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Open Cape Works With Communities for Last Mile - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 215
Cape Cod's OpenCape is the latest of the stimulus-funded middle mile broadband projects to focus on expanding to connect businesses and residents. We talk to OpenCape Executive Director Steve Johnston about the new focus and challenge of expansion in episode 215 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Steve has spent much of his first year as executive director in meetings with people all across the Cape. We talk about how important those meetings are and why Steve made them a priority in the effort to expand OpenCape. We also talk about the how OpenCape is using Crowd Fiber to allow residents to show their interest in an OpenCape connection. They hope that expanding the network will encourage people to spend more time on the Cape, whether living or vacationing. The Cape is not just a vacation spot, it has a large number of full time residents that are looking for more economic opportunities and the higher quality of life that comes with full access to modern technology.
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Steve Johnston: It's about revitalizing the Cape and Islands in Southeastern Mass while maintaining that village mentality that people love when they come to New England.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 215 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Open Cape, a Massachusetts non-profit, open access, middle mile network, has been providing services to Southeastern Massachusetts since 2013. At first, the network just connected community anchor institutions, but now it offers fiber connectivity to businesses as well. In this episode, Chris talks with Steve Johnston, Open Cape's executive director, who takes us through some of the changes that Open Cape has experienced in the past several years, and how the community has benefited. Steve also describes more changes in store, and how they plan to move into the future. Check out their website, OpenCape.org, to learn more about what Open Cape has done, and where they're going, and look for our stories at MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris, and Steve Johnston, executive director of Open Cape.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another addition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, and today I'm speaking with Steve Johnston, the executive director of Open Cape, out there in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show.
Steve Johnston: Thanks Chris, it's good to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to get a better sense of what's going on. You've had some pretty great developments recently, but as always I like to start by giving people a little bit of a background. What was the genesis of Open Cape?
Steve Johnston: Sure, really quickly. I'm sure most of your audience is probably obviously familiar with the BTOP process. Open Cape is kind of testament to it's better to be lucky, sometimes. In 2006, there was a meeting here in Cape Cod, and included people from Southeastern Mass, Cape Cod, and the Islands, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and where everyone was talking about, "Hey, we need better connectivity. We need better service." About 300 people showed up, and that was the initial genesis of Open Cape. Not long after that period, the whole BTOP program was initiated, and Open Cape applied, and certainly, we received a grant, and that allowed us to build close to 500 miles of fiber, that runs across Southeastern Mass, down from Boston, onto Cape Cod, back and forth across Cape Cod, all the way out to the end of Cape Cod, to Provincetown, out to Nantucket, back across the Cape, across another bridge, out through New Bedford, Fall River, to Providence, Massachusetts, connecting in 2 spots, and giving the whole region access to this great, state of the art network.
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's worth noting, people think Cape Cod, they think lots of rich people, vacations. What are the demographics of Cape Cod actually like?
Steve Johnston: You're right, when people first envision Cape Cod, they absolutely think Kennedys, and you think about Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket, and you think about shockingly wealthy people coming here for the summers, and there is some of that, but what really our region looks like is dramatically different. You're talking about places like Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they have 38% unemployment outside of those 3 months of June, July, August, and you think about people that don't have any service at all. If you live out on the Outer Cape, what we call near the national sea shore, you may be using satellite or dial-up service, so there are certainly pockets of under-served individuals. Yes, there are absolutely pockets of great wealth, and that has actually kind of fed into our strategy of how we're looking to extend Open Cape, and build out, taking advantage of that, but really, when you look at the majority of our network, you've got pockets of completely under-served areas. Even off Cape, when I look at my service map, on Cape is a very different strategy, the Cape and Islands are a very different strategy as off Cape. When I say off Cape, if you have to go across, there's a canal that connects, the Cape Cod Canal, there's 2 bridges that you go across, and you go out to Fall River, New Bedford, Mass, both cities of 100,000 individuals plus, large immigrant populations, we've got Amazon.com just coming into Fall River, so there's kind of a revitalization effort here, probably similar to what we've seen in areas like Chattanooga, or places like that. Yes, when people think of Cape Cod, they think of the Kennedys, but there's also a huge underside of it, and it's also, shockingly enough, it's the third oldest county in the country, so we have a lot of seniors, a lot of retirees that come here, and as we're looking extending Open Cape, it really is about having a conversation about economic development, and how do we have younger individuals returning, or families return here, and how do we serve all segments of the population?
Christopher Mitchell: I think we're going to spend a lot of time talking about how you're going to be serving all of the population, but before we get there, one of the first things I think it often makes sense to do, before you can build out last mile connections, is to connect anchor institutions, to make sure that people, at the very least, can get to the library, the public schools, to gain some kind of access. How is that part of your business plan working out, connecting to those anchor institutions?
Steve Johnston: It's going well. The network went live in January of 2013. We still were building out some of the main backbone throughout the rest of 2013, but in 2014, we pretty much had come to a conclusion of that. We've connected about 110 community anchor institutions, really kind of a diverse group of organizations and buildings. Basically, all the 15 towns on Cape Cod have multiple facilities connected to the network, which is great. Here on the Cape, we work with an organization called the Cape Cod Commission, and the Commission is kind of the overlord of all things Cape Cod, like Sandwich, Mass was incorporated in 1632, so the historic properties of maintaining buildings and things like that, that all comes under the auspice of local historical groups, as well as the Cape Cod Commission, but the Cape Cod Commission has really stepped up, and to work in collaboration with us, where they have encouraged us, through paying for towns to connect to the regional wide area network, buildings that were not already included as part of our BTOP grant, where we've created a very effective regional wide area network, that's connecting the 15 Cape towns, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket, that's allowing us to share and promote information and data between town halls,
town clerks: things like beach stickers, which here are a way of life. If you want to get a beach sticker, and maybe you live in Sandwich and need to go out to the Outer Cape or something like that, they're sharing information so these services don't have to be recreated. I think we're doing a good job in expanding that. When I got to Open Cape in September of last year, we really spent a lot of time, a lot of effort in revitalizing our communications out to these towns, because we really saw the towns as being a core partner in expanding the network, and having people utilize it, understand it, understand all the implications of what having fiber in your community means. We're seeing a good response. I know, right now we're about to do a huge, Tuesday of next week, Monomoy Regional School District, which will put us into a category where we are now servicing 74% of all the high schools on the Cape and Islands.
Christopher Mitchell: The original business model was open access. Is that something that you're continuing to do, as you look to expand?
Steve Johnston: It is. It's something we're spending an extraordinary amount of time on. We're an open access network. We're a non-profit, which also puts us in a different kind of category, but open access is a huge part of this, and currently I spend a huge amount of my time looking at and talking with potential partners who want to come here and offer services. I think originally, when the original plan was thought up, Open Cape is a good example of what the BTOP program really should be, I think. We have an area that is geographically different from most of the contiguous United States. When you go out on the end of the Outer Cape, it's beautiful, but also, it's kind of third world, in a sense, because it's the end of civilization out there. The winters are very harsh, and you're out on the Outer Cape, and I think the incumbent provider that was here, and really there was only one, kind of had fair reign to do whatever they wanted to do, in terms of pricing, in terms of service, in terms of infrastructure, so our presence alone has really made a huge difference in that, and I think encouraging more partners to come here is a core part of our job, and we're working really hard to do that, so yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Would you say that one of your benefits, then, is that you force the incumbent provider just to do a better job?
Steve Johnston: Absolutely. When you look at the different things that we've accomplished here, the number one thing that I think is that we provided a choice. I'm saying that before I've even hooked up one residential individual. Right now, we've been focused on community anchor institutions, and some of the businesses here, and as we're moving, now, looking seriously at residential deployments, and extending the network, it certainly puts pressure on the incumbent providers to do a couple of
different things: to increase their service levels, to look at a more reasonable pricing policies. That part is a huge benefit for folks here, that simply are crying out for service.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's turn to your expansion. Tell us a little bit about the plan, of pivoting, moving from focused on middle mile, to really figuring out how to bring it to individuals.
Steve Johnston: Chris, you actually get some of the credit for this. I think the first or second few days that I was on the job here at Open Cape last fall, you happened to be, along with Elliot Noss from Ting, were here in Martha's Vineyard, sorry not Martha's Vineyard, Woods Hole.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, with Art Gaylord.
Steve Johnston: Yes, with Art Gaylord, down at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. For those of you that don't know, Art Gaylord was the recently retired director of IT for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He's the chairman of the board of Open Cape, and was one of the co-founders, and is a huge force here on the cape for broadband coverage. You guys were there for a meeting, and Art arranged a little discussion for a variety of us, and in talking to Chris, in talking to yourself, in talking to Elliot, one of the things that became abundantly clear was we had to do a better job, at least at getting some initial mapping of what demand looked like, and that's something that we had not done. My predecessors hadn't done it, and we just didn't have that data. We started on this initial process of looking at the Crowd Fiber tool as one of our options, and talking with Greg down in Atlanta.
Christopher Mitchell: For people who maybe have just heard of it, Crowd Fiber, and Greg Richardson, the person who is most associated with it, his team, Crowd Fiber allows you to put up a website in which people can pre-subscribe, say, "Yes, I'm interested in this," or provide all kinds of demographic information, or statistical information about what their interest is, what kind of connections they have, and that sort of thing. Is that about right?
Steve Johnston: Yeah, that's exactly right, and for me, I come from an Internet background. My background is I worked for public broadcasting for 17 years, so I understand technology, and I worked for a relatively large Internet company on the West Coast, so I understand how to utilize the Internet as far as a data collection tool, so in talking with the guys at Crowd Fiber, and talking with Greg and Bailey, we were able to kind of come up with utilizing their tool, customizing it a little bit, to allow us to launch the Crowd Fiber site. We launched it about 2 weeks ago, now, and we did this purposely at this time of year, because our demographic, our area is a little bit different. We have some towns here on the Cape, where 75% of the homeowners are second home owners, so in the off months, you may only have 25% of the population there on the Outer Cape, so we purposely launched it in the Summer, so that we had the most people here to utilize it. Basically, what we're doing at this point, is for the 45 towns we touch directly, and some of the tangential towns we touch, we're offering the ability to go in and say, "Hey, I'm raising my hand digitally. I'm a business. I'm a resident. I'm interested in service." We're not actually asking them to pre-subscribe at this moment, we're simply just taking the temperature. "Are you interested in getting better Internet connectivity? Here's my address. Let me know how it's going." We had about 550 people participate in 2 weeks, which is great considering we haven't even really launched the media part of the campaign yet. We were just soft launching it, and having it be tested out, and it's working incredibly well. Some communities that we had met with, and they knew this was coming, we met with all the Cape communities, had really got behind this, and were promoting it in their communities, and that's why that whole communication part of it is so critical. We spent so much time rebuilding, refreshing relationships with the select men, the town leaders, the influencers in every community, so when we did roll this out, we would be guaranteed to have enthusiastic participation.
Christopher Mitchell: I want to get back to those meetings in a second, but first I just wanted to note something, and I may have made a little bit of an error. I said you were rolling it out to individuals, and I remember reading, as I said that, an article in which you made it clear that you're not really interested in just servicing individuals, you really want to find ways of serving communities. Tell me a little bit about that distinction.
Steve Johnston: For us, as most BTOPs, the last mile continues to be a challenge. We're looking at the last mile a couple different ways, and kind of a strategy behind it. By working with the towns, it makes so much more sense, when you look at some of the other successes of towns connecting around the country. Here in Massachusetts, one of the ones that gets pointed to a lot is Leverett, Massachusetts, very small town, 800 homes. They basically rolled out and connected the entire community, every home, every business, went right down the street and connected folks. That's a model that's interesting to us, just in the sense that it's very efficient and cost-effective. As we're looking to raise the money to connect these communities, and the communities are looking for it, we've been working with them to understand how they can pay for connections, and we're trying to help where we can. I wish I had the budget to connect everyone, but I just don't, so we're, as the advocates for the towns and the individuals, we're really encouraging, "Let's get a community-wide perspective on this," and if I'm going to connect up a community, I want to make sure there's three- or four-hundred homes in there, or a neighborhood, I'm going to go in and connect three- or four-hundred homes versus connecting 3 or 4 homes, where I'm sending out trucks, and having our partners send out trucks, and work with them on connecting. Really, this community orientation is really important, particularly here in parochial New England, where 15 different towns on the Cape, it might as well be 15 different countries. There's a little bit of political navigating that has to happen, there, and we're starting this project, and part of our job is to serve as an advocate. Besides the owner of the fiber, and all the electronics, we're an advocate for the towns, for the residents, we're trying to bring the best practices to light, and help guide them as they make decisions about connecting their communities. To their credit, each one of the Cape towns really is getting behind this, and they're starting to understand it that, look, yes tourism is a huge economic driver here, but there's much more than tourism, and you mentioned, we have individuals that come here that can be substantially wealthy, and are leaders in industry and whatnot. We look at it as an opportunity to extend the amount of time they stay here. Maybe they don't just come for the month of August, but maybe if they had a super fast connection to their home, that they'd come more often, and spend more time here. Because of our huge retirement community here, the retired individuals, there's a lot to offer. Whether they're consulting, or doing work in their retirement, having great connectivity is a huge part of that, and when I talk with my colleagues in the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, and the Cape Cod Tech Council, groups like that, we see fiber as an integral part of driving the economic engine that is the Cape and Islands and Southeastern Mass.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I've seen some studies, looking at areas in which people tend to have a lot of vacation time, summer homes and things like that, and some of the studies I've seen, I think this is one that I can't name, but the conclusion stuck with me, from I believe it was Northern Wisconsin, which was that if they could extend this season by just 1 week, the economic impact of that is tremendous, and I would guess that if you could do something like that, where you extended just the amount of time that some proportion of people stayed there, that extra economic benefit would probably be more than enough to pay for the network extensions that you're considering.
Steve Johnston: Exactly, and that's the exact approach we're taking. You can really see it in profound ways. I'll give you an example, Provincetown, Massachusetts, for those of you that aren't familiar, it's right on the end of Cape Cod. It's where the actual pilgrims stopped first. They stopped, and got off, and relaxed for a minute, then they went over to Plymouth Rock. Here's a community that has about 2,900 year-round residents that, in the summer, explodes to about 65,000 individuals.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow.
Steve Johnston: That's indicative of the Cape in general. You look at Falmouth, down by Woods Hole, 30,000 year-round residents, that number balloons to 105,000 in the summer, so exactly, if we could stretch that season a bit, and have people come here, whether they're coming for the weekend, or if they're coming in the spring, but they could extend their usage by having great connectivity, it really is an economic game changer for the entire region, in terms of revenue generation, and brain drain, and having these people plug in and become part of the community, it really gives us a huge opportunity. Places like Provincetown, where in the winter months, they see rampant unemployment, 38%. Here's an opportunity for places like that to really encourage people to become year-round residents. I actually just went to a meeting not too long ago, a citizens meeting in Provincetown. They asked me to come and speak, where they're talking about the individuals that come to Provincetown, it started as an artist community. It's a very culturally diverse community. It's an LGBT kind of community that's really centered about living that kind of lifestyle. It's very open and free. It's a great place to be, and it's got amazing beaches, and who wouldn't want to live there? Having individuals come there, and people who have homes in Washington, and New York, and Boston, and Providence, and all across the country, all across the world, who are coming there and spending their summers there, extending that window. If fiber can help do that, it certainly becomes advantageous to the whole region, and every one of the towns on the Cape has a similar story to Provincetown. It's our most visible example, because it is densely populated, so you have a very densely populated downtown, and for a fiber build out, it's ideal in that sense. It's so ideal, in fact, that we actually had my colleagues from Google come and look at possibly doing some testing there for some of their broadband deployment via wireless, so it's a really interesting area out there.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Now, as we wrap up, I want to ask you one final thing about the meetings, because I think it's really impressive, the kind of gains that you've made, in terms of educating local governments within your footprint about this. You said you've had many meetings, and I'm curious if you have a sense of about how many meetings, and just what does an average meeting look like? What do you talk about?
Steve Johnston: It's funny. When I got here, so much focus had been put on the build that we really hadn't done a good job of getting out and talking about the communities, about, "Hey, we're building this, what does it mean?" Having people really understand that. There was an awareness within the community, of folks, the early adopters, if you will, but for the average individual, or for the main governing body here, in these Cape and Islands towns, is select men, so in each town, you typically have a board of select men, it's anywhere from 4 to 8 people. We also have an overlay of a county government, we have some county commissioners. Really, educating those individuals, and all the associated folks that trickle down through the town governments, through influencers in each town, really having people understand not only what we're doing with this fiber middle mile, but also what the possibilities become. You start talking about all the different things that fiber can impact, from education, and housing, and serving seniors, and public safety. Here's an area, where on the Cape alone, around 12,000 telephone poles. You know that a storm is coming at some point, and it will take out three- or four-hundred of those poles, and that's why we build a redundant microwave system, to move critical information, and communication as part of this process. Understanding that, and you've probably seen the news. We've had this huge seal population move into Chatham, Mass, which is out on the elbow of Cape Cod, and now we have these interesting things swimming around in the water, these 12 and 13 foot great white sharks, which is super interesting. We have all this research going on, whether it's an extension of Woods Hole, or those organizations that are researching the great white sharks, but we have 7 and a half million people that use these Outer Cape beaches a year, and that presents some safety issues, so we're working with a variety of organizations, about tying fiber into early predator shark warning technology, and things like that, just so we can make sure this is a safe environment. Really doing a job to educate the towns, and I know in the first 2 months, I went out and did about 120 meetings, literally. I would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to me, from boards of selectmen, to economic investment development corps, to every town has this one senior individual, who isn't really a politician or select men, but this is an influencer, the Godfather, if you will, of a town, to doing those kinds of meetings, and understanding. I've talked to homeowner's associations. I've talked to business associations. The home builder's associations. Here on Cape Cod, we have an organization called the Smarter Cape Partnership, which is really a combination of groups. Open Cape is one of the founders, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Cape Cod Community College, the home builder's association, the realtor's association, the Cape Cod Young Professionals, and we work in collaboration with organizations like the Cape Cod Commission to set the tone for important things that are happening on the Cape and Islands. Working with those groups to communicate really clearly about goals and objectives moving forward, and I think that's made a colossal difference in the turnaround we're seeing, as far as people getting behind connectivity, and understanding it's a lot more than just getting fast Netflix. It's about revitalizing the Cape and Islands, and Southeastern Mass, while maintaining that village mentality that people love when they come to New England.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much for telling us more about Open Cape, and how you're going about expanding and improving it.
Steve Johnston: Great. Thanks so much, Chris. I appreciate talking to you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris, and Steve Johnston, executive director of Open Cape in Massachusetts. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us a email@example.com, with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thank you to the group Roller Genoa for their song, "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms," licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 215 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.