Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 346

This is the podcast for episode 346 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance and vice president and COO of Christensen Communications, a small telephone company and Internet access provider in Madelia, Minnesota. Listen to the episode.

 

 

Brent Christensen: So we have access to everything, and we can do everything that the big guys can.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 346 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. What's it like to own and operate a local telecommunications company? This week's guest, Brent Christensen of Christensen Communications is visiting with Christopher. In addition to discussing his experiences offering services in greater Minnesota, Brent also talks about his role with the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, an advocacy group that represents the interest of companies like Christensen Communications all over the state. Brent and Chris discuss some of the advances Minnesota has made in bringing support to ISPs expanding broadband and how the alliance has helped with those advances. They also talk about the permitting process, how railroads factor into deployment for companies like Brent's, and some of the matters that Brent as a telecom provider has found local governments should consider to improve chances of partnerships. Learn about Christenson Communications at chriscomco.net. Now here's Christopher with Brent Christensen of Christensen Communications.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell coming to you from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, speaking today with Brent Christensen, the president and CEO of MTA, the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, as well as the vice president and chief operating officer of Christensen Communications out of Madelia, Minnesota. Welcome to the show Brent.

Brent Christensen: Thanks Chris. Thanks for having me on.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that might be the longest title that we've had for anyone, which is a pretty good record, interviewing some government folks.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, well they say the longer the title, the less it means, but it kind of reflects both the jobs I do.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to thank you for coming into our ice cube today. I feel like this is our Klobuchar moment of doing our interview in an office that has lost its furnace. If you hear a hum in the background, it is a space heater that is making things tolerable in here, but it's —

Brent Christensen: It's not bad. It's kind of comfortable.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Well, you know, it's about 55 degrees. And I dunno, I like to sleep in this weather, so I'll try to stay awake for the entirety of the interview.

Brent Christensen: Sure. I'll try not to bore you too much.

Christopher Mitchell: So tell me about — well for background, I just visited your office down in Madelia, Minnesota, and got a tour of what you're doing, and I'd like you to just describe a little bit the history of Christensen Communications.

Brent Christensen: We started in 1903 and we started — there were 48 people in town that got together. The Fairmont Telephone Company built lines from Fairmont to Madelia, but would just serve the city limits, and so 48 people got together and decided that wasn't good enough. They wanted to get outside of the city limits, so they started a telephone company — kind of the first CLEC here, one of the first CLECs. And they went to my great great grandfather who owned the flour mill in town and said, "Hey, would you buy 25% of the stock?" So he did, and that's how we got involved with it. And over the years [we] acquired more and more of the stock until my grandfather passed away in 1982 and he had all but five shares. My Dad picked those up. So that's kind of the — you know, it was one of those things that it could have gone either way in 1903. I mean, they could have sold stock or they could have started a co-op. I mean, it's just that's the way it went. I'm the fifth generation of my family to be involved with it, and we've been part of the community ever since.

Christopher Mitchell: And how many lines do you have?

Brent Christensen: We have about 1,100 total. We've got about 900 access lines in our ILEC in Madelia, and then we've got about 300 or 400 in our CLEC in Saint James.

Christopher Mitchell: Great, and just for people who are newer to the show, ILEC is your incumbent territory and CLEC is where you're a competitive carrier.

Brent Christensen: That's correct.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, you're competitive in effect everywhere now, but it's the old historic boundaries when we had a monopoly officially.

Brent Christensen: And that's on the different sides of business, you know. So on the telephone side, our incumbent area is Madelia; they're franchised area. But then on the broadband, there is no franchise area so we can go pretty much anywhere.

Christopher Mitchell: So what is it like being one of the smallest telephone companies in the modern era when, you know, you're having to look at these advanced technologies and things like that?

Brent Christensen: You know, that's a good question. People ask that all the time. So how does a little guy like us survive? And to be honest, we don't know any other way cause we've always been small. It's all partnerships. So we partner with other telephone companies. We started broadband Internet in 2000. I didn't know anything about it, so we partnered with another telephone company who was already doing or just starting it. And we have connections to the outside world through Mankato and New Ulm. We lease a fiber that goes all the way up to the 511 building. So we have access to everything and we can do everything that the big guys can. We just like to brand it ourselves sometimes if it's not our product and we get it from the phone company, but we can do anything.

Christopher Mitchell: And you face competition from a cable company in Madelia.

Brent Christensen: Right. Yeah, Comcast has two properties outside the Twin Cities metro, and one of them happens to be Madelia. And the irony in that is we started the cable company back in the early '80s and sold it off, so . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Oh really?

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: So have they gone to DOCSIS 3.1 there or . . . ?

Brent Christensen: I believe they have, yeah. They've taken fiber to the node, and they did that a few years ago.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's one of the things that, you know, I try to pay attention to because I have a lot of criticisms of Comcast, but I also have the sense that of the big cable companies, they tend to upgrade more widely the fastest. So I'm always curious what's really happening in smaller towns.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, it must've been probably close to 10 years ago when they upgraded there and put fiber in their network in town.

Christopher Mitchell: So, you're also the president/CEO of MTA, which is not the Montana Telecom Association. It's the Minnesota Telecomunications Alliance, I believe.

Brent Christensen: Yup.

Christopher Mitchell: So tell me about that.

Brent Christensen: So we're the trade association that represents — and it depends on how you count them. I count them on the holding company level, so there's 44 members of MTA. They operate over 70 telephone companies throughout the state of Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, because for instance like Acira [pronounced: Akira], I think they operate two, right? They have two different co-ops that they operate.

Brent Christensen: Acira, yeah. Yes, they're two separate —

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, Acira [pronounced: Asira]?

Brent Christensen: It's two separate co-ops that share staff and management.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay, and it's pronounced Acira, apparently.

Brent Christensen: Acira.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Brent Christensen: And then, you know, like Arvig has got 12 companies or so, and Nuvera, which used to be New Ulm Telecomm, they have several. There's a lot of them.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So what are your big priorities this year?

Brent Christensen: Well, our number one priority is to get funding for the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program, and that's been — we didn't get funding. We got funding passed through the legislature, but it was in that mega omnibus bill that didn't get passed. So we didn't get that last session, so we're really working hard to get funding for that for this year. I don't know what it means, but the governor, the House and the Senate all have the same numbers for the grant program. I take that as optimistic, so I hope it is.

Christopher Mitchell: Which would be the highest it's been funded for any single year, I think, in the first year. Is that right?

Brent Christensen: Well, no. They did have a $35 million grant year in like year two or three.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Brent Christensen: That is higher, but it's not unprecedented.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. The grant program is one of the areas in which you and I agree.

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: For people who aren't familiar — Brent, we'll talk about this later — you're not a fan of municipalities getting involved directly in this, and I originally helped to design this program. It changed a bit in the course of legislating it. I got the sense that you were pretty nervous about the state getting involved at the time.

Brent Christensen: Well, I wasn't a fan, and I certainly wasn't a fan in the beginning of the Office of Broadband Development. I saw it as another regulator involved in this. You know, our industry is unique — and I speak about the landline telephone side. Not only are we the only competitive utility, but we're regulated by the Department of Commerce, the Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Attorney General, and the FCC. Our competitors are not. So I was concerned that that was going to tip into the broadband world as well, and I was wrong. They really prove that, you know, they bust down silos at the Office of Broadband Development, and they really have helped in much more ways than just the grant program.

Christopher Mitchell: I credit that almost entirely with Danna MacKenzie.

Brent Christensen: Oh, absolutely. Danna and Diane and their staff — they do a phenomenal job. And I think there are two factors in there. One, that it got housed in DEED [Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development] and not Commerce.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Brent Christensen: So it's an economic development issue now, not a regulatory issue. That's a big part of it. The other part of it is the people that they've got. Diane Wells came from the Department — well, she is an employee of the Department of Commerce, assigned OBD. She's one of the few people I've ever met in state government who understands private business. And then Danna's experience. She's a problem solver; she's interested in that, not in politics. And I haven't met anybody that doesn't fully credit them with the success of that office.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think Danna brought with her was more than a decade of experience with this issue. She had a sense of the real dynamics having been in IT for a very rural county in Minnesota.

Brent Christensen: Yup.

Christopher Mitchell: And I would just harp on this one last second to say that for other states that are looking at programs: I think the rules matter. I think where you house it in the departments matter. But finding a good person is the single most important thing.

Brent Christensen: Yup, I couldn't have said it better myself. I absolutely agree. Not only does she serve on the FCC's BDAC, Broadband Development Advisory Committee, but she has also worked with a number of other states to replicate what we do here in Minnesota. I've had the opportunity to do that too, and I tell them exactly what you just said.

Christopher Mitchell: And one of the other things that I think is important, which I suspect you'll agree with, is that one of the best things about Minnesota's program, the way it's designed, is that it doesn't really have a high overhead. Almost all the money that's appropriated goes toward better networks.

Brent Christensen: Absolutely. That was another big thing. You know, when you start — government never goes away; it only gets bigger. I've never seen an exception to that until OBD.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I would disagree with you on that, but we're not going to go down that pipe.

Brent Christensen: Darn it, we were on a roll. [laughs] Shoot. But that's absolutely true. They have not gotten any bigger. They found their niche. They do it really, really well. And they do so much more than just the grant program. I'll give you an example. We had a problem with MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) and the permitting process that it took to get right-of -way permits to deploy fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Brent Christensen: And it was taking a long time. It was taking, you know, up to 12-16 weeks. And we have a very short construction season, so we're trying to get this out. Well, they facilitated through DEED's — DEED's got a onestop business shop where they get all the players together, they sit down, and we've cut that time almost in half. It still has a ways to go compared to our neighboring states but we're cutting it down, and they did that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I learned on my tour that I thought was really interesting as a lesson learned, Mike Denn, one of your technical guys, he said that a lesson you've learned is it's better to go down thinly populated roads, like really just township roads, as opposed to the bigger MnDot roads.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, the permitting is so much easier when you do it that way, and a lot of times you just go pay $100 to the county and you're done and you got it and you can go. That's not the case when you're at MnDOT. And we're going to talk later about railroads — that's really not the case for the railroads. It's easy to do that, easier to do that, and it's cheaper and we can deploy faster.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Brent Christensen: Because we have such a short construction season.

Christopher Mitchell: Last year in particular.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, right.

Christopher Mitchell: I was talking to some of the — one of our listeners runs US Internet, and I think he was saying it was the shortest construction season they've had since they started doing fiber.

Brent Christensen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I mean we had early snows, we had late snows. And actually I was just looking at some photos from last year, photos of me building a big snow tunnel with my son in the middle of April and 10 days later shooting a baseball game with green grass and blue skies. So pretty quick turnaround there.

Brent Christensen: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: So railroads, you mentioned that. This is something that I've long been frustrated with. Whenever I talk to people about the real challenges of deployment, they'll say to me things like, "Dig once is nice, but let's deal with the railroads and a few other issues." So I just learned from you that states have more authority to deal with this than I thought they did.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. We had a real bad problem for a number of years with railroads. And the problem was they were charging us fees to even be in public right-of-ways, and then they were charging some exorbitant, and a lot of times ongoing, fees. I'll give you an example. We had a case when Garden Valley Technologies was building fiber to City Hall in Fosston, and they had about several blocks that they had to parallel the railroad right-of-way and then cross it to get City Hall. The permits and the fees that the railroad was going to charge him came to a total of about $72,000 over 20 years, and you don't make that up in monthly service fees. You know, it was very expensive to do that.

Christopher Mitchell: And when we're talking about this, does the railroad actually have to do anything? Does it incur any costs?

Brent Christensen: No. No. Yeah, that's the crazy part. Well, you know, they believe they own all of it, even in the public right-of-way. So we were able to pass a law in 2016 that put a cap on that and put a standard fee for crossing a railroad right-of-way and then nothing if we're in a public right away because we have just as much right to be in the public right-of-way as everybody else does. So that helps. We still have some shenanigans that are going on. We still have some problems with the railroads. They'll require flaggers and to be onsite, and they're holding up applications and different things like that, but we're working through those. We got a great attorney and he sends letters and we just keep plugging along.

Christopher Mitchell: And I do hear from some ISPs that they have good relationships with railroads, so I don't want to cast too wide of a net, but some of them are really just looking to maximize their return on something that doesn't really impact them at all and is really important for the community

Brent Christensen: And their argument — and I get it — their argument is that they have to protect the integrity of their railroad. And I get that, but in this day and age, we directionally bore under the railroads. And we start 50 feet on one side, go way under their stuff, and come out 50 feet on the other, so there is no impact. The law says that they need to be compensated for the diminution in value of their property, and there isn't any. So, you know, that's — and we've got a couple of court cases in our favor and so . . . It is something to deal with and it delays and it could cause problems with the deploying of the network.

Christopher Mitchell: And so let's get back to Christensen Communications now. Tell me what your plans were before the A-CAM model came out, which I believe is the Alternative-Connect America Fund model.

Brent Christensen: Yes, that's exactly what it is. The A-CAM came out in January 2017, so for about two years before that, we had been working on a plan to go Fiber-to-the-Prem. Because of our size, it isn't something we can go out and service dead on. I mean, we just can't afford to do that.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I mean, you can you give us like an average cost of what you expect it to hit you with?

Brent Christensen: We thought the total project would be in the $6 to $8 million range. And so the first step in that was to engineer the whole thing, and I told the staff, we're not putting anything in the ground that isn't part of this master plan going forward, so we're going to do that. So we started that, and then we knew something would be happening in that realm; we didn't know exactly what. So we started that plan, and we were one year into it. We were working on the businesses on Main Street first. In 2016, we had a fire that took out a big chunk of our main street, so that kind of shifted our plans as they rebuilt. We were going to build the south side first, and then the north side of the main street. The fire was on north side of main street, so we're building over there. So we did that the first year and then put in some big fibers to move out of town, and we were building that out. Well, A-CAM came along, and so we had to make a commitment that we would build out in the rural areas to certain standards. Some of them were 25/3, some were to 10/1, and then there were actually some that were also 4/1.

Christopher Mitchell: Just for pausing for a second — and that's based on a model that the FCC uses based on reasonableness of costs to make sure those people have something.

Brent Christensen: Yes, yes. So we took a look at that and decided that that would accelerate and define where we were going to build first, so that's what we're doing. We're using the A-CAM money. It's speeding up the process. I mean, it would take us probably 15 years to build it the old way, and now we can do it probably in 10 so that's our plan. And as far as building to the speeds, we're not. We're just taking fiber everywhere, and I think most of the A-CAM companies are doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: And you say that [meaning] in Minnesota?

Brent Christensen: Yeah, yeah. In Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, because you said there [were] eight others in Minnesota.

Brent Christensen: No, there's 14 total, 14 companies, and it's something like $54 million a year that's coming into the state for A-CAM.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So when you're planning that sort of thing, you mentioned doing the master plan and everything, you have seven employees.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. Right.

Christopher Mitchell: Does that mean some people work overtime? I mean, how do you make it work to take on just the normal work and then additional work with the long-term planning?

Brent Christensen: That's a really good question. We do it a couple different ways. First of all, we don't engineer it ourselves. We hire an engineer. Mike Denn, who you met, is our outside plant manager. He works with them and they did the whole master plan, and then he does some of the smaller projects within that. We've gotten into fiber splicing and we have our own splicing trailer, and so we have Mike and then one other tech that will handle that. Then we have a technician that handles trouble calls, does a lot of fixed wireless work, telephone systems, that sort of thing, and we have another tech that kind of manages the network. In a small shop like ours, everybody does something, a little bit everything, so everybody's there to help each other out. And then we got one guy that fixes computers, and when he's not doing that, he will take trouble calls too. They all take turns being on calls, so they all share the workload. They work really, really well together. It's an incredible team. And then we have the two gals that run the front office. Everybody helps everybody else out depending on what's going on. You know, we have to use outside vendors for construction and for engineering and that sort of thing.

Christopher Mitchell: So what you're describing to me actually seems broadly similar to the trends I see, you know, particularly in, like, Iowa where we see some munis that have fewer than 4,000 lines. I think most of the munis are bigger than you, but they have similar issues. So anyway, whenever I'm thinking, I don't necessarily change the way I'm thinking about this, but I think you draw a significant distinction between a municipality that is directly providing service and a small company like yours.

Brent Christensen: Yes. I have to clarify because to me there are ILEC munis and CLEC munis.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Brent Christensen: And you know, in Minnesota we used to have two, now we have one. And that one is a member of my organization.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, much like Swiftel is out in South Dakota.

Brent Christensen: Yes. Yep. So that's a different deal. You know, anytime you're going to CLEC, you're taking a risk, and I believe it's a lot cheaper to expand the network than it is to create a network. And so, when you've seen some expansions and business cases that didn't live up to their pipe and didn't work, we've seen some partnerships, more at the county level than the municipal level, that I think have been very successful. And I think that's the model that, if a community wants to expand their broadband, I think that's the model that they need to follow. Find a partner and go for it.

Christopher Mitchell: What's a model county partnership in your mind in Minnesota?

Brent Christensen: Oh, I think the — and this was one of the side effects of the grant program that nobody saw coming, was some of these partnerships. To me, Big Stone and Swift; they're the gold standard on this. You know, they're built out. Other projects are still trying to find their way and they're done, and that's . . .

Christopher Mitchell: And how did that work?

Brent Christensen: I'm not the subject matter expert on it.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. [laughs] I didn't tell you there'd be a big test here.

Brent Christensen: The county bonded for the match for the grant, then they loaned that money to the telephone company (in this case, it was Federated Telephone), and then they built the network. Well they have 10 years before they have to start paying it back, so they can build up their customer base, they can build up the revenue, and then they can start paying it back. And also, uh, the county is responsible for helping to market this and getting people on board. So, you know, we're past the days of build it and they will come.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's a real partnership.

Brent Christensen: That's a real partnership. They did that, and they did that in a span of basically two years from start to finish and they're done. To me, that's the way to do it.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. And so, I like that model, and we've seen a number of these models in which the county is often subsidizing in some manner the expansion. I think that's entirely appropriate for essential infrastructure. I like it when it's a co-op. I told you when we were driving around that if you're going to partner with a small local company, I'm in favor of that too. I would encourage a right of first refusal in the event that the small local company sells to a company that is not as rooted in the community, which I think of as being a significant difference in terms of how decisions are made. And so, I'm supportive of that. I'm also supportive of the ones in which you said things didn't work out. And in Minnesota, we actually have a high concentration of municipal networks that I would say didn't perform financially as expected and yet did deliver benefits to the community as expected and to the extent that they needed to be subsidized — I mean Monticello is an example — I think the community seems, you know, at peace with it. I think the community did not want to subsidize it. They are subsidizing it. They hopefully will get to a point soon in which they are not, but they are delivering the benefits that they were looking for in terms of having local businesses have competitive service and things like that. And I say that just because I think the things I've said, you know, you certainly would not agree with a lot of them, but the point I would like to discuss with you is this idea: I don't think there's always a willing partner nearby. And I think, you know, for instance with Big Stone and Swift, if all of the counties nearby were clamoring for that, I think it overwhelms Federated, and so I think there are extenuating circumstances in cases.

Brent Christensen: My problem with that is there is no full disclosure with the taxpayers. You know, they're told one thing — that these networks are going to be self sufficient, taxpayer money will not go into this, and that didn't happen. And then when they defaulted on the bonds, that adversely affected the community.

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, just to be clear, I think we're talking about — well there's one community that defaulted on the bonds and that's Monticello.

Brent Christensen: Monticello. Yup. Right.

Christopher Mitchell: And I think that's really frustrating and actually there's repercussions, not so much for Monticello, but that nobody can really sell revenue bonds that are not backed by the full faith and credit now to build these networks. And so, you know, I agree with you that that did not work out as expected, but I want to offer a little bit of context.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. And I mean, it's also scared off a lot of communities too.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Brent Christensen: Let's look at Annandale. I mean, Annandale, they wanted a Fiber-to-the-Prem solution. Well, I have not found a single customer that cares how they get their Internet. They only care that they get their Internet. And so, there was a provider, a cable company, that said, we'll do a hybrid fiber coax network, and that wasn't good enough for them. So they tried to get a carve out from the grant program, wasn't successful, ended up with a hybrid fiber coax network, and now they've got all the Internet they can use.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I mean I don't know as much of the details as to how that wrapped up. If I was in Annandale, my concern would be that they still don't have the high upload speeds that they would want for certain businesses and that sort of a thing.

Brent Christensen: Well businesses can get — I mean everybody that I know, if a business has a need and wants it, they can get it. They can get fiber cause there's fiber to the node there, so getting fiber to the customers that specifically need it, we do that all the time.

Christopher Mitchell: No, that's true. And let me just say that I think there's a difference between the way that you would do it — if a business in Madelia said we need fiber to us and you were, let's say, a half mile away, I don't think you would charge them $25,000 upfront and $1,500 a month ongoing. Maybe I'm wrong. That's the sort of prices we see, and that's even a low price that I've seen from the largest cable company in the United States.

Brent Christensen: Well, we do charge an aid to construction on that stuff because . . . I mean, you gotta be able to pay for it. I mean, you can't reinvest in your network if you're not generating revenue. So we do charge — we had an example. We had a tower outside our exchange that wanted fiber to it, and I can't remember what the aid to construction was, but it was probably $10 grand, $8-$10 grand, for us to bury to them, and they paid it. Now, they paid the regular monthly fees after that, and that wasn't anywhere near $1,500, but there is an aid to construction on some of those bigger builds.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Brent Christensen: We're looking at another one now in Saint James, where they're building to their park, and we're talking to the city about what how we're going to get the fiber out there, and that's going to be a spendy one too. So there's going to have to be some sort of help with the city in a partnership. Those things happen. But, the bottom line was the consumers got the, the level of service that they need, and now everybody's happy.

Christopher Mitchell: In Annandale.

Brent Christensen: In Annandale, yup. I think there has to be meaningful conversation. You get sold that, you know, it has to be fiber. Well, it'd be great to have fiber, but some places you can't afford to put the fiber in. We're seeing fixed wireless working. We've replaced a lot of the original fixed wireless stuff that we have in rural Watonwan County, and we replaced it with some of the stuff that I was showing you. We're getting 30, 40, 50 Meg out of that stuff. It's crazy.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. No, fixed wireless has come a long way and in a lot of applications it works well. I'm on the record as being deeply concerned about its ability to serve as universal connection.

Brent Christensen: Oh, I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with that because I mean, we're talking more than just from the antenna to the customer. That's the easy part. That's where the speeds are great. It's the backhaul, and if you don't get the backhaul right —

Christopher Mitchell: Or the customer lives on the wrong side of the hill.

Brent Christensen: Right, right. But in those cases, you know, we're finding that we're taking the extra time to put that antenna in the right place. We don't just slap them up on the side of the building and go on.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but you and I both know that there's some providers —

Brent Christensen: WISPs.

Christopher Mitchell: — WISPs, who do not do that. You actually said it before I did. You said the exact same words. There's this thing called WISPs, but there's really two separate groups that are, I would say, perhaps even roughly equal in size: those who are doing it right and those who aren't.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, I mean those who are, you know, trying to get it up, they're down and dirty and they don't care; they just get a signal and go. And then you have the ones that are engineering it and they're doing it right. And we're trying really hard not to have service calls. That's the goal.

Christopher Mitchell: Well that's, you know, what you get from a company that has more than a hundred years of operating experience. You worry about the capital costs, but you really worry about the operating costs.

Brent Christensen: And then the other part of it is, when you only have seven employees and they know where your office is and they know where your house is, we got to put decent stuff up in here or they're going to come into my office and yell.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, you said something about, sort of, some people call it like a fiber fetish. You know, I understand that you're frustrated with perhaps non-technical people just latching onto this idea and are probably even frustrated people like me, who I would say I have good reasons for promoting that. Nonetheless, you like the provision of the Minnesota grant program that requires effectively fiber or very high capacity wireless. It has to be scalable to 100 Megabit provision. You think that's a smart provision.

Brent Christensen: I do, and the reason I do is because we get an argument from legislators and others that say this is just throwing money away at temporary solutions and it's not. Because of that scalability requirement, we're not throwing them away money and it makes sense. We're using taxpayer money, general fund money — there needs to be some accountability for it. It needs to be put out for stuff that's going to be there and last. And it was really smart that they allow for middle mile projects too because that allows the fixed wireless to work and you get some decent backhaul out of the deal, ao I think that's an important provision.

Christopher Mitchell: And so, one last issue around munis as we come to the end of our time, and that's what do you think about munis in which they put in fiber to lease or in which they're building a network in which it's available and they're not offering services directly?

Brent Christensen: You know, I started out as a combination technician and I worked in our central office and stuff. I honestly don't know how that would work and nobody's been able to explain how you can have multiple providers jump on and off a network like that, So I think I'd have a better understanding if somebody could explain to me how that would actually work. I get putting duct out there and making that available to anybody that wants to put it in. Then, like we talked about on Friday, the problem with that is, you know, getting on and off that duck, cause that's not always where you need to be on and off.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. You don't have the right hand holds in the right spot.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, you don't have the right hand holds, and then you end up having to backtrack and that costs more than putting it in yourself. But sharing a fiber or jumping on an existing fiber that's lit, I don't get it. I don't know how that works so . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Well in this case could be dark also, and so I'm curious about cases of — would dark fiber be just sort of similar to what you were saying about the duct then.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, depending on where you go. Now, if you're using it for, for backhaul — you know, we lease dark fiber from other companies to get like to the 511 building and things like that. That makes sense. You know, but I don't know how to visualize that.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, hopefully we'll spell it out and answer those sorts of questions.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, I'd be interested. I mean, I'm interested in seeing if there's an application, you know.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, but I actually think it's really valuable to have a sense of you as an ISP saying, "I don't really understand how that would work," because that's something that local governments need to know if they're going to think about this, just making sure they're talking to someone like you if they're expecting you to use it.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and let's be honest. I mean, the fault that we have on our side is that we have a set expectation or we know how the business works. But the days of doing the traditional models — we have to be a lot more creative. I think those days are slowly going away, so we have to, particularly a small company like mine, we've got to look at a new partnerships. After you left on Friday, I had a meeting with the IT folks from Blue Earth County, and they're interested in doing something in Blue Earth County. And they brought in their map and they brought in a list of all the providers who are around them, and I looked at that list and they're all people that I work with today. We own transport groups together and we do business in many different ways, and so it makes sense to sit down and say, "Okay, what can we do?" You know, maybe I take a piece of Blue Earth County that I wasn't going to build in before and the county helps us out and figures out a way through a broadband grant or whatever to do that. I think there has to be creative solutions to solving this problem. One thing we all have in common is we want broadband everywhere. We know we have to have that. You know, we also do economic development for the eastern half Watonwan County, and we're done chasing 200 job factories. We're going after telecommuting jobs, one and two at a time, all the time. And we bring in a doctor or a superintendent, they bring a spouse who can telecommute and bring their job — we win.

Christopher Mitchell: Your county is also one of the ones in which I see you're imprisoning young people on snowy days.

Brent Christensen: Yeah. And you know, if I was still on the school board, we'd have a conversation about that because there's some other districts that dialed it in. You know, they're learning from home. They call it a alternative learning day.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure, and I was just thinking of this snow storm we had and the blizzard conditions with the wind and everything. Watonwan County was one of the places where people got stuck.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, they did. We had over 50 people that were stuck in Madelia this weekend, and I was stuck on my farm. I couldn't get into town.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's — you know, we started with the cold of Minnesota, we'll end with the cold of Minnesota. I love this place. You lived in Texas for a while.

Brent Christensen: I did.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad you came back.

Brent Christensen: I am too. You know, my wife was born and raised there, and she likes to have one good blizzard, so we had to stay at the farm and get snowed in once a year and she's done now.

Christopher Mitchell: Waiting for March — or June.

Brent Christensen: Yeah, June.

Christopher Mitchell: All right, well thank you so much for coming in, Brent.

Brent Christensen: Hey, thanks for having me on, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Brent Christensen of Christensen Communications. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/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 important research from all of our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Follow us on Instagram. We are ILSR74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 346 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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