Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 475

This is the transcript for episode 475 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, host Christopher Mitchell is joined by Scott Vanderlip, chair of Los Altos Hills Community Fiber, to talk about how he and other Los Altos Hills residents banded together to create a subscriber-owned network. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Scott Vanderlip: You don't have to be an AT&T or Comcast to start some of these local broadband initiatives to really bring up your speed.

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 Scott Vanderlip, the co-founder of Los Altos Hills, Community Fiber and president of the LAHCF board. Welcome to the show.

Scott Vanderlip: Thank you so much. Glad to be here. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm really excited to talk to you because I love these stories where someone gets in their head that they should do something and they actually do it. It's really inspiring. But for people who aren't familiar, just tell us a little bit about Los Altos Hills to start.

Scott Vanderlip: We're right here in Silicon Valley. We border up to Palo Alto, mountain view. I can see from my house, I can see Google headquarters. You would think being in Silicon Valley, we would have good broadband here, but there's a lot of people in my community that are literally, they are not just underserved. They're unserved. We have people little bit of higher up the hill that there's no AT&T. There's no Comcast they're on satellite or point to point microwave, they're paying like up to nine, I know people that pay $900 a month to get a hundred megabit service, to a point to point kind of a thing. And then this town, we're kind of a unique Silicon Valley town where we're zoned RA-1. And so that's residential agriculture. So we actually have people that on your property, you can actually have cows and horses.

Scott Vanderlip: So we're spread out quite a bit. We have one acre lots. And so that maybe has prevented a lot of the telcos from coming in and upgrading us, because we are rather spread out. But still we have a lot of high tech executives that live here and they scramble. I talk to people every day on the phone. They plan their day around, okay, at nine o'clock, you get one hour of Zoom and then grab the car, get the kids in the car, go down and hang out in front of McDonald's and get some Wi-Fi there and do Zooming virtual, assuming when they were had to go online school. They planned their days around their Internet, lack of Internet. I decided this is... We need Fiber's right there. It's so close. It's that last mile, we need to bring it right to our homes. There's no reason that we shouldn't be having gigabit or even faster service right here. So we started this project.

2:35

Christopher Mitchell: And when you say your neighbors and whatnot, this isn't like a town of like 400 people. This is a significant size, even though you're pretty well spread out.

Scott Vanderlip: Yeah. So we're about 9,000 people and about 3000 homes spread out here, right along the peninsula, just heading up the hill from the bay.

Christopher Mitchell: I feel like, when I talk to people in the Midwest, sometimes they'll give me a count of the cows of the sheep or something like that also, but we don't need to go into that level of detail. How many homes are connected by your solution? We're going to talk more about the origin story and everything, but I just wanted to paint a little picture for people about what you've done. So, what have you done and how far have you gotten?

Scott Vanderlip: So, yeah. So we started off with a smaller pilot of about six homes and we sort of confirmed that all the pieces came together. We have a dark Fiber lease circuit that we use where we connect directly to a data center in Santa Clara. We go about 40 kilometers. We come here and then we provision it locally with our owned built member owned and operated fiber optic network. And so we confirmed that, that dark fiber lease and connection works with hurricane electric, works and all of the pieces come together and we can simply install this plastic in the ground and pull the fibers and run it to the homes. And it works. So, we scaled up. So now we have about, I think 35 homes connected. but in the next, probably in the next six months, we probably have well over even maybe a hundred more homes that are kind of in the pipeline.

Scott Vanderlip: We've been waiting to get some town permitting and agreements and stuff. It's been taking, it takes a lot of... You basically have to get the town's permission to really deploy this. We've been deploying it, so far more on private roads, private properties. But at some point you have to cross a public road and that was stopping us for a while. But we have now passed that. We got that approval at the end of August.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh. So it's fortuitous timing for our interview. Most people are familiar with my show with the town themselves doing it. But in this case, you've done it with a group of people who are like-minded and willing to put a little work into the project and the town, it seems like at least some people in the town aren't super supportive of it, but we can talk more about that later. This sort of, that seems like an accurate overview. Is that right?

5:00

Scott Vanderlip: Yeah. We've had some pushback, not really from residents so much, but yeah, there's been some challenges, but I think we've got people more on board now and yeah. And so the town has sort of officially designated us as an official provider and a lot of that's just because we are a... Well, yeah. So we are not a municipal project. We are a owner, a residence owned and operated mutual benefit corporation. So we're not re-using any town money for this project. We only build where people want us to build. And so it is quite a bit of a different project. And then, so the town doesn't really know what to do. We're not a cable company and we're not a telco. They didn't know how to... Well, we can provide, if you're a cable company, we can grant you access to the roads. But well, you're not a table company, you're not...

Scott Vanderlip: So they didn't want to grant us access to the roads. And we're like, well, we can't move forward unless we are actually digging and putting our pipes in the ground. So they finally have admitted that we are legit now.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. This is something that I've discussed previously with Travis Carter, both on this show and on the connect, this show that he and I do together, he runs fiber network in Minneapolis and talks about his experiences in the early years permitting and yeah. And when you go to the city and they're not used to this, they have to figure out which bucket to put you in. And if it's not clear, no one in the bureaucracy wants to make a decision, right?

Scott Vanderlip: Nobody wants to take that risk. Nobody really wants to admit, and so this community broadband organization, I'm trying to find... You don't qualify. And so it took us a long time and a lot of... We even worked with the PUC, that's the California public utilities commission, and they couldn't really find a thing that would really fit their requirements. And so in fact, so these local states need to actually come up with new, easy certifications that smaller, similar broadband cooperatives can go and apply for a license, and then you're official and then it grants, you let the cities go and say, okay, yeah, this is another type of entity. And now you can build in the right of way.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, just for people's contacts, this is again, come up once or twice in conversations I've had recently is that in many cities, there's no one working for the city that has any living memory of what it's like to build a significant network because that happened in the seventies and eighties, typically with the cable networks. And since then people do a little bit here and a little bit there, but nobody's really built a massive network. And so, they're used to dealing with tens or hundreds of permits with a network might take tens of thousands of permits depending on the city. The other thing I wanted to make sure people knew is just that you've partnered with next level networks who runs your ISP services. And so, you've built, you're more focused on the physical infrastructure and they can tend to take care of a lot of the provisioning and things like that, it sounds like.

7:59

Scott Vanderlip: No. No, actually-

Christopher Mitchell: No, it's not right.

Scott Vanderlip: So we are more the governance model and the membership model and the crowdsourcing model. No, Next Level, actually, they're great. In fact, I really give Darrell... He's definitely more as much if not the founder, but the similar co-founder Darrell Gentry of Next Level networks. So yeah, so they're our full installer and network management professional services company. I'm president of the Los Altos Hills, we're the non, the mutual benefit corporation. We hire them to do our installs and network support. So, that's where we differentiate. We're a not for profit. So like an HOA.

Christopher Mitchell: You own it and they do the work.

Scott Vanderlip: We own it. Yeah. The organization is the fiber. And then, we could contract with another professional services company if Next Level wasn't here to do our installs, but yeah, they actually do the installs. They do the ordering of the equipment and installation as well as pulling the fiber and then lighting it up and then doing the home installs and managing the network. So, but you got to have this other umbrella organization that takes care of the governance and sort of the organizational side of it.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. What's the origin of the story of the network? It sounds like you mentioned, as we're getting ready to record, you noticed that I was on Comcast. It seems like maybe if Comcast had quoted you a reasonable fee that you might not even be in this position now with this amazing 10 gigabits in your home.

Scott Vanderlip: Yeah. That was one of the emphasis, so the guy next door has a cable Comcast or it's on a pole on his property. And so I got a quote from Comcast. I said, yeah, I wanted some faster service. I work out of my house here. And they quoted me $17,000 to come three telephone poles. I'm like, you guys got to be kidding. I couldn't cost you that much to string cable for three telephone poles. So, that's just crazy. The origins of how this got started. I really can't take credit. We had a, the town, we have a lot of town volunteer committees and we had a committee called the emerging technology committee. And one of our major tasks we were doing was to try to bring better broadband, gigabit broadband.

10:11

Scott Vanderlip: We didn't care which way, whether they were going to, how we could get, we just wanted to be able to offer gigabit broadband somehow. Go out and find a vendor to do that. And so we actually did a RFI request from information from lots of different vendors to say, what can you do for our town? We sent it to Comcast and AT&T and Verizon and Sonic and everybody, and said, what can you do for us? Can you give us a bit of quote or a concept for bringing gigabit something, or rather doesn't have to be fiber to this town. And they basically all got back just to said, not really except for one company. And that was Next Level saying, Hey, I've got a plan.

Scott Vanderlip: How about we develop this mutual benefit resident owned and operated fiber co-op and we can help you launch that. And so they were one of the companies that reached out to us and then we took and ran with them and said, yeah, let's do it. So, and then the other magical thing that happened. So I started working with Darrell, and then starting to make this work, you have to be able to find some dark fiber, pretty close. Well, it turns out, I live right next to the school.

Scott Vanderlip: The school had a dark fiber with a middle mile fiber provider from [inaudible 00:11:20] castle. And so little like, whoa, he goes, you have dark fiber, so we could actually put this in your shed inside your property and we could make this thing. So that was the other thing magically came together was the fact that we met Darrell at Next Level, we had dark fiber in my backyard. I really wanted this to go forward. And those sort of things magically came together and now it's happening and it's happening now on a much, much bigger scale.

Christopher Mitchell: No, and I feel like a person listening might be like, oh, wow. It sounds like it was kind of easy, but it wasn't. And there's a lot of points. I feel like other people might have just given up. One of them being, if you're not able to cross public roads and just feeling like, is this even worth pursuing, but you stuck to it. So, what was it? Because we don't have a lot of examples of people doing this. What made you want to see this through as opposed to saying, well, it was a good try, but eh.

Scott Vanderlip: This is such a win-win. I have really... I've worked on many projects in this town and there's times when you have anti people and you have people that want to support your project, and you're constantly sort of battling. In this project, everybody wants me to succeed. There's just what I see. There are no anti-fiber people, right? Who wouldn't want more communications, Internet options for their home and more competition? And because we really have one, Comcast is the only provider and then they really don't provide it. There's a lot of gaps in their coverage and incredibly expensive installs. A lot of times a single install, they quoted 80,000 to dollars just to connect, to go underneath one street. I knew that we were going to win or get this done because there was really nobody saying, nobody really fighting against us.

13:04

Scott Vanderlip: It was just, it just took a long time for the town to admit that, yeah. This is good. And we should let these guys move forward. So yeah. So I've worked other projects that are see much more frustrating than this. It just takes a long time to kind of get everything rolling. But yeah. And there's so much interest, a lot of these people, they're Google executives and they, at the same time they can't even get, they have really poor bandwidth, or they're literally on satellite or something. And so, they pay millions of dollars for their house and they still have to go down to Starbucks just to download a big file.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. That's unbelievable.

Scott Vanderlip: It's true.

Christopher Mitchell: I absolutely believe it. Now, speaking of that, did you have someone that just cut you a check for a million dollars to get the project started? That's another barrier is getting that rolling. So where did the first financing come from?

Scott Vanderlip: That's the great thing. So this is entirely resident funded. We do not go out and get a big loan or anything like that. So the first initial project was like $30,000. And there were six people put in $5,000, that's $30,000 enough to seed the initial hub and equipment. And we're leasing this other line sort of on a monthly basis. So yeah, we did not... Does not require a lot of big capital up front. So we probably initially, 30, $40,000 to launch the initial pilot and then everything we build now is prefunded. So before we go out and start building any conduits in the ground, we get people to agree. We get people to actually pay and in the bank, the funding for the backbone, conduit and everything. And then once we get the funding, then we'll actually go ahead and design the project or finish designing it and actually doing the install. So we're not taking on debt. So yeah, so basically it doesn't cost a lot.

Christopher Mitchell: What technology are you using?

14:57

Scott Vanderlip: It's what called, a home run so home run is basically, we get, we bring in the dark fiber to a hub and from there, every single home has a single piece of fiber going directly from the hub to their house. And it's so a complete star, a home, every, every home comes all the way back to the hub that has the super high speed capacity. And so if 10 gig isn't enough, we need to light up another 10 gig channel. We can light up another 10 gig channel or a hundred gig channel. So everybody has... It's not like too many people on a node where you have, so it's just a single point. We can support about 300 people from a single cabinet. And so we'll have a couple cabinets around town, but we can run really dark fiber circuits between the cabinets. So, but everybody has a direct link directly back to the hub.

Christopher Mitchell: Because I was trying to imagine, if you had engineered this in, in a... A lot of the cities that build their large scale networks, it's a passive optical approach with the fiber and getting into that. You have to buy a rack, you have to like have a number of things. And the approach you took is one that scales much more nicely at those small ends, I think. So I just, this is a little bit over my head, as you can tell, but it's a detail I thought might be worth noting.

Scott Vanderlip: So when you're speaking of speed and design, so I have this idea that... So we are lighting our network up for all of our customers at 10 gigabit.

Christopher Mitchell: And most of them probably have a home router that can do like 500 megabits or a gig.

Scott Vanderlip: Well, so that's the thing. So a lot of the consumer great equipment, most our standard install is actually one gigabit. And so our equipment is actually designed for one. Yeah, almost everybody's home network is not designed for more than one, but we are still lighting the network at 10. So people have their own SPF fiber converge. They can actually be, actually get 10 gigabit service. You can imagine how many people in America can get for $150 a month. And that will hopefully come down to a hundred dollars a month, 10 gigabit service. That's a very commercial type speed and there's entire communities that they have 10 gigs for their entire community, and now you're getting it to your one house. And so I'm hoping that maybe in a year we might be the fastest broadband community in America. There's some other, a community in Florida that I'm competing with, but-

Christopher Mitchell: Probably a hot wire town.

Scott Vanderlip: We're lighting up our residents at 10 gig, I think is a unique thing that will put us on the map. And there's no reason why not. We can download that speed here and we can continue to upgrade our speeds as needed, when more people connect to get good speeds out there. So-

17:34

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I know of entire towns that have 10 gig, but the price point is usually much higher, usually about 300 or 200 and very few people take it. So absolutely you are at the bleeding edge and that's a remarkable price. Now I wanted to ask, I've seen something about volunteers and I feel like, I saw you did a survey. And a lot of people said that they'd be interested in volunteering to help spread the word and things like that. How much of this have you had help on? How much can people, if they want to do something like this in their area and there's not a lot of places that have that level of technical sophistication, we'll admit, but nonetheless, how much can you count on other people that are busy folks? How much did other people pitch in?

Scott Vanderlip: So first of all, we have a growing network of what we call neighborhood champions. And these are people that really, they're just going out and they like the concept. They don't even have to be technical, but they know they want fiber in their homes. So they ring doorbells next door and they get groups of projects together. So they go out, maybe find another 20 people in their neighborhood and they go, okay, do you guys want to get fiber? Let's get a project going and they start collecting names and so they come back to and say, okay, look, we passed 20 homes, 10 of those people are interested and can you get us... Can we go to next level? Can you give us a project quote? We give them back with a quote to say, okay, for your 20 homes, it's maybe a hundred thousand dollars.

Scott Vanderlip: So that's $5,000 per home. So, those people are going to have to... So we go back and then we tell them it's 5,000. And then if those people all agree, they all write checks for 5,000 and then we go in. So we actually have a group of about 45 neighborhood champions. And so these people are more going out and spreading the word about it. Rather, they don't really have to do the actual technical installation in the home installs and certainly managing the network. So the volunteers are primarily doing the outreach rather than the technical side of it. But they really do help. I could never do that. We don't have any people.

Scott Vanderlip: We don't like Comcast where we send letters to everybody. It's much more of a neighborhood ringing on doorbells and they have, sometimes we have picnics and potlucks where we get together and talk about it and try to get neighbors involved. And we have a lot of Zoom calls and we get on different meetings to try to encourage people to join into a project. And so it's very much a door to door neighborhood kind of, and then we build where people want us to build. If there's a section of town and they don't want us to come, we're only going to build where people have sort of paid ahead of time for us to install the fiber there.

20:13

Christopher Mitchell: And this is not a town where you have a significant amount of low income folks who will just be left behind for lack of ability to pay, I'm assuming.

Scott Vanderlip: Yeah, no. This ain't. The cost, so the basic install cost the one time install cost, as a total ballpark, we say between five, $10,000 and then there's the hundred and $50. Or maybe it'll come down to a hundred dollars a month. So those are the two numbers. This is not, if you're looking to shave a couple bucks off your Comcast bill, this is not necessarily... This is really should be looked at as a home improvement project, a $5,000, $10,000 home improvement project that's going to last for the next 20 years and provides you with great resale value for your home. And it's going to provide a service that you and your kids can now be running Fortnite at way better latency than you could before. So, the kids are going to like it. Everybody that's Zooming at home is going to love it and everybody's streaming. It's just the future. And it's a good investment for your home.

Christopher Mitchell: For these champions, did they evolve a script? I can tell already that you have a way of talking about it. Is that something that evolved as different people talk to their neighbors and things like that? Or how did that come about?

Scott Vanderlip: Well, that's the whole design. It's a crowd sourcing model. So a neighborhood wants it, they have to get together and decide who wants it. And then we give them a price. And then they, it's sort of like doing a big group project, it's like putting in a sewer project or a new water line for a group of homes and everybody gets together and decides, yeah, I want it. I'm willing to pay for it. And here's how much it's going to cost. And then you get every... Some people may drop out and then maybe the cost goes up, because you've got fewer people over the distance.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, that I get. But so I guess what I'm asking is you are obviously a kind of person who's comfortable talking. You're someone outgoing, it seems like. Let's say that I'm a person who is very good at engineering, but I'm not super social. And I would like to go to my neighbors, but I'm intimidated by it. I'm not even sure how I would start the conversation. Do you coach up people like me in that situation?

Scott Vanderlip: Yeah. We've got a whole bunch of materials that you can either write into an email or post on, send in postcards, we've got some marketing material, I'm not going to call marketing, but outreach materials. You can copy and paste and add your name and say, hi, I'm your neighbor. This is a project we're doing, would you like to learn about it more, learn about the project. So yeah, it does take somebody more social, sometimes more out outgoing to be a good neighborhood champion. But a lot of times the word just kind of gets out more organically too. It's sort of like when you cut a tree and the guy comes, the guy goes, Hey, I think I need my tree trimmed too. And so, you just start talking and of course this is, it's house to house neighbor, to neighbor, starting to talk to each other.

22:59

Scott Vanderlip: And actually we have some road signs that we put out on the road, Santa fiber projects happening here. And so that gets conversations started among neighbors. And then we have a big database of all the champions and we're building, as people want to get connected, we get all their contact information and we share that with the champions. And then, so it's sort of organically growing but it's growing very quickly because people realize this is going to be a great benefit for them. There's nothing really better than fiber and there's no other communication medium, that's going to, in my mind, that's going to do better than fiber in any sort of foreseeable future. I don't think there's any sort of wireless solution or some other medium that's going to deliver data any faster, any more cheaply than fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: I did see in one of the articles, which sometimes even in the tech press, they get a detail wrong or two, that earlier in the project you were looking at or perhaps Next Level networks was looking at some wireless solutions here or there. But those have all been set aside then and just focus on the fiber.

Scott Vanderlip: No, no, actually so okay. Our original plan was to actually build everything out for on the hub and just start building outward. But we realized that some of the most underserved, unserved areas of town are like miles away from the hub where I am.

Christopher Mitchell: They're never conveniently located. That's a rule.

Scott Vanderlip: So we came up with this concept of what I call a fiber island. So a fiber island is... So there's maybe, 20, 30 homes and they're a mile and a half way, two miles way up the hill. But they really need service. They have no service. They're on satellite and everything. So we have a point to point, very high speed, 10 gigabit radio. But locally within their 20 homes, they're all connected and they've invested in a local High Speed fiber optic network. And then we just provide, initially we plan for the two years or however long it takes to get the fiber to them. We provide a very fast, high speed, 10 gigabit back haul with a point to point. And then, when the fiber gets there, they just simply remove our fiber, our radio back haul. And we connect in the true fiber back haul. But meanwhile, that local neighborhood is already up and running now with 10 gigabits. And they've invested in that, in the ground infrastructure that they can use moving forward.

25:11

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. The last question I had is also, you've gotten some good tech press, I assume you've had a lot of other people coming. Have you heard, is anyone actually hitting the same levels of success that you have? Or is there still people just starting out? What have you seen?

Scott Vanderlip: So I know Next Level is actually working on several other projects in Woodside and Los Gatos. So yeah, there's no reason that other communities should not do what we're doing. Assuming if you need... You probably need, one of the main requirements is finding good dark fiber back haul though. We have a project other, there's other projects, I know that Next Level is work on where their back haul option was lighted fiber, but still that's better. And then they can still build their own localized fiber network. And then at some point they might be able to find dark fiber, but either way, no, it's like I said, we built this pilot project for $30,000. You don't have to be an AT&T or Comcast to start some of these local broadband initiatives to really bring up your speed.

Scott Vanderlip: I think there needs to be a reasonable size of scale. I think maybe 10 homes might be a little small, but maybe 50 homes might... In fact, there's another co-op that I know that we were going to help and they decide to form their own co-op. They have about 50 homes and they're up and Woodside. And so they decided to do their own mutual benefit corporation and launch. So, 50 homes, there's no reason that a small 50 home community, or even if that's a small group of residents, can't start one of these projects as well.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. It's very inspiring. So I really appreciate your time sharing that with us today.

Scott Vanderlip: Great. Yeah. Great talking to you.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available @muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us @podcastatmuninetworks.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 another 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 @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 the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.

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