This is the transcript for episode 367 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with John Lester and Brian Eisele from Clarkvsille and Johnson County, Arkansas, about Clarksville Connected Utilities' fiber network and how it's benefitting residents and businesses. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
John Lester: It almost sounds like we're beginning to build a millennial Mecca here, where you can get the things easy but still have access to the rest of the world almost instantly.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 367 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We've been following Clarksville, Arkansas, for a few years now. They started by developing a fiber network to use SCADA to improve utilities' efficiencies. Now they're on their way to a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home network. This week Christopher talks with John Lester from Clarksville Connected Utilities and Brian Eisele, a local business owner who leads the Clarksville Chamber of Commerce. They discuss the road Clarksville has traveled toward their decision to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home and some of the data points that encourage them to press forward. John talks about some of the unique choices Clarksville has made when designing their network to ensure its public purpose. Brian offers the perspective shared by Clarksville's business and residential sector. We also get to hear some of the specific examples of how the network has boosted economic development and some of the other ways Clarksville Connected Utilities is embracing the future. There was a little bit of a glitch when recording John's audio, so bear with us. The quality isn't as good as it usually is. Now, here's Chris with John Lester from Clarksville Connected Utilities and Brian Eisele, an independent business owner and leader of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, and today I'm speaking with John Lester, the general manager of Clarksville Connected Utilities. Welcome back to the show, John.
John Lester: Thanks for having me back.
Christopher Mitchell: And we're also hearing from Brian Eisele, who is the president and CEO of the Clarksville Chamber of Commerce, which is the economic development organization there in Clarksville, Arkansas. Welcome to the show.
Brian Eisele: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Christopher Mitchell: And so, John, I think we had you on before when you were with Chanute, back in another lifetime when we were doing this podcast back in the day. You've since gone on to do great things in Clarksville, Arkansas. Tell us a little bit about Clarksville.
John Lester: Yes, you are correct. I did do a podcast when I was in Chanute, Kansas, when I was a city manager. I've been in Clarksville since July of 2013. Clarksville is a community very similar in size to Chanute. The population's just under 10,000, so therefore it's a rural community. It's in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Some of the perceptions related to the geography in Arkansas might be flat delta area. However, we are on the southern end of the Ozark mountains, so it is a very beautiful, very outdoorsy, very scenic area that we live in. Very rural in nature. Our utility has about 4,500 customers, a sizable industrial load, and I think that it's been consistently growing as far as population over the last 20 - 30 years and as opposed to some other rural communities.
Christopher Mitchell: So John, what have you been doing as the general manager of the Connected Utilities there in Clarksville?
John Lester: Oh, life has been busy. About four or five years ago, we started the process of standing up a network, and I believe it was primarily for SCADA purposes. And at that time we looked at oversizing the core, which is a 17 mile, 288 strand core, to be able to provide additional services on that. So we provisioned the SCADA network almost immediately after the fiber network we built, and then we layered in our business network. And then we had a very public process related to what other uses we might have longterm related to the network with all the extra capacity that we had. And we had some ad hoc folks that were in the IT arena within Clarksville participate, and they set out different layers of where they felt the preferences were. They wanted us to really focus on being able to serve the local anchor institutions, being local library, the hospital, we have a liberal arts college, University of Ozarks, in town, the school district, the city, and the county. So that was the top priority on services. And then after that it was gonna help business and economic develop by making some type of service available to that customer market. And then last, but certainly not least, was the potential of residential. After we determined what those steps were and what those priorities were, we engaged a telecom engineering company and they put together a Fiber-to-the-Home master plan for us from a design perspective. They also provided what the most recent construction-related costs might be to build that network. We took those dollars and we passed that to a completely independent third party financial consultant. I think it's a financial consultant that many in this forum know pretty well, Doug Dawson, with CCG consulting. So he did the business case, and the business case was promising enough that we decided to take those next steps. So we did two statistically valid telephone surveys. The desire for the community across all markets segments was high enough that it actually was very, very encouraging. It was amazing. Some of the results of the survey — here's one example: If you had the choice of getting service that was at the same speed and same price but you could buy from a local provider, what would be your likelihood to switch? 60 percent of those surveyed said they would switch just to be able to do business with a local provider. That was the strong enough emphasis to take those next steps to move forward with building a Fiber-to-the-Home and business network. We've issued revenue bonds, which is the first step for any municipality in Arkansas to take that action, and we're now in the process of finalizing a construction manager and all the electronics. And beginning within the next three or four weeks, we intend to be building a Fiber-to-the-Home network in Clarksville, Arkansas. So we've had a few things going on.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. It sounds like you've been very busy. Brian, I'd like to bring you in to talk about the perspective from the Chamber of Commerce where, you know, you also work on economic development. What's been important to you as these different plans were being laid out before they even started?
Brian Eisele: Well, just a little quick background about me: I came on in August, and my wife and I actually have a small business here in Johnson County so we're not in Clarksville per se. I've always been involved with the Chamber, so I always had an idea of kind of what was going on. But honestly, when I was considering coming and working at the Chamber, one of the first things I did was meet with John Lester, just because, you know, let's be honest, whatever John says goes, so I wanted to make a good first impression with him. But honestly, that was kind of the selling point. I went and did what we've termed the "Clarksville 101." I did the utility tour with him, and I was blown away with the SCADA network that he build and how he's capitalized on that investment and turned around and, you know, now he's hooking up — you know, John says 18 - 24, I say 12 - 18 months out from having all the homes and businesses in Clarksville hooked up to ultra high-speed broadband Internet. So, that right there was the hook. I was sold after that. I really see, you know, with that kind of investment in Clarksville and those kind of positive changes, we're on the up, and I just wanted to be a part of that. So that being said, I mean, we're having more and more conversations about businesses wanting to do business in Clarksville, so it's great.
Christopher Mitchell: It looks like you have about 10,000 people there, and it seems like it's a growing population. So, why was the fiber optics, you know, so important to local businesses?
Brian Eisele: When the co-ops were building the electric utility in rural United States, I mean, that's the equivalent nowadays. You know, it's the railroad of the 19th century. I mean, this is the utility of the future. It's what people are going to need to be able to do work going forward. Companies are going to need it, businesses are going to need it, education is going to need it. But that being said, I mean, Arkansas in general is a great place to do business. So, you know, I think things are just on the up and up as a whole, with the local initiatives, investment in the renewable energy, and the high speed internet as well as, like, the corporate tax reform that the Arkansas legislature just passed, some of the pro-business initiatives that Arkansas is doing, just the general low cost of doing business. The River Valley is really prime for some growth, and Clarksville's in an excellent position for that.
Christopher Mitchell: John, did you want to add onto that at all?
John Lester: Yes, I think Brian hit something that's really key in that this network isn't just about faster Internet or having more streaming video opportunities. He's really talking about education and training and public safety and healthcare. And we did something unique in this core that I was mentioning before in that we specifically set out buffer tubes of 12 fibers in each tube for public purposes. In one such example — and it's actually our first paying customer — in the purple tube, the school district now has a dedicated pair around the entire 17-mile ring topology where they're transporting between their buildings — and I believe there are 11 of them and that doesn't include our NOC — at 10 gigs around that ring, and then we provide their backup outside world Internet connection from the state provided solution. And when we built this network, one of the things is also going to make it unique and the thing that we're going to provide a little value added for the anchor institutions, is the building where our network operations center, our NOC, is located has a small vault in it because it used to be a machine shop and they used to protect their valuable papers. Well Clarksville, Arkansas, and Clarksville Connected has a mini-cloud opportunity, so we're giving the anchor institutions the opportunity to be on net with dedicated fiber and then use that vault for disaster recovery or backup electronics. That is a very unique position for Clarksville and us to be in to offer those anchor institutions.
Christopher Mitchell: Brian, I wanted to ask you about a specific example that my colleague Lisa wrote about in November of 2017, which was local company Munro Shoes that was able to expand because of the network. You want to tell me about what happened there?
Brian Eisele: Well, that was a little bit before my time, but my understanding was Munro was looking to consolidate some of their production. They were hem-hawing on whether they would do it at Clarksville at their facility or at somewhere else. And so, with the Clarksville Connected Utilities, they set out and did an energy audit, and you know, they identified some of the opportunities to cut down on overhead costs. Of course, with the high-speed Internet, that was just a bonusso that really made up their mind because — And I talk to Molly Munro regularly. She's just [thinks] that's a huge plus, is John Lester and Clarksville Connected and how she can pick up the phone and have the access to the local utility company and get the quick response if she's needing something done. And not just that, but Molly and her dad, Don Munro — he's a Hall of Fame business guy from Arkansas — they are continually impressed with the workforce here in Clarksville. I mean, that was the other huge factor in why they moved all their production to Clarksville.
John Lester: The other little element: some of the equipment that they were locating back into Clarksville needed that connectivity. You know, we all talk about the Internet of things. This is a typical example of that. Some equipment needed to be able to receive data over the Internet, down to the piece of equipment, to be able to produce efficiently, so therefore that's why we made this step of being able to provide them with some bandwidth for free in return for their moving the equipment and the jobs to Clarksville.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that just hearing you discussing that makes me want to bring back up was something that you said earlier, John, about local surveys saying that that people wanted to switch because they wanted a local provider as opposed to just, for instance, lower cost. That seems like not something we see everywhere.
John Lester: The survey company that we used, SDS out of Utah, have you done quite a few surveys for public power entities that have been interested in providing broadband. And they said that some of the data that they saw unique to Clarksville surprised them compared to other municipalities. One additional example was they often felt that the satisfaction level with some of those public power systems was very strong on the electric side, but they couldn't perceive or didn't have a strong desire for that entity to also provide broadband. We did not see that in our survey. We saw a very strong desire for us to provide those local services, which they were very impressed by. It was very pleasing for us obviously.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and I would presume that that then led into your decision not to do a partnership, which I believe you at least considered, and to offer the Internet access directly through the utility.
John Lester: That is correct. We looked at a number of different models, a wholesale model where we would provide the transport with another retailer. And that was really what probably tipped it over the edge, other than, you know, the financials became a little bit more complicated when you tried to build that model. The other interesting thing that the survey really brought forth is, obviously you've heard this in this forum, more and more customers are cutting the cord related to cable TV. We found that even though there were a substantial number of customers that still subscribe to a traditional linear TV offering, many of them had already cut the cord off of the cable company and was using a Dish-type network anyway, and that was another reason why we made the ultimate decision when it came to selling services to not provide a traditional cable TV offering. We are going to help educate and encourage people on how to stream their video services, and we think that that's where a substantial savings would be in store for our local area.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious about the reaction of local businesses because, Brian, it seems to me that many local businesses can probably already have service for themselves. Does providing residential service, is that something that local businesses are excited about or the Chamber thinks will add something to the business climate?
Brian Eisele: Well, absolutely. Again, going back to the narrative for Arkansas, you look at the River Valley and what John was talking earlier, nestled between the Ouachita and the Ozark mountains right along the Arkansas River, we've got a cost of living that's extremely cheap compared to a lot of densely populated areas in the United States. And I'm a prime example. I'm from the east coast. I met my wife who's from Johnson County up in Washington, D.C., and you know, I came out here to Arkansas to meet her parents and to see what I was getting into. And let me just say, they have a shooting range off their back porch. I was really blown away by the quality of life here, and some of my retirement goals that I had at a young age in my young twenties, you know, I've already attained. I've got cattle, I live on 40 acres, I have a house, I have a second home. If I can do it, anybody can do it. And so with that being said, if we were to market that to some of these other [places], you know, where you can't even afford to buy property because your rent is so high and you can't afford the tax and the mortgage and the interest associated with those. You know, if we market to those San Franciscos, those New Yorks, those metropolitan areas, then because the, the remote workforce is becoming such a thing now, people can come here and they can live. And they can access the information highway because they're going to have a fiber optic portal on the side of their homes, and they can get as much — I mean, it's an "all you can eat, as fast as you can eat it, for as long as you can eat it" Internet service. There's something to be said for that. You know, I think that'll be the next kind of revolution, is people getting away from the hour commutes on a metro bus, you know, getting on a subway, and then having to fight traffic to get home for dinner or to get to work early in the morning. I mean, people eat up so much more of their day commuting in some of these bigger areas that, you know, I like to make a joke. People say, "Hey Brian, I need you to be here right now." And I say, "I'll be there in five minutes." Because that's all it takes for me to get somewhere in Clarksville, Arkansas. So, you know, with that said, I just think there's an extreme value to the quality of life here that you just can't find anywhere. And so yeah, the connectivity that John has, you know, brought to Clarksville I think will pay huge dividends later on. So that's kind of the residential side. And now, on the business side, I mean, I can get some of these mom and pops to switch over their POS systems to — you know, they've got these really high-speed Internet modems in their business now, and it's like, guys, get a Square, get a Clover or something, you know, let's speed up your register a little bit. But you know, those are some of the educational pieces that John and I will be working on going forward. But, yeah, no, we're really excited. It's gonna be good for business. It's going to be good to attract a new workforce and to bring some of those kinds of software jobs, hopefully bring them here.
Christopher Mitchell: And John, I'm curious if you can, you can build on that a little bit, but also I'm curious. My impression is is that you — I don't know where your utilities mandate is, but from some of the reading it sounded like you'd be going outside of the city limits a little bit too.
John Lester: I do want to tag on what Brian mentioned first because it almost sounds like we're beginning to build a millennial mecca here, where you can come and enjoy life and get the things easy but still have access to the rest of the world almost instantly.
Christopher Mitchell: Gotta get that avocado toast in main street diners.
John Lester: Exactly. And if you have to fly to corporate, we're you know, an hour and a half from Little Rock or an hour from Fort Smith. OKC's not too far. But yeah, I think that, you know, we're getting in position to do a lot of those things. And another thing that we've been doing recently not directly related to the fiber network is we've also been more proactive than many other municipal utilities related to renewable energy. We have built a five megawatt axis tracker solar power plant, and you know, that adds to the unique interest of Clarksville. We're getting ready to do another one. We're going to be able to say — part of today's world is differentiating your rural community compared to the rest of the world, so we're going to be able to say, not only can we deliver this world-class network that, you know, can help business or homeowners or help millennials work from home, but we're going to be the first city in Arkansas where all of our internal energy needs are going to be met with solar power or renewable energy. So we're trying to do things to differentiate to try to market our community because it's really a wonderful place.
Christopher Mitchell: Well tell me more about where you're going to be moving just outside of your community to offer service as well.
John Lester: What we're going to do is we are looking at the possibility of providing wireless service to areas outside of the radius of Clarksville. So in the bond issue we have a certain amount of dollars set aside trying to target towards getting at least some service to people in those rural communities northeast, south, and west of us that have practically nothing except for satellite Internet, and we know just how wonderful satellite Internet is in today's streaming world of Netflix. So yes, we do have a plan for that. There might be a possibility that some of the neighborhoods outside of the city limits someday we'll get to and we'll build fiber direct to those. But you know, the top priority now is to build in the city limits, but there is a longer term plan in mind.
Christopher Mitchell: Are there any other things that you should tell me about?
Brian Eisele: We've got a low cost of living and a low cost of doing business.
Christopher Mitchell: You know, I can vouch for that. I have a relative who moved to northwest Arkansas. He actually picked Berryville and he's quite enjoyed it. I've visited him a number of times. It's wonderful. You know, I like my winter's a little bit more, I like my summers a little less sticky, but there's a ton you have going for yourselves up there.
John Lester: It's really very beautiful and scenic where we are.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us today.
John Lester: Thank you.
Brian Eisele: Thanks for letting us share the good things going on in Clarksville and Johnson County.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher speaking with John Lester, general manager of Clarksville Connected Utilities in Clarksville, Arkansas, and Brian Eisele, president and CEO of Clarksville Chamber of Commerce. To learn more about Clarksville's fiber network, be sure to check out MuniNetworks.org for our stories on the project. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available from MuniNetworks.org. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.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 helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 367 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.