Let's Talk Fiber - Episode 478 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

On this episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, host Christopher Mitchell talks fiber with Gary Bolton, CEO and President of the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) at the Broadband Communities Summit in Houston, TX. 

The two discuss a recent fiber optic technician training program that FBA is rolling out, not only to fill expertise gaps and the labor shortage, but also to provide individuals with an opportunity to start a career in broadband deployment. The association will be working with state broadband offices and workforce development to recruit people and shape the program to local needs. The curriculum has been approved by the Department of Labor. 

Mitchell and Bolton talk about FBA’s motto: “If it’s not fiber, it’s not broadband.” They debate whether future-proofing broadband infrastructure by installing fiber is a worthwhile investment, and compare the deployment of fast, reliable Internet access to U.S. electrification. 

This show is 29 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

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.


Gary Bolton: You're deploying the critical infrastructure, what you have to build your future on and what this is, is about jobs, economic development, you're talking about making an investment for generations to come and it's really important that you do it right the first time.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, live edition. Sorry, it's an old joke with the show that they're all live editions recorded not really live. Gary Bolton is with us the CEO and president of the Fiber Broadband Association, welcome.

Gary Bolton: Thanks Chris, great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: You've been doing I think really great work branding the Fiber Broadband Association, being out there talking about fiber broadband. Today we're going to talk about what I think is really a more turn to a more aggressive approach to it which I'll just admit I think is both correct and I'm still uncomfortable with it but first of all-

Gary Bolton: It means I'm doing my job, right?

Christopher Mitchell: I think so, I really think you are doing a good job at your position and I think it's needed out there. But for people who are old school and may not recognize you because maybe they haven't been tuning in, you're the Fiber-to-the-Home Council, America's is now the Fiber Broadband Association. Can you just 30 seconds on why that name changed?

Gary Bolton: Sure. Well, Chris, just a little bit of background about the whole Fiber-to-the-Home Council. So we're the Fiber Broadband Association, I'm responsible for the America so North America Chapter, as well as we have a Latin America Chapter and then we also have the Fiber Optic Sensing Association, FOSA. But we're part of a global organization and also has a European Chapter, Middle East, a North Africa Chapter, a South Africa Chapter as well as Asian Chapter. So there's six chapters and then, again, one of our subsidies is the FOSA. And so what we're responsible for is advocating for the deployment of fiber across the Americas and Latin America. And what's nice about our membership is we're a multi-stakeholder so we are the full ecosystem for the fiber broadband industry. So about a little over half our members are service providers and the other half are the supply side so that's everything from engineering consultants, the financiers to the fiber manufacturers, to the access equipment manufacturers, to the deployment specialist and enclosures and all that stuff. So anything that has to do with fiber broadband that's our membership and that's who we represent.


Christopher Mitchell: And that includes some of the largest companies that have built fiber out to millions of homes like AT&T and Verizon as well as probably some of the smallest or at least the smaller ones that have elected to join and get both the benefits of your association. But also the way trade associations work, the more members you have the more you can advocate for this sorts of things that a lot of fiber deployers should be supportive of.

Gary Bolton: Yeah, we're really lucky because we're at kind of this historic moment with this big investment cycle that we're coming into in fiber. So if you look at our service providers, as you mentioned, they could be large like Verizon or they could be alternative like Google Fiber to Windstream all the way down to municipalities, rural electric co-ops. And if you look kind of the nature of broadband deployment what we saw kind of in the early days it was kind of the Verizon, AT&T and so then what we saw is that as communities were being left behind they started stepping up and so we started seeing municipalities start stepping up.

Gary Bolton: One of our chairman is Katie Espeseth from EPB, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga. And so then we started to see a lot of need for helping communities be able to setup broadband. So at our conference we have workshops on being able to go everything from community well, to financing, to deployment and servicing and everything that has to do with fiber. So there's a lot of value for communities or rural electric co-ops to join. Just even we had a branding workshop because a lot of these municipalities aren't great at bundling and branding and selling consumer services basically.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Yes. And I should say that we are together at the Broadband Communities event in Houston, Texas, well, I guess the next one will be next year, we'll have another one of these in early May in Houston for Broadband Communities. What shows do you have coming up where people might come to learn more about the fiber? Sort of, I think of you as being both technical things and what's happening in the technical end of fiber as well as business practices and marketing and things like that, what shows do you have coming up?


Gary Bolton: Our big one is our Fiber Connect conference in June in Nashville so we were 40% above our record ever this past July and we are looking to add another 500 attendees slots, we had to close early, I think we'll be sold out again early so we need to get a few interested in coming, that'll be a great show. My next thing is the Calix ConneXions summit in Las Vegas is in a couple of weeks, but it seems like anything that has to do with fiber and broadband or even workforce development. I do spend a lot of time with PCCA that's basically the labor workforce, Power Communications Construction Association. So, as you mentioned, some of our committees one of our most popular committees is our technology committee and so our members really have a strong technical acumen. And so that really is the foundation for advocacy so we really are very fact-based on our advocacy, our public policy committee is very strong we have great lobbyists and hopefully Thursday we'll have a very positive vote.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. When people hear this, unfortunately they'll know it's real although it might be delayed eight times before then so we don't know. But I know that you've been doing great work along with other advocates to make sure that money is spent in a way that will benefit future generations and not require having to subsidize the same households over and over again to get proper infrastructure to them and I'm really on board with that. You have a button, you have a slogan, if it's not fiber it's not broadband. We're going to come to that in one second but one of the things I want to ask you about that I think is really exciting, you're doing kind of a workforce training approach, tell us about that quick.

Gary Bolton: Usually our investment in our industries, federal subsidy has been about four billion a year and with this infrastructure and RDOF, everything coming down, we're looking at about four times that here in the coming years, so with all that CapEx investment we really don't have the workforce. Right now our workforce can grow at about 15% a year and so what we did at Fiber Broadband Association given our expertise is we put together a fiber optic technician training program unlike anything that's available. So there's lots of fiber optic training but that's very a lot of breadth and no depth and so what we did is went very narrow and very deep to have 144 hours of classroom and laboratory training with 2000 hours of apprenticeship and is fully accredited by the Department of Labor. And so we're rolling it out, we're getting ready to do our pilot here end of the year and then we'll be training up trainers to roll out to community colleges and institutions across the nation.


Christopher Mitchell: For those of us who are new to this, recognize the need, what does that mean? So is this, it's coming to a community college near you kind of thing?

Gary Bolton: So the way that broadband infrastructure bill is going to be rolled out is that it'll administered by NTIA but all the money would be pushed down to the states. And so in every state where they have a broadband office or something like that they'll have to put something up to be able to distribute this money. And so as they're distributing the money the communities and the operators that are going to take the money need a feed on the street that can deploy the fiber. And so we'll be working with those broadband offices and the workforce development to make sure that those community colleges and training institutions and even operators that have their own training that we can be able to get those trainers trained.

Gary Bolton: For example, you and I were up in Keystone up in the Summit County and so I had some followup meetings with the State of Colorado and so they have a great workforce development office and so we met with the front range community colleges. Now in Boulder they're all set up, they have expertise in fiber optics, have labs and all that, but the other campuses don't. And so what we need is for that state to be able to take the equipped Boulder outfit and be able to bring the other community colleges up to speed. And so really we've got to be able to be scalable with this and so we're looking for help from the states, we'll provide the expertise we need to have them figure out how to scale it up to their state.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. That is wonderful and I want to track that as it goes because I'm very interested in this. We're doing a little bit of work in Indian country to try to help build indigenous workforces to own their own networks and develop those sorts of skills and there's a lot I can maybe try and steal from you, but.

Gary Bolton: Well, actually and the exciting part about this, we're not just providing a job but we're doing training for a career. So if you come out of the military or if you're coming out of high school and you're looking for a career you need fiber optic technicians in every community across the country, so it's not like you have to go some crazy place across the country to get this career. You'll be able to get this training in your community and be able to have this career in your community or anywhere you want to go so it's pretty exciting.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about if it's not fiber it's not broadband, where does that come from?


Gary Bolton: So my good friend Bob Knight and Kim McKinley they chair one of our committees called the Public Officials Roundtable.

Christopher Mitchell: And I can't say anything bad about them because they're peeking through the curtains behind us. Bob Knight: Hey Gary.

Gary Bolton: There's Bob. Kim McKinley: I'm here too.

Gary Bolton: Oh, Kim is here too.

Christopher Mitchell: Fresh back from the beach where she worked very hard.

Gary Bolton: So now I got to change what I say about. So one of the first meetings we had we were talking to public officials we were talking about when they go to their city council and they say, hey, we need the fiber, and they're like, why should we do fiber because we already have 5G? And when they hear things like 253 or 100/100 none of these things mean anything to them.

Christopher Mitchell: Because in the back of their mind they're thinking the next election there's going to be glossy mailers saying council members so-and-so voted to spend $20 million of your hard earned money on this thing that was totally not needed, the monorail from the Simpsons, that's what they're afraid of

Gary Bolton: The issue is that it's so complex, this is how you get confused, until they hear things they don't know what to believe. And so just to simplify it, it just dawned on me that we should just say, if it's not fiber it's not broadband because at the end of the day it's not about how much speed. I mean, we're shipping 10 Gig symmetric PON today so 10 Gig services when people are talking about 253, we're going to be shipping 25 Gig PON and 50 Gig PON and so the speeds keep going up. But there's other things to worry about like latency and security and reliability and so fiber is the gold standard on every dimension.

Gary Bolton: The other part of this is when you deploy you're deploying the critical infrastructure, what you have to build your future on. And what this is, is about jobs, economic development, it's really about being able to have that remote healthcare, online education and that platform for future services like 5G. So you're talking about making an investment for generations to come and it's really important that you do it right the first time.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me ask you some challenging questions.

Gary Bolton: Sure, go ahead.

Christopher Mitchell: And I'll say that anyone who's followed my work knows that I'm a strong fiber advocate but I do also see important roles for wireless. I'm working with tribes to try to encourage use of 2.5 gigahertz, I frankly think wireless could do a lot if we really reformed how we allocate spectrum and things like that. So I'll be totally honest that I'm not going to be as, if Claude Akin was here grilling you he'd be asking you perhaps different more pointed questions but I'm going to do the best I can.


Gary Bolton: Claude would say I need more fiber to get to my fixed wireless.

Christopher Mitchell: Claude actually, yeah, absolutely would say that and I think he also does a very good job of navigating a challenge and that his members need both fiber and wireless in order to separate.

Gary Bolton: He also sent a letter to every governor across every state saying ignore all those treasury roles on not deploying fixed wireless.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean, I've also encouraged people to read the treasury rules in certain ways. But let's talk about one of the most common claims which I think probably is, there might be a tie, we'll come to the second one in a minute, but the first one is, yeah, it'd be nice to have fiber everywhere but we just can't afford that, the cost would be far too much and mostly knocked down, they might say, it might cost $300 billion. I don't think it necessarily would but the sense is that we can't do it because it's too costly, it's impractical

Gary Bolton: If you go 85 years ago when we were putting out the Rural Electrification Act and getting power to every person across America, if you got power to house why can't you get fiber?

Christopher Mitchell: Because labor was cheaper then.

Gary Bolton: Oh, is it about labor? I don't think the cost is labor, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Well, no. I mean, so there's two things I would say to come back to you, I think you're making a very good point, we've had 85 years-

Gary Bolton: We never think about it.

Christopher Mitchell: ... we have the polls now so it should be easier.

Gary Bolton: But think about if your home wasn't served by electricity I could say, oh Chris, you're too expensive, why? I can serve it to your neighbor super cheap but man, you're down a long road. And so you can get a generator or something, right? I mean, when was the last time that you worried about how much electricity you had at your house? No one sits there and tells you. You don't worry about it, right? You turn on all your lights work, everything.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And that's where I feel like it's a really good argument to get the job done, right? I also do think, I mean, this is where you sort of hear the libertarian in me starting to creep up a little bit which is, it is harder now to permit and to go through a lot of these processes and I think the cost of labor is higher than it was then when farmers might have taken a day off in the off season to put their own poles in and things like that, you probably know of instances in which people have done that. We were just talking about the People's Telephone Cooperative in Kentucky where they famously used Bub the mule. But anyway, I mean, that is something that people will point out is that it is more expensive now. And on top of that electricity had a monopoly and so it was easier to spread those costs around because you had that monopoly and we can't give anyone a broadband monopoly today.


Gary Bolton: So what the administration, President Biden, is doing is providing $65 billion, right? And this is on top of states like California that have $6 billion for broadband and you're looking at, we have 20.4 billion from RDOF, we have the ReConnect Program. So there is lots of subsidies state and federal as well as private investment so there's plenty of capital to do this and it really comes down to digital equity. And so when you go and say, Chris, we're going to treat you differently because of where you live. I mean, I'll give you an example, and this isn't this world this is urban, I teach at the university in the evenings matter of fact I gave an exam last night and so I had my students do a study and this is they have to do big data analytics in the spring.

Gary Bolton: So this past spring we did a study in the city and try to figure out why certain zip codes were left behind. We see that we're in a real prosperous city but there's certain zip codes that are just left behind and so they looked at all the census data that triple our regression analysis and three things bubbled up. First is, are they spending more than 30% of their income on rent? Right? So they're basically living hand to mouth. Second is, do they have access to broadband and the Internet? Right? And I can't remember what the third area was but basically-

Christopher Mitchell: That's okay governor.

Gary Bolton: ... the net of all this is that if you don't provide broadband you're relegating to a certain segment of the community to generational poverty, right? And so that's all about digital equity. Because what happens is the retail moves away from those low-income areas, right? And they moved to the high income areas, so now those entry-level jobs where those low income area people get to, well, they're very far away now, right? And so when you're trying to take two or three jobs to be able to pay your rent that you can barely afford to then it just puts you in this death spiral that you're never going to get out of. And so it's really critical that you're able to for online education, for even getting the COVID relief, the money there, how did you get it? You had to go online to be able to. So I thought that was pretty interesting that it's basically a race online and so who's able to get PPP and everything? It's those that have access to really fast broadband and computers.


Christopher Mitchell: Right. And that's where I come down to because I do not think it's a good argument that we don't have enough money because that is a code word for anyone who understands government that it's not a priority. And what that means is, is that it's not a priority that some people who I think in many ways have already been disempowered. Rural regions should have a lot of political power in our system and in some ways they do but it's often not exercised in their benefit. And I think a decision that says, well, we can only afford to make sure that 90% of the population has a good broadband is writing off 10% and I don't think that's appropriate. But one of the things that I'll hear and let me know if you've heard this before, is people will say, well, it's mostly second homes out there, we shouldn't be putting money into fibers so that someone's second or third home that they're going to stay at for one or two months a year gets fiber.

Gary Bolton: You see that, right? That comes out saying, oh, here they got some federal subsidies and that you subsidized broadband to rich houses on the lake. Well, yeah, I mean, so I have a lake house it's in the poorest county in North Carolina but yeah, oh, the houses are in the lake they're not so poor. But at the end of the day being able to have the people that serve that community, so when you go out to restaurants, all the goods and services that are from the community, if those people in the community don't have broadband they're going to be stuck in that same situation. And again, that's all this propensity to spend model, right? The broadband providers are happy to deploy where there's a propensity to spend, right? And so that's the zip codes or the areas of the region of the lake. But this is what's great about the administration is they're looking to get this money down to providers that are going to serve every member of the community not just those with the highest level of income.

Christopher Mitchell: So I think the second argument is time to market. Sure, I mean, they send broadband out to everyone but it's going to take four or five years to build out to some of these areas. Electric co-ops they're building as fast as they can in many cases but it's very challenging on tight margins so they can't just do it all in one year so it's going to take too long and wireless is faster is the supposition.

Gary Bolton: Well, so first of all, all devices are wireless, right? I mean, we live in a wireless world, when I get on my computer at home it's hooked to Wi-Fi or you might have something hooked to Bluetooth, 5G your phone, I mean, so we are totally untethered. So wireless is fantastic for mobility but the first rule of wireless is get it out of the air and into the ground at the first available spot. And so if you look at kind of where we're going for the service of the future is that they have to be very low latency. If you want to have autonomous vehicles, if you want to have virtual reality applications, you have to have ultra low latency.


Christopher Mitchell: You just have your Amazon device that responds to the A word just if you want to have a conversation with it, those require very low latencies.

Gary Bolton: So you have latency, security, all those things, and that's where if the Claude or any of the various guys were here they would say, yeah, I need fiber close to a subscriber as possible, and that's what you want to be able to do is you want to get fiber super deep and then provide some untethering. But who knew that my Peloton was going to suck all my bandwidth in my house, right? Or my Ring doorbell? So the applications-

Christopher Mitchell: Your security system.

Gary Bolton: ... well, today we talked about precision farming and swarms of drones needing two Gig symmetric. So these applications are going to drive the need, not only for new mass amounts of broadband or bandwidth but also with very, very low latency. And then you got to think about security, you got to think about reliability, durability. So all that means fiber and so, yes, you want things on tethered but you need to get fiber as close to the end point as possible.

Christopher Mitchell: Doesn't it take too long though, I mean, to get all that fiber out there and so we should just be focused on doing something that we can roll out to as many people as widely as possible as soon as possible.

Gary Bolton: Well, I'm sure Elon Musk would go for that argument, right?

Christopher Mitchell: That's a very good answer.

Gary Bolton: A satellite, right? A lower satellite that'll be able to cover everybody. The problem with that is, we did a study and provided a model to the FCC that showed that Starlink, even if they meet every claim they make 56% of those 640,000 on locations for RDOF are not going to be able to deliver the broadband that Elon promised the FCC. And so you don't want to be relegated to being on the wrong side of the digital vibe and so what you don't want to do is take shortcuts. So now absolutely, if I'm pulling fiber on one side of the lake and I can be able to fix wireless across the other side of the lake and serve some people there while I'm deploying fiber to them, absolutely.


Gary Bolton: So there are lots of technologies you can do to be able to give people service today while you're getting fiber to them but what you don't want to do is say, here I'll put up a wireless signal or a satellite and stuff and say, okay, you're done, Chris, you got your broadband, good luck. Because, as I mentioned earlier, we're shipping 10 Gigs symmetric today, we're going to be 25 Gig here soon and 50 Gig, we saw that fiber can deliver 2.55 terabytes, the game is not over, right? Here in 2021.

Christopher Mitchell: So I do want to say that I think Starlink would say that they disagree with your findings on that and so I thought you made totally reasonable arguments. I think Starlink's engineers feel like they can push beyond some of those things and I just want to get that in there just so people have a-

Gary Bolton: Well, they can if they don't have subscribers, so if they only serve 640,000 subscribers. But guess what? Every commercial, every military base, anywhere that they can be able to pick up a subscriber and when you're on a shared medium like a satellite it's going to be dependent on how many subscribers you have. So if you're the first guy that gets Starlink you're going to have it great but it's like being on cable, when the school bus lets out and people get on the Internet all of a sudden your service is going to not be so good.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think it's true. And I don't want to spend too much time on it because I want to make sure we have some time to mingle here. Isn't upload as people are noticing it now, and I feel like one of my biggest frustration with whether it's people I like in the cable industry or people I like that are focused on wireless is I feel like they're often just want to say, no people really don't need upload and it's not important, and I think we're seeing that it is important to people.

Gary Bolton: Well, absolutely. We've seen the applications just as the pandemic has kind of driven the need for being able to do, everybody is doing Zoom and Teams and all kinds of collaborative applications. If you work from home and say in your business, if you want to upload videos or any kind of content you need to be able to have that capacity. And to be able to claim that people don't need capacity it's kind of like building one way highways like, oh, you don't need to get back home, it's crazy, right? And so those arguments are solely driven to either they want to secure their incumbent position and not have competition or they want to dumb down the requirements so that legacy technologies can participate.


Christopher Mitchell: So I want to ask you about dynamics in the industry then as we close out. And that is that off the top of my head, my sense is I think it's 40% of Americans have access to Fiber-to-the-Home now, is that what you said?

Gary Bolton: Yeah, that's right. At the end of last year.

Christopher Mitchell: And that is majority driven by AT&T, Verizon, Verizon probably is far out in the lead with the most passings, you've got AT&T frontier had bought a lot of the Verizon stuff. And more recently in last year you're saying almost all the investment came from smaller providers in terms of the increase.

Gary Bolton: Yeah, 88% of the fiber CapEx was from small providers. So we're seeing there's about 900 rural electric co-ops over a 100 already have broadband networks and hundreds and hundreds of others are now with RDOF and other funding looking to deploy, we have municipalities, we have new emerging providers. So across the nation those who have been left behind have figured out they got to just make things happen on their own or find providers. And what's really interesting is that these incoming providers now have realized that there's an opportunity to them to provide a public private partnerships.

Gary Bolton: And so we see that what the administration is trying to make sure that every American is served and so if there's a model, I've never met a mayor that said, I want to be in the broadband business but every single one of them says, I need economic development, I need jobs, I need to really increase the standard of living for my citizens. And so what these incoming providers now are saying is, if you guys want to put in the facilities and you need an experienced provider to help you with services, they're willing to do that, right? And they're very flexible in the model, so we're seeing all kinds of public private partnerships now.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. And even from, I mean, obviously a lot of small companies have historically been more willing to do that but, I mean, we're seeing it in New Hampshire from the incumbent telephone company Consolidated which is fifth or sixth largest in the nation, maybe seventh, there are a large telephone incumbents. Windstream seems more open to this, CenturyLink is doing it in Springfield, so it seems like it's a whole new world out there.

Gary Bolton: It's certainly a big change from the past where the incumbents were trying to lock everybody out and hold their position now they see that it makes good business sense to partner with communities that want to and I think that's great for everybody.

Christopher Mitchell: And I feel like one of the things I'm happy about is that it's not just a partnership in the sense of you take the money and we'll take the network. Some of these partnerships are, the municipality has considerable control and future power and things like that so there's a lot of models out there. Gary from, Gary Bolton, Fiber Broadband Association, thank you so much for your time today.


Gary Bolton: Chris, anytime, it's always good to see you and a great event here down in Houston.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Very excited to be here face to face and I'm glad a lot of people are masked up. Got the best of both worlds to make sure we're safe and we still get together. Thank you so much.

Gary Bolton: All right. Well, I look forward to seeing you soon.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org 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 and other podcasts from ILSR, 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 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. This was the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, thanks for listening.