Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 296

This is the transcript for episode 296 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Emmett, Idaho, built a community network to connect public facilities and community anchor institutions. Mike Knittel, the Systems Administrator, joins the show to explain how the small city did it and what's next. Listen to this podcast here.

Mike Knittel: They never once asked about the cost or any of that. He simply asked me. When is it going to be there for me?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 296 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We first took note of Emmett, Idaho, about two years ago when the city was in the process of constructing a fiber optic network to provide connectivity for its municipal facilities. At the time they had already made plans for the future which involved using publicly owned infrastructure to connect businesses and possibly one day Fiber-to-the-Home for residents. A lot has happened in Emmett since then. In this interview Christopher talks with Mike Knittel. He describes how the project is moving along and now Emmett has discovered new ways to use their infrastructure beyond what they'd initially planned and possibilities for the future. Mike also gets into how lack of quality connectivity has the community embracing the project. Now here's Christopher with Mike Knittel from Emmett Idaho.

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. Sitting under a fresh coat of snow waiting for the next fresh coat of snow wrapped in a proper Minnesota weekend up here today I'm talking with Mike Knittel the Systems Administrator for Emmett in Idaho. Welcome to the show.

Mike Knittel: Hey Chris, thanks a lot for having me. Really appreciate the invite.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I had a fun time sharing a table talking with you a bit at the Ammon unveiling maybe six months ago now. Ammon a longtime favorite community of ours. Sounds like you're doing really great things in Emmett. so I'm excited to learn more about them. But let's start with just a brief description of Emmett for I'm guessing most people who haven't been to Emmet.

Mike Knittel: Yeah absolutely. So you know Emmett sits just outside of Boise, Idaho. We're kind of a bedroom community to Boise, definitely rural. And we're about 7,000 people so hopefully a lot of people listening to the podcast can kind of relate to our similar situation and setup and, you know, you mentioned the city of Ammon. And I got to say you're right they are a leader in our state without a doubt for some of these projects and have definitely helped us along the way with advice and really appreciate everything they're doing on their end.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. And one of the things that we've been learning is the extent to which they're a leader in the nation. Actually we just found a city in Alabama that was considering what they could do to improve Internet access and they watched that video that we helped to do. I know that communities in Ohio have also benefited from that. So, you know, it's -- it's terrific. I'm really glad that they're lending that helping hand locally too. But you have an interesting approach I think, you know, in some ways you're definitely going your own way. You started with some investments for municipal assets as many communities have. Why don't you walk us through what you're doing.

Mike Knittel: I'll probably take even one step even further back from that just to kind of set that stage for, kind of, where we've come from and where we're at now and where we're going to but we're we're kind of a unique situation as is a lot of rural communities. You know like I said very small 7,000 people so up until just two years ago our city actually had really no structured I.T. support. So you know you have multiple departments throughout the city everything from police, fire, public works, cemetery, parks department, library, you know, all these different departments that were kind of literally doing their own thing. Right. So everybody had their own servers. Everybody had their own Internet contracts phone service contracts. It was -- it was very segmented. But you know I don't think it's necessarily untypical for communities our size to kind of be in that situation if you will.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, I actually think that that's not uncommon for cities of any size. It seems like, and just to give a sense, I mean one of the things that that's probably frustrating is as a person with the title systems administrator would be, you know, if you had to call another department you had to pick up the phone and dial 7 digit number rather than having an internal system that would be a lot easier and probably be up more.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely you're 100 percent correct. The city finally got to the point where they they recognized the value of having that in-house structured I.T. support. Right. So they created the systems administration department just two years or so ago. And I've been heading that up since then. And you know one of my main goals out of the gate was just getting our city facilities connected right so we could share those same type of resources like you mentioned something as well as a phone or phone system that would be you know internal on the city's network. So that was one of the first things that we set out to do. You know, we did what I think most people do and we went to an incumbent provider and said, hey, if we want fiber to each of our facilities. You know what, what does that look like? And when we got that quote back it kind of put us back on our heels a little bit because, again being a rural community, the city doesn't have a lot of you know capital expenditure especially for a brand new departments to facilitate some of those needs especially at those expenses. And so one of the things that you know we immediately identified. So I went to a guy that I worked very closely with, clients in our public works department, and, you know, went over this price quote with him and you know we were both fairly quickly identified like, hey we could probably build this for a lot cheaper than going this route with the incumbent and then we own the infrastructure. So, you know, we're in a good situation where the city owns the streets and the alleys and all the roadways we have the construction equipment on hand we have the crews on hand. And I will tell you what none of this for us would be possible without the help and teamwork with our public works departments. And you know, I always tell people that small communities are always resilient and they're very adaptive. So when they're faced with these things. You know I didn't have any experience building fiber. Clint and his staff didn't have any experience really building fiber but we made that determination. Like, we're going to do this as a team and our public works department really has that go getter attitude and let's get this done. So, you know, you start forming kind of those I guess inner city partnerships and you can really get a lot accomplished for a relatively low price point. So that's exactly what we did. We've started to even though again we're only a short term into our projects. That's what we've started to do. So we've we've essentially adapted the in-house kind of dig=once policy. Right. So now when public works has a road project or a water or sewer project we're evaluating that for space for fiber conduit. Right. And in fiber cable and saying hey is there value here two to comingle these projects. And once the trenches open we lay the conduit and fiber and the pull boxes and away we go. And so that's been working very very well.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to say that once again I you know this is a similar reaction I had and also had great coordination with the public works and maybe there's something in the water in Idaho. But one of the things that we hear that commonly derails projects is not getting that reaction. Let me just put an exclamation mark right there because it's really worth noting that public works when they react negatively they can really kill a project so having them not only on board but enthusiastic is tremendous and people should know that.

Mike Knittel: Oh it's a game changer. There's no doubt. And I said it before, I say it again, I could not do what we're doing without their camaraderie and teamwork that goes into it. There's no doubt. And you know that's one thing that I will say about our project so far too. We have literally done everything house whether it's fusion splicing the fiber. I take care of that. Public works helps with the construction side and does all that we pull our own cable. We've done it so far 100 percent in-house. Now I realize that there's that that may change from in time with some special needs that we might have that we don't have that capability but so far that's really what is driving us to. And there's a lot of sense of accomplishment with that too. It's been working very well so far.

Christopher Mitchell: And do you plan on doing locates? Is that something that the public works already did where if a homeowner's going -- going to dig up the yard, they're supposed to call a number and then you identify things under the ground for instance. Do you handle that yourself?

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. So you know our public works obviously has already does that for their utility for sewer, water, that kind of infrastructure. And so we are and when I say we the systems administration department is taking on that responsibility for the fiber utility. We take care of all that.

Christopher Mitchell: So what's what's next I mean you're -- you're serving your municipal functions and that's going to I'm sure results in some savings. But do you have greater ambitions to improve Internet access for others?

Mike Knittel: Yeah absolutely and it's very interesting because you always kind of think start small. Right. So back to getting our own facilities connected, you know, that was our focal point. But one thing that we really took on the mindset of is let's make sure and build in the capacity for future growth. We don't know what future growth necessarily he's going to look like let's build the capacity and what would. Specifically what I mean is we're putting in three or four conduits at a time right because the conduits the cheap part it's the construction and getting it in the ground that's the expensive part. So. So we've really taken that mindset of OK we don't know what this is going to bring for the future but let's build plenty of growth. So you kind of start there right. And then the focus being OK we're going to get our city facilities connected. That's all great. But then you start to really realize what you can leverage the network for and the infrastructure for beyond just kind of those immediate needs. So. So we've fortunately just geographically the way we were laid out we were able to get fiber to our city water tower very quickly. And the way that our cities are kind of set -- we're in a valley. So the water towers a pretty high point. So I was almost immediately able to connect all of our facilities through a fixed base wireless deployment that's backhaul by our fiber optics. And so, you know, with that we were able to immediately change to a you know an IP based phone system like you mentioned earlier that's, you know, saved us a ton of money shared broadband infrastructure for the city facilities. Again as things kind of evolve you realize wow okay there's some more stuff we can do here. So for instance we get cameras up at our city facilities for public safety that sort of thing that is all backhauled on the fiber infrastructure. One of the other things that we are excited about doing is as we build out the network in the infrastructure we're deploying public access Wi-Fi right. So we are Wi-Fi systems set up to where, you know, our staff can connect and stay connected at any city facility whether that be a park or the cemetery or well sites so that they can stay connected to the infrastructure they need to. But we're also able to segregate a part of that network to allow guest access for the public to enjoy being connected at those various facilities. So I'll give you one quick example. Our main city park, which is the largest one that we have, is we have that blanketed with Wi-Fi access points. So one of the things we're able to do that we're very excited about is we have a yearly event like many communities do. Ours is called the Cherry Festival where you have the carnival and vendors and so forth come in and it's sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce is the one who really facilitates that event. Historically the vendors would come in and the Chamber would have to facilitate some sort of connectivity for those vendors to be able to process credit card transactions or whatever that might be. And now for the last couple of years we've really been able to help them facilitate where we were actually set up a secure private section of the Network for Those vendors. So we prevision the network give them secure connective access and maybe even a higher rate than what we would the normal public. We don't charge them a dime for that. We're able to facilitate that in just a few minutes of me provisioning the network to do it. So those are some things that we're starting to see. One of the other things that we realized we could start leveraging. And this seems like such a small scale maybe to some folks but, you know, in the same city park we have a set of two different sets of bathrooms. So for bathrooms historically in the evening either the police departments or public works department was responsible for getting out and locking those bathrooms to prevent vandalism over the nighttime hours. When you do that that's all fine and that method works. But if there's a better more efficient way. That's what we're starting to look to leverage our broadband infrastructure. So what we ended up doing is installing Wi-Fi connected locks on all those bathrooms. Well now we can set locks schedules back to things or events like the Cherry Fest where we can issue out special entry codes to fourth for folks to be able to get in. For certain folks to be able to get in to utilize the facilities. And now we've eliminated that and been more efficient of our staff's time they no longer have to go out and if the police department's busy with calls as they usually are sometimes those those jobs wouldn't even get done. So we've really started to leverage this broadband infrastructure for kind of those outside the box things to improve the efficiency and operations of the city.

Christopher Mitchell: That's been really exciting and I think it's worth noting that your ability to add these sorts of things to your network. I think you're unconstrained. You know if you were leasing even if you find the park but you were leasing access to it you might be thinking a little differently because you don't have full control over it. You don't know if it's going to be there in future years or this and that but you know in my rider you have a set of certainty because you have ownership of the network that allows you to think differently of how to use it.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. I mean we've really cut our own red tape. Right. So the mindset changes from, you know, whether I'm contracting it out or so forth what are they going to let me do as opposed to what can we do. What's the most, you know, what we're we're really trying to be creative with different avenues that will not only improve our efficiency but service citizens better. So that's, you know, another thing to lead into that too is you know we recently started to deploy our first air quality sensor. Right. Once again leverages our broadband infrastructure to pull real time data for air quality that can then be disseminated to the citizens to make better decisions right. So in Idaho we are, especially our county where we reside, we have a lot of forestry in the nearby counties so when we get say like a forest fire during the summer it's not uncommon to get a huge influx of smoke and other pollutants and you know then there's there's decisions that start to be made by things like the school district and so forth that like, hey do we need to cancel sports practices? and there's resources out there. Right. That you can get things like air quality reports for your area. But it's not the same when you can have direct localized pinpointed accuracy of those readings to be able to help the public make better decisions.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's one of the things that we're seeing from more of these devices being deployed is just how variable it can be just even over you know a square mile you can have dramatically different readings in different areas.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely and again the more detailed the data that you can provide. And realistically especially at the price point. I mean we're not talking about very much money to be able to deploy things like this. It's just a no brainer you have the infrastructure there. You add on to the leverage the broadband that you have. So it's huge and we're looking forward to deploying more of those sensors. But like I said we literally just put out our first one a couple of months ago and have really been testing with it lately and look forward to moving forward with that more.

Christopher Mitchell: Now when you were financing the network or figuring out you know how to put the money together did you benefit from a grant from the state.

Mike Knittel: We did. So one of the most recent grants that we received was around $40,000 which actually when we are doing our own construction. $40,000 does go a long way for us. It'll enable us to deploy conduit and fiber for about 13 block lengths of main streets in our city and we have married this up with, it's actually, a number of different projects. There's a new water transmission line, new water service lines for the residents, a section of it includes a sewer replacement, and then there's a road project. And now we've -- we've comingled with this project as well. So we're really maximizing tax dollars in these projects and these deployments. Does it sometimes take a little bit longer? You bet. I mean if we had all the money in the world we could contract it all out and get it done very quickly. But we're being very smart about it and it allows us to scale ourselves as well when it comes to the maintenance and operations of the network.

Christopher Mitchell: And you mentioned that there's some cost savings from having your own voice system rather than obviously leasing to each different physical location a different bill and in charge on the overall. Would you say that this is saving the city money or has it been something where it may cost more but the benefits are worth it?

Mike Knittel: So it is absolutely saving us money. There's no doubt we did that study. It is saving us a huge chunk of money which then allows us to reinvest that money in other parts of the network or the build out. Right. So again improving the efficiency and the way that we do things allows us to really stretch that tax dollar and maximize it to its full potential.

Christopher Mitchell: So where would you like to see yourself in five years? I mean what -- how will telecommunications look different in it in five years, Mike?

Mike Knittel: It's very interesting and again we're still very much in that phase of connecting our facilities and building out with a broader concept in mind. So although I don't have all of the answers yet as to where I see it the things that I am seeing is that there's there's very much community support for for this. And I'll give you an example. I recently was asked to do a presentation on the fiber optic for our rotary group, so Rotary being the civic organization that's across the country. It was interesting because it was my first kind of public presentation on the fiber and the concepts of fiber and kind of how it works. And as I was setting up for that presentation that at a lunch meeting I'm kind of looking around the room and let me remind you I mean Idaho's one of the most conservative states in the union. I mean we're very very red. And especially them it's very agricultural based so I'm looking around the room and I'm seeing like these old farmers and I'm thinking to myself oh boy I'm not sure how they're going to react and what I mean by react is do they feel like the local municipalities should be in this realm of building their own fiber optic network.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean there is a stereotype of these people even care about internet access. I mean this is something they feel is important to their livelihood to their quality of life.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. Absolutely. And even if they found it to be important to them once again do they believe that we should be the ones right meddling in it? So. So those are the things that are kind of going through my mind some kind of getting a little nervous but as I go through the presentation it's very interesting to see people's reactions and I'll never forget one gentleman that was there owns a business in our in our downtown heart district and he never once they never once asked about the cost or any of that. He simply asked me when is it going to be there for me. That's what he cared about. I want it now. When's it going to be there. Right. So even as the meeting progressed these farmers are sitting kind of quietly. As it progresses what I'm finding is that the questions that they're starting to ask are more of why isn't the incumbent providers? shame on them. Why have they not built out and improved our speeds in our access? Shame on them. So I'm I'm getting a lot of actually support saying thank you. Type of thing right. And never forget one of the farmers that came up to me after the meeting and I'll be honest with you I'm not a farmer I'm not in the agriculture business. I don't know how farmers specifically use broadband. I know there's a lot of technology out there that that is being leveraged in the agricultural sector but it was very intriguing to me because I asked him if he's this particular farmer is on a fix based wireless service. You know slower speeds, pretty high bill, and I said hey what so tell me what do you use broadband for your business. And he says it's a lot for us. We do everything from our supply ordering, feeding schedules. He says My Tractors are all connected through cellular four rotations of planting that sort of. I was just kind of blown away. I'm like wow that's that's awesome. And so he was again. He was very supportive of of kind of that initiative and the presentation wasn't even necessarily a this is what we're going to do and this is how we're going to do it to get to you guys. It was more of a this is why the city started to head down this path to save money to connect. Here's kind of what we have in mind. You know broader scope and here's how fiber kind of functions and what sets it apart from you know a typical corporate type network. So even with limited details they were I would say energized. I have not received any negative pushback in anybody that I've come across in in my city as we talk about it. It's been very interesting.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah that fits broadly with the experience that we've heard from others. I think that elected officials are often cautious about this and I certainly think that they have some good reasons to be but I think those who are demonstrating some real leadership on the issue often find that people are hungry for it and they really want to see more action because they have given up on hoping that some big company that is headquartered you know 3,000 miles away is actually going to do anything for them right right. So is there anything else we should touch on from Emmet before we wrap it up?

Mike Knittel: You know, I think just as again just to give people ideas in other municipalities the project that we're going to start to explore and I don't know how this will pan out yet but we're going to we're going to give it a test run. And again this comes back to that making efficient use of our time and money leveraging our broadband. But one of the things that we're going to be looking at is automated water collection water meter collections. Right. So deploying a device that connects to the network that will receive those water readings from all of the the water utilities out there. So currently right now we have staff that goes out with wireless handheld devices and literally has to walk the routes of the water meters to collect that data and bring it back to the city hall for billing purposes and that sort of thing. We're going to look at this leveraging the network to deploy essentially kind of small sites that would collect that data. That would eliminate staff time. A lot of staff time having to go out and collect that information. But it's it's one more step. The icing on the cake for the citizens is that right now they have really no way unless they call City Hall and request to go have their water meter read to see what their current usage is. Well with a system like this the system automatically takes readings every 15 minutes. So again we're back to that real time data to be able to provide the citizens to make smart decisions. You know a lot of the problems that we see kind of day in and day out are things as simple as water leaks cost people a lot of money because they have no idea that they might have a water leak under their house or something like that. But a system like this then all of a sudden sets it up for not only efficient use of your employees time. I mean that's what pays for the system but then the icing on the cake is being able to be alerted they're notified that hey you might have a problem you might check your water service. So it turns to your local government to be more proactive rather than reactive to those types of issues. So we're excited about exploring that and seeing where that takes us.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. It's a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us about what you're doing. And now I think serving as an inspiration for many other communities that are trying to do something like this.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. We're always willing to help. Chris I appreciate you having this on the show. And if anybody ever has questions comments were always available I'm willing.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Mike Knittel from the city of Emmett in Idaho discussing their fiber optic network project. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow 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 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 292 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.