Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 447

This is the transcript for Episode 447 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. We're joined by Anza Electric Cooperative General Manager Kevin Short, and Network Administrator Shawn Trento to talk about the cooperative listening to its members and beginning FTTH construction across its footprint. Listen to the episode here, or read the transcript below.

Kevin Short: When we took this to the membership for a vote six years ago and said, "We're looking at doing this, do you want us to do this?" And we received the biggest return in our history of votes with a 93% approval. We figured it was probably a mandate, and we decided that it was time to build fiber.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to Episode 447, of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Anza Electric Cooperative general manager, Kevin Short and network administrator, Shawn Trento. Anza Electric stretchers across 550 square miles in Southern California, between San Diego and Palm Springs. About six years ago, they initiated a vote to see whether membership was interested in leadership, building fiber, not just to electric substations and SCADA systems, but to residences as well. When 93% voted in favor, they took it as a mandate today. Today, Anza is about halfway done, building to their 5,200 members and getting a 60% take rate. Kevin and Shawn share how it came together, and the operational flexibility it provided the electric cooperative, including how it brings redundancy and resiliency to a region vulnerable to wildfires. Kevin and Shawn tell Chris what it's like hooking up households that have never had Internet access before. The reason bid for FCC Ardell funds and the cooperative's plans for the future. Now, here's Christopher talking with Kevin and Shawn.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm talking to two guys that have much better tans than I do. We're going to speak with Kevin Short, who is the general manager at Anza Electric Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Kevin Short: Thank you Christopher, pleasure to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Shawn Trento, who is the network administrator at Anza. Welcome to the show Shawn.

Shawn Trento: Thank you very much.

2:10

Christopher Mitchell: So, you guys are with the electric cooperative that's serving a lot of Southern California. It's near and dear to my heart, because last time I visited a friend out there, he was on a Verizon cell and now he's on fiber and loving it. And for people who have listened to this show for a while, Matt Rintanen has been a guest, and he gives you two thumbs up, loves the service. Says he's excited to test out gigabit when you're ready for that.

Kevin Short: Now, we're pretty excited to get that going too.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So I guess first give us, folks a sense of the territory you serve. I get the sense you're in mountains, you're in valleys, you're all over the place out there.

Kevin Short: It's really amazing for only having about 550 square miles. It's pretty much as varied as you can get. We vary in elevation, for example, from very near sea level, just a few hundred feet above sea level, all the way up to almost 5,000 feet in elevation. So we've got mountains, some deserts, some coastal valleys, and so on. So quite a variety of weather conditions here. We are in Southern California situated roughly between San Diego and Palm Springs.

Christopher Mitchell: So, Shawn, let me ask you to just tell us a little bit about the reason that electric cooperative would have a network administrator. I think we often assume that people have a sense of all of the information needs of electric cooperative. But before we go into the consumer service, just tell us a little bit of what you have to do to keep the electric utility running.

Shawn Trento: So, we have a SCADA system that gives us insight into the electrical grid and allows us to mitigate outages quicker and just better serve the members with better information than without having it. So, we've been developing that for a while alongside of our broadband project. That was actually the catalyst for the broadband project. We wouldn't even have had fiber if we didn't start with SCADA system that was needed.

Christopher Mitchell: And why don't you lease fiber from someone else? It seems like almost all electric utilities take a pride in having their own service rather than just saying, "Hey AT&T run me a fiber and charge me every month for it."

Shawn Trento: There isn't any.

Christopher Mitchell: That's a good reason there.

Shawn Trento: Yeah. Until we put it there, there simply was no plan. There was no fiber, there was limited cover.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So, Kevin, if you want to walk us back through, how do you go from putting in fiber to connect substations and do SCADA, to deciding to start offering it to your member owners?

4:48

Kevin Short: Well, it was actually kind of a combined project right from the start. The substation interconnections, all of the electric equipment on the system was really part and parcel of the main push for a decent communications. But right alongside with that, we are roughly 94% bedroom community essentially here. We're kind of sub-suburban rural to the population centers around us. So, our members needs ... As a cooperative, we do what our members want us to do basically, is the way that it works out. So, when we took this to the membership for a vote six years ago and said, "We're looking at doing this, do you want us to do this?" And we received the biggest return in our history of votes, with a 93% approval, we figured it was probably a mandate, and we decided it's time to build fiber. So that's really how I got started.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's one of the reason that some general managers don't ask their membership about that question.

Kevin Short: You probably right.

Christopher Mitchell: I really wanted to get into that question of whether this was something people were more enthusiastic about than other issues. So, you definitely heard that loud and clear.

Kevin Short: Oh, absolutely. And living here as well, I had experienced what was here in the past for Internet service, and we could do better and we have been doing better.

Christopher Mitchell: Shawn, I guess I want to ... One of the things that is unique to California, more so to you, I think than others, the Western States have to deal with this generally. But, you have this issue of fires and you have a lot of electrical equipment. How does having this robust fiber network help you to deal with that threat in the situation?

Shawn Trento: Well, we have weather stations that we've deployed throughout our service territory, that will give us real-time information about conditions so that Kevin can make decisions as to what circuits, if any, need to be turned off in a high wind and weather event. We have cameras that can monitor the conditions also. And that's all helped along by the fiber being out there. And that's really the bulk of it as far as communications and how that helps with it.

Christopher Mitchell: I guess I'm curious, Kevin, to me this seems like one of these classic questions that economists like to wrestle with, which is that, do you bear all of the costs then, for putting in those surveillance cameras and writing that when, in fact you are creating something that has a massive public good and benefits for everyone?

7:32

Kevin Short: We do, and again, as a cooperative existing to serve the needs of the members at cost, we have to be very careful about what we spend our money on and there definitely needs to be a quantifiable, measurable benefit for the members. And as Shawn was mentioning, all of the surveillance equipment, the fire mitigation efforts that were through here are extensive and expensive. And our service territory is covered by two of the three highest tiers of vulnerability in terms of fire in California, through their system that they make those determinations. So we've got a very large obligation there to make sure that we're making those decisions in a timely manner and being extremely careful about how we operate.

Christopher Mitchell: So given those costs, and I guess, Shawn, I might throw this to you first. What are the numbers look like then? Are you able to connect a sizeable portion of your rate base with fiber, with no subsidies, given that, generally, rural electric co-ops are serving pretty low densities, how did the numbers start to break down as you're looking at fiber to the home?

Shawn Trento: Basically, without the subsidies we would have been in trouble. It would have been probably a non-starter, the entire project.

Kevin Short: Yeah. We've been very fortunate to have a very proactive public utilities commission in California, that we were able to obtain a grant funding that covered 60 to 70% of the cost of deployment here so far. And continuing, we were a participant in the recent FCC reverse auction, the RDOF auction, we did obtain some funding through that, that we're starting to unravel now. But in the longterm, as Shawn mentioned, it would have been very difficult for us to justify these expenses to our board and to the public without that subsidization.

Shawn Trento: If we had done it, we wouldn't have been able to do fiber. We wouldn't have been able to do it right. And that is one thing that the subsidies have really enabled, is that we're not ... We haven't had to pull any punches. We're able to build a really robust modern network, and thanks to the subsidies and the enthusiastic membership, we can do it in the way that we want to do it so that we'll work for decades.

10:06

Christopher Mitchell: What was your experience with art off? Were you able to get a lot of the areas that you sought after? One of the things that we just saw was that people went from being excited and hoping to being defensive and worried. So I'm just curious if you give us a sense of that rollercoaster.

Kevin Short: Yeah. I think you just described our experience pretty much perfectly. The expectation that we had going in, this was our first FCC auction. And we had an expectation based on the consortium that we were involved in that we could probably expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 60% of the reserve amount. And the numbers that we saw were significantly lower than that. And I mean significantly to the point where it had gone any lower, we would have walked away from it. We did not get all of the areas that we were after, which is unfortunate, because these areas where we're at are very difficult to build to, particularly with the gigabit fiber, and there is no incumbent in the area with fiber plant except us.

Kevin Short: So the company that was successful in those areas in the bid is going to have a really hard time, in my opinion, getting it done. And we have made mentioned through our national organization with the FCC, that we feel that the loan form applications really need to be very highly scrutinized because we think there's some insufficient capabilities on the part of the auction winners in a lot of areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think the nightmare scenario is that there's insufficient scrutiny now. Those providers do not have to do 100% of the build until year six, which is seven years from now. And that means that if that were to happen, probably it would be 10 years from today, when people living in those areas would then finally get the kind of connectivity they need. That's deeply worrisome.

Kevin Short: [crosstalk 00:12:10] But that's if they do. If they can, the people that win it, build it, and don't just say, "Sorry, couldn't do it." And then deal with the legal consequences.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So where are you in your build, in terms of, what's the rough percentage of how many of your member owners that you cover?

12:29

Kevin Short: What did we figure lately here? Its in the 55, 60% take rate?

Shawn Trento: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:12:35]

Christopher Mitchell: How many of your meters have you been able to bring fiber to the home to?

Kevin Short: Well, we have roughly about 5,200 electric meters, I believe. And we're right in the neighborhood of 2,500 broadband subscribers. And remember that quite a few of those meters, there's more than one meter on the property, for example. And a lot of members have multiple properties as well. So we've done really well in terms of distribution of fiber service.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. One of the things I really like to ask, because I've gotten some really interesting answers over the years, especially from electric co-ops is, what makes it worth it? Shawn, I don't see any deep rings under your eyes, but I know that this process can be harrowing, it can be very challenging. Kevin saying, "Maybe Sean's passing that stress right up the chain of command there." So, let me start with you Shawn though. What are you hearing, and what makes it worth it to go through this effort?

Shawn Trento: Well, first we live in the community, and we didn't have Internet before. I'm a network guy and kind of always have been, so doing this is meaningful in the sense that we're actually building something for ourselves that we can rely on, and that we don't have to beg a big carrier to come in, that may or may not treat us right, and frankly refuse to come in at all. The first was jus ... It serves an immediate need, and not only for our members, but for ourselves.

Shawn Trento: The second is, in the last five years that I've worked with Kevin and I've gotten to build this network and to do things on a not-for-profit membership focused basis, it's just been, it's been a really, really great. It's been nice to come from a corporate I.T Background, where I came from, where things were kind of profit-driven and move into a space, "Here is a need. We're going to fill this. We're going to do it as cheaply as possible. We're going to do it as best as possible." And just makes it, even though it is hard because you have limited resources and stuff, and it does get stressful and the lines are there somewhere.

Shawn Trento: It's worth it because you get to wake up and do something that's cool and meaningful. Our favorite connections are people that have never had Internet before. And it's a lot of times we go to a house and they just sometimes they'll have a computer that's never been really used, they played solitaire on it, that's about it. Connect them to the Internet, show them how to use YouTube. We do computer classes too. We have computer classes in the evenings that a lot of elderly people come to, and it's just the neatest thing in the world to be able to go, "Here's YouTube type in, what do you like?" "Oh, I like old motor goosy motorcycles." And they put it in and their eyes just light up and it's, "Wow." So maybe we get a little bit jaded with all the new cool tech all the time, but for some people it's a new experience and that's what makes it worth it.

15:32

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It's really magical. Just recently, I have a five-year-old. I just recently discovered that that some small group of people put together a racing series using matchbox and hot wheels cars. And they actually have these professional videographer rigs and they've done all this modeling with 3D printers, and they treat it like it's a real race, with real drivers and stuff. And it's just hilarious. The commentary is great. There's infinite creativity out there. And I can imagine going from someone that has not used that, and has only been on dial up to suddenly seeing that, it's remarkable. Kevin, what are you hearing from members in the community?

Kevin Short: Well, a couple of things. One of our first major areas of focus, we've got one little strip through the middle of town here on the State highway where probably 90% of the local businesses are located in. And our very first target was that little area, getting as many of the businesses connected as we could, and I think we've got darn near all of them. That was very, very early on. We wanted the businesses to have a very reliable and high speed Internet connectivity for merchant transactions and virtually everything they do on the Internet these days.

Kevin Short: But I think probably, in the last year, the most important thing has been being able to ensure that all of the kids locally here, conducting school from home, we were able to work with a school district and make sure that every single kid, parent, and teacher in the area that needed Internet, we could get it to them. And we've got free Wi-Fi in a couple of spots, including our front parking lot, for anybody that needs it. It's just been so well received by the public, by the membership. Frankly, I can't think of anything that's been better than that, for me personally.

17:42

Christopher Mitchell: With the teachers, and the students, and everything, were you able to get fiber to them? Did you do fixed wireless in some cases? How did you have to get to make sure that everyone had that?

Kevin Short: It was cool. Shawn can attest to this, we expected there to be quite a few more than we really ended up with that we hadn't got to yet, but it turned out to be so few, virtually, just about everybody already had our service, they really needed it. And our guys were able to get to the ones that needed it very, very quickly. I can't think of any complaints from anybody that really needed it for kids trying to get school at home that didn't have it. I fully expected to have a long running issue with the school district, because they were going to pay us to get everybody connected, and pay for their service for the school year. We were really trying to help them out and it turned out we already had. It was really great.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you have a low income challenge or ... how do you ... For people who aren't familiar, it's really hard to figure out how to offer someone a $10, a month connection, when it may cost $3,500, $5,000 to get a fiber to their home. And so how do you wrestle with that in the early years?

Kevin Short: Well, great question. Fortunately we've got ... Our board of directors is elected from the membership by the members. So they're very well aware of what's going on in the community. And we do have, I want to say it's about a 16% roughly, number of local membership that's at, or below the poverty level of State poverty level, it's significant. And we rolled out a $20 rate last year, sometime, where we still deliver fiber all the way to the home, 20 Meg, up and down for 20 bucks. Our voice offering has always been $20 a month. Even our 100 Meg connection is only 49. There's no contracts, there's no installation costs, there's no data Macs, no caps, none of that. So it's, again, really focusing on the needs of the membership because of our business model, I think has really been the key to the success of the program.

20:09

Christopher Mitchell: I want to ask you this question first, Kevin, and then I'll see if Shawn wants to follow up. I feel like one of the challenges electric co-ops face when they consider this is the customer service angle. I'm guessing that you have very few calls from people who say, "I don't understand how to work my toaster." And as you get into this business, you may get calls from people who say, "My Internet doesn't work." And it's because their device has a problem, something that you're not really on the hook for. How does getting into the broadband space different, and what kind of challenges is that post?

Kevin Short: I think Shawn's probably in a better position to answer that because he gets those calls. And we've had these discussions really, since we've first threw together the business plan six years ago, we knew that this was going to be coming up. And we talked about subsidiary type of, almost like a geek squad sort of thing, to have on-staff capability to do this, and it turned out that we just did it anyway. But, Shawn, you want to take that?

Shawn Trento: Yeah. So you can see my management's really supportive and I don't have to justify this kind of stuff which is nice, but we do pride ourselves on being able to help people with their issues in the house. And one thing that I've learned is that perception really is reality when it comes to this stuff. So, I can deliver a fiber connection to a house that's 100 or 300 gigabit, and it's perfect, but if their Wi-Fi has interference or their device is old ,or something like that, then the Internet doesn't work well. And that's all that matters, is their perception of it. So we have had to do a lot more in-house stuff, and take a lot more support calls, and help people a lot more than you would get from a spectrum or a bigger carrier.

Shawn Trento: It's something that we hope to be able to focus on more when we're fully built. Right now, nose is kind of the grind. We're trying to get everybody connected as fast as we can, once that's done, and we can take our resources, and turn them around, and go back into those houses and say, "Hey, how is your Wi-Fi? Are we able to help you with load balancing? Are we able to help you with connecting your devices? Are there classes that we can offer that would help you and your family become more Internet savvy and safer?" That's going to be our big push in the next five years, I think

22:33

Christopher Mitchell: I want to ask about demand management type stuff, because I feel like California is, I don't know, between five and 15 years ahead of the rest of the nation off and on, on a lot of this technology. Are there things that you're able to do now with that fiber network to get you efficiencies that you would not have been able to do with a remote wireless meter reading system?

Kevin Short: Yeah. Well, you had mentioned bags under the eyes. This one is the other one concerned with that aspect, but, we are a single radio fed electric system, so we've got one set of three wires that feeds the entire service territory. We're connected to a substation that belongs to Southern California Edison. Consequently, along with living in the areas subject to those public safety power shutdowns, we are running as fast as possible to leverage the broadband system to start talking to everything that we've got on our electric system. We just recently deployed the second phase of our solar generating system out here with a couple of megawatts of batteries. So we have islanded off-grid capability with black start capacity. So we can actually feed all of our businesses downtown. If we get shut off, we can turn our businesses on and get them power.

Kevin Short: If the sun is shining, we can do it all day long. Overnight, we can get a few hours out of it. And we're actually expanding our batteries now, but we've been really heavily working on other alternatives, distributed storage projects, for example. We're working with local tribes for ... We've got one gaming tribe that has a casino with a generator that we're talking with them about an interoperable rate for the summer, with our peaks and so on. So we've got a lot of challenges in terms of that, but without the communication part of it, that aspect is critical to making all the rest of it work.

24:51

Christopher Mitchell: And is that because you need to just make sure that if you're able to put a certain amount on the grid, that you're not going to have demand that's much greater than that, that would just cause all kinds of problems?

Kevin Short: Along with the limited import capability, we are also limited in capacity. So we needed more on system generation, and then the storage is a critical piece of that puzzle. But, we've, seen some pretty serious rapid growth here in electric demand over the last few years, so trying to meet that with the limited import capacity that we have is a critical challenge.

Christopher Mitchell: Are there any other questions that I didn't ask, or anything else that we should talk about regarding the system?

Kevin Short: I don't know. We could probably talk about it all day, but, I don't know. Shawn, you think of anything?

Shawn Trento: No. You hitting it with how was the communications helping the power to distributed energy? It's funny how insightful the question was, because we just got off a big call about some future stuff that's going on with that, and it's going to be really beneficial. And you're right, it does require communications. You have to see where the power is flowing, where you need it. And then in order to do it in a more distributed by house way, you need to know that information throughout the service territory in real time. So, that's how we'll be able to assist.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I think one of the things that ... Again, you have so many more electric cars there than any other concentration, commonly across America, so, I feel like you're right at that forefront of figuring out then, how to stagger their charging times and doing those sorts of things. I'm guessing.

Shawn Trento: [crosstalk 00:26:39].

Kevin Short: We do have EV chargers up front here that even the event of a total system blackout, they're running on our generator here. So if you've got an EV, this is the place to charge it. I happen to own two of them myself. I think, that's where we're going. Ask general motors, they just said, that's where we're going. So the time to plan and build for that, is now.

Christopher Mitchell: I can imagine that your fleet, you may be trying to figure out if you need to be reversing that during those blackouts.

Kevin Short: Exactly, yeah. We almost bought an EV for the company here last year, and if it weren't for COVID, we just decided we didn't need that vehicle for this year. So it's kind of putting around locally, but, that's definitely in the plan, absolutely.

27:31

Christopher Mitchell: So the other question I had in reserve is one of personnel. And Shawn, I'm curious, you actually mentioned something which has long been my belief, which is, cooperatives may not be able to offer always the same salaries, as working at a high tech firm, especially in California, where demand for those skills is higher. Do you have any recommendations for how smaller entities can attract people like you, that have the talent to come and work in a just job overseeing a network like this?

Shawn Trento: One of the main things that first brought me, that was enticing to me was to work locally, frankly, I like living in a rural area, and so being able to work in my area instead of driving in California traffic every day, that was one of the first ... Hey, wow, it's on the mountain. But I think that tech people believe in tech and they believe in the power that it has, it made the world better. And if you want to do that, there's plenty of opportunity to apply yourself in that way. I think that it's not a charity, we do business. We make money and everybody is happy. You have to figure out where you want to focus your energy. IT people work a lot. We work long hours and we get called at night and stuff, and do you want to do that for a major corporation to make a guy a little bit richer, or do you want to hook up your neighbor's Internet and make it make everybody happier? So that's what, for me, makes it so appealing.

Kevin Short: Yeah. I can tell my self selected audience really like that answer.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you both for coming on. I'm really excited because I've been following a little bit through Matt, and also there's so few electric cooperatives out West that we love this great example. And so we hope that we see more from that, where they are trying to solve this problem.

Kevin Short: We're doing a lot of work in the State here as well. There aren't very many electric cooperatives in California, but you may see, coming up here very soon with some work that we're engaged with UC Davis and the Governor's office. We're trying to promote telecommunications cooperatives at the State level.

29:56

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, that's great. Thank you both for coming on the show today.

Kevin Short: All right. Thank you, Christopher.

Shawn Trento: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Kevin Short and Shawn Trento. We've 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 podcast 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 @ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount, keeps this going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, warm duck shuffle, licensed through creative commons. This was Episode 447 with Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.

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