This is the transcript for episode 2 of the Why NC Broadband Matters bonus series from the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Gene Scott, general manager of outside plant for the Greenlight network in Wilson, North Carolina. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
Gene Scott: And the door's going to be wide open. It's not going to be just that traditional, "We're going to offer TV and Internet and telephone services over these fiber optic networks." We haven't even imagined all the uses for it yet.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to a special episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and our new podcast series, Why NC Broadband Matters. I'm Lisa Gonzalez with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract, support, and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high capacity Internet access, which is necessary for thriving local communities, local businesses, and a local workforce able to compete in the global economy. The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. We're collaborating with NC Broadband Matters to present this series that touches on issues that while certainly affect folks in North Carolina also impact people in other states. Our second episode is titled Fiber Rich Wilson: Why and What's Next? You've heard plenty of podcasts from us about communities that have developed Fiber-to-the-Home networks. Have you ever wondered about the actual fiber? In this interview, Christopher talks with Gene Scott, general manager of outside plant from Wilson, North Carolina, where the community has been working with fiber for more than a decade. He talks about Wilson's network — past, present, and future. Now, here's Christopher and Gene to discuss fiber, Wilson, North Carolina, and the Greenlight community broadband network.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast — special series. This is episode two in the Why North Carolina Broadband Matters podcast series, done by me, Christopher Mitchell, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And today I'm talking with Gene Scott, the general manager for outside plant at Greenlight, a division of the city of Wilson in North Carolina. Welcome to the show, Gene.
Gene Scott: Oh, thank you Chris. I'm glad to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: People who have listened to probably more than two of my podcasts will be aware that I am a big fan of Wilson. I think that y'all have not just built a very impressive network, but you're using it in innovative ways, frankly in the ways that we like to see when we have municipal broadband. But, let me just ask you to tell me, what has Wilson done for people who aren't very familiar with it?
Gene Scott: The City of Wilson has built an all fiber optic Fiber-to-the-Home network for its citizens. We've got a longstanding history of always wanting to provide services to our citizens here that would match anything they could find in larger metropolitan areas, and one of the things that we're proud of is that if those services aren't provided by large, independent, privately owned companies, that the city has taken it upon itself to do it for its citizens. We've done that with our electrical grid in the early 1900s, we did it with gas services a little bit later, and then we did it with broadband starting around 2005-2006. This desire to make sure that our citizens have the service and the service levels that you would see in larger areas I think makes us unique. We started on this network, Chris, with the engineering and material selection in early 2007. Our construction actually started in June of 2007, and we built over 200 miles of plant in 18 months. At the end of the 18 month period, we hit our first 100 customers online, and we've been growing steadily ever since. So I thought that was a pretty good feat for a city that's roughly 50,000 located in Eastern North Carolina. We now have over 10,000 customers, and we are expanding our network into the county.
Christopher Mitchell: And for people who aren't familiar, they might think you have 10,000 out of 50,000, but you have more than — probably approaching half of the market because the number of customers you have is not the number of people but the number of premises or households.
Gene Scott: That's correct. That's a very good point. When I say 50,000, that's a rough census number — that's total population. But in reality, you're exactly right. We're probably approaching 50 percent of the market because I want to say at least on the initial studies back in '07-'08, there were roughly about 22,000 what we would call passings, which would be individual lots or parcels inside the city limits. So you're exactly correct. We're getting close to the 50 percent mark.
Christopher Mitchell: You're the outside plant manager. For people who are just really enthusiastic about better broadband and aren't familiar with the technology, what does outside plant mean? Do you do a lot of pruning?
Gene Scott: No, no. Outside plant would be considered anything that's located literally outside of the headend, which is where all your electronics are located. It would be all your cabling, your underground construction, your aerial overhead construction, the installation piece at the customer's home, the maintenance of the plant — anything that's literally located outside.
Christopher Mitchell: Which I'm guessing is the overwhelming cost of the network, so you're quite important in terms of making sure the network is doing what it needs to, comes in on budget, and all that sort of thing.
Gene Scott: Yeah, that's correct. The outside plant, you can look at it in two different aspects. One, yes, it's extremely expensive to construct, and every area is going to be different. The construction here in Wilson is going to literally be different in both cost and method than it would be in a community that might be located no more than 50 or 60 miles from here, just because of terrain, soil types, whether or not someone actually owns their own electrical distribution system like we do. So that's one aspect of it. The other way you also have to look at it is if it's designed and built correctly and using fiber optic technology, you almost future proof that piece of the network, meaning that you don't have to go out and overbuild it every time that you want to upgrade your network. It's all an electronics change out at that point. Over the period or lifespan of the network, you're going to actually come out saving a lot of money versus building the traditional twisted pair or coaxial-type networks that had been in use for so many years.
Christopher Mitchell: Now when we talk about fiber networks, there's obviously different technologies that people might have heard, and we don't have to go into sort of passive optical networks versus active. But there's a term that is used which is "fiber rich," and I'm curious if you can tell me what it means for a network to be fiber rich.
Gene Scott: We would consider ourselves fiber rich because when we designed and constructed the network, we sized the actual cables large enough that every single residence, every single parcel in the city had a dedicated fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: And I think that's sometimes called home run. Right here in the middle of — well, as we're recording it, it's during the world series, so appropriate.
Gene Scott: Yeah. When you talk about a home run, it depends on if you're talking about architectural design because there's three different ways you can build on an outside plant network, one of them being a home run or having a dedicated fiber from the central office or headend location to your end user or customer. We use a local convergence point type of network, although you still have a dedicated fiber from a local convergence point in the field to each individual customer. The point being, when you build a network like this, the cost of the materials, the fiber cable itself, which is one of the benefits of it, is to upsize it is not tremendous. In other words, you can double the size of your network without doubling the size of your cost. So when we built it, we made the decision that we were going to build it as if 100 percent of our citizens were going to take the service, and so we don't have to go back and cause delays by reinforcing the network at later dates and overbuilding it in the future. So being fiber rich, the way I would consider it is that we have it designed ao there's plenty of fiber for all those that want it, in very simple terms.
Christopher Mitchell: That's very clear. That also allows you then, if you wanted to in the future, you could change a lot of the electronics into a whole different standard because you'd have to just change it in the convergence point as opposed to having to, you know, go through and significantly re-engineer it, I'm guessing.
Gene Scott: Yeah, you're exactly right Chris. There are no active devices in the field between where our headend electronics are located and the customer's premise, other than the ONT, your optical network terminal, at the customer's home. There's no electronics that you have to upgrade in the field. That's a big cost savings. Everything is passive in the network. So you're exactly correct. It's not something that you would have to redo over and over again.
Christopher Mitchell: So Gene, I'm curious how, you know, the costs of building a fiber network in the way you have vary from other technologies that people might be familiar with.
Gene Scott: In a general sense, Chris, constructing the outside plant portion of it, all the cabling that's necessary to operate the network is considerably less expensive than the traditional twisted pair or coaxial networks that have been deployed for years. Another benefit is once it is constructed, the maintenance of it is considerably less. It's not affected by a lightening, power surges, electrical influence, moisture — all the things that affect any type of copper type of a conductor is not a factor with fiber. So it is a benefit. Over the longterm life span of the network, it is less expensive to maintain.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm curious about the longevity because we've all heard stories about fiber lasting many decades. I think it's often depreciated over about 20 years. Your network is closer to 20 years old than five years old, you know. Are you seeing any degradation or any sense that you have to be start being concerned in the next 10 years about the quality of the fiber?
Gene Scott: None. None whatsoever. You're correct. Fiber — we don't know what the lifespan of fiber cable is. I can tell you that in my previous career, we were deploying fiber cables in the early 1980s. They're still operational, and to my knowledge with no degregation of service. So at this point, yes, we do depreciate over, say, a 30 year timeframe in terms of book value, but we may be looking at cables that last 50, 60, 70 years. We just don't know yet. But we've seen no decline or deterioration in our network so far, and it's been operational now, fully operational, for about 12 years.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Although I suspect it was lying around in some parts in the town even a few years before that, right?
Gene Scott: Well, the backbone I think was actually built just prior to me coming to the city of Wilson, which was 2005, but so far so good. No deterioration, no evidence of deterioration. And we do have a regular maintenance program and do look for those types of signs, and so far nothing.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, as I said earlier, one of the things that I love about Wilson is that I feel like it is the embodiment of a network that is really trying to help the community in every way that it can. I've done many discussions over the years about in particular how Wilson has focused on low income populations to make sure that they are able to access the Internet on the same terms that the rest of us do — you know, rich people like me. So let me ask you this: you're working on something that is really great, and I've seen people talk about this in the past, but you're actually out there doing it in terms of a training program. So let's talk about that for a while. What's going on there?
Gene Scott: It was very interesting, Chris, and something that I had not thought about when we were in the rush to build a network. We were initially very lucky to find a small group of good young people that came on board with us, and many of them are still here working with us to help with the construction of the network and the design of it. But as we grew, obviously, we were going to need more and more employees, and I personally had not put a lot of thought of that being an issue. I just thought all we'd have to do is post the job, people would come in, they'd need a little training or polishing, and we could do that. But it became evident pretty quickly that yes, we could post the jobs and yes, we would get some good candidates in terms of work ethic and attitude, personal skills, but they did not have the technical skills necessary to run an all fiber optic network. And so, we implemented a in-house training program. All that went well. We were growing rapidly and still continuing to grow rapidly. And I got to thinking about it and I thought, well, maybe if we could start a program through our community college, Wilson Community College, we could not only benefit our selves in terms of being able to have place in a curriculum that was already set up to train our employees, but I could also tell there was a demand for people trained in fiber optics. Not just for Wilson, not just for other municipalities, although there's a need there too, but you have big companies, the Googles, AT&T — those companies are deploying fiber networks, and they're going to need trained employees. So I approached the community college with an idea: could they put together something that we could train future technicians in? And of course they were enthusiastic, but they weren't sure what we needed. So we actually helped write a curriculum for them, and we've done a trial course — it's kind of a fiber optic overview — just to see what the interest was because I saw a need, but I didn't know if other people would see a need. So we did a 10 week course this past winter, and we had full enrollment almost immediately. And most of the people that came were from other municipalities who had institutional networks for their own use, and they were coming from as far away as two and a half hour drives to come to this class once a week for 10 weeks. And what we did is just touch on all the different aspects — the history of fiber optics, you know, we went into selection of materials, maintenance — just to kind of give people a broad idea of what it takes to run the network. And it was successful to the point that we had some strong demand for us to do it again, and we're going to try something a little different this time, Chris. We're gonna put together, we call it a bootcamp. It's going to last four and a half days, and we're going to try to condense that 10 weeks into four and a half pretty intensive days and teach that again through the community college as their continuing education program and see how that goes. And we just checked the enrollment. The class is already half full, and I thought that was pretty good cause it's only been available for registration now for about a week. So we'r looking forward to it and also offering a more in depth, longer term training program that the college is putting together.
Christopher Mitchell: So Gene, in putting this class together, you know, how did you go about finding the right people to offer instruction?
Gene Scott: This was something I was really excited about because when we sat down with the college and we started talking about, "well who is going to teach this?" obviously we here in Wilson could teach it. But I didn't want that full burden to be on us, and I also wanted to expose students to more than just us. So I started making contacts with different manufacturers that make fiber optic products, test equipment, the cable and all the outside plant portions of it and just kinda floated the idea to see what they thought or if they could offer some suggestions. And I was surprised and very happy about the enthusiasm to the point that these manufacturers of the different products that are used in a network were sending their subject matter experts to help teach the class. It was fantastic to see the response from the industry as a whole in supporting it, and then they were also telling me that, you know, they love the idea of being able to train people to go into the fiber optic field. Again, I was thinking in terms of, you know, cities like Wilson or companies like Google or AT&T or Verizon, but they also pointed out they need trained people in the manufacturing process. And if they get someone who has a degree or at least has several courses under their belt in fiber optics, that's a good jumping off point to go into research and development at one of these companies or to go into sales because if you're going to have someone sell something to you, you'd like for them to understand the product. So that even further emphasized to me that there is a large demand for these skills, and it's growing. And if we think about our economy and how it's transitioning today from manufacturing type services — and the prediction is most of that will be automated in the not too distant future, but a lot of this is going to depend on being able to move data. And what moves data? Fiber optic networks. And what will you need to build them? You're going to need trained people. It was a very, very good experience to see the enthusiasm from the manufacturers and distributors in wanting to help.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I can imagine that others who are listening to this, for instance in Michigan where there's a really growing movement to try to figure out how to connect a lot of rural Michigan, that this might be an opportunity for some of their community colleges. Did you learn anything along the way in terms of — I mean, obviously you've decided to do a condensed version in addition to the one class per week, but are there other lessons that you learned that you're going to be incorporating into future lesson plans?
Gene Scott: Yeah. I want to expand it. I wanna cover everything from marketing a fiber optic network and its services. I want to cover more in depth the actual design, cost pricing of a network, the maintenance of one. I want to go into areas where we train individuals on the customer service piece of it, and for those folks who want to be, or are more attuned I should say, to want to be able to manage a network like ours, I would like to be able to broaden the training to even include that. So it's a wide range. It's not just the stereotype where you've got a man in a bucket truck who's up a pole and he's splicing some fiber cable. There's a lot more to it. There are a lot of opportunities for young men and women in this industry, and that's really what I'm wanting to focus on now in the city of Wilson. As well, Wilson community college has been extremely supportive of that idea.
Christopher Mitchell: Have you hired anyone that went to that program at this point or is it still, you know, too new in that it didn't really line up yet?
Gene Scott: It's too new for us to hire anybody from that program. As I said, the initial class was just an overview, a broad overview class. I did send some of our newer technicians that we had through it, for two reasons. One is to expose them to it, and number two is they'd come back and give me feedback. Was it useful? Did you learn anything? What else would you like to see that would help you in doing your job? And my technicians were very helpful with that. In fact, they really enjoyed learning the history of fiber optics cause that was probably a good full day of the initial training that we did, and we will touch on that again during our shorter version. But people didn't realize that fiber optics, the concept has been around since the mid 1800s. U=You know, I didn't know that until I got into it myself. And then it was not until into the 1960s that Corning actually started some development with the actual fiber that we would consider fiber today. And then it really took off in the 70s, and then they had to find a market for it, which that was starting late 70s, early 80s. But the whole history of it was very interesting.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I — not to go too far afield, but the history of glass is actually fascinating and essential for a lot of the things that have led to civilizational breakthroughs. I mean, we wouldn't even know much about how our bodies work or germ theory without glass to make microscopes, to make telescopes. I mean, glass is incredible. For people who are interested in this, you know, I would also recommend Corning has some videos that may help with just the interest of how the fiber optic cables are made. But you know, I'm, I'm really hoping that this inspires a lot more courses like this because if I'm doing my job right, certainly we'll see a lot more fiber optics jobs being available as we see more investment in so many communities.
Gene Scott: I 100 percent agree, and I think that we will see that. And if we can train our young people and just show them that this is a good and bright future and it will cover — as I tried to explain just a little bit earlier, running a fiber optic network has so many different facets to it. For those people who love to be outside and love the construction aspect, there are jobs for that type of individual. If you like to be on the back end, you love the electronics, you want to be inside, there are jobs for that. There's jobs for engineers who actually understand the concept and be able to do the design for these networks. If you're fascinated in a more general sense about how to market your services — and the doors going to be wide open. It's not going to be just that traditional, "we're going to offer TV and Internet and telephone services over over these fiber optic networks." We haven't even imagined all the uses for it yet. If you are familiar with Susan Crawford, she wrote a book on fiber, and if you just have a chance to even glance through the book and what she's seen in different countries in Western Europe and in Asia and what they've already done with their networks, it is mind boggling. Anything from the health field to transportation to education to entertainment, and it's new things every day. It's going to be a bright future for those who want to take part in it. I want to share one thing also with you, Chris, that prompted me to think a little more about educating young people on it. We helped Wilson Community College. We participated in a job fair one Saturday a couple of years ago, and the way the room was structured, they had some server equipment, what you and I would call traditional computer, equipment set up.
Christopher Mitchell: Blinking lights, right?
Gene Scott: Yeah. The blinking lights. Right. They had those students when walked in the room. We just so happened to be next in the middle. And then we had a private company who did a lot of PC networking and that type of thing that were located on the other end. Well, the kids would come through and they'd zero in on all the servers and they understood all that stuff and you know, they seemed to have a grasp of that. They also seemed to understand the networking piece of it. So the technicians and I that were participating, they come and look at our stuff and they go, what's this? So we just asked a question. I said, "Well the servers that are over here next to us, how do you think you connect those over here to the end user, those doing the networking?" And it was like dead silence for a little bit. And then they said, "Well, is it wireless?" And that just a light went off, and I said, "Okay, these guys don't understand what it takes to connect two points together, which is what outside plant is." So we started explaining it to them, and we had some samples of some cable with the glass strands and went into the capacity of how much you could transmit with it. It just seemed to blow their minds. And I said, you know, there are jobs doing this too, and I let some of our technicians talk to them. But it also hit home that there are lots of aspects of this industry that our young people aren't thinking about when they're thinking about careers.
Christopher Mitchell: No, and I appreciate that because you know, one of the things that I think about a lot — you know, my city, Saint Paul, Minnesota, not so different than a lot of places in that there's not enough high quality jobs for people who don't have a four year degree. And these are skills that require specialized training, but may not require that level of four years at, you know, college in which you pick up a lot of debt, right?
Gene Scott: Right. But you think about it — I believe that the vast majority of the need could be met with just a two year degree from a community college. The four year degree, if you want to go into more in depth on marketing or something, yes. But the two year degree could cover the vast majority of the jobs, I believe, that would be created and necessary.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Gene, I've really enjoyed this conversation. You know, while you have this amazing opportunity on a podcast, I'm curious if there's anything else that you want to talk about.
Gene Scott: I think we've covered it, Chris, and I appreciate the opportunity very much. And if anyone would ever want to come visit us or spend a little more time talking about it, we're always excited to share our experience. We have something unique that we can share.
Christopher Mitchell: You do, and I want to say that I really appreciate that you did that because I think there's lots of people who have ideas like you did, which is, you know, "wouldn't it be interesting if we did this thing with the community college?" And a lot of those people think, "Yeah, but I'm busy. I got the kids. You know, I don't wanna spend all my time doing it." But you went out and made it happen, and that's really great. And I really want to make sure that people will appreciate that because we need more people like you to be taking action on those good ideas, so thank you for that.
Gene Scott: I appreciate that. I want to throw out one other thing that we're just now getting off the ground here in Wilson. We're opening up a — we call it a Gig East Exchange. It is going to be a place where folks can network. They can come in, they have an innovative idea, they can learn how they can implement it and market it. But because of our fiber optic network that we built, we're now taking it and moving it to the next level by opening up opportunities through like this exchange where folks will be able to use this network and hopefully be able to foster more innovation and more services. So I just thought I'd put a plug out for that. We're not just standing idle here. We're moving to the next phase.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. Well thank you again.
Gene Scott: Thank you Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for tuning in to this special Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets, and if you follow @NCheartsGB on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers of silvermansound.com for the series music, What's the Angle, licensed through Creative Commons. And we also want to thank you for listening. Until next time.