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How Consulting Firms Can Help Communities Plan, Build, and Finance Local Broadband Networks - Episode 508 Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast Christopher is joined by Ken Demlow, Planning Services Group Manager with HR Green, a leading employee-owned civil engineering and technical management firm with offices in nine states.The pair dive into the world of consulting firms and how they help cities and towns across the United States figure out how to build and design local infrastructure, which includes the building of local broadband networks.
Ken, a nationally recognized expert on fiber deployment, walks through the process of how HR Green is first engaged by a community, covering everything from envisioning the scope of work and assessing existing community assets to the high-level design and financing of local broadband network construction.
Christopher probes Ken on the ins-and-outs of how communities can prepare to upgrade its telecommunication infrastructure, how local leaders can think about financing construction, as well as dealing with the challenges of rights-of-way and pole attachments – one of the most difficult aspects of building broadband networks.
Demlow goes on to share his experience working with communities across the country and how local officials looking to close the digital divide in their towns can think about how to get the ball rolling.
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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.
Christopher Mitchell (00:08):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I'm from my HomeAway from home for two days. <laugh> Houston, Texas <laugh>. I'm not here for the broadband communities event. maybe you've already heard a show because this isn't gonna be the best one, is it, Ken?
Ken Demlow (00:30):
Oh, no, I think it will be, actually, I think <laugh>, I think this will set a new landmark.
Christopher Mitchell (00:35):
Ken Delo longtime friend with HR Green. Ken just briefly, what sort of stuff do you do? Like, I mean, like, I'm a policy guy, right? I think about stuff like that. You're like an engineer, right?
Ken Demlow (00:48):
So we have an engineering group my area,
Christopher Mitchell (00:50):
That's why I said an engineer.
Ken Demlow (00:51):
Yeah. And I'm not, by the way, I'm not an engineer, but, but we we start with how do we help communities figure out what they need to do? And so we do like, you know, surveys and and helping them, you know, gis helping them kind of determine. And then we have an engineering group, and if they are moving forward with, with things that they want to do, then, then the engineering group takes over and works things out from there.
Christopher Mitchell (01:12):
So, so, but you're always associated with, you work closely with engineering groups, I feel like, historically, right?
Ken Demlow (01:17):
We do. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (01:18):
Ken Demlow (01:18):
Well, I mean, you do. I do personally, yes.
Christopher Mitchell (01:20):
Yeah. Yeah. Now, HR Green, HR Green has a whole history of dealing with like, all kinds of civil engineering projects and things like that.
Ken Demlow (01:25):
Yeah. HR Green's actually 109 years old. Yeah. Yeah. And and it was civil engineering, and then we started a fiber and broadband group, because they're all dealing with it Right. Of way.
Christopher Mitchell (01:33):
Ken Demlow (01:34):
But I do hang around with engineers and I hang around with people smarter than me.
Christopher Mitchell (01:38):
Yeah. Well that's, that's the smartest thing you can do. See, <laugh>, right? I do that all the time. Yeah.
Ken Demlow (01:43):
like me hanging out with you, Chris. Exactly.
Christopher Mitchell (01:45):
Ken Demlow (01:48):
Wait, which one is that? I'm
Christopher Mitchell (01:49):
Way smarter than you on photography, but like, on other things, you know, we'll, we'll have to work that
Ken Demlow (01:52):
Out. So there you go.
Christopher Mitchell (01:54):
<laugh>. The so the reason I'm wanting to have you on to talk a little bit is I just feel like a lot of people are like, okay, so I don't even know the difference between what different firms do. And when I say that, I'm not even talking about someone new to a community. I'm talking about people on my staff who have worked for me for years, <laugh>. I'm like, wait, what does this company do? So I thought we could talk about that a little bit from the frame of, of, I'm a, I'm a community, let's call it the Mitchell the community of Mitchell, not in South Dakota. Not in South Dakota, the, not Dakota, South Dakota, Mitchell. and, and I'm like, I'm convinced my, my leadership really recognizes that we need municipal broadband for some reason. but but like, you know, before we can go financing, we need to go through all the steps and everything else. So, so we say HR Green come help us out. where, what do you start doing first?
Ken Demlow (02:38):
We, and, and by the way, this applies more to every size community then you might think. And so a community of, of two or 3000 people, they actually have the same questions of communities of a hundred thousand, 500,000 people. It, now it's different scale and different, but, but a lot of the questions are the same. So what we typically find is we come into a community and they really just don't know what to do. They, they, they, they think there's a need. Anecdotally, they've heard there's a need. We have to start kind of, so, so our first part of our process is what we call visioning. And that is where we say, okay, let's figure out what's going on here. Let, let, let's get eyes on this. And so, so there's several things we can do. and, and there's different options, but typically it involves, okay, what infrastructure does the city have? And do you know what you have? Is it recorded? And, and Chris, it's really interesting. Like there are communities that are fairly sophisticated and they'll say, oh yeah, we have conduit. And and I'm not exaggerating. We'll say, well, okay, where, let's see it. And they're like, well, we don't exactly know.
Christopher Mitchell (03:32):
Right? It's under this street.
Ken Demlow (03:35):
That's not good. We think it's under this street. Sure. Yeah. Or, or Joe who retired five years ago, that's where he thought he put it. I mean, that could really, seriously mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So,
Christopher Mitchell (03:43):
And this is not like, this is not like, oh, that's a dumb town. This is like, this is a common occurrence because we haven't had the right systems for tracking this information.
Ken Demlow (03:53):
It, it's very common occurrence. As a matter of fact, I would say we ran into that probably 80, 90% of the time. I mean, not a little percent, you know, vast majority.
Christopher Mitchell (04:02):
And for people who are like, well, this is why local government shouldn't get involved in broadband. The situation isn't much better for AT&T or Frontier, from what I can tell.
Ken Demlow (04:09):
No, it, it's not. And, and, you know, I, in defending government and all that is they're taking different steps to get different things done. There's different initiatives and understanding. And then quite frankly, the technology even changes. I mean, somebody who's putting this in 10 years ago didn't have what we have to track it now. Right. You know, they had it on maps and stuff, and hey, by the way, like I know at my house, if I write something down mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and I think I'm gonna put that exactly where I need to have it five years from now, we're not gonna know where that was <laugh>.
Christopher Mitchell (04:39):
Right. Right. Oh, I take, I take pictures while the walls are open with a tape measure, see <laugh>, and then as long as I don't lose my phone, I know where that picture is. <laugh>.
Ken Demlow (04:46):
Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and so, so really, you know, the expectation of you really should know where every piece of all of that is. None of us live our lives that way. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And, and why would that be any different than, you know, so, so anyway, so, so one of the first steps in is we say, okay, let's start figuring out what's actually here. Mm-hmm. I mean, let's just go straight infrastructure.
Christopher Mitchell (05:03):
What actually, okay, so we're gonna skip over that now though. So we've gone through that. We've figured out what's actually here. Yep.
Ken Demlow (05:07):
So by the way, both, both at the, from the public sector and the private sector, seeing if we can figure out what the private sector has there. Sure. So, so we put all that together. Okay.
Christopher Mitchell (05:14):
All right. Yep. So we have that together. Yep. what do we do
Ken Demlow (05:17):
Next? Yeah. So, so in our vision process, so we're, so we figure out the lay of the land. Next we wanna figure out most communities, again, no matter what size, think they know certain things, but they'll also, they're also pretty upfront that there's probably things they don't. So what we do then is say, okay, what steps we need to take to help you really get good data? And, you know, in our industry right now, the vast majority of the time is let's do a survey. we do that online typically. which has its own problems. Because if you don't have broadband at all, then how do you take an online survey? But, but we do that the best we can, and we figure out how to do that to where we get them some actual data to work from. So once we have that, once we have the what's what infrastructure, once we have, okay.
Do the best feel we can get. And by the way, we typically do that with a survey, but then we also interview the different departments. Because the, give you example, one of my quickly, one of my clients they had mediocre broadband. We went to their city and their city staff and the city staff when they, when we said, okay, what do you have? And they said, well, we have a direct connection from a local provider. No redundancy. So our community's growing. We go down probably once a week. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the city goes down once a week, you know? Yeah. That
Christopher Mitchell (06:24):
Doesn't work for the
Ken Demlow (06:24):
Police department. It does not. And by the way, they told me that <laugh>, right?
Christopher Mitchell (06:28):
<laugh>, just in case you're curious. Yeah. We're
Ken Demlow (06:30):
Christopher Mitchell (06:30):
Ken Demlow (06:31):
This situation. This is not going well. This is not good. So, so we, again, we kind of round out what's the need through those different methods. And then that's the vision. And then we go to what we call planning. And that is then we say, okay, let's start figuring out what your options are. And we usually go by an order magnitude of saying, we will actually design to a high level design of what we see as your options. And then you can take that and act on it either by, okay, we want to participate in that, or we wanna take that to the provider community and go out like to an RFI or something like that, but have a real rfi like, like, is there really something we could do here? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So then we get that feedback, and then we help them decide, okay, now we know what the problem is. We know what some solutions are, we're getting feedback from the provider community or doing it ourselves. So now let's figure out what that means financially. Let's figure out what that means, you know, politically, you know, and then start laying in the planes.
Christopher Mitchell (07:23):
Now when you say a high level design Yeah. is that where you, you kind of like, you haven't actually like sent an engineer out to like walk the walk the rights of way or things like that. Right. But you have a general sense like, the poles are crazy in this town, we're not gonna be able to use 'em. Or Wow. Like the polls are great and we're gonna be able to use them and we have a sense of what the cost is of that. Or, I'm in Maine, so we're not gonna be doing anything underground versus like, you know, I'm in a town where like we can do most stuff underground pretty cheaply. That's what you include at that level? Or is that not even there yet? It
Ken Demlow (07:53):
Is. I, so just at a very quick level, I mean, we'll like find out from the pole provider, whoever that is, local, electric, whoever, and kind of look at what features are there, what can actually be done. Is it a high rock table? I mean, just some of that very first, first look. And we do know, we do not send anybody out to the field at that point. It's just, okay, here's your center street lines, here's kind of what the lay of the land is, what the issues are. Different companies do this differently. Different consultants do this differently. We actually do a full design mm-hmm. <affirmative> now it's just not field verified, but we do a full design. So it even says how many handholds this is, how many feet, all that.
Christopher Mitchell (08:24):
So the engineers are fully involved from your staff to do that. Yes. And in another situation, you might have a consultant, like you and I both were close friends with Eric Lamp when he was doing this work. Yep. Is it, this is where Jim Petro would come in with Yes. what's the name of his firm? I can't remember.
Ken Demlow (08:39):
Christopher Mitchell (08:39):
Newcom. Yeah. Yeah. So he would come in with, that's where you, that's where I got to know you originally. Yeah. So some places you might have HR Green has all this stuff in house, like a Magellan will have this in house, CTC will have this in-house. Yes. Other folks will have a series of partners that they work with who bring some of this expertise to
Ken Demlow (08:54):
Bear. Yeah. One thing I would just recommend to communities is those, the firms you named and how they do it are firms that really kind of do say, let's go ahead and get a map out here. And the reason for that is because we want to kind of get a feel of order of magnitude. That's a real order of magnitude. The consultants that concern me are the ones who don't have that staff, and they don't farm that out. They go in and say, okay, look, roughly a foot would be such and such. We think there's about this many road feet. So here's a number. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the problem is that's really not based on anything. And, and, you know, we're not doing a field walk out, but by the same token, at least we have quantities mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> where there's, there are, are firms still out there today who just don't use any of that technology and they just do like a a per foot. We think it's this many feet. So here's a rough magnitude. I'm concerned about that because mm-hmm. <affirmative> boy, that number then goes through decision making. Right. Right.
Christopher Mitchell (09:40):
That's the number that sticks around
Ken Demlow (09:42):
For a while. It does. It does. It needs to. Yeah. So, but yeah, the firms you named, so I'll do, I'll do some ver variation of design. It's just, the difference is you don't walk it out and figure, figure out the details,
Christopher Mitchell (09:51):
And we'll come back to what the walking it out means in a second. But, so this is a number then where you're kind of like going back to the elected officials and being like, are you picking your jaw up off the floor? Like, is this something like, so my community, my, my town of Mitchell, we're like, no, that's cool. We can, we, we set aside our rescue plan dollars. We've been, we're ready to put some of our own skin in the game. This number doesn't scare us. so what's next? Yeah.
Ken Demlow (10:12):
And, and Chris, what something you said, there's just very important, folks really don't have any order of magnitude, really. I mean, I actually had a, a, a, a county say, look, we wanna throw in some ARPA dollars and there's a company we think might wanna build out, and they were gonna partner instead of do it themselves. And they said, you know, if we, and I'm not exaggerating, they said, boy, if you, if we threw out about 10 grand, you think that would help 'em <laugh>
Christopher Mitchell (10:35):
The answer, the answer listeners for our No, no, that would, no, that would not be worth, that would necessarily, that would not necessarily be worth going through the trouble of procuring it.
Ken Demlow (10:44):
Yeah, exactly. But that's, that was a real question. No joke. Yeah. So, so an order of magnitude is to your point, you know, pick up your jaw off the floor. I mean, order of magnitude could be you, is this 10 million? Is this 20 million? Is it 30 million? And then saying, okay, do we wanna do anything with that? Or do we wanna start working with somebody else? And what do we need to do to make that happen? And all that. So from there, that decision is a big, big decision next. And then the community will either typically decide, okay, we're gonna actually start going down the process of seeing if we can get that financing. If we could mind whatever, or say, okay, now we kind of know what we're getting into. Now we know where our needs are, we're actually gonna go out to the provider community and say specifically, do you, are you interested in this?
Do you want to help with this? And so they have specifics to be able to talk over with a provider. So, so they have that decision to make. Now, if they decide to do it themselves, as silly as it sounds, these are all true. From there we go, that's a high level design. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> from there, if they're really thinking about doing themselves, we go to a mid-level design. No joke. So, and then, by the way, the other one is low level design, actually, but <laugh>, right. But, so the mid-level design is basically to say, we're gonna go out and get some, some budget quotes, gonna figure out what construction contractors are charging right now. We're gonna have, knowing roughly what the materials are, we're going to get some quotes on just, you know, the main items. And then be able to take that to a bonding company or, or to financing company or to a bank so that they can say could, if we wanna do that, could we, could we? Now I actually was working with another company, another, another community, and they said, we're really interested in that. And I said, okay, so how do you wanna do it? They said, well, we probably wanna bond it. Okay, what's your bond capacity? And they said, we're maxed
Christopher Mitchell (12:24):
Ken Demlow (12:26):
So okay, <laugh>.
Christopher Mitchell (12:29):
But now those make it more difficult
Ken Demlow (12:31):
Changes things. It does, but, but if, but, but they could either decide to look that way and do that. by the way, whoever's listening to this, I also communities, if you're gonna build it, it's not like you have to build it and operate it and do all the pieces and do all the maintenance. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you can ac there are companies that will do that for you or can have it open access, at which point you, you, you lease it out to people who want to join on it. So, so it is not like you have to become a utility to own it and operate it, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, no. Again, you have those options. Or if it's really like, look, we just can't do that. I mean, it's, that's too much money, that's too much, whatever, that we don't have the political will, whatever.
Christopher Mitchell (13:04):
So on your side, the mid-level design, you really already have, you know, close to a low-level design, right? Yeah. And now you're, what you're doing is you're, you're getting you have a sense of what things are gonna cost. Now you're checking those assumptions against actual vendors and figuring out labor costs and things like that.
Ken Demlow (13:21):
Yeah. And then if they wanna pursue it themselves, that mid-level design gives them enough detail that bonding companies trust or financing, financing institutions trust. Then if, if, if those still all green lights, then we go and do the walkout, which is what we talked about, which is where we actually take the, that mid-level design, we actually send the crew. They actually go out to the field, go out, go out to the community, they actually check the route, which side of the street is it on? Which, you know, is there a, a wall in the way? Is there, you know, a building in the way that, you know, so they go verify the entire route. and then we actually do a very specific design. That actually is what we'll get built off of. So we actually, the low level design is where we actually do construction level permit level. I mean, all those detail levels that there's off frames at all these. But if, then, if, if all that's looking good, then we take those detailed designs, or are we doing RFP for construction contractor and then also do an RFP for the network access equipment that connects on the ends of the fiber. Chris, one thing just for, for people to know too, right now we're in a strange time, right? Because Right.
Christopher Mitchell (14:27):
A lot of this is theoretical right now. Well,
Ken Demlow (14:29):
And if we, if we wait to get the detailed design done to go to a construction contractor, cause that's the way it's typically gone, is then a construction contractor does the labor and buys the material. But a lot of the material right now can be up to a year out.
Christopher Mitchell (14:44):
Right. So you need to get that going early.
Ken Demlow (14:45):
Well, so what we end up doing, and this is, this is crazy. I've never done this in my entire career. I was in a meeting with, with I'll, I'll, this is a vendor that, that was good enough to have this conversation. I was with Graybar and, and Qualcomm 2, 2, 2 vendors in the, in the industry. And I said, you guys, what would you think about if we took our mid-level design and actually ordered materials? And that, that means we can order almost a year ahead, but would you be willing to change the order if detail design changes something like more or less, or we have to up, you know, have a higher capacity for some reason. Would you be willing to change the order? And they, they said yes. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and I said, by the way, would you mind, could you, could you explain to me why the answer is yes? And they said, because if we don't sell it to you, we'll sell it to
Christopher Mitchell (15:31):
Somebody else. That's what I was thinking you'd say. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I mean, like, so without putting them on the hook that they're not necessarily willing to do that with everyone. That's a conversation to have with a vendor.
Ken Demlow (15:40):
It, it is, you have to, by the way, the one other implication of that is that means the community might have to buy the materials, which means you have to think in terms of materials, logistics and all that kind of stuff, but
Christopher Mitchell (15:51):
Ken Demlow (15:52):
All that stuff. Yeah. That security, that's the thing. Yeah. Or, or you can put the conduit out in as long as you got a fence, you know, you can put the conduit out. But
Christopher Mitchell (15:58):
I don't know. I mean, I think some of the folks around here might be like going around <laugh> in trucks with hitches on
Ken Demlow (16:03):
Them aerial pictures. Right? Wait, there's, there in the middle
Christopher Mitchell (16:06):
Of the night, that one's not well defended. I'm taking that one
Ken Demlow (16:08):
<laugh>. Right? It's, yeah. But, but that, that's all
Christopher Mitchell (16:13):
Six months. There's gonna be centuries around that conduit,
Ken Demlow (16:16):
<laugh>. Oh, see, yeah. Armed guards. Yeah. Really. But at this point, that's all ways that, that whatever consultant that, that a community would bring on needs to be able to say, okay, are you willing to wait? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> not this upcoming construction season, but maybe not even the next construction season. Is that okay? And if it is, then you just do a traditional way mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But if it's not, then we have to get creative. And if, if all of that works out, then you develop a schedule of, okay, so here's when our contractor can start, here's when the materials will be there, and then and, and are we gonna operate it or are we gonna hire out the operations, or that sort of thing.
Christopher Mitchell (16:53):
Right. Yeah. So to be clear, if it's a hundred miles of network that you're building, someone's walking a hundred miles Yeah. To get that low level design.
Ken Demlow (17:02):
Yeah. To get, yeah. Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell (17:02):
It still, it still surprises me.
Ken Demlow (17:04):
Well, and there's, well, okay, so here's, here's one cool thing. There actually are now some cool ways to do that, like with lidar and that sort of thing. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> good enough now where depending on, particularly if it's on poles and depending on the, the electric on the poles, that can get pretty precise. If, if the poles are, if the poles are full mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but the lidar actually we can go, go do it. And that, that means we just have to walk out the sections that, that we have a lot of concern on. But there's, there's ways to speed it up. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but it still is a, every single foot, every single mile. Yeah. That we're making sure the design will work on that mile. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (17:41):
Excellent. Yeah. Thank you so much, Ken.
Ken Demlow (17:43):
Always good to talk with you.
Christopher Mitchell (17:44):
It's great to see you here in the Harrison Edwards Studios at Broadband communities. Thank you for making these available. And, and Ken, it's been great. I'd have to say for people, like if you, if you see a guy named named Ken Delo hanging around at an event, he, the, the guy's got some good stories. <laugh>, I'm just gonna say, check up our conversation, try to have dinner with him. <laugh>
Ken Demlow (18:05):
It, it's, you know, once you've been in the, in, in, as you know, Chris, once you've been in the industry for a while, you get some pretty good stories. Yeah, yeah. So there are some, so, by the way, do that cuz, cuz be glad, glad to tell stories.
Christopher Mitchell (18:15):
Excellent. Thank you.
Ken Demlow (18:16):
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