This is the transcript for episode 338 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Jeff Christensen from EntryPoint about software defined networking and how to change our current telecommunications models to promote innovation and subscriber control. The audio for the episode is available here.
Jeff Christensen: Around 2003, cloud computing changed. The data center changed, and cloud computing changed. And that's when we got automation, software control, virtualization maturing, and then a few years later we got software defined networking. The convergence of all those technologies changed the data center, the cloud, and the Internet — changed the way we experience the Internet.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 338 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, we bring you a conversation with Jeff Christensen from EntryPoint Networks. EntryPoint develops software defined networks, also known as dynamic open access networks — an approach with the potential to redefine the municipal open access model. Regular listeners will recognize Ammon. Idaho, as a software defined network, and Christopher and Jeff discuss Ammon during the interview. Jeff describes a model where municipalities fill the role of infrastructure provider while services are handled by the marketplace. Innovation, security speed, and individual choice, not only of provider but also of how a subscriber uses the infrastructure, can reverse the negative impacts of a model that we've all grown accustomed to. This focus on control for users rather than technology from ISPs allows innovation without constraint, which ultimately benefits everyone. Christopher and Jeff also discuss how cloud computing has affected software defined networks and reimagine the way we use the Internet. They get into cloud edge computing and discuss how future trends show users defining technology needs. Be sure to watch Jeff's TED Talks and check out more about how EntryPoint is helping to redefine open access at entpnt.com. We have links and embedded videos on the podcast page. Now, here's Christopher and Jeff Christensen from EntryPoint Networks.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. It's 2019 and we're starting off pretty strong. I'm Chris Mitchell up here in Minneapolis with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in case you didn't pick up on that in the last 340 or so episodes, talking today with Jeff Christensen, the president of EntryPoint Networks, who I'm going to guess — you're coming to me from Utah today.
Jeff Christensen: That's right. Salt Lake City.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. I was hoping that you'd be home. I know you spend a lot of time on the road. Actually, several of my listeners may be familiar with your TED Talk videos that we've tried to promote over the years. Before we talk about EntryPoint, I'd just curious if you'd give us a little sense of your background.
Jeff Christensen: It's sort of an unintentional history of startups. I did my schooling — I did my undergraduate here at the University of Utah, and then I did a master's degree back at Purdue in Indiana.
Christopher Mitchell: Big Ten.
Jeff Christensen: Big Ten. Yeah, that's right. After graduate school, I went to work for a boutique consulting firm. Through that, [I] met Brad Banyai, who became now a 30 year business partner. Together we started three companies. After the consulting firm, we purchased a software company that converted paper data to digital data, primarily for the healthcare industry, and we grew that company from four employees to 500 employees and then sold it to a company in Nashville in 2010. And as we got to the point where we thought we would sell that company, we invested in EntryPoint. That was in 2008. We knew about software, we knew about managing development teams, but we didn't know anything about networking, and really we invested because we believed in Robert Peterson, who we had met sort of on a chance meeting. So Robert really is the founder of EntryPoint, and he's our technology strategist.
Christopher Mitchell: And Robert is someone who — anyone who's watched the video we did, the 20 minute-ish video on Ammon, Idaho's approach with software defined networking and their whole financial model — and we're gonna talk about how EntryPoint is very involved in that — but people may have seen Robert Peterson in that video.
Jeff Christensen: We met Robert [and] invested not from a position of understanding but from really a position of faith in his intelligence and grasp of the issues, and once we sold the other company that we had built, we turned our full attention to EntryPoint. And it's been a long research and development cycle, really fulltime efforts since 2012, but I think the platform that we've built is right for the times. I think there's a lot of convergence going on that gives us some real competitive advantages and opportunity to make a difference.
Christopher Mitchell: Jeff, you've done, like I said, several TED Talks, and I'm curious if you can just tell us a little bit about what's broken in terms of the telecommunications networks that we all depend on.
Jeff Christensen: Yeah. The first TED Talk I gave really was focused on what's broken. I think most people think about what's broken in terms of paying too much and getting too little back, and that's certainly part of the issue, but fundamentally, what we think is broken is the way the whole system is structured. And the way we say it — and I've got to credit Seth Godin because we kind of took something Seth Godin had written and modified it for our own benefit — we say that incumbent network operators want to serve just enough to make the maximum profit and cities are incentivized to build networks which profit just enough to provide the maximum service. So it's flipping really the whole model upside down. Right now, the incumbents have total control because they control the infrastructure and the services, and by breaking that up we can build networks that are really designed to serve subscribers. And so, that's fundamental for us, is breaking up that control and organizing systems in favor of consumers.
Christopher Mitchell: What I really like about that, what really appeals to me is that that problem statement makes it clear that our problem is not going to be solved just with better technology. And this is one of those things I think sometimes people get hung up on when they're trying to improve Internet access or network access more broadly in their community, is they start thinking "fiber, fiber, fiber." And your focus is on who controls it as opposed to what the technology is. I think we all agree that we're looking at a fiber optic technology ideally, but who knows where that'll go over the next several decades. And you're focused on kind of who controls the technologies and what incentives they have.
Jeff Christensen: Yeah. Yeah. We're very much focused on the control issues and the incentive issues, and ultimately we think this area is open to disruption because the systems aren't set up to serve customers. They're set up to serve the profit interests of the large incumbents. And that's not immoral; it's not unethical. It just doesn't work for consumers, and it will continue not to work until we fix that problem.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, it's kind of like saying, you know, on the Savannah, the lion eating its prey is not immoral, but it is inconvenient for the antelope and those kinds of animals.
Jeff Christensen: That's right.
Christopher Mitchell: So what are we doing about it? Let's get into this. I mean, I think we can't assume that everyone who is listening is familiar with Ammon, no matter how many times I talk about it. So how do you want to explain what Ammon's doing and how EntryPoint figures into that?
Jeff Christensen: To keep it simple, Ammon is really two things. The way we look at it, Ammon is a financing mechanism and it's a technology platform. And I think both of them are innovative, although we've seen hints of both in different places, but what's core to the financing mechanism is that risk is distributed to the subscribers. So rather than the city itself taking on the risk, Ammon has distributed that risk to the people who voluntarily participate in the network. There are quite a few moving parts on the technology, but fundamentally the technology separates the infrastructure and the services, and that separation allows us to solve what we think is broken with the current model. So we talk about it as open access, as cloud. In our world, we're moving all the service providers, including the ISP, to the cloud, and we're leveraging advanced networking tools to make access look like the Internet. So what's really broken technologically is access because access is a siloed system; it's a closed system controlled by the incumbents. And so we're opening that up, moving services to the cloud, moving control of the infrastructure to the city — or could be a utility, could be a cooperative — but we're moving control so the control can be shifted to the consumer or the subscriber.
Christopher Mitchell: So before we lose people who might start to be intimidated, let's unpack what it means to separate the infrastructure from the services. You know, I think maybe it's useful to think about this in terms of our own homes. You know, I have ethernet cords running throughout my home. How do I separate the services from the infrastructure conceptually in that environment?
Jeff Christensen: So if we think about infrastructure, let's stay with fiber optics since that's our most robust media. To keep it simple, let's ask who controls the fiber optics? Right now that's the large incumbents in 99.x percent of the country. And then let's say who controls the services? And again, it's the same answer for 99+ percent of the country: it's the large incumbents. So rather than explaining it technologically, just think about the group that owns the infrastructure is different than the group that controls the services, and technologically we've created a system that allows those to be independent of each other — to leverage each other but to interact independently of each other. And the services all get pushed to the cloud, which means all service providers, including ISPs, are software companies, and once we get to software, we know that we've got a lot more flexibility. It's a lot more dynamic, and the magic is that real competition can happen. And a bunch of other things can happen. Innovation can happen. Whereas in this siloed system we live in today, innovation really cannot happen in the access space because it only happens at the speed of the incumbent, so the incumbent has full control over all of that.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's think about this back — as you were describing it, I was thinking back to when dial up was exciting, not to when it was depressing, but back in the early and mid nineties when many of us were just thrilled to be using dial up to get on the Internet. At that point, almost anybody could create an ISP because the phone service allowed you to use their lines. And so an ISP didn't know how to connect people to homes. They didn't have to worry about dialing, how the phone system really worked. They just answered phone calls with a modem bank, and then they put people on the Internet. So all of the physical stuff was just abstracted away in the sense that if you wanted to be an ISP, you didn't have to know how to construct a physical network. In some ways, that's what you're replicating now, and in doing that, you're removing barriers to entry for all kinds of companies that then can specialize in software, in working with users and providing them services without worrying about how to build a physical network.
Jeff Christensen: Exactly, and that's a critical piece. So on the EntryPoint side of it, we see our job to be to make it easy for the stakeholders of the network to do their thing and then to interact with each other. So, our job is to make it easy for a new ISP to come onto the network. Our job is to provide an interface that's intuitive, that makes it easy for the subscriber to switch ISPs. In Ammon, we've sort of built a lot of stock around the idea that they can switch their ISP in 30 seconds. But also, our job is to make it easy for the network operator to see what's going on in the network. In the next month, we will roll out in Ammon some tools that allow all three stakeholders to real time identify where an issue is. So if there's an outage, all three stakeholders — the subscriber, the service provider, and the network operator — simultaneously will be able to get an alarm and say, "This is where the problem is."
Christopher Mitchell: And that's different from the majority of open access networks today, where I think if there's an outage, of the three stakeholders: the ISP, the network operator, which we'll assume is the city for this purpose, and the subscriber — in most of those open access networks today, if there's an outage, only the operator, the city, could really know where that is most likely today. Right?
Jeff Christensen: Yeah. I think that's true. Not only in open access, but I think it's true everywhere. I mean, we just had that big CenturyLink outage and it was a couple of days before we got an explanation on what happened. Our goal is to make that obvious real time. And to tell, we're actually going to prompt consumers. We're gonna send out text messages, before they know it, that there's an outage, and then if they should call someone, we're gonna tell them who to call by identifying where the problem is.
Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that I think is interesting is that both with your problem statement and with the tools that you're building, I think you will not be successful if the only thing that results in Ammon or in other cities that you're working with is lower prices for Internet access. And I want to get into that in a second. I just wanted to first note that I am just going to skip all the ways in which Ammon's financing model is brilliant and really avoids a lot of the challenges focused with building these networks because we've done several shows on it. We have a video about it. So I'll encourage people if they want to learn more about that particular angle, which would be a natural thing to talk about, to check out some of those past shows. We'll have links to that stuff in the podcast page that is associated with this. But tell me, you know, would you regard it as a failure if the only result in Ammon that sets it apart from other places is a lower price for the same kind of services?
Jeff Christensen: It's great question and something we struggle with because we sometimes are too focused on the future, where what consumers understand today is lower cost.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Jeff Christensen: Or bandwidth. We're actually going to a city council meeting tonight here in Utah where a good percentage of the residents have less than one meg and many of them are on a point-to-point wireless network because there is no alternative. So you know, there is a segment of the country that still is either not served or vastly underserved, and the problem they see in front of them is clearly an access at all — a zero access problem.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. It's a good reminder and a note that you're not just sort of focused on the areas that already have good service and figuring out how to make it better. Your solution certainly will apply to areas that have nothing as well as those that are more advanced, but I think it's worth noting that Ammon has by FCC standards pretty modern connectivity in the absence of this network that your technology is enabling. So I just want to get back to poking you on this issue of exactly what is success for EntryPoint.
Jeff Christensen: So given that what consumers understand today is faster speed and lower costs, and that's certainly part of the equation. But the question we ask ourselves is how can municipal broadband move from being somewhat marginal in terms of just sheer numbers — although it's growing — but how does it move from being somewhat marginal to being real disruption, to being something that every city is thinking about and eventually every city is doing something about. So I think that's the way we frame it, is what problems do we need to solve so that every city is focused on this and doing something about it. And I think there are real reasons to be optimistic on say a 10 to 15 year view, and that's because cities can solve the fundamental problem which is paying attention to what the subscribers want, but there is really tight alignment between the interests of the city and the interests of the consumer. I mean, they both want the same thing from the network. And many of those things are things that the cities aren't paying attention to today and subscribers aren't thinking about today, and so that has to do with what does the future look like and what will the network have to be capable of doing in order to check those boxes. And you know, there's a lot of hype around 5G right now, and 5G is being presented as sort of this knight riding in on a horse that's going to solve all the problems. But it's not going to solve the fundamental problem, which is 5G is still going to be designed for the benefit of the network operator and the service providers — the incumbents — and so it's still not going to solve the fundamental issue.
Christopher Mitchell: Which is one of control, which is one of the things that we're excited about in Ammon is this idea of what if somebody has a really good idea? Does the network allow them to do that? And that's where I think to some extent we're putting our hopes that the future is not just one of streaming video over the Internet from centralized sources that are kind of distributed but centralized, you know, in terms of who owns them, but as much more of local companies doing interesting things with local clouds, right?
Jeff Christensen: Yup. Yup. That's right. And so, one way to think about it technologically is that around 2003 cloud computing changed. The data center changed, and cloud computing changed. And that's when we got automation, software control, virtualization maturing, and then a few years later, we got software defined networking. All of the convergence of all those technologies changed the data center, changed the cloud, and changed the Internet — changed the way we experience the internet. And we see those same things now pushing out into, you know, let's call them wide area networks, those same technologies. And that's really technologically what we're doing is applying all of those technologies that changed the data center. We're now applying them to a wide area network and making the networks more flexible, more responsive — really making the access space look like the Internet itself because we're applying all these technologies to access.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, I like to be specific wherever possible. And so, you know, when I'm imagining as you're talking about that switch over in 2003 is prior to 2003, if you had a company that suddenly had thousands of new potential customers that wanted to use its online service, they'd probably have to put a whole bunch of new physical machines together. They'd have to put software that would be an operating system on those machines. They'd have to do all this work — you know, physical cards. And now, they've virtualized all of that, and so it's just kind of like a computer basically makes decisions as to how to allocate space on a vast server farm and there's a lot less human intervention involved. That's more or less the story, right?
Jeff Christensen: Yeah, that's exactly the story. I think what the industry (and I would say it's more the data center industry that's focusing on this but more and more telecommunications) is calling it is cloud edge computing. One of the founders of software defined networking is Scott Shenker out of Berkeley, and one of the things he said that we've paid a lot of attention to is that everything interesting will happen in software at the edge, and by the edge we mean the consumer edge.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and in some ways it means I decide, not AT&T decides, right? That's what the edge means.
Jeff Christensen: Yeah, that's exactly right. It's "what do we need to have happen out there on a light pole by a security camera in a school that's intelligent, that's automated, that's software mediated?" What has to happen there and what does the network have to look like to make that possible? And so technologically, that's what we're focused on.
Christopher Mitchell: And this all gets back to — and I don't think we've done a good enough job of hammering it home — something that's often called permissionless innovation. And I think one of the things that I just love about your view of how we should build networks is that, you know, if a school has an interesting IT idea, they should be able to implement that. And maybe they want to coordinate with the city who owns the network, if that's the case, but maybe they don't have to. But if they're in a situation in which, for instance, CenturyLink owns the pipes, they would have to probably go to CenturyLink and ask them because it's a different paradigm of how the network is operated. And we want to avoid that situation because the school's not going to be able to get CenturyLink's permission to do something innovative and different.
Jeff Christensen: The permissionless part of it is very important and it's subtle. The structure of the incumbent model prevents a whole bunch of things from happening because, you know, the example you gave. Because the incumbents want to monetize everything that happens and because they want to treat bandwidth as a scarce resource for monetization reasons, there is a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't happen. And so, you know, go back to the Ammon model. Part of the genius of Bruce Patterson was, once you pay for your infrastructure, you're really liberated to do what you want to do with the network. As long as you behave inside the rules of engagement, you do have a lot of freedom to use that infrastructure in really open ways. And then technologically, our job is to make it easy, to give interfaces and automation that makes it easy for interesting things to happen at the edge.
Christopher Mitchell: So what does a city think about today as they are sort of unaware of where the network's going to go, but they want to be enabling as many opportunities as possible for the next 10 - 20 years.
Jeff Christensen: The cities that are working with EntryPoint today are cities that have somebody like Bruce Patterson. They have somebody who's actually thinking about not just the fast internet, low cost problem, which is a problem in every city, but they're actually creating a strategy for 10 years, 20 years from now, and as technology impinges more and more on the operations of the city, they're actually thinking about it. And we understand that not every city is going to have a Bruce Patterson.
Christopher Mitchell: This is one of those inconveniences of history, but so Bruce Patterson is the IT director for the city of Ammon and a close partner, effectively and at least ideologically and spiritually, with Robert Peterson. For people who are unfamiliar with both of these names, we're kind of going back and forth, but the two of them, I hope, will end up in some history books as this model changes the world in the best of all possible universes. But for people who aren't familiar, go back and check out the videos we've done [and] the podcast interviews we've done with these folks.
Jeff Christensen: In terms of the cities and how they're framing the problems, [in] part of the work we do, we've found that the municipal broadband as a whole hasn't been focused enough on strategy, and strategy by definition means that we're thinking about why we're solving the problem. We're thinking long term and short term. And so part of the work we're doing is really trying to get the cities to invest in strategy and think through — you know, there are places we can go to look and find out where are the trend lines for technology, and what do those trend lines mean for cities? What are the implications? And really as a city, are you comfortable outsourcing your digital future to a large incumbent and letting them set your strategy, letting them set what's possible for you? Or do you have to get serious about thinking about the future and thinking about what the network that is so fundamental to life now, thinking about what that network has to do?
Christopher Mitchell: I think one of the challenges that you pose, is that cities getting into this space, it's always going to be a challenge. If you're going to get into it with the mindset of a Wilson, a Chattanooga, a Lafayette, and many others who have built very successful triple play networks in which they are the only operator and they are hitting their metrics of success — you know, that's challenging on one axis. On a different axis is saying we're going to try to move ahead and not just be successful within the framework of kind of historic incumbent cable and telephone models, but in a new way of enabling all kinds of innovation and thinking outside the box in ways that could have repercussions that are unpredictable today. And that I think is less challenging from a sense of how do we compete with the cable company, and it's more challenging in a sense of "What technological decisions are we making? Who are we hiring with what job description?" Those are the sorts of harder problems you have in that scenario.
Jeff Christensen: That's right, and you know, as we think about the potential disruptive capability, not just of EntryPoint but of the convergence of technologies combined with cities taking these issues seriously, so I think the convergence — and I'm going to add in the Ammon model. The Ammon model is the financial model that Bruce Patterson developed because really what he's saying is that a city can build this network for zero municipal debt. In Ammon's case, the city did contribute, but they could have still been successful if they had distributed all of the debt to the people that opt in. And so, the message of the Ammon financial model is every city can do this without any municipal debt and you can still lower the costs for consumers. You can still increase the speeds. And in addition, you can build a network that's future proof, meaning the network is evolvable and it's flexible and it's resilient and it's scalable and it's repeatable city after city. So you know, the financial model is critical because it's such a big boulder for cities to crawl over, but we can achieve everything that's been achieved in Lafayette, in Chattanooga, meaning lower costs, more value, a successful network. And by adding in these technological attributes, we can also give cities something that really has an economic development impact and really enables the future because they control this essential infrastructure.
Christopher Mitchell: The financial model from Ammon frees you from the debt, and it frees you in the sense that you're not making decisions as to, "Oh, how do we make sure we make our next month's debt payment? Can we really enable this or do we need to figure out a price to put on it?" You're free from that because the debt has been taken care of by the subscribers and the enthusiastic supporters [of] the system.
Jeff Christensen: Yeah. And it's in your other podcast, but fundamentally we're going to the homeowner and we're saying, look, we want to cut a deal with you. We want you to treat your broadband connection like your sewer and water connection, as an improvement to the property. Because of that, you can either pay for that connection up front or we'll give you a financing mechanism. In return, you're going to be an owner of that infrastructure, which means you can pay it off. You know, we believe that we can go into any city and drop the average price 20 to 30 percent, and then once they pay off the infrastructure, we can drop it another 20 to 30 percent. And so the deal is, you take ownership of the infrastructure, Mr. Subscriber, Mrs. Subscriber. In return, we're going give you a whole bunch of value. We're going to give you lower costs. We're going to give you faster speeds. We're going to give you new technological capabilities. And so, it's a deal between the city and the subscriber, and the city really becomes an enabler of this. And by becoming an enabler, the city gets all this value back because they really become a connected city and they've got this robust network that they can now do a lot of interesting things with in public safety, telemedicine, emergency communications — you know, everything that cities care about.
Christopher Mitchell: As we wrap up here, I feel like people listening to this might be thinking, well, okay, EntryPoint provides sort of both some leadership on this and the software that enables the network to operate. But you're actually helping cities at a very early stage to understand this and to move in this direction. In some ways, you're consulting as well with cities that are interested in this approach.
Jeff Christensen: We are. We don't intend to become a consulting firm, and we don't describe ourselves [as one]. We describe ourselves as a software platform, as a service. But to shift from what we know today to what we have to be in the future, it does require consulting and so that is the first phase. The cities that we're working with that are actively implementing networks, the first part of that is creating a broadband plan which includes a strategy and then an execution plan and then a project plan. And so that's all sort of a consulting role even though we don't see ourselves as a consulting company.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we'll be seeing some more announcements over 2019 of more cities that are moving forward. I guess the last question is just, you know, how many cities are already adopting the Ammon model that you can speak publicly about?
Jeff Christensen: We've learned that it's not necessarily — while it would be good from a PR point of view to fuel the momentum, we've learned that as soon as word gets out that cities are moving this direction that the flood gates open up on opposition. And we had a city just recently that was a done deal [that] got strong incumbent pressure and strong legislative pressure, and they backed off their plan because of that. And so, we probably will be slow to announce. I think I'm comfortable saying that we're going to have 15 cities in 2019 moving forward with this model. We'll be slow to announce those cities just because we don't think we do them a favor. We create more burden and hurdle for them by putting it out there. So we'll let them announce their news, and once they announce their news then we'll publicize it as well, and I know you will.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely.
Jeff Christensen: But we'll probably be slow to release that information.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Well thank you, Jeff, for coming on the show. You've been a friend ever since we met on a flight on the way to Ammon. Delta sat us next to each other. And I was at first a little skeptical [of] this person who just sort of knew a lot about me and where I was going, but it's been a pleasure getting to know you and seeing what EntryPoint's doing.
Jeff Christensen: Likewise, and EntryPoint certainly appreciate everything you're doing, Chris, and your organization does.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Jeff Christensen, president of EntryPoint networks. 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 anywhere you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research from all our initiatives. 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 thank you for listening to episode 338 — the first of 2019 — of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.