Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 481

This is the transcript for episode 481 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode, host Christopher Mitchell travels to Des Moines, Iowa for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecom Conference. He speaks with Kurt Ripperger, the Fiber Superintendent for the Indianola Municipal Utilities in Iowa. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Kurt Ripperger: The one thing I love nowadays is, somebody will jump on Facebook, somebody new to the community, and ask who's the best Internet provider in town, and it's just hands down, IMU, IMU, IMU, IMU. That makes me feel good.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Normally, I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota, but I've driven down 35 to visit Des Moines, where we're at the IAMU, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecom Conference. I'm speaking here with Kurt Ripperger, who is the Communications Superintendent of the Indianola Municipal Utilities. Did I nail it?

Kurt Ripperger: You got it. That's it.

Christopher Mitchell: Hey, all right. It's a good day. Indianola is, what? I'm going to guess 30 miles south of here? Is that right?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah. Not even that. From south side of Des Moines, we're about 12, 15 miles or so.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Maybe I was just assuming Des Moines was way bigger than this.

Kurt Ripperger: Right. Yeah, we can be at the airport in about 20 minutes, so yeah, we're fairly close.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It's a suburb of Des Moines, and you have a municipal fiber network now touching every home and business in the community.

Kurt Ripperger: We do, yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Tell us just briefly about Indianola. I think of it as a bedroom community. Is that more or less accurate?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, that's probably a good term for it. I think a lot of our citizens come up to Des Moines to work, and do that sort of thing. We do have a small college there in Indianola, Simpson College. That helps things out a little bit too, but yeah, I think a bedroom community is a good representation.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, people who have a great memory may know that Todd Kielkopf was on the show 100 years ago when he was already in middle age. We talked about what Indianola was doing then, and some of the partnerships with Simpson. A lot has changed since then. At that point, there was a public partnership with a local company, and frankly, a question of whether there was enough demand to do fiber to the home everywhere. Well, I guess we could just fast-forward to say, sure seems like it's working out for you.

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, it seems to be good. We're just finished up year four. We've already hit our five-year business plan goals. They're in town. We've got about 45% penetration so far, and we keep hooking people up. So it's all been very, very good.

2:30

Christopher Mitchell: That's excellent, because I'm really curious about this. I felt like a town like Indianola, to me from afar... I visited for the... you all did the fiber cutting.

Kurt Ripperger: [crosstalk 00:02:43]. Yep, yep.

Christopher Mitchell: Which was acknowledged, was not the right metaphor.

Kurt Ripperger: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: But in launching the municipal citywide system, and it seems like it's a kind of town where people may not know as much about the community as in some other places. Where people might not read the local newspaper as much, or things like that, which means it's the worst for word of mouth, was my concern. But obviously, that hasn't been a problem for you. How did you get to the point where you're achieving your business goals early? Do you have any sense of what gave you that success?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, I really think it's because of the product we're putting in people's homes. It works, it's been widely accepted. People have been asking for many, many, many years. So certainly, when we were going through our initial startup and turn-up on different houses or people's houses, there was a huge demand. So people were having to wait months to just get us in there, because we had such a backlog.

Kurt Ripperger: Now, it's come to the point where we don't do a ton of marketing. We do a little bit there in the local online paper. We obviously are involved with the school systems and things like that, to do some public-service type stuff, to get our name out there. But literally, it's mostly word of mouth from happy customers, which is very, very good to see.

Christopher Mitchell: What's your rough penetration, if you're able to share that?

Kurt Ripperger: The penetration rate's about 45%, I expect to be right around 3,200, 3,300 customers by the end of this year.

Christopher Mitchell: That's, it's wonderful. 45% in year four?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah. We just got through year four, and that was year four from literally just starting construction. So we've only really been installing customers for three years. It took us a year to get the outside planned up, into a spot where we could actually start installing.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so from the way I track things, I would call that year three, just as we try to just have a sense of what the trends are. I honestly, I'm a little bit confused. I felt like five or six years ago was a sweet spot, potentially, for signing people up. I felt like cable is getting so much better now, we're seeing more investment in some places from various entities, to bring fiber to some parts of town.

4:52

Christopher Mitchell: We felt like it was going to be harder for cities to get past that 35%, 40% mark, but we just see cities like yours moving ahead. I know that you're delivering a great product, but is it, do people more appreciate the fiber now and they really just, they tell a difference? Do you have a sense of what drives that?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, I don't know for sure, but certainly, I think the pandemic probably helped us out to some degree. Everyone all of a sudden got stuck at home, the demand, we certainly saw a spike in demand shortly after all of that happened. We were fortunate to be able to continue to do installs, and keep up with people's demands at that time. So, that was good.

Christopher Mitchell: Is it better now than it was five years ago, to be marketing these products?

Kurt Ripperger: I think there's more of a demand for these products now. I think, again, with the last year and a half, two years, people realize that they have to have these sort of products available to them. One of the problems we have, we're a suburb of Des Moines obviously, but there's much more going on in some of the closer suburbs, Des Moines, the Ankenys, the Johnstons, the Waukees of the world.

Kurt Ripperger: Which means sometimes the existing providers that were there before us weren't exactly giving Indianola probably the first-rate attention that it needed. So there were certainly developments in town that had been around for multiple years, that still didn't have some of those services available to them.

Kurt Ripperger: So, I think when we come in, and we provide that sort of service, that local service, we're still a small enough community, far enough from Des Moines that we're still a small Iowa town. People appreciate that hometown feel to things as well. So they know when they call in, they're going to get one of seven of us, and they know us by name and they see us out on the streets. That sort of thing too, which I think helps a lot, to be quite honest.

Christopher Mitchell: Seven people for 3,300 customers, is that what I remember?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah. 3,200, between 32 and 33 by the end of the year. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: That's got to be difficult to manage. Do you sit there looking at wanted ads thinking, "Man, I want to bring in another person."

Kurt Ripperger: We are trying to expand a little bit right now, so we do have a couple of job openings available. But I have a very good staff. They're very dedicated. They all either live in Warren County or in fact, most of them live in Indianola. They're very dedicated to their jobs and making this thing actually work, and be the best it can be.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm curious because right now, one of the things we hear is that labor is super-tight. Do you have any fears about losing these folks, or is the fact that they can do the work that they're doing for whatever mission, and close to home, is that going to keep them there? Or do you have a concern that you're going to start fighting with other people to keep them?

7:30

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, I certainly have a concern. That's certainly an issue. It being a small staff, if we lose any one person, we lose a key person. Obviously, they take a lot of roles and responsibilities with them if they leave. So, yeah, I do have concern about that. We have been fortunate to be able to hire local. Like I said, most people live in Indianola, or at least right around Warren County. So, close commutes, small-town living, working close to schools, family, stuff like that. So, fingers crossed, we keep them, but I certainly do worry about it. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, what were you doing before you came to oversee this project?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, I was over on the city side of things. I was actually the IT director over for the city, before I came over and took this role on for the utility.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask a confrontational question, which is, I feel like a lot of times people in telecom were like, "Well, you can't have IT people in here running things, because IT people have a different mindset than telecom people." Was it a hard adjustment, or would you reject that sort of division?

Kurt Ripperger: I guess I'd have to reject that sort of division. I guess maybe it's because I didn't know about it, but all of our staff came from the IT side of things. Maybe that's why we work so well together too. We're all used to managing systems like that. While it's different, it's not that much different, at least at the size we are. I'm sure as you grow and get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, different things change, but at the end of the day, it's a lot of networking, really, is what it is.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the ways that the big cable and telephone companies will often compete with a city like yours is to try to just drive down prices, and give the product away more or less for free to try to just lure people away from you, and harm your business case. Obviously, that hasn't been something that slowed you down.

Kurt Ripperger: Yep. We didn't see a lot of that. Again, I don't know if that's because people have other focuses closer up to Des Moines, and are more worried about that, those areas, or what it actually was. But they weren't paying a lot attention to Indianola before. Even since we've come along, they still aren't paying a whole lot of attention to us, which is fine.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. It's the end of the radar.

Kurt Ripperger: Exactly. Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there anything that if... boy, I was thinking about framing this in terms of St. Peter at the gates, and you have to justify why you spent your time working on broadband. That's not a question you're going to confront, so let me just ask, when you wake up in the morning and you're excited to solve problems, and maybe you're going to bed, you want to feel good about what you're doing, what do you think about, that you know that this has been a good use of your time over the past several years?

10:05

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah. It's been a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of effort to get it up off the ground, and get it going. But at the end of the day, it's making Indianola a better place to live, and grow, and raise kids, and things like that. I think that's very important. I grew up in Indianola, went to school there and everything else, escaped for a few years down to Arizona, and somehow made my way back. I guess [crosstalk 00:10:30]-

Christopher Mitchell: [crosstalk 00:10:30] smart decision.

Kurt Ripperger: Well, I guess when I came back, I really expected to be back here for a few years to deal with some family things that were going on, and then to leave again. To be able to find a job in Indianola like this, to be able to do this, and to be able to contribute to the community this way, is very, very satisfying.

Christopher Mitchell: What about it is there? Is it the fact that you know that people are paying lower prices? That they just have service that works all the time? What is it that really, you really reflect?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, I think really it's when the people... the one thing I love nowadays is, somebody will jump on Facebook, somebody new to the community, and ask who's the best Internet provider in town, and it's just hands down, IMU, IMU, IMU, IMU. On occasion, we'll get one of the other vendors, but that makes me feel good, because people are out there saying that, "Look, you want the best. Come here and you can get it." Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Did you face any challenges integrating the quarter of the city that had already been built out, with technology, the choices that you made, or was it more or less same vendors and similar platforms?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, it was very similar platforms. Obviously, there was a lot of coordination to move from the other provider at the time, over to us. It took a lot of, I don't want to say marketing, but education. We certainly started by sending out multiple letters, explaining what was going on, why a change was going to have to be made. Then it took a lot of coordination then, because we had to go touch every one of those systems.

Kurt Ripperger: It wasn't something we could just flip a switch and move over to us. So we had to schedule techs to come in, change things up. Obviously, our products were a little different than what the other company was offering. So there was a little bit of education there as well. But at the end of the day, we were well over 90% of those customers converted over to IMU. So, it went well.

Christopher Mitchell: Wow. Yeah. Do you have to build out new subdivisions and things like that? Is the town expanding, and you got green fields?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, the town is definitely expanding. We've got to green-field to the east, and even starting out more to the north as well. Obviously, it's a lot easier when it's in our electric territory. We can go in and drop in conduit when the electric company comes, or electric utility goes in and does everything. For those subdivisions that are outside of our electric territory, we go in before anybody else and try to get our pipe in there. Our goal is that the first house that's up and moved into in the subdivision can access our services. We've been fairly successful doing that.

12:53

Christopher Mitchell: Today, there was a discussion about supply chain, and I was curious about that. In this situation where you're doing these incremental expansions, do you just rely on getting product from vendors that you work with, or do you still manage it yourself, and you have rolls of fiber and conduit sitting in warehouses ready for it? How do you handle that?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, I wish I did now, but no I don't. So yeah, we take it on as-needed basis. It was, especially coming from the IT world, you tended to work on a much smaller timeframe, I guess. It was very easy to do a project in six months. When I first came on board here, it was a little bit of a learning experience to think a little bit longer-term.

Kurt Ripperger: Now, the supply chain issues, it's even longer yet. We're already looking at 2023 and what we're going to need in-house for that time period. Being a small utility, it's a little harder to figure out, especially since we're still ramping up on installs. Where that will eventually plateau, I don't know, but it can definitely be challenging. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you have neighboring communities coming to you, and asking either how you did it, or whether you would be willing to solve their problems for them?

Kurt Ripperger: Not so much communities. We certainly have a fair amount of people outside of the city limits, in the rural areas, that are asking on a regular basis, what could be done. Obviously, we're taking a look at where we can go, where the density makes sense, but obviously it's expensive to build fiber per mile out there. So there's only limited spots that we can go.

Kurt Ripperger: There have been other communities nearby, [inaudible 00:14:25] obviously is [inaudible 00:14:26] up their system over there. They've been over multiple times, asking questions and taking a look at the things that we do. There may be some others come along soon, that may come over and ask for some help too. We're happy to do that. We certainly leaned on a lot of people when we were getting started up. I asked Cedar Falls and Waverly a lot of questions, back in the day.

Christopher Mitchell: That's what's great about this, the network here in Iowa, is you have so many different folks, you have different experiences. The folks that are on the outskirts of town, are they in your electric footprint?

14:56

Kurt Ripperger: They are... no, the electric footprint is really limited to the city limits. Actually, the city has outgrown even the electric footprint nowadays. So, no, they are outside the electric utility. At that point, it's all on us to build out.

Christopher Mitchell: Have you looked at the... Curtis did a presentation, Curtis Dean who puts this event together and runs the Community Broadband Action Network, did a presentation talking about the Iowa subsidy program. I'm curious, have you interacted with that at all, looked at it?

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah, we've looked at it in the past, and to be quite honest, we are close enough to Des Moines that normally when those maps come out there, there's not a whole lot of potential for us. It's just because we're so close to Des Moines and it's been swallowed up over the years. This latest round of maps is much, much more interesting. We now do have a few areas that we go take a look at.

Kurt Ripperger: So I think we're going to focus on that here in the next few weeks, and see if we can't get some applications in. So, it's exciting because, like I said, normally we're so close to Des Moines that the existing providers have already sucked that territory up, but it seems like maybe it's changing a little bit, which is nice.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and I have to say it's exciting too, because I feel like in Iowa, certainly in the legislature from time to time, we've seen efforts to restrict municipal networks, but the current subsidy program not only allows municipalities to apply, but there's a modest benefit to being a cooperative or a municipality. That just seems it's exciting given, frankly, what municipals and cooperatives have done for Iowa, that they're being respected by the state now.

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah. It's just very nice to see. So I agree. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: I feel like at 3,200 passings, that to me seems like the minimum threshold. It seems like it's kind of a headache. You seem pretty nonchalant about it. Do you have any fears in terms of the volume in which you buy gear and things like that, or does it all just work out?

Kurt Ripperger: It's all worked out so far. Yeah. Going forward, yeah, I don't know where we're going to be in a year from now, or two years from now, I guess. We're still relatively new. I wouldn't call it a startup anymore, but we're still relatively new to the business. So like I said, I don't know where that plateau is going to be.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I would assume probably, if you had 5,000 passings, you'd be doing amazingly, but you have no method of reaching 10,000 passings.

Kurt Ripperger: No, exactly. Yeah. Not unless we expand to another community, or really get serious about the rural areas. So, yeah, somewhere along the line, yeah, we are going to hit capacity. Indianola is fortunately growing, and I think we're poised to grow significantly in the next 10, 15 years.

17:32

Kurt Ripperger: There's going to be a couple of other spots in Warren County that'll probably grow first, but as those get saturated and prices go up there, I think Indianola's going to look very, very attractive to a lot of people. Again, and having the fiber service there, and being offered the speeds and service that we do, I think is going to be a good selling point for Indianola.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Well, I'll just note again, I think effectively, you're third year from when you started turning on customers. 45%, it's impressive, and it's exciting too. I hope others are inspired to know that this is possible now, that they haven't missed the window, there's still something that communities can get done if they treat it seriously. Right? Maybe that's the last question, which is what advice do you have for others, to make sure that they're not coming into it thinking, "Oh, like we'll just come in and we'll get 45% of the community. It'll be easy."

Kurt Ripperger: Yeah. It takes a lot of work. There's a lot of front-end work on that, but once you get things rolling and get things going, it all falls together quite nicely. It's worked out exactly the way we're hoping, and like I said, even a little bit better. We're ahead of schedule and, yeah, that's just great.

Christopher Mitchell: Cool. Thank you so much.

Kurt Ripperger: Thank you.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: 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's @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle's @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.

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