Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 443

This is the transcript for Episode 443 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with two representatives from Loveland, Colorado's municipal network to talk about how they've built a network valued by the community that also offers regional utility reliability. Listen to the episode here, or read the transcript below.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: ... If this is truly a community effort and we have the community behind us which I think helps extraordinarily.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 443 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Brieana Reed-Harmel, fiber manager for Loveland Pulse and Lindsey Johansen, marketing and communications manager. The network in the city of 79,000 is just finishing its first year of construction and they share with Chris the history behind the birth of the network back to 2014. They talk about what success would look like in five years, and what it has taken to become a valued local broadband utility for residents of the city. The group talks about what it takes to make the magic work and how they're connecting with Fort Collins and Estes Park to share costs and bring efficiencies to all the municipal networks in the region. Now, here's Christopher talking with Brieana and Lindsey.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Today, speaking with two folks who are probably also looking out their windows at some snow on the ground, I hope. We're going to speak with Brieana Reed-Harmel who is the fiber manager at Loveland Pulse in Colorado, on the Front Range. Welcome to the show.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: Thank you so much, glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Lindsey Johansen who is the marketing and communications manager at Loveland Pulse. Welcome to the show.

Lindsey Johansen: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Christopher Mitchell: So, for folks who may not be familiar, we have covered Fort Collins which is North of you I think, and done a lot of work with Longmont over the years which is South of you and you're right in the middle of that beautiful area. But the first thing I'd like to ask, and I'll ask you Brieana to just start off, I actually usually ask you what the location is like. We're going to come back to that and we're going to jump into something more exciting which is, let me ask you what success looks like in five years if your municipal fiber network hits all of its goals and you just do a stellar job?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: So, we're just in finishing up our first year of build-out and for success for us is really going to be becoming the provider of choice in our community. So, this is the biggest project that Loveland has ever undertaken and from day one, we've really been committed to becoming Loveland's local trusted communication utility. So, for us five years from today, we're going to have service past every home and business in our entire city. And we'll be done with our first phase of construction which is inside the city limits and moving onto the second phase of construction which will be the areas that we serve outside of city limits. Which includes an area up the Big Thompson Canyon which is underserved area, that we serve electric too.

2:55

Brieana Reed-Harmel: So, it will be hopefully through with that as well. Service-wise success is going to be really exceeding our take rate projections. Back in October, we unveiled our initial take rate for the projects since we've been launched for several months at that point. And we did that because we wanted to be transparent and really strive for that commitment to transparency and understanding our community. They have a lot of expectations for us and a lot of trust in what we're doing and we wanted to make sure we were getting that back. So for us, it's really going to be becoming that trusted local utility that we're striving towards.

Christopher Mitchell: That's wonderful. And I know that there's a lot of stress in the early years and it can be hard to be open so, I really salute that and the dedication to transparency. Let me ask you Lindsey, maybe perhaps from the perspective of your position rather than the community as a whole. But what are you looking to do not just numbers but what would make you think, you know what, those five years really were worth it, I'm really glad that we did this?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: It's the little stories for me because I'm the one that I do a lot of community events, and talking to people at tables, and farmer's markets and different corn roast festivals that we have. So, it's all those little wins, hearing the community say that we made their life better, we provided customer service that they've been waiting for from an Internet service provider, really being unexpected for a service provider. I think there's this expectation already of what your interaction with your Internet service provider is like and we're here to change that. And so, hearing those little wins and stories in that way is for me, what makes it worth it.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Let me ask, where were you before this position opened up?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I come from the power side so I started in power operations back in 2009. So, I've been with Loveland Water and Power for over 10 years now. So, power operations, public service for over 11 years.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. And Brieana, what were you doing before this all came along?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I was actually in power operations as well so-

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.

5:11

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I was the senior electrical engineer for our department since 2012 and took on this project as a side thing that's turned into something much bigger. But my background is engineering in the power industry.

Lindsey Johansen: Public power it's where to be.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and it's interesting because... So Chattanooga is fascinating and it's something that everyone talks about because they do such good marketing and they do a great job also. But there's a lot of stories behind Chattanooga most people aren't aware of. And one of the things that I love is that it was some of their EEs, their electrical engineers that were doing the work and figuring it out and transitioned over and help really make sure that they had the insight expertise. And so, when people ask me, what are we looking for in the right employees or something like that? One of the things I always say is you want someone who's just hungry for this, that they're really enthusiastic and it seems like that describes what we're seeing here in Loveland.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: Yeah, we're definitely part of the electric enterprise so we're the communications business arm of that utility and it's gotten a lot of support. And I think that, for me at least having a background in public utilities and electric utilities in particular, has been really helpful in transitioning over. The business is different but the parts and pieces are similar and the purpose of community broadband is similar to public power and it hasn't been a hard transition from a, I don't know, a mentality perspective, from that angle.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, let's talk a little bit about Loveland. I presume that like other parts of the Front Range, you're seeing everyone on the planet trying to move there and it's probably growing pretty quickly, it seems like a popular destination?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: Yeah, we are a growing city for sure. We're just around 79,000 but within the last 10 years, there's definitely been a population boom. We're a little bit older, a little bit more of a senior community but we're definitely seeing the families, small families demographic grow here. So, a lot has been changing for our community over the last 10 years.

Christopher Mitchell: And as we talk about that time period, can you just walk me through with a thumbnail sketch, let me start with you Lindsey and this is something that Brieana you may want to add on to. But how did this go from being something that perhaps people heard about Longmont doing, to the community getting engaged? What was the point at which then Loveland Water and Power then also decides to look seriously at it and so, how did that develop? What were the beginnings of this project?

7:52

Lindsey Johansen: It really started with some of our community members and our city council and Bri's been a part of the project since the beginning so she could probably talk a little bit more to those early discussions versus when I came in a little bit later in the project.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: Yeah, so this goes all the way back to 2014, 2015 and our city council was getting a lot of discussion or calls from our community about connection issues, and just not having a real good competition in the marketplace in our community. And so, they do a planning session at the beginning of each year during their retreat and looking at things that they wanted to focus on for the upcoming year. And in 2015, broadband was identified as one of the topics that needed to be addressed. And we decided that the best thing for us to do is really to start with Senate Bill 152 which is the Colorado bill that prevents governments and municipalities from participating in broadband.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: We needed to do a 152 override and which basically exempts ourselves from that requirement. And so, that's really what kicked it off but there was a lot of movement in the community. We had a lot of grassroots citizens groups that were really pushing to expand access. And I think Longmont certainly is one of the reasons for that and the success that Longmont had seen. They were well into their bill at that point of seeing really great success and the question came up, why not Loveland too? Why would we not want to do the same thing?

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm curious about this and because there's a hundred cities, local governments some of them are cities within counties that have also exempted themselves from 152 and many of them have not done anything. If we go back three years ago in fact, I was just, maybe when I'd be visiting Colorado, I'd be thinking about Estes Park, Loveland, Fort Collins three of you seem poise and I was thinking, "Yeah, it'd be great if two of them did it." And I'm curious in your case, am I excused for speaking else but what pushed it over? This is a question that I got recently from someone which said, what takes it from a few people being interested in it? Having some interest on the city council? Some interest in the utility? Some interest among the citizens? What takes it from that to being something that you actually commit to as the largest project in the history of your city?

10:21

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I think there was a concern about being left behind. We're in the center of Fort Collins and Estes Park and Lamont and we're in the heart of that, those three cities and we compete on economic development things although, we partner a lot as well. And if we were surrounded by all these communities that had gone forward with community broadband, we wouldn't have the same desirability as a community. And we work really closely with those communities on the power side which is the backing for all of this. We jointly own our generation and transmission provider so we're already partnering on a regular basis, we have a lot of shared infrastructure already. And so, there was just a lot of, I think momentum across the Northern Colorado region because of the proximity to these other things that are going on.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Lindsey, I'm curious, was there a work that you've had to do marketing for the idea before it was ruled out or was there something that more or less was done by just activists and things like that?

Lindsey Johansen: No, there is a fair amount but... So, Bri actually brought me onto the project in May of 2018 and what I was tasked with at that time is, council wanted to do a very aggressive community education and outreach campaign because we'd been looking at broadband since 2015 for so long. And there was the Senate Bill 152 override, there was a lot of confusion in our community about where exactly we were in the process. Had we voted for broadband already? Or had we voted just to talk about it? And so, our city council felt like there was a lot of confusion around what we were really looking at doing and what this undertaking really would look like.

12:15

Lindsey Johansen: So we did a very extensive about eight month education and outreach campaign pulled out all the stops. It's actually something that we received some national recognition from. We received several awards from city government communication organizations and even from the Public Relations Society of America on the national level. So, we had to do a lot of work for that and I think that helped to raise awareness to the community about what the project would look like and then really set us up for success. So once we did have the green light for the project, we knew we had pretty good understanding of what our community knew about the project, and broadband, and what we were offering and so it really set us up nicely for first starting the utility I think.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm curious how it's rolling out this is a, it is ambitious. You are maybe the sixth or seventh largest municipal broadband project in the country, probably by a number of premises that you'll be passing. How are things going?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I think they're going pretty smoothly considering how big of a project it is. We're plugging away every day, making progress towards construction, we're signing customers up. From a construction side, we're seeing a lot of success.

Lindsey Johansen: Yeah, Bri calls it magic. And I think it's because we have the dream team right now. We have a really good group of people that I think are in it for the right reasons and I think that makes a huge difference for us because as a communicator myself, it makes my job so much easier to have people that are there and willing to do the right thing and get things done for the right reason. But as far as feedback from the community overall, it's been really good feedback. There's the typical stuff that you'll hear with construction and some confusion around. This is a brand new network and there's infrastructure that has to be placed out in the field but I'm surprised how many people actively seek us out to tell us positive feedback. I come from the power side, that's not something that always happens.

Lindsey Johansen: But honestly, the biggest thing that we hear is when is it going to be available? When can I sign up? I can't wait. And so, a lot of our work is around really trying to manage those expectations for our community and do the best customer service we can of letting them know that it's not going to happen overnight, it's going to be a three to four year project and it's going to take some time. And you may need to find another provider in the interim to take advantage of a deal that they may be throwing out there but we're coming for you. Don't worry, we're not going anywhere.

15:00

Brieana Reed-Harmel: Yeah, Lindsey talks about how it, I joke about how it's a bit of magic but really it's all comes back to the planning piece. After we had our go ahead from our city council at the end of 2018, we took a year of just setting things up and planning and getting our ducks in a row. And before we even started construction and launched into the physical side of being in the community with digging in front of people's homes, trenching, disrupting traffic all of the things that go along with that. And I think that, that has really helped us in how successful we are now that we're actually in the community. We put together communication plans, plans for how do we talk to our customers? We did a lot of training with our contractor prior to them even being in the community to make sure that they knew what they should say, when they should kick it back to our communications team for more information, that kind of thing. So, there was a lot of planning that went along with that.

Christopher Mitchell: I think sometimes I'm hyperbolic about trying to get people ready for how hard these projects can be. And right now I just feel like maybe I paint way too dire of a picture because when I look at you Brieana, you just seem very calm. And some of the people I've talked to in year two, three of a project like this, you're posting huge numbers in the red, right? Because you have a few customers and you're spending almost all of the money you're going to spend so, it looks bad for people that are trying to malign you. Then you have to deal with maybe contractors that aren't making it or vendors that are having bugs and I feel like people or someone's pulling their hair out. Are you experiencing any of that or are you the analogy of the duck on the pond where everything looks calm up above but underneath the feet are just churning away and there's all kinds of disruption?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I think it's a little bit of both. I think I have a little bit more of a glass half full approach to the world. And then I keep reminding myself that the long-term, that this is a short-term thing. And it's funny you mentioned about all the red on the balance books but I was just looking at this, this morning I'm like, "Oh, that's a lot of red." But that's normal for this time of our development. And we're not going to be in the same situation in a few years, we're on track for where we're supposed to be I guess. And I have a great team that we work with and that makes it a ton better too. And it really is a team effort, it's not just the broadband utility over here in the corner of the municipality, we get a lot of support from our city attorney's office and our Public Works Department for right of way permitting and inspections and stuff like that. It's just, this is truly a community effort and we have the community behind us which I think helps extraordinarily.

17:59

Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to ask, with these other projects that are going on around you, Estes Park and Fort Collins, what are you doing together in order to try to keep costs low and share some of the challenges like fixed costs you might be able to share?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: Yeah, I mentioned that we're all part of the same Platte River Power Authority family which is our generation and transmission provider. So we have a strong history of working together on, where areas that make sense. And so, we've really translated that into the broadband side as well. And so, we're sharing our Knox support, so we pooled our resources there so that we can have a more robust knock from the get-go. We're also sharing our transport out of the region because we're so approximate to each other and we already have fiber that already connects the communities from our power side, something that was put in place many years ago to support SCADA systems on our electric side. And so, we're really leveraging that and utilizing that to share costs and resources.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: The other is because we talk to each other and because we have this great partnership and relationship. We talk all the time and so we're constantly talking to our counterparts in the neighboring communities, what did you do here? What didn't work? What did work? And just bouncing ideas and lessons learned. So, it's really helpful to have partners as you're going through this process so you don't feel alone.

Christopher Mitchell: And as you're going through it, one of the things that we see is that often earlier in the process, you're not proving a large marketing campaign Lindsey, I'm guessing because it's painful to market to people that you can't sign up for another two years. And so, I'm curious, what things are you doing? What things should someone who's going to be doing this in two years, what should they be preparing for in these early years from a marketing point of view?

19:52

Lindsey Johansen: From a marketing point of view, I would say, get a good feel for your community and their understanding of what you're doing. So, we spent a lot of time in getting just educating them on what Internet service really means for our community. And what broadband is, you need to start there, what we mean by phone service? It's not mobile phone service, it's voice over IP and that type of stuff. And so, there was a lot around that and then just a lot with the construction side, you can do yourself a favor and start to reach out to your HOAs and develop great relationships with them, pull together some education pieces around right away or however you want to do that. That's been where a lot of our efforts have been and yeah, you're right we're not doing big marketing campaigns because it's not available to a majority of our city now and if we're doing that, blasting everybody now, they're going to ignore us after a couple of years because we're just dangling something in front of their face but they can't now.

Christopher Mitchell: With a closing question then I'm curious if, are there any lessons you've learned, any ways in which you've changed an approach you thought you would have and you had to pivot a little bit along the way so far?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: I think one of the biggest issues that we've had lately is actually related to our 811 call, one call system so it's the locate call center. And a lot of people don't have a good understanding of what locates are. And so, when you show up in front of their house and you're starting to mark up their, what looks like their entire front lawn and their sidewalk, you get a lot of questions around that. And then we've also had a lot of questions around who's responsible for that infrastructure? Especially if it's a private irrigation line or a private service line of some sort. And I think that that's one of the biggest lessons learned for us over this last year was, trying to get ahead of that and trying to do an education around what that means.

Brieana Reed-Harmel: There's lots of little things here and there but that's probably the biggest thing because we're doing directional drilling because we're an underground utility so we don't have a lot of overhead poles to begin with. And so, all of the new infrastructure going in is going in underground. So, that runs a lot of risk of hitting other things and especially with HOAs and Lindsey mentioned that, private irrigation lines can be a big issue and can be very expensive. And if you're going into a neighborhood and you're damaging their irrigation line and then you're expecting them to sign up for service that's a problem, right? This is all about customer service at the end of the day and if you're coming off with a really bad first impression, I think that that's the biggest lesson there for us, is that from the first time you interact with that customer during the construction phase, that is the first feel for what your utility will be like. Your customers will develop an opinion on whether or not they want to sign up for you later based on that interaction.

23:04

Christopher Mitchell: When you said that pop the question in my head which is, is your own city frustrated with you because of drilling holes in the streets in order to go past other utilities and things like that as you're doing the directional drilling?

Brieana Reed-Harmel: No, but the reason for that is because we did early engagement with our right of ways and streets department probably 10, 12 months before we even started construction. We were in talking to them about what we needed to do, setting up processes and protocols for how do we control this and really engaging them early and often. And making sure that they felt that they could come to us at any point and redirect the way things go and really have that open dialogue. That's really has made that piece very successful.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. It's good to hear, too often people assume that because you all work for the same city ultimately, that everyone gets along and in my experience there can be real challenges across departments. And Lindsey, do you have any concluding comments? Anything that has surprised you along the way?

Lindsey Johansen: This is fun, it's an adventure. No, it's been a lot of fun and how often do you get to be a part of a utility from the ground up? So, it's a great opportunity, it's something that I'm very excited to be able to bring to the level of community and be a part of. It's a lot of work but it's worth it. And this year has been challenging for everybody and if we can launch a utility in the middle of a pandemic, it's magic, we can make it happen. So, it's only up from here.

Christopher Mitchell: You said from the ground up but technically speaking, I think utility is mostly from the ground down.

Lindsey Johansen: Oh, there you go, that's true.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you both for taking the time today. There was a lot of things in there that I think the audience would be really interested in that we haven't touched on before exactly in that way. So, really appreciate your time and wish you luck looking forward to checking in as the project progresses.

Lindsey Johansen: Thank you.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Brieana Reed-Harmel and Lindsey Johansen. 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 ISR, 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 443 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.

Tags: