On this episode of Connected Nation, we explore what it takes to connect some of the most rural areas across the country. You'll hear from leadership at Capcon Networks and Irby Utilities, who are not shy about calling themselves "The Dream Team" when it comes to helping smaller ISPs grow. Plus, we'll talk with a company that's benefitting from their guidance while doing the in-the-field, physical work daily to connect more Americans.
Capcon Networks - https://www.capconnetworks.com/
Cullman Electric Cooperative - https://cullmanec.com/sprout
Irby Utilities - https://www.broadband.irbyutilities.com/
Jessica Denson (00:07):
This is Connected Nation, an 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 neighborhoods. What does it really take to connect rural areas across the country? I don't mean just dollars and cents, but rather on the ground effort it requires to physically connect all rural homes and small towns. Today I talk with leadership from Cap Conn Networks, a company that helps broadband operators navigate that challenge and with reps from companies that are doing the in the field work daily. I'm Jessica Denson and this is Connected Nation. I'm Jessica Denson, and today my guest are of Fierce Schwartz, the CEO of Cap Con Networks. Mark Freeman, who is the vice President of network operations at Coleman Electric Cooperative, which operates Sprout Fiber Internet, and Barrett Briley, who is the director of business Development at IBI Utilities. Welcome gentlemen.
Offir Schwartz (01:12):
Hello. Hello. Hello.
Jessica Denson (01:14):
Hello. Thanks, Jessica. It's really nice to have you guys today. I'm excited. It's fun to have so many people on today to talk about this. We can get different perspectives, but one thing I do for all of our guests before we dive into the topic is I'd like to get a little background about each of you and your companies and what you do. So we're going to start with you Oir. Tell us a little bit about your background.
Offir Schwartz (01:39):
Well, how far back do you want me to go? Like childhood
Jessica Denson (01:41):
Or? Yeah, tell us how was the family life?
Offir Schwartz (01:45):
Yeah, family life. Well, so I'm a former Canadian, if that helps you at all. Grew up in Canada and moved to the States in 2000 and, no, I'm sorry, 1997. That's how long I've been here in the us. Went to Arizona State for university, got a degree in business in mass communications, and so I found myself in the right industry. I've worked throughout my career in various jobs in tech, specifically in telecom, different verticals like co-location and bandwidth, wholesale, retail, voiceover, ip, you name it, I've touched it in the telecom space. And more recently, found myself at a company that got acquired by one of the largest telecom operators in the world at the time, GTT Communications. Went to work for them and saw what was coming down the pipe with rural broadband and used that as a launching pad to start this business back in 20 16, 20 17. So it's been a great ride. We're having a lot of fun and we're helping a lot people. And so onward and upward.
Jessica Denson (03:04):
You've done a lot in tech. Is there something in particular that has drawn you to the tech space?
Offir Schwartz (03:10):
Well, I think tech as an industry is always going to, has been a very fast growing space. So that had always drawn me to tech Telecom specifically. I enjoy because many people when they think of the word telecom, they think of people climbing on towers and fixing cables and things like that, or on telephone poles. But really, telecom encompasses a whole world of tech, not just what people would envision just by using the word telecom. And so I enjoy telecom because it has so many tentacles in the tech world that I really found the ability to move around horizontally and up and down in various different verticals inside of telecom. And so I've always pretty much stuck to it. I left the industry for a few years to help my wife start a retail business, but it came back to it back in like oh 8, 0 9, and I realized that telecom and tech is where it's at for me.
Jessica Denson (04:20):
Oh, I got to applaud that. Good for you. That's a husband of the year award
Offir Schwartz (04:25):
Husband, like that award.
Jessica Denson (04:28):
So you're based in Austin, Texas, is that correct?
Offir Schwartz (04:32):
That is correct,
Jessica Denson (04:33):
Yeah. Actually that's where I grew up was Austin, but it's really become a major tech corridor and whenever I go home I'm amazed at it. Why do you think that is? That's become a place where there's so much innovation happening?
Offir Schwartz (04:48):
Well, I think if you look at Austin's history, I mean, it's always been a progressive city, even before the big tech boom, going back to the two thousands during the.com, bubble.com bust, whatever you want to call it, it's always been very active in tech and specifically in telecom. There's been quite a few concentrations of notable companies that were based out of Austin, and many of the large semiconductor companies have had a presence here for many, many years. Going back again into the late nineties and early 2000, I think the University of Texas talent pool that's available to tech companies is a tremendous benefit to tech. The real estate prices, cost of living here was reasonable at one point in time. It no longer is. Yeah, it's true. Yeah. So I think that drew a lot of big tech. When I talk about big tech, I mean Facebook and Meta or meta Google actually as I sit here right now speaking to you, I actually work out of the first Google Tower in downtown Austin, so I'm actually based out of the first Google Tower. They've recently built a second tower, and so I think the combination of the talent pool, low cost of living at the time has really attracted big tech into Austin.
Jessica Denson (06:24):
Yeah, my childhood friends talk about how expensive real estate is now and it is to live there. That brings us to Cap. Yeah, it's crazy. That brings us to networks, share what the company does, which you founded. Correct. And just what the focus is for Capcon Networks.
Offir Schwartz (06:47):
So we connect people better and faster to the cloud. That's at the core of what we do. That's what we do now. Our mission is to provide ultra fast, ultra reliable connectivity to America's foremost internet service providers, primarily rural service providers, large businesses or what we call web centric businesses. And last but not least, institutions. And so we operate in the space because there's a tremendous gap in what typical incumbent providers offer in the way of value and what a niche industry player like us can offer a customer in terms of value. And that value spreads across multiple disciplines. But I mean obviously when you're talking about in the service provider space, specific knowledge and experience, myself and my team, we all come from a wholesale carrier background. So we're intimately familiar with carrier network operations and what it takes to make connections happen in really, really remote hard to reach places. That's a tremendous value to our customers, our buying power as well, and then our capabilities to create some separation between the rural market and the metro markets and provide our customers the ability to play on a level playing field.
Jessica Denson (08:20):
Well, let's get to that Mark and Barrett, my understanding is that your organizations work with networks in different ways, which I'd like to explore. But first I'd also like to give you each an opportunity to share a little bit about your backgrounds and your companies. So let's begin with you, mark, and talk a little bit about Sprout Fiber internet.
Mark Freeman (08:39):
Sure. So as you know, we are an electric cooperative. So just real quickly over Coleman Electric, we serve four counties in the state, Coleman, Lawrence, Morgan and Winston. We're in the top third of the largest co-ops in the state of Alabama. We have about 46,000 meters, and we're growing like crazy just due to our location being between Birmingham and Huntsville. With all the car manufacturing going on outside of Huntsville, Madison and large data centers being made, a lot of people can live in Coleman and commute either to Birmingham or Huntsville, and a lot of new manufacturing is being built here. So we've seen extreme amount of growth in Coleman in the past couple of years due to all the growth around us causing people to live here and manufacturing being built here also. So we have about 3,500 miles of electric mainline. So far. We've completed 1400 miles of fiber and out of the 2,500 that we have planned, so we turned up our first subscriber in January, 2021 in the middle of Covid.
So that was a challenge in itself. I bet as everybody knows, just, Hey, let's turn up internet when there's a huge shortage and nobody can work. So it was very difficult, but it was a challenge and we overcame it and it was a great learning experience during all that. So fast forward three years, we just now hit 9,100 subscribers, so we're growing about three to 400 subscribers a month, and that's where we're at. As you know, the purpose of an electric cooperative is to meet the needs of our members. The reason why sprawl fiber internet was formed was because the co-op saw the need of our members needing HighSpeed internet in rural Alabama. So we have hundreds, if not thousands of our members that don't even have cell phone service or don't have any internet at all. And if they do have internet, they have just a couple megs of very far in reach of a DSL service. So we saw that need, and then we started investigating against feasibility studies in early 2017, 2018, and then finally the board approved and then we moved forward. So it's been a long journey and it's great just to see the growth that we have and just to be a part of a project to where we're changing people's lives every day in rural Alabama.
Jessica Denson (11:25):
And I don't want to skip over it, you do have more than two decades of experience in telecom telecommunications. What does it take to really lay 1400 miles of fiber and get to 2,500 miles? I mean, I'm sure for the people that are there, they're like, I want this yesterday. But what really does it take? Is it months and months of planning and then months more of work? Do you have to worry about weather? Give us just an idea of what that involve?
Mark Freeman (11:58):
So we like to use the train analogy. What the problem is is we have our members out there. As soon as they see a Sprout truck, they're like, does this mean I'm going to get sprout tomorrow? But it depends what truck they see. So you have the engine, which is the main line crew, which they just hang fiber. That's all they do. They just hanging up in the air and do it as fast as they can. Then behind that, which is another car in the train, is the splicing crew. So they actually come behind them, splice all the fibers and hang what we call multi-service terminals, which is the connecting device that hangs on utility pole that connects to the subscriber's home, so another crew does all that. Then you have a third crew that actually hangs the drop from the MST to the home.
And then the fourth and last, which is the caboose, is the actual home installer that comes in and does the install. So it is all about scheduling and organizing and making sure each of those car components are not getting too stretched out or too close because to have people sign up, you have to have areas ready to be released. So the engineering and the main line have to be far enough ahead to create homes, pass addresses that we can then release to our members to sign up. So it's a constant navigation and scheduling of making sure, scheduling that there's enough work for the construction, and then that we have enough areas and homes pass records to release to keep all of our installers and drop people busy every day. So we're shooting for 16 installs, 16 to 20 installs a day. So if you think about that, that's about almost 320 to 400 installs a month.
And then just trying to keep that schedule full is a challenge in itself. And we've been doing that for three years, and we have about another two years or more of trying to keep that schedule full. So it's a lot of hats and a lot of teamwork between everybody. And unfortunately, as you know, we're a small co-op, so we have very minimal staff to do that too. So it's a challenge in itself, but I love it and I love what I do every day, doing something every single day, and that's one of the things that I love about my job and just helping people work from home and change people's lives. It's a great feeling that knowing that we're making an impact in America.
Jessica Denson (14:28):
Especially in rural areas where sometimes it probably feels like you're just forgotten. I love your train analogy, also want you to train gets going. It's hard to stop, right?
Mark Freeman (14:42):
Yeah. But that is our biggest complaint is when can they get it? And a lot of it just has to educate our members of that train and just we try to set proper expectations. But as you were mentioning earlier, weather can always, for example, we just had an ice storm last week and we lost three days of installs. So since then we've been trying to reschedule 50 something installs in an already full schedule. So that requires working on Saturday Sundays. The network team that I manage, they're helping. It's just all hands on deck whenever you have those types of storms and weather. Now that's a rare, most of the storms that we have as living in Alabama, and we're right in the middle of the tornado Valley is tornadoes. So have, that's usually the big issue that we have. Where we're located is severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Jessica Denson (15:41):
And you don't want any of those crews put in harm's way, for sure, just for internet. Okay. Barrett, last but not least, tell us about Irby Utilities and your role as director of business development. Also, am I saying Irby, right? It's spelled IRBY?
Barrett Briley (15:57):
Jessica Denson (15:58):
Awesome. So tell us a little bit about the company and your background.
Barrett Briley (16:04):
Yeah, so Erbe has a 93 year industry or history of serving the electric industry and the utility industry as a whole. It really started as working with rural electric cooperatives in the electrification, initial electrification of America, being a trusted partner for material, your poles, wire, transformers, the traditional type stuff. As the needs change and as the industry's grown, so has our business, we now serve the investor owned utility market, municipal, electric market, as well as the gas industry. So municipal gas industry, and IU gas industry. But the specific side of the business that I represent is the technology and communication side. This is just yet another way that Irby has grown with the utilities and the utility industry and the needs as a whole. What I do and what we do is primarily focused on technology based solutions for utilities, and that's really broad and vague, so I'll bring it in a little bit.
Some of the big things we do is a MI and metering. We help with metering projects, we build operational networks, and we also build similar networks to what mark's currently operating down in Coleman. So we'll actually be the turnkey broadband engineering firm that will come in. We'll perform your feasibility study, we'll take you through your funding engineer, manage the construction permitting process all the way through to helping you stand up and run that ISP afterwards with supporting and continuing services. So we really as a whole try to position ourselves as the easy button for someone that's looking to get into the broadband business as a utility or is looking to create an operational network for substation connectivity and downline devices.
Jessica Denson (18:04):
And when I was doing my research, I saw on your LinkedIn profile, you called yourself a broadband evangelist. Explain why you've taken on that moniker.
Barrett Briley (18:13):
Yeah, it's actually a funny story. Someone at irby, when I first started, they were like, what do you do and what are you doing for us? And in trying to explain that and articulate it, I was like, look, I've traveled a good bit. I consult with a lot of these utility executives. I'm really trying to explain to them the value. I'm out here preaching, I'm evangelizing. It just kind of slipped out. I was like, there it is. I'm a broadband evangelist, and it's most widely known probably for its use in the Christian faith. But yeah, it stuck thereafter as the broadband evangelist for irby.
Jessica Denson (18:53):
I love that. I think I might steal it.
Barrett Briley (18:56):
I've grown to embrace it and love it myself.
Jessica Denson (18:59):
Yeah. Well, what's drawn you to this type of work? Why do you enjoy it?
Barrett Briley (19:05):
That's a great question. Being blunt, how I got into the telecom industry was really the right job at the right time, and I had a bit of a push from both my parents. They were both in the telecom industry for 30 plus years each, and then a job with at t came along, and I started my career, like most people with at t is a tech, worked my way up. I was in operations management for 10 years, really learned a lot about networks, the quirks, the deployment issues, the operational issues. And then after that, very similar to PHE story, I was able to start moving horizontally and both vertically in the industry. So I've never gotten burnout. I've just been able to continuously stoke these coals and keep the fire burning. So I moved into engineering, spent three years managing engineering teams in the telecom industry, both working for an electric co-op subsidiary as their director of planning and engineering, and also for another engineering firm that specializes in utility broadband. So collectively, 14 years in the industry, in the utility industry specifically, I've had a part of or assisted in deploying over 20 utility networks, municipal and cooperative.
Jessica Denson (20:28):
So the three of you together, you've got quite the pedigree when it comes to telecoms and this industry. So oh, let's dive deeper into what Capcon Networks is doing in rural America and why rural broadband is important to your organization.
Offir Schwartz (20:48):
I like to call it we're the dream team, right? Okay. So what are we doing in rural America and why are we doing it?
Offir Schwartz (21:01):
So primarily what we do is we orchestrate long haul back haul and upstream internet access for internet service providers, basically for rural broadband operators. So what a lot of folks may or may not, I don't know who the audience is of this podcast, but they may not, may or may not realize is that internet service providers need to buy internet too. But internet service providers in far off flung counties throughout the country are hampered by the fact that the internet doesn't really live in those communities. The internet lives in a very, very specific location. There's actually multiple of them throughout the country that are known as gateway locations or carrier hotels or internet gateways to use another word where the internet actually happens from a physical perspective. And so they need to connect those networks to those gateway locations. So we design, source and manage the capacity that's needed, the transport capacity that's needed from those rural communities to those gateways. And then at those gateways, we interconnect them to internet providers and also to IXs, which are internet exchanges. We've the shameless plug here, but we're one of the only providers in the country that has a product specifically designed for broadband operators that allows them to mix both their upstream internet and IX all over the same connection without them having to have a point of presence on their own in those internet gateway locations. So that's what we do. Sorry, you have a question?
Jessica Denson (22:45):
Yeah. So when you say mix, you mean they're able to, you basically represent them in those spaces, correct?
Offir Schwartz (22:53):
Yes, exactly. Yeah.
Jessica Denson (22:55):
So talk about the why now, why it matters.
Offir Schwartz (23:00):
So I think to Mark's point, I think Covid shined a big, bright spotlight on the difference between connectivity in rural America versus difference in metro communities. Now, I had already, or we had already been serving rural communities long before covid, and what we found was that we could offer through our knowledge and experience tremendous value for these organizations, many of them who are standup greenfield network operators. And so we made a conscious decision that, look, we can offer a lot of value to these operators who are busy building, as Mark put it, 1400 miles of fiber in two or three years, but may not be that familiar with the concepts behind optimizing internet for a service provider network. That's where we decided that's the why we have that experience, we have that knowledge, and we made a conscious decision early on that this is an area that we can have a positive impact on communities and also serve our customers really, really well. So we decided that that's the why behind it.
Jessica Denson (24:19):
Well, let's go to a good example with that. With Mark's company, Coleman Electric co-op, you leveraged some of what CAP Con Networks offers, correct?
Mark Freeman (24:29):
Yes, that is correct. Jessica,
Jessica Denson (24:31):
What led you to Cap Con and explain a little bit about how that partnership works and how it's been good for your company?
Mark Freeman (24:39):
Yeah, so one of the things I love about being at a cooperative is as a cooperative is also we are also a member of the NRCA, which is a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which consists of thousands of co-ops all over America, and we're allowed to share information. And one of the biggest things that we do is we talk to each other. So when I go to conferences, I meet other network engineers like me, other network managers, and we talk and say, Hey, this is working for me. This is not working for me. And one of the things that's important to providers and companies out there is co-ops share a lot of information. So typically when you do one co-op wrong, it can also affect other co-ops around you. So I met one of my buddies named Mike, who's over at Cumberland, connect up in Tennessee, and we're at a conference and it's like, Hey man, I've been struggling with my current service provider and having all kinds of issues, and I really need to get a good one that has great support and that can help me with different offerings I have. And he's like, man, you need to check out Con Networks. I have two 100 gig circuits with them and about to turn up my third and third from then on here we are on a podcast.
So I reached out to, I think Brandon was my contact. I started out with him, who's my sales guy, and then reached out to him, talked to some of the other customers, got feedback, and next thing I know, I have two Wonder Gigs turned up and a peering session, and it has been a wonderful experience since then.
Offir Schwartz (26:23):
I just want to point out, this is not a paid program.
Mark Freeman (26:29):
It's one of the things where I never would've known about Con if it wasn't for another co-op telling me about it. And that's the beauty of working with co-ops is we always share information and help each other out. And that's one the coming from the corporate world to the co-op world, that's the one thing that I love about it is the willingness not only to share information, but also share documentation and policies and stuff like that. And it's extremely helpful when we were turning up, when we can just go ask another, Hey, your service agreement looks great, can we use it? Oh yeah, sure. Here you go. And why real when somebody else has already done it?
Jessica Denson (27:10):
Yes. And having the word of mouth to know that you could depend on this other company that's going to help you with this. Yeah, that's important.
Mark Freeman (27:17):
That is so right, Jessica. I mean, I have some really, really good networking friends over at for Deer and Mid-South and Texas and Central, and I would stand by any of their words any day. And when you rely on, I don't have the time to go research and do all that stuff. So to me, a word, a positive comment or word of mouth from another networking general co-op weighs very heavy in our market.
Jessica Denson (27:45):
I think that's a feeling that everybody has. They want to know, Hey, somebody that you trust, these people Barrett, let's come to you. You're also part of this dream team as PHE called it. My understanding is Irbe Utilities works with Con Networks, but in a different way. Can you explain that?
Barrett Briley (28:04):
Yeah, absolutely. We do. So we are the other avenue that introduces Cap Con to a lot of utilities and cooperatives in particular, if they're not as blessed as Mark, to have good connections in the co-op community or those that have gone before him and built a broadband network. So we utilize capcom's services in particular, locating that DIA, the direct internet access for the particular network, long haul bandwidth, peering a myriad of their services based on each client's needs, and it's been a really great tool for us. And as they continue to build their relationship and their success in this market, they continue to help us be that easy button for these utilities as they build networks.
Jessica Denson (28:57):
I like that you keep calling it the easy button. Do kids of a certain age know what that means anymore? I think you're referencing that little easy button commercial, right?
Barrett Briley (29:08):
Yeah. I might be dating myself a little bit.
Mark Freeman (29:12):
Target easy button, right?
Jessica Denson (29:13):
Yeah, target. That's right. oir, what kind of companies really need this kind of partnership? And is it just co-ops or is it all kinds of levels of ISPs that could really use your help? And how would they connect with you?
Offir Schwartz (29:31):
I wouldn't say it's all levels of ISPs because ISPs in major metros, they have the luxury of having pick of whatever they need. There's lots of fiber assets, fiber density, geographic distances to these gateways are fairly short, a lot more equipment and electronic density, we call those tier one operators and tier two are maybe those that are on the suburbs but still get to ride coattails because they're close enough to that major metro. But we primarily focus on tier three to tier four operators, and that's what we would just consider rural or really rural, which sometimes encompasses wireless ISPs. And so we offer our services to wireless ISPs to electric co-ops to rural telephone co-ops to independent small cable companies. A lot of folks don't know this, but there's actually thousands of small independent rural cable companies, and most people are just familiar with spectrums and the Comcast Xfinity of the world, but there's actually thousands of them out there.
And so we serve those guys. We also serve a lot of MDU operators. Those are typically managed internet providers that provide internet to multifamily dwelling complexes, so apartment buildings, but more often I'm sure you've seen are those three story multifamily apartment complexes. And they go in there and service all of the tenants and integrate with the owners leasing platform. And we actually serve those providers as well. That's actually a very, very strong and growing segment of the market, again, because of covid. And then as we continue to expand our operations, we're always looking to serve more and more of the potential population in these communities, including schools and institutions, including any sort of web centric businesses, which seem to be moving out more and more to the rural communities more now than ever because in part that fiber is available and good connectivity is available.
Jessica Denson (31:53):
How would if a company wanted to take part or use your services, would they just go to the website?
Offir Schwartz (32:00):
Yeah, I mean, they can just go to our website, drop us a message there. They could reach me directly. I'm pretty easy to find. It's just my first name, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will make sure that they get in touch with the right people. But yeah, they can just visit our website and find us that way. I will say that most of the, I would say not most, but the vast majority of our clientele, the customers that we serve are brought to us by partners, folks like Barrett at irby referrals. That's really where I'd say the majority of our initial contact with people come from. And then the rest is through those trade show communities and things like that. So if you're out there and you're headed to either fipa or Fiber Connect or NRECA Tech Advantage or any of those or Connected Nation shows, we're always at those locations
Jessica Denson (33:02):
Great. And I'll also put the link to your website as well as the other two companies that were IBI and all three companies onto the description of this podcast, closing the Digital Divide. It's a big investment. We've brought up the pandemic a few times. There's more of an awareness of why it matters. What would you say to those consumers that are waiting for that access and what it takes? Barrett, I'll give you first crack at that.
Barrett Briley (33:31):
That's a big question. It's one that Mark touched on earlier as well. He talked about education. There's mainline crews, there's drop crews, there's all these different crews that are visible in public, and just as many things and steps that are visible in a fiber build, there's probably three times as many behind the scenes that aren't. So the first thing I'd say is patience. Be patient with your service providers, whether that be the incumbent or utility that's planning on building, it really starts with the funding. A lot of these areas today that are deemed unserved or underserved are because the traditional IEX elect models deemed them that way or they were high cost or non feasible to build. Funding comes first. Well, when is the funding coming? Bead? Bead is the federal funds that are coming down the pipeline right now. This is huge. This is a generational opportunity for current network providers and ISPs and also new, and this is going to offset those costs for a lot of these areas. With that being said, it's going to take time once the funding is released, I would tell people three to five plus years to build and for B to be at full spend for majority of these networks across the us.
Jessica Denson (35:02):
And Mark, how would you tackle that same question, noting that you serve the Bama era, the Alabama era area? Sorry, Bama is how we always say it, where I grew up?
Mark Freeman (35:13):
Yeah. Yeah. Bama. Yeah.
Mark Freeman (35:19):
The biggest thing with the digital divide is one of my slogans I like to use is Next generation utility broadband internet. And you can't just throw that up in a hurry and you could, but you wouldn't have a good quality, reliable network that I would put my name behind in the way I designed it and implemented it. And as I mentioned to you on the previous question about one of our biggest complaints is why don't I have Sprout available? Or Hey, my friend right down the street has it, why can't I get it? Or when am I going to get it? And the biggest issue that our scheduling and our service reps have is educating our members on the construction process and how long it takes to do that. And that we are, one of the goals of coal Electric is we are going to serve everybody.
It just takes time. We could throw it up and do a lot more miles a month and do a lot quicker. But then when you do that, you sacrifice quality and you sacrifice having a reliable network. And that's something I'm not going to put my name behind. I want a good network that's going to last and that's going to be reliable. So you could sacrifice to do stuff, but everybody wants it now. You know how it is. And it's just trying to educate people is the biggest complaint that we have. And right now, as a co-op, we surround the city of Coleman, which is a municipality. And our next goal that we would love to do is once we finish our project, is to go inside the city and deploy broadband sprout there also. So we have a lot of things that we want to do, but the biggest thing is just taking care of our members first and making sure that we do close that digital divide in our footprint.
Jessica Denson (37:16):
And is there really also a push to future proof this because the technology is evolving still, correct?
Mark Freeman (37:23):
Well, the beauty, if you mean by future proof, if you mean being able to support new technology as it comes out, is that what you mean?
Jessica Denson (37:32):
Mark Freeman (37:33):
Yeah. So the beauty of fiber is fiber is literally just a transport from A to B, right? So for example, XGS just came out and all XGS is I put a new card in my fiber hut and then I swap out the ONT in the home. The next big thing that I believe is going to be the next new technology is 50 gig pond and literally 50 gig pond is just putting another piece of card or a new OOT in the hut and putting a new ONT in the subscriber's home, the transport, the construction from the hut all the way to member's home never is going to change. So once you invest in a good infrastructure like fiber, that's why fiber is the future. The beauty is as a technology grows, you're just swapping out the equipment on the ends and you're riding over that same transport. So our infrastructure is going to be there for 20, 30, 40 years. As long as that fiber stays up, then all we have to do is just swap out the electronics, if that makes sense. Jessica
Jessica Denson (38:33):
Makes total sense. I get you do a good job explaining it in layman's terms, which I appreciate. Oh, fear. I'd like to pose this to you in a different way, if you don't mind, regarding the digital divide. What are, from your point of view, what are some challenges or perhaps words of advice, words of wisdom that you would give to those that are trying to connect rural areas? For instance, a lot of tribal nations are trying to connect and build their own ISPs for the first time. What are some mistakes that they should avoid or some things that they should do that you've learned over time are better?
Offir Schwartz (39:16):
That's a good question. I think one of the biggest challenge that I'm seeing across the board, and not just with tribal, but with all sorts of segments, that there's no alignment between the funding mechanisms that are out there for them and the buy-in for them to make the leap into becoming a network service provider. So many of these soon to be providers, our electric co-ops, I think believe there's 980 of them in the country, and only, I think 200 or 400, 200 are actually internet service providers. 200 are in the process, but that leaves another 500 that are just behind. And so getting buy-in, I think from that population and matching it to the funding mechanisms, because the funding mechanisms are limited in time and scope. So those funding mechanisms will come and pass by any late movers and it will be too late. So I think that's the biggest challenge that we have is why Barrett's title is evangelist, I think, right? Is because that's how important that function is, is evangelizing rural broadband, what it can do for the communities, what it can do for the local economies, and then getting buy-in and finding the right partners to help them along the journey. That I think is the, well, the partner part's not hard. There's plenty of great partners out there, but the first part is really the difficult part.
Jessica Denson (41:02):
Yeah. Barrett, what are some challenges are you seeing when you do have those conversations about this funding's out there? Are there things that can be done better at the federal or state level or even just when people are applying for this?
Barrett Briley (41:16):
Yeah, that's a bit of a loaded question. So I mean, the federal funding,
Barrett Briley (41:23):
The feds are the feds. They continue to try to cram a square peg through a round hole at times, but the state level mileage may vary, but by and large, we see a lot of states looking for more equitable distribution of these funds. And a lot of us are very excited to see that bead is going to be distributed at the state level with some guidance from the feds. So I say this round is going to be one of the better chances we see for good equitable distribution of these funds to these utilities. I will say it is up to every single one of it's these utilities in these tribal governments and sovereign nations, it's their money to lose if they do not go forward and pursue these funds, invest in their communities to try and bridge the socioeconomic divide that may exist caused by the digital divide. These funds will be gobbled up for a lack of better words by your tier one and tier two and incumbent carriers. So I say the biggest thing is it is it's evangelizing the value and the generational opportunity that these utilities and tribes have to act and act soon.
Jessica Denson (42:43):
A lot of this has been compared to the electrification of the country in the early 19 hundreds, how important it is, the same importance placed on broadband that was on electrification. Mark, since you do work for a co-op, you have kind of a unique, I think, role in this conversation, whereas how do you see it? Do you see it that way? And if so, what's the different approach when it comes to electrical services versus broadband, that type of thing? Any thoughts you have on that?
Mark Freeman (43:17):
I mean, I think a lot of people here probably I know of here and Barrett and probably others listening that I think we all know that the next necessity coming out and there's a big discussion is making electricity. The government recognize the importance of that and the need. And I think we're all seeing that with the amount of money the government is investing into bridging that digital divide. And when you hear stories from our members and subscribers about, I get emails periodically just from people just saying how we've been able to change their lives and Hey, I'm an old doctor and I haven't been able to do research because I've had no internet at my home, and now I can do that. Or grandparents saying, I've never been able to FaceTime or connect with my grandchildren because I never had internet. And now they're able to.
And when you're hearing that and allowing people to work from home that they've never had an opportunity to do that is making that necessity and the importance of people requiring and needing that to perform their day-to-day job operations. And it's just coming more and more important and vital that everybody is working together to make that happen. And we've received some grant money and as anybody who has received funding knows, it's not like, Hey, I just got $4.3 million and then the government hands you that 4.3 million check. It doesn't work that easy. You have to take a loan out for 4.3 million to pay for the project and pays you at the end. It's one of those things that you don't really think about how complicated and difficult it is to actually implement government funding and then do it, and then provide all the paperwork and documentation and to get the money. It's a lot of hoops to go through just to get the funding and then implement it. So it's very challenging that a lot of times people don't really think about the implications and how difficult it is to actually get the funding and then implement it.
Jessica Denson (45:37):
At one point, small ISPs, were supposed to have several million in the bank. A group of lawyers for some of those ISPs challenged that, which because it's impossible, it made the whole thing impossible. Okay. So you've really led into, I won't keep you guys all day. I just have two final questions. And one of those is, I'd really like to know why this matters from your point of view, the people's lives you touch, or is it just that you just love technology, why it really matters to connect people? And Mark, we'll let you start it if you could.
Mark Freeman (46:15):
Sure. Yeah. I mean, just kind of piggybacking on what I just said with some of those stories of just changing people's lives, when you get those emails, it's like, wow, it kind of makes you appreciate in that, okay, all these 10, 12 hour days that I'm doing and all the hard work really is paying off. And it's just great to know that I'm setting a legacy for Coleman County and just being a part of this huge project just really means a lot to me. And one of the things that I believe, or I know that we're differentiating ourselves from our competitors is providing this internet to people that literally live on the edge of our networking system that never had internet before. Because you hear all this story about all these large tier ones attaining all this money from all this federal funding for over years and years and years, and people still don't have internet. It doesn't make any sense to me. And one of the reasons why is you have, for example, you have some co-op members that live at the very end of our circuit in the middle of absolutely nowhere, no tier one is going to build a service to serve that one customer at the end of a
Offir Schwartz (47:28):
Road that needs internet. But the co-op, the Coleman Electric Sprout model is if you get power from Coleman Electric, you are going to get a two gig symmetrical service from us. And when you talk to subscribers that have had nothing and then are able to get one gig or two gig symmetrical circuits, that is a game changer. And that's how we bridge the digital divide and change what's going on in people's lives at home.
Jessica Denson (47:57):
I love how passionate you sound about it. It's fantastic. Barrett, for you, how would you phrase why this matters
Barrett Briley (48:07):
Very similar to Mark? It really comes down to equity for us. There are so many people out there that have, in this day and age, never had good service or any service at their home, some of which have been forced to move into a city, sell the family farm, what have you, to get to better internet service. And that's one thing for us. It's hard to fathom that there's so many people out there in the US today that can't get six meg. I think the Number like 65 million or something right now, it's a shockingly high number.
Barrett Briley (48:50):
It is. And when you look at that as a whole against the us, it really starts to put things in perspective. Being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and being the first world country that we have so many people that lack equitable access. One of the big things that sits with me is having some aging and elderly family is telehealth. There's so many people in the world that lack access to telehealth or to good health or transportation to get to good healthcare. So anything we can do to help bridge that divide is just been a mission for everyone at the technology and communications team here at irby. We have a saying, we like to toss around and we want people to be able to live in Death Valley and work in the Silicon Valley.
Jessica Denson (49:41):
I like that. That's great.
Offir Schwartz (49:46):
We're a couple steps removed from what it's truly like from a subscriber's perspective. So we feed off that energy and that inspires us to, inspires us to do what we do when we hear stories like Mark just described. But for us as a company, I think it's really about progress and it's about progress in this nation. If you compare the United States to some other countries to use South Korea as an example, South Korea has had fiber optics or internet service to every doorstep in the entire for decades. And we have some very unique challenges in this country when it comes to being able to even come close to achieving something like that primarily in the way of geography. So for us, it's all about progress because the BEAD grant and RDOF and all these other grants that are coming are only pushing the envelope and pushing progress to connect more and more people to the internet. And that's why we do it is because we just want to continue to see progress advancing access in this country. It's better for everybody. And so that's why we keep our flow on the gas pedal when it comes to rural broadband.
Jessica Denson (51:16):
And I can understand how Mark's stories could inspire you because I feel inspired.
Offir Schwartz (51:21):
Yeah, Mark's really good at articulating it. I had another client similar to Mark Electric co-op in a near, actually not that far community from them let us tell us that they've had customers call 9 1 1 because their internet was down.
Jessica Denson (51:37):
Offir Schwartz (51:38):
And I was like, okay, well that tells you a lot. That speaks volumes, right? When they're calling 9 1 1 because their internet is down, either they just don't know how to access the support phone number or it's that important. Right?
Jessica Denson (51:52):
And it's also important to those services to 9 1 1 operators to fire police, all of that. Yes. Okay. So my final question of the day fellows, and we're going to let Barrett kick this one off, is give me one big thing that's next for your company and the takeaway that you would like our audience, what you would like our audience to take away from today's conversation. And we'll start with you Barrett it.
Barrett Briley (52:19):
Appreciate it. We're going to continue to support the utility market. We're going to continue to be that trusted turnkey solution providing a path for those that don't see it. We're going to try to continue to be the clarity amongst the chaos. When B drops, we're going to assist the industry with be application funding and managing that funding as it starts to come down the pipeline and continue to offer those no-cost feasibility studies as people start to wonder and ask. The question is a broadband ISP, right? For me as a utility, as well as exciting news, we're attempting to move into the tribal market this year with some new partners. So looking forward to bringing a lot of the things that we've learned from the utility market and assisting those in the tribal market as they navigate these unchartered waters.
Jessica Denson (53:16):
That's an important one. And I've talked to some tribal nations over the last year, and there's some of 'em that are doing some really amazing things. So I applaud you for that. And Mark, what about you? What's one big thing and what do you hope our audience takes away from our conversation today?
Mark Freeman (53:34):
Sure. Yeah. I mean, of course my biggest one thing is to finish building our project and getting that complete. But just another big thing is for me is just implementing a little geek out on you a little bit. But implementing IPV six throughout our network is my big project for this year. But one of the things that I just would love for audience to take away from here is just I want people to understand how much rural that your cooperatives are doing in financing millions of dollars to improve our members' lives, to set a legacy for our members and our community to allow them to have this high-speed internet that many of their previous tier one carriers were not even doing for them. So this is one thing that I just encourage, if you're a member of Electric Cooperative, support your co-op and get your internet from them and support them in their objective of providing internet to everybody in their communities.
Jessica Denson (54:34):
Mark, do you have to answer to your aunts and uncles or your grandma if you don't get connected there because your family's around there, perhaps? I hear that a lot from co-ops.
Mark Freeman (54:45):
We do get a lot of that. Of course, the superior is the board members. That's the most important one you got to take care of. But it's always the friends. We have a big lake in our Smith Lake in our territory, so I have a lot of friends and family that have lake houses on there, so they're always calling me, when can I get internet? When can I get internet?
Jessica Denson (55:09):
Yeah, I've heard that a lot from a lot of co-ops because a lot of people who work for co-ops also live in the area and answering. When you were talking, I was like, I should have asked him that. And oh, fear. We're going to let you have the final word of the day. Thank you. So tell us, what's big next for Con Networks and what you hope our audience takes away from today's conversation?
Offir Schwartz (55:31):
More ix. I think that's the next big thing, making it easier for our customers to access internet exchange. And that's a big thing for us, I think as a company, is to take from Barrett's terms, evangelizing the benefits of it and what it can do to network operators, network, and what it does to subscribers experiences. So that's probably the big thing. And then, what was the second part of the question?
Jessica Denson (55:58):
What do you hope our audience takes away from the conversation today? If there was one thing that they remembered,
Offir Schwartz (56:04):
If there was one thing I hope they take away from this is that there's a community of providers that are out there to help them along this journey. This is a long journey. It's one that cannot be embarked on your own and it shouldn't be embarked on your own. And there are really, really great people and really, really great teams at these organizations that are there to help and to help bring you along this journey, get you to the destination. I hope that's the one thing people take away.
Jessica Denson (56:36):
That's a great thing. Partnering is definitely the only way that we're going to be able to close the digital divide. So gentlemen, I want to thank you all for taking part in today's conversation. I appreciate you sharing your expertise and your insight.
Offir Schwartz (56:48):
Thank you, Jessica. Thank you. Thanks
Jessica Denson (56:56):
Again. My guest today have been Offi Schwartz, the CEO of Cap Con Networks. Mark Freeman, who is the vice President of network operations at Coleman Electric Cooperative, which operates Sprout Fiber Internet, and Barrett Briley, who is the Director of Business Development at Irby Utilities. I'll include a link to each of the company websites in the description of this podcast. Meanwhile, coming up in February on Connected Nation, we'll talk with black leaders about the contributions of black history makers to broadband and its related technologies. We'll also ask what can be done to bring more African-Americans to the field and discuss real world challenges for black communities and navigating technology. I'm Jessica Desen. Thanks for listening. If you like our show and want to know more about us, head to connected nation.org or look for the latest episodes on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Google Podcast, Pandora, or Spotify.