This is the transcript for episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Dalton, Georgia, has been offering high-speed connectivity to residents and businesses for over a decade, and for this episode, Christopher finally gets a chance to speak with Hank Blackwood from Dalton Utilities about their fiber network OptiLink. Read the transcript below, or listen to the episode here.
Hank Blackwood: So we got into that business sort of slowly but soon realized that, man, if we needed this and our biggest customers needed this, there's a need for this in the community.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. For 15 years, Dalton, Georgia, has been going about their business offering fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to the community. Well, we finally have them on the show to talk about the history of their fiber network, OptiLink, and what's next for them. Hank Blackwood from OptiLink took some time out of his schedule to talk with Christopher for this week's show. Hank describes the community's need for the network, which started with other utilities and as they soon realized extended to business and residential connectivity. He talks about the updates they've made and the new technologies they've introduced to the community, including their new video product that has been driving up subscriptions and the new gig offering. Christopher and Hank also discuss some of the many ways the infrastructure has helped Dalton from economic development and entrepreneurship to telehealth and meeting the diverse cultural needs of the community. Now, here's Christopher talking with Hank Blackwood from OptiLink in Dalton, Georgia.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with someone from one of the original Fiber-to-the-Home communities: Hank Blackwood, the Chief Technical Services Officer for Dalton Utilities and the network OptiLink. Welcome to the show, Hank.
Hank Blackwood: Hello. Glad to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm very excited to be speaking to you. You know, we've made it a habit of trying to talk to all of the citywide municipal networks, and you're one of the original ones. So maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about Dalton. What's the region like around Dalton?
Hank Blackwood: Dalton primarily has [been] referred to as the carpet capital of the world. It has been sort of a manufacturing community — and really the region also, the surrounding counties — in the textile business for years and years. The utility started supplying water to the industry around the turn of the 20th century, so we've been around since the late 1800s and helped fuel that industry because it was a very water intensive industry. And then years later, [we] offered electricity and then natural gas, and now we also do sewer collection. And recently, in the last 18 or so years, we've gone into telecommunications to support that. So Dalton is a unique part of the state of Georgia in this community because of the amount of manufacturing and the large amount of utility consumption in such a small place.
Christopher Mitchell: And Dalton's about 35,000 people I think I saw, but your utilities go well beyond that.
Hank Blackwood: That's right. We serve customers in portions of six counties and our footprints are different for each of the various utility sectors, but our largest utility is water.
Christopher Mitchell: You started at Dalton — as we talk a little bit more about the broadband — you started at Dalton well before they began offering residential services. Based on all the utilities we've spoken with, I'm guessing that Dalton has been involved with telecommunications internally for a long time, but tell us a little bit about how the utility got into it.
Hank Blackwood: Originally we were — you know, being what we were [with] facilities all over, we needed an ability to connect all of our pumping stations, substations, sewage lift stations, specific campuses with the ability to just, you know, [simply] make phone calls, transfer data. And we were approaching quickly the old Y2K, and we were not sure about our computer systems. Of course, a lot of things we had were very old. If it worked, we kept it, so —
Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Right.
Hank Blackwood: — we were still on a lot of mainframe and dial up and those kinds of things. But we decided to start transitioning our SCADA system and went to the market for telecommunications products, and they just weren't there or they were so expensive they were just cost prohibitive. So we decided that we would build fiber optic cable to our facilities and just build our own little internal network, and we started doing that in the late nineties. It didn't take long for some of our larger customers to see what we were doing. Of course, our facilities, our largest facilities, are near the largest manufacturing facilities. So you know, having then at the time the three largest carpet manufacturers in the world located here, they started going, "Hey, we could use that. We need to do so and so." And so we decided [in the] late nineties that we would start offering simple point-to-point Ethernet-type services because all of the facilities, you know, that needed service were right next to our facility, so it was easy to do. So we got into that business sort of slowly but soon realized that, man, if we needed this and our biggest customers needed this, there's a need for this in the community. And [we] started talking to community leaders early 2000, and by 2003 we'd made the decision that we needed to build a system for our customers and our — you know, everybody that's in Dalton is either associated with the carpet industry, either directly or indirectly, or they're in a support role at another industry with chemical or machinery or any of those kinds of things. We thought this would be an opportunity to do that, so our board decided, our governing body decided in 2003, let's offer a Fiber-to-the-Home type product and go from there, and we'll offer services that were just not available at the time. So we launched at the end of 2003 and been doing it ever since.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, this is the kind of thing that's been a — it's about a business atmosphere is what I'm hearing. It's about the business climate in the community.
Hank Blackwood: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: So rather than going over all the things that have happened since then, let me just ask you if there's been any highlights over the years that you've been offering this service and presumably transitioning from BPON to GPON and doing who knows what else.
Hank Blackwood: Since we started, we've been able to do a lot of firsts here in town. One is, of course, our Internet service. We were able to offer speeds easily 10 times what the competition could do with DSL even before the days of DOCSIS modems, so you know, we introduced 10 Meg Internet service to residents at the same price you could buy DSL. And today that has moved up to our basic service [which] is 50 meg now, and we are in the process of launching one Gig and then soon after 10 Gig to the home. And so over the years, we've brought some of the first HD programming to town. We also [were] some of the first to bring PVR, home digital recording set-top boxes, to town. And now after being in the video business for 15 years, we've decided it's time to do something, you know, take that next step. Our video system's a little dated — maybe we want to use the word stale.
Christopher Mitchell: Got some dust on it?
Hank Blackwood: That's right. That's right. And we went out to the market, we hired Xcel Services to be sort of our guide in looking for what's the best of breed product. We wanted to go with something that had quality and features that we had come to expect, you know, with sort of enterprise-type gear in the field, but we also did not want to redo our cable TV head-end only to have to spend several million and only be marginally better than what we had. So we were trying to find what was that next generation. So with Xcel's help, we went out and put together an RFP, went out to the market, and came back with some great responses. And this company called MOBITV popped up, and it is basically a hosted video solution that did not require us to invest in a huge head-end all over again but gave us the ability to offer all HD programming, whole-home DVR services, being able to watch video on devices (smart phones and tablets and PCs), being able to watch all your recorded content outside the house. We were wanting to go with market-leading type product but also future-proof what we were putting in place because it seems the paradigm shift just keeps changing in the video market. We didn't want to build something and then two years later be, you know, ancient again. This quickening cycle of technology changes that, you know, continue to go and go and go and go. We've changed our internet speed half a dozen times over the years, but the cable product just sort of stayed the same. Even our voice product added feature sets and pricing advantages and long distance, you know, packages, all these things that have changed. But the video product — it needed a face lift. We've developed a product we call VidLink, which is our new video service, and it's been launched here for a few months. And we are converting our existing customer base, and we're also adding new customers to our video product, which there again, that had been sort of a flat business as far as customers go for some time. But now we're adding new customers, and so far the response has been — it's been well received.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's be clear about that then. I want to just clarify something. So is VidLink the MOBI product and that's how you've branded it?
Hank Blackwood: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: And so in a time in which we're seeing the major cable companies nationally losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers, you're picking up new ones.
Hank Blackwood: That's right. We have maybe seen the bottom and we're on the way back the other direction. Because it is a hometown product, we take a lot of pride in being that hometown provider, and so we took lots of input from our customer base, you know, to keep the channel packages a certain way and the feature sets that they really wanted to have. We feel like it's a product that not only we think is a great product, but there was a lot of customer input to get to this point. And I think everybody locally, you know, we all take pride in what we do here in Dalton, so I think folks want to be a part of that. And it is a new and exciting product. It's a great product with all the features. You use it once and you're hooked
Christopher Mitchell: As a sports fan, do you have a lot of local sports on it? You able to put high school sports on it and things like that?
Hank Blackwood: We do. Living where we do in Dalton, we're a part of the Chattanooga, Tennessee DMA, so we have all those networks there and they cover a lot of, you know, Friday night high school football — very important here. And then of course we live in Georgia, so we pick up some of the networks from Atlanta. So we get the local high school football. We get the Georgia football, Georgia Tech football, you know, pick up all those games. So yeah, and there's a local TV station that does a little more in depth coverage with coaches, shows, and that type of thing. So yeah, it's a great thing; everybody gets to see that programming. And one of the reasons we wanted to stay in this business, in the cable business, when so many folks are making decisions to move on or give their customers to somebody else, we still wanted to have that link to our customer base. And we thought if we can still provide a better value — and that's really how we got into the business — and something they can't get anywhere else, that's what we want to do.
Christopher Mitchell: I want to jump back into some of the broadband-related questions. And so, you know, you mentioned your slowest speed that you offer is 50 Megabit. You're offering 100 Megabit for those that wanted to jump up in a tier in between, and I noticed that you'd been doing 20 Megabit uploads — something that a lot of people that listen to us are gonna be interested in because many of us are doing production stuff as well as consumption. So I'm curious, as you're looking at that — I mean, it's pretty decent speeds for what most people need, but you decided to make that jump to gigabit. What made you think that this is the right time as opposed to waiting another year or two or something like that?
Hank Blackwood: We see our Internet besides the sheer number of customers increase all the time. We see that usage continue to rise as the sort of Internet of Things. So many people are using the Internet for different things now. Two things: One, with this new VidLink product, we deliver it over our Internet system here locally, so we wanted to be sure that we could offer a service say with gig that they could do anything they needed to plus add the video product without any issues with that. But two, as a way to sort of drive the economy, attract businesses. We've seen several other cities that have launched gigabit service and it be just a boon for their economic development. We've had the ability; we've offered gig service for several years to our larger industrial-type customers. We thought, you know, to be the provider that provides that to the home, people will recognize us as a technology city. So we've been pushing to get rid of all of our original Alcatel BPON gear, and now we've swapped everybody over to some sort of Gigabit PON equipment. And so we are ready to launch our gigabit product — matter of fact, we'll be launching that gigabit product next week.
Christopher Mitchell: This will air on Tuesday, so in fact it'll be this week.
Hank Blackwood: Okay. Okay. Well good.
Christopher Mitchell: Time travel.
Hank Blackwood: The 19th is the day.
Christopher Mitchell: That's exciting. So you mentioned the earlier in the show that you have service in six counties. Is your Internet service available to just about everyone in that area or is that different from your electric service?
Hank Blackwood: It is different. Our electric service primarily serves the City of Dalton. In the state of Georgia, you have territories that you're allowed to serve and whatnot with electric. We serve of course anywhere our electric footprint is, but we also serve outside of that. So we serve — Dalton is the county seat for Whitfield County. We serve a lot outside of the city in Whitfield County. We also offer services in a county east of here, which is Murray County. We serve a lot of the City of Chatsworth and a lot of their industrial sector, which they're again textile manufacturing related. The most number of our customers are in Whitfield County, but we do have a fair amount of service in the next county over. And that there again is primarily broadband service for business, and a lot of not only Internet service but point-to-point managed area network-type connections for businesses. We're doing a lot of businesses just like we did originally. They need phone service between their plants, Internet service between their plants, so now they have their own private network, and so we do a lot of that between these two counties.
Christopher Mitchell: And if you don't mind me asking, what's your take rate in the Dalton area in particular?
Hank Blackwood: If you look at all of our services combined, depending on the day you talk about it, it's between 60 and 65 percent, and there are pockets in our downtown district that's over 90 percent.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we've seen in a number of places is regardless of how many people take the service — and that's a very impressive take rate compared to even other popular networks — is that still often the cable and telephone companies try to create anger and frustration and just try to give you a black eye. I haven't seen anything like that in the media in the times that we've looked. Have you mostly escaped that or are people just not buying it? What's the dynamic?
Hank Blackwood: To be honest, when we first launched, not too many municipals had done this, and I really believe that the thought was, "Well, it's a flash in the pan." At the time, the telephone company that was the incumbent telephone provider was in transition. They'd been bought out by another provider and they were in transition, and the same thing with a cable system. It had been a local or regionally-owned system and had just been bought out by a national company. And I believe everybody thought, "Well, you know, it's going to happen and go away. They don't know what they're doing." And it wasn't until we were probably two and three years into our buildout that we got a little bit of static in the newspaper. There were some articles trying to talk about other places that had tried to do this and they'd lost money, and you know, there was a little bit of that misleading information, but it didn't seem to last very long. I don't know if it's because now that national providers were offering services here, the cable and telephone companies are offering services here, maybe we were just small enough [that] we weren't on the radar. Or maybe with being a hometown company, people just liked it so much they just felt like they didn't have trash. Not sure what. We'll say it was the latter, but it might have been simply because we were just that small on everybody's radar.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me ask you then, you know, based on all the years you've been working on this, are there stories over the years that just make you really proud of offering this service? I mean, you seem like the kind of person who you certainly could have hooked on with a larger utility somewhere else in the southeast that wanted to build a network, but you've stuck around in Dalton. What keeps you just really enthusiastic in knowing that you've done the right thing over the years?
Hank Blackwood: Over the years [it's] been great. Just great stories. One of which was early on, we were able to — Dalton has a fairly significant Hispanic population. A lot of immigrants here because of the manufacturing part and because of the places where we sell the goods here and where those go. So we have a fairly large immigrant population. One of the things that was a part of that culture was sort of Internet cafes, which had not been — you know, in this country, we were sort of late bloomers for that because so many other countries, if you wanted Internet service, you had to go to an Internet cafe. So we supported one of those, helped get one of those off the ground for a local immigrant businessman, and that was hugely successful. We were able to work with him and get him the kind of bandwidth he needed for a lot of users [and] telephone service that was inexpensive for all of his customers. That was one big thing. And you know, that was a great thing for the community. Other things: a local doctor's office, the guy who was sort of innovative, trying to go to an all electronic-type system when nobody else was doing that. [He] needed the ability to tie his two offices together and his third party billing company closer to real time, so he would not have to have the staff to manage insurance and keep up with all those kinds of things. So he could do that stuff in almost real time, and basically the doctor or the physician's assistant from a laptop could have that information before they left your room — you know, verify that your prescriptions were covered and the procedure or condition you were there for was covered. And you were able to walk out the door with a printout of everything you needed and your prescription sent to a local pharmacy or whatnot. And that was another big thing that he sort of took advantage of and we were able to provide because at the time we were offering what was really high speed Internet. And now you mentioned the upload speeds. In those days, the upload speeds were 5 Megs and that was unheard of. They couldn't even get download speeds at that level, so that was a big change. More recently we've been able to, with companies that are doing distance learning for like safety and training and product training and safety, those types of things, we've been able to offer those guys the ability to do that and keep from bringing people to Dalton and having to house them locally and all those kinds of things. They can conduct those training seminars in all their facilities. Some of the carpet industries here, they've got offices across North America and some in Europe, and then we can help support that distance learning. Additionally, being a part of our local school systems, being able to provide service for local school systems, city and county school systems, all of the things that we hear about with now kids taking tablets home and being able to provide affordable Internet service for kids to be able to do video learning when they go home. They've got their textbooks on a tablet, and they can watch educational YouTube videos and Vimeo videos and all those types of things that comes along with the Internet age. We've been able to provide that also. And here in just the last couple of months, we've had a local company, a young fella developed a product for his his Lego building where he —
Christopher Mitchell: You have my attention. [laughs]
Hank Blackwood: He was able to develop a glue product that he could put on his Lego bricks when he built something, so when he dropped them they wouldn't bust into a thousand pieces and you could pull the glue off. He sort of described it as the sticky notes for Lego products. And he developed that here in town, and he credits being able to have not only high speed Internet but a stable low-latency Internet connection as he was helping develop this product. And he's since made it to Shark Tank, and he's been taken on with an investor to grow his business. That's a big plus. Also, we've got a lady that recently came forward that runs a local counseling center, and the ability to take specialists in a field that may not be available here locally because of the size of the town — she can put clients in touch with a specialist, doctors, or therapists in other places with real time, there again, low-latency, consistent video connection. So just a lot of good things that come out of that, that make you look forward to getting up and coming to work every day.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It certainly seems like, you know, there's a sense I think that if you live in a town outside of a metro region that you might be missing some things, but you're doing a lot of things down there that I can't do here in a major metro because I'm stuck on a cable connection I have no control over. One of the things you said that really resonated with me was discussing the video package and services that people actually wanted with the community. The only time I get a call from my cable company, they're trying to sucker me into taking another package or something like that. So, I can definitely see how —
Hank Blackwood: We would be more than happy for your company to move to Dalton. We've got a place for you. I'd be glad for you to move here.
Christopher Mitchell: I appreciate that. You let me know when you have proper winters with lots of snow.
Hank Blackwood: Okay. [laughs]
Christopher Mitchell: Well, this has been really great. I'm glad to learn more about the network, and I'm thrilled about your success. Excited about the new VidLink product, the 10 Gigabit services. It sounds like y'all are doing great.
Hank Blackwood: Yup. Yup. And like I said, this new VidLink video product, we had a beta trial that was going along and it was great. We've had a beta trial with our gig product, and all that has been very positive. So, lots of good things happening at Dalton Utilities.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
Hank Blackwood: Thank you, sir. I enjoyed it.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Hank Blackwood from OptiLink in Dalton, Georgia. 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. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.