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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 302
This is the transcript for episode 302 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Gary Evans from Hiawatha Broadband Communications joins the show for part ii of a conversation on rural connectivity. Listen to this episode here. Go back to part I here.
Gary Evans: Generally speaking, you can find the money to get it done. If I had my choice between vision and money, I'd take vision.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 302 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. A few weeks ago, Christopher sat down with his old friend, Gary Evans, who's the retired president and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications. They had a great conversation about the company and life as a small independent ISP for episode 297, but there was still so much to cover. Gary and Christopher are at the mics again to continue their conversation about Hiawatha Broadband Communications. They're talking about the challenges that companies face and overcome and prospects for the future. Once again, this interview is a little longer than our usual podcasts, but we know you'll be glad we kept it that way. There's lessons to be learned and interesting stories to hear. Now, here's Christopher with Gary Evans.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome back to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I guess our office is in Minneapolis, but I'm a Saint Paul, boy myself, I'm here with Gary Evans once again. He's still the retired founder of HBC.
Gary Evans: Thank you Chris. It's good to be back.
Christopher Mitchell: We talked a few weeks ago and you said you have a habit of not staying retired for long, but thus far--
Gary Evans: I'm, I'm doing some work that I'm really loving for a private equity firm in New York City that's concentrating in the area of fiber optics and so another way hopefully to help rural America because we're going to be looking at markets that the big players don't seem to have much interest in today.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's a good place to pick up where we left off last time. We mainly talked about the history of HBC and one of the key lessons that we took away is that there is a very strong business model in connecting the areas that Wall Street has tended to overlook the smaller towns in America. Not necessarily the tiniest ones, but the decent sized ones that are very common.
Gary Evans: You know, that's, that's exactly right. And, and for me at least, it seems you can make a case even for the tiniest, if you have a nucleus of the not so tiny not the tier one markets, but the Winonas at 35,000 and the Red Wings at 20,000 allow you to pick up a community like Minneiska, which when we built it was 68 dwelling units, they had a problem. They didn't have any emergency warning system that was effective. And so one of the things we did there was to collaborate with the city to put warning devices connected to the network in each of the homes.
Christopher Mitchell: So last Wednesday, as we're recording this, two days ago, the first Wednesday of the month in Minnesota, they probably got some kind of a warning there.
Gary Evans: They probably did because everybody got dumped on, at least in this part of this.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, those are also the tornado warnings I was thinking of, which I think is a very big deal.
Gary Evans: Yeah, it's huge. And that was, that was actually the motivating factor that drove them. And I was really pleased when we were able to work that out. We had fiber running from Winona to Wabasha and dropping off at Minneiska for instance, was not a difficult thing to do, probably an afternoon job. Right, right. And because we were leveraging resources back in Winona as well, we were able to add that without, you know, more than the cost of the connectivity to the home. So it was a nice thing to do.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, if anyone missed our first episode, I strongly encourage you to go back and listen to the episode in which we started talking about HBC because I'd like to pick up with one of the things we didn't get to, which is how HBC has helped to run other networks. And I think it makes sense to start chronologically with what I think was the first one of the store, which was Monticello, which is a community northwest of Minneapolis. It's a little bit of ways from your home territory. But they wanted to build a municipal network. They did not have a municipal electric department, which is very common amongst citywide and municipal networks, and they reached out to you. You are essential in helping them to get educated, get inspired, pass the referendum was 74 percent support and get the network built.
Gary Evans: We enjoyed our association with Monticello even though I suppose everybody would look and say, well, it certainly didn't end in a place where you expected. And while that's true, I think we learned a couple of things. We learned some very valuable things there. I'm in an interesting way enough. Sometimes the things you know best you, you can forget about. You know, as, as we built Winona it was extremely important that we were local and our successes were based largely on the fact that, you know, our friends and acquaintances became our customers as we got north of the twin cities that wasn't quite so evident. And I'm finding the employee base that could take on the HBC culture was difficult. Even that far from home, you know, we're sitting here in Cannon Falls and In Cannon Falls, the bank that we're in has an affiliation with the bank and Winona and, I remember the Merchants CEO saying to me once, you know, when we're able to install our own person in the banks we acquire, we do really well. When we have to go with someone who isn't familiar, we don't do as well because it's a cultural issue. And so I think some of the problems we had in Monticello that ultimately resulted in our withdrawal from the project and, and sort of a difficult transition for Monticello, I wish could have been avoided. It probably made sense for both areas. And I'm pleased that the network is seemingly running well today.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that it's -- it shows the character of a person when you take a project that came to unsatisfactory conclusion. One in which I know from personal experience had both what you might call endogenous problems and exogenous problems as, as the fancy economists like to say, which is to say problems on the inside with what you and Monticello, jet and problems on the outside. That's correct. One of the biggest problems Monticello faced was that charter came in and as I understand and some numbers that were provided to me back in the day, charter began offering an insane deal, the best deal that they've offered anywhere. To my knowledge, they took a product that was a hundred and $45 a month everywhere else in this state. And they reduced it to $60 per month. It was every channel, the fastest broadband speeds they had available, $60 a month, guaranteed rate for two years. Clearly losing money on every single subscriber who took that every month. Now you could have said that first, but instead you, you noticed some of the things that you said because I know the growth really dropped off a cliff at that point.
Gary Evans: Well, it did, that started as we were there, but really accelerated after the decision for us to away, you know, I expect when that started, charter might have been worried about, well, what are they going to do next? We obviously hurt them badly in Winona and we were about to hurt them in Red Wing. That was kind of interesting to me, you know, charter close to Oliver, it's local offices and the first one to get opened again was in Red Wing as we were building that network. So yeah, there were a lot of, of those problems, but I also think that we were some of the problem and, and when I say we, it's because local knowledge is critically important to. I don't think we had as much of that as we should have. There was another thing too, and that is because we didn't have it, the city was more interested in providing advice than we were interested in listening. I'm hindsight being what it is. We probably should have listened more and they perhaps should have given less advice. I'm, but I'm pleased that the network is still operating and and seems, I think to be doing well. Why also retain some friends from Monticello, including Jeff O'Neil, who was the city administrator there.
Christopher Mitchell: Anywhere that I would live, I would-- I would like to have him as a city administrator. He puts his heart and soul into it.
Gary Evans: He really does. He's a very good man. I'm pleased that I got to know him.
Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting that the project did not succeed financially. There was a struggle with the bonds. On the other hand, from the perspective of local businesses prior to you and Monticello doing this, they were sending their employees home in the afternoons to work from home because their offices were incapable of supporting in 2008 a modern workforce.
Gary Evans: That's absolutely correct.
Christopher Mitchell: Now they have far better connectivity than I can get anywhere in St Paul.
Gary Evans: That's an advantage of the vision. You know, people always talk about money and to me money is not nearly as important, is vision. If you will have the vision to do something that is critically needed and no one has stepped up to do. Generally speaking, you can find the money to get it done. If I had my choice between vision and money, I'd take vision. Maybe that's because I don't have money.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's worth reminding people. I see. I think some people might hear that and cynically think, well, government is always going to find the money by picking someone else's pocket would be the most uncharitable way of saying it. But you're saying that as a perspective of a business owner as well. The vision is the most important thing.
Gary Evans: Absolutely. You know, I, I think back to the first stage of HBC and the first of all call I got from the founder of fashion all saying I think we should look at this new thing called fiber optics and you know, it demonstrated to me that a good business person is very much aware of the things happening. Even if it would appear that there would be no help in it for that particular business. Interesting.
Christopher Mitchell: So if we move on a little bit, and actually this, this is happening concurrently. You started working with city of North St Paul, which is a small suburb. It's really has it's own independent character in north of St Paul, Minnesota. And there, I'll just briefly summarize, I think Comcast may have done you a bit of a favor because you hadn't yet learned the lessons from Monticello. The city of North St Paul was very arrogant, almost very confident in their capacity to pass the referendum to move forward with a project with you and Comcast when all out there was buses that seemed to have been sponsored by Comcast. My understanding to taking people to the polls and the only thing that, those people knew what they were supposed to vote. No, and I don't know what they got in return, but it must've been nice.
Gary Evans: Obviously the no vote care eight the day. But again, that too was, was an interesting project. We were very interested in seeing if the formula that we thought could succeed would work in a metro area. I'm Monticello was almost that because it was on the fringes of the twin cities of North St Paul would have been deeper into that hub. But we didn't get the chance. I'm it too though, was an interesting exercise because issue say they were very confident that, that the referendum would pass and we had done a lot of work in the expectation that it would to so we learned that probably shouldn't count chickens before they're hatched as the old saying goes and took away from it some knowledge that would, I suppose play a part in future developments. But, I wish we could've done that project.
Gary Evans: I think you're right in saying that Comcast did us a favor. I'm not sure we could've been successful there given the attention the project would have gotten. You know, nibbling at charter from were known and red wing is, is different than nibbling yet. Comcast in north St Paul almost on top of the capital. Well, right. And, and I'm sure everybody had Comcast saying, well, nobody in their right mind would just build north St Paul. There's got to be here to move on right now. Quite frankly, there had been some synergies between Roseville in north St Paul. Yeah, we were looking at Roseville. So Comcast, I think wisely thought we can't really allow this to happen. So the next one that I'm aware of is, is Renville Sibley, is that the next one? Well actually we had two others. Well, three really that the first one that we did, which was an outside the box maneuver, was to provide ace communication a far southeastern Minnesota at telephone co op with video signal.
Gary Evans: And it was, for us a very good partnership. I thought it was a good partnership for them to, we cooperated on the purchase of equipment that was needed to read, digitize signal to send it over a long haul. Although people probably wouldn't see went on it to Houston as a long haul, but by today's standards and in return, ace was getting free signal until we paid off their share or the share that they expended for some reason unexplainable to me. And I think in many ways totally unexplainable. They terminated the agreement long before they had managed to get their equity out of the project and when it went to mediation, the finding was on the side of HBC. We would have much rather the project continued, but that was the first one, ironically. And you're probably going to laugh at this.
Gary Evans: The, the second one was CenturyTel we became a video provider for CenturyTel in Lacrosse. Yes, we actually, we did cover that in a previous interview and, and so we help them get started in video. I think always knowing that if the experiment was successful they would do something that would not encourage using HBC. And they did that. And, and we also helped ace, another small cooperative on the Wisconsin side of the river, a cochrane telephone to provide video signal. So those were all in the mix before the RS fiber Renville Sibley project began. But that one I'm appears, at least from my vantage point to be cranking up. Well I think HBC is doing the things it needs to do for that project to be successful. There's a pretty sizable, HBC workforce in residents in those communities now and that's pleasing to me too. So, another way I guess to grab the local knowledge that we might not otherwise have had.
Christopher Mitchell: You seem to have spent a lot of time helping Wisconsin communities through someone that I've seen enthusiastically tailgating Minnesota football game.
Gary Evans: I know. This is interesting because the first year I was married, I was watching the sports that are in Albert Lee and I'm at the Wisconsin Minnesota game was coming along and both my wife and I had the flu and the marriage almost ended during the game, because Ellen was aggressively cheering for the badgers. So yes, and doing a great job of ribbing me because unfortunately the badges won the game as they have almost every cabinet in my lifetime. That's correct. And I was cheering for the gophers. I'm happy to say that a lot today is just as big a goal for a but yeah. I grew up in Wisconsin though, and so there's, you know, there's not much difference except for the river that runs the, a, the strips of land on either side are comprised of people who are much the same. Those are the best rivalries though they surely are.
Christopher Mitchell: The Renville Sibley project, which listeners may be more familiar with as RS fiber, ended up being a cooperative and so the cooperative owns the physical assets and HBC is providing services over it. And I think you're a bit modest. The, the feeling I get in talking to people about RS fiber is that HBC has gone above and beyond, in terms of making sure that things would happen correctly. I'm really, really going beyond what would be expected of a partner.
Gary Evans: Well, and you know, Chris, I -- the project started under my tenure, but Dan Pecorino, the new CEO is really the shepherd of what has happened. But to me that's what all we should happen. And I would like to think that it's an HBC habit to try and go above and beyond. It's part of Minnesota Nice. I sink and, and it's part of the program that makes for a successful ventures. I always felt that we should pour into projects all of the knowledge we had and as many resources as who would legitimately be spent. And, HBC is more capable today than it was during my tenure. It's a much more successful company now and I'm, I'm, I'm glad to hear you say that. That's very pleasing because I bumped into a Toby Brummer. Toby was the head of a construction company, a tiny construction company that we purchased and toby is the resident manager. He lives, I think in Winthrop, Toby's a happy guy. He's always been a happy guy even when things were going wrong. And he loves it over there. He loves the people. He's a farmer which fits very well. And so yeah, I, I am very pleased that the project is going well.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I feel like I've learned in watching, particularly from Monticello, I mean, I'll just, I think as we look back at these different partnerships, these networks are hard to build on their own. You know, there's some companies that that make it look easier than others, but they are hard projects. And when you do a partnership, sometimes there's this naïve belief that that will make it easier because you're working with a with someone that has experience or is better at raising capital, whatever the partnership is, based on my experience, when the going gets tough, which it inevitably does at one point or another for one reason or another. Maybe it's technical, maybe it's competition. Who knows? That puts stress on the partnership and I feel I've seen many more partnerships fold then then many of the boosters of partnerships when I admit, because one side wasn't willing to say, you know what, the contract isn't really clear on this, but we're going to make it work. We're going to go beyond is that.
Gary Evans: I think that's a very accurate statement. We thought we had learned some things in Winona that could be helpful in Monticello. Monticello, people trying to put the best spin on this weren't in agreement. I mean the one thing that we didn't want to do was get into a price war. Agreed. Yeah. Because we thought that there was absolutely no way to survive it and I don't think there is a way to survive that against the charter or Comcast.
Christopher Mitchell: They could give their product away for free and the investors wouldn't notice a thing,
Gary Evans: absolutely the case. And it became difficult to try and serve the knowledge we had at the same time that we were trying to keep a partnership happy. And ultimately the best decision was probably made for both parties.
Christopher Mitchell: So when to talk about Burlington major lessons learned podcast here, Burlington, which, if people are listening to this, having heard my interview with Stephen Barraclough, who was instrumental in, in working with Burlington during this time period, it may be some important context, but, Burlington got into trouble. My read on it is that, you had a mayor that came in after, through as being built, you're in a difficult period of expansion than, and the mayor put in someone to run Burlington Telekom that I think was very, I'm not transparent, was very opaque and there were some problems and that administration chose to hide those problems. And they got worse and worse until it spills out in the public. And you have a need to invest more in the network. You have a network that didn't have enough customers and you have a lot of frustration from the public when they learn about the problems that had been hidden from the city council.
Gary Evans: Yeah. And I'm going to take you back just a little bit. There was a gentleman that we both know, tim knoll pay was the first CEO of the company. And I'm not sure, Chris, that I could exactly pinpoint for you the earliest problems with the system, but I remember we were asked to come in after money that the city didn't realize or the city council didn't realize had been spent, had been spent. And the city capital lease money had also all been spent.
Christopher Mitchell: So tim notes he had been booted out more or less than 2007. You were brought in. I May, 2009, 2009.
Gary Evans: And Bob Kiss was still the mayor, but he was to lose the next election because what happened shortly after we were brought in, he has the city defaulted on its capital lease with Citi.
Christopher Mitchell: Which is a terribly named company and I'm always struggling to explain to people, so Citi C-I-T-I, right? Citibank was then labeled itself Citi and, I think, lend money to Burlington without doing its proper due diligence in retrospect.
Gary Evans: Yeah. The first thing as we looked at it, there were three of us who went to Burlington. We were to do a study of the network.
Christopher Mitchell: You've got blue ribbons for it was a blue ribbon committee was my recollection.
Gary Evans: Yes, you're right. But in any event, what we discovered was a network that no one in their right mind would have built, in our opinion, a networked that costs several times too much. I'm that exhausted the limited funds and they're laid a network that may have had the greatest potential for success of any I've ever seen that was built in a way that no one in my opinion have a right mind would have. Bill, there was almost a home run, if you will, to every dwelling in Burlington. So what we're talking about in home run as a dedicated line from the head end facility to the customer, which is not something that you'll find anywhere that I'm aware of. Maybe
Christopher Mitchell: there's a few, I mean usually usually in a, in a city the size of brilliant you would expect that even if you are using tape technology would be to an aggregation point in a neighborhood or something like that. And I think the main concern is the incredible cost of fiber versus using some kind of technology in which you would oversubscribed more in the fiber by using a passive optical networking or something like that bag.
Gary Evans: So just as we finished our study, the mayoral election took place and we had a new mayor, a to work with and made a bad mistake. And my first meeting because I, I told the mayor that in my opinion, he had a magnificent asset on his hands that could become successful if it were managed and operated correctly. And I don't really think the mayor wanted to hear that because I think that there was a great frustration in Burlington that, led to an opinion that the best thing to do with the network was to sell it, if in fact it could be sold and just get out of the business.
Christopher Mitchell: Tim Nulty, who I still consider a friend. I think Tim would have said that, yes, he built it in that way to be future proof. And, and, he would justify that and say that the network would have been fine under his tenure if they had had a proper marketing campaign and things like that. One of the things that I understood during the Kiss administration, and this is a quote that I, when we were investigating trying to figure out what had happened because we have a very strong interest in learning when municipal fiber network struggle, we want to know why. So we're investigating it. And someone told me that you could have moved into many parts of Burlington over the course of several years and never have even known that that was an option to get Burlington telecomm fiber. So I think like many things there was -- there's root causes that different people can point to and then they all conspire together to create a real big problem.
Gary Evans: That's correct. Burlington, Burlington Telekom had done little to attract customers to the network and that was a critical missing link. You know, I wouldn't have built the network that Tim built, but on the other hand, we could sit across the desk from each other and carry on a very friendly argument about the situation.
Christopher Mitchell: It is worth noting that I have yet to find two people that would build the same network. There are extremes. I think HBC has found ways to building networks at as low a cost as possible. And that's been a part of your success. And I think, you know, tim tends to build them in his way and he has his reasons. There's a lot of people in the middle of that have still different ways of building networks. So, people who are listening to this shouldn't be surprised when they hear these kinds of disagreements, but you should be aware that if you commit to a very expensive network, you sure have to find a way to bring in customers onto it,
Gary Evans: which means that you had better plan marketing expenditure is very carefully because you're going to need them. You know, at the time we got there, the 17,000,000 fiasco had broken. The Citi Bank fiasco was out in the public. Every thing that you could imagine going wrong was going wrong. And if you walked into the bto office, you saw a group of people with their heads down, reluctant, quite frankly, to look up and, you know, Steven, came to the party after we had concluded our first run. And then Steven asked me to come out and spend a couple days with him talking about our analysis. And I'm then asked if we would stay on and help. There were so many hurdles to cross. And I'm pleased to see the company now upright, it still has a way to go. You and I disagreed on who should buy it, when they, when they sold it, but like the things we agree amicably and we had both desperately hope that it succeeds and expense.
Gary Evans: I do indeed. And you know, I must say that, that you probably weigh, you clearly knew more about your choice than I did and I am not going to suggest that I know know more about my choice then you did. But I think with the right leadership that can be a successful property, I think what it needs and they're going to need a fair amount of resource they've got. They're sitting in the middle of a wonderful situation. I mean, you know, you have a hundred and 50,000 people in the county of which Burlington is the mighty Chittenden County, Chittenden county and am so when new ski, you know, South Burlington, all of those communities could be come part of that network that these are people that do not like global corporations. Like, yeah, that's absolutely the case. And so I think the right leadership will take them a long way and ultimately will make the city hold again and we'll also demonstrate business viability at the same time that the right kind of leadership will have customer satisfaction as a key goal, you know, I don't think you can go into a competitive situation and operate like the incumbent and expect to succeed.
Gary Evans: No, no. The incumbents win by inertia. Absolutely. And, and so you have to identify every flaw that, that competition has and you have to work to exploit every single one of them.
Christopher Mitchell: But one of the things that we've been wondering about is how many small companies and municipalities really advertised like their difference in privacy policies. For instance, like when was the last time HBC sold customer data to a third party? Yeah, exactly.
Gary Evans: Never, and never wouldn't happen. I'm convinced. Well certainly shouldn't say never, but
Christopher Mitchell: I know it's hard to imagine why would. Yeah, absolutely. Because for a small company like that, your reputation is everything and the little bit of money you would make from it is not that much. But if you're a Comcast and you have 18, 20 to 30,000,000 customers, however many you can make a lot of money and most of your customers don't have another choice. So. Correct. So I wanna -- I wanna round off by talking a little bit more widely about policy. Minnesota has the Blandin Foundation which is somewhat unique and has been tremendously positive and I think there's been a couple of negative side effects to the overwhelmingly positive benefits of Blandin. But, but you've been on the Blandin Board for probably forever.
Gary Evans: Well, I'm no longer a member. I was from the earliest days
Christopher Mitchell: and this was a Blandin Broadband Board.
Gary Evans: It was, it was not, not the Foundation Board.
Christopher Mitchell: What did, what did they do? Well, I mean, tell me a little bit about the beginning of that and the strategies for how to set the stage. Blandin is a foundation that is very focused on greater Minnesota, the non metro regions. They helped send my wife to college and I met her in Grad school, so I'll be forever indebted to Blandin for that.
Gary Evans: And they had a leadership program that had at least in our area of the state, made their name no one they identified the broadband area as an area of potential for Minnesota and I think most of our early efforts, Chris, were expended on trying to convince state government that had want to be active in the broadband area as government usually does. It can move as fast as we hoped it would. Some of the things that we lobbied hard for, we'd, we'd get a sliver, but certainly not the whole pie. And so ultimately Blandin switched strategy to trying to do it. I'm more with the people who would benefit. I thought that was a very good move. It constant traded mostly on planning and helping communities plan initiatives.
Christopher Mitchell: That's, that's where I really wanted to dig in a little bit. I mean, I think when I look at Blandin, there's a number of things that they have done. One is I think an sees work on the bland and blog is tremendous. And I don't think a lot of people appreciate how important it is to have a place that is cataloguing on a daily basis talking about these sorts of things so people can understand what's happening and, and, and has been coming from a family of librarians. You can tell she's, yeah, she's wonderful. So one of the things that when people sometimes ask me for advice about what other states should do, I often say that Blandin has been incredibly successful in the planning part by offering matching grants. Their communities have to commit something, but it gives a real edge to those in the community that once something that happened because they can say, look, we're getting this great deal from Blandin and they're going to match the cost of this study and that is going to help convince the city councils to appropriate a little bit of money to do what we're talking about.
Christopher Mitchell: Usually on the order of $10 to $15,000, which is then matched by Blandin.
Gary Evans: Right? I had to look at the broader issue and be aware of sweeping generalities, but I think that many of our city governments are populated by people my age are not too much younger than I am and we didn't grow up with the connectivity that we have today and we didn't grow up understanding it or carrying much either. And I, I think that victimizes us, I think there's a problem in Minnesota today I think gets that too few young people are really getting involved in the governmental activity in their local communities. Preach. And, and the fact of the matter is it, it hurts us in many ways, but I think it hurts us particularly in the broadband area and you know, I, I think bland. It's wonderful. I remember Heather Gold talking to me once about she had just come to her position in the broadband association. I suggested she looked at Blandin as a model and now there is a toolkit that was very similar to the Blandin toolkit that's being used nationally.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. This is the Fiber-to-the-Home Primer for which was just updated in late 2017. Correct. Terrific.
Gary Evans: Yes, absolutely. Terrific. And Blandin's impact has been solid, but quite frankly should be much greater.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, this is where when we sat down and started warming up the mix, before we recorded, I said something I wasn't sure how you would react to it and that is. I feel that we are. We are. You were mentioned. We start talking about the rural electrification, Red Wing, Minnesota being one of the first being the first ray site and my impression from studying that period is electrification happened quickly and in such a great way with these co-ops that have been so good for rural America because local communities organize them and I still see in my greatest criticism of Blandin not just, I just don't want to center us on Blandin, but everyone in Minnesota working on broadband issues is it's so focused on getting the state to do something. There's not enough focus on getting communities to do something so that when state monies available, it could be put to good use.
Gary Evans: We were also talking about the value of vision versus money. If I had to look at, at your statement, I would say you're right, clearly you're right, but it might be that Blandin concentration has been where it's been because it determined that it wasn't going to have the kind of support out there, if you will. That may be, it could find in four or 500 legislators in St Paul. It is a real worry because as we went to the tiny communities, if you will, to receive franchises that there was only one thing that people wanted to talk about and that was cable TV pricing. We sell it to us for less money and nobody was thinking about what this could do for their community and how to make it just as powerful as rural electrification was.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I want to, I really want to reiterate that that Blandin has been a -- not just net positive but incredibly net-positive. And I don't want to say that because it's worth noting. Lyndon was right on open access, I think 12 years ago when they started pushing open access. The carriers really resisted it. I think that would've been very good for Minnesota. I continue to be a believer in open access approaches. A Blandin has had these conferences and I'm employed Bill Coleman to really educate communities on what these words mean and the importance of economic development and broadband, his head of events that it has put on despite the opposition and undercutting of the rural telephone companies in Minnesota, which I find really dismaying. I understand that we have some differences of opinion of opinion, but we all have to work together to solve this problem. So I would say that in terms of we want to talk about what might be able to do better or differently if anyone from Blandin is listening to this, they should take heart that they've done a tremendous job of moving Minnesota forward.
Gary Evans: Absolutely. You know, I might think about painting with a brush, not so broad, if you will. I mean, if you could identify in advance through some process to communities committed to doing something, then the relatively small resource you have might be deployed more effectively. You know, I would go to communities and I would say to them, folks, every community where there today is an HBC network is larger than it was when the network was bill. Now don't you think that message would resonate with people and, and then you know, those who were not interested would, uh oh, but it costs too much and where we're going to get the money and it always came down to that. And, and you know, and the St Charles Lesson to me was absolutely incredible.
Christopher Mitchell: The community, not just the people that we haven't mentioned it yet, this episode, the St Charles was one of the first HBC towns. You moved out here
Gary Evans: and, and we had no interest in doing that until their economic development association came to us and knew clearly why you wanted us there. They wanted us there because they wanted to be the number one bedroom community to Rochester to suggest that they have been unsuccessful in that goal would be absolutely wrong. Now, are they the number one bedroom community to Rochester? Well, I'm sure Byron would argue pine island might, or an Oco might, but the fact of the matter is that St Charles is significantly larger today than it was. It has more business that it is than it did then.
Christopher Mitchell: It doesn't have the geographical advantages of all the other places that are closer. I think,
Gary Evans: You know, St Charles has done a magnificent job. And once again, it was the issue of vision.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I would, I would just say we talked about Renville Sibley without mentioning Mark Erickson. Mark, here's someone who talked about vision in, in, in stamina for five years, against struggle after struggle where one, one pathway was closed off after another. And, and he, I think, I still think of him as the heart of a, of a, of a group of people that all deserve endless praise for the work that they did. Mark, I just feel like we, he wasn't gonna give up
Gary Evans: how it started. It didn't start in Renville Sibley county. Mark, as the city administrator wanted his community to succeed. I remember him dragging me to Seattle and Microsoft early in the HBC existence. And this was back when Mark worked for HBC. Mark, was the city administrator in Fairfield or close to there yet was it was south of Wind Wyndham? MMM. Yeah. And Mark ultimately was dismissed as city administrator because of people being disappointed with the fact that too much activity and money was being spent on connectivity. Then he came to work for HBC. Then he got interested. He wanted to go back to his roots and he moved to Winthrop as city administrator, then became economic development director and stepped out as city administrator
Christopher Mitchell: Now he's somewhere in Europe, I think right this week touring
Gary Evans: He promised me a call when he got back. But it's been awhile since his retirement party. But you know, Mark was tremendous. He, he was absolutely untiring in his efforts to get his communities to understand the importance of broadband. And the Renville Sibley project is exclusively due to him. It is worth noting that, again, this wasn't just the disappointment. Occasionally have a plan not working out. There were people that were undermining him. There's still a whisper campaign that he's getting paid under the table, millions of dollars from you or from HBC, which is ridiculous. That was also a rumor at that time, that HBC or that ace backed away from our partnership and you know, it's so ridiculous. Apparently people just like to look for things to complain about, but Mark is someday going to be recognized by those communities as having done them an enormous favor. Yes. And a lot of people already credit him with that and it. And I do want to note if Mark was here, he would be both blushing and stammering and saying, no, it wasn't me, it was other people, other people were essential to making it happen.
Christopher Mitchell: But I, if you had to pick one person that the keystone, I just. No question. It was Mark. Yeah. Yeah. Well this has been another great addition of the Minnesota history, I think of, of, of how we've moved forward a bit. The role that HBC has played, the role that you've played in-- in your own personal role in some cases.
Gary Evans: Well, you know, I was raised by my grandmother who used to have her hands full, shouldn't have had to raise another generation after her own, but grandma always told me that the only thing I needed to worry about was always leaving the things I touched better than they were when I found them. And I hope someday somebody will say, you know, he did that. I hope some day when I see grandma, she'll tell me, chances are she'll find some fault with how I did things.
Christopher Mitchell: Always room for improvement.
Gary Evans: Always.
Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you gary for another hour of your time. I greatly appreciate it and I'm looking forward to finding more things to talk about in the future. Good.
Gary Evans: Chris, as always, it's a pleasure. I had more fun than you had.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Gary Evans, former president and CEO of Hiawatha broadband communications in southeastern Minnesota. For more about the company, visit HBCi.com, you can also check out our coverage on MuniNetworks.org at the HBC tag. We have transcripts for 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 handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts: Building Local Power, the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple podcasts, 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 Arnie Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 300 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
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