watkins: Best case scenario, I would say you can probably get 20 megabits of throughput on a single channel. The FCC just started allowing people to start playing with bonding channels together. We've actually been doing that with DNG and our manufacture. We've bonded channels and that will essentially, I believe you can go up to three bonded channels, where they're at right now, so that would theoretically give us a throughput of about 60 megabits and again, that's best case scenario once you start getting some trees in the way. I don't think it's unrealistic to say you could get a 40 meg connection on the TV White Space with some bonded channels and some kind of real world variables thrown in the mix.

Christopher Mitchell: What about the five gigahertz stuff?

Nathaniel Watkins: There, we can get a lot of throughput there so it's not a big deal to push, 100, 150 megs without any trouble, and if we have a customer that needs a lot more, we can tweak some things there, and probably blast out probably close to gigabit if we needed to.

Christopher Mitchell: Cheryl, you've been working on this for, I mean it sounds like at least seven years. What have you found over this time period in terms of the level of service in the county, in terms of how many people have it versus what you see in federal statistics?

Cheryl DeBerry: At the beginning of the project, back when CTC and Joanne came was, was looking at what was the current situation? The FCC had their numbers and I think came back as, we the county, being covered by some number like 60% of maybe even more, already with broadband, minimal broadband coverage, and I honestly do not believe those numbers. Being on the ground and looking around and seeing the actual situation here. The way they did that as I understand. If one person within a census track was served, then they counted that entire census track as being served and I think that is a flaw in that data. Honestly, I don't have a good idea of exactly how many people have and how many don't. We have a couple populations of Amish and Mennonite folks in the county that may never want to get coverage at their homes. Do you count those as covered or do you count those as not? We also have some areas of the county that, as I said, don't have cell service. There are parts of the county that are so rugged and near the steeper slopes that you can't get satellite service either. It's a difficult question and I'm not sure I have an answer. Yeah, we've been working on this since 2011, but we didn't start deploying until basically last year in 2016. Before that, we were securing the funding. We were working on the network design with DNG, that takes some time and doing the propagation studies and working with the vendors to negotiate some good deals on the equipment. The actual deployment didn't start until last spring. Within a year, we were up to a little over 210 customers. Mostly residents, but a few businesses, are squished in there, and even one very small school.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the other things that I understand that the county's doing is laying fiber where you might be able to help a different company, not DNG, but another company that might be offering service to make it more feasible for them to expand to a new neighborhood or something like that. Can you tell me about that program?

Nathaniel Watkins: Absolutely. We've reached out to all the incumbent ISPs to try to figure out areas that are close to their network and places where they'd like to expand, they just need some help, whether that's financial help. We found that most of the time, it has to do with ethernet access. We've come up with a plan basically that says, "Hey, the county has a lot of right-of-way access that we do for road maintenance." For our roads, we have varying distances from the center line that we can do whatever we need to, and we can use that right away to install conduits. We did that recently for a small company, you may have heard of them, Comcast?

Christopher Mitchell: Very small, yeah.

Nathaniel Watkins: Very small, yeah. We worked with them recently where they wanted to build, and they just said it's not cost effective for us to get the underground work done, and the easement problem was just kind of a deal breaker in this one area. The county basically offered to install conduit for them. Basically, we would provide the labor, the equipment, the manpower, and Comcast basically provided conduit and then some spare conduit that we can then use later if another ISP wants access to this same, the same path, we have conduit available that we could let them utilize as well. That was process to get all the bumps ironed out in terms of working with them, but once we started installing the conduit, I think it was maybe a three day project on our end. It lit up another 50 homes and there are a few businesses in there. It didn't have any real hard costs to the county other than fuel for the equipment, those types of things and Comcast is turning them up now.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and actually that reminds me, that's one of the things, Cheryl, you said at the NATOA Conference in Seattle, was that, if I remember correctly, it didn't really cost you anything because you had the equipment and you kind of just used some of the public works folks when they weren't otherwise occupied. Is that right?

Cheryl DeBerry: That is correct, yeah.

Nathaniel Watkins: We were actively checking of the other local ISPs that have similar problems. We're hoping to turn this into an official program where ISPs can come to us, explain the business case and what they're trying to do, and our goal is to help them expand as much as possible as well.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to come back to a final question, which is something that I think is really heartening and that's, Cheryl, I get the sense that in Maryland, whether it's the governor's office, or the legislature, or perhaps even federal representatives from Maryland, everyone seems to be talking about broadband now. Are you seeing that?

Cheryl DeBerry: I am seeing that and they're not just talking broadband, they're talking rural broadband, which has been very refreshing. Our governor has created a taskforce for rural broadband. This summer they've been working on a plan to help rural jurisdictions reach more of their residents and businesses, which has been amazing. The folks on that team are doing some really good work and I can't wait to see what comes out of that. I think it's due next month, I believe. Our representatives have been supportive, our State Department of Information Technology has reached out to us as well as the governor's office to ask, how can they help? What roadblocks are there? One of the things that we were hoping to do with our project was to use some state earned assets, so we have all of the county assets that we can being utilized, including with the fiber that Nathaniel was talking about. We wanted to get our antennas up on some state towers, state communications towers so that we could reach further and reduce our cost. If a private business wanted to come here, nobody's doing it because it's insanely expensive to reach a very few number of customers, with limited ability to pay for the higher speeds. If it was profitable, somebody would have come here and done it. We're trying to make it so that it is profitable, and the way we do that is reduce those infastructure costs, so working with the state to get on some state towers. Working with the county to reduce cost or for easements, and right-of-way issues. It's all part of the grander plan of just trying to get more people connected.

Christopher Mitchell: Are there any closing comments, Nathaniel?

Nathaniel Watkins: I'd just like to reiterate Cheryl's point that the partnerships have been invaluable. Coming from the technology side, I tend to downplay the people involved, so the technology's kind of, honestly takes kind of a sideline on this. It's really about working with other jurisdictions, state, federal, other non-profits, to really get stuff done. That part's been great.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent, and any final comments from you Cheryl?

Cheryl DeBerry: I'm just excited to share our story. It is not our idea. It is not something new, but it's something that we are excited to try and if it can work us, we think that it could work for anyone.

Christopher Mitchell: Great, well thank you both for taking time to tell us more about your corner of Maryland, and also for being so dedicated to solving these problems for your community. Thank you.

Nathaniel Watkins: Thanks.

Cheryl DeBerry: Thanks so much for having us.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Cheryl DeBerry and Nathaniel Watkins from Garrett County, Maryland, discussing their Internet infrastructure initiative. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast, and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power, and The Local Energy Rules podcasts. You can access them on Stitcher, Apple Podcast, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, license of Creative Commons and thanks for listening to episode 275 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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