Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 435

This is the transcript for Episode 435 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher talks with Catherine Nicolaou, External Affairs and Marketing Manager for Sacred Wind Communications, about the history of the company and how it has used the full array of broadband technologies to bring affordable, reliable Internet access to the Navajo Nation. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript.

Catherine Nicolaou: In our opinion, our Navajo customers have been some of the most pandemic-ready in the country.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to Episode 435 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This week on the Podcast, Christopher talks with Catherine Nicolaou, External Affairs and Marketing Manager for Sacred Wind, a rural, local exchange carrier in Northwest New Mexico that has been focused on serving the Navajo Nation communities there. She shares the history of Sacred Wind from buying copper infrastructure from CenturyLink 13 years ago in a region where just 26% of the households had Internet access, to its 400 miles of Fiber infrastructure today, allowing it to bring broadband to more than 92% of those living there.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Catherine tells Christopher how the company has had to rely on the full array of technologies to bring broadband access to families in a large area with particular geographic and topographic challenges from Citizens Broadband Radio Service to TV White Space, to infrared, to fixed wireless and of course, Fiber to the home. They talk about what it means to Sacred Wind subscribers that the provider has never raised prices and the work that's been doing during the pandemic to make sure everyone gets and stays connected. Now, here's Christopher talking with Catherine.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcasts. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking to someone who is quite a bit warmer than me, Catherine Nicolaou, who is the External Affairs and Marketing Manager at Sacred Wind, an ISP in New Mexico. Welcome to the show.

Catherine Nicolaou: Hi Chris. Thank you so much for having us on. It's a pleasure to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I've been aware of the work that you all have been doing for many, many years at this point, and I'm really excited to finally get a chance to learn more about it directly and share your story with our audience. But let's start by just telling me, what is Sacred Wind?

2:09

Catherine Nicolaou: So, Sacred Wind Communications, we are actually an incumbent local exchange carrier in the State of New Mexico, and we are 13 years old now. So, we're a teenager and we're growing so fast, it's so exciting. But the company started in 2006 and what happened, was our CEO, John Badal actually was the CEO of Sequester Centurylink, and he decided to leave that position and start his own rural local exchange carrier, his own telecommunications company, specifically to address the needs of the Navajo people in Northwest New Mexico. And so we actually bought territory from, we had to do it alone with the USDA and it was an infrastructure loan, and so we bought the territory from quest. It's about 3,200 square miles, we have 22 or parts of 22 Navajo chapters in our service territory. 98% of our customers are Navajo, and so, our entire business model is built around our customers and what they need and how we can get them service, the highest quality telecommunications, but out at an affordable rate. So, that's a little snapshot of who we are.

Christopher Mitchell: And it seems like you're really infused with a Navajo spirit as well. I mean, it's something that is very much part of the identity of the company, it seems like.

Catherine Nicolaou: It really is, and that's because of the founders of the company. And so, basically the fact that we provide service to the Navajo people, we very much respect, we very much honor the people that we serve. It's hard to being New Mexican, really. I mean, you can't help, but just love the cultures that we have here in New Mexico. And there's so many Pueblos and so many Tribes and so, we specifically the Sacred Wind, our logo has, I believe it's the Sacred Mountains on it. There's a lot of history in there and so we very much are aligned with the beauty of the people that we serve, the area that we serve and just the beauty of New Mexico.

Christopher Mitchell: My next question, I was phrasing it in my head and I was going to say, describe for me Northwestern New Mexico, but you're not allowed to say beautiful.

Catherine Nicolaou: Yeah, right. Well, as long as everybody knows, it's beautiful. Northwest New Mexico, the terrain is pretty difficult in our service territory, for example, there are about five mountains and chains or ridges. One of which that's pretty famous is Mount Taylor, it's a sacred mountain. It is the second highest mountain in New Mexico. It's about 13,000 feet high. And so another mountain range is the Chuska Mountains that go from Arizona to New Mexico. We have mountain ranges in the Northeastern part of our territory, there's the Sandstone Mountains and Pine Hill and [inaudible 00:05:15] , there's hogbacks, ridges, and then there's also volcanic cliffs everywhere, which makes it difficult, especially for Fiber, and so it's a very interesting terrain.

5:28

Christopher Mitchell: And you use all manner of technology then, in order to get out to your customers.

Catherine Nicolaou: Yeah. So, what we found was we had to become technology agnostic. And obviously, when we built, or when we bought the territory from CenturyLink, it was the old copper wiring. And now keep in mind, we still maintain that copper wiring because there are customers or households in our service territory that don't have access to electricity. I note it's 2020, that's not acceptable.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And certainly not unusual in many native areas, it's an area that desperately needs more investment around the country.

Catherine Nicolaou: Exactly. And so we of course keep up the maintenance of that copper wire, because with copper facilities, they are able to have access to emergency 911. So we have copper, we have, I think it's about 400 miles of Fiber, our entire network is backed by Fiber. And then of course we have a very robust, at one point it was the most robust fixed wireless network in the country, now some of the bigger companies are getting more into fixed wireless. So, I don't know if we can say that, but it's a very robust fixed wireless network. And so, we've looked at infrared technology, we've trialed TV White Space technology, right now we're trialing 2.5 GHz spectrum, you name it, we will look at it. So we're definitely technology agnostic.

Christopher Mitchell: You able to deliver sort of common set of services at similar price points as you're offering services then? Or is it over the map depending on what technologies are available in that area?

Catherine Nicolaou: It's all the same. So, I mean, I think, the area of this that we serve, we're very cognizant and aware of the fact that they're low income individuals. And so, we want to get them the service and we don't have a difference in pricing. It kind of depends on just the Megs, so, if somebody subscribes to 15 Megs versus 25 Megs or 50 Megs, and that's where the price difference will be, but we do have to keep it low so that our customers can take advantage of it, but not too low, obviously where we're not able to stay in business, but it's all the same. The pricing is all the same across the board.

7:39

Christopher Mitchell: Wow. Okay. One of the things I think I recall from a previous time I heard your CEO talking was something about never having raised prices, is that...

Catherine Nicolaou: Correct. Correct. We actually try to lower our prices. Yeah. That's very important to us. Again, that goes back to our different business models. So, a larger company perhaps, has a different focus. Our focus is how do we get this high quality telecommunication service at an affordable price, at affordable rates and working with our customers and making sure that they can afford that, so we do not raise our rates. We haven't raised our rates. We actually find ways to lower our rates, especially during COVID. We're working with families that have children doing remote learning right now, and we're offering discounts to them so that they can not just survive, but hopefully thrive during this pandemic.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that brings up a challenge that you've had with trying to incorporate the Lifeline program into your work because of some of the overhead and challenges that are part of that program, it sounds like maybe it made it more difficult for you to achieve the goals of it.

Catherine Nicolaou: Yeah. I think most recently, one of the biggest challenges was when the FCC decided that 25 Meg is the speed that a customer has to subscribe to in order to get the Lifeline discount. In theory, it makes sense, we understand what they want to do is make sure they have enough bandwidth to do some good stuff with it, right? So, to be able to utilize it efficiently, effectively, but the problem that we run into is, when a customer can't afford 25 Meg, they just can't afford it, and they oftentimes in our service territory will call in and say, "I can only afford 10 Meg. I can only afford 15 Meg." And again, we don't raise our prices, we provide it at an affordable rate, but again, we can't offer it to the point where there's no cost at all. I mean, we'd still have to keep the lights on and keep people employed, so there's that connection there, that was lost in some, it's a bit discriminatory for people who have very low income.

Christopher Mitchell: And so, what have you ended up doing then, here? It's sort of the situation where you're already trying to provide a low rate and now that the COVID has come along, what have you done in order to be able to manage even lower rates and offering discounts and things like that?

10:02

Catherine Nicolaou: In March, we took the FCC's, Keep Americans Connected pledge, and that was a pledge that a lot of providers signed on to, as I'm sure you're aware, but it said that companies would not disconnect for lack of payment. So, we definitely signed on to that. So, we don't disconnect customers if they're unable to pay because of financial difficulty. So, if we think about that, the effect that has on companies, we again still have to be able to provide the service and turn on the lights and pay people, but we're not getting as much back.

Catherine Nicolaou: On the flip side, we have added more customers, inside and outside our territory. Since March, we have 500 new broadband subscribers, but we are offering discounts for people who have children that are doing remote learning. We've done upgrades for free, back in March, anybody who wasn't at 25 Meg, we're one of a handful of Telecom companies in the country that are entirely IP-based, which is really cool because when the pandemic hit, we were just able at the flip of a switch, turn people up to 25 Meg for no extra costs whatsoever.

Catherine Nicolaou: In our opinion, our Navajo customers have been some of the most pandemic ready in the country, the ones that we serve thanks to our network, but we work with what we have and what we can, and we just do our best for our customers.

Christopher Mitchell: Have you had to do upgrades in order to meet new demand? I mean, this is one of the things I've heard from a lot of wisps, even bigger companies. Everyone seems like they've had to accelerate investments in higher capacity and things like that.

Catherine Nicolaou: Yeah. On a monthly basis, it has a lot to do with the fact that we have wonderful leadership too, but our executive level here at Sacred Wind's, I would say about, let me see we're 13 years old, maybe about seven years ago, they knew looking into the future that without knowing about the pandemic that customers were going to be wanting more and more bandwidth for different things. I mean, if we look at the Internet of things for example, that may not necessarily be a thing right now on the Navajo Nation, but in general, customers are going to want more bandwidth to do more with it. So, about seven years or so ago, we started to build a network that would be scalable, but it's a constant thing on a monthly, on a yearly basis. We're spending quite a lot of money to make sure that we can keep up with it, keep up with that demand.

12:31

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you provide, which is sort of fascinating, I mean, you look at your website, you look at the services that you offer and it's pretty standard in terms of, "Oh, we offer Internet service and these speeds and by the way, if you need a solar generator along with Internet source, we do that too." So, how did you get into the solar array down there?

Catherine Nicolaou: Well, that was the project that I personally worked on and it's really near and dear to my heart. In the beginning when the company was established, our CEO identified, or he knew just from mapping, that there were probably about 1200 homes in our 3,200 square mile territory that didn't have access to electricity. So, since 2006, it has been a mission of Sacred Wind to make sure we get them telecommunications, even though they don't have electricity. And so, they've always been a part of our planning, and then we came up with a solar program, probably about four or five years ago. We decided that we would offer a solar panel that would go outside of the home and [crosstalk 00:13:38]. Yeah, exactly. Not inside, I guess. So, but instead of sitting on the home or on a roof or something, it's just on the side of the house.

Christopher Mitchell: Ground mounted. Yeah.

Catherine Nicolaou: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In the ground.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. It's a pretty important distinction. Many people don't understand how much that changes the operations. It's so much easier to deal with them.

Catherine Nicolaou: Yeah. And we had to look at it in terms of making sure that it is stable too, because there's high winds in New Mexico. So it's very stable and it goes in the ground next to the home, whether it's a hogan or just a regular house or whatever it is, we don't charge the customer for that solar unit. So, whatever that cost is, which is about 1500 per stall unit, we don't charge the customer that 1500. So we go out there and we install the solar unit, we hook them up with telephone and high speed Internet, whatever they've ordered, and they just pay for their service on a monthly basis, whether they order 25 Megs and a telephone line, or they don't want telephone, they have their cell phone and they just want to high-speed Internet. And they just pay like every other Sacred Wind customer.

Catherine Nicolaou: But this solar unit has the ability to power up a laptop and a small lamps so that there's some lighting. And there's a story, that's really a beautiful story about a family on the Navajo Nation. And the children had to move to Crownpoint to live with their grandparents because their grandparents had electricity. The kids couldn't get online, the kids couldn't do homework. So, they moved out with their grandparents and then the parents ordered our solar units and they got high speed Internet, and the kids came back to live with the parents and the parents told us, "You guys helped us reunite our family again." And it just almost brought tears to my eyes, it was just so beautiful. And so, that is a program that's near and dear to our heart and it really helps our customers, and they're so grateful.

15:26

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I mean, it's a very powerful story and it is not in any way undermined by the fact that we also need to do something about making sure there's proper investments in Indian country around the United States.

Catherine Nicolaou: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: No, I think that that story is really important because it's a reminder of how this isn't an abstract issue of just being able to stream Netflix, it's even before the pandemic started. I mean, this story predates the pandemic, to be clear.

Catherine Nicolaou: It does. It does. Absolutely. Thank you, Chris. Yeah. And I think a lot of times we downplay the fact that, or not downplay, but we don't find importance when people are doing Netflix right on high speed Internet. But I think since going through this pandemic, mental health issues are huge right now and if somebody is watching something positive that lifts their spirits on Netflix, by using their high-speed Internet for that, if that brings them joy for that one hour or 60 minutes, that's also extremely important to people. But of course our focus is economic development, is allowing children, we always talk about, or I talk about how, where I stay right now in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my children have access to the Internet. And I'm so grateful for that. 45 minutes from where I am, there are children on To'hajiilee on the Navajo Nation that may not have access to the Internet, and that is unacceptable in 2020.

Catherine Nicolaou: So, much needs to be done at the Federal level at State levels. We just need to figure out how to work together as an industry and as a country and fix these problems. So, we have nine free educational Wi-Fi hotspots on the Navajo Nation and we're going to be putting up more, and so that's nice because people can then drive to the Wi-Fi hotspot and do their homework. As we've seen on the news, right? Kids at Burger King and Taco Bell, but it is a band-aid, so we're happy to do it, but more needs to be done. So, we're never in this position again, because who knows what else is going to happen, right. What other global issue will affect us. And we need to get these things dealt with and fixed and get the service there.

17:34

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. And I absolutely agree with your defense of Netflix, I've done it many times myself in terms of having Netflix is something that will knock thousands of dollars off a property if it's not there, or if it is there, it's something that is very important as a signifier to be the ability to entertain yourselves, particularly when we're locked down. But you said something, there's two things I wanted to know. One was that for people who aren't aware the Navajo Nation is very large and extends well beyond New Mexico, and so you're talking about the Navajo Nation in Northwest New Mexico and so people need to make sure they're aware that there's a lot of families outside of that, that are not incorporated because you mentioned that you have such good coverage of the Navajo Nation within New Mexico.

Catherine Nicolaou: No, thank you. Yeah. Ours is just in the Northwest part of New Mexico. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And then the other thing was, you mentioned the mental health and I feel like it's really worth noting that there's also tele mental health now. I've talked about this on a couple of previous shows with Deb Socia and others. It's really important that people realize there's really great tools that are available out there and I just know several people who have used them and nobody would ever know that they were using them, those sorts of tools. And that's why I encourage people to really take advantage of those sorts of things, particularly in these stressful times.

Catherine Nicolaou: I think even maybe mental telehealth could also include a Navajo grandmother being able to get on Zoom or Skype and talk to her grandchild. That's telehealth that connection right there to see each other that's tele mental health in some ways. So, it's just so important, it's so important. The other thing I want to mention Chris is, when Sacred Wind started back in 2006 and within our service territory, 26% of the homes in our service territory had access to telephone service, just landline, they had access to emergency 911, only 26%.

Christopher Mitchell: One out of four families.

Catherine Nicolaou: Right. And nobody had access to high-speed Internet. Now, in 2020 Sacred Wind's in our service, our customers, 90% of that have access to some of the highest speeds of broadband on tribal lands found anywhere. We were the first to introduce a 100 Megs of high-speed Internet on tribal lands. And we do this in NHA's, which are Navajo Housing Authority Developments where it's a cluster of homes, but we're also doing this in the sparsely populated areas too, and we just actually have a project that is going to hook up eight homes that have never had telecommunications ever. And now they have actually up to a Gig of high-speed Internet. So, it's exciting.

20:22

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. It's a reminder that we are making progress. It sometimes feels slow, but, yeah.

Catherine Nicolaou: It does feel low sometimes. Yes. But thanks to shows like this too, it gets the word out when we hear about what other people are doing in other parts of the country. I think it's very exciting for the industry.

Christopher Mitchell: I think I should take credit for most of the advances in recent years. So, I'm just curious. We've been doing work to look at different networks that are run by native nations, tribal networks, and in Sacred Wind, obviously identifies strongly with the Navajo Nation, but it's owned by individuals, not the Navajo Nation in general, and I'm curious if you identify as a tribal ISP or how you think about that.

Catherine Nicolaou: Technically were not a tribal ISP at all. We're a privately owned New Mexico based company that provides service on tribal lands. However, something that's really exciting is that we have what's called an Employee stock ownership program. So it's an ESOP. Right now it's about 65% of our employees are Navajo. So, the majority of our employees are Navajo. And in about seven to 10 years, the goal that we're working towards is to have the employees own the company, have the majority shares of the company. So, in seven to 10 years from now, we still will have a majority of Navajo employees in a sense that we'll be Navajo owned by all employees, but a majority of Navajo employees. And that's something very exciting because we Navajo employees in place in our customer service department or engineering department, running our network operations center. And they take so much pride, especially our customer service representatives who are able to speak Navajo to our customers, and they know our customers where they live, they know their families. It's very beautiful. So, that's how we identify.

Christopher Mitchell: That's wonderful. I mean, I put a lot of stock in that. The ability to answer the phone call even just the appropriate accent, is an improvement of what many people have to deal with. So, the last thing I want to ask you about was the Connect America Fund. So, you've received an award through that process, I think it was the round with the auction, right? You must have participated in the CAF II auction, is that right?

22:46

Catherine Nicolaou: Yes. We did participate in the CAF II auction and we're the only New Mexico company to have one. They only are in New Mexico, that one. And so it was about eight additional Navajo chapters will be reached with our service, and so we're in the process of getting to those customers and building our back network, additional chapters that outline our service territory.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. So they're non-contiguous, I was looking at your map and so those are the new areas then?

Catherine Nicolaou: Yes. Yes. Those are the new areas. And so we're really excited to get service out there. We have to market it a little bit, let the chapters know we have really good relations with the council members at the different chapters, the chapter presidents and vice presidents. So, it's a lot of communication with them, but yeah, we're very excited. So, we're going to be able to meet, I can't remember the number of customers that we've estimated, but it's about eight chapters, in addition to were going to already offer service.

Christopher Mitchell: How has it been as a small company dealing with that? I mean, we're about to see the yard of auction, and I think a lot of us are curious to see what happens, but just give me the perspective of a small ISP having to deal with these massive programs. How has it been navigating them?

Catherine Nicolaou: I was floored by the amount of resources that they required from us. We really planned ahead of time. We put a lot of people on it to be able to bid and it was a really new experience for us, but we have wonderful, capable people at Sacred Wind, and it took a lot of employees from a lot of different departments. I will say that we had a really good experience when we had to communicate with the FCC when we had questions with the FCC, and so there was a direct line where we could say, "Hey, we need help on this. We don't understand this."

Catherine Nicolaou: But for the most part, it just took a lot of planning in the beginning to get ready for everything, put all the timelines together, let everybody know what we're doing and what's expected. And ultimately we were able to win some areas. We didn't win everything that we bid on, but we did win some areas. And it's a great way to extend service and expand in our area. So, yeah, so, it'll be interesting to see how this yard of auction goes. It's a huge one. It's you huge.

25:01

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Yeah. I'm fascinated to see. Are you planning on bidding again or were there territories that were relevant for you?

Catherine Nicolaou: I don't know that I'm able to talk about that.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, okay. Well, I suppose if I looked through the list of people that have qualified that, you would be one of those in there. I know there's a quiet period and things like that, so.

Catherine Nicolaou: And I'm not sure what those dates are, but we're always, if there's an opportunity for us to look at expanding our service, into more areas, into more families, we are right there looking at how we can do that. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: So, is there anything else that we should talk about before we end the show?

Catherine Nicolaou: Oh, I know there's one thing that I wanted to mention. So, recently Sacred Wind Communications was awarded a $6 million grant from the USDA RUS through their reconnect award series of grants. So we're really excited to be able to provide Fiber to the home in Sierra County, New Mexico. And it's actually a partnership with the Rural Electric Co-op in the area, and it's the first partnership of its kind in the State of New Mexico. So, partnership between a rural telecommunications company and a Rural Electric Co-op. And I think that we're very excited about it because Sacred Wind is very much about partnering, right. We only have 48 employees. We're what I consider a relatively small company. We can't be everywhere, right. And I don't think people want us to be everywhere, but we do want to be able to provide more and be there for new Mexicans in general.

Catherine Nicolaou: We don't just look at Northwest New Mexico. We look at this in terms of our entire State, how can we be of service to an entire State. And so we were able to enter into a partnership with this Rural Electric Co-op and again, it's the first one in our State, and so we're really excited about that, just because it's an example, right? It's an example of how you can and Rural Electric Co-ops, as we all know, have already gotten into the broadband industry. And that's super exciting because we all have the same goal, is to get people connected. And so that's absolutely beautiful. And so there's been some growing plans, I think, across the country, in every State, Rural Electric Co-ops wanting to do it on their own and they absolutely can. And they're going to have so much wonderful luck with that, but there's also the other side of partnering and being able to say, "Maybe I can't do this on my own. Maybe I do want to have a partnership with a company like Sacred Wind or so many other companies that have the expertise." Right?

27:30

Catherine Nicolaou: We have the network operation center, we have the telecom engineers, we have the experience, we know how to market it, we know how to maintain a network, how to build a network. I mean, it's extremely complicated. And so I think it's a good message for people to try that partnership. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but it is possible because we're doing it and we're so excited for it.

Christopher Mitchell: That's excellent to hear because I feel like Electric Co-ops do bring so much to this opportunity, and at the same time, we know that many of them have hesitations about jumping into this space. So, it's really good to hear that you're working with them in the Sierra and I'm really excited to see what happens from there. Thank you so much. It's been wonderful. Getting a sense of all of the things that you do.

Catherine Nicolaou: Thank you so much, Chris.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Catherine Nicolaou. 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 and other podcasts from ILSR, including building local power, local energy rules and the composting for community 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, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was Episode 435 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.

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