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Connecting Georgia's Munis - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 156
For years, we have urged municipal networks to cooperate in various ways to lower costs. For instance, by building a shared middle mile network to aggregate their bandwidth and get a better deal due to the higher volume. So it came as a bit of a shock that Georgia Public Web has been helping many municipal networks in these ways for well over a decade. David Muschamp, President and CEO of Georgia Public Web (GPW), joins us for episode 156 of Community Broadband Bits to discuss what the member-owned nonprofit organization does to improve Internet access across the state.
GPW operates over 3000 miles of fiber connecting businesses and even entire communities. They operate a 365-24-7 network operations center and provide consulting, focusing particularly on the needs of the nearly 30 local governments that own the company.
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David Muschamp: By virtue of our willingness to go out into the state and deliver a product meant that a competitive alternative was coming to the community.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
In this interview, Chris speaks with Dave Muschamp, President and CEO of Georgia Public Web. Georgia Public Web is an extensive network that weaves across the state. It provides special services to businesses and other entities in places where traditional large-scale providers don't venture. The nonprofit network has operated quietly for years, and even branches out into locations in nearby states. Dave describes their approach, and how they've enabled economic development opportunities in once-ignored areas of Georgia. He provides some insights that have contributed to the organization's success. Check out their website for more, at gapublicweb.net . Now, here are Chris and Dave Muschamp, from Georgia Public Web.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with David Muschamp, the President and CEO of Georgia Public Web. Welcome to the show.
David Muschamp: Thank you, Chris.
Chris: David, let me start by asking you, what is Georgia Public Web?
David: Georgia Public Web is an interexchange and a competitive local exchange carrier, primarily based in Georgia, but also certified in Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Chris: And it strikes me that it's not like your typical kind of CLEC. And company. Can you tell us a little bit about what makes you unique?
David: Well, we are unique, in that we have our own network -- roughly 3500 miles -- in Georgia. And we're owned by 31 municipalities and one county government. So, 32 owners, most of them provisioners of electric service and other utilities in their communities, who, at a period in the mid-'90s, elected to pursue telecommunications, actually as a means of getting technology more rapidly deployed to their communities, which were primarily in rural Georgia, if you will. And doing it from an economic development standpoint.
Chris: And so that makes you a nonprofit, right?
David: We are a nonprofit, by virtue of being owned by city governments. Yes.
Chris: And what kind of services do you provide as Georgia Public Web?
David: Actually, we have a very small product selection. We're commercial-only. In other words, we're delivery to businesses. And that is large data and Internet transport, both long- and short-haul. So, we've identified a unique niche, if you will, in the Georgia telecommunications marketplace.
Chris: And so, if I'm a city that is involved in telecommunications, how might I be interfacing with you, on average?
David: You could be using our network for transport of your local services across the state or out-of-state. Or accessing the Internet -- the cloud, if you will -- by virtue of our network.
Chris: And so, this is -- I just find this so fascinating -- because this is something we've seen in a couple of communities and one or two states starting to move toward. But you guys have been doing it for a very long time down there. I'd like to talk a little bit about what lessons you may have learned along the way. Can you -- I know you haven't been around since the beginning. But, as I understand it, things improved a lot more once you came in. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about what you focused on when you started with Georgia Public Web.
David: Actually, I joined the company in 2002. It had received its certification from the state of Georgia in late 2001. So we really had just -- we had 1500 miles of network, of which only half of that was lit. And we really had not deployed a business plan. I joined the company primarily -- actually, I don't mind saying -- I had almost 30 years with Southern Bell and BellSouth. And I was brought on primarily to drive -- provide leadership, and to drive the revenue of the equation. You can't just build a network, like most of the dot-coms did, and expect people to come. So we worked very hard at building customer relationships, and driving the revenue equation. And we did that primarily by viewing everything as a business-case decision.
Chris: And so, I'm curious what that means, in terms of building relationships. I mean, what constitutes building relationships in ways that people might not immediately realize?
David: Our customer set is large customers. We don't do residential. And we don't do, necessarily, transactional business. We're working with pretty sophisticated network types and businesses that are managing their corporate resources. They want someone that's knowledgeable. The want a network that is efficient and reliable, and responsive to their needs. And they want someone that can guide them towards their business goals. And that's -- you find that more, Chris, in a relationship-type business than you do in just what I call the transactional equations.
Chris: OK. That makes sense. But I guess one of the questions I have is, what can you point to that's made Georgia a better state because of Georgia Public Web?
David: One example would be, one of our larger customers, that we worked with for a number of years. And not only were we able to save them money, but we were also able to be responsive to their business goals, and to help them grow their business. And I think, early on, that Georgia Public Web primarily was designed to fill an economic development gap in Georgia. And that gap is that the smaller communities just by virtue of the math, were not beneficiaries of state-of-the-art technology coming to their communities. Quite frankly, the local telephone companies were investing in the larger markets where they could get higher returns on their capital investments. And we both know that telecommunications is a capital-intensive business. So, by virtue of our willingness to go out into the state and deliver a product meant that a competitive alternative was coming to the community. When you don't have a monopoly, and there is some competition, then prices are eventually going to go down, service is going to get better, and the technology is going to be deployed more rapidly. And I think that's what Georgia Public Web was able to do in the initial stages. And then you saw more businesses deploying. You saw the cable companies beginning to deliver the Internet product. So we got more competition in Georgia as a result of companies like Georgia Public Web being willing to invest in Georgia.
Chris: And so it seems like -- if I understand this correctly -- that you really give communities more options. Because I think some of the municipalities that own you -- they already provide service to businesses. But if there was another community that wanted to have a high-quality service that wasn't available currently, you might be able to come in and provide that. Am I understanding that right?
David: Well, I don't know if we give them more options, Chris. The fact that we give them ONE option is more than most communities get. And, as I said, we only have two products. But we do a very good job with the products that we have. And, you know, we're continuing to invest in our network, and upgrade. And one of the biggest things that we did was to make our network diverse. And redundant, if you will. And it -- when we first started out, it wasn't that way. And we realized, for us to grow, for the product to be more valuable to our existing and future customers that we had to protect our services. Hence, we deployed rings and, you know, we've gone from an original type of technology to newer technology. So we've continued to improve our product. We just haven't delivered any more products, if you will. We've chosen to focus on this niche that we have in the state.
Chris: And do you serve only within those 31 municipalities that own you? Or do you do some extra things, aside from working just with those folks?
David: Not all of the communities that own us invested in telecom networks. Initially, a number -- quite a number of them did. We classify that as our member government section. But we serve other local governments and state government. We serve carriers. And we serve private enterprise accounts.
Chris: And what happens with the net income that you generate -- what, in the private sector, you'd call profit?
David: Well, as you know, the -- Telecommunications is a capital-intensive business. So the preponderance of the positive earnings goes back into the network. And we, fortunately, are able to return a certain amount to our member-owners.
Chris: And I guess the -- one of the big questions in my mind, for our audience, comes down to, you know, if you were running this, and it was a private company, as opposed to being a nonprofit -- if it was a profit-focused company -- I'm just curious how it might be different, in terms of what it might charge the municipalities. I guess, are they getting a better deal because they own this and run it as a nonprofit?
David: Well, they're getting a return on their investment. But -- you -- I don't know that it's really from a business standpoint -- if you're running it like a business where, you know, we're not on a nonprofit in the -- You know, we are, from a tax code, from an IRS standpoint. Yes, those tax dollars allow us to plow, you know, some of the tax savings, if you will, back into the company. That's the purpose of that. But I don't know that you run it any differently. I mean, every business is out there trying to survive. So, are they getting better prices? They're getting the -- I would say, the similar pricing that our other customers are getting. You know, the better the company does, the more financially solvent that we are, we're able to reduce our margins, and deliver that pricing not only to members, then, but to our other customers as well. The members benefit, really, from -- as a positive return on our investments, as well.
Chris: If, tomorrow, Georgia Public Web was dissolved, and the communities had to try to find a way, using just the other companies that were out there, to reproduced your services, I would guess they'd probably have to pay a lot more than they are today.
David: You know, we're not necessarily, at this point of the GPW life cycle, that we're the only provider to our member-owners out there. For their own protection, they have different suppliers, as well, to diversify their networks. That's the good thing, I think, that we've noticed in the state of Georgia. Fortunately for us, while there have been attempts, if you will, to eliminate competition legislatively, they haven't been successful in the state of Georgia. And that's enabled some of the smaller companies to thrive and survive, and to offer alternatives to communities. And specifically outside the metro Atlanta area, which, by most ways, would be classified as rural.
Chris: Well, I think one of the key lessons that comes out of this is, even if you form a nonprofit in the telecommunications sector, you have to be prepared to run it very similarly to a private company that's focused on making the best business decisions, to make sure you're able to thrive in this, basically, atmosphere.
David: I agree with you 100 percent. If it were easy, then everybody would do it, wouldn't they?
David: You know, you're -- you really need to understand what -- profit or nonprofit -- what your company's mission statement is, what your value proposition is, and how that differentiates you from your competitors. Back to your earlier question about how differently would you run it, I wouldn't run it any differently. You know, you're still going to look for talented people, and you're going to allow them to do what they do best, and to do it often, and to do it early on. I guess the key is to make sure that all employees, regardless of what their contribution to the business is, to be revenue-focused. A lot can be said about service. Service is very important. But your company simply will not survive without customers and without a revenue stream. So ALL employees need to be focused on that revenue proposition, particularly in the smaller companies. Because now, you're going up against some giants in the telecommunications field, and they're very aggressive, and have many more resources than you do, and can compete very effectively with you. So make sure that you take a business-case approach to all financial decisions. Don't guess. Don't take something on a whim. Get the facts, and study. And, yeah, you're going to take risks. But we like to say that the risks that we take are calculated risks. I think it's important that you have meaningful measurements. That's one thing from my BellSouth / Southern Bell background -- we measured a l- -- everything. But in any business, you need to have some effective benchmarks and goals, and a way to measure them, to see if you're achieving them. In other words, inspect what you expect. And, particularly in a competitive business, you need to meet and/or exceed any customer commitments that you make. And, as we like to say here, you know, if you can't be on time, be early. And, said another way, exceed the customer's expectations whenever you can.
Chris: Excellent! Well, David, as we wind down the interview, I'm curious if there's anything else that we should know about Georgia Public Web?
David: We're very customer-focused. We've been "profitable," if you will. For almost nine consecutive years now, which is unique for, I think, telecommunications startups. And I think it's because we -- you know, we've remained true to our mission. We have a strategic plan. We've got great employees. We've got great customers that have allowed us to grow with them. And we're just a unique business. We're -- you know, we're not trying to pretend we're any more than what we are. We've continued to focus on our network. And, again, it is a unique network. So we can truly offer a competitive alternative here in Georgia.
Chris: Excellent. Well, thank you for coming on this show.
David: Thanks, Chris. And thanks for having me.
Lisa: Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . Like us on Facebook. Our page is Community Broadband Networks. Thank you again to bkfm-b-side for their song, "Raise Your Hands," licensed through Creative Commons.