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Sallisaw: The First Muni Fiber Network in Oklahoma - Community Broadband Bits Episode 114
Sallisaw is one of many small municipal FTTH networks that most people are not familiar with. For a decade, they have been quietly meeting their community's needs with DiamondNet. For this week's Community Broadband Bits, we learn more about it in a conversation with Assistant City Manager Keith Skelton and Network Communications Supervisor Danny Keith.
Sallisaw built their network after incumbents failed to provide broadband in the early 2000's, becoming the first triple play municipal fiber network in the state. Nearly 2 out of 3 people take service from DiamondNet, which is operated by municipal electric utility. They pride themselves on doing much more for the community than the incumbent providers do - particularly responsive customer service and creating lots of local content. They are also building a wireless network to serve people outside of town who currently have limited Internet access.
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Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."
Danny Keith: Small town anywhere isn't going to get this kind of technology. They aren't going to be continually upgrading. They're just going to be sucking 'em dry, taking their money and taking it somewhere else.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
In 2005, DianmondNet began serving Sallisaw, as the first municipal network in Oklahoma in which the municipality offered triple-play services. Before bringing fiber to the community, most residents were stuck with dial-up. The network is popular with the locals, both for its services and for its determination to keep the network focused on community interests. In addition to providing special local video content, DiamondNet prides itself on its ability to offer customer service from within the community.
In this interview, Chris talks with Keith Skelton, Assistant City Manager of Sallisaw, and Danny Keith, the Network Communication Supervisor for DiamondNet. Keith and Danny share some of the problems they faced as a relatively small community trying to develop its own municipal network. As with other communities we've talked to, connecting to the outside world was one of the biggest problems they faced. The community has always supported this local effort, however, and DiamondNet has continued to make improvements and develop plans for the future.
Here are Keith, Danny, and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with some folks down in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Welcome to the show, Keith Skelton, Assistant City Manager of the City of Sallisaw.
Keith Skelton: Thank you, Chris. Glad to be here.
Chris: And also supporting, with some technical knowledge, we have Danny Keith, the Network Communications Supervisor for the City. Welcome to the show.
Danny Keith: Thank you.
Chris: So, for those who are unfamiliar with Sallisaw, it sounds like a really interesting small town. Why don't you tell us a little bit about it, and the background.
Keith: We're a small community, about 9,000 in population. We're located on Interstate 40, about 25 miles from the Arkansas state line. Sallisaw is a public power community. We have our own electric system. We also run our own municipal landfill. And back in 2005, we ventured off into the telecom world. So we got all our fiber. You know, basically, you could say Sallisaw is a full-service municipality right now.
Chris: Excellent. And you mentioned that you're in a part of Oklahoma that is -- has some economic development challenges as well, just historically.
Keith: Yes. Historically. The eastern part of Oklahoma -- there's four or five counties in the eastern part. We're routinely in the top five of unemployment in the state of Oklahoma. That's not very good for our community. But that's something that we had to fight through on a daily basis. And we strive to improve our economic development opportunities. We go after new industry and new retail stuff almost on a daily basis. Just, basically, our location just makes it very hard to do.
Chris: And one of the things we've found is that towns that have a location like that often have the double whammy of, then, private companies don't always want to invest in new broadband technology. And from what I understand, that was your situation 15 years ago.
Keith: Yes. We started the research on this project back in in 2002. Basically, the reason we started the research was -- we knew Internet was going to take off. And we knew Sallisaw -- if we didn't do anything, Sallisaw was going to be left behind. Our cable system that was in town at that time that was -- there wasn't very many stations available. There was no HD channels. It wasn't capable of supplying broadband modems. As far as Internet availability, we did have the ** dial-up Internet, but it was slow, and oversubscribed as well.
Chris: And you were the first in Oklahoma to be considering this type of a model where you would be building the network and then operating and offering the triple-play services on it. And how has it gone over the years, in terms of having to be the first in the state to do that?
Keith: Well, it's been -- it's something we've taken pride in -- the first in Oklahoma. As far as the operations over the years, you know, Danny would probably be the first to tell you -- it hasn't been easy. The city has supported it through the years. The community has supported it. Our Council members have supported it. And I think we're just now starting to realize the benefits that it can bring to Sallisaw.
Danny Keith: The fiber side of it was pretty challenging from the start -- just because we didn't have the personnel with the training behind it.
Chris: As a small town building the fiber network, what are some of the challenges of getting up to speed with the kind of personnel you need to run a triple-play fiber optic network?
Danny: It's mostly the trained personnel, to work it. There wasn't any. Actually, it took people -- garbage trucks, meter readers, street department people. Trained them up, brought them up in it, so that they know how to work it.
Chris: Let's -- it's one of those things that's always a mixed blessing. I feel it's really good to give people in town an opportunity to move up in, sort of, pay scale, and sort of have a higher-paying job that often comes with these network operations. You know, the flip side is -- some communities bring in people who already are experts, and there's a little bit of bitterness, of those jobs not going to the community. So, it's a double-edged sword, I think, sometimes.
Danny: Yeah, we tried to stay away from that as much as we could, you know. There's times when you have to. But when you have to train somebody locally, then we felt like that was the way to go.
Keith: And that's something that we're very proud of, too. Outside of two people who were in our original technical crew for DiamondNet, the workers, as Danny said, they came from the water department, the meter readers. You know, we selected people from those departments, to train them. And that's something that we're really proud of. You know, we would say that our system was actually home-grown, you know, from the start.
Chris: Danny, could you tell us a little bit about the challenge of operating a fiber-optic network in a rural region, where you may not have the best links to the rest of the world?
Danny: Well, that was probably our biggest problem, getting everything started, was getting the backbone link in here. There wasn't one. So we finally wound up using a company over in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And they rented a fiber -- a dark fiber -- along the interstate, just to get them over to here. However, we had to pay the nodes for that. It was really hurting our bottom line. We have finally gotten out of that. And there is a provider now, locally, that we can tie into, which is a great savings for us.
Chris: Sure, and actually, one of the things that we've seen here in Minnesota is that it can put you in a situation -- I'm curious if this is something that strike a chord with you -- where you basically have this incredible racetrack -- you have this fiber system. But you can't use it to its fullest extent because you just can't afford the links out of town, because there's no good options.
Keith: Yeah. That's one big thing that we ran into. And, as Danny stated, it was hurting out bottom line. And we were paying -- In the beginning, we were paying as much as much as $120 a meg, for backbone. Of course, starting up, we didn't need quite that much backbone. But as the years moved along, and we added more subscribers, that really added up to a tremendous cost for the city.
Chris: One of the things that I was interested to see is that you have a tremendous number of subscribers. It looks like about 2 out of 3 people in town take service from you, and so that has not been a problem. You have been incredibly popular.
Keith: Like I said, the community has supported us well. You know, the people who are tech-savvy have taken a real interest in our project. And they just want to see us, you know, keep improving it. We've done a lot of changes in the last few years to improve the system. And, you know, it's people like that in the community, you know, they like to see stuff like this. They like to play online games, you know. Or they like to, you know, play YouTube videos. Whatever they need to do. And they want to see us, you know, continually get better. One of the things that we've done here recently to make system better is -- our low-end Internet package used to be 3 meg. And with the changes that we've made to Internet, we have upped that to 10 meg now. So, with 10 meg, everybody can pretty well do they need to do.
Chris: How does that compare to surrounding communities? What do they -- what kind of options do they have?
Keith: They probably have DSL service. Some have Internet satellite feeds. Things of that nature. There are some local phone companies -- kind of, I guess you would call them 2nd- or 3rd-tier phone companies that do some Internet service. But I'm not really sure of the speeds that they offer there.
Chris: I think it's probably safe to assume that they're probably quite a bit slower than what you're offering there in town, right?
Keith: Yes. Yes. And that's one of the reasons why we are considering launching a wireless network that would feed outside the city limits of Sallisaw.
Chris: I see. So that you have plans next year to launch a wireless service that seems to really be aimed more at AROUND town, more so than those in it. But I .... Can you tell me more about it?
Keith: We've had -- Of course, once we launched DiamondNet, we had several people from outside the city limits inquire about receiving the services. And right now, running our fiber outside the city limits is kind of cost prohibitive. And so, in addition to that, we also got requests for Internet services as well. So that's brought back the idea of -- about a year or two ago, we started looking at the prospects of launching this wireless network. And I think it's going to come to launch, probably within the next two months. We'll be launching our wireless project, back outside the city limits. Our rural customers -- or potential rural customers -- are really looking forward to that. We already have several people inquiring about it. We have one small community that's about 400-500 people that's really wanting our product. And so we're going to do our best to serve the little communities around Sallisaw.
Chris: I saw you put some of the -- you put all of the football games on local television. What other kinds of local content -- You know, what are the things that you do differently from the other cable company that's in town? I know that you actually compete against another cable company that originally did not have any interest in providing Internet access. So -- What are the things you do differently?
Keith: Well, our competition doesn't do any local service at all. Like the community channels that we have. The do have a community channel, because their franchise requires it. But we've taken that a step further. We have our community channels that has our advertisements come up, you know, page by page. But we also have a community channel that broadcasts video events. And as I mentioned, we broadcast the local football games. They're getting ready to start up here in couple weeks. All the home games are broadcast live. And all the away games are on a tape-delay basis. We start those the following Saturday morning.
In addition to that, we've done a few parades. We always show high school graduations. That's real popular, especially with the older grandparents who can't make it out to graduation. That's a real popular event. And once we play that live, we always replay it several times throughout the next couple weeks. Outside of that, we've got plans to continue to add to that product. You know, we'd like to do some videos the city. We'd like to start doing, you know, some parades, community events. We have a community event here called Diamond Days.
Chris: I'm curious about that. Your network is entitled DiamondNet. Where does that name come from? And do you have any -- I mean, you've gone through this, and you started building your network at a time when this was more of a Wild West, really. Like, you're trying to figure out vendors, I'm sure. The amount of times that you had to work just -- 80-90-hour weeks, from what I've seen -- in small towns, back in the mid-2000s, building these systems. It's heroic efforts sometimes. What advice would you give to towns that are contemplating this today? Is it a different world?
Keith: It's a challenge. You have to, you know, make sure all your t's are crossed and your i's are dotted before you actually get into the system. You know, well, you run fiber and you make a few connections, and you flip a switch, and you turn it on. And that's not the case at all. There's -- there's a lot of research that has to go into the equipment. There's a lot of time spent installing the equipment, checking that you've installed the right equipment. IP addressing. There's a whole grocery list of items, you know, that you have to go through to launch a system like this.
Chris: And, Danny, do you have any additional thoughts on that?
Danny: I was here from the start, and it was quite a job.
Chris: Every community we've worked with -- that we've talked to about these sorts of things -- they've all really emphasized that it's hard work, and they've really had to do their homework. And I think it just bears emphasizing that the difference between, you know, building a network to connect a number of schools and libraries and things like that is really incomparable to building a network that needs to be available, you know, five-nines reliability, and that sort of thing. So, congratulations for all that work.
Keith: The project was really fast-paced too. We saw the construction in August of 2004. And we had the first signals into our head end in December of that year. And we launched our first customer in February of 2005.
Chris: So, are there any final thoughts that you'd like to leave our audience with?
Danny: I'm real happy to see that more municipal governments are trying to launch systems like this. I think it's within their know-how -- you know, with electric systems and everything. And it's within their reach to launch these systems, and improve their communities. They can do it with better pricing. They can do it with more reliability. And I think one of the great things about our system is that you can actually pick up a phone and talk to our employees if you have issues -- whether it's during the work day or after-hours service as well. You're not going to a call center that's located in another state, or anything like that. So, one of our catch tag is the “Sallisaw DiamondNet is your home-town connection to the world.” And we really tried to keep the home-town connection part in our system, and keep it operating today.
Danny: I'm personally very proud of Sallisaw and our part in this. Because my history is from the TV cable world. And I know how the private sector works. And it's not trying to stay on top of technology. It's not trying to do what's best for the community. That's the bottom line. Small town anywhere isn't going to get this kind of technology. They aren't going to be continually upgrading. They're just going to be sucking 'em dry, taking their money and taking it somewhere else.
Chris: And I think one of the important lessons that I take away from Sallisaw is -- You had, in your initial business plan, anticipated breaking even in a certain number of years, and it's taken longer than that. And I think one of the biggest reasons is, challenges of the backhaul. And being just so -- having to pay so much to have access to the world. But the benefits to the community have far outweighed that. And now, you're looking at a break-even in the -- in the very near future -- that is, from what I've seen. And all the revenues coming in from that wireless system should only help that.
Keith: Yes. Yes. That's -- I mean, that's sincerely what we're hoping. Of course, you're always fighting continual increases in costs. You know, video programming is another big issue, cost-wise, of the sports programming and so forth. So, it's stuff that we've been able to fight through. And, you know, we're just like any other cable system. We see those expenses, and, you know, we do our best to control OUR expense, but still keep our system upgraded and provide a top-quality service.
Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Keith: OK. You're welcome.
Danny: Thank you for having us.
Lisa: For more details on the network, check out their website at diamondnetok.com. We will be following the new wireless project in Sallisaw, and will check in again as it develops. As a news service, we will be making select transcripts available of Community Broadband Bits Podcasts. Jeff, one of our resources from California, will be helping us out to bring a written version of podcasts for easy reference. Thanks, Jeff.
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. This song is called "Bronco Romp," and it's licensed using Creative Commons. Thanks for listening.