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North Carolina Broadband and the Influx of Federal Dollars - Bonus Episode 13 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
For episode 13 of our bonus series, “Why NC Broadband Matters,” we’re joined by Doug Dawson (Owner and President of CCG Consulting), Catharine Rice (Project Director for the Coalition for Local Internet Choice) and Gene Scott (General Manager of the Outside Plant for the Greenlight Network) to talk about the wave of new federal dollars reaching communities across the country. How do communities avoid feeling overwhelmed and use this money in the most effective ways?
As state laws present challenges for North Carolina municipalities to build their own public broadband networks and provide services, the group discusses how anticipated funds could be used in the state. They talk about potential solutions, looking to communities that have already built networks and speaking with consultants who have spent time in other communities helping them overcome similar obstacles.
We produced this episode and the “Why NC Broadband Matters” series in partnership with NC Broadband Matters, a nonprofit organization advocating for better connectivity across North Carolina.
This show is 45 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed.
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 Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com a Creative Commons Attribution (4.0) license.
Catharine Rice: Just take a deep breath and realize that this is an opportunity for your community, but you want to do it right.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another bonus episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, North Carolina edition. We're producing episodes in this series for North Carolina Broadband Matters. And we now have a sponsor, Greenlight Community Broadband in Wilson, North Carolina. We're going to talk today about the opportunities moving forward with new federal money, and some of the things to be wary of, how to be careful, and make sure we get the most out of it. And we're going to be doing that with members of the North Carolina Broadband Matters board. So, welcome to the show some voices that have all been on here before. We'll start with Doug Dawson, the president of CCG consulting. Welcome to the show.
Doug Dawson: Hey, hi Chris, how are you doing today?
Christopher Mitchell: Doing good. Glad to have you back. We also have Catharine Rice, the Project Director for the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and a consultant with Broadband Matters. Welcome back, Catharine.
Catharine Rice: Hey Chris. So happy you're doing this.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you, Catharine. You've certainly made it possible, and we appreciate that. Our final guest is Gene Scott, the General Manager of Outside Plant for Greenlight Network in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome back.
Doug Dawson: Thank you Chris, for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: Gene. I'm thrilled to have you back. I really appreciate all the things that you do, both helping the community, and building technically sound networks. But also I think Wilson might be the single most represented ISP that we've had on our program. So, always good to have someone from Wilson, and the great work that you do. Let me start by, I'm going to poke Catharine, who was trying to have a slightly lesser role than the rest of us wanted to have in this show. Catharine, this show was your idea. Can you just lay out for us what we're doing here this morning?
Catharine Rice: Sure. But actually it was the idea of Doug and Gene. So, I'm just a listener.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. You made the mistake of communicating it to me. And so, I attributed it to you.
Catharine Rice: Well, I never speak for Doug and Gene, but I'll tell you the essence of what we're going to try to do, which is, there's all this discussion about all this federal money that's going to come into our country, and our towns, and our counties for broadband. And I think the concern is that, it's going to be a tsunami, and these localities are going to be overwhelmed. And often, when a hurricane hits a town, all these roofers who have never been roofers show up. And so, what Gene and Doug were talking about, and other consultants were talking about is, how our community is going to be able to handle this. There's a handful of well-known consultants. But how are you going to make it through this era in our country without really messing it up?
Christopher Mitchell: That's what I was looking for because I wouldn't have thought of that perfect analogy of the roofers showing up after the hurricane. That's a very good example. And frankly, there is an art, and a science to roofing but it is actually something you can pick up a bit faster than designing a broadband network to be used by tens of thousands of potential end points. So, let me come to Gene. Gene, what are your immediate thoughts in terms of defining the opportunity here? And then I'm going to ask Doug about the problems we have to worry about. Well, what is the opportunity that we see right now?
Gene Scott: Well, the opportunity obviously is, and I'm looking at this as a once in a lifetime, is the amount of federal support, and state support in many cases, in terms of funding for broadband networks. I think the pandemic pointed out to us how important, and vital these networks are, just to be able to literally carry on our normal lives during not only just pandemics but as we go into the future. So, there's an opportunity there. It is one that I think that many people should be able to take advantage of. However, it's a little more difficult to design, and put together one of these networks, and may appear on paper at first. And I'm sure Doug will be getting into some of the concerns, and I'd like to add to those too, but that's the opportunity. We've got the opportunity before us, and it's going to come pretty rapidly from what I understand in terms of funding. But let's use this once in a lifetime opportunity to do the very best for our communities, particularly our sister communities that are much smaller, and in rural areas that have been suffering for so long.
Christopher Mitchell: And Doug let's lay out then, what is the concern that we're... What are we already seeing, and what are we hypothetically worried about?
Doug Dawson: And already seeing is the right phrase to use. We are already seeing, because by now most towns and counties know that they have money coming. And they know that some of that money is directly going to be allowed to use for broadband, and there's another big pile of money that might be able to be used for broadband. So, they're already having these discussions about trying to use this once in a lifetime funding to get broadband in their community. And so, the first thing they do is they run out, and try to find consultants and engineers. And there's simply not enough of those. The broadband industry for rural America is very well-defined. You can count the good consultants on two hands. You can probably count the good engineers on three hands, and that's not enough people to satisfy a thousand communities suddenly looking for solutions.
Doug Dawson: And so, they're going to call up folks like me, and I've talked to several, I talked to [Joanne Hovis 00:05:59] earlier this week, and we're all going to be shutting down soon. We're just simply going to not be taking on new work. I have five new clients I signed up last week. I can't do that very much longer. And so, I will simply not be responding to requests for help. And all the other consultants will be doing the same thing. And what'll happen is these communities will still try to find somebody. And so, what they're going to find, and we've seen this happen before, every guy who retired from Southwestern Bell is going to call himself a consultant now, and all of a sudden want to help people to do this stuff. Everyone who's been an IT director for a county who thinks he's smarter than everyone in the whole world is suddenly going to become an expert. And they are both knowledgeable to some degree, but they don't know this stuff.
Doug Dawson: They just don't know the right way to build a fiber network, and the right way to make it pay for itself, which is the real value that consultants bring to this. It doesn't do any good to build a fiber network if you can't pay for it. Even with grant money, it's not guaranteed that it will break even. And so, and then the third... Then after, even after you make it through those two stages, there's not very many construction companies around either. There's not that many construction companies that work in rural America, they are already fully busy. 2020 was the busiest fiber year United States has ever seen. And part of that was not because of rural projects, even though there's a lot of them going on right now. Verizon is building fiber past 25 million homes right now.
Doug Dawson: I mean, I have projects going on the West Coast where they gobbled up every single construction crew for three state area. And so, there's just not cruise around. And so, what we're going to see here, and again, we've seen this before too, is the prices for labor is going to go up, and nobody's going to be able to keep staff. You're going to hire a crew, and they're going to lose their workers because they're going to get lured away for higher pay. People who try to do their own projects like Gene's company, who may have a few folks who are good at it. Those people are going to be offered 50,000 more dollars a year, and they're going to leave. And so, there's an estimate that we're somewhere between seven, and 800,000 technicians already short in this country.
Doug Dawson: We're going to try to use those shortage of people to do all this work, and they just simply can't get it done. After all that is resolved for a city, you can't buy fiber, and stuff very well right now. By next year you won't be able to buy it all. I already have clients who are ordering fiber a year early, a year early. And some of this federal money's going to have a time clock on it. You have to spend in two years. Well, if it takes you a half a year to figure out what you're going to do, and then you've got to order the fiber, you may not be able to get it in time to build the project.
Doug Dawson: So, this it's just going to be every single piece of the supply chain. And I count consultants, engineers, and construction companies as part of the supply chain. They're all going to be in massively short supply. And it's a shame, and we knew this would happen. And it's going to get worse if the federal government does an infrastructure program, and throws 100 billion dollars at this. You may never get projects built under that scenario. It's just a, it's a disaster that's not waiting to happen because it's already started. It's going on right now so...
Christopher Mitchell: Let me actually ask Gene this follow-up question because North Carolina has a set of laws that already makes it more difficult. And I feel like a listener might be surprised that we're talking about cities potentially building networks with this money. I mean, if we were talking about Arkansas, which got rid of its limits on cities or Kentucky, which didn't really have limits, it might make more sense, but for someone who's looking out, what can cities actually do in North Carolina?
Gene Scott: Here in North Carolina, you have to look at what Wilson did, and what the law now allows. Wilson basically provides our own services over our own network. The law here in North Carolina will allow basically an open access type of network, which means the municipality, the city or a county government can build a network but they cannot offer services over it, they will have to partner with a private company, another ISP to provide the video, and the data over it. So, it's two different models. So yes, with the federal money that appears to be coming our way, the state of North Carolina, and the cities, and counties in it, can take advantage of it, but it would be a different model than what we did here in Wilson.
Christopher Mitchell: And Doug, my understanding is that, it's also true that cities in Arkansas, and Kentucky might do a public-private partnership. But I think even those public-private partnerships are still more constrained in North Carolina than we see in other places.
Doug Dawson: There's extra hoops to jump through here. So, you have to go out through a bid process, and make it all public. But it can be done here. And so, there's cities doing it right now, and we're not the only state. There's a number of other states where it's harder, and that just makes it even worse. Again, this money has a time limit on it. So, the city has to not only deal with the supply chain issue, they have to deal with those legal issues. It's just going to make it... And the trouble is if they don't spend this money, and this money has a time clock on it, it'll simply expire, and then it doesn't get used at all. And that would just be a disaster.
Doug Dawson: But back to Gene's point on a public-private partnership, those partnerships don't really get started till usually the city goes, and quantifies the cost of the fiber network. Then you can talk to partners. So, they still have to go through those two early stages with the consultants, and the engineers. And then they're ready to talk to a partner. And that's the part that they're going to have a very hard time doing. They're going to get on the internet, look for folks like us who are not going to respond back to them, and then what are they going to do? So-
Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's what we're going to talk about here. I mean that's-
Doug Dawson: Yeah. That's what we're going to talk about.
Catharine Rice: And I had just a short caveat, which is, communities can build networks for their own use without any limits-
Doug Dawson: In North Carolina, right.
Christopher Mitchell: So, some communities might want to build a beefy network, connecting institutional actors in schools, libraries, hospitals, things like that, and make sure it has plenty of capacity to lease. In part, also hopeful that the legislature will get out of the way, and allow communities more freedom in how they use that. So, this is actually, I think leading into one of our recommendations.
Doug Dawson: The thought is that most of the federal money is going to be very focused towards last mile. And they may not think institutional networks are last mile. I mean, they could be allowed, but seems like there's going to be a bias against institutional, and a bias against middle mile.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm not necessarily hearing that myself but-
Doug Dawson: Rules aren't out yet.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. So, the rules aren't out yet, and there's actually different pots. So, some of the pots of money may have different rules than other pots. And so, this is definitely speculative.
Doug Dawson: Which we're going to know in a couple of weeks.
Gene Scott: Catharine's point was very important. Yes, here in North Carolina institutional networks, we can, and some cities are already doing that there. But that is to connect their own fire stations, their own police departments, water treatment plants, internal use only. So, that's been going on. But I do agree with Doug. I think the focus of this federal money, and the grants is going to be providing a broadband to the citizens in the community. Because that's where the pandemic pointed out that what is the most needed.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, and I don't want to get lost in this point but one of the things we're hearing is that, one possible rule might be that it's only available for, "Unserved areas." And so, there's still a lot on the table as to how this could go. And there's a lot of concern about how these rules will be written. But I don't want to spend any more time on that because we have certainty in other areas. We have certainty in something we talked about in the pre-call. And that is, let me ask you Doug, I'm a person in a smaller town, and I get a phone call from someone who says, "Hey, I'm really great at building networks. I can get you some 5G. I can get you some wired, whatever you want, I'll get it for you. You just got to give me some of that sweet, fresh money from the federal government. And we'll make sure that your town's hooked up." No matter how good I sound, no matter how good that caller sounds, what do I say as an official in a local town?
Doug Dawson: I hope you say no, because the good consultants are not looking for work right now. There's none of us making phone calls to try to find work. So, anybody calling you is not an existing current consultant. So, this is the come out of the woodwork guys. This is go back. This is Catharine's roofer guys who are now experts all of a sudden. Not to say that they're not experts, but what you want to do is immediately find out what other cities have they already helped in the recent past to do exactly what you want to do. And the chances are it's none. Now, some of them may be. Well, you may get a consultant who used to work for somebody like Greenlight or somebody. So, there may be a few folks who actually might be pretty good, but you better check them out really close.
Doug Dawson: I was talking to Joanne Hovis again. She has a city client in Indiana who's gotten 10 such calls already, 10 such calls. And they followed them up, and they were all 10 that sounded like scams to them. So, anytime there's big federal money, there's big scams. That's always happening with every time there's federal spending.
Christopher Mitchell: Gene, you seem like a nice guy. You know what I mean? You certainly have that facade to hide the inner demons that are, I'm sure there. Now, I'm from a small town in Eastern North Carolina, and I call you up and I'm like, "Hey Gene, could you just give me a few minutes?" Tell me about, have you ever heard of these guys? Are you going to slam the phone down in anger?
Gene Scott: No, I'm not going to do that. Unfortunately, I only have worked with, and know a very small percentage of the reputable firms in this country. So, if you came up, and you gave me a call, absolutely I'd take it. And you said, "Gene if I ever worked with or heard of..." And gave me a company name, and a chance if I have, I will certainly give you the input, "Yes. Great firm. I've actually worked with them before." Et cetera. But there's probably a higher probability I'm going to say, "Chris, I'm sorry. Now they may be perfectly fine, but I've never had any experience with them."
Gene Scott: And I'm going to be very careful because I do not want to accidentally endorse someone I do not know, particularly something this important to the small communities that are, or have a potential to take advantage of federal money. But no, I'm not going to slam the phone down. And I do anticipate getting those types of calls. I'm sure Doug, and some of the other individuals will also. The only problem is we're going to be slammed working too. So, may be a little hard to get to us sometimes.
Christopher Mitchell: But people should try to reach out to cities that have done this thing, and ask them about it.
Gene Scott: Absolutely. In fact, to your point, and that's something that I want our listeners to really think about, do not hesitate to call the communities that have already done this, and just ask. Because I know our whole mode of operation is we've shared information. We've been through it. We do not mind telling you what worked, what didn't work. Don't try to go it alone. Reach out to the other communities. They have a vested interest in everybody succeeding. So, they would sure be more than happy to tell you the truth, and the positives, and negatives of doing whatever it is you want to do.
Catharine Rice: I just wanted to play devil's advocate for just a second, because I know that part of the philosophy behind generating all this federal funding is also to stimulate the job market. So, I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about solutions because I anticipate there may be qualified young people out there or qualified not so young people out there, who say, "Hey, this is something I've been waiting for for a while. And I'd like to help communities do this." So, we all know that there are some very, there's some well-known companies in this space, but there may be some not so well-known. So, can I ask Doug, and Gene to talk about what are solutions for local communities that may have never had to build this, and have lost out on the calls to Joanne, Gene, and Doug, but really need to find somebody to grab this lifetime opportunity?
Doug Dawson: Well, let me tackle that first. First off, I want to amplify something that Gene said, which was, we help them not make mistakes. That's probably actually the value that we bring. I've helped over a thousand communities, and what I've seen is the 500 major mistakes that communities make. And that's what I really get paid for, is to not let you make those same mistakes. The right things to do are not that hard to define, but the one bad mistake can destroy an entire project. So, that's a really important thing to talk about.
Christopher Mitchell: There's a story among wedding photographers as to why they get paid so much. And it's because they know how not to make mistakes.
Doug Dawson: Right. Exactly.
Christopher Mitchell: You don't want to have to recreate that moment with all of your family. And so, you need someone who, it might look to you like they're just pushing a button, but in reality, they're actually not making 100 mistakes.
Catharine Rice: What do you do if you can't, I mean, Doug [crosstalk 00:19:24] cards are going to be full. So what do you do as a local community when you-
Doug Dawson: Well, there's a couple of important steps. First of all, today, you still try to get a hold of us, that we are still taking some new clients. And you go through the list of people who you're referred to, and you may get lucky, and get a consultant or an engineer. You certainly probably have a chance to talk to Gene, and other cities who have done this. After that, your best bet in my mind is to go ahead, and talk to the ISPs that you're likely to partner with. And now, they're going to be swamped as well. A good ISP is going to have 10 opportunities around them, geographically. All the communities around them are going to want them to come there, and they probably can't do that even with grant money. So, but at least they will come, and talk to you almost certainly.
Doug Dawson: And of course they're already doing it. So, these are not cities that are doing it. They're commercial ISPs, either co-ops or wireless companies or fiber over builders. So, they're already doing it that day, and they can immediately tell you again, what not to do. They can give you really good advice, and they may also just jump right in with you, and start the partnership going. I mean, that might get you straighter to a solution than any other path to go, but you just have to be warned that they are getting bombarded by phone calls as well. So, everybody wants an existing ISP to be their partner. And one of our board members is a co-op, and they've been hounded by these questions for the last five years. Every county in North Carolina wants them to come, and build fiber. But you can only take so many of those opportunities, right? So...
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's worth noting that even if this ISP has a good reputation, it could still be useful to call up some of the cities that they've worked with and say, "Hey, like what went right? Where were the points of friction? What would you do differently?" Those are some of the questions you want to ask when you're checking out references. Not because you're trying to find out if they're a bad actor, but sometimes you are doing that. But in the case where you already have a good sense of them, you might be just trying to figure out how to iterate, and do something a little bit more efficiently.
Doug Dawson: Well, and your point is well taken, because what you're really saying is you have to do your homework. You've got to truly check the references. Every consultant's going to give you the name of two guys who will say that we walk on water. You need to find the five guys who don't say we walk on water, because we're going to give you our two best friends as a reference. So-
Christopher Mitchell: It does explain the sandals you wear Doug, though. So, that's helpful, the walking on the water bit. Gene, let me put the same question to you, that Catharine had just asked.
Gene Scott: Well, actually, I want to pick up to where Doug left off. Just say, for example, that you can't get up with the engineering consulting firms that are the most well-known, the ISPs are busy. One thing that a community, and this is just common sense, you need to slow down, you need to have a plan. What is it you want to do with your network first, okay? And the plan cannot be, "I just want to serve all my citizens provide broadband." That's a goal. That's a target. But that's not a plan. But you need to have a rough plan in mind because it will help guide the questions that you're going to want to ask. And as Doug said a little earlier, some of these grants have some very tight time frames. I'll think about that a couple of years, maybe they gave you from start to finish-
Christopher Mitchell: I think, just to nail that down, I think most of the money has to be spent by the end of 2024, that we're talking.
Gene Scott: That gives you a little time, but not a lot. Considering the material backlog, and things that Doug had already mentioned, but slow down, because it could be a case where today you will not be able to find one of those consulting or engineering firms to help you. But if you can get your name in the pot, they may be able to pick you up in six or eight months, depending on whatever else they got going on. Materials, as Doug said earlier, there's already a backlog. Some of the suppliers, manufacturers I talked to they're 14 months out. So, if you ordered it today, they're 14 months before they would ship. And that is today. The money has not actually fully hit us. So, I'm just saying, you're going to have at least a 14-month or so, time frame before you can even get material anyway.
Christopher Mitchell: That sounds like good time to develop a plan.
Gene Scott: It's a good time to develop a plan. And the only thing that this is not a negative, but the citizens in your community are going to hear, "Hey, I'm going to spell it, got a grant. This is wonderful. We're finally going to get really great broadband." And they're going to start calling the elected officials, city officials going, "When are you guys going to start? You think I'll have it by Christmas? Can I go out, and go, and buy the computer for my child today?" And I'm not trying to be sarcastic, but these are questions that I've actually gotten before.
Gene Scott: And you're going to have to temper that, and not let that be the driver to push you into going forward quicker than you can put together a plan, and find skilled, qualified people to help you with. I am hoping, and this is just purely an editorial comment on my part but I'm hoping the government will extend some of this time frame beyond 2024, when we get into it to help. Because it's one thing to throw a lot of money out here for what I've considered a once in a lifetime opportunity, but let's just don't throw money at it, and build something that's only 70% of what we really want. Let's do it correctly because we will be living with these networks for decades to come.
Doug Dawson: I have another follow-up on what Gene just said, because there is another really different approach. And that's for small communities in a region to join together because where a town of a thousand people is not going to get my attention, 7 towns of a thousand people each is going to make it onto my list. And so, because you're helping a lot more people, and they can also together afford you a lot better. And so, we're already seeing that. I'm working a bunch of New England right now. And in New England, the typical project has nine or more towns in it. They just decided to go with groups. And that's a really smart approach because that's one engineering look, that's one consulting look. They each get their look, and they don't all have to take the same solution, but they all get the work done.
Doug Dawson: So, joining together regionally, that's one of the ways to pause, is to talk to all your neighbors as Gene suggested right now, and see if you can find a way to pull all of your money together to build an even better project. That's also going to be more attractive to an ISP. ISPs do not really want to go out, and negotiate with towns of 800 people. But they would sure love to go out, and negotiate with six towns of 800 people who are pretty close to each other. So, it just makes you attractive for all the other players in the industry, is to talk to your neighbors. And why would you not want to go get a solution for the region anyhow, that's good for everybody? So...
Catharine Rice: Here's another piece of that, because some of this is being defined by the money that you receive. I think on the American Rescue Act funds, you may have more flexibility in how you use the funds versus some of the infrastructure planning funds that are being talked about. So, maybe when ideas, if you can bring all your communities together, and you have the opportunity to access some of the American Rescue Act funds, go on a smaller scale that you can manage. Maybe it's just getting fiber to your core anchor institutions right now, and sure it's the chance of a lifetime. But you can only do so much with limited staff. So, that's another idea, is maybe don't bite off more than you can chew.
Doug Dawson: Well, and there's a really important follow-up to that. As good as these grants are, I doubt that many of these grants are going 100% pay to build every single house in a town with fiber. There may be places where there'll be that good, from the numbers I'm hearing are a good down payment towards doing that. So, which also means that if you just want to use that grant money, and nothing else, then talk about building a quarter of your town or something. But you have to be realistic with what you can do with that money, because for a community in North Carolina to take this money, and to also cross the legal hurdles to try to do the whole town, that might be hard to do in the time frame. But don't let this money go to waste, build fiber, get some fiber in the ground.
Christopher Mitchell: Work on to it.
Gene Scott: Yeah. Very, very good points. If you can get your institutional networks up, and then build a backbone while you're at it with the grant money. Then the distribution networks that would follow it, they would actually serve your citizens, are gonna actually be at least set up, once you can find funding for it.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, let's go back to the beginning, and reiterate some of the key points here. One is, if someone calls you with a really great plan, you probably don't want to listen to them. You almost certainly don't want to listen to them. No matter who you're going to work with, you're going to want to check them out. You're going to check them out with folks who have been there before. At the very least you can reach out to someone like me that pretends to know what I'm talking about. But certainly reach out to local communities that have already done this thing, or even friendly ISP. I don't know that Alan is the kind of person to turn down a community that needs five minutes of advice. Alan from Open Broadband, for those of you not in the know.
Doug Dawson: I will tell you everybody on NC Broadband Matters board is going to talk to you. So, this is why we're here.
Catharine Rice: Alan Fitzpatrick.
Doug Dawson: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: So, right. Anyone on the NC Broadband Matters board, show up at their house, ideally during daylight hours. So, then, you need to develop a plan, and don't rush into it. You want to develop a plan that's really going to address the issues that you have. I think it was Gene who said, you don't have a broadband problem. Getting broadband, everyone, is not a plan. That's a goal. And so, you need to develop a plan, and you may separate out a goal of connecting low-income folks versus bringing competition to some parts of town where people already have access but they're frustrated with it. You might have a goal of focusing on local businesses. You might have a goal of focusing on something else, but make sure you're fine grain in those goals.
Christopher Mitchell: Then, you find someone that's going to work with you. And this is something I would do, even if you're working with Doug or Joanne or anyone, I would run a sanity check. Once you develop that plan, buy someone else that's been there, especially another city that's built something, and say, "This is what our work with our consultant has brought back. Does this seem like a good idea? Are we missing anything?" And that sort of thing. So, it was another sanity check there. And we didn't talk about that. I'm just throwing that in because I wanted to. Let me give a chance to Gene, you have a funny look on your face. How do you react to that?
Gene Scott: No, I think a sanity check is absolutely necessary. And don't mind the funny look, this is just permanent for some reason. If our listeners don't take anything else away from this podcast, that's number one, take your time. And number two, reach out to other communities that have done this or ISP, as Doug mentioned, that have done this. And don't be bashful about asking for opinions in, "What did you experience? How did you do it?" These communities are not going to be able to be consultants for you but they can share their experiences. We're all going to be busy, but it doesn't hurt to ask. And as Doug pointed out, the members on our board, that's one of our purposes, is to help each other, and the communities here in the state of North Carolina.
Doug Dawson: And just so you know, Chris, I'm hired to do second opinions all the time. The trouble with this money is, that might just be another time crunch thing. Because now you've got to find a second consultant after you struggled to find the first one. But you could still get a second opinion from Gene or somebody, like, "What do you think about this thing?" So, yeah, that's always good advice before you spend large money. That's always good advice.
Christopher Mitchell: I just say, anytime anyone says second opinion, my first side is immediately, "You're ugly too." Old joke.
Catharine Rice: So, I want to play devil's advocate yet again, because Chris you were saying, if folks are cold calling you, don't take the call. And I just think about when I first started my consulting business and another consulting businesses, and you're forced to do calls like that to try to get a client. So, is there any avenue beside, don't take the call? Should you take it but don't waste a lot of time on it or something like that? So you don't close off all opportunities for new businesses.
Doug Dawson: There's a difference between taking a call, and taking a call where the guy says, "I absolutely have the solution for you." Who doesn't even know your community yet, right? Now, of course, we've all made calls in the past, but my point was, this year, people aren't making nearly as many calls because they're busy. But anyone who calls up and goes, "I hear you're getting federal money." If that's their first sentence, then you hang up. And at the end, if they go on, "I have the perfect solution for you." Literally Joanne said, half of the calls for this community said, "And I have the perfect solution for you." They know nothing about this community. These are not good consultants.
Gene Scott: I would take the call. I would cut them off if they started into, "I hear you got federal money." Yes, I'd cut them off. And I'd just say, "Look, tell you what, here's my email address. You send me your portfolio. What cities' communities have you helped? What's your background?" Basically, just like you were interviewing them for a job. And I say, "You send me that information, and I'll review it later." And it will be a very short phone call. But if they're sincere, they more than likely will send you that information. If they are not, or they don't really have any references to give you, you may not hear from them again.
Christopher Mitchell: Mental note for nascent consulting business to myself, and my staff stop saying we have the perfect solution. Use other verbiage.
Catharine Rice: So, can you guys talk about the use of RFPs that may help address some of these filtering issues?
Doug Dawson: RFPs are the normal way that communities purchase, and a lot of cases, they have to use an RFP. And that's really, I mean, it's a local purchasing issue. Now luckily, if communities really dig deep, they may find that when they need to hire experts, that they may not actually need the RFP. We often find out the higher engineers, and consultants that you can do it without the RFP. The problem with an RFP right now is that adds three or four months to the beginning of the process. And you may not get any good... If we're all busy, we may not respond to those RFPs. The trouble is once city starts in RFP, they're not supposed to be lobbied or talk to any of these folks. So, there's this three or four-month quiet period where they can't call me up, and ask me advice if they've already asked me to submit an RFP. And so, they hurt themselves by doing that. For the two to three-year money, the stuff that's due by 2024, I would try really hard not to do an RFP.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, Doug, how many RFPs do you plan on responding to in the next few months?
Doug Dawson: It's going to only be a handful.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean, I assume-
Doug Dawson: My pipe is already filled through early winter, so I'm not going to respond to very many. I will respond to RFPs right now that are due after the first of next year.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, my thought is that people have to have in mind, responding to RFPs is already something that annoys consultants, to some extent. Because you don't know if they've already preselected who they want to work with. You're putting hours into respond. If you have a bunch of people that are saying, "I really want you to work with us. And those are certain..." And I'm like, Doug, I suspect that you like many others who have a good reputation, aren't just going to work with anyone. But nonetheless, let's say you have a pipeline full of people who are saying, "We have a good project. We're legitimate. We've been doing our homework. We want to work with you." Those are your 100%. Why are you going to spend a lot of time going for your 30% or your 50% on RFPs.
Doug Dawson: Don't write an RFP that has 75 questions I have to answer, because I'm not going to respond to it. And if you want the whole answer to the study, and the proposal, you're not going to get it from me. I'm simply not going to waste one minute at a time on an RFP like that. People ask just an amazing long list of requirements. What do you need an... And this year, there's three things you need in a feasibility study, and that's it. You need an engineering estimate of the cost of the network. You need some market research to find out if the folks in your community actually want broadband, which you probably know, but you still should do that because the ISP wants to know that. And you should do some little financial plan to prove that it pays for itself. Everything else is extra.
Doug Dawson: You may want some of this other things like in North Carolina, I still may want someone to talk to me about the legal issues, but you don't need 75 other things, and you certainly... If you ask for all those, good consultants are just going to throw it away this year. Even in the past, I usually didn't respond to those. It's just like, "This community is going to be too big of a pain to work with. I don't really need that." So, we are now selecting clients. It's not the other way around. They have to understand that. And it sounds egotistical, but that's the reality of the marketplace.
Christopher Mitchell: Go ahead, Gene.
Gene Scott: I was just going to say, just going to ask Doug to throw out for our listeners, if they did want to do an RFP, and as you said, they don't want to issue on 75 questions because mostly consultants or engineers are not going to have time to respond. What would be a few basic questions? And maybe 10 questions total, maybe. And what would you, if you were issuing RFP, what would the questions be that you'd want to know?
Doug Dawson: Actually, I have a generic RFP that if someone asks me, I go, "Here's what you should ask." [crosstalk 00:38:11]. If they call me up and ask that I'll email to them, and now they got their shell.
Gene Scott: Exactly. So, I thought that would be helpful to our listeners if they knew that.
Doug Dawson: In fact, we can post that on our NC Broadband Matters website. Good question, Gene. I actually now have to clean it up a bit, but I'll do that.
Gene Scott: No, I think that would be helpful because many communities are not going to know what questions to ask. And I can see the 7,500-question because they're going to try to cover every base. And then you're going to get some folks that simply won't know which questions to ask. So, they're going to say, "I [inaudible 00:38:47], what do I do?"
Doug Dawson: We will post one of those on our website. That's a great idea.
Catharine Rice: So, as a follow-up question, Doug, from the angle of you being in the driver's seat, what community would you be attracted to? How could a community attract you as a qualified consultant?
Doug Dawson: I just need to have a feeling that they care. I mean, quite honestly, today's my 67th birthday, by the way. So, I'm no longer the youngest consultant industry. And I really want to tackle projects where I think that there's going to be a good conclusion at the end. So, there are people who hire me, who just want to think about it, and you can tell they're not serious. And I'm not going to be taking those jobs right now, I don't think so. I want communities who are really looking for a solution, who a week after I deliver the product to them, we're talking about grant filings. I mean, that's two I'm really wanting to help. And that's usually pretty clear when they ask for help. So, there's the dabblers, and there's the serious communities. And so, right now, I'm looking for the serious communities. Now in the past, I worked for plenty of dabblers because I just charge them, and that's good money. But I really want to help solutions right now. So...
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I want to just point out, Doug was just the guest on the Broadband Bunch podcast. It was a good conversation. And I get the sense whether you're trying to work with Doug or one of the other consultants that has a good reputation in this space. You don't need that consultant to start your community engagement process. This is the time where we're talking about slow down a little bit. If you're not able to get on the dance card of a consultant you want, make sure that as soon as that consultant's ready, you have all your ducks lined up, that you have multiple people in the community that are enthusiastic. You have a Community Broadband team. There's a whole approach to this. And in North Carolina, thanks to the Institute for emerging issues.
Christopher Mitchell: And some of the rural electric co-ops in the state, all pulling together with the band NC project that we've talked about before. Sometimes you have this issue where you're stuck on this thing, and like, "Oh, I need a consultant, I need a consultant." And then you find out we can't get a consultant for six months. Well, you got to ask yourself, "If we got a consultant today, what would we do tomorrow?" And then you do that thing anyway, and you get rolling with it because you can do a lot of this work in terms of community engagement, to make sure people are enthusiastic about it, people know what broadband is, and how DSL cannot solve the problem. And they already know some of that stuff. That can be really useful.
Doug Dawson: Yeah. Really simple stuff. Get everybody in town to take a speed test, and accumulate them. I mean, if you walk into me with that in your hand, I know everything about your town. That would be just an awesome thing-
Christopher Mitchell: Then you can develop the perfect solution.
Doug Dawson: Well, only you can do that, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: Do we have any closing comments? Let me start with you, Catharine.
Catharine Rice: To underscore Gene's comment, which is, it's really easy to get anxious now about this stuff. Those communities who've been starved for a long time, and hearing about all these funds, and practically being handed them in an envelope, slow down. Just take a deep breath, and realize that this is an opportunity for your community but you want to do it right. And it's a great thing to just bring people together, and start talking about, "How do we develop a plan?" You'd be surprised how many communities just don't have a plan. Even if the plan is just, well, we're going to serve those 50 houses right there. That's my advice.
Christopher Mitchell: Gene.
Gene Scott: Well, of course I agree with Catharine, and I wanted to add, there is no cookie cutter design for these networks. What might work perfectly for my community may not be the ideal choice for yours, Chris or where Doug lives. So, if someone comes up and says, "We've done this particular design 1000 different times." I'd be a little suspicious too. I want them to know my community so that they can tailor it to the plan I've got in mind, and serve my community, which was totally different than the community that might be in the Midwest or on the West Coast. You want the people who are advising you to be able to really know your community, know what you need, and help guide you as to what is the best fit for you.
Christopher Mitchell: I like that. Doug.
Doug Dawson: First off, I just want to reiterate that point three more times because that's actually the most important point on the whole call. No two communities are alike. I've worked for communities that are 10 mile apart, and that needed a different solution because there's just local construction conditions, and local demand differences that mean one solution won't work in both places. So, that is incredibly important, and that's what you want to figure out. You want to figure out what works for you. I think I just go back to Gene's point as well as Catharine did is, be patient, get your group together, do as much research on your own as you can, talk to as many people as you can. You will find help if you tackle this right. You may not get a consultant hired this June, but you will get a consultant hired in January. So, I mean, take your time, and do it right, and figure out a solution. So...
Gene Scott: That's right. Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you all. Thank you to North Carolina Broadband Matters, NC Broadband Matters. Thank you to Greenlight for sponsoring this episode, and thank you all for listening, and for helping us to solve this problem. The kids, and the grandkids of the kids today are going to be reading about this time, and they're not going to know about all these years we spent agonizing over it. They're going to read about how the internet got started in the 90s for a lot of people, and how it didn't really get to everyone until the mid to late 20s. And this pain that we're all going through it glossed over, but it's still important that we all do what we can to get through it. So, we are going to get there, and it's because of people that are listening to this show, and doing the hard work. So, thank you very much.
Doug Dawson: Thank you.
Gene Scott: Thank you.