Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 357

This is the transcript for episode 357 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher interviews Monica Webb and Adam Eisner from Ting Internet about how the company is partnering with municipalities to connect communities across the country. Read the transcript of the interview below, or listen to the podcast episode. 

 

Monica Webb: We're really selecting communities that are very interested in Ting coming to town. They work with us very productively, and we end up with a very strong presence and reception from the communities.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 357 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Once again, we have an interview to share that Christopher recorded while in Austin at the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit. This time our conversation is with two folks from the Internet access company and mobile service provider Ting. As you'll hear in the interview with Monica Webb and Adam Eisner, the company is known for a lot more than what we at MuniNetworks tend to focus on. They share some of their history and discuss how it has become a partner with several municipalities in order to bring high quality gigabit Internet access to local communities. Monica and Adam also talk about the different projects that Ting is working on and the ones that they've developed so far. Ting is experimenting with different models to get their services to subscribers. Along the way, they've continued to emphasize strong customer service and learn some lessons, which they share with us. They talk about some of the ways municipalities can make adjustments to help companies like them quickly and efficiently deploy high speed networks. They also offer some examples based on their own experiences. Now, here's Christopher with Monica Webb and Adam Eisner from Ting.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. I'm with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I am worn out after a wonderful set of days here at the Broadband Communities event in Austin, Texas, and I'm talking with two of my favorite people — one who's been on the show before, one who's new. Welcome back to Ting employees, the people who make Ting work, Monica Webb, the director of market development and government affairs for Ting Internet.

Monica Webb: That's correct.

Christopher Mitchell: Or just welcome. Sorry, this is really fun because I've known Monica for a long time and Adam I haven't known for quite as long, but he's a very relaxed guy. Adam is the vice president for networks for Ting.

Adam Eisner: I am very excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: So we're going to talk a bit about what Ting's doing. You've worked in many public private partnerships, you've learned different lessons. There's a new model in Fullerton, California. That's exciting. We're going to talk about a number of different things, but the first thing, I think it's always worth noting some of the people who listen to this show do remember Tucows, so just briefly remind us where Ting came from.

Adam Eisner: Tucows is the parent company, I guess is the best way to say it. You know, been around for across three decades now — very old Internet company. Started as a software download website in the 90s, turned into a domain name registrar that is currently — you know, we're the second largest registrar in the world behind GoDaddy.

Christopher Mitchell: You can say it. It's Hover, and actually Robert Wack and I were just using it yesterday. He was having issues, was on help desk with them, and I've been on help desk three or four times with Hover over the years and it's a wonderful experience.

Adam Eisner: Yeah, so it's interesting you say that. You know, hover.com is our retail arm of that domain name registrar, which is actually a wholesaler, so it's got lots and lots of different retailers on it and Hover's one of those. But, Hover was this domain name business that we built that had this great idea around great customer service, great interfaces, you know, fair pricing. And that actually was the genesis or the idea behind Ting mobile, which was the next business Tucows sort of launched, which was a mobile provider, a mobile virtual network operator, using those same principles, and that business then took off. And so, you know, between this now very established domain name business and this great mobile business that took off and is ranked one of the best mobile providers in America now by Consumer Reports, we went, okay, well we have two stable businesses that are generating a lot of cash that we want to invest appropriately. Where else can we spend that cash in areas where people have lousy relationships with their providers or could benefit from a better customer experience? Then we moved to broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I have to say, I've been a longtime customer of Ting wireless as well. I have been very happy with it. I've never become a shareholder of Ting or of Tucows I guess because I feel like it would be a conflict of interest and people would be like . . . you know, because I am frequently praising you publicly. So from my very, very powerful perch in this industry . . . So Monica, I'm curious, can you run down — maybe you could start running down the projects that Ting is involved in around the country.

Monica Webb: So currently we have eight markets that have been announced. One of them, Westminster, Maryland, is largely complete. We have six that are lit are in various stages of construction. Holly Springs, North Carolina, is almost finished. So we have subscribers on six of those networks running live, and we have very active construction. And those particular projects vary from Sandpoint, Idaho, you know, where we have population of 7,500, right up to Centennial, Colorado, where it's a population of 100,000. So they represent a variety of sizes of municipalities and certainly geographies and also, you know, maybe most interestingly different models in terms of how we work with local stakeholders, how we work with other partners in the model that we're deploying in those markets.

Christopher Mitchell: So here we are, we're in Texas right now, and you had a stake in UVA, the University of Virginia, in the National Championship. How are you tied to UVA?

Monica Webb: Well, you know, Charlottesville was ground zero for Ting internet, in that that was our very first market, and interestingly, when we closed on that sale, we went out to celebrate by going a game, a UVA Cavaliers game. So, I feel like we all support that team over other US college basketball teams.

Christopher Mitchell: There are no Toronto Rapids in the eyes of Elliot.

Monica Webb: That's right. But you know, perhaps most exciting for us is this year we undertook a partnership with UVA where we actually supply the Internet for the public at both the stadium, where the Cavaliers play, as well as their UVA football stadium. We brought fiber in, and then we have wireless access points and have worked really hard to provide a robust and seamless wireless experience for all of the attendees to those games. So we feel, you know, very vested in UVA itself, and as I said, it also had an instrumental moment with us when we first embarked on our deal in Charlottesville.

Adam Eisner: We had this funny thing where, you know, I think Duke was playing in UVA at the stadium and Lebron James was there, and we were all sort of looking around going, "I wonder if he's on Ting Wi-Fi? Is Lebron James using our Wi-Fi? Because that would be pretty awesome." So you get all these, you know, funny sporting anecdotal stories, like UVA won the national championship for basketball a few days ago and they're having a homecoming sort of thing in a couple of days at the football stadium and we all sort of went, we gotta make sure the Wi-Fi is still on even though football season is over. So, you know, we have a lot of people in and around that organization and those sports, so it's been pretty cool.

Christopher Mitchell: So Adam, let me stay with you for a second because people that are long time listeners will know Monica's background — been with Ting for many years now. Prior to that, we had interviewed you when you were with Wired West in Massachusetts. But Adam, as far as I know, you were kind of thrust into this position at Ting and I wonder if you can just tell us a little bit about that.

Adam Eisner: Yeah, so I'm a bit of a Tucows lifer. You know, I've been at the company for about 15 years, which in internet years is a lifetime, and boy, I'm not even the longest serving employee by a long shot. And so, you know, my genesis through the company was kind of starting in marketing, ended up running the wholesale division of Tucows on a product level for a number of years, so the domain name, email, SSL sort of businesses, and after a number of years was kind of looking around the organization just because Tucows is really good about affording you different opportunities to do different things if that is your interest. And so, [I] kind of said, "Hey, are there other things that I could get involved in here?" And so, at that point the company was looking at getting into the broadband space, so, you know, they said, "What about this fiber idea?" And so, I basically locked myself in a room and started looking up the elements to, you know, what goes into deploying fiber, and shortly thereafter, we were on our way. And so ever since then I've really been involved pretty deeply in finding the markets, building the markets, operating the markets, and it's been a lot of fun to watch it go from this idea that what was effectively a software and services company to something that's now an ISP in a whole number of areas. Interestingly, Tucows was owned by an ISP, has a lot of ISP DNA in it, so although, you know, the space is a little new from the terms of deploying fiber and running a Fiber-to-the-Home project, a lot of people in the building that grew up in ISPs somewhere.

Christopher Mitchell: Historically, the companies that have tried to get into this, particularly in a sort of bigger way where you're picking different markets across the country rather than just picking up a name brand in one area, I think they've struggled a bit. Like, RCN, a lot of those companies have consolidated over the years and they've really faced challenges. You seem to have been more successful. We're not going to talk about specific take rates, but my impression has been that in all of your markets you're not getting ready to bail out. It seems like it's working.

Adam Eisner: Right, yeah. I mean, we're really happy with the way it has gone so far, and you know, just us introducing new markets I think is indicative of that. I think we're lucky in that, until recently anyway, we had a little bit of an advantage of being a startup inside of a large successful company. So, you know, there were no preconceived notions about how we were going to pull this off, but we're also well supported, well capitalized to be able to take our time to figure that out and do it. And so, I think that's really benefited us as we've gone out and sort of, you know, spread the word and gone into new markets.

Monica Webb: I think our expansion has been fairly thoughtful. As Adam mentioned, we do have a startup culture, so we felt like we had a good handle on it when we started to scale up. We have, you know, obviously a world class customer experience to rely on as well, fantastic branding and marketing, and that has really allowed us to succeed in these communities. We have a very local-centric approach in the communities. We're not going into giant metros. You know, we're really selecting communities that are very interested in Ting coming to town. They work with us very productively, and we end up with a very strong presence and reception from the communities.

Christopher Mitchell: And you're using a variety of different models. I think I might simplify it into into three, briefly. And we can do a tree in how these branch out as we go down because each community seems to be somewhat unique. But, you bought a company and so you are a company in Charlottesville in which you are just a total private company. In Westminster, the city — Robert Wack's city — really led the effort, built a network, and you partnered to operate on the network, which is — you know, you're doing some equipment-type stuff also but we've done a podcast on that. People who are interested can go back and look at that. But that's where you're leasing municipal assets. My impression was in some ways that you thought that maybe that would be a common model moving forward, but in many other cities — and this is still at the second model that I'm elaborating on — you're leasing municipal assets but less so. And then the third model was just announced this week— which is now several weeks ago because we're canning the best interviews to let them age like a fine wine. In Fullerton, California, SiFi Networks is launching — a private company building an open access network to enable other private companies to compete on services. So anyway, is that a pretty fair, like, way to break them down?

Monica Webb: Chris, you get an A+.

Christopher Mitchell: I didn't really ask you a question, so . . .

Monica Webb: You know, I think what I would say is we're not afraid of dirt and hard work, and that's something that we have, you know, painfully but definitely successfully figured out over time — how we can build networks efficiently and effectively. However, what we know we do best and can scale most efficiently is the provision of a fantastic customer service experience and the marketing of those services, and so, when we partner with, for example, the city of Westminster or SiFi networks and they're taking on that piece of design and construction —

Christopher Mitchell: Adam's job. When they're doing Adam's job, right?

Monica Webb: That's right. When we offload Adam's responsibilities, yes. So it does allow us to scale faster and as I said, you know, provide the same fantastic customer experience but just not take on so much of the design and construction responsibilities.

Christopher Mitchell: So that's what you see as the value add. I mean, like, I think companies that succeed often know what they do well and so you're very focused on that customer experience.

Monica Webb: Yeah, I would say that's been the defining characteristics that Tucows has really built its reputation on, is providing a genuinely human customer experience. And you know, all of the other core administrative functions we have down to a science, ao it really does allow us to offload something that is . . . you know, it can be a difficult from a timeline perspective, it can be difficult from a resourcing perspective, to other entities and we can look for other markets where we can make sure Adam stays busy.

Adam Eisner: Yeah. I don't think we came into it thinking that we wanted to become a construction company. The easier it is for us to provide, like, this great service we're talking about is . . . You know, the easiest way to allow us to do that is probably the most important thing, and so if we can do that in connection with adding a lot of addresses to our portfolio, to our network, boy, we're pretty happy with that. So whether we're doing that or someone else is doing that on the construction side, we're pretty okay either way, I think. You know, we didn't get into it thinking we'd be a construction company, although here we are and I think we're pretty darn good at it. And it's important and you know, strategic to us; it's not the only way for us at this point. We're happy to do it any number of ways.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious what lessons you've learned aside from the challenge of getting places on time with the airlines being what they are. I know that you both do a lot of travel, and sometimes it's challenging as Monica's arrival here was, but what have you learned that may have surprised you in terms of taking Ting from, you know, the very first network that you were working on in Charlottesville to where you are today?

Adam Eisner: Ooh, you know, there's, so much. I don't think we necessarily underestimated, but we've learned a lot about just what it takes to be able to build a network from the ground up. If you think about it as a service provider, software company that we were historically, we — and I'm looking at Monica here. Like, you know, Monica and I have had to do a lot of pulling of the organization into — and others, obviously it's not just us — but explaining to people inside the organization that we're going to have a fleet of trucks now, when historically we were largely a group of support, operations, development, and any myriad number of things. It was a real new idea for us. And so—

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, you're managing a fleet a thousand miles away and 2,500 miles away, maybe now.

Adam Eisner: Yeah. And if I think about my product days at Tucows, if you had a big project that you needed to finish on time for something, not to say it always worked perfectly, but boy, you could add some resources there to finish a project in short order. You know, construction, you can't really do that. There's so many different elements, third party sort of things that can have an impact on your build that you have to learn a lot to figure out how to mitigate properly. And I think we're there, but you know, there was a lot of learning around all of that to get there.

Monica Webb: The other thing I would add to that that is interesting given our software dev. roots is that we've been able to do a lot of internal work on billing and provisioning and workforce management that is going to ultimately really help our operation be as efficient as it possibly can be. I think the other learning — and I think we came into this particular aspect of the business with our eyes open, but it's just, I think what we've realized is that you can have a recipe for how you interact with municipalities for success on permitting, success on franchise agreements, success on leasing or potentially purchasing land, but you really need to be very specific in the initial discussions to make sure that they understand this is an enormous impact. We're talking about building infrastructure, the scope of which hasn't been seen since the large cable build out in the seventies. This is going to overwhelm their permitting department if they don't have really super streamlined processes already in place. So I think that, you know, what we've taken from that is each municipality is different in terms of their capabilities there and that we really need to be upfront with them with how much throughput we're going to need in order to build this network so that their constituents aren't waiting around for years to get the service.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'd like to push in on that for a second because I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about maybe what you've seen that's worked well for cities and areas in which you might encourage cities to think about their processes they may not even be aware of. Because Monica, you come from a background in which you are really representing the other side, the interests of the cities, and now I think you have a very full picture. At the same time, I mean, it's worth noting for people who aren't familiar, Elliot Noss has done a tremendous amount for the open Internet. The guy in charge and the guy that I've always associated with all of this stuff, you know, he's long been committed and put in his personal time and company time to things that matter for the open Internet worldwide and net neutrality and things like that. You've remained strong supporters of net neutrality as you've gotten in the business of wired access. So, I'm just curious if you can just talk a little bit about maybe how your perspective of government has shifted, and then we can roll into any ways you might suggest cities would be thinking about how to improve their processes.

Monica Webb: Well, one thing I would say about open Internet, Elliot really believes strongly in everybody having a fair and equitable experience on the Internet. Our tagline is "unlock the power of the Internet," and that comes through in the fact that we give this great customer experience and we are more than happy to stand up for policies that support an open internet. Sometimes we don't actually have the bandwidth personally to get in the trenches, but that's why we support other organizations that are doing that work. We sign letters to legislators, we do whatever we can because it really is important to protect the right for everybody to have free and open access to the Internet. I'll use permitting for an example. We'll say to cities, okay, we're going to be putting through a lot of permits. We're going to need you, you know, to make sure that your processes are streamlined. They'll say, absolutely, we'll do that, and then it comes down to it and that's more than more than often not the case.

Christopher Mitchell: You bring a wheelbarrow full of permits into city hall and their eyes fall out of their heads, right?

Monica Webb: And, you know, some things that have worked for example, is sometimes our contact at the city will actually work with the various departments to make sure that even though they're not the permitting department, that person will make sure — our point of contact — that the permits are moving through. We will say to them, you know, here's our timeline of how we need the permits processed. We need to have a permit in our hands within a month of the initial submission. So let's work back and figure out what your approval timelines are with each different department to make sure that that can happen. Make sure that you have a permit category that is appropriate for what we're doing so that we're A, not paying a lot of money to do it, but also it's getting to the right people in the right hands as soon as possible. If there are any ways to streamline it where we can help, tell us in advance and let's make that happen. So it really is getting into the nitty gritty details of how each task is performed that we're reliant upon to successfully deploy. That is the secret to the success.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I mean, the impression I get is that when you're approaching them, you're working with cities, first of all, that are going to be open to working with you, but you found that they're pretty receptive to trying to identify these challenges and solve them.

Monica Webb: Some are better than others. One of the other things that one of the towns that we're working with has been wonderful about is just increasing the size of the permit basically. So not limiting it at a few blocks or so many houses or so many square miles but actually saying this'll be a blanket permit for the city, and then you'll just supply us with the plans and we'll review them one phase at a time. That has been enormously helpful. So I would say the cities genuinely want to streamline. It's just a matter of how that actually happens. You know, larger cities, there can be more steps, more red tape to getting that kind of thing done, so we generally find that the smaller towns are more receptive to making things happen quicker.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Well, and I'm just thinking, I mean, you actually have a broad view because you're in very red states, very blue states, and purple states. It's worth remembering, towns, you know, they're not subject to the state voting patterns always, just in terms of the politics.

Monica Webb: Yeah, I mean, I would say we haven't seen a difference based on, you know, what the state level politics are. It's really — as they say, all politics are local, and certainly when it comes to processes like permitting that fall under local politics, it really does come down to what the local administration makes as a priority.

Adam Eisner: One other thing there is that we're typically working with municipalities where we're not trying to sell them on the idea that broadband's a transformative thing, so we're generally working with municipalities who, conceptually anyway, are onboard with the idea that this is going to be a good thing. But you know, the proof is in the pudding. When it comes down to the people you're working with initially may be onboard, but as you get deeper into especially larger cities — as Monica was saying it's usually easier with smaller ones — you know, you've got to make sure that all the pockets that you're going to be dealing with are of that same belief. Although generally that's the case, but sometimes there's a bit of cajoling involved in certain places.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious what extent you can discuss some of the tradeoffs between different municipal assets that you've leased? I think you've leased conduit, you've leased dark fiber, and you know, the arrangements of dark fiber may have been different in different places, so what are some of the tradeoffs that you're seeing as you're doing this?

Adam Eisner: You know, the more assets that you're leasing, the less control you have over where they are, how accessible they are. Even with those municipal — you know, like I said, everybody's on board with the idea of broadband. Depending on who they've been working with and what they understand, pricing models can be very different as an example. So there can be some real challenges if you're relying entirely on municipal assets because they're typically not designed to be exactly in line with what your objectives are. So we're finding more and more that we're moving to, you know, some hybrid solutions there, where maybe it's some empty duct as opposed to a full duct of fiber that we're trying to lease, as an example. And we're also cognizant of the fact that when municipalities are building these things, there's obviously only going to be a limited amount that's going to be for, you know, a private entity that wants to come in and lease some assets there. So we're finding ourselves in every market, doing it a little differently. Generally speaking, pretty thankful for what is there for assets that we can use, but, you know, we have long conversations with each municipality that we're working with right now on what they have, what they're able to make available, and how that might fit into our build plans, which as we get better at it, you know, we tend to take more in house. And so, it's a bit of an ebb and flow, if that makes sense.

Christopher Mitchell: Are you considering . . . Would it make sense for you to just, like, say, come to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and start being an ISP there on your own without leasing anything, or are you generally thinking about leasing assets in order to get into a market?

Monica Webb: I don't think we actually need to to have municipal assets made available to us in order to enter a market. What we do want to see though is that a municipality is open and interested and engaged in the process of bringing an ISP in because it really is just a different — having a different perspective, wanting to work productively with us.

Christopher Mitchell: You're telling me I should move?

Monica Webb: Yeah. Toronto's got four seasons

Adam Eisner: At this point, assets are definitely nice to have, but like Monica was saying, it wouldn't preclude us from going in somewhere if we thought that the city had the right sort of attitude to this if the competitive situation was such that particularly citizens didn't have access to fiber. So a lot of the markets we go into are one phone company that everybody's really frustrated with and one cable company that everyone's really frustrated with. So, you know, if we're sort of ticking off those boxes and it's a market that can sort of sustain gigabit Internet that we're looking at, we're in that mode where we're still looking

Christopher Mitchell: And are you looking in Canada as well? I get that question every now and then from Canadian folks.

Adam Eisner: Yeah. You know, we're in a real weird spot where we're this Canadian company that doesn't do anything in Canada . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Elliot did say once said that he'd have to build 10 markets in the United States before he would build in Canada because he felt that he wasn't taken seriously until he had achieved more market success. You know, he may have just been joking, but . . .

Adam Eisner: This is a bit of a personal answer, but I think that there's a lot more — if I think about where I live in Toronto, I'm not saying that the options are amazing. However, Bell is spending something like $2 billion in Toronto to build fiber to every home effectively, nd they're starting to do that across the province of Ontario. Telus out west is doing something similar. You know, Rogers, who's a cable provider, is spending a lot of time going to DOCSIS 3.1 and so on and so forth. So competitively, you know, there's a lot of action there. It's a much smaller country population wise, and so there are fewer markets in which to look at that don't have one of those three people or two, you know, really investing a lot of money right now in upgrading the network. That said, the pricing is garbage, but that's another story.

Christopher Mitchell: Now I'm going to avoid the obligatory joke about the exchange rates.

Adam Eisner: Right? Yeah, let's not even get into that. And so, you know, if you look at the U.S., there's just so many more opportunities where, what I was describing earlier, just around bad service, not a lot of options. You know, if you look at a place like Sandpoint, Idaho, you have companies, enterprises coming to you and saying, "Please help. We get a meg up and a meg down." You know, there's a lot of places where we feel like we can solve that problem here in the U.S. Relative to what's in Canada.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. Thank you both for taking some time. I love to talk to you in person. You know, Ting is a fun company and I'm excited to see where you all go.

Adam Eisner: We're still having a lot of fun. Thanks for having us.

Monica Webb: Yeah, thanks for having us, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Monica Webb and Adam Eisner from Ting, discussing their company's experiences deploying Internet networks and working with local communities. 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. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 357 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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