The broadband space has traditionally been a male-dominated industry – but that’s changing and more and more women are filling positions in the industry at all levels from the C-Suite to entry.
On this episode of Connected Nation, we go inside the 2023 Calix Connections conference to talk with some of those women about why they’re drawn to the broadband industry – and what they want us all to know.
Jessica Denson, Host (00:11):
This is Connected Nation award-winning podcast focused on all things broadband from closing the digital divide to improving your internet speeds. We talk technology topics that impact all of us, our families, and our communities.
The broadband space has traditionally been a male dominated industry, but that's changing. And more and more women are filling positions in the industry at all levels. From the C-Suite to entry on today's podcast, I take you inside the 2023 Calyx Connections conference to talk with some of those women about why they're drawn to the broadband industry and what they want all of us to know.
I'm Jessica Denson and this is Connected Nation. I am standing in the middle of the Wynn Conference Center in Las Vegas for the Connections Conference sponsored by well set up by Caix, and part of that series is Women in Telecom. It's a whole series that's devoted to women that are working in the telecom industry. And I am standing with Riley Bryant, say your name, correct?
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (01:15):
Jessica Denson, Host (01:15):
And tell our audience who you work with and your role.
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (01:19):
So I work for Centric Fiber. We're a fiber internet company based out of Houston, Texas, and we have a joint trench with our gas co-op who's been in the industry for about 30 years now. So we're a fairly new startup company as of 2020, but we have seen incredible growth. I think our first year operating in about June of 2021, we had about 400 customers and now we have surpassed 8,000 customers. So we're experiencing tremendous growth. And so I work alongside the customer experience team trying to ensure that the customers have an elevated experience and try to set us apart from our industry leaders like at t, Comcast, slink, et cetera. So I'm excited to be here at Connections this year. Calex has been an incredible partner for our company and they've really helped us streamline our processes and our growth and so they help us a lot in every aspect. So do you think
Jessica Denson, Host (02:16):
That you're seeing some of that growth as a result of the pandemic? We've often talked with journalists before and after the pandemic before they didn't really understand, thought that was kind of a privilege to have access, but now people see it in all parts of lives, don't you think?
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (02:29):
Absolutely. What we have learned is that internet is now a necessity in our life and it's no longer an amenity, if you will. It's more of a necessity. So we have to have it in order to run our homes and our lives. And of course the pandemic helped contribute to a lot of that with the working from home and the schooling from home as well. And so that's what we've experienced in our company as well.
Jessica Denson, Host (02:51):
A lot more men work in telecom. How important is it to bring women together and to encourage them to be part of the industry in like this?
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (03:00):
So this experience has changed my life. As you said, it's a very male dominated industry, and so a lot of the times I find myself in a room full of men and as a woman, they just look at me differently. They don't value my opinion as much. It's almost like I have to be direct and outspoken with the men that I work with. So for me, this has been revolutionizing my experience and it's given me the confidence I need just to know that I'm not the only girl or woman experiencing some of the things that I go through. And so for example, last year at Connections, the keynote speaker was Brittany and I forgot her last name. She was incredible and I just felt like she was talking to me personally on a personal level, everything that she's experienced and dealt with and a lot of these other women too have been able to voice things that they go through and basically it just makes you feel like you're not the only person there. You're not the only woman experiencing all of these hurdles that we tend to have to go through.
Jessica Denson, Host (03:57):
So what advice would you give another woman who is interested in being part of the telecom industry? There's obviously lots of different kinds of roles women can hold, correct?
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (04:06):
Absolutely. I would say go for it. If their opportunity is available, then take it for full force. The telecom industry is always growing, always changing. It's opened up many doors for myself. I've grown so much as a person just since our company started in 2020. And I would say that this has been the most rewarding of my career.
Jessica Denson, Host (04:27):
Alright. Is there anything you would like to add or something that you would like to let people know about your company or just the telecom industry in general?
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (04:36):
Yeah, I would say that we are always growing and we are trying to change the industry standards as far as the different internet providers and the experience that they provide to their customers. Centric Fiber is fully focused on providing a white glove experience and transforming the way customers think about their internet company. We're trying to be part of their family, not necessarily just their provider. That
Jessica Denson, Host (05:01):
Is something you see with small internet, smaller internet providers, smaller than the at t or our T-Mobile necessarily who have a huge footprint. When you have a smaller company, you kind of know your neighbors, the people you're serving.
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (05:15):
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's what Calex focuses on. They focus on working with the smaller providers and they really help pinpoint certain factors that can really transform the whole customer experience. And so I think as a smaller provider it is important to know your customers and for the customers to know you and advocate for you because it's really going to make or break you really.
Jessica Denson, Host (05:40):
Alright, thank you so much Riley. I really appreciate your time.
Rylie Bryand, Centric Fiber (05:42):
Thank you. It was an honor.
Jessica Denson, Host (05:45):
My name is Sonia Whelan. I'm with Ogallala Lakota Telecommunications, l l c out of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, that's on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (05:57):
We are in the process of building a broadband company from the ground up right now for everybody on the reservation. So I am brand new to everything and I'm here at the Calex conference.
Jessica Denson, Host (06:13):
So how long has it been a few years or is this literally just now you guys are starting this work?
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (06:19):
I think it's been in the works for maybe about a year or two before I came on. I just started, I haven't been there for six months yet, but everything's underway so it's in the process.
Jessica Denson, Host (06:34):
So tell us a little bit
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (06:36):
Jessica Denson, Host (06:37):
Your tribal nation and what is important for people to understand.
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (06:44):
Well, the people where I'm from don't have a lot of 'em live in very rural areas and don't have access to internet and so we are trying to get them access and there's a lot of different obstacles that we have to go around. I think what is an ilec there right now that does provide service for some of the people there, but it seems to be too, it's not affordable for a lot of the people there. So
Jessica Denson, Host (07:25):
A lot of tribal nations right now are really trying to own and operate their own system. Which makes sense because your people, you understand the area. Help me and I understand what you're saying about the setting, but what about the tribe itself? Tell me what is important to you.
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (07:47):
Well, we've lived in the Great Plains area for generations. They're very spiritual people, very culturally oriented. They like to are very family oriented. And
Jessica Denson, Host (08:14):
Did you grow up there?
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (08:17):
Yeah, I did.
Jessica Denson, Host (08:18):
And do you have a lot of family
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (08:19):
Jessica Denson, Host (08:23):
I've never been to South Dakota. What is it like there? Is it a beautiful country, part of the country that you live in or how would you describe it?
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (08:32):
We live in a great, it's a plains area and it's not too far from the Black Hills area, which is really beautiful. It kind of looks like a little mountain area, mountainous area with a lot of trees. That's where Mount Rushmore is and a crazy horse monument we live, the Pineridge reservation is about an hour and a half away from the Black Hills, and so it's flat with prairies and the communities there are widespread in a very rural area.
Jessica Denson, Host (09:12):
So being a woman who's also Native American, you don't really see a lot of women and a lot of Native Americans in this type of setting or in the broadband space. So how important is it for that to be represented more?
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (09:30):
I think it's really important to encourage to go back home and to encourage the younger generation to get involved and to be more interested in things like it and things like broadband and that way they could come here to these kind of conventions and just be a face for our people back home.
Jessica Denson, Host (10:01):
I think before the pandemic there really was an understanding of how, how important it is to have broadband in your life and to have either access to the resources and vice versa for people to have access to learning about your culture. Do you find that's especially significant for reservations?
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (10:23):
Yes, I do. I think that it's very important that people have access to internet so that way the young people and so that way they could do their schoolwork, the elderly, they could do their telehealth and it is just the basic necessity that everybody needs.
Jessica Denson, Host (10:44):
So in your role with the company, explain what do you do with them?
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (10:49):
I am the customer service representative. So I'm here at the Calex conference learning everything I can to see what Calex has to offer for customer service. So that's what I do. Is there anything that
Jessica Denson, Host (11:02):
You hope you get to take away from this or that you've already learned? I know it's just day one so far.
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (11:08):
Well, right now I'm just busy trying to get from session to session. It's a hard job going up and down these stairs, but I'm pretty sure that within the next couple of days I will have a better understanding of calex and a better understanding of customer service
Jessica Denson, Host (11:27):
Just for the benefit of the audience. We're in this massive, it's massive, isn't it, Sonya? This massive resort that it takes like 10 minutes, 15 minutes just to get to one of the meeting rooms. Well Sonya, I really appreciate you taking your time and talking with me today.
Sonia Whalen, Oglala Lakota Telecommunications LLC (11:43):
Okay, thank you.
Jessica Denson, Host (11:44):
I am standing with two women who are obviously leaders in their field, Tanya, Belk and Jackie. Am I saying that correctly? Yeah, both work with Highline who they're a provider, I want to say small provider, but you actually are in many states, right? Tanya?
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (12:01):
Jessica Denson, Host (12:02):
So tell me Tanya, a little bit about your company and what you do there.
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (12:07):
We're an internet broadband provider. We also serve phone and a little bit of video. We're in Georgia, Michigan, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska and Texas. Yeah, totally forgot Texas. That would've been bad. I'm the chief support officer there.
Jessica Denson, Host (12:25):
I'm a Texan, so I'm glad you brought that up that it was Texas
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (12:28):
Out there. Yeah.
Jessica Denson, Host (12:30):
What did you say? Say
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (12:31):
Again? Livingston, Texas. So this would
Jessica Denson, Host (12:33):
Beton Texas and I kind of roped in Jackie. It's kind of a surprise to her. She thought she was just going to listen in. So Jackie, tell me what your role is with the company. I am the director of data services, so I do the data analytics for Holon. And obviously in this type of industry I say obviously, but if you've been in one of these conferences, it is primarily men, probably 85% men. You don't see a lot of women, so that's why I approached you both. Tell me a little bit about what drew you to the telecom industry and how important you think it is for women to come to these types of things.
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (13:07):
Well, I've been in it for 30 years, so I had a very good mentor that kind of rope me into it 30 years ago. And I think it's a great industry. It's growing. You have a lot of opportunity to learn technology changes like daily. So I think if you just started one of those people that's driven by change, this is the place to be
Jessica Denson, Host (13:26):
30 years. So you really were in it long ago when there was very few women I would say.
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (13:31):
Yeah. Right out of college.
Jessica Denson, Host (13:34):
Right out of college. So what brought you to it then? It was just that you knew the right person or
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (13:39):
I went to a job fair and they actually recruited me into little municipality and just from there I met the guy that owns our company and I just been with him ever since.
Jessica Denson, Host (13:51):
That's awesome. And Jackie, how did you end up with Highline? I ended up with Highline because Tanya and I have worked together for 20 plus years. So over time as she moved places, I've just kind of followed along the path. You followed her along. Is she a good mentor? She's standing right here. She's an awesome mentor. Yes, absolutely. So why did you decide to come to this conference? Why is this conference even important for the industry?
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (14:19):
So we use calex in all across our market for our giga buyers and their smart app for managing your household. So there's been a vendor of ours for years, so very interested in just seeing some of the new stuff. There was a lot of great sessions we wanted to attend. Obviously Women in Technology, we're super excited about listening to that one today.
Jessica Denson, Host (14:43):
Yeah, I've heard it's going to be really good. I talked to some of the employees earlier, they're like, this is one you don't want to miss. So
Director of data services, a little bit more what that is and what you mean when you say that. So we're responsible for all of the reporting in our company, producing dashboards and analytics to the business. So I mean that is critical. Everything that we do, the company has no insight into that without some sort of report to follow it up. So sort of like G I S or Geospatial services kind of thing? We have that, but no, I mean we're talking operational reporting metrics on how we're doing as far as our sales goes, our Connects, disconnects, just anything operational. I understand. So there's so much money out there right now for broadband, 65 billion and I'm sure that's brought up new companies, people who don't know anything about broadband being as they've been in it for 30 years. What are you really seeing? Are you excited about this time, how your company, how do you think the direction of the company is going? Any thoughts on that?
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (15:56):
Yeah, I think it's wonderful when the government realizes you can't afford to go build in really rural areas. So they're willing to subsidize that and it allows you to go serve those customers that are having to drive into town for their kids to do homework or streaming TV is just out of the question. So we've got a lot of the funds. We've got calf and rdo, rdo plus we're going to be doing the bead as well. So I mean it's like getting free money to go serve customers, but it's not easy. I mean there's very stiff requirements and this is not an easy business to go build fiber.
Jessica Denson, Host (16:32):
No, people don't realize it can be very cost prohibitive. So you need some help in these places, especially for small providers. And I know you're not, you said multiple states, so are there different regulations that you have to contend with each state as well as the federal? How do you navigate that
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (16:51):
With a lot of help from people that specialize in it? Every different fund has different requirements of you, and every state's requirement is different. So we have the whole department that that's what they focus on is making sure when we apply that we cover all of the governances that we have to do and reporting back, which is where Jackie comes in, there's a ton of analytics back to them to say, this is what I committed to, it ended, I meet my commitment. If not, they start taking money back.
Jessica Denson, Host (17:21):
That's a hefty challenge. How do you approach it with your team? I mean, we work closely with our vendor and so it's just you do what you have to do. Do what you have to do. That's right. Alright, so any
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (17:39):
And building out and keeping up with the passings, the homes that you go by and giving the data to her so she can report off of it. So you're really heavily dependent on your construction as well to give you good quality data.
Jessica Denson, Host (17:51):
It strikes me, and I have heard from some smaller providers sometimes that there's so much you have to go through to get any help. Is that sometimes part of the difficult side of it?
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (18:04):
Definitely. I mean, you have to have people that keep up with everything about those funds and every regulation and every rule. I mean, some of them you have to say, I'll at least provide you this speed, and if you don't, then you don't qualify for the fund. So again, it's very rural, so sometimes you're driving five miles between homes. So you can imagine the cost to build between that to get revenue for one customer.
Jessica Denson, Host (18:28):
Any final thoughts that you'd like to share for women in telecom? Start with you, Tanya.
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (18:33):
Yeah, I think again, if you're up for a challenge every day of your life that things change, technology changes, and that kind of drives you. It's the great place to be. I mean, that's what keeps me here. I mean, no day is Tuesday. Every day is Tuesday is not true in this industry. And there's a lot of great, wonderful women in it that you'll meet. There's tons of great guys too, so they really, I've never felt unwelcomed because I was a female, so I just think it's a great place to be.
Jessica Denson, Host (19:03):
I kind of feel like you probably feel welcome everywhere you go, right, Tanya? You're pretty welcoming. And you, Jackie, any final thoughts?
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (19:10):
Jessica Denson, Host (19:10):
I echo what Tanya said. I think it's an exciting field. Like she said, it's, there's so many different roles that you can take on in this industry and so it's wide open if people just want to dig in and learn. Alright, thank you ladies. It's Tanya and Jackie with Highline.
Tonya Belk & Julie Haper, Highline Fast Internet (19:28):
Jessica Denson, Host (19:29):
I will be talking with people here and bring you some more interesting topics throughout the week. I'm Jessica Denson and this is Connected Nation. Feel like our show and want to know more about us. Head to connect nation.org or you can catch our podcast on all major platforms.