Filling in Connectivity Gaps with Open Access Fiber - Episode 554 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher speaks with Keith Quarles, President and CFO of A2D, a fiber-based, open access competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC). A2D stands for ‘Analog to Digital,’ and as Keith explains, represents the infrastructure transition from analog to digital communications.

Chris and Keith discuss A2D’s business model, which focuses on filling in the gaps – serving communities where connectivity is unaffordable or the incumbent has chosen not to upgrade its infrastructure. Keith explains how many gaps still exist, even after the influx of federal funding for broadband. A2D takes a creative approach to building out fiber backbones in these pockets, which involves connecting existing ecosystems like municipalities, school systems, and electric membership corporations (Georgia’s equivalent of electric cooperatives). Keith’s background in real-estate development and training in civil engineering, along with the backgrounds of his three business partners who are also engineers by trade, informs A2D’s strategy and willingness to "just figure things out."

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below.

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Keith Quarles (00:07):
All those ecosystems exist in their own silos, and with the right work, the right focus, you can generally find a way to infuse that backbone by, by kind of connecting the dots between those.

Christopher Mitchell (00:19):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm still here in, down in Houston at the Broadband Community Summit, and we are talking today with Keith Quarles Jr. President and CED of A2D. I just recently became aware of A2D Before we launch in today's show, I wanted to share a little bit about some interesting things that are coming up. One is a livestream on June 7th at three Eastern Time, our next building for digital equity livestream. This will be the fourth one. We've had a lot of good feedback on our others. It's a interesting mix of presentations and trivia and, and q and a. And you can find more at building for digital, where you'll see information about that live stream on June 7th at three Eastern Time. Also, there you'll see information about the Building for Digital Equity Podcast, of which we have money episodes and more to come.

These are shorter discussions about people doing that hard work. And then for those of you who haven't heard about the Connect This Show, we are gonna be continuing to do those about every two weeks, and you can find That is a hour long video show, usually a little bit longer than that, often featuring Travis Carter from USI Fiber and Minneapolis Kim McKinley from UTOPIA Fiber, and Doug Dawson, the consultant extraordinaire. So if you haven't caught any of those they're best on video. You can watch 'em on YouTube. You can find that in additional shows from ilsr the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where I work at Welcome to the show.

Keith Quarles (02:12):
Thank you for being here.

Christopher Mitchell (02:13):
So I was, I was very excited when we're putting together these panels. And one of the panels that I was running Barbara, who runs the event, said, we got this guy, Keith Quarles, he's gonna be perfect for your panel. And I'm always nervous when I don't know someone, but you are perfect for the panel

Keith Quarles (02:27):
<Laugh>. Well, I, I appreciate I lived up to expectations <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (02:30):
So, so tell us about A2D.

Keith Quarles (02:32):
So, A2D is a we're an open access clec obviously industry term, but open access carrier. And we're, we're, we're infrastructure based, all fiber optics to the home, to the business, to the, to anything.

Christopher Mitchell (02:47):
Does A2D mean something

Keith Quarles (02:49):
Analog to digital. Ah, okay. So it kind of represents the the transition that we're all living in right now, right? Yeah. Is is from the old analog infrastructure wave of telephone video to everything's digital now.

Christopher Mitchell (03:03):
So you are a private for-profit company that focuses on open access.

Keith Quarles (03:07):
Exactly. And I'll emphasize in its purest sense.

Christopher Mitchell (03:11):
So several years ago, I felt like there was one or two of these that I knew of. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, there's a few more. Now many of them are have different focuses and that sort of a thing, but you're focused on something that you call filling in the gaps. And I think that's interesting. You're not going after like a major market area. You're not trying to build all Atlanta <laugh>. You're, you're focused on filling in the gaps. What does that mean?

Keith Quarles (03:32):
Yeah. So it's, it's, it's, it's about you know, market entry and about also about digital. You could, you could call it digital inclusion, right? Is as, as we look at this transition from analog digital, we look at the industries transitioning from telephone markets, cable markets, to now what does the, what does the Internet do? Internet kind of unifies everything. But the, the, the telecom market really, truly hasn't adapted to this like, universal look. So what ends up happening is you have these pockets, right? So a cable provider will may or may not upgrade their area. The ILECs may or may not upgrade theirs. So you have these, these, these islands that kind of exist. And when you add those up, even in what one would consider metro markets, those, those little submarkets little pockets start to add up to pretty significant. And in the world of public funding, federal funding, where the maps will show unserved, underserved, a lot of these areas are gonna get missed. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Because the, from, from a census block, they may look, oh, we're all well served. Well, there's enough communities within those that are actually aren't. And so that's why we're trying to push the envelope in that

Christopher Mitchell (04:45):
Georgia was a state that pushed the envelope in mapping. And I'm curious if that helped you out a lot. They were like, I think they were like one of the first states that had a, a more accurate map than the horrendous FCC maps.

Keith Quarles (04:57):
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, definite kudos. We're, we're well in touch with the folks at gta, Georgia Technology Authority and also the state broadband office very good maps. But, but again I still, we, what we're seeing is, is markets that even after arpa, after BEAD, you're still gonna have and they exist right now, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So they're, they're, they're, they're not showing up necessarily in the maps because they may be served, but affordability, right? For maps don't address necessarily affordability, things of that nature. So yeah, great job. Georgia's doing a great job, has done it, and they're very you know, we feel like they're very in touch with what's really going on in the communities, and that's great. But as always, there's more to do, right? And, and we feel like, like we're trying to do that, we're trying to take that next step.

Christopher Mitchell (05:49):
So if we're talking about trying to think of a, of an example of a county, you might have like on 25, 50,000 addresses, and then like among them, you might have like a thousand that are not served. They're kind of spread out around. And so are you, you're building out to like those areas and then connecting the areas in between as best you can. Y e

Keith Quarles (06:08):
Exactly. And it, it's, it's work. I mean, it's, it's, it's not easy. I, I'll, I'll, I'll say that up upfront is what we're, because as you know, networking, it's not, you can't just like go into a neighborhood, isolate it and say, oh, we're gonna do the, you know, do a network mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. So we, we, we find strategic and creative ways to, to infuse initial infrastructure called backbone infrastructure and build that in, in a way that passes through these, these kind of missed neighborhoods. Right? so it is tough, like I said. And so I, I think we're doing the work that a lot of others just don't have the time or the funds to do, but us and our, our, our equity group, they're, they're, they're backing us, and they're seeing, they're, we're seeing results as we speak right now.

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> like you said, I mean we're, we're in a county now that's about 90,000 premises. And it is a it is, it is a prime market where at t fiber is there and so forth, but yet we're still finding e significant amount of areas that may not be underserved from a, from the 100 by 100, but they're not fiber areas yet, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And so so we're pushing that envelope and, and trying to get really where we get affordable, high speed, gigabit Internet to, to areas that, that, that will probably get missed in this, in a lot of this funding,

Christopher Mitchell (07:28):
Primarily fiber, entirely fiber.

Keith Quarles (07:30):
We are entirely fiber in several, in several instances, we will, we have in, in our partner with the wireless provider, right? To do fiber to the node so that they can extend, you know, there, there's gonna be areas where, you know, 10 homes per mile pass. I, that's, that's just not gonna, yeah. You know, work. But, but we do we do, we, we try to push some as best, as best possible, but in those, in those extreme cases, we'll partner with a, a wireless carrier and they'll do the fiber to the, you know, direct fixed wireless to them. And if over time we can justify fiber build out, we're out to that, then, then we can, but, but we, again, we try to, we push the envelope, try to service everyone in those areas.

Christopher Mitchell (08:13):
You've mentioned creative ways of expanding the backbone. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, is that one of those creative ways? Are there additional, like, creative ways?

Keith Quarles (08:19):
So you know, not to tell the whole secret sauce, but <laugh> Yeah. Yeah. But, but, but no, I mean, it, it's, it's, it's it's, it's realizing the disconnect, right? Between the school system and the municipality mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and the library system and fiber to the tower. And, you know, this, this ecosystem is, is highly, you know, people have the perception that when you jump into telco, oh, everything is all interconnected, and we know everything, da, da, and first on some level, yes, we do. But on the level of the economic development, the municipalities, it's not, it's, it's highly dis disjunctive. And so a lot of times we find ways creative, again, creative ways to, to, to get that backbone in by simply connecting the dots, right? Like I said, you have school systems. They, they, they, they're in their own ecosystem as, as, as you know the municipality itself, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So let's say you take a county, there's 2, 3, 4, 5 different municipalities. Some of 'em may or may not have their own gas company. Some of 'em may or may not, you know, so there's ways to really, and then you've got local EMCs, right? So, so all those ecosystems exist in a different, in their own silos. And with the right work, the right focus, you can generally find a way to infuse that backbone by, by kind of connecting the dots between those.

Christopher Mitchell (09:40):
And EMCs for people who are not in Georgia are electric membership corporations, which is whatever else calls electric co-ops, <laugh>. Yeah,

Keith Quarles (09:47):
Exactly right. Yeah. Sorry, that is a local state turner that we use.

Christopher Mitchell (09:51):
Yeah, no, there's different, you know, different, different folks. You have different language for different reasons. Right. what brought you into this work?

Keith Quarles (09:58):
I was formally a real estate developer in and around Atlanta pre 2008 crash <laugh> mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And so I was primarily focused on multi-family commercial, and actually did a hotel right before the crash. And so I was approached by my now partner Antoine, also Brook, who's our founder of our company. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And with, with the model that I now push now, right? Is, is hey, let's do a open access network on your development, on your two at that time, two developments, I'll shorten the story, but it's interesting cause this was 2005, right? So, and I, I remember like yesterday, at that time the cable companies in Atlanta, I want to say their name, you know, that we were, we, what, what the narrative there and was 12, 12 meg burst, right?

We were at 12 meg mg bursts, right? <Laugh> burstable, right? That was, that was, was out in the, on the commercials, right? And, and here comes this guy saying, Hey, fiber optic opax. I mean, you, you, you couldn't layer it on a more advanced model in that period of time. And, but, but it stuck with me as a real estate developer, because I quickly realized that number one, the A2D analog to digital, I, I got that from the beginning. And, and, and that was critical, was understanding, Hey, the industry is this way right now, technology is this way, but it's gonna be something different. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and, and, and in essence, he who owns that infrastructure will ultimately win. Right? Now, fast forward, it's been how many, 12, 13 years now in industry. It, it, it's, it's taken time, but I think technology has, and, and the industry has caught up. But that's how I got into it. I was, I was on the developer side mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and then ultimately I, I shut that down and, and, and hopped onto, got into telecom.

Christopher Mitchell (11:40):
And at that point, you recognized that whoever owned the network would be king. You decided you didn't want to be the, the king. You wanted to share that with others. Roben, how did that

Keith Quarles (11:49):
Work? That's right. Yeah. Yeah. So, so, so part of that was understanding again, coming from the real estate world, I understood a difference between, you know, the owner, owner of the building and the tenants, right? And so that looks one way in real estate, looks a little different way in, in, in Telco. And, and that's been a lot of our growth and challenge is understanding and appreciating that dynamic, the ISP versus the network operator, network owner. And I, I'd like to say that we've, you know, our company's mastered that pretty well. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> we have at least six plus ISPs on our networks. But yeah, that, that's, that's the, that's the secret sauce is, is how do you, how do you balance where you, we, we own and operate the infrastructure, but yet we're we, it, it is done in a way and it's in markets that are both appealing and attractive to the ISPs, right? And create a model where everybody truly wins, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, there's, there's no, there's really no full con confrontation. There is confrontation, obviously we're, we're a market disrupter, right? To the incumbent,

Christopher Mitchell (12:56):
Right? But you said that the first thing you do when you're going to a market is reach out to the incumbent to say, Hey, I'm building here. Yep.

Keith Quarles (13:01):
Let's work together. Give i I give you, I give you fair chance. Right? And, and I

Christopher Mitchell (13:04):
Bet they don't appreciate it. Nonetheless.

Keith Quarles (13:06):
<Laugh>. So, so it's, it, you know, again, everything evolves, right? So I will say during the earlier days, kind of beat top ish there was a lot of resistance, even, even even as recently as, you know, a few years ago. I mean, it, it, there's, there's definitely resistance cuz it is a disruptor, right? And, and mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. but I think as those incumbents embrace what the future will be mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and, and they're seeing it now, is it's becoming more of an invitation. Like, okay, I get it. I see how I can, speaking on the, on incumbent, I can gain market share without having to, you know, block everybody out per se. You know, and that, and that's just the reality that we're dealing with is, is not to be, you know, we, we've heard it before. I mean, there's vested interest for them coming to block, block competition mm-hmm.

<Affirmative>, that's just the nature of the business. But, but we're, we're just recently now seeing a little bit more of an open door to that concept. But yeah, before it was <laugh>, it was, you know, I know I don't like you and, and Right. And I, and, and quite honestly, it was I, I don't believe you're gonna do it. So a lot of times it was, we had to prove that we were gonna do it and, and do it and deliver and, and, and then, then, then they wanna play mm-hmm. <Affirmative> a lot, lot of stories, a lot of, lot of fun, a lot of sweat and grit. But, but yeah, I think we've, we've, we liked the model and we're, we're, we're going full, full board on it.

Christopher Mitchell (14:19):
Excellent. How did you get to know, like, what, I think this is sort of the last question I'll ask you. Sure, sure. But how did coming into this from real estate, like how did you get up to speed on telecom type stuff? Because there's a lot of people coming into this field right now from other, other professions. Yeah. Yeah. I'm trying to figure out how to understand what all this stuff means.

Keith Quarles (14:35):
So, so, so there, there's, there's more similarity than people would think in this. So as, as a developer, right? It's a sim very similar, right? As a developer, people from a non-developer always try to get in development. Like you had construction guys would try to figure out, you have architects, money, guys trying to figure out, so the same thing in telco is, is, is, okay, well yeah, I see the money. I, I see this thing, but I don't really know. And so I think key to it is quite honestly is, is the, is the top group that we partnered with, right? We're all, at the end of the day, we're, there's four of us at the, at the top of the company. I'll say name my, myself, Antoine, also book Gerald Rector and Rodney Gray. We're all engineers by, by schooling.

Even though I'm, you know, I'm the business guy. I'm the, the, the <laugh> the business. But, you know, I'm a civil engineer by training. So we're all naturally built to figure stuff out. And, and having that at the top has been phenomenal. We rely heavily on our, our most senior guy, Joe Rector, he's been in industry for 30 plus years. He's been with various companies building the Internet, <laugh>, literally mm-hmm. <Affirmative> over those years. And so to answer, you know, it's a better answer question. I've, I've gotten up to speed from one, just, you know, you have a problem solving mind, two being around the enough folks in the industry that, that, that do understand what's going on. And then the rest is just, just being around long enough to figure it out. <Laugh>. Yeah. You know, I mean, but it's, but it's, it's, it's been a very, you know, a very eyeopening industry. I've been in, well now, I guess 13 years. So I can't, I can no longer say I'm a newbie, <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (16:10):
No, no. At this point you're old school, like, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's

Keith Quarles (16:13):
Kind. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (16:14):
Yeah. But 80% of people in this field have been here for less time than I <laugh>.

Keith Quarles (16:17):
Exactly. Exactly. But no, it's, it's, it's definitely been a learning curve. And, and it, it's an industry. You just have to get in and and figure it out. Cuz cuz they're not, that's the other thing is they're, they're, they're not really gonna tell you what's going on, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> like, they're, they're, you know, even I know you see network maps and what, but, but it's industry. You just have to, you have to get in, swim in it mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and, and, and figure out the lay of the land and, and eventually figure your way. So it's not, it's not a, it is not a easy point of entry by, by any means.

Christopher Mitchell (16:42):
Well, it's wonderful and we're excited to, to get to know you and and hopefully report on more network deployments coming up. Yeah.

Keith Quarles (16:50):
We, we have some great stuff coming up even, even this year. We'll, we, I, I'll I'll give you the the, the first to first to release. How about that? Okay. On, on some, some very exciting news coming up here shortly.

Christopher Mitchell (17:01):
Wonderful. That sounds great. Yep. Yep. All right. Thank you so much for your time today.

Keith Quarles (17:04):
Yep. Appreciate it. Thanks a lot. Keith

Christopher Mitchell (17:06):
Quarles, the President and CFO. I might've said CEO.

Keith Quarles (17:09):
You did earlier. That's okay. No problem.

Christopher Mitchell (17:10):
CFO of A2D

Keith Quarles (17:12):
Only person will be mad, will be Antoine. He's <laugh>.

Christopher Mitchell (17:14):
No problem. Well, sorry, Antoine, you should have been here. Hey, there you go. <Laugh>. Take care.

Ry Marcattilio (17:17):
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