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An Inside Perspective on Urban Fiber Deployment: US Internet's Travis Carter - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 359
We regularly share stories about new fiber optic networks from local communities, cooperatives, and even local independent Internet access companies. Once in a while, we like to get an idea of what practical matters affect deployment and this week, we brought Travis Carter on the show to share his experiences. Travis, CEO of US Internet, has been working within the city of Minneapolis as the company deploys a fiber optic network to serve residents, businesses, and other premises.
Travis explains the way the company has changed and describes what it’s been like to go from an ISP that offered fixed wireless to one that also provides fiber optic in a large city. He offers some firsthand knowledge on the permitting process and shares the lessons he city staff have learned in working with a municipal structure. Travis explains how being part of the city’s long term vision for better connectivity has helped cut through some red tape that used to slow down the process.
In addition to working with the city to deploy their infrastructure, Travis and his colleagues at US Internet need to achieve a balance of revenue and investment that keeps the company growing and viable. Christopher and Travis discuss some of the types of decisions that all private firms make, including customer service, hiring practices, and taking on debt.
Learn more about US Internet in episode 194 and episode 301 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
This show is 40 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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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: There's a lot of houses and a lot of blocks and a lot of people that want service, and it just takes time. And it also takes a lot of money. It's the balance.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 359 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week we have a return guest on the show, Travis Carter, CEO of US Internet. The company, a local Internet service provider, has been deploying their fiber network in Minneapolis for several years now, and Travis is here to talk about the process. He explains what it's like to coordinate with city officials and talks in depth about the actual process involved in obtaining the necessary permits and permissions to build a fiber optic network in a metropolitan area. He talks about the learning curve for both the company and city officials and explains the business decisions US Internet has made in order to continue their expansion. Travis also addresses some of the practical matters related to customer service and hiring and shares some personal experiences. Before we get to the interview with Travis however, we want to bring a special message from a former guest about an upcoming event.
Ron Placone: Hey everybody. Ron Placone here. Myself along with Fight for the Future, are holding an epic livestream for net neutrality on June 11th. June 11th marks one year since the FCC repealed net neutrality. Without net neutrality protections, the Internet as we know it and all the shows and podcasts that everybody loves could cease to exist. Well, we're here to tell the FCC and Congress that we demand net neutrality. Join us at epiclivestream.com on June 11th to take our Internet back. That's epiclivestream.com
Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks Ron, and now onto the interview with Travis Carter from US Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Travis Carter: There you go.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I'm standing — sitting next to Travis Carter, the man who gets me to do those introductions in such a lively manner.
Travis Carter: I love them. Well done, sir. Well done.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome back.
Travis Carter: Thank you. Hey, this is the third time.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and I think we're gonna have at least one more as I try to tackle you in the field to learn some of these processes.
Travis Carter: Wonderful. Let's do it.
Christopher Mitchell: You know, the introduction actually follows the exact same intonation as, I think it's the "Leroy Jenkins" —
Travis Carter: Oh, World of Warcraft. There you go.
Christopher Mitchell: — the famous video.
Travis Carter: The classic — wow.
Christopher Mitchell: If you listen to how I do the intro, it's actually pretty similar to —
Travis Carter: Which if you're real nerd, they're re-releasing this fall by the way.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh really?
Travis Carter: So if you'd like to rerun that, you're welcome to.
Christopher Mitchell: I remember the first time I saw that clip and I fell in love.
Travis Carter: Oh yes, my youth. World of Warcraft, it was such a great game.
Christopher Mitchell: So for people who didn't hear your other two appearances, who are you and what do you do?
Travis Carter: My name is Travis Carter. I'm the recently nominated CEO of US Internet, and we are a Minneapolis-based Internet service provider, the last of the 175 of us that started in 1995. Over the years, as a lot of people know that understand the industry, the technologies have shifted. We've been through a wireless iteration. We've been through various telecommunications-type technologies: DSL and frame relay, et cetera, et cetera. And for the last nine years, we've been rolling out fiber in the south side of Minneapolis to the residents and businesses and multidwelling units. This is actually, yes, our ninth season of actually deploying fiber in the city of Minneapolis, and we're starting to get a pretty good size footprint out there.
Christopher Mitchell: I'd say. Yeah. I think you told me before — is it 65 - 75,000 houses?
Travis Carter: Yeah, I think we're just past our 75,000th home we've passed, and again, I don't like to emphasize that it's just homes. It's whatever we pass: businesses, schools, apartments, et cetera.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. You recently had a pretty sizable and recurring attack, a denial of service attack, on your network.
Travis Carter: Which is what I thought it was on a Sunday night at eight o'clock central time. Because I'm not a big TV watcher, I was assuming there was something malicious happening on the Internet, but after some analysis we determined there was a show called Game of Thrones and it was the final season. Now, to put it in perspective, we usually go through the Superbowl and the Final Four and all of these very highly streamed you know, episodes that go on, but they dwarfed in comparison to Game of Thrones. That is the single largest streaming consumption that we've seen since the inception of the company. It was unbelievable.
Christopher Mitchell: And that was the first day, right?
Travis Carter: It was season eight, episode one, and then it continued on up until this last Sunday when the finale happened. So I'm assuming next Sunday will be relatively normal.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Do you know what's the biggest peak? The first episode or the last episode or somewhere in between?
Travis Carter: Almost all the same. You know, I think we were pushing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 - 35 gigabit of just Game of Thrones. It just boggles my mind if you think about it from a national level or even an international level, how much consumption was happening just to show this one television show.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, how much electricity did it take to move it out there?
Travis Carter: I suppose I should probably watch it now, if that many people are.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, it depends. There's some people who found the ending sufficiently unbelievable or not fun. I myself also haven't seen it. I pick and choose a little bit and I hadn't gotten into that because in part it'd have to be amazing for me to dedicate that amount of time to it.
Travis Carter: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and then the first thing I didn't know is they're 90 minutes long, so we had effectively this 90 minute denial of service attack happening. But luckily because it's a fiber-based network, it really had zero impact on it. It was just the new high, and we hadn't seen anything like that in the past. So at least we now know we can handle Game of Thrones.
Christopher Mitchell: And even like five, seven years ago, people would be talking about how that could bankrupt you because of the transit costs, your costs of getting that content. How much did it cost you for those 30 to 35 gigabits?
Travis Carter: The little secret in our industry: almost nothing.
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Travis Carter: Yeah, the fiber's there. That's hooked up to people's homes. It's hooked up to the, you know, content delivery networks — in this case, Akamai. So we effectively went from a computer in our data center to all of these homes. There wasn't Internet per se; it was delivering locally. So a little bit of electricity and that was about it.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Now, tell me about your goal for Minneapolis.
Travis Carter: So the ultimate goal, which I hope to realize here in the next five years, is to have Minneapolis be the first NFL-size city that'll be fully 100 percent covered with fiber optic connectivity in every square inch of the city. Now, if you look at a map of Minneapolis, the vast majority of Minneapolis is actually what we call the south side, the south side of Minneapolis, and we're about three quarters done at the end of this season. And so we'll continue through finishing south Minneapolis. Then, we'll make our way up to north and northeast, which geographically are smaller so it won't take us as long to cover. And then, we will have the entire city complete. Now there will always be little pockets and roads and things that may be stragglers, predominantly the downtown corridor. They don't really like you digging up — they being the city — digging up streets that they just remodeled a year ago, so we might have to wait five, six years to be able to get in there. But in the interim, we're going to get all the neighborhoods and the vast majority done and then continue to expand out from there.
Christopher Mitchell: I told you I was just on Hennepin for a comedian and I saw orange conduit on Hennepin. Is that for you?
Travis Carter: Yup. That's us. Yeah. As the city is resurfacing and redoing the main corridors, we're getting our conduit in at that time. So down Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, we're about halfway down this year, we'll finish it up next year, and then we'll have a complete fiber conduit through the downtown corridor on that street, coinciding with the street that's being remodeled.
Christopher Mitchell: And then also right around there — I think it might be ninth, I'm not sure. Maybe eighth — one of them is just totally gone, and so you're getting in there as well.
Travis Carter: You've got it. Yeah, it's really key and it's something we learned along the way, is if you get plugged into the streets department, especially in these downtown hard surface areas, you can get in alongside them. It's a couple of years in the making, but you can definitely get in there and make it happen.
Christopher Mitchell: And so how does that work? I mean, is it just like they tell you like, okay, you've got this week in May where you can do it, or how does it — ?
Travis Carter: Yeah, they give you a time slot to get in, and so you need to be very coordinated. You need to have all your parts and pieces. You get in there, you do the construction, and you get out, and then you let the next sub contractor go in. So think of it like layers of the cake. You know, we'll go in from a network standpoint, then the water/sewer guy, you know, da da da da da, till ultimately they overlay the road and the sidewalks.
Christopher Mitchell: And talking about Minneapolis, I understand you recently got a — it's almost like a superpower.
Travis Carter: Yeah. I didn't even really honestly appreciate this when I discovered it, and I didn't even understand that apparently cities have this concept that they put out. I don't know if this is a federal or a local thing, but at least for Minneapolis they have this 20 year plan, which Minneapolis, you know, I thought was pretty original, called it Minneapolis 2040, right. So, okay. Yeah, I just happened to be perusing through there and I happened to look in the technology section, and deep buried in the technology section was a line in there that said that one of the charters of this 2040 plan was to enable fiber optic connectivity for every citizen in Minneapolis. I thought, oh, that's cool. That's us, right? Yeah, that must be us because as far as I know the incumbents aren't doing it anymore. And so I'm like, oh that's cool we're in there, and I just kind of forgot about it. Well fast forward, I was at a city meeting with the — I like to go down there every year to give them an idea of where we're going to be working and meet all the people, and I just happened to mention that we were in this 2040 plan and you could literally see on their face like, "Oh really?"
Christopher Mitchell: You're a celebrity now.
Travis Carter: I didn't even — they were like, oh well that kinda sorta changes everything. And it's really — I don't want to say it's like this ultimate power, but we're now part of the plan and when you're a part of the plan for a city, that's kind of the recipe for what's going to happen over the next — So it's really helped us navigate some of these more challenging projects. I always just say, "Hey, we're in the plan," and things seem to happen.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, yeah. "I don't know if you knew, but we're in the plan.'
Travis Carter: We're in the plan. Yeah, yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: You've got that going for you.
Travis Carter: What do you want me to tell them? We're in the plan, I mean . . . I didn't even ask to be in the plan. I don't even know how we got in there, but we're in the plan.
Christopher Mitchell: I think there's some sense — a lot of people, and I would even say myself, don't really know how you have to interface with the city. But one of the things that you and I have talked about, if I remember correctly, is that, you know, you have this active ethernet network approach, or an ethernet network, and so you need to have these different buildings — not a lot of them, but a few of them in the city of Minneapolis, some point the city of Saint Paul, perhaps
Travis Carter: We'll see.
Christopher Mitchell: My city. But where you're doing that then, you are in a central location for several neighborhoods and you have all of your fiber coming in there and you deal with that. That's your local office, central office, right?
Travis Carter: Correct. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: And so to get that permitted, you have to build a building or something like that, and you have to tell the city what you're going to do. And you tell the city, I need this building to do x, y, and z, and they look at you like you're talking in a different language, I'm guessing, because the zoning has an anticipated this kind of a building.
Travis Carter: Yeah. So the city has kind of these standard templates for types of buildings. If you wanted to build a gas station or a restaurant or, you know, the normal things that we see every day, there is a process for that. Then they have what they call the exceptional use case. And our model is very similar — it's actually identical to the way that the original phone companies, Ma Bell put their networks in. They would build a building in the neighborhood, and they would run their copper cables out to everyone's home. Well we're doing effectively the same thing. We're putting a building somewhere in the neighborhood, and then we're running our fiber cables out to everyone's home and business. So what happens is, when you need to build this building, you need to apply for a conditional use permit to go into the neighborhood. So now you fall into a whole separate process, okay? And the process is fairly well defined, but if you'd never been through the process before, it could seem very cumbersome. And I understand the city's point; you know, they don't want people building random this or that. So you go down, and you have your architect drop your plans, and you have all of your studies and your surveys done, and you take it down to the city, you have a neighborhood meeting, and you just go through what it's going to be. And six months later, you will get a stamp that says approved, and then from there you build your central office and then you operate it. First time we went through it, I was pulling my hair out because I didn't understand the process.
Christopher Mitchell: You did a pretty good job.
Travis Carter: Well yeah, not much left. This last time — well, luckily there's a guy that works for me that did most of it, but anyways, you know, it was a more — we kind of knew what to expect. And I think when you're building these kinds of networks, it's fear of the unknown. You know, you don't know how to navigate the city, you don't know how to navigate the permitting department, et cetera, et cetera. But once you figure that out, it's a fairly regimented and standardized process. For everything you do in the city you got a permit. You just got to get used to that, and there's a permit and there's a timeline and there's a cost associated with that.
Christopher Mitchell: There was someone at a conference I was at this year who actually, in regard to Right-of-Way processes — more for wireless for 5G, but but would be useful for this as well — who suggested that cities should have a one or two page document that just says if you want to do this, here's how you go about it, here are the steps that you have to go through. Because I think a lot of this stuff you had to just sort of figure out, right? I mean, there was no place where you could sort of prepare yourself: okay, I'm going to do one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. I think you probably had a sense I'm going to do one, two and three and see what happens next.
Travis Carter: The other thing you have to realize from the city's standpoint is in some of these neighborhoods we've been in, this public Right-of-Way hasn't been disturbed since the sewer and water lines were put in. Again, going back to the building, there's not this reoccurring process. So what I think the city does really well is if you want to apply for this license or that license that they do every day, there's a process, but when you go down to, like, the city and say, "Hey, I would like to install fiber optic cables in the public Right-of-Way deep in the neighborhoods," you got to kind of work with them to determine, you know, the process and how to do the permits and the costs and you know, all this stuff. But once you get that momentum going, it's pretty straight forward actually,
Christopher Mitchell: Or, once you get in the plan, right? I mean, coming back to the beginning of this is that if you can go in there and say, "Hey, I want to do this thing, and it's a part of the comprehensive plan," you get a different reaction from those people.
Travis Carter: It certainly does help, but if you're starting out kind of greenfield — right, we're going to go into Saint Paul. We're not in the plan. We've never worked with the city before.
Christopher Mitchell: You've heard rumors that they're difficult to work with because I keep telling you that.
Travis Carter: Yeah, no one's ever mentioned that they wanted us to even be there. You just have to kind of start working through the process. How do we permit? Here's the permit process that works in Minneapolis. You know, here's what we've experienced before. Find a champion at the city to help work this through. And it can be very frustrating and take a lot of time, but I think ultimately you get there.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about one of the more fun things you get to do. In fact, you probably didn't have a chance to do this before. You raised your prices.
Travis Carter: We have this balance between the debt load we're taking, our costs to hiring people and insurance, et cetera, and then being able to fully cover a city. We've learned over the years, there's certain areas of the city that our uptake is going to be higher than others.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So like, let's just fill in a little bit of background for people again who aren't familiar. You already have services available across the entire city.
Travis Carter: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: And so you built this wireless network, and you have a sense of where more people wanted it than other people in other parts of the city. So you have a sense of — absent even looking at any other data, you simply know how many people have come to you from how many city blocks and where to sign up for broadband.
Travis Carter: Correct. There's a desire for broadband. So we know where those pockets were, and so we were able to put our fiber facility down there first, A, because it resolved the contention of our wireless network — if you take a wireless node and you hook it up to fiber, you've got capacity — and then we also knew where the people that wanted the consumption or wanted the Internet were at. So we've been continuing to move out. Now when we get into some of these areas that the uptake isn't quite as good as it is in other areas, it puts a strain on the financials. So what we had to look at is say, where is that sweet spot between being the cheapest player in town to being the best value in town, which then gave us enough ammunition or enough financial capacity to facilitate our banking requirements so that we could go everywhere. You know, it's a spreadsheet exercise, honestly. And so by doing what I would consider a relatively minor increase, it now gives us enough financial capacity that we can just literally go from east to west or north to south without trying to cherry pick areas that we know we can get the return on.
Christopher Mitchell: And so, another bit of context I think is that you have long offered the greatest value in terms of — I mean your entry price was like $35 a month, right/
Travis Carter: Yup. Yeah, we started out at like $30, then we went to $35 and now we're at $50, and that's where we'll stay.
Christopher Mitchell: And it's worth noting, you like to talk about this a little bit, people seem to like you on Yelp.
Travis Carter: Yeah, well, they either like me or they hate me, you know.
Christopher Mitchell: There's not very many who hate you from what I can tell.
Travis Carter: No, they just — it's usually those — the people that have us or the service is available, five star all day long.
Christopher Mitchell: You were like a 4.7/4.6, right?
Travis Carter: Yeah, 4.7. We dropped to a 4.6.
Christopher Mitchell: Ugh.
Travis Carter: Yeah, well I learned that if you don't give a guy $1.16 credit for his unused days when he canceled he got mad, so we're fixing that. Anyways, so he gave me a one star review after being with us for four years of perfect service. You know, there's just people that are like that, and then you have the people that we're not there yet and they're usually the crabby ones.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So actually among your active customers, you're doing better than your rating might suggest because some people are ranking you down because they can't take your service.
Travis Carter: You got it. Or, we have this little thing here in Minnesota as you're well aware of called the weather. You know, the fundamental problem we have is weather. We had a really brutal winter this year. It's been a little slow going here getting ready for spring and summer. And because our fiber facility is all underground and we freeze like an ice cube here, we can really only build six, seven, eight months out of the year, and so we have a lot of variables we're dealing with. And the thing that other people always forget and I challenge people to, is Minneapolis is not a huge city by the mega city standpoints, but go buy a new pair of shoes and try to walk up and down every block. There's a lot of houses and a lot of blocks and a lot of people that want service, and it just takes time. And it also takes a lot of money. It's the balance.
Christopher Mitchell: And so in this case, you decided to raise your rates from $35 at the base to — you increased the speeds that are available. You went to $50. Now if I sign up at $50, what check am I actually gonna write you at the end of the month?
Travis Carter: $50.
Christopher Mitchell: That's so weird.
Travis Carter: Yeah, and it's month to month, so there's none of these games where, here, sign up for 12 months, and then maybe, you know, we'll play the cable company lottery. I have cable at home. I don't know what my bill is every month. I'm always curious to see what it is. It's $50 a month, you get 300 Megabits up and down, which is more than enough for most people, and that's it. And you can cancel at any time, sign up at any time. I try to have this mantra inside the business, which is "be the customer." So, how would you want to be treated, and that's what we try to do.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and then you also have a gigabit for how much?
Travis Carter: Gigabit's $70, and then we have a 500 Megabit in the middle, which is $60, just because some marketing person told me I had to have three choices. You know, I would literally, at some point in the future, I would love to just be gigabit only. You know, I think it's —
Christopher Mitchell: We talked about that a little bit.
Travis Carter: It's a little bit of an old school kind of marketing thing, you know, to be honest with you. But 300, 500 and a gig, they seem to be the right speeds for the right value, and our adoption rate has never been higher.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. One of the things you mentioned was that you saw very little dropoff from when you are raised the rates.
Travis Carter: Yeah, I think we had 14 people cancel directly due to rates, and I think last count, nine of them signed back up.
Christopher Mitchell: You're still the best deal in town.
Travis Carter: Well, there was that emotional arc. You know, I'm mad at Travis so therefore I'm going to cancel and show him, and then they look at the other two options and go, darn, I better turn it back on because —
Christopher Mitchell: Right, but let's be clear about this. You didn't do it because you're trying to buy your third house in the Caymans or something like that. This is what the spreadsheet tells you had to be done to be able to serve every last premise in Minneapolis.
Travis Carter: Yup. The banks have a very defined box you need to stay in. You know, you've got three metrics that the bank uses to determine your ability to borrow money, and so those three numbers have to be green every quarter. And in order to maintain that status and to continue growing — the thing in our network is if we actually stopped, we would be far more profitable.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. I can imagine that.
Travis Carter: Than if we continue to expand.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, because I mean if you stop building, you would have almost no expenses.
Travis Carter: Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: I mean, if you can off the top of your head, I'm curious if you know, if you look at, like, the cost that you have for keeping everyone employed, your customer service people, how does that compare to just the cost you shell out to expand your network every year?
Travis Carter: Oh, I'm just going to it a little bit wing it here, but three quarters of it goes to expanding than it does to actually maintaining and running what we have today. This is the beauty of fiber. We have a wireless group and fiber group, and the wireless guys always have a super complicated, you know, process of getting people connectivity. The fiber guys just plug people in and you never hear from them again, you know, so there is not a lot of ongoing costs to run the fiber network.
Christopher Mitchell: So if you just took a year off, if in 2020 you said that we're not going to expand any more, you could basically Scrooge McDuck it.
Travis Carter: Oh, if this was purely Travis needs to buy a bunch of houses and drive a bunch of cool cars, I wouldn't lay another foot of fiber in the ground. There's enough in the ground that honestly I could live for the rest of my life comfortably.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.
Travis Carter: But from a career standpoint, that isn't what we're trying to accomplish. I really want to be the first NFL city. I don't know why. I mean, I just think it's a personal goal of mine.
Christopher Mitchell: It's because you love the football team so much.
Travis Carter: Yeah. We have one, don't we? So it's just, you know, getting service out there and getting people happy. And it's a little bit intoxicating to have the best product in our town, so when you come into a neighborhood, it's like the circus coming to town. You know, everyone's excited about you, and there's a lot of heavy equipment, and we're drilling and we're hooking people up. And you know, at the end of the day, 99 percent of the people are happy.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and then there's a few people for whom, you know, one or two flowers on the corner property has been disturbed.
Travis Carter: Yes. What I tell my crews is make sure you have a stack of $20 Starbucks gift cards because it's amazing how much that will solve a problem. You know, somebody's petunia got dug up. I apologize for that. We try not to, but a nice latte usually fixes it.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure, I hope they're able to get more than one for $20.
Travis Carter: Well yeah, I don't know. I haven't been there in forever.
Christopher Mitchell: Me as well. So there's actually one thing I just wanted to throw on you, which I know you and I talked about a little bit, and that's that, you know, you put yourself out there when you build a network and some people have been critical. You got a really positive note from someone, and I think it's worth noting that people should do this. If they feel that they're getting really good service from a small company, they should send a note because it touched you.
Travis Carter: Oh, I almost fell out of my chair. You know, I logged into reddit where I usually have my fans and my non-fans, and I had a young lady who had emailed me and said, "Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for your hard work. Because of the facility you brought to me, I was able to graduate college and I've got my degrees in various IT and I'm out looking for my first job." And she just said thank you, and I was trying to find out where the slam was in here. You know, she was just generally thanking us for all of our hard work, and I said, "Hey, can I share it?" And so I sent it to you and a bunch of my other friends like, hey, check this out. After 25 years in the Internet business, we have one person we touched positively. But if they couldn't watch Game of Thrones . . .
Christopher Mitchell: Oh man, it's all over.
Travis Carter: We'd have a mutiny.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I mean, it is amazing how something like that or, you know, if for instance you had an outage when a lot of people were streaming the Superbowl or something like that. I mean, that's one of those things where you could — You know, you talked about your price increase. You lost a few people. You would lose a lot of people the next day, I think.
Travis Carter: We had an issue in the winter where we had some ice freezing that caused us — remember it was really cold here in February.
Christopher Mitchell: I was in North Carolina for that week.
Travis Carter: You're lucky. I was stuck here. But we had some damage that happened on one of the fibers and it took us like a day to, you know, get it fixed. And yeah, we had some real unhappy people during that time. You know, I always go back to this water analogy. When it just works, people just expect it to work. When it doesn't work and you can't take a shower, you can't watch, you know, your stuff or you can't do your work, that's a real problem, and these people are not afraid to voice that sentiment.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, as soon as it's back online, they're emailing.
Travis Carter: Oh yeah, and then a few days later they forget all about it and you know, back off we go. But we really try our best to minimize any sort of service interruptions that we can.
Christopher Mitchell: And so the last thing is, and this is something that you had brought up with me when we were hanging out one time, your hiring practices. And I'm curious about this because I think, you know, this is something that small companies, local governments, lots of different people that are hiring for these kinds of jobs, which don't require a college degree in many cases for outside plant. What are you looking for for someone who's going to be putting conduit in the ground and things like that?
Travis Carter: You know, honestly, I went to college nine days. I don't like to brag, so I'm not a big —
Christopher Mitchell: You're like Doogie Howser. You got done in nine days.
Travis Carter: Yeah, I'm just not really — really honestly, in all the years I've been doing this, I like to sit across from the person and get a feel for who they are. Can they show up to work on time? Can they be reliable to get the task done that we need to get done? More so than what their resume says, I try to hire the person and the personality, and you know, we give people second chances. I have people that work for me that have a fairly jaded past. It's not my issue. As far as I'm concerned, they have taken care of that responsibility, and heck, you know, I wasn't super crazy when I was 18, but I did some things and we all did that. You know, we're 18, 19, 20 years old, and so why should they have to not get a job from me because I really need their help and they need a good paying job. It's a symbiotic relationship. So I don't get too caught up in much of anything other than the fact that I'm just like, hey, I got your back if you got my back. Everyone that works for me is spot on.
Christopher Mitchell: You said some of those hires have been — some of the people who may have had a background that would have caused other people not even to give them an interview, some of them have been your best workers.
Travis Carter: Well, I have a guy that went through a state sponsored program, you know, where he was incarcerated. And I forget the number, but he told me there was like 12,000 people that had gone through this program, and he was the only one who had a job when he got out in the entire history of the program. He's the greatest guy in the world. You know what, he made a mistake. Who am I to judge, right? He's a great guy and he's a hard worker and he's there for us every day. And you know, as far as I'm concerned, he paid his ticket, and now he's back at work. And I've got many examples like that.
Christopher Mitchell: So as far as I know, you're one of a small group of people who have listened to every episode. So when this comes out, are you going to listen to it?
Travis Carter: Oh, I always listened to it, and I always go, that's the way my voice sounds. No, you know, it's my Tuesday morning ritual and —
Christopher Mitchell: Sometimes Wednesday mornings.
Travis Carter: Sometimes Wednesday morning, much to my chagrin, but you know, I will text you and say, "Is there a problem today?"
Christopher Mitchell: Right.
Travis Carter: But no, I do listen to it, and I try to just get the message out there. You know, I think a lot of people are worried about getting into this type of business. I'm not going to lie, it's a lot of work and it's a lot of challenges and there's a lot of things that happen that are outside of your control. But at the end of the day, it's very, very rewarding.
Christopher Mitchell: So actually, that brings up another question for me, which is, you talk about this a lot, the nine days of college. Where did you learn all the financial stuff you need to know? Because you make the case that this is more about financial than anything else.
Travis Carter: Well, I'm really good at pretending, but I've got guys that work for me, my CFO and my financial guy. I mean, it's like watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen play basketball. These guys are unbelievable.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, some of it's rubbed off because you just did back of the envelope stuff.
Travis Carter: I just sit and be quiet and listen. You know, when it's technology or digging in the dirt, I'm there. I've got all the i's dotted and t's crossed, but on this financial stuff — we actually have this joke internally. There's two types of money. There's cash that I'm used to. This is the cash that we can use to buy a hamburger for lunch. And then there's spreadsheet money, and spreadsheet money is what we take down to the bank to get more cash that we can spend. So you just got to find good people that know how to do the spreadsheet money. I'm real good at the cash side of it.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thanks for coming in today.
Travis Carter: Thank you so much. It's always fun.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Travis Carter, CEO of US Internet talking about what it's like to build a fiber optic network in Minneapolis. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever 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, and thank you for listening to episode 359 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.