This is the transcript for episode 294 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Robert Bridgham shares lessons learned from the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority. Listen to this episode here.
Robert Bridgham: You know there's a lot of things on the Eastern Shore that are very relaxed and that's one of the beautiful things about being here is being able to come here and just enjoy what it is. But we try to make sure that we make everything a priority so people understand that they're important to us.
Lisa Gonzalez: The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority is connecting premises in Virginia. One section at a time. They began around 2008 with funding help from NASA. When the government facility on Virginia's Wallops Island needed better connectivity through fiber. Since then the Authority has started taking advantage of the infrastructure to connect the local smaller communities with an open access Fiber-to-the-Home network. In this interview Christopher talks with Robert Bridgham from the Authority who describes the community and the Authority's efforts in their ongoing projects. The publicly owned infrastructure creates the opportunities for more competition, a range of services, and improved local connectivity. Now here's Christopher with Robert Bridgham from the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Robert Bridgham, the executive director of Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority. Welcome to the show, Robert.
Robert Bridgham: Thank you very much.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me just dive in with a quick question and what's the Eastern Shore? I mean I actually visited as a child I have very fond memories but aside from a lot of sand I don't recall a whole lot.
Robert Bridgham: Well the Eastern Shore of Virginia is basically a little peninsula that sticks out towards the Atlantic Ocean, and it basically is a very southern edge of the Maryland's Eastern Shore and it goes right to the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel feeding into Virginia Beach. It's a community that's got a lot of history in agriculture and aquaculture. Lot of watermen here, we have a lot of farming here. We deal with a lot of poultry here and it's kind of a really great more rural environment where you look if you're looking to get out in the great outdoors, hunting, fishing.
Christopher Mitchell: And what we'll be talking about today is this Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority which is doing some interesting wireless and fiber projects will we'll get to that in a second. But but first I'm just curious why in Authority which is the that's the entity that owns these things and is sort of responsible for these investments. But why an Authority rather than a county or a local government?
Robert Bridgham: In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the counties themselves are not allowed to sell telecommunications services as a service to commercial entities or residences of the area. So Virginia law created an act called the Wireless Services Authority act and it allowed for the formation of what they call wireless Authority such as ourselves very similar to a Bridge Authority or Tunnel Authority basically gives us a limited scope of things that we can and can't do so we can sell telecommunications services, we can charge fees for those services, we can actually provide voice over IP and voice services. The one thing we can't do is provide cable television services, at least typical channelised cable television services. The idea behind it was that it gave the Commonwealth the opportunity to have other organizations that are we are political subdivision of the state. So we're kind of like a county as far as the hierarchy of political subdivisions but we are a standalone entity. Our port happens to be formed from the two counties. We've got Northampton County which is on the southern end of the Eastern Shore and Accomack County whois on the northern edge of the Eastern Shore had a joint resolution to form us. And so two of our board members are the two county administrators and then three of our board members are three community members at large agreed to by the two counties to ensure governance and steering of the organization
Christopher Mitchell: And you're going on 10 years now of of improving internet access via the Authority.
Robert Bridgham: Absolutely. In April we hit the 10 year mark we're very excited about that.
Christopher Mitchell: That's wonderful. And so it makes sense. Maybe dive into what happened and shortly after creating the Authority and you know from what I've read it sounds like you got going with a little bit of a wireless service.
Robert Bridgham: Well we didn't actually do any wireless. So the name is somewhat misleading. It is called the Wireless Services Authorities Act but it doesn't necessarily imply any particular -- that you necessarily do or don't have to be wireless. So the ESVBA, as we might call ourselves because it's a lot shorter than Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, got together and worked with the local communities. We were given some of this money from the very beginning from the two counties. There were some money that was provided by NASA because we've got some federal organizations such as NASA that's in part within the territory and additional funding sources to build an initial fiber optic backbone that basically went from the northern edge of the eastern shore near Pocomoke, Maryland, across the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel which is about a 23 mile or 22 mile bridge into Virginia Beach. And that was the original core of it was to (one) to connect NASA into Virginia Beach to give NASA alternative connectivity and better connectivity.
Robert Bridgham: So the second reason is that the Broadband Authority when we created our original business plan was, in addition to the NASA piece, was also to be able to create a infrastructure on the Eastern Shore that had previously not existed. The only provider that was here on the shore as a ubiquitous coverage of the shore was Verizon as a local phone company, an ILEC and they have some DSL service on some parts of the shore. But as traditional with a lot of DSL deployments, copper is what's important and there's a lot of bad copper on the shore and so far the phone company hasn't really been interested in upgrading or maintaining the fi-- the copper plant. So the people to sure have continue to suffer and there's quite a few places where there is absolutely zero coverage. So when we built out the backbone we also had agreed that we would also start to connect businesses, commercial entities, government organizations, hospitals, and healthcare environments as well as other Internet providers and telecommunications writers to basically be the underlying trunking, or piping if you would, between all these different organizations on the shore so they had more reliable connectivity, higher bandwidth available, and hopefully driving the cost down over time. And we've accomplished all of that. The last thing that was sort of on our list of original things we want to do is we want to make sure that everybody on the shore had broadband coverage to their house. Our original plans were to work with different Internet service providers and basically facilitate their ability to reach the end users, and us again becoming the trunk or the piping between them and their end users or tower sites, so they can reach them in the wireless cases. That was a year and a half ago. Our board, under quite a few pieces of feedback from the local leaders in the community-- the residents are the people of the Eastern shore-- has been constantly pressured. They said, "Hey why can't you just do it directly to the end user. You've got cable up and down the road you get cables, you know, by my house. I can -- I can throw a tennis ball and hit your cable. Why can't I use it?" And so the board last September made a decision to start doing Fiber-to-the-Home in a test town called Harborton, Virginia, and we started to build it and sell it and get customers. And it was working well we had a fairly good signing rate. We had services that were very well people were incredibly pleased with it.
Christopher Mitchell: And so when you say that that test was that actually the fall of 2016
Robert Bridgham: That was the fall of 2016. That's correct.
Christopher Mitchell: And so now you're doing more work in 2017 and you're about to fill us in on that.
Robert Bridgham: Correct. Sorry about that I forget that we're already past that. I can't believe it myself. Time flies when you're having fun. So in the spring of 2017, the board approved opening up two additional areas for Fiber-to-the-Home and starting to deploy additional areas. And then in the fall/early winter this year, at the end of 2017, I apologize. The board had agreed to basically open up areas of the Eastern Shore in an organized fashion and an ordered list as the staff can handle it to enable Fiber-to-the-Home to everywhere where we have cable currently. So we have cable in about approximately 300 miles of roads on the Eastern Shore. So we're in the process -- in the midst of that. We've got seven areas open at this point -- I'm sorry -- nine areas open and continue to open up new areas hopefully about a pair every month until we've got all of our existing areas opened up. And then looking at what the strategy is beyond that to continue to reach further and further into the next -- into the more rural areas to make sure that everyone has access to broadband if they desire it.
Christopher Mitchell: And when you when you talk about those 300 miles about what percentage of the territory is that? Like half of the relevant people that could be covered or less or more?
Robert Bridgham: It's about 20 to 25 percent of the residences of the eastern shore are on our route on the existing routes so we have. Okay. So we can enable about a quarter of the people in the Eastern Shore to have access for broadband today.
Christopher Mitchell: And when you just go back in time briefly to when you originally started because this is something that we run into frequently often with county networks and more backbone kind of networks. And that's, you have this backbone fiber and originally you're, you know, you're connecting NASA you're connecting several other key sites. If I'm a business in between there. Do you, as ESVBA, do you run a lateral to that business or is that the responsibility of the Internet service provider that would be offering service to that person or entity?
Robert Bridgham: We can sell to customers in multiple ways both directly to the end user and also we can sell to the ISP that may be buying a service to an end user. Either way we provide the lateral or the distribution cable and an entrance cable into a customer's premise and deliver a demarcation point within the customer's property and then hand off to that customer. So we build everything and provide electronics at the end of the fiber everything is lit
Christopher Mitchell: and one of the things I saw was that you along with others in Virginia. It seems like Virginia has been a real pioneer of this use of community development block grants as part of your funding to expand some of your network.
Robert Bridgham: Yes so originally, as you mention, there were several funding sources this CDB grants were part of some of the communities that we were able to get money for to help build out those communities such as Chincoteague and such.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah I just think it's worth pointing out because West Virginia has just devoted some money for that. And I think a lot of people aren't aware of the potential power of the -- of those particular grants. It's more of a a more recent tool. It feels like although I think you did it before anyone else did yeah.
Robert Bridgham: It was a good move
Christopher Mitchell: Your network has been enabling both wireless and wired services right?
Robert Bridgham: That's correct. We sell to both wireless Internet companies. We sell to traditional telecom companies that are buying lease circuits from us to get to cell sites or to large commercial entities and then we sell to traditional commercial entities such as insurance agencies, doctor's offices, you know, schools, things of that nature.
Christopher Mitchell: Are there any residents or businesses that are actually getting, you know, writing like a monthly check to you or do you entirely just facilitate a third party ISP connecting customers?
Robert Bridgham: All of our services are on a monthly rate basis. We provide whether it be to an ISP or to an end business. We provide the circuit on a monthly rate and they subscribe to a particular quantity of bandwidth over a particular term that they select. So we -- we sell it to again to the end user if they're looking for Internet we'll provide them the IP space and the routing and all that access to the Internet if they choose to buy multipoint and so they can either have three or four offices together or seven to eight offices together we'll provide that layer to connectivity so that way they've just plug in and they can see all their sites or to the ISP will provide them back haul into our internet access if they ask for it so they can again reach the end users themselves and or put up towers and then distribute further.
Christopher Mitchell: So you're wholesaling and retailing effectively?
Robert Bridgham: We are
Christopher Mitchell: except for cable services which you're not allowed to retail, and which I'm sure actually if I were you, I might wake up every morning thanking the state of Virginia for not allowing me to get that
Robert Bridgham: We are definitely not complaining about you.
Christopher Mitchell: I'll just say that it's a two edged sword. I feel really bad for the networks like Bristol, Virginia, where if they had the ability to do cable services I think the Bristol Virginia the Authority would have been able to do a lot in southwest Virginia. So I couldn't make too much fun but it is worth noting that is such a headache that if you can supply your community with good connectivity without getting the cable so much the better for you.
Robert Bridgham: Yes although I will say that there's still a large demand even though services and the demand is moving towards over the top products such as Hulu and Netflix and Sling and things of those, you know, products of those nature. There's still an awful lot of demand for traditional cable services. And you know even here on the shore there's quite a lot of gaps where there is no cable service other than satellite services. And I think there's a lot of rural Virginia that has those types of conditions and environments where if somebody wanted to start offering a cable service although I don't know if I'd necessarily go into that business this day and age there's still certainly a lot of captive audience that I'd be very interested in.
Christopher Mitchell: We certainly hear it very much depends on the demographics too. I think a number of people that are less savvy technologically really prefer to be able to you know get the Nationals games if that's what they follow or Baltimore over their TV rather than having to fiddle with some third party devices. So are there any lessons learned over the years that you've been working there. I mean have you made any sort of changes to how you do things that you'd be able to share with others so they don't do it wrong the first way or in a suboptimal way.
Robert Bridgham: Well I'll say one lesson right off the bat is that our original business plan was -- was instrumental in steering. The original organization has continued to be that. So ten years later we still are able to use our original business plan as a reference point of reference, to say, this was our original plan. We're still following that plan and you can always make adjustments to plans as the real world forces you to that were unforeseen. However, having that original plan that was solid enough looking to be able to continue to be material a decade later is obviously instrumental in the success of an organization. The other thing that we found that was was important to us was: we ran this organization very similar to a private industry so we kept the organization very lean. We continue to only hire as an as needed basis. We found people that were highly skilled in multiple areas so we were able to sort of have a Swiss Army knife to solve different problems so if I'm policing cable and telephone pole I can have one of my technicians placed on a telephone pole and he can also splice and or he can also, or she can also, put on equipment and electronics and do some troubleshooting. So we were able to do with less people be able to do an awful lot within the organization before we had to start adding headcount. And I think that continued to greatly aid in our success because as a small organization we don't have a lot of business so it's not like I have you know enough jobs to keep five guys doing construction and five gals doing you know underground and five guys doing this and most small organizations you don't have that demand so hiring people with that, with multiple skill sets at a reasonable rate is a much more successful way of running a small organization. And we try to keep it lean and small right.
Christopher Mitchell: It's a common problem I think among those who hire too many people early on figuring that future sales will justify that because you can really harm your business by having too many people floating around before you can pay all their salaries. Absolutely. One of the things that I'm curious about is as you're expanding the network now. Are there new sources of funding? I mean are you getting contributions from the county or are you entirely self-sustaining are other new grants coming in? How does that all work?
Robert Bridgham: So currently and for well over a half a decade the ESVBA has been self-sustaining so we are cash-flow positive. We're running in the black although we are a we're a nontaxable obviously government entity. We have operated basically out of the existing revenue streams that we've established and that was something else that probably is a good lesson learned too is we a lot of municipal broadband organizations that are out there and I'm familiar with quite a few of them up in the northeast especially said, "Well you know we'll build this and we've got a lot of grant money we'll make this very very cheap and they literally made the prices to the point where they didn't think about the day after. And so you have to operate bucket trucks and you have to have testers and you have to have staff that's available 24/7. When a snow storm hits or a hurricane hits or whatever your environment is there you know we had a lot of feedback that our prices were not where people wanted it to be. But there's a reason that our organization continues to operate in a very strong position and is able to continue to expand without having to ask for additional money and that that to us is critical is that we were able to repay for example the is that original granted they gave us a grant and we paid it back anyways. We've been able to continue to operate and acquire hardware and systems as necessary to continue to operate in an efficient manner. And then also be able to every time we have a customer sign I have to go to the bank or go to a line of credit. I'm able to just continue to sell for myself. So from a financial perspective we're very stable. We are looking at what the the cost for a total deployment across issue should be. And so you know cash is king always in any organization private or public it doesn't matter. And the challenge is always trying to make sure that there's there's money available. And today there isn't really a lot of ill will for municipal broadband entities that I'm aware of. We've looked at the CAF 2 funding we've looked at the way we've looked at some of the grants and some of the loans that are available. But you know a lot of the original monies that had existed like the Top funding and such. Those funds aren't as available so it is definitely a challenge to provide ubiquitous coverage without you know good funding sources for municipal broadband entities and so trying to be very smart about how you handle your cash how you manage your organization and the asset that you build is critical to continue to keep it sustainable.
Christopher Mitchell: Now when we started one of the things you mentioned was connecting the NASA facility. And clearly now being able to ensure that that really high prestige jobs like that stay in the community is important. Other other successes the credit than that work with I mean is there is there something where you say you know what. I know that we're doing a good job because this has happened.
Robert Bridgham: There are quite a few organizations in any community that need to have mission critical services: hospitals, for example, even when one folks we do provide these insurance won one lot of their backhaul to different radio sites to be able to speak to the emergency services folks so we have you know we have the simplest of services a laundromat that has one Meg of Internet service or we have two folks that are doing mission critical things such as rocket launches and everything in between. We pride ourselves on the fact that our network is very reliable. We pride ourselves on the fact that our responsiveness of our staff is always top notch and we think that it's more than just the fact that you know our prices are good or bad or otherwise. It's about the way we handle ourselves and compete and present to the community in a way that is professional responsive and provides them a service that is not matched anywhere else. And most people are used to we'll get to we get to it. You know there's a lot of things on these ensure that are very lax and that's one of the things about being here being to come here and just enjoy what it is but we try to make sure that we make everything a priority so people understand that they're important to us.
Christopher Mitchell: So is there anything else that we should touch on before we wrap the show up.
Robert Bridgham: We're proud of the success story that we have here and we feel like this is something very reproducible in other areas in other communities. You know the key that we always have had is keeping our costs as low as possible taking in-house things that we can but also accepting the fact that there are times that having good contractors to work with us so that we continue to be able to expand at a good rate. And then again trying to maintain our finances in a fashion that allows us to operating on a go forward basis and not not put ourselves in a position of having to stop because of capital issues so I think those are all lessons and things that are. I feel like we've done well over the past 10 years and we hope to continue to do well over the next decade or two or hopefully as long as we survive and as long as we thrive.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well I wish you the best of luck with that. And I really appreciate you taking time to come on the show and share what you've learned with our with our listeners.
Robert Bridgham: Well thank you very much.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Robert Bridgham from the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority. Check out MuniNetworks for more stories. They are tagged as ESVBA. We have transcripts from this and other 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 handlers @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 294 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.