This is the transcript for episode 339 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher Mitchell speaks with Nancy DiGidio and Glenn Fishbine from NEO Partners LLC about the Community Networks Quickstart program, which is a collaborative project of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative and NEO Partners. Listen to the episode here.
Glenn Fishbine: And when you engage with that consultant, at the end of the day, after we've presented you these results, you're not going to waste the consultant's time by asking for something that you can't afford. You'll be focused on a real practical, doable system that is affordable by the standards that you bring to this project.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 339 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. When local communities decide that it's time to investigate ways to improve local connectivity, they're at the beginning of a long and complicated process. If they're considering a community network, more possibilities are available today than ever before. In order to get a realistic idea of potential models, costs, and the competitive local market, a feasibility study is typically an early step in the process. In 2018, we began to work with NEO Partners, LLC, on the Community Networks Quickstart program. In this interview, Christopher talks with Glenn Fishbine and Nancy DeGidio, the brains behind the program. The CN Quickstart service allows local communities to approach the beginning of their journey with a headstart. The service isn't a replacement for a feasibility study, but it is a compliment. Glenn and Nancy are able to use their sophisticated program to determine what services are already available from incumbents, reveal where potential fiber resources are in the area, and provide cost estimates and relevant information for different publicly owned models. Coupled with the results from feasibility studies, communities are now able to make knowledgeable decisions about how to move forward. In this conversation, Nancy, Glenn, and Christopher discuss the benefits of the CN Quickstart program and what communities can expect from the service, along with the ways local leaders can apply their newfound knowledge to start their journey strong. Check out CNQuickstart.com for more information. Now, here's Christopher with Glenn Fishbine and Nancy DeGidio discussing Community Networks Quickstart.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, I'm speaking with Glenn Fishbine in studio. Welcome to the show.
Glenn Fishbine: Thank you very much.
Christopher Mitchell: And on the line we have his partner, Nancy DeGidio. Welcome to the show.
Nancy DeGidio: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: And they are with Breaking Point Solutions representing NEO Partners, which is actually working with us at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on a little product we're calling the Community Networks Quickstart. We're going to tell you a little bit about that. I think the best way to jump into it would just be to ask Nancy first, what are we doing here? What is the Community Networks Quickstart? What problem are we trying to solve?
Nancy DeGidio: We are trying to bring broadband to rural America and the underserved.
Glenn Fishbine: The way in which we're trying to do this is by providing communities with a very inexpensive, iterative means of finding what is affordable for broadband for their community.
Christopher Mitchell: We're aiming to work early in the process, right? I mean this is — we call it the Quickstart, not the Quickfinish, right? So Glenn, do you want to talk a little bit more about how exactly we're doing this?
Glenn Fishbine: Well, this is based on software development that started back in 2011 and has gone through many years of iteration through major telco providers, such as Samsung, Sprint, various wireless Internet service providers, and so on. And the software has been iterated to the point where we can take a community of any size, any place in the continental United States, analyze the population, households, geography, terrain, ground clutter and come up with a means of iterating any mixture of fixed wireless or broadband technologies or fiber technologies, and end up with whatever type of model you think is appropriate for that community in the price range that will work for that community.
Nancy DeGidio: The cost of doing the Quickstart program is at a fraction of what companies or cities would already pay. Right now, many are paying $50,000 more for a study of this, and it takes six months to do these studies to figure out what kind of network they can even put in place to support broadband.
Glenn Fishbine: For example, in one of the studies we just recently computed, which took us approximately two weeks to provide the study for that community, we were able to look at 44 different network designs and guide the community towards the one that would work best for them. A normal study would be a design and would take probably three to six months to accomplish.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So we're going to talk more about this over the course of the next 20, 25 minutes or so, but I wanted to step back in time briefly and talk about where you're coming from. And so maybe Nancy would be a good place then to start. What were you doing before we launched the Community Networks Quickstart?
Nancy DeGidio: We were fumbling around trying to figure out how to bring broadband to rural America and how to help the underserved. Working with companies to try to bring that to them. Struggling a lot with the designs and getting that infrastructure in place.
Glenn Fishbine: Yeah. We came out of a very large infrastructure build out project for Sprint, which was 18,000 cell towers throughout the northern part of the United States.
Christopher Mitchell: And I thank you for every one of them, as a person who uses a Sprint reseller that I love.
Glenn Fishbine: Ok. I'm sorry, I'm a Verizon guy myself. Anyway, as part of that, we saw a tremendous amount of inefficiencies in the Sprint and the Samsung development team process. We would see engineers, hundreds of engineers, doing RF studies that would take them perhaps three to four days to complete for a tower, and we realized that if they'd automate this and get out of the spreadsheet mode, they could do much better. And that was the one of the major incentives for the system that we started developing.
Nancy DeGidio: The interesting thing is that I think a lot of people do use those spreadsheets, and the spreadsheets are very inefficient no matter what way you look at it. These projects are very complicated and they have a lot of different angles to them, and to use a spreadsheet for such a complicated project is just insane.
Christopher Mitchell: I've certainly seen how you use spreadsheets to keep track of individual fibers in a much larger build. I can't even imagine the challenge of using spreadsheets to do all the different possible variations in how you might build a network, and that's one of the things that Glenn mentioned, was the many variations that can be done. But I wanted to jump in for a second and talk just briefly about what we at ILSR, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, bring to this because you've talked about the software solutions that NEO Partners brings in, in terms of the network design. The other piece of it that when you approached me I thought would be useful was a little bit of guidance in terms of what other rural communities have seen, or even urban cities, where we've learned lessons along the way — in terms of, if you pick a favorite design that you like, how are you going to make sure that you can communicate to the public the vision? How are you going to make sure that you're avoiding problems that others have had in terms of getting support? And then once you're actually building, having anticipated common problems — even things like are there nearby Internet service providers that might want to work with you as a partner that if you just looked at a list of ISPS, you might not know which ones are good potential partners in which ones are not likely to return your phone calls. So, you know, I think one of the things that we envisioned for the Community Networks Quickstart that goes with all the software is a little bit of handholding. And I wouldn't say a lot. You know, we're not consultants that are going to spend months and months with you. We're going to help you get out to a quick start. [laughs] I think a lot of people saw that coming.
Glenn Fishbine: Yeah. One of the first things we do, even before we're engaging in contract discussion with the perspective client, is we bring up a competitive analysis show who is presently there in the community. And the first question I always ask is, okay, you got Comcast on this part of the community. You've got AT&T in that part of the community. You have got Frontier over there. Do you intend to compete with these companies if you move forward, and if not, do you want these areas included? And if you do, do you know what it's like to compete with the big company? Because the very first thing you need to know as a community is what services you have, and if you're going to build a network of any kind, you need to know that you're not going to get everybody because nobody's switches from Comcast simply because they can or —
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I guess a different way of saying that would be 10 to 20 percent will reliably switch away from Comcast the second they have another option, but you're probably not going to build a network on that 20 percent or 15 percent. You're going to need a lot more folks.
Glenn Fishbine: Right. And then, you know, knowing who the competition is, knowing what their capabilities are is the first step in considering whether or not it's worth moving forward to do a real network. The next thing that we do is we try to find out, okay, if you build a network, do you have a backbone that you can connect into? Is there anybody who provides dark fiber services out there or that you can purchase? So we maintain a library of who is available throughout the United States, and if we can find an appropriate backbone provider, then we can go forward with the network design.
Nancy DeGidio: I think the cool thing too is identifying the providers in the area. It's not just the big players; it's the small players to. Because [in] some of these rural areas, the bigger players don't want to be there. So this allows some of the smaller providers to step forward and possibly expand their footprint as well in the community.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I think that's one of the things that I would expect to see. In our beta clients, we certainly saw that. And I think with folks that you worked with before we started working together on this particular product, I think you saw that also. People that are coming forward and want to find a solution for their communities don't necessarily want to create a brand new service company. They may be interested in building infrastructure that would allow an existing independent Internet service provider to come along and offer services.
Glenn Fishbine: Well, that's one of the things that your organization provides, which is not necessarily something we provide, is many options you have for integrating your network intentions with your local providers, with your local units of government to figure out how to get the alliances within your community to work together to make this something real.
Nancy DeGidio: And understanding that doesn't happen overnight. The study can happen rather quickly. That's why, again, get back into the Quickstart. We can do this Quickstart rather quickly, so you can get to those discussions to figure out who you need to align in your community to get things moving.
Christopher Mitchell: This is where I think it might be useful to note that we don't see ourselves as replacing the consultants that Glenn talked about a little bit at the beginning, that are going to be charging higher fees and working with the community over a longer period of time because although one of the things that they provide is the cost of building a network, the thing that I think consultants really are essential for is walking the community through a process and doing some handholding in terms of, okay, you know, you're going to need these meetings to engage the public. You're going to want to talk about these sorts of things. The consultant's going to help you know what questions are commonly going to be asked. They may be doing a survey of the community that will give you some information about how it's leaning regarding its feelings about existing providers and in the city getting involved, or the county or the township or you know, whatever — I'm just using city as a little bit of a shorthand there. And they're going to do a lot of other things in terms of maybe going out and talking to some of those ISPs that you may want to partner with. And so, you know, I don't think a community that works with us, will forego a more traditional consultant. I think they're going to go to that consultant better prepared, and they are going to be able to get more out of that consulting contract.
Glenn Fishbine: I definitely agree with that. One of the things that we do when we iterate, I'll typically try about 10 iterations for a particular community. And we're going to start with a very inexpensive model, and we're going to run that all the way up to everybody is connected by the best possible technology.
Christopher Mitchell: Now let's just talk about that for a second because what you're talking about is, is that you can show a scenario in which everyone's getting fiber in the target area and a scenario that's — what you're talking about in terms of the more expensive one — in an area in which everyone's getting a fixed wireless product.
Glenn Fishbine: That's correct. We can iterate any number of variations on that and the idea is to find a point whereby the network implementation is going to be cost effective and most cost effective for the homes or the community that's using the services. In most cases there comes a point where, boy, you just can't afford it. But the way we start it off is, here's something that's affordable all the way up to the one that you can't afford, and now you the community have a range of choices there. And when you engage with that consultant at the end of the day after we've presented you these results, you're not going to waste the consultant's time by asking for something that you can't afford. You'll be focused on a real, practical, doable system that is affordable by the standards that you bring to this project.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that as we're going to talk a little bit more about how we go about doing that, I did want to note for people who are really curious about the cost of it. Can you describe the cost structure, Nancy?
Nancy DeGidio: We're looking at a thousand dollars plus forty cents per household, which still is way under pricing that you will find out there from companies that are spending six months plus putting people on the ground to actually figure out how to do these studies.
Glenn Fishbine: Now when we talk per household, we are using 2016 census estimate household data. The 2018 data will be coming out shortly, as soon as the government reopens, and we'll switch to the 2018 data.
Christopher Mitchell: So as you can tell, Glenn is pretty — he's a little bit specific. A little bit of a technical kind of guy. Glenn, one of the things that I was curious about and nervous about when you first did your demo is a sense of, you know, it's really nice to look at this in software, but have we had any kind of a reality check in terms of how close our numbers are in terms of this automated system versus some of the consultants actually going out there and walking the roads to see what the costs are.
Glenn Fishbine: Well generally, a consultant doesn't want another consultant to look at their final studies, so we've only had a very few sent to our path, and what we're basically seeing, in the studies that we can directly compare, we're within two to four percent of what the consultant final price project model would be. Now statistically, we believe that we're going to be within about 10 to 15 percent, but we think that essentially our methodology is a pretty uniform methodology throughout the industry. So saying a two percent variation from what a consultant producers is not bad, but I would make the point that they're probably within 10 to 15 percent error as well.
Christopher Mitchell: I would strongly encourage anyone that was planning on definitely building a network to use this service to get started, but to do much more fine grain engineering to make sure that the bids that they're going to get for actual construction will be more precise. There is no doubt in my mind that it's always going to be worth it to get a more precise engineering layout at the end. We are aiming to provide a ballpark figure, and at the costs that we're charging, I think it really doesn't impair the ability of a community or an ISP to do both.
Nancy DeGidio: To that fact, like you said, that ballpark figure, but that base structure, it's like the layout of your home. You get that base structure, and then you bring the engineers to add all those fine tuned touches, which may adjust the cost to some degree. But generally you will know going forward what those big costs are going to be.
Glenn Fishbine: And one of the things that we generally do before we get to a final agreement with the customer is we give them a demo of what we're doing and how we're doing it. It's an interactive screen sharing demo. We take a community, maybe even their community, and we show them the detail, the granularity that we can get to from an automation point of view. The accuracy on a lot of our geographic information is within a few meters of actual. Our elevation data is within a meter of actual. Our ground clutter data is within about three meters of actual. And although you may not know what those terms mean, these are the things that determine whether it's feasible to put in, say, a fixed wireless solutions that's inexpensive or if your only alternative is fiber. This type of demo is available, generally takes about 30 minutes, and if you're curious, you want to kick the tires, give us a call. We'll give you a demo.
Christopher Mitchell: Nancy, can you tell us a little bit more about what a community walks away with. Like, we can give them a presentation and describe these things to them, you know, as we're talking, but what sort of information do they have then to present to the community and to use moving forward?
Nancy DeGidio: They will have a map. They will have actual numbers, a layout. They will be able to actually go in and drill right into the map by address to see what that particular address would be covered by, whether it would be satellite or what have you. It's way more information than they would ever receive from any other study that we've seen.
Christopher Mitchell: When you say a map, anyone can go to a website and enter in their address to see the network layout that the cities have gotten to have a sense of what's available to them in that scenario. So when you said a map, I want to be clear, it's an interactive online map,
Nancy DeGidio: Exactly. So if they choose, they can allow that map to be visible to the citizens, where they can go in and actually view what kind of service would be available to them.
Glenn Fishbine: The engineering details are probably more than most people would want to have. But for example, if there's a fixed wireless component, what we do is we calculate for each sector of the fixed wireless element, how many households are in that direction, which helps us do the load balancing calculations. If it's a pure fiber network, of course you won't want any fixed wireless, but if you do have some, this is engineering details specific to the actual tower installation. Most communities won't want to go there, but if they do, it's there.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and so I think one of the things that we found interesting and that you've added, Glenn, is — and I think you do it through your iterations, but there's a sense of if a community was to say, you know, we know that we can find $6 million to connect people in this territory, we can give, using this software, a sense of, okay, well the way to stretch that the furthest is to do a certain percentage in fiber and the rest in wireless and if you can get the towers in these locations — and you identify existing towers as well — but that's the sort of information that we can provide. And so it's a little bit different from the conception of saying how do we get everyone connected with broadband? We can actually take a given dollar figure and try to figure out how to maximize the fiber versus the wireless investment.
Glenn Fishbine: Yeah. The granularity also — you know, if Joe Blow down the street, he's got his Comcast cable and that whole block is fully covered with Comcast. If you want to exclude that block from the study, you just tell us we don't want to go there and we'll get your granularity down to about, oh, I think it's a 0.8 mile accuracy for knocking blocks out of the study.
Nancy DeGidio: There is a lot of data that is received from the study. A large portion of it, you know, citizens probably wouldn't be concerned with. But engineers, you know, the people running the broadband committee, those are the people that will delve into different parts of the data depending on their role in the project.
Glenn Fishbine: There's even a set of spreadsheets that's designed specifically for the bean counters within the community, which shows if you're working with an ISP, the type of return on investment the ISP would expect. It shows us how we come up with the different cost models and recommendations and what constitutes an affordable versus a not affordable network. And that's something that you can take to the city council or to your finance committee or whatever and use this as part of the justification in moving forward.
Nancy DeGidio: Well, and the nice thing about the studies is we don't make up the numbers. [laughs] The communities actually feed us information to put into the software. We're getting that information actually from the community before we do a study and then putting those numbers into the software. That to me is powerful. You know, you're making the decisions as a community as to where you want to go with the study?
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I wanted to jump in, is something Glenn said earlier. I cringe at it every time that he says it. He knows it. And that's the finality with which he sort of says, you know, we can't do fiber everywhere. And I know that Glenn actually agrees with what I'm about to say based on past conversations, but it's more a sense of, you know, in the immediate future it is not likely that you'll be able to justify spending the kind of money that would be necessary to get fiber out to everywhere. And so over the next five years, the question is how much would it cost to get fiber out to the places where it's possible to pay for itself reasonably, get wireless out to the rest of the folks, and then reevaluate in five years and figure out how to expand around the time that the fixed wireless might be coming due for a replacement. And so, one of the things that I'll say candidly, I'll give away a secret in the Community Networks Quickstart package that we'll give you information that provides some guidance, is this sense of you're not making the decision here that's final. This is the first step in a multipart process, and one of the things that's really useful about getting the wireless out there, is it starts a revenue stream that can be reinvested in future years to connect more people. If you're in an area that has limited economic opportunity today, doesn't have millions of dollars lying around, you can still do something and then be able to expand that over time. And perhaps there's government grants that come available, there's foundations that want to support it, or whatever. You have planning documents, you have all kinds of information that you would need then to expand the network over time.
Glenn Fishbine: Yeah. One of the things that a lot of people don't understand is that the wireless technology does not stand still. If we were say, recommending wireless technology five years ago, I would be ashamed of the technology that was on the market then. What is available now is decent. It gives you a good quality broadband well above the FCC minimum daily requirements, as I guess I call them, and it's not atypical to get a download speed upwards of 80 megabits per second off of some of the newer wireless technologies. Those will continue to improve. Now they're not going to go through trees, they won't go through buildings, they won't go through mountains, they won't go over mountains in most cases, but for those sparse areas where it's too expensive to put in fiber, they're adequate now. So using a mix, a hybrid of both fixed wireless and fiber is a viable solution to many rural communities.
Nancy DeGidio: Yeah, I would agree with that. You can't go through certain things now, but putting in the most cost effective solution in those areas is what we're going for. We're not gonna do any miracles. We're just looking for the best possible solution for your community.
Christopher Mitchell: Glenn, as you've been working on this, is there any kind of baseline numbers of what a community might expect to spend in building a network that you would be modeling for them?
Glenn Fishbine: I can give you a range of numbers based on studies we've done. Assuming this is a brand new build out, there's no preexisting infrastructure, the way we think about it is the cost per household: how much does it cost to bring one house into the broadband network? And generally there's two ways of thinking of it. If this were for example a tax levy, how much would it cost that family per month to be part of a broadband network infrastructure? And what we're seeing is numbers as low as $15 a month for some technologies, depending upon which ones you're using, and they can get well above $300 a month, which is another way of saying it's time for a tax revolt. But another way of thinking of this is in terms of just the total dollar cost per household. If you're looking for a grant or if you're looking for, I guess, a community financing project, municipal financing or self financing, on a cost per household basis the ranges we're seeing are somewhere at the low end around $800 per household, which will be largely a fixed wireless implementation, and they go as high as $9,000 - $10,000 a household for a full Fiber-to-the-Home solution. The key thing is realizing it's an order of magnitude range in cost. You need to see the alternatives and know which one you can zero in on.
Christopher Mitchell: So if people want more information, one of the best places to go is the website we have set up, which is CNQuickstart(as in Community Networks Quickstart).com. And there's more information there about how to reach out and contact us, but [we're] happy to do a demo, happy to, you know, give you a sense of if you want to describe your situation, if it seems like something we can be assisting in. And bam, please feel free to reach out. Is there anything left that you want to share, Nancy, before we hang up the microphones?
Nancy DeGidio: Yeah, I'd like to say that the studies that we've done, people are amazed at the data that they're receiving and the information they're receiving. I just can't reiterate that enough that the data is very extensive and it's real. It's real data. You know, we're not making stuff up so getting right back into the community, you know, real solutions that could be implemented in your community
Christopher Mitchell: And Glenn, any closing thoughts?
Glenn Fishbine: I guess as the primary geek here, I have wonderful Chris and Nancy to translate the things I say into normal English. Count on them to guide you through.
Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. Well thank you for coming in. I mean, this is something we've been working on for six months, so it's really exciting to talk about it publicly and I look forward to sharing it. And in case people are curious, we do see this as something that's a newer product that can add to the market. We do plan to continue offering the same [news] coverage that we do, looking at all municipal network issues. We're offering this product now, although it's something that I primarily work on. Lisa who continues to edit MuniNetworks.org will not let, you know, any of our kind of motivations in terms of trying to work with clients on this get in the way of our coverage, so... But if you have any questions, feel free to let us know. I'm incredibly excited about this because I think this is a very valuable tool for communities just when you're getting started to get information that's really essential quickly into your hands so that you can make really more targeted decisions moving forward and make this happen a little bit more rapidly. Because I'm always concerned that, you know, if it takes too long to get basic information, people might lose a little bit of interest or lose hope that they can actually take action. And so let's hope that this Community Networks Quickstart helps things move along a little bit more quickly and helps communities make smart decisions.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Nancy DeGidio and Glenn Fishbine talking with Christopher about Community Networks Quickstart, the new service that launched in 2018 to help local communities get a headstart as they investigate possibilities for publicly owned infrastructure. 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 podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever 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, 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 339 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.