Louisville To Save Big With Embattled Anchor Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 273

Back in June, Louisville had a close call with missing a key opportunity to build municipal fiber to local anchor institutions at a substantially reduced cost. An anti-muni broadband group pushed hard to disrupt the project but city staff educated metro council-members and moved forward with a unanimous vote. 

Louisville Chief of Civic Innovation Grace Simrall and Civic Technology Manager Chris Seidt join us for episode 273 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to discuss the project and the importance of educating local decision-makers well in advance of they decisions.

We talk about the network extensions Louisville is building to connect key anchor institutions and internal city offices. The network will not only save on connectivity costs by reducing leased lines but also provide increased security and opportunities for efficiency. We also discuss the key points Grace and Chris made to the Metro Council in arguing for this investment. 

This show is 28 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.


Grace Simrall: This overbuild has significant access capacity. We designed and built for the future.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 273 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Louisville, Kentucky is taking advantage of an opportunity to drastically reduce the cost of fiber deployment as the state's KentuckyWired Project routes through the area. In this interview, you'll hear Grace Simrall, and Chris Seidt explain how the city will expand their fiber footprint. They'll describe their plans to use the new resource for municipal facilities, public safety, and smart city applications to improve life for residents, and visitors. Now, here's Christopher with Grace, and Chris talking about what's happening in Louisville.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance up here in Minneapolis, and today I'm speaking with Grace Simrall, the chief of civic innovation and technology for local metropolitan government in Louisville. Welcome to the show.

Grace Simrall: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: We're also joined by Chris Seidt, the civic technology manager for the city. Welcome to the show.

Chris Seidt: Thank you so much for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: I think a good place to start would be to just, you know, for people who haven't been there, it's a wonderful place. Grace, maybe you can tell us a little bit more about what people should know about Louisville.

Grace Simrall: Basic fact, we are the largest city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, our population is about 750,000. We are a combined city, county government. We merged over 12 years ago, and in terms of geographic spread we have roughly under 400 square miles of urban, suburban, and rural all in our combined county. We are also known for bourbon, that is something that we've prided ourselves, recently, and county, in fact the Urban Bourbon Trail starts in Louisville, Kentucky.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. It's hard find an urban area that doesn't have a recent bourbon bar addition, so it's a great time to note that. Chris, can you tell us a little bit about what a civic technology manager does in Louisville?

Chris Seidt: Sure. The rule to Louisville is fairly new. It was created a little over a year ago, and the focus is to work on technologies that are more public facing, so working for a IT department in a city government, traditionally, we focused on serving the needs of our internal customers on terms of law enforcement, public works, and so this rule was created to take technology to the frontline to the citizens, as we're seeing Smart Cities evolve, we're seeing more technologies being presented to the public, and so my role is to help facilitate those additions in our city, and also to help with broadband expansion as my background was primarily in infrastructure and networks when I was working on the inside of the IT department, so now we're trying to take that to a more public facing kind of approach to IT, so now citizens will start seeing things in the right of way that maybe they haven't seen before, in terms of digital kiosks, and public Wi-Fi hotspots, things that are fairly new to our community.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me just ask you to follow-up on that, briefly. What sort of applications are you thinking are going to make a big difference in coming years?

Chris Seidt: In terms of applications, we think there's a lot of potential with Next Gen 9-1-1, in terms of the functionality with how citizens interact with them, today you'd pick up the phone and you dial, and you get routed just like you did 25 years ago over your phone, sometimes we know where you are, because you're at a physical building a lot of times we're reliant on triangulation for the cell tower location. If you're a visitor in our community, you may not know what street you're on. Next Gen will allow us to drill down to a level to get your GPS coordinates from your phone to be able to text message with you. A lot of folks may be in the position where they can't communicate with us over a phone, verbally, so presenting those options wherever residents will be able to digitally engage with us, even in a crisis situation, we think has a lot of value and potential. We also are seeing a lot more interest in the kiosk space, in terms of way of finding, and providing visitors and residents with information about where to find things. Those are two areas where we're seeing a lot of activity right now.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I guess, we'll soon be beyond the you are here map, and it will be obvious that you're there, because it will be customized for you.

Chris Seidt: Correct.

Christopher Mitchell: Grace, one of the things that originally led me to work with you, to talk with you was an exciting fiber project that I expect will be the backbone of some of these applications, and technologies. Can you tell us what the city's doing in that regard?

Grace Simrall: We had a unique opportunity this past budget cycle to realize kind of the first step of our foundation in our dream to becoming a Smart City, so when I tell people that Louisville aims to be a Smart City there are steps that we can take to get there, and one of the most important foundational infrastructure pieces is in fact fiber. Back to the opportunity, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has a very large middle mile fiber project to connect all 120 counties together. Part of that is to lay 90 miles of fiber within Jefferson County, which is where Louisville is located. We were presented the opportunity to participate in what's called an overbuild with them, so when they pull a strand of fiber for the states, they can also pull strands of fiber through the city, would be metro owned, and at a significant cost savings. Now, when we looked at the map, because of the route to connect all 120 counties, there was this, a portion of our city that has been historically underserved, and continues to be underserved, which is an area we call, West Louisville, now that was missing, because of the geographies of the city is bound by the [inaudible

00:06:31] Ohio River, so it doesn't make sense for fiber to run that way, we'd either be running into Indiana, or just in different states across the Ohio River. We added a proposal, besides participating with the state to do a whole build out in West Louisville to make sure that those residents also could benefit from having fiber deliver services, middle mile services to metro facilities, and services.

Christopher Mitchell: Just to emphasize that because I think when we start talking about cities building fiber it bears repeating that this is not a project to connect homeowners, or even business, I believe, it's specifically for municipal uses.

Grace Simrall: That's completely correct. Metro has means, and in fact our needs continue to grow every day. I think a lot of cities can relate to that. For example, our public safety technologies rely on having high fidelity, high availability, high quality, network speed, and network connectivity, which is something fiber can provide, and we're limited right now to the current fiber footprint, so by expanding our fiber footprint by five times this will give us over a 100 miles of fiber that's spread out throughout the county. We'll be able to then strategically deploy those public safety assets. The needs are very great, not just buildings, but it's even been like traffic lights, public safety cameras, sensors that really enables a Smart City.

Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned that it's a really good deal, what's the approximate cost for this 100 miles of fiber?

Grace Simrall: Working with our partners at the state, we estimated to do the full build at total costs to be over $15 million dollars, and our whole budget appropriation was 5.4 to do the same thing.

Christopher Mitchell: Is that, if I recall correctly, the cost of doing most of that fiber is actually dramatically lower, it's the commitment to making sure the entire community benefits is what drove the cost up for building out into the western part of the city, right?

Grace Simrall: That's correct.

Christopher Mitchell: We always like to [inaudible

00:08:38] that, because one of the reasons we support city's making these investments is to make sure that everyone benefits. You're developing this plan, and I'm curious, if we step back to when all of a sudden you start hearing some opposition, what was happening there, before this plan was adopted?

Grace Simrall: As far as opposition goes, you know, initially, it really was just paid social media at the national level, and at the regional level. There were a few groups that were associated with different national groups that are historically known to opposing anything that's publicly owned. We kept an eye on it, but we really didn't think much of it in those early days when our budget proposal had been put, and made public.

Christopher Mitchell: Originally, it was just kind of this thing, and you thought, well this is outsiders, we don't have to worry about it, how did it escalate?

Grace Simrall: It became very clear when we started talking to our council members that first of all it was a very complicated project, so to be fair, even for those who are very technical well versed, it is a complicated project. The complications with a project the fact that it was tied to this state level work that had, had some delays. It muddied the waters in their minds, and it became very clear that they were concerned, so we had to spend a lot of time educating them, and explaining how the partnership, and the relationship would work, what new world, fiber build, which is by far the most costly in terms of cost per mile, why that was so critical, and important, it was education all the way up until the final vote.

Christopher Mitchell: It seems to me that probably the opposition had a sense, too, that if you miss this window there's no coming back, because it would be so much more expensive to do it later.

Grace Simrall: Oh, that's exactly right, and because of the kind of urgency around the availability for the partnership this is it, if they were able to block it, we really wouldn't have another opportunity at this for a long time.

Christopher Mitchell: Chris, I'm curious, how you observed this, and whether you were surprised by any of it.

Chris Seidt: As an employee of government for over 14 years of my career, it wasn't the first time I had seen political opposition to, and information technology department project. You know, there's always been hesitancy around cost of investments around replacing something like your email servers, or some other internal project that kept the lights on for the city government, but often times we didn't really run into any political opposition with this particular project. It was very obvious pretty quickly that we had a lot of people that were opposed to this, and our city had never really undertaken a fiber project of that scale, so it was fairly new to us as a city government to go down that path. Like we said, we have a little over 20 miles of fiber over the 20 years that we've had a fiber network, and that's been built out in pieces over time, so it was never really a big budget ask, and never really drew a lot of attention, but as soon as we went public with the amount of fiber that we were planning to put in, and the budget requests was a little bit larger than what they typically see from the IT department, in terms of capital projects, it definitely was a first for me.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I find interesting about this is that when we find these groups that are opposed to the public doing this, often they cast themselves as being protectors of the taxpayer, and yet if I had to guess this project is probably going to be saving taxpayer money, because these facilities need connectivity, someone is going to provide it, and in our experience the city doing it themselves is the most cost effective. I'm just curious, do you have a sense of how this project impacts taxpayers?

Chris Seidt: There's a couple different ways it impacts taxpayers. One, we are extending our connectivity to facilities that previously we've had the lease circuits from, so the recurring bill for those leased circuits will go away. In addition to that, we're adding some capabilities to city government that we have not had before in different parts of the community, in terms of connecting our traffic signals, and adding connectivity for public safety cameras. Today, if the police department deploys a public safety camera unless it's a long one of those routes that we own with fiber, which is very few right now, we have to pay a carrier to connect that camera up, and provide the monthly service, and so there's a bill with that. Then, the traffic signals outside of our interstate reign, where a lot of the suburbs are at, where we're seeing a lot of population growth, and a lot of the traffic problems, those signals are largely just timed signals with no connectivity back to our traffic control center. When we get complaints from citizens about the lights not working correctly, or backups, we have to send somebody out to either do a study, or re-time the light, which requires more man hours from our traffic engineering group, so there's some costs that we haven't quite been able to quantify yet that will likely be impacted in a positive way for taxpayers, because we're deploying these technologies.

Christopher Mitchell: Grace, did you want to add anything?

Grace Simrall: I just want to stress that if cities are serious about making Smart City investment, and they haven't thought through the connectivity piece they'll discover very quickly that, that's where most of the cost will come from is this recurring charge and it scales with size of the Smart City technologies that are being deployed. We can certainly talk about costs that are avoided, and begin to quantify that as well.

Chris Seidt: There's a soft cost around security, too. For everything that we put on a cable modem, or DSL line, those are all Internet facing devices at that point, so there's an inherent risk with that device being out there, so we've seen in the past year a number of breaches where IOT devices were breached and used in attacks on various organizations as part of the DDOS. By keeping the network internal to city government, we're able to protect those IOT assets with our perimeter defenses and to keep those from being publicly exposed where anybody can go directly after them.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to do a little bit of translation to make sure people to that, because I think it's a really important point. When you're leasing connections, what you're saying, is the devices themselves are kind of exposed. I'm sitting here in Minneapolis I could try and hack into that device, because I have access to it on the public Internet, but after you've built your network I would have to somehow breach your highly defended ring, your interconnectivity and then find the device inside the network, so at that point the device is no longer a potential entry point, and your network is much better defended, and your devices don't have to be, you don't have to be as worried about them, because there's no way for you to upgrade many of them yourself, these are commercial devices.

Chris Seidt: That's absolutely right.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to come back to how you responded to this opposition campaign, but first I just want to take a second to ask if you have talked to some of the people that were concerned, and now that you've had more time to educated them, and they've gotten away from the heat of that moment. Have peoples concerns softened somewhat, Grace?

Grace Simrall: I certainly think so. I mean, part of it was just a matter of having a very strong education campaign. This type of project not only is it complicated from a technology standpoint, it's actually complicated in terms of benefits, if it was just a single benefit that would be a really clear message, but because it was an enabling technology filled with so many benefits [inaudible

00:16:37] when we said, "Oh, this will also enable public safety," people said, "Wait a second, we hadn't heard you say that before," and we said, "Well actually we had, it's just that it does so many other things you might have not heard it in that list of benefits." At this point, the kind of sentiment that we get from both council, and residents in our community is that they're very excited about this. They want to hear about progress and we certainly are looking forward to being able to share that progress when it's further along.

Chris Seidt: And, I would point out, too, that the vote to approve the budget for this project when it was finally voted on was unanimous.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's talk about how you got to that unanimity then, first of all, what's the time frame that we're talking about, from when you seriously became concerned to when the vote was? Are we talking about days, or weeks, or what kind of time?

Grace Simrall: I would say it was months. It was probably like a month and a half. Maybe almost two months.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay.

Grace Simrall: We made our budget proposal announcement in mid April, and we really didn't kick into high gear with our education process, and outreach until beginning of May.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of education process? Was this individual meetings with concerned people, or, I mean, was it, were you mostly concerned with members of your governing council, or was it more about the public, or both?

Grace Simrall: It was both. We certainly held as many meetings as we could with council members. I lost count, I think we met with just about every single one of them before the vote was taken. Some of them more than once. We also went to their caucus meetings to make sure that we were available to answer questions. We met with residents in the community. The mayor has, for example, something called, The Innovation Advisory Council, and so we met with them, and educated them, so that they could understand, and they'd be advocates if they so chose in the community, and invited them to the budget hearing process, so that they could be part of this process.

Christopher Mitchell: Chris, as someone who in some ways and I might simplify what you were saying from your background to like coming from someone who's I think more on the geek side of just getting things done and suddenly being exposed to this becoming political, I'm curious if you have any reflections on that.

Chris Seidt: I wish that I had more vision that we were going to run into the opposition, as I feel like we would have better prepared our initial budget documents to reflect on some of the things that would be pointed as flaws when they were really to the benefit of the overall community. You know, we were attacked on a few different angles about the benefits, and as Grace said earlier there were so many of them that people narrowed in on a couple, and tried to attack those points, but the points weren't really wrong, they may just not have been accomplished in a way that they were traditionally use to. A carrier could come in here and very easily sell us gigabit services at our facilities. What they're not looking at is what does that cost over a 10, or 20 year period of time, because we've had fiber in the ground for 20 plus years, now, as a city, so we know that we have that kind of a life expectancy, so when we're looking at the recurring cost to connect a building, you know, if you're looking at a 10, or 20 year time frame the investment upfront makes a whole lot of sense, but there was a lot of focus from the questions we were getting in terms of, why don't we just X thousands of dollars per month for the service, and do you really need a gigabit service? That was a question, I think that came up more than a couple times was, do they really need it? As part of the innovation team we were trying to look at how the city operates not just now, but also how we're going to operate in the future, so with all these Smart City technologies coming down the road we had to not only educate folks about the fiber and the benefits, but also about the Smart City technologies that were coming along that were going to be layered on top of that. I think that was where if I had to go back I would have done a better job of educating, not just on the fiber investment itself, but on educating around the technologies that would enable for tomorrow.

Christopher Mitchell: Grace, I'm curious what points sort of resonated the most as you were going through this process of educating, I guess I have a bias to assuming that it often will be about just the cost savings, and the economics, but was some of it also more technological in nature, and educating them as to the technology benefits?

Grace Simrall: Yes, certainly. Again, back to that whole challenge around a project like this that has multiple benefits, we wanted to be able to educate them about the future of Smart City, and what that means in terms of technology. We also wanted to educate them about equity. One of our core governing values is compassion, and when we say that what we really mean is we want to enable and create an environment to allow people full human potential to flourish. That sounds rather abstract, and yet it's something that we apply to all of our work, every day. When we looked at, again, what kind of investments we're making in underserved communities, especially ones that have historically been repeatedly underserved, and under invested in, we want to paint the picture of the future possibilities for those neighborhoods, so that children who are doing their homework have access, and not just have access, but have high quality access, those who are applying for college, applying for financial aid for college, again, have access and the means to do it. Those who are looking for jobs. All of these activities rely on network connectivity. When you look at either access from actual access to connectivity, physically as well as the cost it was something that we wanted to drive home. And, we kept stressing, this is middle mile, so we weren't necessarily delivering the final mile to residents, but again, and yet another benefit of this project is that this overbuild has significant access capacity. We designed and built for the future, even in terms of storing count, so we would be able to strategically lease out access capacity to encourage small and midsize Internet service providers to deploy final mile service to residents and businesses in the company. Frequently we hear from them that the cost, you know, there's a barrier to entry in the market, and that's the middle mile.

Christopher Mitchell: A quick clarifying question, so when you talk about the kids being able to do their homework better, and things like that, is that because you're going to be serving community centers, and libraries, and things in those areas with higher quality service?

Grace Simrall: Yes, in part, so certainly, when we talked about metro facilities that we would be able to immediately connect, we were very cognizant in what Louisville could point out which of those are community facilities that would be able to benefit immediately. Now, that said, there's also a significant part of why it's so complicated this extra piece where we could enable different Internet service providers into our market, or deliver to areas of rural that they haven't been able to before by giving them the ability to lease that access capacity on the middle mile.

Christopher Mitchell: And, that's what I wanted to follow-up with, you said, strategically, and I'm curious, I think a lot of people in earlier days, perhaps, would build out a network like this and they would build it so that the endpoints, the points to get into the network were always at the community facilities, did you engineer it in a way that better enables potential other lessors, or lessees, I forget, which is which, but whoever wants to lease it from you to be able to access it more conveniently?

Chris Seidt: We've been intentional with some of the routing that we've done with our fiber routes to make sure that we pass multiple points of presence, and have facilities near those locations, if not, in them, that will allow for widening that fiber from a carrier. We have also been diligent about making sure that we have ample amounts of splice points along the routes, so that those smaller providers, or any other provider, for that matter, can access a fiber and get from where they're at to where they need to get to on that backbone.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. That's what I was hoping to hear, and that's what I felt like a lot of people need to understand when they're laying these networks out is that, that's the key to making it useful. Are there any concluding thoughts? I'll start with you, Grace, this has been really helpful to get a better sense of what you've done, but have we left anything out?

Grace Simrall: I think one thing we learned in the process is that there are champions both in the community, and on the council, so find those champions, find those who not just are more technically inclined, or informed that, but who understand the vision, and make sure you work with them. We really benefited from finding those champions, both in the community and on council.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Chris, any other concluding thoughts?

Chris Seidt: I think we will spend more time this year with members of the council, and our leadership to make sure that we're continuously educating around not just the fiber that we're doing right now, but also the technologies that we're going to be putting on top of them. I think starting early on that is critical to our long-term success.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you both for coming on to share the lessons. I think these are really important lessons that people will get a lot out of, and hopefully they'll have fewer close calls as a result of them. Thank you, both.

Chris Seidt: Thank you.

Grace Simrall: Thank you so much for having us.

Lisa Gonzales: That was Christopher with Grace Simrall and Chris Seidt from Louisville, Kentucky describing the city's fiber project. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits 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 podcast, and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power, and The Local Energy Rules podcasts. You can access them on Stitcher, Apple Podcast, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you Arne Huseby for your song, Warm Duck Shuffle license and creative comments, and thanks for listening to episode 273 of the Community of Broadband Bits Podcast.