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Missoula Pursues Open Access Fiber for Jobs - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 112
After having met City Councilmember Caitlin Copple at last year's Broadband Communities event in Austin and seeing the progress Missoula, Montana, has made in considering a municipal fiber network, I knew we should ask her to be on the show. This week, she joins me and Karen Palmer, the Director of Operations for a local tech company in Missoula, LMG, for episode 112 of Community Broadband Bits.
After surveying local businesses, Missoula found a strong need for better services and is examining its options for an open access fiber network. They are fortunate to have already identified some service providers that want to work with them on the project. Additionally, the network would be a boon for community anchor institutions, from schools to hospitals, and facilities owned by either the County or City.
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Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."
Caitlin Copple: I think you just have to care about creating high-paying jobs in your community. I mean, to me, that is what it really comes down to.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
Missoula is one of several Montana cities that have recently begun taking steps toward publicly-owned broadband infrastructure. Like many other communities we encounter, Missoula has a fair amount of fiber in the community. Unfortunately, that asset is not used to its fullest potential. In this edition of the Podcast, Chris visits with Caitlin Copple, one of the City Council members in Missoula who is leading the charge for better broadband. Also joining in is Karen Palmer, Director of Operations for LMG Security. LMG is a local firm that requires fast, reliable, high-capacity connections to conduct business.
Missoula recently released the results of their feasibility study, so Caitlin and Karen take some time to describe the need, the plan, and offer advice for other communities where businesses cannot get what they need from incumbents. Here are Chris, Caitlin, and Karen.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today, I'm speaking with some folks from Missoula, Montana. Welcome to the show, Caitlin Copple, City Council member.
Caitlin Copple: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Chris: And Karen Palmer, the Director of Operations for LMB Security. Welcome to the show.
Karen Palmer: Thank you, Chris.
Chris: So, Caitlin, you and I met in -- Austin, I want to say -- is that where we met?
Caitlin: Yes! We had this -- well, I had this rock star moment, because you were in the cab with us, and I was just, oh my gosh, I follow him on Twitter!
Chris: I was just excited that for the -- I think it was for the super shuttle -- and I was excited to not be bored for 30 minutes, because other people would want to talk about fiber.
Caitlin: Yeah, that was a great conference.
Chris: So, since then, you've gone on and done some very interesting things in Missoula. But I want to start by asking you, Caitlin, what is the need in Missoula?
Caitlin: You know, first of all, I think it's important to realize that Missoula benefitted from the Touch America project, which put a lot of fiber in the ground, so we actually have a lot of fiber in the vicinity. However, that fiber is not actually getting to the businesses that need it. And to do so seems to be cost-prohibitive, both in terms of the construction costs -- to sort of do that last mile or last, you know, few feet -- for this project, as well as the monthly access cost for the type of broadband that folks need here. So, Magellan surveyed 65 businesses, and then did in-depth interviews with about 25. And 95 percent of the businesses they surveyed had 50 of fewer employees. So we're really talking about small and medium-sized businesses here, which really are the engine of Montana's economy and Missoula's economy.
We found out that, you know, about one-third of the businesses reported that their Internet services were not currently meeting their needs, because of inadequate speed or insufficient reliability, or latency issues. And of that percentage, 42 percent had not upgraded because services were not available. And, also, another 42 percent had not upgraded because the price of monthly service was too high. And then we had about 13 percent of respondents, and they did not know what options were really out there. We found that fiber is not something that our current Internet service providers were really marketing, until we started having this community conversation, and kind of got it on people's radar.
Chris: I'm going to guess that Karen, from LMG, was probably one of the companies surveyed, and -- I'll go out on a limb -- if you want to tell us a little bit more about what LMG does. It sounds like you're the kind of firm that -- any sort of interruption or unreliable connection could really lead to lost productivity.
Karen Parker: Yeah, that's very true. So, we are a cybersecurity firm. And we located in Missoula, Montana, because we can. We love it. We love the quality of life. It's gorgeous here. But we do business globally. And so for the kind of work that we do, we really rely on having a reliable connection. We need a lot of bandwidth. And we need to be able to reach our remote clients. We do security testing remotely. We also offer training remotely. And so having a lot of bandwidth and a very reliable connection is incredibly important to our business.
We also do cutting-edge research. And having that ability to be able to do that while we are continuing to carry on our day-to-day business is very important.
Chris: And if I had to guess -- if you were to, say, offer to pay them $20,000 in construction costs, would run a fiber line to your building. Is that something that would be available to you but is just cost-prohibitive?
Karen: In most of the locations we looked at, it's just not possible -- at the time -- to get the fiber in.
Chris: It's literally a case of -- at almost no price is it even available.
Karen: That's correct. Yes.
Caitlin: In fact, we've heard, anecdotally, both -- that most businesses are saying their providers have said that that's just not possible. And other folks who have said their providers have been willing to do that. But, you know, it's a complicated process, because they don't do it very often here it doesn't seem like. It costs between $10 and $20,000 generally to make something like that happen. And then the average monthly costs, you know, for a gig can be upwards of $1200 a month, which is just way more than most small and medium-sized businesses are willing to pay, especially when they can, you know, set up shop in another city for much less.
Chris: That makes sense. A lot of communities do feasibility studies. But I get the sense that Missoula is more likely than most to actually move forward and take this information and actually do something with it. Can you give us a sense of what the next steps are?
Caitlin: Absolutely. Our new broadband task force includes four -- possibly five -- of the Internet service providers in the area, including two that are just looking to make inroads into this market -- if Missoula is able to move forward with it -- an "open access" community network, which is one of the signature recommendations that came out of the study. What we'll really be diving into, through that committee, is what will the operational model look like, for this 60-mile, "open access," self-financed network, that was recommended to us in this study.
And then we'll also look at what are some of the other recommendations that the study contains, such as how to make our community more fiber-friendly, how do we make sure that we have joint-trenching agreements, what are we doing in terms of the city's and the county's capital improvement projects budgets, to make sure that we're thinking ahead and investing in infrastructure that will make us fiber-friendly in the future. And then we're also looking at implementing broadband standards across all of our land use codes. So, just as we have requirements for how wide a street lane has to be, or how far a setback must be, or how wide a sidewalk can be, that we'll have those same things that are aligned with our goal to be a fiber-friendly community.
Chris: You know, I have to say that it's really hard for me, as someone who lives in a community that is not at all fiber-friendly, and where our elected officials don't really care about that fact, to hear how blithely you just note all the things that you're looking at doing. And so let me congratulate you.
Caitlin: Thanks. You know, when I revived the Economic Development Subcommittee, two and a half years ago, or whenever -- shortly after I took office -- it was very clear from the folks who served on that committee, from the private sector and also from the City Council, that we wanted to figure out what was the way that we could add value and capacity to the efforts that were already taking place from our local economic development groups in town. And it was clear that fiber was where it's at.
Chris: I'm curious, Karen, do you have any advice for other small businesses that might be in the position that you had been?
Karen: Well, I think the main thing is to contact your Internet service provider and let them know what your needs are. Make sure that they're aware that there are folks with other needs beyond the residential customer. And then, at the same time, if you are with a provider that can't provide that, be sure to check around, because there are, often times, other types of services or providers that can. And then, when -- if you've also gone down those avenues -- I would say, get involved with your community.
So we see what Caitlin is trying to achieve and we want to partner with that, because we think that would be great for Missoula and great for our business.
Chris: Now, are you looking for just a very fast connection? Or are there other characteristics that, as a very high-tech firm, you're looking for?
Karen: I would say it needs to be very fast. It needs the capacity to hold a lot of traffic all at once. And it has to be reliable. One of the things that we often run into with a smaller ISP is that they may throttle bandwidth in the evening hours. And a lot of our business gets done overnight, because we are doing business globally. And so we have to have availability 24 hours a day.
Chris: And, Caitlin, I want to ask you -- you know, when I met you, I was surprised that you were elected to City Council at such a young age. When we were preparing for this, you noted that everyone assumes you know a lot about technology because you're younger than the average Council member. What advice do you have for other elected officials?
Caitlin: Well, I think it's really important to take advantage of the resources that are already out there and not try to reinvent the wheel. Certainly your website, Chris, has been super-helpful to us, you know, even back in the early days when I was like, what's a gigabit, what's a megabit, and why are they different? I know we want more, but like what does this really mean? You know, just building relationships with folks like LMG and other big-data companies in Missoula has been super-helpful. Our university and their Office of Tech Transfer. And, you know, just helping people see the many applications for why a public-private partnership should really pursue a next-generation broadband is a good idea. You know, our local public schools have been super-supportive, as well as the University of Montana.
Chris: It's interesting to me that you didn't know a gigabit from a megabit when you were starting off, because you speak very fluidly about it now.
Chris: And I have to ask if -- you know, I truly believe that people are more intimidated with this than they have to be, that people can learn it.
Chris: And so you -- do you think you have to be below 40 to learn it?
Caitlin: NO! No. I think you just have to care about creating high-paying jobs in your community. I mean, that, to me, is what it really comes down to. Like, the reason I ran for Council is that I was tired of seeing so many of my friends move away, because they weren't willing to take the, like, scenic-Missoula-fly-fishing- $20,000-a-year pay cut, like a lot of us seem to do in order to live and succeed here. And so -- it's true across Montana, which is why I'm so excited to see Butte and Bozeman, you know, making headway on their municipal projects as well, because I really feel like this is the ticket for Montana.
And right now, you know, we have this booming energy economy in the eastern part of the state, but that relies on extractive resources, which not everybody is in support of. And then we have tourism, which is super-important, but doesn't really bring a lot of high-paying jobs. And so I feel like the third leg of this three-legged economic stool that I would like to see Montana pursue is really about the tech sector. And the tech sector needs broadband in order to be successful. And it's got to be accessible, it's got to be affordable. And I think that cities can lead the way in making the state take a more proactive policy as well.
Chris: You know, I have to say that as we're listening to this interview again, I just have some "sour grapes" -- in that it's been a great year of travel for me. I spent a little bit of time in Colorado as well. And I just decided: it's not fair for you-all to get fiber before us in the flatlands do.
Caitlin: Well, you could just move -- and bring your high-paying jobs with you.
Chris: My wife and I just drove across Montana, and we actually spent a night camping in Billings. And right before we started the call, also, Karen, you said that you were out there previously, working with the school district. And I'm curious if you could give us a short recap of what the school district of Billings has done with fiber.
Karen: Sure. Yeah. So I was the Director of Technology for Billings public schools, the largest district in the state -- about 16,000 students and 2,500 staff members. And so we started out, years ago, with point-to-point wireless through Touch America. We also tried T1s. But what we knew we really needed was fiber, because, with that many students and that many staff members using our network and relying on it for everything from research to testing, we knew we needed more bandwidth. And we were constantly running out. So we were partnered with a local Internet service provider. We took advantage of federal E-Rate funds, which are available to schools which are putting in networks. And we were able to bring fiber connections into all 30 of our schools. So our high schools and middle schools had gig connections, and our elementary schools had 100-meg connections. And it made a world of difference, because what we were able to do
was, rather than, for example, putting one server in every building, we were able to consolidate 30 servers into one -- have it centrally located -- and we still had the speed that we needed, so that the users couldn't tell that the server was in another building. They thought it was still right there with them because it was so responsive. It also allowed us to move some of our services to the cloud, so -- to take advantage of Google's offer for free e-mail for schools, and be able to host that externally. And so, by the time we were done with the project, we not only had great bandwidth and very reliable service on fiber, but we had saved about $300,000 over five years.
Chris: That's excellent! It's just really good to hear those sorts of stories and remind people that, you know, there's a lot of things you can do, whether it's partnering with a local ISP or doing a purely municipal investment. I think, in many cases, the trick is just to get away from being reliant on one company that has no interest in your local community.
Karen: Yeah. I think it's very important to partner with those companies that want to see the community grow.
Chris: Thank you both for coming on. I want to give you one last chance, if there's anything else that we should know about -- what's happening in Missoula -- let me know.
Caitlin: One of the things that I'm most excited about is that we do have so many of the Internet service providers participating on our task force, because I think that finally, after two and a half years, they've realized that I'm serious and I'm not going away. So now we get to actually talk about what a public-private partnership could look like, and hopefully get a little bit more information from them about what resources they already have in the ground, and how we can all kind of play ball, for the good of creating more high-paying jobs in Missoula.
Chris: I'm really glad to hear that, because I think most local governments really would prefer to just build neutral infrastructure and have others offering services over it. So I'm glad that you're getting that opportunity to make that model work.
Caitlin: Yeah. Absolutely. It's not my intention that people are writing their, you know, checks for Internet bill to the City of Missoula. I would much prefer that we just help, you know, offset the cost, to allow the folks that are really expert to deliver what they can and should be delivering.
Chris: And, Karen, did you have any final thoughts?
Karen: It's been really exciting for me to see the community working together on a project like this. I think people would be surprised that the number of high-tech companies already in Missoula, and with the University here, we have the possibility of doing so much more. So it was so exciting to me to see a community that is supportive of that, and trying to improve that for everyone
Chris: Well, thank you both for coming on the show, and I hope that I'll have a chance to stop in Missoula next year, before I go out to Glacier National Park for hopefully two weeks. We'll see what happens.
Karen: Thank you.
Caitlin: Thank you.
Lisa: We have a link to Missoula's feasibility study at muninetworks.org. We also have several stories about their project and a similar project in Bozeman, Montana. Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. Thank you again to Waylon Thornton for the music; the song is "Bronco Romp," and it's licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day.