Finding the Right Partners and Platforms - Episode 547 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Claudia Tarbell, Senior Engagement Manager for Tribal, Indigenous and First Nation Communities and Michael Weening, President and CEO, both from Calix. Claudia shares what it was like to transition from working at Mohawk Networks to becoming a part of Calix' community engagement team, and how she talks with Tribes about what it means to have ownership of and control over the network infrastructure in their communities. Michael joins the conversation to talk about Calix' philosophy of defining success in relation to the small providers and communities its platforms supports, including everything from democratizing high-quality advertising to pushing the frontiers of managed Wi-Fi.

This show is 23 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.


Claudia Tarbell (00:07):
We're that connection point for the first responders we're the connection point for our elders. It wasn't just about streaming, it wasn't just about gaming, it was about the community.

Christopher Mitchell (00:18):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul Minnesota normally, but I am once again in the southern part of the United States in the beautiful Southwest, hanging out at healer River Indian Community at the National Tribal Telecom Association event, where I snagged a really exciting interview. And I'm talking with Claudia Tarbell, the senior engagement manager for Tribal and indigenous communities. And there's glare on the name tag, <laugh> <laugh>. And Claudia is someone that I've gotten to know quite a bit lately and is working with us on the Tribal work. So wonderful to have you here.

Claudia Tarbell (00:59):
Thank you. It's great to be here. I'm really happy with the participation that we did with the Tribal Broadband Bootcamp at Tribal Broadband Summit.

Christopher Mitchell (01:09):
Yes. Yeah, we'll talk about that for a second. But we're here also with your boss's boss's boss, maybe the president and CEO of Calix. Michael Weening. Welcome to the show.

Michael Weening (01:19):
Thanks for having me on.

Christopher Mitchell (01:20):
It's, it's really great to have both of you here. When I started in this business about 16 years ago, there's a guy named Dave Russell who worked in Minneapolis for Calix. He had been at OSI prior to that Optical solutions. And Dave Russell was was truly a wonderful person to work with. I learned a lot as he was driving me from Minneapolis down to Iowa events for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities. He and I would go and and different events like that. We'd see each other on planes and I would see him out running around. He's still out, I'm sure, with his enjoying life with his grandkids in retirement. But

Michael Weening (01:53):
That's fantastic. He's a

Christopher Mitchell (01:54):
Great guy.

Michael Weening (01:54):
Well, and we still have that office.

Christopher Mitchell (01:56):
Yes. And one of the things that I remembered about him, and this is why I wanted to speak with you, is that he he was doing economic development research, you know, we're talking about 12, 13 years ago. And what I really liked about him is that someone in that position could easily have been like, oh, the economic development's amazing. All you need is fiber. You just have to buy Catholic stuff and then your community will be great. And he, he did real research and he was, and he tried to find real things. He didn't, he didn't look for like spurious co correlation. Sure. That would be easy to prove. He was great.

Michael Weening (02:26):
Right. Well, and, and I think that goes back to our founder too, right? So if you look at the individual who founded our company, which is Carl Russo, this is third company, third multi-billion dollar company. And he really had a vision for, there's this huge opportunity in rural broadband. And that's how we found he founded the company. And it goes way beyond what network are you building? And that's ultimately why I joined the company because he had this vision for we can help these organizations, small and medium service providers, completely transform rural America and go way just the fiber in the ground to what are all the services? How can we help them build a business? How do we make them successful? Which leads to that really important thing, which is how do I drive the economic development beyond education, all the different standard things to, you know, transform a community. So it drives everybody at the company and it's really exciting and it's great to hear it. Chances are he was doing that work for Carl. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (03:21):
And then also there's Keith Carlson who just, when you said Carl just reminded me of another person that

Michael Weening (03:25):
Keith is still there. Well, and he is an anchor of the company.

Christopher Mitchell (03:27):
So as I learned about North Dakota and South Dakota, and we have these maps we show because people, people, one of the things we do with the fiber day, the boot camps, is we just help people. I wanna, people do appreciate that if all of North Dakota basically has fiber optic access, access, we can do it anywhere where we just, where we make it a priority, of course,

Michael Weening (03:45):
Because of the distribution. So,

Christopher Mitchell (03:46):
But the question is how did North Dakota become the leader in it? And my understanding is a lot of it comes back to Keith Carlson.

Michael Weening (03:52):
There is absolutely no doubt that Keith Carlson had a, had a big part of it. And I would say that he is a really great example of what our, you know, what our company stands for. You know, it's, it's very focused on those customers, understanding what they're trying to accomplish in their, in their markets, and then partnering with them to drive success. And I, I can't think of a better person who exemplifies that than Keith. He's been there for, i, I don't know, 16, 18 years. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and if you talk to him, he's always advocating for his customers. He's always, you know, when you talk to his customers, they're all like, Keith and I are partnering. We're looking at this. And again, constantly pushing our product, organization with new ideas, new business models, how do we expand beyond you know, just broadband? Cuz it, it's not about fiber. Fiber is just the start and it's gotta be this long journey of how do you build a, how to build a business in a community. Right?

Christopher Mitchell (04:43):
Yes. And then for people who are interested in the deep history, I talked with Robin Anderson, who's a woman in North Dakota that's been involved with the fiber networks for a long time. And she talked about some of those early days with Keith. And and so for people that wanna go back in the archives, I don't know which number it is off the top of my head, but but it's back there

Michael Weening (05:02):
When I believe Keith was at AUM at the time. Right. And then moved over, you know, and Carl tells a lot of stories about the acquisition of aum, which was when he was envisioning the organizational shift away from where we were into an IP world, and then looking at this massive transformation with software and clouds, he actually decided that, or targeted AUM as a, you know, they had great architects. And in fact, if you look at the platform that we've built, you know, the last 12 years, 1.2 billion invested. It was actually I think four or five people from AUM who were the core architects with Carl that kicked it all off 12 years ago. Yeah. So yeah, there's a lot of history in there. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (05:42):
So that's my history. And then it's probably, it was September of last year, I walked into the National Tribal Telecom September event that they were having. And I had I had spoken with Alison Mitchell years ago and she blew me away. And since then I've been trying to get her on this show, but she's super hard to, to nail down because she's super busy and you're on stage, Claudia, and you were talking about working with Mohawk Networks and I was just like, oh my God, this is so cool. Like, someone else, like maybe could tell the story <laugh>

Claudia Tarbell (06:15):
Yes. I mean, Mohawk Networks was an idea from an economic development officer. It wasn't Mohawk Networks at the time. He just knew that the limitations that we had with our connection was going to hurt our economic development of the Tribe. So they worked a couple years in creating pulling together a solution. And so they applied for the, the grant funding of U S D A grant and Ross Grant. And we received that and it was a 80 20 reimbursable style grant. And so it was a huge undertaking for the Tribe.

Christopher Mitchell (06:55):
Well, let me jump in because we're gonna tell the story of Mohawk Networks with, with other work, cuz you are, are you're really being essential in helping us to do a Tribal Broadband Bootcamp Bootcamp. So that's gonna be exciting. We're gonna learn a mo lot more about it. But tell me about your transition and feel free to throw in the part where you love the work that my team does. <Laugh> <laugh>.

Claudia Tarbell (07:19):
So I had I had worked for the, for the casino. I had worked for our health services department and I worked for a tobacco company and I was like this isn't enough for me. And so I seen a job for for Mohawk Networks, and I went into the interview and the person, the general manager at the time is kind of like I don't see a fit. I don't think you are qualified for the position, and I don't like to be told that I can't do something.

Christopher Mitchell (07:51):
This is the kind of jerk move. I would pull in an interview <laugh> in part to see how a person would respond <laugh>.

Claudia Tarbell (07:58):
So I spun, looked at him and said, it's Internet. What's the big deal?

Christopher Mitchell (08:04):
<Laugh>. I love that. You see, I heard you say that at Net Inclusion and I love that story.

Claudia Tarbell (08:09):
Yeah. so surprisingly I got hired for the position and I started doing a lot of research. If I don't know something, I research and I research and I research until I understand it. And I started looking at MuniNetworks. So I started reading up on how broadband has been used by other communities and how I can implement, how we could implement that and fully understanding you know, having a great customer experience, very being very, very community focused was a huge part of Mohawk Network's success. And the general Allison Mitchell, general manager, she took that very seriously and she's a tremendous leader for the team in making sure that, you know, we understand that we're, that connection point for the first responders we're the connection point for our elders. We are the connection point for our police department. Public safety, it wasn't just about streaming, it wasn't just about it wasn't about gaming. It was about, you know, the community mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And so, you know, the team really took our job seriously and we took a lot of pride in our work because Yeah, it is, we're we're the connection for the community.

Christopher Mitchell (09:32):
Well then you had an opportunity to come to Calix and I don't know if you're comfortable sharing what Allison told you, but I love that it's great management <laugh>.

Claudia Tarbell (09:41):
Yes. So my director Joni met Allison at an event. And then Joni was creating a position within Calix for marketing for Tribes. And so she reached out to Allison, she's like, Hey, I'm creating this position. Do you have anyone in mind? And she said, yes, I do have someone in mind. So she, she approached me and she said, Hey, there's call who's creating this position? You need to apply to it, but I hope you don't <laugh>

Christopher Mitchell (10:13):

Claudia Tarbell (10:17):
I hope you get it, but I I hope you don't. And I mean that's I mean, it's a huge compliment from a leader that does not prevent you from growth. I think, you know, she's tremendous leader for, you know, allowing me to move forward and, you know, grow. Really, it's not even I'm reaching my potential. It's I'm growing and she knew that, you know, I was leaving a hole within the core team mm-hmm.

Christopher Mitchell (10:46):
<Affirmative>, but now you're bringing back a bunch of us for three days at least. So <laugh>

Claudia Tarbell (10:50):
Yes. And you yeah. And she's really good about that. You know, she, she really understands that Tribes need some education and some training so that, you know, they are very well prepared to own and operate their own i p

Christopher Mitchell (11:06):
Right. And that's what I want to, I think I'll jump back over here to Michael, the the question then is is with Calis is obviously you, you mentioned that this is straight through from the founding, this idea of going beyond just the, the idea of selling the fiber gear and that sort of a thing. So I'm, I'm curious, what are some of the things that Calx is doing now that go above and beyond to help out?

Michael Weening (11:30):
Sure. Well, well, it starts out with the platform, right? Anyone can sell a box into someone and then, and then hope that they can use it. But what we've really done is engage with our customers in our advisory panels and all these different groups get all their feedback. And so as we continue to expand out this very unique platform in the market that goes right from the edge of the data center all the way to the end subscriber, whether they're a consumer or they're a, a business we take those ideas and implement them. And I, I've given multiple examples of this on different talks around how we've integrated and gone above and beyond because of the fact that we we're bringing like solutions like Bark, which is around helping communities stop cyber bullying and self-harm, right? And we're looking at how do we create a ubiquitous mesh of Wi-Fi to, to light up a town and, and allow a student to leave school and basically roam around and get education.

And then the other part of it, which Claudia and the team are actively involved in, is then we go beyond and say, we have the same kind of cloud philosophy that, you know, I, I, I was at Salesforce and other places where, you know, you can't actually just drop something off and hope it works. Our responsibility to our customers is to say, look, this is a partnership and your success is really important and we want you to constantly improve. So for example, we've implemented something called the Marketing Activation program, which is we notice a lot of our customers didn't have access to, you know, a big agency, right? Whereas our agency is the same agency for Spotify and Audible. And it's because the executives on our team are, are very senior, come from IBM and places like that. This

Christopher Mitchell (13:02):
Is for like advertising

Michael Weening (13:03):
And for advertising, right? And, you know, if I'm a small service provider, right? I have, let's say I'm a Tribe and I have a thousand customers, you know, who's gonna be doing my agency work, who's gonna be creating my ads, it's gonna be someone who's maybe in the high school I went with who, who actually was a good artist, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And what we did was we actually created a program where all of our customers get access to now over 4,000 pieces of content that with a single click of a button, they can put their logo, their colors on it, they can change the text, and now their content is better than at and t, Comcast and Charter. And I say better because we actually just won a global award for advertising, for video for video advertising. And that was up against some of the best brands in the world, including like Sony PlayStation. That

Christopher Mitchell (13:46):
Probably would've been nice back in the day, huh? Yeah. So, no, that's one of the things we talked about Claudia

Michael Weening (13:50):
<Laugh>, right? But, but, and our customers really appreciate it because the, the other part too is it just makes their lives simpler. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> instead of having to figure out, because we also go and test these campaigns. We partner with the customers and they say, here's a campaign I wanna run. So we create it and we see it works or it doesn't. And then the, the second big one is that unlike anyone else in the marketplace, we've actually really invested in customer success. And this again, philosophically comes from, you know, I, I ran the global customer success organization for small and medium business at, at Salesforce, which was about three and a half billion at the time when I was there. And it was all about scaling and helping those customers succeed. And so we have a small army of people in, in the US and Canada serving rural customers, and all that they do is they don't have quotas.

Their bonuses are based on how successful you are as a Tribe or a cooperative or whatever it is. And they're all about how do you run your marketing organization? How do you run your call center? How do you run your field service? How are you running your network and, and premises operations? All these things. And constantly pushing our customers to improve so that they can be more successful for their communities. And that's, again, I would say that's the biggest difference is that, you know, look, we built the company on the rural markets 23 years ago. Carl made the choice that I can go and build a company for at and t but then at and t is gonna dictate what we build. And the chances are the products is gonna be terrible because it's just gonna work for at and t mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. Instead what he said was, I've got this history where I understand all these rural providers, we're gonna build technology that allows all of them to be successful and then will scale up. And that has been the philosophy that's driven the company. That's why over 2000 customers who give us all this great feedback and we partner on, and that's, you know, that's kind of how we run the company.

Christopher Mitchell (15:34):
So I'm curious, since you've joined Calix I mean, I, I have to assume it's been just really interesting to now suddenly be working nationally and focusing on this stuff. But are there any reflections or any things that have been like really exciting that, that you've done in terms of encouraging people to step up and take a chance?

Claudia Tarbell (15:51):
When I talk to Tribes, I always encourage them to find a way to own a part of their network. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> own a part of their infrastructure. Cuz sometimes it's not feasible to own and operate, but find a way to take control of that because, oh, I love that. Because that's the only way that you are going to have an impact in your community. If you give that, if you give that control away to somebody else, they're not gonna be as passionate. They're not gonna be as committed to your community. So you need to find ways to find operational sustainability and build operational efficiencies. Because nobody else is gonna understand your community the way you do. Nobody's gonna provide jobs for your community the way you do. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And nobody is gonna have that passion for that impact the way you do. Find a way to own it.

Christopher Mitchell (16:46):
That's great. And I'll, and I'll just say that like, I feel like the vibe here is, is changing a bit in that there was just a wireless group on stage and at the end of it the person who's up there was like, you know, like, you should really focus on owning this stuff. And, and I, I feel like that message is getting out there. That's always been our message is I'm like, owners make decisions. And it's terrific that we're seeing that out there, but that's great advice. Thank you so

Claudia Tarbell (17:10):
Much. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to be on your podcast and share my story and share my passion.

Christopher Mitchell (17:18):
You'll be back. Yeah,

Claudia Tarbell (17:19):
We're gonna,

Christopher Mitchell (17:19):
I'm gonna bother you. I'll

Claudia Tarbell (17:20):
Be back. I'm a, I'm a huge fan of MuniNetworks. I've always read all the case studies that you put out. I mean, I think you do great information. And what you focus on is just amazing.

Christopher Mitchell (17:30):
Thanks. And I, I really wanted to, to bug you, but I know that you have a busy week, so we're gonna do a Zoom interview or, or else do it We're face-to-face again sometime, but I do have a last question for Michael then. Which is yesterday we did a fiber day with ed Mitchell and Mary St. John, and in it they were talking about managed Wi-Fi. And I always talk about managed Wi-Fi as you wanna reduce truck rolls. This is about operational expense. And they were talking about being able to have a branded mobile app. And I admit, I was kind of like, yeah, whatever, like who branded mobile app, whatever, not whatever. And no. So this is the thing, right? And so, and then Mary starts talking about how to, to get a teenager down for dinnertime, you can just pop open your app and, and as, and like it's this IP that has a small i s p of 500 customers or something like that, right? You're not gonna be investing in your app, but here you have this app that then you can turn off their Internet <laugh>, turn off their device to get their attention. That's cool.

Michael Weening (18:26):
So we we're going way beyond managed Wi-Fi. So managed Wi-Fi, in our words terminology is like five years ago. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, there's a bunch of people getting into it now. But what we did was we started building that out. Again, back to what you said, which was the initial push for that was really reducing opex, right? Because a lot of broadband providers wouldn't go inside the home because of the fact that they said, no, no, let 'em go buy something. But then they started to realize they're getting all the phone calls mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. So whereas if they use our cloud, they control the broadband, they see everything that's going on, they can see your iPhone doesn't get, you know, good reception by the pool and then they can fix it. Hey, we gotta extend it, right? But then as we think more and more about the home and, and the business as we expand out our services capabilities, so giving them the ability to offer incremental things like home security, web cameras going into, as I said, bark and warranty work and all these other things you really have to have a good relationship with your customer and you have to have a way to interact with them.

So one thing that we did was we built a mobile app and when we architected, we architected. So it was simple for us to put their brand on it, because we never want to have our brand. No one should ever know who Calix is.

Christopher Mitchell (19:35):
Or as a friend of mine says, Cal

Michael Weening (19:36):
Ix. Yeah, I just say it's California. That's how you say it. That's the only way I can remember. Not to say kx, <laugh> say, you know, think California, but, but we built this mobile app so that to your point, someone who has two, 300 subscribers can literally have a custom, you know, with their brand, their colors, they have this mobile interaction because in the end, that's how they interact with their end subscriber. And yes, there's all these capabilities, but those capabilities become really crucial. When I'm running my home security, I'm running my web cameras, I'm using all these other applications, and now the call center can actually start interacting also through the mobile app with the person who's, cuz the person who installs it is the one who's controlling the home, right? And so you can get to that person who's actually the, the internal person who's running the network inside the house and, and interact with them. And we thought it was critical to go way beyond just, you know, managing it to having an interaction that is, is very, very fruitful for every member.

Christopher Mitchell (20:31):
Excellent. Well thank you so much for your time today. It's been terrific catching up.

Michael Weening (20:35):
Great. Thank you very much for having us. And again, you know, to what Claudia said, thank you so much for the partnership around education where, you know, you asked about the things that we're doing. This broadband academy that we built out goes way beyond just, you know, how to run a network, how to do marketing, it, it's all these different elements. And working with organizations like yourself is incredibly important as these Tribes learn to build their businesses. So very exciting. And you

Christopher Mitchell (20:59):
Don't need to be a calx customer to be a part of that. You can just jump right in and Calx Academy.

Michael Weening (21:04):
Yeah, it's, yeah. Calx Academy.

Christopher Mitchell (21:05):
There's other opportunities too for more in-depth stuff. Calx has a lot of educational resources. I know, but that's the one to look at for,

Michael Weening (21:11):
Well, and what we find is we're engaging with, with Tribes and cooperatives and groups who are looking at getting into broadband at a very early stage, right? So there's the education work that we're sharing with them way before they even consider calx. But we're also doing things like educating them on how to apply for a broadband grant, right? Where, where's all the money that you can get to actually support your business? How do you fill out the forms? We have all those capabilities because again, we recognize that this is a long-term relationship. Again, we've been here for 23 years, we built a company on it. We expect to be here for decades longer. And, and to only make that happen, you have to actually lean in at all stages. And it's not just about what you get out of it, it's about helping them so they can help their communities.

Christopher Mitchell (21:52):
Excellent. Well, thank you.

Michael Weening (21:54):
Thanks for your time.

Ry Marcattilio (21:54):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at Community Nets, follow muni, stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this another podcasts from I lsr, including 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 While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.