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Checking in With Fort Collins Fiber Network, Connexion- Community Broadband Bits Episode 408
After a bitter battle with Comcast and a successful referendum to reclaim local authority back in 2017, Fort Collins, Colorado, is moving forward with its municipal fiber network, Connexion. The city is starting to connect residents to the network, so we wanted to check back in with local activists and Connexion staff to find out how it's going. In this episode, Christopher interviews community advocates Glen Akins and Colin Garfield as well as Colman Keane, Connexion executive director, and Erin Shanley, Connexion marketing manager.
Glen and Colin discuss their grassroots organizing efforts from the 2017 referendum, and they share what it's like to finally watch the network being built. Colin, who has Internet access from Connexion now, describes the installation process for his new fiber service. The pair also tell Christopher how incumbent providers are reacting to the municipal network.
Speaking from the city's point of view, Colman and Erin explain how Connexion differs from other municipal networks, including that it faces competition from other broadband providers in Fort Collins. Christopher praises the city's decision many years ago to underground all utilities, and Colman tells Christopher how that has introduced challenges to the network fiber build. Erin shares how the Connexion is marketing services and engaging with the community, while keeping information away from competitors and staying mindful that the network isn't yet available citywide.
For more on Fort Collins and Connexion, listen to Community Broadband Bits Episode 211: Fort Collins Mayor on Fort Collins Fiber Future and Episode 282: Organizing for a Community Network, Against Big Cable
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Glen Akins: When you get deep into one of these neighborhoods in Fort Collins and you pull a piece of conduit out, you're a hero.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 408 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We have a two part show today focused on Fort Collins, Colorado's municipal broadband network, called Connexion. In the first half of this episode, Christopher talks with Colin Garfield and Glen Akins who helped organize a campaign that pushed for municipal broadband in Fort Collins. In the second half of the show, Christopher is joined by Erin Shanley and Colman Keane of Connexion. Colin and Glen tell Christopher about their efforts to build public support for municipal broadband in Fort Collins. While there were existing broadband providers in the city, residents believed in the value of competition and the need to invest in future proofing infrastructure. They voted to allow the city to build the network in 2017. Colin who is already receiving service from Connexion talk a little bit about the installation process and how the city is working to make that process as smooth as possible as they continue expanding the network. Colin and Glen also discuss how Comcast and CenturyLink are responding to the new competition and the community's enthusiasm for the network. Now, here's Christopher talking with Glen Akins and Colin Garfield from Fort Collins, Colorado. Stay tuned for his following conversation with Erin Shanley and Colman Keane.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota talking with two of my favorite people from Fort Collins. We've got Glen Akins who was on the technical side of a citizen led campaign to push for municipal broadband, he also has a deep background with cable networks. Welcome back to the show, Glen.
Glen Akins: Hi, Chris. Thanks for letting me be here today.
Christopher Mitchell: We also have Colin Garfield who was the lead of the citizen campaign, was the founder of Broadband and Beers, and now is sitting in front of a Southpark background as we're talking on a crystal clear fiber connection that I'm drooling over. Welcome back, Colin.
Colin Garfield: Hey, Chris. It's a pleasure to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Let me start with you, Colin. Just tell me the 30 second version of the citizen campaign. Then, Glen, tell me what he forgot.
Colin Garfield: Rewinding, we initially started this back in 2016 on the citizen community for the city of Fort Collins. Eventually, Glen and I ended up forming a small group to take on the campaign itself for the November of 2017 election in Fort Collins. Thankfully, the voters passed that measure to allow the city of Fort Collins to actually get into the business providing broadband. Here we are two years later and I actually have the service now, so things are amazing.
Christopher Mitchell: That was a slight dig at Glen for those of you who aren't aware and following us on the blogs. Glen is waiting for the service.
Glen Akins: I keep seeing the equipment and the construction outside, but it's not here yet.
Christopher Mitchell: Glen, what else should we know about that campaign?
Glen Akins: I think the biggest thing is that we ended up winning the campaign 57 to 43. This was after we spent about 15 thousand dollars on our campaign and Comcast spent 901 thousand dollars against us. The biggest ballot issue in Fort Collins history even beating out some of the ballot issues on fracking and the oil and gas industry.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and those were big ones. Those were record setters themselves, I'm sure. There's so many things to talk about. I want to note that Fort Collins is a city that we would not have considered as lacking in decent broadband. It is a large city well north of the Denver metro. A thriving city covered in Comcast, DOCSIS 3.1 I'm guessing, very high quality cable network. As good as it gets frankly. The CenturyLink is a competitor that has some fiber to the home, even did back in the time of this campaign. Let me ask you, Glen, to start just briefly. Why was it important that Fort Collins get a better connection?
Glen Akins: I think a lot of the need was for faster upstream speeds. Comcast is using a DOCSIS 3.1 plant, but it's only DOCSIS 3.1 in the downstream. In the upstream, they're still only using DOCSIS 3.0 and have pretty limited bandwidth on the upstream. Then, CenturyLink had fiber, but they had no interest in expanding their fiber footprint within the city. I think that as we've all become aware in the past month or two, having a fast upstream connection is highly desirable and needed for the work at home situation that's now so common.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, especially in a city like Fort Collins. I mean, it's not like some other city that's just covered in ... I was going to say beach bums, but ski bums, and outdoor enthusiasts. Fort Collins is a very ... has a workforce that I think is much more knowledge workers than many other places. This is particularly relevant. May even have some beach bums who got lost. I don't know.
Glen Akins: It's a long ways home.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, as we're here now more than three years later, why do you think it's still relevant? For people who aren't aware, the city's been building out for a little while, less than a year. It's a large city, it's going to take some time. With the benefit of hindsight, why were you right all those years ago?
Colin Garfield: We were so under the thumb of really one provider. CenturyLink exists, but they're not much of a player to be fair. Our future was tied to one company in terms of output, input, especially since we're a college city, we have a lot of tech industry here. Really, their future was really influencing our future, which to me just is bad business. It's not fair to residents, it's not fair to the city itself. Realize that in order to elevate and to progress our city into the next several decades, we're going to need to really outfit our entire infrastructure all over again. Thankfully, we had the right pieces in play, we own our electrical grid, we own all of our utilities, so we had the perfect storm already built prior to the election. I think in order to get Fort Collins to graduate to the next level, this is what it took.
Christopher Mitchell: Glen, do you have any additional reactions to again patting yourselves on the back, how you correctly foresaw that this was important and necessary?
Glen Akins: Not really, but I'd worked from home for almost 20 years before I changed jobs last year. It was pretty apparent back then that there were some things that were lacking that Comcast could do better and that possibly Fort Collins could to better itself.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I didn't note is that you have multiple patents in cable networking, I guess. I'm going to ask you a question and I just want to make it clear that you're very qualified to answer this.
Glen Akins: We'll see.
Christopher Mitchell: Comcast is still installing coaxial cable into new developments in the area. Is that surprising to you?
Glen Akins: It's very surprising to me. I would think that they would be deploying fiber and just running RF over glass. One of the big issues with deploying fiber for Comcast is it doesn't fit into their existing marketing strategies, it doesn't fit into their existing billing systems, so it's very difficult for them to do a G-PON network or an XG-PON network. One of the traditional telephone company industry standards, they want to do DOCSIS 3.1 and using RF over glass, they could do DOCSIS 3.1 on fiber. Then, migrate to G-PON at a later point in time. I'm still shocked they're putting coax in the ground versus fiber and running RF over glass.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, I'm curious. As someone who's using the fiber now, has transitioned away from Comcast I'm guessing, how is your life better? What am I going to look forward to in a few years when I finally get something similar?
Colin Garfield: Well, I'm streaming an absurd amount of things simultaneously, which is always exciting. No down times, no issues with customer service, the fact that I'm not paying money to Philadelphia's headquarters, it's saying in Fort Collins, which is a big deal to me as a local champion, and to be fair not everyone is really going to stress full gig speed no matter how hard they try, but the fact that I never have to worry about upload or download again is beautiful. It's just really exciting to know that Glen and I contributed so much to this multiple years ago. Now, we're actually able to reify that dream and see the results of it.
Glen Akins: It's not just Fort Collins, it's Loveland too. We have two communities in the Northern Colorado area that we were able to help lead and help guide them towards this solution. It's pretty exciting to see construction going on both here where I live as well as in Loveland where I work.
Christopher Mitchell: Do you bike over there to check it out now?
Glen Akins: I actually rode my bike down to Loveland for the first time about two or three weeks ago. It was pretty cool seeing one of the neighborhoods where they're actually pulling conduit into the neighborhood now.
Christopher Mitchell: That's great. One of the things that I've really appreciated and that we'll link to is, Glen, you have done a very detailed explanation of everything that goes into building one of these networks. We can't go through it all, you have a lot of pictures that are really helpful for people to get a sense of what's included. Was there anything there that surprised you or that you think is worth noting?
Glen Akins: The most fascinating thing for me as an engineer was learning how the directional boring equipment worked because you see this giant machine that gets parked on your front lawn and they just start putting piece of pipe after piece of pipe down into this hole. Somewhere halfway around the block, this snake emerges from the ground. It's like it wasn't a straight shot and they must have hit some different soil trains that could stear the bit somehow, so how are they doing this? I really went to great lengths to try to explain the whole entire drilling process and the horizontal boring in great detail. I think that was the biggest surprise, learning how this giant ditch witch machine worked.
Christopher Mitchell: You got to witness some of the areas in which it didn't work out very well, where it hit something. That's not uncommon, I'm guessing, but it's a pain.
Glen Akins: Yes. I think there have been two or three power outages. One, I personally experienced. Down at the end of my street, they hit a power line, knocked the power out in my neighborhood, and maybe a surrounding neighborhood or two. My poor little BeagleBone Black board that was running for five years lost its uptime record.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, wow. If that uptime record was important to you, maybe a longer UPS?
Glen Akins: The thing is we have almost 99, 98 percent underground utilities in this community, so honestly the power hasn't gone off for over a decade, maybe 15 years, so I really didn't see the need for a UPS.
Christopher Mitchell: That makes sense. In one of the podcasts we did about Fort Collins, I talk with Wade Troxell. Is he still the mayor?
Glen Akins: He's still the mayor.
Christopher Mitchell: It was amazing because I had said that I loved the decision that you had made in Fort Collins that I was there and it took me a little while to realize one of the reasons that everything was so beautiful is that there was no aerial lines between me and the mountains. I could just see it everywhere I went. To learn that his father was one of the people that made that decision 50 years ago is remarkable and shows history of good leadership there.
Colin Garfield: Yes, that was a brilliant stroke that ended up paying dividends half a century later. It's incredible.
Glen Akins: Yes, we've been through multiple forest fires and multiple floods without the power going off during any of them.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm guessing that developed some faith that the city knows what it's doing when it comes to infrastructure then.
Colin Garfield: Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, I'm curious if there's anything about the install process that you found noteworthy, anything that may have taken you by surprise?
Colin Garfield: I don't know if there was anything that took me by surprise, but it was such a great educational opportunity to see the mechanical bits and the gooey bits of all of this. Similar to what Glen said, I don't have the in depth background that he does, so this was much more new to me than it was to him. Just to see the step one of flagging the yards for all utilities, up to the point of actually trenching, boring, and mounting the box onto the wall. The entire process to me was just such a great opportunity to learn, to see it, to be able to extend that knowledge to other residents as well is also really important to us.
Christopher Mitchell: Do you run cat 5E or cat 6 cabling around you house to take advantage of it? Are you using some kind of advanced wifi?
Colin Garfield: I did the unnecessary cat 7 just I could and it was the same price.
Christopher Mitchell: I didn't even know there was cat 7.
Colin Garfield: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: I guess I'm just going to admit to losing geek credibility.
Colin Garfield: I just wired cat 7 through probably half the house including outside. Then, I'm doing a beacon point with wifi 6 currently.
Christopher Mitchell: Did you crimp your own cables then?
Colin Garfield: No. Purchased them pre crimped. I am not that capable.
Christopher Mitchell: It's not a matter of being capable, it's a matter of being patient.
Colin Garfield: I actually had Glen come over one of the days. One of our original options for getting the house rewired, he took a stab at it. He came over and tried to help me do different parts of it, that was an interesting fun activity for an hour or two until we realized it wasn't going to work out.
Glen Akins: Colin's home was constructed with cat 5E between several of the rooms and the basement. We realized about halfway into the process the cat 5E ran from his front room where the ONT was, down to the basement, but there was not a piece of cat 5E for the basement upstairs where his office was located and Colin didn't want me drilling any holes I his walls. I was more than willing to.
Colin Garfield: Yes, well I'm just thinking about the number of holes that I've fixed up and closed back in with cat 5E and just thinking, "Cat 7 probably would have made sense."
Glen Akins: Hey, it's cheap now.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, I want to ask you about any sort of challenges that you've seen, things that are going to be improved upon we hope. The other question that popped into my head was, I'm wondering, how much did you annoy the people who were installing your house?
Colin Garfield: We'll start with the issues part. I didn't see too many issues to be fair. There was one particular instance where they had to pull a late permit in order to do the municipal boring underneath the right away. Unfortunately, that ended up delaying my install by two weeks, but we've since contacted them. They've remind that within their process to make sure that's addressed beforehand so it doesn't actually create a delay.
Christopher Mitchell: It's worth nothing that's a reminder that there's this sense that the city gets favorable treatment when it's building something, but this is a different department. The permitting department doesn't give a free pass to others, it may in fact actually be more difficult to work with out of a sense of rivalry in some ways. That's an interesting story.
Colin Garfield: I mean, to be fair a lot of it was really clean. One of the senior techs actually came out and had to correct something on my wall. It was initially mounted crooked and the gentleman came out about a week later to make sure it was fixed. He was just extremely pleasant to deal with. He had a ton of knowledge. Really, just excited to do the job. It was a really positive experience to not only work with the contractors, but also the full time employees too.
Christopher Mitchell: Did they enjoy working with you as much as you did with them?
Colin Garfield: I don't want to speak for them. I know that Glen and I are these extreme outliers in Fort Collins. It's not fair to ... I don't think anyone else is buying in the same boat as we are with this. They were accommodating, I'll put it that way.
Glen Akins: I think a lot of the drilling crews are pretty excited when they pull up to a neighborhood and people come running out of their houses saying, "Hi. Thanks for doing this, we can't wait until we can get service." I think the drilling crews are really excited. I mean, I don't know what their normal jobs are like or their normal contracts are like, but I imagine if you're putting in a piece of fiber along I25 or a piece of conduit along I25, you're not going to have people coming out and wanting to know about the process or saying thank you. You get deep into one of these neighborhoods in Fort Collins and you pull a piece of conduit out, you're a hero.
Christopher Mitchell: That's great. I'm reminded of ... I was visiting utility in Tennessee. They were talking about their image in the community. They said that they're very popular. In some ways, I got the impression too popular because of the familiarity where someone would say it's great to see you, you're doing some work on the street on the electrical lines, do you want a beer? You don't want your crews to be getting that opportunity. I'm curious what you've seen from either Comcast or CenturyLink in terms of competitive response to the network.
Glen Akins: I can tell you what I've seen. I'm a Comcast business class subscriber and have been for quite some time. I get a letter, not a flyer, but an actual envelope you have to open up and everything about once every two, three months now just saying, "Give us a call so we can reevaluate what your business needs are," which is funny since it's just working from home. On the CenturyLink's side of things, they really started ramping up their spam emails until I unsubscribed. "Give us a call and we'll come install last decade's DSL service at your house."
Christopher Mitchell: Right, we guarantee you the same price, except maybe we'll raise it along the way.
Glen Akins: And, your speeds may not go anywhere either. The other thing I've seen from CenturyLink though is they did go into neighborhoods that still have aerial connections and telephone poles. They installed some aerial fiber. One of the things that's remarkable about that is the technician's out on the pol, my buddy runs out, and says, when can I get service? The technician said two weeks. Sure enough two weeks later, service was available. That was pretty remarkable to see CenturyLink stepping up to that plate.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I've heard and I think we've talked about this before with Travis Carter here in Minneapolis, you can see how many customers they have on the fiber then by just driving down the allies and looking up in the air where that happens. Where they face competitive fiber, you don't often see a lot of people going with the CenturyLink option, it feels like.
Glen Akins: I think that's really true, I think a lot of the folks in Fort Collins that are going with CenturyLink DSL, they're only doing it out of spite for Comcast or it's their only option to be fair.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, have you seen anything from Comcast or CenturyLink on your part? Are they trying to woo you back?
Colin Garfield: Yes. They're blanketing the entire city. Really, they have the overhead to do so, so for me personally though I probably received seven, eight flyers within two months. At one point, it was like 300 megabits per second. Now, it's like 400. Now, we're going to offer you 500, an iPhone 250 dollar credit, and all sorts of bells and whistles. It certainly was coincidence given that my install date was in February and they were blanketing my particular residence in the same month. I don't think they actually knew, but they're stepping up their game. To be fair, I think this is the first time I've seen them try before. Really, kudos to them for attempting to retain that market share. We've seen lots of blanketing all over. Actually, there was a point last summer, our biggest festival in Fort Collins, they actually purchased exclusive rights to be the only ISV to provide support for that particular festival and actually lost connection out of it by throwing a ton of cash at it. That's just another instance as to what they're doing. It's not just the small game going in and individual houses, but they're actually performing larger city wide efforts as well.
Glen Akins: They bought up all the bus stop benches and put the best gigabit in the state or something to that effect on them, which is hilarious.
Christopher Mitchell: As technical people, you have to enjoy it.
Glen Akins: Yes, it's like, okay. You maybe have a 35 megabit per second up streaming, you're limited to one terabyte of data, which is like two hours, 11 minutes or something downloads before you're out of data for the month.
Christopher Mitchell: Something that I find entertaining, I'm a Comcast customer and my bill increased when my promotion ended. I called them and they actually gave me what I would consider to be a good deal. I'm paying 90 dollars a month, getting a gigabit down, and 35 megabits up, which is better than my previous 300 down and 10 up. The funny thing is my speed test on my down stream have actually gone down since them. I'm down on like 200 megabits per second, but my upstream is like 40 and I'll take that deal any day. I'm quite happy with that.
Glen Akins: If you lived in Fort Collins, that bill would only be 70 dollars a month.
Christopher Mitchell: Just rub it in, Glen. See how we edit this.
Glen Akins: That's the Comcast rate. If you got service from the city, it'd only be 60 bucks a month.
Christopher Mitchell: Even better, yes.
Colin Garfield: I went as far as actually renting a Comcast router for one month just so I could turn it back into them and film it, which is completely necessary.
Glen Akins: Colin made his first TikTok video.
Colin Garfield: I made my first TikTok video doing it, which I feel really old now. It was exciting to turn in their 13 dollar a month router combo just so I can get it on film.
Christopher Mitchell: Glen, I want to ask you about StarLink. Totally unrelated, but just because you're an engineer who's followed this sort of thing. I was down on low Earth orbit satellites and I made a claim that I thought that the ... I think the one that you started replying to me on was the likely expensive and difficult tracking that you would need on the ground in order to be able to receive StarLink signals. You basically said, "Chris, you don't know what you're talking about." Now, you're my expert on StarLink.
Glen Akins: Oh, boy.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious. Is this something? As an independent engineer when you hear the hype about it, what's your reaction? What are you expecting when it goes live?
Glen Akins: I don't want to butcher this quote because I think this is the best quote that I've heard about service. "StarLink is for people who wish they could hate Comcast." If you already have Comcast, it's probably not going to be competitive and it's probably not going to be what you're looking for. They have a limited amount of bandwidth per city just because of the architecture. It would be very easy for a single node in Comcast world to completely overwhelm the entire bandwidth for an entire city that's available in SpotLink. Where I think you're going to see SpotLink heaviest use and their best market is going to be areas that otherwise can't get cable or fiber. If you're stuck on DSL, if you're in a rural area where you're only able to get Viasat, or if you have a boat or a mobile home that's moving around, I think those are going to be the target markets. Rural areas, areas where you only get DSL, and mobile applications. By mobile, I'm not talking mobile phone, I'm talking someplace where you can install something about the size of a pizza box that has a clear view of the sky.
Christopher Mitchell: Probably, a good chunk of power.
Glen Akins: A good chunk of power. It's very heavy on the DSP. That phase where antenna's got a lot of signal processing to do to stear the beam towards the satellite on both the receive and transmit sides.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I said recently to a reporter is I would expect someone who's a big stock trader in Northern Wisconsin, it's going to be great for them. If he has 100 neighbors in the county that all want it too, may not work for all of them. What will the numbers start to look like when you'll overwhelm that local availability, do you think?
Glen Akins: I'm not sure. They have five gigabits per second per spot beam. They have four spot beams per satellite, so they have 20 gigabits per second available per satellite. In contrast, a signal G-PON node has two and a half gigabits per second available on the downstream and a Comcast node has about two gigabits per second. That G-PON is served between 32 houses, that Comcast node is probably shared between 100 to 500 houses, and now you have this 20 gigabits on this satellite that's maybe shared over a city the size of Fort Collins that has 166 thousand residents and 66 thousand households. I just don't think the StarLink model works. However, if you are a stock trader and you really absolutely need the 50 percent lower latency of the speed of light in air versus the speed of light in a glass fiber, StarLink might be worth paying a premium for versus the fiber connection. I'm sure that Elon Musk has realized that there is a premium market there for people who really need ultra low latency, particularly the financial traders.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think he may have been better off if he had launched it six months earlier because there's a lot of people who would like to be trading their stocks far away from a big city right now.
Glen Akins: It is much faster to go in the air between New York and Chicago than it is over a piece of fiber. That's for certain.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, the book the Flash Boys by Michael Lewis covers that and discusses how they built a chain of microwave towers. That was worked it because it shaved a few milliseconds off. People always say that there's nothing faster than the speed of light. While that's true, speed of light does better in a vacuum than it does in air. In air, it does better than in glass. These things add up over distances.
Glen Akins: Oddly enough, the speed of light in copper, I guess how fast the electrons are capable of propagating signal in copper and the speed of light in a piece of glass fiber are about the same, two thirds the speed of light. You really don't get a huge latency advantage in terms of the time on the wire between fiber and copper, but you do get some latency advantages on the processing electronics.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, especially if you're going halfway around the Earth or even a quarter.
Glen Akins: Exactly. You don't need all these amps and demodulate and remodulate every so often with fiber and coax
Christopher Mitchell: I'm just going to pretend that I know how all that works. Colin, I'm just curious. What's happening with Broadband and Beers? He said knowing that you and I have failed accordingly in promoting it.
Colin Garfield: I'm currently trying to get my trademark passed for it with the patent office. There's been a couple hangups that I'm trying to clear up, but I'm on the road to doing so. I have been talking to a few smaller communities the last three or four months just to introduce myself. They have recently passed an opt out of SB152, which is a bill in Colorado, which forbids municipalities from engaging in the telecom business unless you opt out at the voter level. A few smaller cities across the front range have recently opted out, so we're having some conversations. It's getting the ropes about how to get started, the discussions you need to have with local employees, politicians, and the community as well. While the name Broadband and Beers is still trying to get through the trademark part and the whole ramp up part, we still are offering discussion points with members across different communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Good deal. Well, it's been great talking with you two. I think we'll be checking in again soon. This has been a focus on just the big changes, but I know that both of you have been chronicling this. Both of you take a serious ownership in this. We're going to talk again about some of the things that have been challenges and how you're working through them with the city and with utility. I look forward to catching up again soon.
Colin Garfield: Absolutely. Thank you, Chris.
Glen Akins: Thank you, Chris.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Colin Garfield and Glen Akins. Now, we're turning to a conversation with Colman Keane, broadband executive director for Connexion, and Erin Shanley who is Connexion's broadband marketing manager. Erin and Colman talk about some of the things that make Connexion different from other municipal networks including that they face market competition from Comcast and CenturyLink, and that the network will be built entirely underground. Erin and Colman tell Christopher about the strong local support for the network and how they work to stay engaged with the community while being sensitive to the fact that some neighborhoods won't be connected right away. As the network expands, they hope to see new businesses and new residents moving into the city. Here's Christopher talking with Erin Shanley and Colman Keane of Connexion.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm joined by two folks from Connexion, the Fort Collins municipal broadband network. One of them I've had on the show a few times before, Colman Keane, broadband executive director. Welcome back.
Colman Keane: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: It's good to have you back, Colman. You have given us the lowdown on Chattanooga several times over the years, I think. We also have Erin Shanley, the broadband marketing manager for Connexion. Welcome to the show.
Erin Shanley: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: It's great to have both of you here. I guess, I would love to start off with just a little bit of the history that Colman and I have. You spent a lot of years with Chattanooga because you're one of the first people I met in Chattanooga. Tell me, what is different now that you are doing this yourself?
Colman Keane: One is that there are a lot of differences between Fort Collin's Connexion and EPV in Chattanooga. One of the primaries is that EPV has an independent board of directors from the city. Fort Collins Connexion is much more closely aligned with city government than the EVP deployment was. That brings opportunities and challenges with it. I know that we have talked about this before with EPV that one of the key factors for success in the deployment is having your culture right as you start out. One of the challenges that you always run into is that you've got a startup organization with your broadband deployment basically launching inside of a big potential bureaucratic utility and/or city government. Those are some interesting things to work through.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure they are. Erin, I'm curious about your background. What were you doing before you got hooked up with this crew?
Erin Shanley: Well, prior to coming on board with Connexion, I was working for a small wireless Internet provider out of Inglewood, Colorado. They were providing wireless broadband to really rural areas, so areas where you could not get wired service in. Prior to that, I was working out in California for Cox Communications. I was working for one of the big behemoths. I like to say that I've worked for the little guy and I've worked for the big guy. It gave me a really good perspective coming into this new role.
Christopher Mitchell: You found Goldilocks, I hope.
Erin Shanley: Yes, absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: I think one of the fascinating things about Connexion is that you are one of the biggest municipal fiber networks moving forward into one of the more mature markets. I'm curious. Colman, if you want to start, what is different for Connexion than it was for other municipal builds historically and certainly Chattanooga perhaps?
Colman Keane: As you mentioned, this is a very competitive marketplace. We're competing against Comcast and CenturyLink, two large providers. Then, one of the key differences for Connexion compared to Chattanooga is this is 100 percent underground build. That brings its own challenges in trying to deploy a broadband system quickly. Having to basically put it all and delploy.That makes the city a beautiful place to be, but you have a higher standard on what the aesthetics look like as you roll out your network. We've gone actually a little bit further with some of the things that we're trying to do compared to what some of the competition and even some of our other utilities have done, we're trying to make everything flush to grade. We have no above ground, stools or any of those types of things. Everything that we have is in a vault below grade in our environment. Our network is going to look really nice from an aesthetic point of view once it's finally complete.
Christopher Mitchell: Let me do a quick followup before I come back to ask you what's different, Erin. Colman, has that kicked the cost up a lot and put more pressure on you then? Are there other things going on in Fort Collins that allow you to keep the cost more reasonable.
Colman Keane: It does add more cost. Your cost can swing widely depending on what you run into. Two months ago, we ran into a neighborhood that was solid rock. Boring though that is way different than basically trying to go through some nice loamy soil. There are challenges along those lines. You have to watch your cost closely. We are trying to make use of whatever available conduit we can find and trying to find the path of least resistance in getting our fiber into the ground. We are watching that diligently and trying to figure out the best way to get it in. We're looking at some alternate build methodology including using the sewer pipes, micro trenching, and those types of stuff in limited areas. We're basically trying to broaden our toolbox, keep an eye on where we're going, and what our costs are running.
Christopher Mitchell: Erin, I'm curious. What's different in ... I was going to say 2020. You'd probably say we're in a pandemic. What else is different?
Erin Shanley: It's interesting. Fort Collins has such a passionate community and really active residents and businesses. It's really making sure that a lot of communication is happening with the people who supported this initiate. You also have a very competitive marketplace. I'm sure as you're aware almost a million dollars were spent to fight this initiative initially. You're finding a balance, we're trying to make sure that we're really addressing and acknowledging customer questions, concerns, interests, there's so much excitement. People really want to know. The biggest question I get on a daily basis is, when's it coming to my neighborhood? When am I going to get it? Also, balancing that information with ensuring that we're not giving away too much information to the competitors. Comcast and CenturyLink definitely have a big foothold in this community. Whether or not they're actually providing adequate service is another question, but they are there and they want to maintain that. There's finding that balance between making sure you have a really informed community, but also being very fiscally responsible and ensuring that from a competitive standpoint, you're being very cautious and keeping things at least in the initial stages really close to the chest. As we get into more of the community, we are going to be able to share a lot more information with residents.
Christopher Mitchell: Can you just tell me a little bit more about that? I'm curious. For instance, you have several neighborhoods that are already online. Is it also a challenge in terms of when you take out marketing and ways that aren't just door hangers and things like that? In part, I'm guessing because people also will get annoyed if they're not going to get it for three years and they're seeing billboards everywhere about it.
Erin Shanley: That's absolutely a really big problem from a marketing standpoint. One, I'm not allowed to do billboards. We don't love billboards in Fort Collins.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, of course. I should say in a previous discussion in a podcast with Mayor Troxell, I did comment that I didn't notice the lack of utility poles for a while. I didn't notice the lack of billboards obviously because I didn't mention that, but it is different. Fort Collins is just so much more beautiful than other beautiful places I've been.
Erin Shanley: It's absolutely gorgeous. They work really hard to maintain that. There are very limited billboards. I think ideally they'd love to get rid of them entirely. We have very few. It's one of those things where from a marketing standpoint, you want to be able to really balance communicating out, creating that buzz, and that excitement for the community. At the same time, there is someone who's going to be last, which means two or three years until they get their service. We want to be really cognizant and sensitive about marketing out to areas before they're ready. It's a mix of really doing some fun community awareness, but at the same time holding back in certain areas where we know right now those neighborhoods aren't necessarily going to get service right away.
Christopher Mitchell: Colman, you're not new to dealing with Comcast. I'm curious if there's any different challenges that you're facing now with Comcast that you didn't deal with before.
Colman Keane: They're using the same toolbox, but Comcast is very much more engaged and more on top of it here than they were in Chattanooga. They show up at every council meeting, all of those kind of things, talking to the mayor on a regular basis. They definitely have upped their game since EPV launched years ago. It's still the same thing, knocking on doors, giving gift cards, the same type of sales tactics, but overall they're just much more focused.
Christopher Mitchell: I understand that iPhones are being distributed as well now.
Colman Keane: They are leveraging their new wireless deployment also to help give them an edge in that. Yes, they're pulling everything out.
Christopher Mitchell: Are there any other challenges you can flag for us, particularly those that other communities that are trying to figure out how they might do something like this should be aware of?
Colman Keane: I will say that going back to what I had mentioned earlier, the cultural issues that you run into when you do a startup inside a larger organization. One thing that we had done is last year we actually brought on a position that we call our integrator. It's to help with those cultural differences between the two organizations. We actually have somebody that, that's their focused job right now, to help with that.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad you've raised that twice. I want to just say that this is ... you may have heard it, Colman. I did 70 minutes talking with Harold De Priest about Chattanooga. We spent a lot of time talking about culture because I do think that's way under appreciated for how everything else fits together in the end.
Colman Keane: Yes. One of the things you really run into is startups have to be nimble and make fast decisions. Sometimes, with limited information. Your municipals and utilities just are not used to working in that kind of a node. Basically, it brings some angst to them. It's not necessarily going to be warranted, but if you have to get something deployed and you're in a competitive marketplace, you have to be willing to take those risks and move forward faster.
Christopher Mitchell: Erin, we've talked a bit about some of the challenges already. I don't want to spend more time on that. Let me ask you. What are you seeing in terms of this network and how people are responding to it? Are more people coming into the city limits?Are real estate decisions being changed? What's happening?
Erin Shanley: We've definitely had realtors who have reached out to us, particularly they're very excited about the connection and how that will help with their property for sure. I think we've had a tremendous response. From a social media standpoint, again as I've mentioned people are super excited about this product. I think having additional choice is so important. It's already impacting the local pricing and quality of service that the incumbents are providing people. You look at it now, what's happening now, and what people are needing now. Then, what's going to be in three years, in five years, in 10 years? Our goal, absolutely we want to be attracting new businesses to Fort Collins. There's a lot of apartments and new homes that are being built. We're making sure that Connexion is getting in there early on in the construction phase so that it's ready and poised to go for the residents when they're available there.
Erin Shanley: I see just so much tremendous opportunity. We really do talk about that we're future proofing Fort Collins so that we're setting up for success now, but 10 years from now, 15 years from now, all we're going to have to do is swap the latest technology, but the network will be there, and the network will be exactly the quality that people need. It's part of why we set up the network the way we did and it's capabilities. We're offering up to 10 gigabits now, but that's not even close to what our network can do. In the future, we're recalling poised to support those residents and businesses coming into Fort Collins.
Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. I'm curious if there's any difference in the legal environment. You and I have talked before about some of the restrictions Tennessee law puts. Colorado law puts a front end restriction, but I think mostly then lets you act like other businesses would. What is it like in Colorado?
Colman Keane: You pretty much nailed it right there. There is ... you have to get your SB 152 overturned in order for municipals to go into the broadband business. There are some difference between how Fort Collins operates and how EPV operates. It goes back to being that independent board. When you're an independent board, you have a lot more control over purchasing decisions, how you do things, your legal structure, that kind of stuff. Once you're inside the municipal, how you write your contracts, that type of stuff is a little different than if you were an independent board. It's not substantially different. There's no real you know there that you can't operate or move forward. It just makes it a little bit easier if you are operating as an independent board.
Christopher Mitchell: I just have to ask you this. Isn't it better being in a place that gets a lot of snow?
Colman Keane: You asked earlier on, what's the differences between EPV and Fort Collins Connexion? I will say being an underground system and having one of the worst winters that we've had I Fort Collins history, frozen ground was something I've never had to deal with before.
Christopher Mitchell: Up here, we've had a couple of real late springs and early winters. Construction season I think used to be eight or nine months, it's been six or seven some of these times. It can be tough.
Colman Keane: It primarily impacted our installs. I found out the magic of what a north facing house means.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I may just say Chattanooga is lovely. If they would ever get any winter, I would be spending a lot more time down there. Let me ask you as we finish up both you, Colman, first and then Erin. Is there anything else? I always like to get a sense in particular. What really makes you enthusiastic about getting up and staying home to go to work?
Colman Keane: One thing I've learned about myself over the years is I am happier when I feel like I'm doing a public good. I absolutely feel that broadband deployments for communities like Fort Collins is doing a public good. Erin mentioned earlier, this is future proofing the city, it's providing ubiquitous coverage for everybody. There are no winners and losers, everybody has the same access. I just think that's vital for a community and vital for our country longterm.
Christopher Mitchell: Erin.
Erin Shanley: I definitely have to echo Colman's sentiment. Being a part of something where we are bringing fair and equitable Internet to everyone in the city regardless of where you live, regardless of how big your house is, or how much money you make, you will get the same gigabit speed Internet that everyone else does. No tricks, no games. That to me as a marketer and as someone who's worked in telecommunications, it's a dream because it's something that we're giving back to the community and I do really feel strongly and passionately about that.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, thank you both so much.
Erin Shanley: Thank you.
Colman Keane: Thank you, Chris.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Erin Shanley and Colman Keane of Fort Collins Connexion preceded by a conversation with Glen Akins and Colin Garfield. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter, ILSR.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Husby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 408 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.