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Connecting During a Pandemic With US Internet - Community Broadband Bits Episode 400
Not even a pandemic can stop this week's guest, US Internet CEO Travis Carter, from finding ways to bring better connectivity to his company's subscribers and the community.
For the 400th episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher interviewed Travis (from six feet away) at the US Internet office outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. The pair discuss how the ISP is responding to the crisis, including by limiting home installs and opening up access to its public Wi-Fi network. As people transition to remote work, online education, and digital entertainment, Travis explains how the network is experiencing increased interest from new customers and greater demand from current subscribers.
Christopher and Travis also talk about US Internet's pilot project in low-income housing and how the ISP is trying to determine what barriers prevent households from signing up for the service. Travis describes some of the funding challenges he faces as he expands the network throughout the city and how US Internet differentiates itself in terms of reliability. Before closing the interview, he shares his disappointing experience with mobile connectivity during a big roadtrip he took last summer, arguing that wireless networks can never replace fiber.
Travis was previously a guest on Community Broadband Bits episodes 359 - An Insider's Perspective on Urban Fiber Deployment, 301 - Wireless and Wired; US Internet Knows Both, and 194 - ISP US Internet Gets More Respect Than Rodney Dangerfield.
This show is 34 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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.
Travis Carter: The priority really is just keep our customers connected, keep them running, keep our employees safe, make sure they're getting paid so we can navigate through this together.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 400 of the community broadband bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, the Communications Manager. We've interviewed Travis Carter several times before, but never in the middle of a pandemic. Travis is the CEO of US Internet, a locally owned Internet access company here in Minneapolis. Travis intends to build out the USI fiber optic network across the city and while the coronavirus may have slowed down construction, it has uninterrupted service for subscribers. In this interview, Travis and Christopher will discuss what it's like operating his company during a national crisis and while social distancing impacts operations. He also talks about how as more people are working from home and schools are shut down, traffic is impacting demands on the network. Now here's Christopher talking with Travis Carter from US Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the community broadband bits podcast. I'm here with Travis Carter in his office at the US Internet world headquarters.
Travis Carter: World headquarters
Christopher Mitchell: Do you call us Minneapolis? You know I am in Minneapolis.
Travis Carter: Because nobody ever knows where Minnetonka or Minnesota is.
Christopher Mitchell: So we are recording, we'll become episode 400.
Travis Carter: I miss 300 but now I got 400.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right.
Travis Carter: Well done.
Christopher Mitchell: And, just so you know, so Lisa Gonzalez, the person who's edited more than 400 of these podcasts who's done immeasurable amount of work, she was supposed to be 400 but this is too topical and Lisa understands that once again, I'll just be training her.
Travis Carter: Sorry Lisa, how about 500 for her, then she's committed for two more years.
Christopher Mitchell: Well she's leaving. I guess you didn't see the news.
Travis Carter: No, sorry Lisa. Now I feel bad.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Actually, as we were talking today it was her last day. And so if people want to see what happens when a rock leaves an office, but Travis, you and I can, we can barely see each other. We're sitting so far apart in your office.
Travis Carter: We're socially distanced correctly I believe.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I don't say that to make fun of it. It is important and your office is pretty much empty, but I wanted to talk about what it's like to be running a company right now. So we're going to talk about a number of other things including your motor home extravaganza, adventure-
Travis Carter: Cool.
Christopher Mitchell: ... on mobile wireless. But let's just start over this. So what is happening with USI right now that is different than it would normally be in the middle of March?
Travis Carter: Well as you can see looking around the office, all the doors are shut. There's nobody here. Fortunately, for us being in the Internet business, we have a pretty good set of systems and resources. So most of our folks are working from home. We do have one or two people that are working in our data center just to make sure that that's secure and people are able to come in and out and we do have a small skeleton staff of people working in the field doing break fix on our network to keep things up and running. Otherwise, the vast majority of them are working from home. We're using Google Hangouts, we're using our Voice over IP system to have daily calls monitoring the news and just trying to make sure everyone's happy and healthy.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, even your customer service representatives, they don't have to be here.
Travis Carter: Correct. Vast majority of them are at home and they're able to VPN in get on the Voice over IP system and do their job and be connected to all the resources remotely.
Christopher Mitchell: Do you have people who would ordinarily be working who are not working right now?
Travis Carter: Yep. So when a new home or a new business signs up, we actually deploy people out there to run fiber cables or devices inside of the homes. Those people are on hiatus right now.
Christopher Mitchell: And so, as a small business owner, I'm just curious, how do you deal with that? In terms of just not knowing when you can bring them back and what you can do for them?
Travis Carter: Well, the commitment that I've made to our people is they're going to continue to be getting paid, they're going to continue to get all of their benefits as long as we possibly can, which in our game or in our business, I'm anticipating, depending it moves day to day, but it should be till the end of this pandemic. So I've really tried to reinforce with our staff and our people that we're here for them and we're not doing like unfortunately a lot of other people had to do layoffs and things like that. They're here and we're going to utilize their abilities as needed to keep things going for our customers.
Christopher Mitchell: So the Savage irony is that last year at this time we weren't even close to being done with snow. The ground was frozen. I can only imagine you're looking at the window and seeing this Minnesota where we appear to be having an early spring where if we didn't have a pandemic you'd probably be getting pretty busy pretty soon.
Travis Carter: We've waited for this year for four years, right? In Minnesota, we have the four seasons as we like to talk about. So we've been waiting for an early spring and it shut us basically right down about a week and a half, two weeks ago. So yeah, we would be out and running in full force. The good news is a traditional construction year for us starts April 15th. So depending on ... what is today? The 20th of March, depending on what happens now this is a volatile situation and changes every day. So maybe by the time this podcast comes out it'll be different. But as of right now, if the 14 days or 21 days people are talking about, we maybe won't miss much of the season.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's a certainly a best case scenario.
Travis Carter: Best case for us. But for us, that's not really the priority right now. The priority really is just keep our customers connected, keep them running, keep our employees safe, make sure they're getting paid. So we can navigate through this together.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, the other savage irony we've got multiple ones her, is that at a time in which you can really install new customers, what is the demand for your services looking at?
Travis Carter: It's at an all time high, it's three to four times our normal unloading of customers. Now, fortunately for us, we've got a tremendous amount of apartment buildings or what we affectionately call MDUs multi-dwelling units already pre-wired. So the vast majority of people can just plug into the jack and they're on. And so we've had real big uptake in our MDU customer base. But single family homes are through the roof as well, and a lot of them are disappointed that we're not going to be able to get them hooked up right away. But I'm sorry, it's not worth the bigger risk right now. We will happily hook you up when this is behind us.
Christopher Mitchell: What does the demand of your existing customers look like?
Travis Carter: The way we always do our network design is for Sunday night and Monday night. These are the busiest times for Internet traffic, streaming, peering, all the different types of stuff that we have. And so the average day now looks like a Sunday night. So if you take our network and you break it into the core network and these are the pieces that connect to Netflix and all the different types of services, we try to run at about a 10% utilization. So we're sitting there about 10% utilized during the day where normally it would be much lower than that. So if you think of every day now as Sunday night prior to this, that's really where we're sitting.
Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that we're seeing elsewhere is that the peaks are getting higher both during the day and during the night.
Travis Carter: Yeah. So our big peaks historically were always the Super Bowl, Academy Awards.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, but you talking about Game of Thrones.
Travis Carter: Well that's the super peak. That's the Mount Everest of our business is the Game of Thrones denial of service. When that came out, this is nothing near that. When people talk about working from home, our Netflix, Hulu, YouTube servers are pretty busy during the day now. So I think a lot of people that aren't working or are taking that opportunity to maybe catch up on their streaming content.
Christopher Mitchell: I think we're about to ... We have decided, my wife and I had to pull Jackson out of daycare and anticipating daycares will soon be closed anyway here in the state of Minnesota. And so I can tell you that probably you'll see more streaming. I'm not one of your customers yet unfortunately, but for Comcast, they would see that probably there will be more streaming in my house during the day even if I'm working.
Travis Carter: Yeah, streaming is huge right now. VPN traffic, obviously big for people working from home. And again, for us it's just focusing on keeping things running.
Christopher Mitchell: And I'm hearing that some people, my non technical people especially might be a little frustrated with Zoom not working as well. Although I think Zoom has been one of the ones that works to best. Some of the other often proprietary video conferencing solutions may not be working as well. That's not because of the IP layer, right?
Travis Carter: No, I think it's their server stackers. Let's be honest, who would have thought about this? If you and I were running around talking about a national pandemic that was going to effectively shut the country down, we'd be considered one of those fringe people.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, I imagine going into a CEO and saying, "I want you to spend 20% more in this area on the off chance that we suddenly have a doubling of demand."
Travis Carter: Exactly. So what we did is when this started, is we started to load up on spares, lot of compute power, a lot of fiber power, a lot of switch power. So in the event if we have failures, and B, if we get into capacity constraints, we're going to be able to just take it from local inventory versus trying to ship it in from a vendor who may not be open at that time. So yeah, but you're a hundred percent correct. If we would have been running around saying we need 50% more compute capacity just to sit here, we would have never got that approved by anyone.
Christopher Mitchell: What's happening with your wireless network?
Travis Carter: So we made a decision early on that our wireless network is made up of 2,500 wireless access points in the city of Minneapolis that we would previously you had to have to log in, give your name a credit card number, just so that we knew who you were. It was a way to trying to track it. It was an early method for trying to track people if there's some bad actors out there. Well, what we did now is we just opened it up so that it operates like a Starbucks or a hotel and just let people use it if they needed to use it. So as of this morning there was about 7,300 connections onto the free public wifi network in the city of Minneapolis.
Christopher Mitchell: And that was an idea that the city had also come up with independently well.
Travis Carter: Yeah, it was kind of ironic. We were working on it internally on how we're going to do it. And then the city called and they said, "Hey, would you guys consider it?" And we're like, well, ironically we're ... so did they come up with it first, I don't know. We all kind of came up with it together and we enabled that last Monday. This is now Friday, so it would have just been a few days ago. And you can see a steady increase in the number of people that are connected to it.
Christopher Mitchell: Now when the city calls you and you pick up the phone, does it speak with a computerized voice?
Travis Carter: Oh no. Nice people down there. Trying to do best and they're just like, "Hey, can you help?" And I'm like, "Of course we can help."
Christopher Mitchell: No, I was just trying to make a joke and obviously it went over very well.
Travis Carter: Yeah. The big government, this is the government calling. No, they're just people like you and me, we're just trying to deal with technology, I can't imagine what they're dealing with.
Christopher Mitchell: What are some of the challenges that you foresee with throwing open a 2,600 node wireless network with the expectations people might have when they see that on the news?
Travis Carter: Yeah, and that's some of the things that we're working through now is the expectation. So you got to imagine when we put this wireless network out, like cell phones and tablets really didn't exist.
Christopher Mitchell: By 2007, 2008.
Travis Carter: Yeah. So now we're sitting here with a scenario in the early days, you would need to have a client device that we would connect to your home. And then we would run a cable into your house and we'd put a router in your house and you would use the wireless network to connect from your home to the PoE or the node, and then you would connect wifi inside your home. That's the model we've been using for the last 12, 13 years. Now you have people that are turning their phones on and they're looking for the SSID and trying to connect from the bowels of their home and going, "Why is it not working?" So we have a little bit of education that we need to do and that's the process we're going through right now is wifi ... These are the same phones that could barely connect from your garage to your kitchen and now you're trying to go a thousand feet down to the corner. It's just physically, there's not enough power there to make it happen.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, it feels like we're reliving the experience of 15 years ago with the expectation that a device on the other side of the block is somehow going to be able to give you a robust connection within your home.
Travis Carter: Well, what's interesting though, and I haven't been able to really put my thumb on it is these phones have cellular service. So why wouldn't somebody just continue to use their cellular service?
Christopher Mitchell: Well, we can talk about that in a minute.
Travis Carter: Yes. So it's kind of like, okay, I understand the wifi is free and I would love people to use it and a lot of people are using it. But if you're in a stucco home that has effectively a Faraday cage in there. So you've got your little cell phone that purposely doesn't transmit at a high power cause it's a battery, that had all these technical things. But in this time people don't want to hear that. They just want to know why.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, right.
Travis Carter: And again, it's not an excuse, it's just the way the technology works.
Christopher Mitchell: You started an experiment recently in terms of lowering the price and some of the low income areas that you're serving with some of the buildings that have all low income households.
Travis Carter: Correct. We have a fair number of units that are wired ready to go with high speed Internet and we were having a very minimal uptake in these buildings and I like to work from data, not emotion. So where was the hurdle? Was the hurdle price, was the hurdle demand, were most people using their cell phones? What was it? So we started with the very first one is price. So we lowered our price in half.
Christopher Mitchell: So a typical price for anyone in the city, it would be $50.
Travis Carter: 50 bucks, right. 50 bucks gives you a 300 megabit up and down. So now we're going to say it's $25, 300 megabit up and down. So we created a marketing piece, we worked with the management company and we offered that service two months ago now. And so far we have zero people.
Christopher Mitchell: Zero?
Travis Carter: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: I was expecting some number.
Travis Carter: Nothing. Okay, so now we know $25 isn't the right number. Again, if it's the just price-
Christopher Mitchell: And it's fascinating because what you would expect, what I would expect is that moving from 50 to 25 may not result in everyone signing up, but now you would have moved past the threshold for some group of people.
Travis Carter: And again, we're trying to quantify some data here. So now we're at zero new subscribers, the 13 subscribers we had, they're still there and off they go. So now the question is, prior to this whole Covad issue, do we now lower the price-
Christopher Mitchell: COVID.
Travis Carter: Sorry, COVID.
Christopher Mitchell: Covad was an old-
Travis Carter: Sorry. Yeah, COVID. Do we now-
Christopher Mitchell: I think Covad, wasn't that a company?
Travis Carter: Old telco company. That's why I had that in my head. So now do we lower the price again? So again, trying to determine what type of demand there is, and again, maybe people aren't interested. See, this is what's ironic for me because you and I live in this technology game and I couldn't go 10 minutes without being on the Internet, but there's a whole set of society that doesn't ... I talk about this on your podcast every time. We still have like 1200 dial up customers like modems, and all your millennials on here are like, what?
Christopher Mitchell: Really, who's even repairing those?
Travis Carter: Go on YouTube and search for modem and listen to them.
Christopher Mitchell: Those devices are well above their meantime between failure.
Travis Carter: Exactly. I mean yeah, getting the money for all good job manufacturers.
Christopher Mitchell: USI really did it.
Travis Carter: Exactly, but the key here is, my demand for connectivity, your demand for connectivity is very different than maybe somebody else's demand for connectivity. And so again, we're just trying to get to the source.
Christopher Mitchell: Although I can imagine people who work in digital inclusion may be pulling their hair out a little bit because there is no one way to describe this population. And we were talking about millions of people at the end of the day. And so there's certainly some of them who don't subscribe for that reason. For a lot of people that data does suggest its price motivated.
Travis Carter: Yep.
Christopher Mitchell: But at the same time we don't have a lot of experiments with this.
Travis Carter: That's why I thought we use this like, I think it's 500 units is our sample size. We're just using this as our Petri dish to figure out the right thing.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So you have signs up, and-
Travis Carter: Oh yeah. Direct mail signs, the property managers notifying them. So there's no misunderstanding in what it is.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and that's where I'm really curious and I think this is where I hope we'll see more research in terms of whether there's a ... for instance, there's a group here in Minneapolis called CTAP, which I cannot remember exactly. They're involved with Americo. They've been trying to work on digital divide issues for a lot of years. And it would be interesting if they spent some time, for instance, just going door to door and interviewing people to be like, did you know this was available?
Travis Carter: Yeah, exactly.
Christopher Mitchell: How come you are not using it?
Travis Carter: Well, that's maybe one of the next steps is to grab some of that data. My current thought is the next step is, so one thing we've changed and we've just changed it since the beginning of the year, is we've started to promote television service through our Internet product via YouTube TV. So it started out a little slow, but we've just now added it to our order form. It's unbelievable the number of people that are interested in television.
Christopher Mitchell: Across your whole...
Travis Carter: Across all of our new customers. So what we're doing now is I'm thinking, let's go back to this area, our pilot project, reintroduce it at a low price with a television component attached to it and use that as our second data point. So we have price alone Internet only now we'll have price alone plus TV and then we'll start continuing to ratchet ourselves. I'd love to get to the end of the exercise and go, this resonates with certain people and this is what it is. And then it's duplicatable.
Christopher Mitchell: Another common challenge for people is devices, but you have a relationship with PCs for people.
Travis Carter: Correct. Yeah, them and the gadget guy. There's a bunch of people that we have worked with to help people with technology because you're spot on. I don't even know if most of these people have computers. I don't, and again I hate to say these people, it's just this group, this group of people that it's either price or demand or entertainment. I don't know what it is yet.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. One of the things I was going to say was, I'm so staggered at zero new signups was that in some ways your experiment has a major ... the pandemic falling right in the middle of it could have totally corrupted it because you may see sudden new demand because of the people being quarantined. But its zero and zero.
Travis Carter: Yeah, exactly. Now again, my data is four or five days old, so we could reconvene say in another few weeks and see. But it was not very promising price only.
Christopher Mitchell: So this is something that you and I have talked about quite a bit is, how do you as a private company figure out how to connect the entire city? And one of the things that I've said is that I would like to see the city doing more and I know that you have your own conversations with the city and I don't want to put any words in your mouth but, looking at it from a perspective of a private company, you as an ego point of view, you want to be in front of every address in Minneapolis.
Travis Carter: Correct.
Christopher Mitchell: And that's important to you.
Travis Carter: Yeah that's a career goal.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Travis Carter: I'd love at the end of my career to go, yep, the place I grew up in and where I went to school and all my friends live, we did that.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, the challenge is that, on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis where there's demand, you're using the proxy of your wireless service because you've had wireless everywhere for 12 years. You have a sense of some neighborhoods take much more of it than other neighborhoods.
Travis Carter: Correct. And so the challenge for us is appeasing the financial institutions that we borrow money from. We have to be able to make the bank covenants work. And so you have two ways of doing that. I can continue to raise the price on our current customers to feed in areas that I feel are less demand or I can figure out why there is less demand. And that's where we're using these apartment buildings that have historically low uptake because I feel if we can figure out the right formula there and if it's a price, entertainment, maybe a technology component, whatever that ends up being. Because remember, an apartment building in my mind is no different than a series of homes. It's, how do we crack the demand and desire element? That's what we're working on now. So if we can get that figured out in this pilot project, I think that will apply to everywhere in the city.
Travis Carter: And then I affectionately been calling them Internet opportunities zones. So this is an area here that we don't see as much uptake, but we have a rationale based on our pilot project again, pre pandemic of this is the products and service we should put into that opportunity area, and then we have to figure out how to finance it. So maybe there's an opportunity to work with the city. They're always open to ideas. I don't know what they can or can't do, but they're at least open to having ideas. Maybe I can find some other funds. Maybe the Minnesota Broadband grant would stop not allowing us to participate.
Christopher Mitchell: Because it's targeted at rural areas.
Travis Carter: It's targeted in the rural areas, which is fair. I totally get it, but-
Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's fair in the sense that Comcast convinced the legislature to write it in a certain direction.
Travis Carter: But I would love to be able to go to them and say, "Hey, you know what, how about I put up 50% and I get a 50% grant and then I can make the math work everywhere." So again, there's a solution here and as long as I'm sitting in this chair, we're going to finish Minneapolis. It's just how we're going to get there. I just need to be not emotional along the way and whatever people think or call me names or whatever the case may be, we're going to figure it out.
Christopher Mitchell: Are people calling you a Trekkie again?
Travis Carter: Yeah, they call me a nerd, but I'm okay with that.
Christopher Mitchell: I was having this conversation with someone in Minneapolis and I mentioned to them that ... I think this is worth repeating, that from your point of view, it's not a game. Let's just say for a second the SpaceX could turn out to be something with their Starlink in which they would suddenly take 30% of the market. They're not going to, and they're not even trying to do that. But we fundamentally don't know what's going to happen in two or three years. You have loans you have to pay back and people have this sense like, oh, I'm sure you're just an LLC and at the end of the day, the worst thing that happens to you is you lose your business.
Travis Carter: Well, since I am personally guaranteed on all this, I lose everything.
Christopher Mitchell: And that's what I wanted to, yeah.
Travis Carter: I have absolutely nothing at the end of the year. And sadly I'm not qualified to do anything else. My backup plan was to work at as a greeter at Walmart and I heard they got rid of them. So it's like that's all I had. So I have got to make this work.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, but the point I think is, people have a misunderstanding. They think that you could go to a bank and say, I want you to loan money to this limited liability corporation. And then if it doesn't work out, hey, too bad you don't get paid back and I'm take the money I made and I'm going to go to the Caribbean.
Travis Carter: Again it matters, if you've never been in business, if you've never been an entrepreneur, I can understand why you might think that. But that's not the way it really works. Banks are in the business of being paid back and there's no misunderstanding at the bank, you've got to be able to pay him back.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.
Travis Carter: They don't take risks for public good or whatever, how you want to refer to it. They look at you and go, "All right, what are the odds of us getting paid back?" And I was telling my bank, the odds are 100% because I work day, nights and weekends to make sure that this is going. But I would challenge you on one thing though. Technically I feel we do know where we're going and I'll put my name and reputation on this. Wireless will never replace fiber. So the deeper we can get fiber into the neighborhoods, the better off the citizens will be and the users of the network, and I'm 50 years old, I'll be happy to sit here in 40 years and have this conversation with you again.
Christopher Mitchell: No, I think you're right, but there's a couple of assumptions you're making. One is that you're going to have a company offering a very good value proposition. Now, Comcast cable offers and some people might be falling off their chairs when I say this, a pretty good value proposition in a number of areas. They offer pretty fast connections, and I'm saying that relative to a company like Mediacom or CenturyLink.
Travis Carter: Fair enough. And honestly, they do a pretty good job.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. But with their prices and whatnot, there's always going to be an opportunity to compete against them. And to some extent, you certainly done well competing in some of the fiber, but if you look in Boston with netBlzr or Starry two ISPs that are doing quite well, also competing as Comcast with wireless. I think if Comcast switched to an all fiber infrastructure, those wireless companies would still be doing pretty well because there's a couple of other variables that are also important.
Travis Carter: Well, and I'll agree with you that I think to what you're seeing, the shift in the ISP world or other, it used to be speed, speed, speed, speed, speed. It's now how reliable are you? Even the conversation I was having this morning, speed wasn't even a conversation. It was how many nines of uptime do you have? Because people expect the Internet to be there now because they're using it for so many parts of their life. And honestly, with VPN traffic and all that, that's really low bandwidth utilization. So it's hard to even see a big uptick from people working from home, like VPNed for doing email and group chats. When we get into situations of streaming and all that, that's where the consumption really is and so when you grow up your whole life and TV just works and now you put them on an Internet streaming platform, to them it's still TV. Why wouldn't it work? It's one of the challenges we had with Voice over IP. The phone companies did such a good job with landlines. My landline worked my entire youth. Never once was it not there.
Christopher Mitchell: People don't even appreciate it. I think like you could literally have a tornado that would rip apart the electric system and I'm not saying that every telephone worked, but there was a lot of them that still worked.
Travis Carter: My water always comes out of the pipe. I don't know how, I haven't really dug into how it works, but it's always there and that's what Internet is becoming.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and it's hilarious because most people don't know how that happens because if they knew how it happened, they wouldn't go buy a ton of it before a pandemic because water is one of the things we're not going to run out of.
Travis Carter: You know what? When you and I ... I don't know when you were growing up, when I was growing up, I drank water out of the faucet.
Christopher Mitchell: I still do. I put ice cubes in it though.
Travis Carter: But you know what I mean? So yeah, I'm not sure that we're ever going to run out of that. So no, I think that the key here is that it's all about reliability and we're seeing that now when my friends are calling me up and saying, "My VPN is dropping like crazy, I'm buffering in Netflix," not on our network, but on somebody else's network. It has nothing to do with the speed conversation. And I think that's a key thing.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I think people take it for granted now. They think it's going to be fast enough in urban areas in particular, that it's not a differentiator anymore. They assume that part-
Travis Carter: Correct, yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: ... and they're looking for the reliability. So I want to end by talking about your great vacation. No one can see the slides but ...
Travis Carter: I had this harebrained idea. I hadn't really had a vacation in years. And so I decided I'm going to go on a vacation and I decided to do it the way our ancestors did except not in horse and buggy. I got a motor home. Right?
Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Travis Carter: Well, now here's the challenge. I'm an Internet addict, and I admit it, what am I going to do? So I'm going to give the cellular companies and opportunity now. So went out and got a LTE router and a couple of SIM cards and on the road we went.
Christopher Mitchell: Did you go crazy with the T-Mobile?
Travis Carter: I went with T-Mobile blast thing. We have 5G, there's no 5G right? That's a hell of a marketing. Anyway, so I got the T-Mobile blasting, I got the Verizon thing, and down the road we go. Well about four days into it, they worked okay. If you had good coverage and I'm using the signal meter, you got to be a dang IT scientist to make this work. But anyways, on day five it all stopped. So I called back to the office. I'm like, "Hey my cellular thing isn't working." "Well, you're over your data limit." I'm like, "Huh? Data limit?" 20 gig or something in like two and a half days. Well, then you get more and more and more. I think I ended up spending $300 on data through this whole thing. And you know what I ended up using most of the time? Is I'd go find somebody's wifi hotspot at a Starbucks or at a McDonald's because ... and I will say this and we'll put this in the podcast for all time, there is a 0% chance cellular takes over being everyone's Internet provider. It's terrible.
Christopher Mitchell: Well even the 5G, they talk about how great it is and they fully expect, I think four fifths of it, 80 percentage to be offloaded on wifi.
Travis Carter: Yeah, it's exactly it. So then I did this little experiments, they talk about how well, if only if the cellular tower is overloaded, are we going to rate limit you? So I was on the outskirts of Abilene, Texas or something, or Amarillo Texas and I went out in the middle of nowhere. There was me and cows. I was getting rate limited like crazy. So anyways, I'm just saying that this was my whole thing. This is why cellular companies, Starlink, all these kind of ... they're all wireless at the end of the day. We'll never compete on what we're putting in. You put in a fiber connection to somebody's house, you give them a high quality wifi connection. Even now with wifi six coming out is the biggest evolution in wifi and it might be something you want to talk about in a future podcast, game changer. FCC opening up the six gigahertz band, game changer.
Travis Carter: So I would challenge you to say, yeah, we know what the next 10 years is going to be. And unless they invent something faster than light, I think we're okay. So I'm okay with personally guaranteeing tremendous debt to build this out, because I think it's the right thing to do. And even in this pandemic you can see there's zero impact on the network. Everyone's working, everyone's enjoying the content. We just need to get through this together.
Christopher Mitchell: That's a great way to end it. I was trying to decide if I should go anywhere else, but I feel like that's a good place to end.
Travis Carter: Is that episode 400.
Christopher Mitchell: Episode 400.
Travis Carter: In the bag, huh? Sorry Lisa.
Christopher Mitchell: Lisa will be on next week with a conversation that we recorded as her goodbye. It's tragic to work with someone for eight great years and then not even have a chance to see her as she moves onto another job, but-
Travis Carter: Well, congratulations for her. And can I call dibs on episode 500 then?
Christopher Mitchell: You could try, that'll be two years from now.
Travis Carter: Thanks Chris. Well done.
Christopher Mitchell: Hopefully, we'll maybe do it in a bar that actually has people.
Travis Carter: Well yeah, because I haven't seen anyone for days. It was nice for you to come over today. You are my first human interaction in almost a week. So thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Travis Carter, CEO of US Internet, a local Minneapolis based ISP. Check out other conversations with Travis and episodes 359, 301 and 194. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at mininetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast at mininetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow mininetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @mininetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power, Composting for Community and the Local Energy Rules 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 at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 400 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.