Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 312

This is the transcript for episode 132 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher interviews Tony Neal-Graves from Colorado's Broadband Office at Mountain Connect. Listen to this episode here.

Tony Neal-Graves: And one of the things I would say about my role is that everywhere I go around the state, the first question I always ask is, how can the state help you in solving the problem that you have?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 312 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Here's another interview Christopher recorded while at the Mountain Connect conference event in Vail, Colorado. This time he spoke with Tony Neal-Graves, who works for the state of Colorado, heading up their Broadband Office. Christopher and Tony covered issues such as changes in Colorado's legislation, FCC versus state data collection, electric cooperatives, and the way local and regional governments work together toward rural broadband deployment. They get into other topics as well that reflect why Colorado is one of the states that seems to be ahead of the pack when it comes to improving rural Internet access. Now, here's Christopher with Tony Neal-Graves from the Colorado Broadband Office.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, still in Vail, Colorado, at the Mountain Connect conference. Today I'm talking to someone I hoped to talk to last year, but you got away from me, Tony Neal-Graves, the executive director of the Broadband Office here in Colorado. Welcome to the show.

Tony Neal-Graves: Thank you, Chris. Good to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: So, last year you came in and you talked about how you're a little bit new to the office. But I think the best thing to do to start off and just say what does the Broadband Office do here in Colorado?

Tony Neal-Graves: Sure. The governor created this office a year ago when I came into the role in March of last year to really kind of bring together all of the efforts at the state level in terms of trying to make sure that broadband deployment happens across the state of Colorado. There's been efforts going on in this space for a lot of years. And then back in 2014 legislature passed some bills to create a broadband fund, start to move the ball forward. The Department of Local Affairs has been involved in this for a number of years, funding middle mile projects, you have the Department of Transportation laying fiber around the state, and so he really wanted to try to bring the efforts together. And over the last 15 months or so that's been the focus of my role is really try to get all of the agencies at the state and then in partnership with local municipalities, counties, the legislature, try to figure out how are we really going to get to the goal that we all have of universal access for broadband throughout the state.

Christopher Mitchell: And what was your background before that? Were you in a broadband role before that?

Tony Neal-Graves: No, this is my first foray, if you will, into the public sector.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to the club.

Tony Neal-Graves: Thank you. I've been in the private sector for almost 40 years. I spent a number of years working for AT&T in Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies. And then the last 16 years I was working for Intel Corporation. And so as I was leaving the corporate world, I decided to retire. I basically fell into this opportunity and got recruited by the governor. He was the last person that I met along the interview process and he convinced me that this was a great role to take on.

Christopher Mitchell: Was he right?

Tony Neal-Graves: Yeah, he has been. It's been fun. I mean, I have to admit I came into this role with some trepidation about going into the public sector because I think a lot of folks have, you know, their, you know, biases about government service. But what I found is that everyone that's involved in government service, and particularly in the area that I'm focused on around broadband, is just so energized about trying to make a difference that it's been a lot of fun.

Christopher Mitchell: I think Colorado has been one of the sharper states when it comes to figuring out how to improve broadband access. The Department of Local Affairs, as you noted earlier, which we can call DOLA like everyone else does, they have been providing grants for many years that have helped get local projects off the ground. And one of the things that I've always respected about that is that it seemed to me the process was more or less, "We're not going to tell you what to do," you know, "We're the state officials, we have matching funds." We're going to have you, the local communities, these regions that are multi-county regions that are used to working together, they're going to develop plans and if DOLA thinks it's not crazy, then they'll provide matching funds. Is that, is that an accurate representation of what DOLA does?

Tony Neal-GravesYeah, Chris. I think it is. Yeah. One of the things that struck me as I was doing the research for even taking on this role is that DOLA had been investing in strategic plans at a regional level and then going down to more detail level, maybe at a county level or even a town level. And the goal was to get the local communities involved. I think part of that is kind of driven by the fact that as all of us know, Colorado is a home rule state, you know, local control. And so you really do have to approach any of the things that we're trying to address in the state by engaging local communities. And what I saw was, is that there were very well thought out regional plans about here's what we need, and then we could go engage with those communities and say, how can we help you? And one of the things I would say about my role is that everywhere I go around the state, the first question I always ask is, "How can the state help you in solving the problem that you have?" And I think that's really working well, because I firmly believe there's no federal solution, there's no statewide solution, there's only local solutions for broadband. And I think the role that the state and federal government can play is help with some of the costs associated with it. Because the fundamental issue that we have is it's a cost issue. You know, how do you get the infrastructure deployed in these communities and offset some of that capital costs. And so that's, I think what we can bring to the table. But the other thing we do is we try to make sure that the local communities really think through how they're going to go implement this so it can be successful.

Christopher Mitchell: I 100 percent agree with you. What I'm wondering is what in your background help you to realize that this is such a local issue, because the companies you listed are centralized, very hierarchical companies. People that work for states often have a sense that, I mean they're working with very intelligent people, they themselves are very intelligent people and they often tend to think, I've got the better answers, or we in the state office have the better answers. What led you to think along the lines that we do, which that the communities, actually the solution needs to start there because it's so individualized on a community basis.

Tony Neal-GravesYou're right. I mean, my whole corporate experience has been with huge companies and you know, very hierarchical in a lot of sense. What struck me, one of the things I did in the role when I came on was to start going around the state and just talking to people. Wasn't coming in and trying to solve anything, just trying to understand. And what I got from that is that folks really understand their problems well, where they need help is that they may not have the expertise around the technology or you know, "How do I go about financing these kinds of programs?" And so I just took it upon myself to say, look, you know, we're never going to solve this problem at a state-wide. We're never going to have a statewide plan. I wouldn't even know what that looks like. And so I think it really was just the fact of engaging the communities and understanding, first of all, how passionate they were about this issue and all they're really looking for is just help, help us solve this problem. Even last night at the dinner I was at, I was talking to some of the community members and the first question I ask, is "So, you know, first of all, how are we doing and then how can the state help you?" And I just got a litany of feedback. It's all very positive, but, "Hey Tony, this is what we really need you to do now. Thank you for, you know, getting a stable funding source for us, but here's the three issues now that we have." And so people really know what they need to do, and they just need help to figure out how to get there.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious if you looked at what other states are doing and learned anything from them as you were considering what you should be doing at the Broadband Office.

Tony Neal-GravesYeah. When I first started, I did look around at other states and what I saw was, is that everyone is kind of struggling with this issue and trying to figure out what's the role that the state should play. And I think you said it well earlier that I do feel like Colorado has, I wouldn't necessarily say that we're leading, but I think that, you know, we've been at this for a while now in terms of trying to figure out, you know, what we need to do. By the time I came along you know, we, we sort of had a broadband fund in place, you know, DOLA's been investing in some of the efforts and we just need to get a little bit more coordinated in terms of how we do it and then solve some of the funding issues. What I've seen in other states is their understanding that we do need to have some more focus around this. And, you know some of the states like Minnesota I think is doing very good job. Ther's some good efforts going on in Nebraska. I looked around all the states that are close to Colorado. Utah is doing some great work. The one that I focused on a lot because I was trying to figure out how they were going to go fund some of the stuff was New York, and what I realized in New York is that they have a very different ability to go fund this stuff, you know? [Laughs]

Christopher Mitchell: I like to say it's a renewable resource for funding because they put $500 million dollars in their broadband from fining banks for destroying the economy.

Tony Neal-GravesExactly! That's exactly right. And I say, well, how can we do that? No, there's just no way for us to do that.

Christopher Mitchell: There's no shortage of banks in New York. The biggest banks that are doing things that they could be fined for. So, um, but unfortunately no other state has that ability.

Tony Neal-GravesYeah. You know, again, so what I've found is that every state is sort of either around where we are, or maybe a little bit behind in terms of creating more of a focused office around it. And the common theme though that I get from every state is: how do we fund this? Because, you know, I think everyone's gotten to the point, this is not a technology issue. We have plenty of technologies to deploy broadband, but it's how do you offset some of that capital cost so that you can get those infrastructure built out. And as you know, I mean, we've done this before, you know, this is not new for our country. You know, back in the last century, we got, you know electricity to rural America. We got telephone service to rural America. We figured out how to do the interstate system. You know, so we know how to do this. We just need to apply some of those same learnings to this new infrastructure investment.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you about the bigger carriers because your job isn't just to work with the local companies and the local communities. I'm sure. You know, CenturyLink is a company that I think a lot of communities that are frustrated with, at the same time, they've been more aggressive in cities like Denver and Fort Collins than I expected with fiber to the home investments. So there's a lot of critical things I could say about them, but there's also a number of ways in which they've surprised me over the years with better investments. And so I'm just curious if you've had a strained relationship with the incumbents or if you've figured out how to manage them and particularly the big incumbents is what I mean.

Tony Neal-GravesYeah, that's a great question. I think all of the incumbents in the traditional telephony space, like a CenturyLink, and on the cable side with folks like Comcast and in our state, Charter, they have been okay to work with. I think, you know, in fairness, what I think about CenturyLink is that they were kind of ahead of their time. At the time that they were investing in quote "broadband services," you know, the state of the art technology was DSL. And the challenge that they're stuck with now is that they have an infrastructure that it's very hard to make the business case to justify the upgrade, all of that stuff. So I get it. And I think we're at a point now, I think in the state where the big carriers have acknowledged pretty much that, "Hey, I'm never going to really be able to adequately serve these remote communities so you know, we're not gonna fight you on this stuff and you know, we're going to try to play roles where we can play." I'll give you a great example. I had a recent conversation with the folks at CenturyLink and they're now willing to share with the state, you know, where, all of their primary access points are for their fiber infrastructure. Because they're realizing, hey, I may not be able to do last mile and get the kind of speeds did you guys are looking for. But I have a pretty robust fiber infrastructure through the state that we should figure out how to leverage and we want to be a good partner to do that. So, you know, I'm seeing some of that shift go on. Companies like Comcast, I think understand that their primary business model is in denser populated areas of the state. They again will say, hey, if there's a role for us to play, you know, we'll talk about it. So I found that kind of be a good flexible model. And then the real solution I think for rural parts of the state is really going to be with the smaller carriers, who I think have a much different financial model, business model and in a lot of cases also have a stake in that community. And so I think that's another aspect of it that that makes it easier to go solve the problem in the state.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I fully agree with that. I would, and I think actually the business case in the long term for rural networks is better than people realize because if you're providing high-quality rural service, you're going to be insulated from competition. No one's going to come in and try to overbuild you in the way that they would in Longmont for instance, where we've seen the city do that. One of the things I'm really interested in is what happens, what happened in the legislature this past year where Colorado passed what I think is the model right of first refusal language. And this is where, when there's a grant program and a community or a provider wants to build in an area, one of the incumbents can challenge it and say, no, I'm already providing that service or I have the intent to provide it. I've always not liked that right of first refusal, but I understand that there are political realities. Colorado seems to have passed the best version of that. And I'm curious if you have a sense of what the dynamic was. I mean, I don't expect you were up there lobbying, you know, being from the state. But I'm curious if you can describe how it came to be that the language came out the way it did.

Tony Neal-GravesYeah, you know, I think if you look at all of the legislation that came through in this session, I think some of it was kind of a result of frustration on the part of the assembly that, "Hey, you know, we thought we kind of solved this problem back in 2014, right. That, you know, we, we created the fund, we know, we, we put the policy in place, but we're still not seeing the progress." And specifically around a right of first refusal. What we did, what really happened there is that they wanted to tighten up the language about how you could, you know, do that appeal process because we had an instance where we had granted a project that was going to be all Fiber-to-the-Home and through the right of first refusal, the incumbent was able to come in and say, "No, no, no, no, you know, we have infrastructure in that community, you know, we were going to upgrade our infrastructure to meet your minimum requirement, which was 25/3."

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Tony Neal-GravesAnd that kind of made everybody's hair goes on fire, right? So, but they were within their right to do that, the way that we had that structured. So as a result of that, there was a lot of passion to say, "Hey, we recognize the fact that we should allow for a right of first refusal, but let's tighten it up to say, hey, if you're going to come in and, you know, say I want to take that project, you have to match the speeds and capability that that original project was going to deliver. And so I think as a result, so we didn't specify technology, we just said you have to match that in terms of, so if that project was going to do gig services to the home you're going to have, if you're going to come in and take that project, you have to do the same. So I think that was kind of the whole intent of that. We had this kind of bad situation that occurred that really upset a lot of people. So we said we've got to figure out how to find a fair balance.

Christopher Mitchell: And I think there's also a requirement that the price be comparable to what is proposed.

Tony Neal-GravesCorrect. Correct. Because again, you know, I think the board, you know, they've gone through a couple of cycles now and you're starting to kind of get their feet under them about how to grant funds to, you know, really good projects and so, you know, if we're going to have this right of first refusal, let's make sure it's a like for like, and that was the requirement that came out of the bill. So we were pretty excited about that, that we were able to get the legislature to see that as an issue and address it.

Christopher Mitchell: In the final piece of it, and it's something that we actually saw in New Hampshire as well, was maybe a tacit rejection of the broadband maps, the 477 data from the FCC. In that, the broadband legislation in Colorado I think is as measured rather than as advertised.

Tony Neal-GravesAbsolutely. And you're touching on, you know, an area that, that I'm very passionate about. You know, coming from the technology world and being an engineer by training, you know, data is all, you know, all encompassing, you know, good data. And one of the challenges that we have with the data that we get from the FCC is that is not that good, you know, it could be a lot better. And you know, at the state level, we've invested beyond some original grant money we received from the federal government to continue our mapping project to really try to get down to the level where we have as accurate data as possible. So you're absolutely right, if you don't have good data, you're not even sure what you're doing in terms of the grants and everything that you're doing. And then on the upside of it, we're all, we all face this, this experience, right with, with, you know, broadband services or Internet services, is the industry goes around and talks about advertised speeds, which is fine. But the reality, you know, most folks aren't necessarily getting advertised speed most of the time. And so one of the things that we want to do, we're involving state dollars in terms of a project. We want that provider that's receiving those funds to demonstrate to us that they can deliver that speed to the households that they're trying to serve. And I think that that's critical and I think over time as we continue to invest, we'll get more data from these projects that we're doing that will allow us to make sure that we're getting better accuracy around the state in terms of what's really being provided.

Christopher Mitchell: That's really good to hear [laughs]. At the Institute for Local Self Reliance, we are so excited about the role of the electric cooperatives in rural areas. I think SECOM was one of the first here in Colorado and now DMEA, the Delta Montrose folks with Elevate network. There's incredible enthusiasm there. You know, what do you see in terms of the future of more rural electric co-ops in Colorado getting involved?

Tony Neal-GravesMy goal would be to see as many of the co-ops get involved as they possibly can. The reason I say that is because they already have the infrastructure. If you think about it, there's no place you can really go in the state that you can't get electric service. And if we can leverage that infrastructure to deploy broadband services, I think that that's really key. And you're right. I mean, we've got a tradition in the state where we have SECOM that's been very involved in it. St Louis Valley Rural Electric has gotten very involved. San Miguel does middle-mile projects more on the commercial side. They haven't decided to go all the way to the last mile for residential services. And then, you know, the big exciting when folks hear about a lot is DMEA. And you know, I've talked to many of the rural electrics and trying to understand whether or not it makes sense for them to get involved in it. And it's kind of a you unique model because rural electric are co-ops, and they're owned by the people that they're serving. So, if that community goes to their board and say, "We want you to do this," they have to kind of figure out how to do it. And, I think that it's kind of the hidden gem for us in the state of Colorado. And I think that's true in a lot of states where folks don't realize how many rural electrics exist around the country and there quite a few.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, they, half of the landmass of North America and the United States boundaries is electricity from the rural electrics, co-ops.

Tony Neal-GravesThey also have this advantage, by the way, that they can get federal dollars as well to upgrade their grid infrastructure for monitoring. You know, and once you build out that using federal grant money, you do have the ability to leverage for other things.

Christopher Mitchell: Longmont is an incredibly exciting community, not just in Colorado where I think it's spurred a lot of the front range conversations, I hear about it from people all over the country. I mean it was one of the first, and it's certainly the first on that scale to build a network without offering television services directly. Um, and we, we've seen really great municipal investments elsewhere in the state. I mean, just the fact that you have this referendum requirement, you have more than 100 local governments that have opted out of it. There's an incredible enthusiasm there. You, what, what do you see as your role in the state of making sure that they're getting it right, that they're well informed and, and making sure that they're making smart investments and...I'm just curious your experience, um, you know, coming into this at the state level?

Tony Neal-Graves: Yeah, there's a couple of -- there's a lot of topics around that question. I think first, one thing I would like to mention about Senate Bill 152: When I got here, you know, I heard a lot of frustration from communities about, you know, this is just another roadblock, but over time what I've realized is that Senate Bill 152 and the opt out, you know, ballot requirement is actually a good thing. Because what it gets the community engaged, you know, to say this is something that we want. And I think what it's also doing is creating a lot of visibility outside of the state of Colorado. Hey, there's a lot of interested parties in the state that want to go solve this broadband issue and interestingly enough it's attracting what I would describe as being private investment to say is there an opportunity for us to make money on this because there's such a strong local interest. On the issue that you mentioned about, you know, municipalities getting involved and what I described as, and there's multiple layers to this. You know, you can provide the basic service, what I described as being the connectivity, you know, that's kind of my definition of broadband, getting the connectivity to the business or the home and then there's all the services that come on top of it, you know, whether it's TV services, access to streaming, all the other things that you want to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, let me just, let me just ask you, when you say connectivity, are you thinking more like the physical assets that make it work or you mean the actual Internet access that enables the services?

Tony Neal-GravesYeah, the way I think about this is that there's two parts to the Internet, you know. And by the way, you know, as you and I were talking before we got into the podcast, is that there's a lot of definition around this. When I think about the Internet, there's two pieces to it: Can I physically get connected to the world, you know, worldwide web, you know, can I get connected and can I have a pipe into my home that has reasonable capacity and speed that I can do something. And then after that there's like, which services do I want to gain access to? Do I want to have a subscription to Netflix? Do I want to have, you know, um, the ability to connect to all kinds of, you know, online gaming services and things like that. That's a separate piece of the puzzle. And so I think, you know, you can provide the basic service to people and say, "Hey, I can give you 100 megs symmetrical service to your home," and you could charge for that. And you can say, "That's all I'm going to do." And then you, or you could decide I'm going to be more of a complete service, I'm going to give you that, plus I'm going to, you know, have, give you access to, you know, the TV stations and all the other things. And there's a variety of ways to do that in the overtop services. So you've got to decide what, what type of retail service are you going to deliver to that community.

Christopher Mitchell: My listeners are probably a little bit frustrated, legitimately so because I haven't talked enough about munis.

Tony Neal-GravesMhm.

Christopher Mitchell: But here in Mountain Connect and, um, one of the things that I think it makes this one of the best conferences nationally is that it reflects Colorado. You've got really great local private companies, sometimes you have some of the national companies, you know, partaking, but you have cooperatives, you have wireless people, you have wired people, you have the cities, you've got all, you've got just everyone comes together to talk about that. And it's not something I see in every state. And this all happened before you started legalizing marijuana in Colorado. So I'm curious, you know, what happens, do you have a sense of going back historically how not just this event but in the state and people were so cooperative to it seems like to solve this problem.

Tony Neal-GravesThat's a great question. I'm not sure how this all evolved because again, I kind of came into it for the first time last year. You know, Mountain Connect is been an event that's been kind of growing for several years now and they're starting to expand and consider doing similar kinds of things in other communities. What I, what I've found is that what seems to be the common link around here is that there is a lot of regional councils of governments where, you know, the local counties and the towns come together on a regional basis and they're pretty cooperative within those units. And, and we also leverage that at the state level in terms of like DOLA and other organizations in terms of how we engage the communities on economic development and other things. And so there's already was kind of that level of cooperation and I think, you know, with the organizers of Mountain Connect realizes that if we can pull everybody together to an event like this on this topic, it seems to be something everybody wants to talk about, we can gain some momentum. And I would have to say this year's event is phenomenal from my perspective, because I do agree with you that there's a really good mix of everybody who's a player in this space to say, "Hey, how are we gonna work together?" You know, everyone from the vendors that got equipment to service providers, county commissioners, you know, everybody's here trying to figure out how am I going to go solve the problem? And I think the tracks that they're creating, you know, around either policy-related conversations or technology-related conversations is really good to educate people on the problem. Because it is very complex, as you mentioned in your question. There's just so many pieces to this puzzle. You know, what I find for whether it's a municipality or county or whatever is sometimes they really struggle with, "Well, how do I even get started on this, you know, what do I do?" And uh, I think this is a good resource in terms of giving people information that they need.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show because when I looked back at the history of electrification, a lot of people think it started in 1935, but, you know, in 1935, the federal government learned a lot of lessons from what the states had been doing and I see this similar thing happening with broadband. And I think when the federal government gets its act together, it will learn lessons from Colorado. So, thank you for being a part of that.

Tony Neal-GravesThank you, Chris. Thank you for having here today. I'm really excited about having the opportunity to share.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office. You can learn more about Colorado's changes in its right of first refusal at MuniNetworks.org. 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 and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on apple podcast, stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thanks to Arne Husby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle," licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 312 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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