This is the transcript for episode 382 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Mel Poole from Ocala, Florida, about the growth and evolution of the city's fiber network. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
Mel Poole: I think for a city our size to be on the leading edge of technology, I think, is fantastic, and I want us to to be the leader in that innovation, if you will.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 382 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In October, Christopher attended the Broadband Communities economic development forum in the D.C. area where he had the opportunity to sit down and talk with today's podcast guest, Mel Poole from Ocala, Florida. Years ago, Ocala decided to eliminate leased T1 lines and replace them with city owned fiber. They found that the move has saved millions of dollars and opened doors. That was before Mel's time, but he knows the story and shares it with us, describing how Ocala went from municipal facilities to offering connectivity for county facilities and later to connecting schools, businesses, and residential subscribers. Mel also talks about some of the challenges they've faced, including how demographics affect demand, experimenting with deployment methods to find the best option, and how to make the best use of marketing. Christopher and Mel also talk about some of the economic development stories in Ocala and discuss Mel's vision for the community. Now, here's Christopher with Mel Poole from Ocala, Florida.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, live edition. This is Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm in Alexandria, which I think is in Virginia — nobody flame me for that — at the Broadband Communities economic development event, and I'm talking with Mel Poole, the director of the Ocala fiber network.
Mel Poole: That is correct.
Christopher Mitchell: All right.
Mel Poole: Good morning. How are you?
Christopher Mitchell: The introduction was too long and I started to forget the title.
Mel Poole: It's okay.
Christopher Mitchell: We just did a really fun panel talking about Ocala. Let me just first — for people who aren't familiar with Florida, where is Ocala?
Mel Poole: So Ocala is a small little city. I say small — there's about 56,000 residents that live in Ocala, but it's in the heart of the state. We are known as the horse capital of the world, and I'm taglining that with, we're also providing giga[bit] speeds, which is a relative to horse country and speeds with the horses.
Christopher Mitchell: People like speed.
Mel Poole: People love speed.
Christopher Mitchell: And now, you're not far from Orlando, right? That might be —
Mel Poole: Yeah, we're about roughly 67 miles north of Orlando.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay, because I think it's one of those places that people usually that have children know.
Mel Poole: Absolutely, and for the Gator fans out there, we're probably about, I don't know, 30-45 miles south of Gainesville.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Well, Maryland is big 10 country. I'm going to count this as being big 10 country. We won't talk about the SEC.
Mel Poole: SEC, we're king right now I think.
Christopher Mitchell: I can't argue with you on that. So tell me about the history of Ocala with getting involved in the fiber. I know that it's a little bit before your time, but I also know you're a history expert on this thing.
Mel Poole: Yes sir. So, you know, back in 1995, the electric department at the time was looking at how they can upgrade their substation connectivity via the SCADA, supervisor data acquisition system. And it currently was connected by copper, which we know that copper can be corrosive, it's susceptible to lightening strikes, so some brainstorming and they said, "Hey, what about fiber optics?" So we use the fiber connecting all of our substations to provide that SCADA visibility. And from then we kind of moved I think in 1997 where we looked at it and said, "Hey, how can we better take advantage of the fiber?" Hence came a resolution to city council to establish, at that time, telecom as an enterprise fund associated with the electric department. So you had two enterprise funds: one being the electric and then that resolution passed to make telecom as an enterprise fund. And then we kind of started looking at it and said, "Hey, how can we better leverage the fiber that we have? And that kind of expanded it out into "Let's connect our city buildings, get rid of the T1 lines," which we think saves us about a million dollars a year versus paying it out to an incumbent service provider.
Christopher Mitchell: You have a bunch of city needs that are served by the incumbent telephone company, I mean, with probably like at this point T1 lines —
Mel Poole: T1 lines, correct.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, but rather than continuing to pay that escalating rate. One of the first things that my colleague Lisa did when she started working for us was a big case study of Martin County and how Comcast was just trying to dramatically raise their rates after the contract expired for the I-Net services. And they saved, I mean, millions upon millions of dollars, and even more if you consider that the rates would have been going up. And so, you did this analysis and you found that by serving yourself, because you already had this fiber network you just extended a little bit, and that was $1 million a year of savings over what you had been paying.
Mel Poole: Absolutely. So we estimate probably 24-25 million, and those are rough numbers. Don't quote me on that. But that's the —.
Christopher Mitchell: Over the time since then?
Mel Poole: Over the time since then. And then, we kinda said, "Hey, you know, we can do a little bit more with that. Let's start getting out into the county," meaning serving county buildings such as our library, our fire station here, connecting our county departmental buildings, courthouse, sheriff's department.
Christopher Mitchell: Now does your electric lines go out to the county as well already?
Mel Poole: Yeah, some of our electric lines do span out into the county, which, which makes it a unique opportunity relative to the fiber because the fiber follows the electric grid because of the SCADA and the AMR collectors that are out in the field to be able to read the smart meters. So that's kind of another advantage that we got into later into the process. So moving to the connection of the city government buildings — again, like I said, the county — we started getting into hospitals, and then, "Hey, what do you think about residential?" So we started —
Christopher Mitchell: Was that something that came from the utility or something that the residents were saying, "Hey, how about us?
Mel Poole: Yeah, I think that that came from the utility. I think the residents really didn't know, and for that fact, I don't think all of us in the city knew what fiber and the capabilities of fiber was at that time. So we dipped and dabbled in it, again, using the fiber that was used for the smart metering system that the electric department deployed.
Christopher Mitchell: The smart meters, are they wireless to a collector?
Mel Poole: Correct.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Mel Poole: Correct. The fiber feeds it, and then it's a wireless feedback. They talk, it kind of daisy chain goes to collectors but its fed through the fiber optics of how they read those.
Christopher Mitchell: So you have fiber to a lot of neighborhoods.
Mel Poole: Yes. Yes, exactly. To a collector in the neighborhood, that the meters talk to that collecter. Via the fiber it translates back to the electric department for the meter results.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Mel Poole: So we kinda dabbed them in the residential piece, and somewhere in there city council said, "Hey, what are we doing? We're competing. We shouldn't be doing that." This was probably around 2010, somewhere in there. We need to figure out what it is that we need to do with this fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, you're in — I mean, that's kind of a conservative part of Florida.
Mel Poole: It is. Absolutely. It is.
Christopher Mitchell: People have a lot of concerns about government competing with —
Mel Poole: That is a fact, and again, this was before my time. City council said, "Hey, let's do a study. Let's see what is this all about? What is this commodity that we have, and how or should we even take advantage of it?" If taking advantage is the right word. So they brought in CTC, Columbia Telecommunications . . .
Christopher Mitchell: Corporation, I think. Although, they just go by CTC anyway.
Mel Poole: Right, CTC. So they did a study that was presented to city council, and city council still didn't quite understand it. And we kind of ebbed and flowed a little bit, kinda got back into the residential business a little bit, but we definitely got off into the business world during that timeframe. Fast forward to roundabout 2014, I was asked to come over and take a look at the department and see how could we move it. We made some significant changes. We presented another CTC case study to city council because they still wasn't sure on what it is, how do we utilize it, take advantage of it — whatever adjective you want to use to describe it. So we brought CTC back in to give us another study, whether we should sell it, do a public-private partnership, or just do business as usual.
Christopher Mitchell: And I think it's worth noting, I mean, as you're describing it, people who listen to this podcast are already familiar with all this stuff, and they might be thinking, "Why doesn't city council understand how valuable this is?" I think it's important to know that city council, not only are they busy people, there are voices that I have no doubt who are misinforming city council.
Mel Poole: Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: So it's not just a matter of them sort of being dense or anything like that. They're trying to navigate information that is specifically designed to confuse them as well as trying to evaluate the opportunity that you're presenting.
Mel Poole: Correct, and you couldn't have said that better. And I sat with my staff, and I said, "We have to figure out how do we educate city council, as you know, city council, city government, sunshine laws, and all of those laws. So I brought in each city councilor one by one and gave them a ground level view, perspective, education on fiber optics. They touched it, we talked about it, I explained to them what the capabilities are, and gave them a vision. That led to a business plan. So I stepped through a 10 year business plan based off of the electric grid, the electric meters — at that time it was 55,000 customers — and how we will step through that with a return on that investment. Also in there, there was an opportunity for the city telecommunications OFN department to bid on a school board contract worth $1.3 million. In that, we created a workshop to say here are four options relative to what city council can select that we do with this department: you sell it, public-private partnership, do business as normal, or grow it, compete for this million dollar contract, and move forward. They decided to grow it, compete for the contract, and move forward. Fast forward, we won that contract. We connect 48-49 schools and a data center. $1.3 million stays at home in the city of Ocala and the county of Ocala. We have a business partnership, not only on the contractual side but we sponsor four schools within Marion County to give back to those schools to say, "Hey, here's how we keep the dollars at home." Also in that, we have never advertised publicly of what we do. But we did open the gates, and we got overinundated with a lot of service requests, which led to about 250 customers waiting on a waitinglist to be connected. We started at four weeks to connect. We extended that to 16 weeks because the backlog.
Christopher Mitchell: Are those mostly small businesses?
Mel Poole: Those are residential homes. Those are residential homes.
Christopher Mitchell: And how did this work? I mean, was there a fee to connect them?
Mel Poole: So there is no connection fee. It's $60 a flat rate based off the construction costs. We do some math, and that kind of takes us out to 36 — we try to do everything inn a 36 month contract, but it's really based off the construction cost to build out to that. But the service itself is a $60 contract for residential, and then we offer a host of other services relative to service that we provide.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay, and so what do I get for $60?
Mel Poole: So you're in a 300 Meg pool of shared Internet. We monitor that — great customer service. We strive ourselves on "five nines." Our reliability rate to date is 99.9, so I think that's fantastic. We strive ourselves on returning a phone call or an email within an hour, so customer service is job number one. We pride ourself on that.
Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful.
Mel Poole: From there we moved into — I had to go back to city council and say, "Hey, two things that's coming our way. We have to build out the infrastructure for the school board. We just won this contract. We have one year to build 47 miles of fiber to connect all of these schools. On the other side of that, we have 250 customers that we need to get them connected." So I asked them to do a moratorium. Let's connect all 250 customers that are in the queue. At the same time, let's rethink how we're connecting these customers.
Christopher Mitchell: Because people were just from all over.
Mel Poole: All over. I call it a shotgun approach, so we were just throwing fiber out there left and right. We looked at a couple of different technologies, but we ended up using GPON, giga[bit] passive optical network, which allows you to use one piece of glass to feed a neighborhood of let's just say 31 homes because you need one piece of glass in the port to feed that port to branch off and feed those homes. So you save on the fiber that you're putting out there, whereas before we were just shotgunning it, putting out fiber everywhere in no controlled way of doing it.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and when you do that, I mean, you've got to have air conditioners in the field, I'm guessing. I mean, you can't mess around with heat in Florida.
Mel Poole: Right. So our POPs, if you want to call those POPs, because of our SCADA system, we use our substation control homes or houses where we put the main switches for the network, and then out in the field, there's cabinets that we house the other portion of it. So where the switches are, that's not a problem in the substation nor in the cabinet. They're pretty weather —
Christopher Mitchell: I bet they're — bet you put some money into that.
Mel Poole: Yeah. We budgeted a lot of money for it.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, if you're a Michigan, you don't have to — I mean you have winters, but you don't have hurricanes, right?
Mel Poole: Yes. Hurricanes is a big deal.
Christopher Mitchell: You have to be serious about that.
Mel Poole: We got with council and said, "Hey, we just need to rethink this. I want to do a moratorium, and I want to just take a look at four specific neighborhoods that we can kinda capture some numbers in." GPON was new to us as well as a department, so we needed to, in my opinion, gather some data using four distinctly different neighborhoods. One overhead and underground. Two different construction build outs, two different associated costs. We looked at an affluent neighborhood, and we looked at a lower middle class neighborhood and somewhere in between there.
Christopher Mitchell: One underground, one overhead?
Mel Poole: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay.
Mel Poole: In two of the neighborhoods. So two neighborhoods is overhead, and two is underground. So we started that build out in December. We kind of went out, we had a foot soldier who said, "Hey, I can guarantee you 30 percent take rate." 30 percent take rate is kind of an industry standard that we use to get a good return on the investment. Looking at those numbers, we kind of crushed them together and said, "Hey, here are the four neighborhoods." We went back and presented this plan to city council. They approved that. We have since built out two of the neighborhoods. We're currently working on a third. Our fourth, we really haven't had much interest in there, so I'm debating on whether we should build that one out or not. However, it is an overhead neighborhood, so the costs associated wouldn't be that much. But the opportunity is there to build it if we so choose to go that route. So we have since did that. In that first neighborhood, we struggled to get that 30 percent take rate. We have since reached that take rate.
Christopher Mitchell: Do you have a sense — I mean, you and I had talked earlier about there's obviously a demographic element. Older folks, if you have a higher proportion of them, they tend not to want to switch away from cable. But do you also have a sense that there was any special deals that the existing providers were putting out there to try to keep them away from you, or were you flying under their radar for the most part?
Mel Poole: I think I wouldn't say "fly under the radar." I think they know that we're there. We've seen that where they've been competitive in some pricing, where we had to compete. We had to match their rate in order to get that customer, and it was a pretty good customer, so we did compete in that matter. But I really truly think that it's an educational piece, and some of it is, "I'm comfortable with what I have." So most seniors would say, "Hey, I want a hard phone on the wall," even though you can do an IP phone "and I want my television . . . "
Christopher Mitchell: I know what channel the Gators are on.
Mel Poole: Exactly. So I think an educational piece of what is streaming, for the most part, and there is a savings associated with streaming. Sure, you get our services for $60 a month, but if you've got one of the streaming companies that are out there, I'm willing to bet that you can cut your cost.
Christopher Mitchell: That's what we're seeing.
Mel Poole: Yeah. So it's an educational piece, and in that proposal to the city council, we also said we want to hire a marketing firm because remember —
Christopher Mitchell: That's smart.
Mel Poole: — we've never marketed our business. We've never advertised. Always been word of mouth. So we hired Quest, our marketing firm to help us kind of get out, help us market it, help the business start locally advertising. I shy a little bit on advertisement because we don't have the infrastructure out there. As the customers come, we build it. So I feel if we advertise, we're going to get bombarded, and then we're going to have some disgruntled potential customers because we can't hook it up, you know, in four weeks time.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, you're on a tight rope
Mel Poole: We're on a tight rope, so I choose to kind of just slowly, methodically position us to be able to — when we come to your neighborhood with GPON technology, our goal is to have you connected within four weeks. Now we think we can beat that, but the plan is four weeks using GPON technology. So that's why I'm kinda hesitant to really put us out there on a true advertisement campaign that includes the radio and social media just because I just don't want us to get out ahead of ourselves when the infrastructure can take a lot of time to pay for, contract out, and build it. So, I'm kinda hesitant on that even though Quest has done a fantastic job in moving us forward. I'm just kind of holding the reins back a little bit just to —
Christopher Mitchell: Right, you're doing door hangers and —
Mel Poole: We're doing door hangers. We're doing the whole host of thing aside from social media, radio, billboard, and that sort of thing. We have some big trucks, fiber vans, that's got us plastered all over the side of them, so that's kind of our advertising market vehicle at this current time, along with word of mouth. Ocala's a great place, but everybody talks. Some know we're there, some don't. So it's exciting, where we've come from and where we're going. We offer — all of our city parks have free Wi-Fi. That was directed down from city council. I think that's a wonderful idea. Our vision currently right now is to provide what we call the experience, meaning you can walk from city hall all the way down to what we call the Osceola Trek, which is just a walking trail, but stay connected during your whole walk via free city Wi-Fi.
Christopher Mitchell: And you don't have to be a customer of the home service in order to use it? That's for everyone?
Mel Poole: No sir. Not at all. This is for all of the visitors that come to Ocala as well as the citizens that reside in Ocala. You know, we want to look at bringing in some major corporations as we are a giga[bit] ISP. We have three — I say giga[bit] but it's much larger than that. We have about 30 gigs coming into the network operations center where we spawn it off from there. But we can provide giga[bit] speeds and above to those Fortune 500 companies that we welcome to come to the city of Ocala, invest in our city via technology, whether that be medical, definitely education — and we are somewhat of a smart city. We have, like I said, our city buildings that are connected. We have our traffic controllers that control the traffic lights.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, on the panel we did, you had a list.
Mel Poole: Yes, yes. And, now I want to take it even —
Christopher Mitchell: The traffic, the parking meters.
Mel Poole: Parking meters. I want to take a stretch farther. My vision really is the bubble of the autonomous driving cars. I want us to be ready for that. I know that's down the road just a little bit, but you know, today technology moves so fast. I just want us to have the infrastructure in place to be able to accommodate those Internet of everything. We used to say Internet of things. I've migrated to the Internet of everything because essentially that's what it's coming to, and it's gonna take smart homes and high speed broadband via fiber to accomplish that. And I want Ocala to be somewhat on the leading edge of — and I say somewhat because other cities are already doing it. I think for a city our size to be on the leading edge of technology, I think, is fantastic, and I want us to be the leader in that innovation, if you will.
Christopher Mitchell: So the one thing I wanted to come back to was a little economic development. So, what are some of the economic development stories you've seen because you're offering this fiber service?
Mel Poole: So we have Chewy, AutoZone. FedEx is there, but they're on a different system with a different incumbent. But our business park has a 96 count fiber that's ready to connect any Fortune 500 distribution company or any business that wants to come out there. So, the city manager has done a fantastic job of revitalizing the city — it's vibrant. And my job I think is to make sure that we have the technology in place to be able to provide high speed Internet services to anyone who comes to the city of Ocala, and hopefully, we can get them to stay. We have an airport that — airpark ,I should say, with the business component to it that we're looking to lease or sell some property to, is fully ready for a business to come in. We have a 96 count fiber cable that's ready to hook up any business that wants to come out to that business park and do business in the city of Ocala. So we have a lot of opportunities ready for any Fortune 500, any business that wants to come in. We have the technology to be able to provide them with the high speed Internet giga[bit] services that most are looking for.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you so much for telling us about Ocala and what you've been doing.
Mel Poole: Absolutely. Thank you, Chris. Let me tell you, it's been a pleasure. We met a few months ago, and here we are again in D.C. — Alexandria to be exact — and having a conversation relative to my city, the city of Ocala, horse country, offering giga[bit] speeds. So, it was a pleasure. I thank you and hopefully those of you who are listening, please come to the city of Ocala. Bring your business. We're more than happy to and capable of providing you with high speed internet.
Christopher Mitchell: All right. Thank you.
Mel Poole: Thank you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Mel Poole from Ocala, Florida. Be sure to read about Ocala at muninetworks.org. We've covered this community in the past where they've been offering better connectivity for years. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. 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 anywhere 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 Husby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 382 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.