Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
The Straight Talk About Rural Fiber Deployments - Episode 517 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Joseph Franell, President of Blue Mountain Networks (which serves more than 30 rural communities west of Portland) in Oregon. Joe joined the team at Ashland Fiber Network (AFN) before moving on to do work in rural parts of the state. During the conversation, Christopher and Joe talk about building fiber in some of the least-dense parts of the state. They discuss the importance of creativity and a willingness to pursue a variety of partnership models, the critical role that local broadband champions play in convincing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to come to rural areas, and how dramatically different a provider looks when it's driven by principles and a commitment to the community that goes beyond a lightning-fast return-on-investment.
They dive into the specter of private equity, which has shown increasing interest in broadband infrastructure and the grassroots work done by broadband action teams over the last couple of years.
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.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Joe Frannell (00:07):
We're not spending our money. This is our kids and our grandkids money we're spending, right? And so if we're spending generational money, we ought to be spending it in a way that is gonna last for generations. We have to have aspirational goals.
Christopher Mitchell (00:23):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bids podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota here morning, the end of the summer. but also looking forward to some cooler weather. I am speaking today with Joseph Franell, who I will call Joe for the duration of the show, the president of Blue Mountain Networks. Welcome to the show, Joe.
Joe Frannell (00:50):
I am so glad to be here, Chris. It's fun. I'm looking forward to it.
Christopher Mitchell (00:54):
Yeah, you and I, we go, we go way back. And in fact, I was kind of surprised that when I looked back at the history of the Broadband Bits Podcast, we hadn't had you on, I thought you were on in like 2014 or 2015 or something like that. But I've never had you on as a guest.
Joe Frannell (01:11):
No, no. I I was feeling left out, but I feel better now.
Christopher Mitchell (01:15):
Yeah. Well, I'm glad to hear that
Joe Frannell (01:17):
Christopher Mitchell (01:18):
So, Joe, you had been at Ashland which was not the beginning of your career, but is where you and I met when you were the Ashland Fiber Network, which is a municipal, mostly cable network in Ashland, Oregon. Right?
Joe Frannell (01:30):
Yeah, it I, I had been, I had been in the southeast working for a regional triple play broadband carrier and got recruited to come out to Ashland to save the Ashland Fiber Network. It it was, it was in pretty dire straits at the time. And they were losing a lot of money and they didn't know what to do. And I had a history of turnaround management, so I thought, well, what a cool job, you know, to come in and, and save something that had so much potential. And so we did, you know, and it wasn't me, it was the team there. I just provided a few hints and tips about what direction we should go, and everybody embraced that and we turned it around. And that thing I think, is still profitable. And, you know, it, it went, went from being the poster child of why not to do municipal broadband to, oh my gosh, this is really working and it's transformative and it's doing really amazing things in southern Oregon. And some, I'm pretty proud of the time I spent there.
Christopher Mitchell (02:31):
Yes. Yeah. No, and I think it is, in fact we, we recently wrote an article. I know that they are wrestling internally with how they should upgrade it, but there was no doubt in the coverage of it that it has been a success, although it was in dire straits when you arrived. now after that, then you moved on to focus on more rural parts of the state. I feel like
Joe Frannell (02:51):
I, I did, it was, it was funny. I, I got a phone call from a recruiter, you know, when I was down in Ashland and, you know, it's that old turnaround management thing and, and Eastern Oregon Telecom in the northeast part of the state, which actually was started by two electric cooperatives and four independent telephone companies as a grand experiment in competitive, unsubsidized rural broadband. And and it was in dire straits, and they didn't know what to do. And so they enticed me to come up north from where I was in southern Oregon to to see if we could turn things around it. And I, you know, it's another one of those grand success stories, I think with, you know, the backing of the electric cooperatives and the, the ILECs who, who believed in really remote rural broadband, you know, and I think that was bold, cuz that was over 20 years ago.
And they're, everyone is, everyone was saying there is no model for rural broadband unless it's heavily subsidized. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and Eastern Oregon Telecom never took a single dime of government subsidies to make the business plan work. So today that's grown into Blue Mountain Networks, and Blue Mountain Networks now serves more than 30 communities. We're all rural communities all the way from west of Portland. So if you're familiar with the terrain out here east along the Columbia River for about four and four and a half hours to I think our Eastern most footprint is the, the three wheat farming communities of Weston, Adams, and Athena. And when they've got fiber to home, and then we go down south too. So we're down moving down into central Oregon, and, and the company serves the two least densely populated counties in Oregon. Every community in those two counties with fiber to the home, it has been really rewarding, one, to prove the unsubsidized rural model.
And two, to see how really, really good broadband urban are better than urban rates, I think in a lot of cases can be transformative for, for rural communities and provide a path towards sustainability. I, I brag about the, the Wheeler County Project because it's, it's such a cool story. Wheeler County is 503 square miles bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and it's got like 1400 and some odd people in it, and they, most of them have fiber of the home. That's mind blowing. Of course. We, we were doing all of that right as the pandemic hit. So imagine the lift for those communities, Weston Athena, Adams Fossil Mitchell spray, you know, right in the middle of that, they, they went from either nothing or first generation DSL from the incumbent, which was less than a meg download mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I mean, somewhat megabit download to fiber.
The home where the slowest speed we offer is three meg synchronous. And they went from that Right as the pandemic was hitting, we got comments because we got one of our board members who called every new install. And the comment, he would capture comments and we were calling to see, are we doing a good job if we missed something? right. You know, we do, we, you know, are we doing everything right? Are we helping to educate people on what they can do? Or are we missing the boat? You know, we're trying to make sure that we're better. And and some of the comments that he would capture, you know, one, one gal said, if I were younger, I'd be doing back flips in the street because this is, this has saved my small business being able to, to stay connected during the pandemic. And and you know, and we've gone on, we've built in numerous other communities since then, and it's it's been really rewarding. Glad I made the switch. I guess
Christopher Mitchell (06:45):
What, what is what is the secret? I mean, you know, it's one thing to say you know, we're a little bit more efficient than our, than our, than our competitors or this that, but like, how do you build so much fiber in so many rural areas without needing the subsidies that have historically been needed?
Joe Frannell (07:01):
First of all, it's just really good business, you know, being willing to work really hard and really efficiently. So I mean, if, if you're gonna gold plate everything, just because you can get subsidies to do that, you know, you'll never be able to make this work. And so yet you have to be creative and you have to build partnerships, you know, in both, both the case of not, not Western Athena and Adams, which are rural remote, we just did those because the mayors, three women mayors of these wheat farming communities, which I think is cool. They were all women at the time. They were so passionate about bringing fiber to their communities that we just did it, you know, that they were so compelling that we just did it. And you gotta be willing to take a longer ROI than, than is traditionally expected. You know? So you, you have to take a longer view of things. Being principally driven as a company has helped us a lot where we say we're doing this because it's the right thing to do, not because we're gonna make a lot of money in in three years. you know, and I, I think that's given us a little bit longer view as a, a private sector company than what is normal.
Christopher Mitchell (08:08):
We were checking in before you'd said that also the mayors did something that's important and I think people need to hear. And that's that, that you knew the mayors were gonna make sure that you had a lot of takers. Right. It wasn't like you were gonna come to town and find out only one out of three people were interested. Right. and, and I feel like ma mayors local leaders, they need to know that if they aggregate demand, it will, it will really increase the odds of finding someone like you to work with.
Joe Frannell (08:33):
Well, and I'm, I'm glad you brought that up, you know, well, we are looking at where do we go next? the, the presence or lack thereof of a local broadband champion is, is a binary decision making tool for us. So if there is a local champion, okay, yes, you check that box and we can go on to do the business plan. If there's not, we don't, we generally don't even consider the community mm-hmm. <affirmative> without local broadband champions, because it's one thing to have a mayor or a city counselor or you know, the, the president of the PTA or you know, somebody in the chamber. And I mean, it doesn't have to be an elected official, can just be somebody who's passionate about broadband and helping their community be, become sustainable. If you've got that person there, it's an entirely different story than if it's me, which, you know, nobody knows. And I come in and say, this is why this is important to you. They're gonna be a little more reticent to listen to me than they are somebody that they, they've lived with and worked with and, you know, seen at church and seen at the grocery store and, you know, passed a, you know, go into the post office box to get their mail. And so having that local broadband champion, it's read that local voice is really important.
Christopher Mitchell (09:49):
you, one of the, one of your partnership models is one that we've encouraged elsewhere where a community will actually finance and, and own a long-term, you know, physical usually fiber optic you know, stretch or, or the physical network. And there's different places where one could do the handoff from the public ownership to the private ownership. Right. but that's one of the models that, that you've used. It's not, I think it's not the dominant one that you've used, but you have used that as a model.
Joe Frannell (10:20):
Yeah. And I, you know, and I would say that I think another reason that we're successful is we don't have a dominant model. We're we're willing to figure out what's gonna work best for a community or a region and, and work within those constraints. And well, and they're not really constraints work within that framework. I, I guess is probably a more accurate way to say that. And one size doesn't fit all, especially in rural markets. And I think that, you know, larger companies have a hard time being flexible and, and finding that, that that special way to serve that community or that region. And and you know, we're, we're just, we're, I, you know, I joke about us being Gumby. We're a bunch of little flexible folks when walking around <laugh> willing to bend and and adapt. And I think that that's been really helpful for us in serving some of these really, and, you know, and back east you don't hear this word very much, but out here in the west, you know, these are frontier communities. So they actually go beyond the rural standard. You know, there's a federal standard for Frontier. And a lot of these communities actually meet that standard, which is much less dense than a rural community. And so our ability to actually serve remote frontier communities with, with, again, urban class broadband is in a large part due to our ability to, to adapt. So, you know, there,
Christopher Mitchell (11:39):
Yeah. I just wanna, lemme just wait on that quick because I wanna, I did, I flew into Portland to go actually out to the city of John Day and and driving out there through the gorge and and I've been out in around Smith Rock and oh yeah. And yeah, and I mean, it's, it's beautiful. But I, I will say as someone who's been all over rural America when you get west of the Mississippi, it's a whole different kind of rural, like, Iowa is positively dense. It's like Manhattan rural compared to eastern Oregon. <laugh>, it's you, it's really, it is frontier. And so just for people who haven't experienced it, it is something to experience.
Joe Frannell (12:15):
I well, one of my business partners actually lives back east, and, and he's just, he's a brilliant fellow and he, he has, I mean, he's so passionate about doing what we're doing, so I'm, I'm glad to have him on board. But he he lives in New Jersey. He's got offices in Manhattan. And the first time we, he was gonna fly out to meet out here, we were doing a strategic planning session in Sun River, which is in central Oregon. And he said, well, where do I fly into it? I said, well, probably Portland. He said, well, can I get an Uber? And I said, no, it's, you know, it's about three and a half hours to Sun River from the airport. And I said, but I'll come get you. And he goes, wait, what <laugh> you would come get me? I said, yeah, it's not that far. And it's just a whole different perspective. So it, it is,
Christopher Mitchell (13:00):
Let me just, anyone who's ge more geographically inclined than I am will have noted that Iowa is in fact west of the Mississippi, but I was thinking of the Missouri or whatever, but like, there's a dividing line where as you go west, it really gets much less dense. So
Joe Frannell (13:13):
Yeah, it's a quick correction. It it's pretty crazy. So it is, and I would encourage people, especially policy makers, if you haven't been out here, you know, it can be Washington, it could be Utah, it could be, you know, Ida I, I Idaho or Oregon, you know, you, you ought come visit and listen, I'd be happy to host you. So anyone listening if you wanna, you wanna tour of what rural frontier America really looks like. So when you're making poli policy decisions back in DC that you understand the impact of what you're, you're actually doing on people who live out here. And, and we're one of the most productive farm areas in, in the world. I mean, the land out here. So it's not just desolate. Yeah. I, I would encourage people not to just dismiss rural frontier, Western United States as as irrelevant. It's not a absolutely, it's not. Some of the, some of the most amazing advances in the United States are actually happening in, happening in rural and frontier Western United States. I mean, some of the work with drones and water use and, you know, precision agriculture and precision irrigation. It's astounding. You want a tour, just give me a call and I'd be happy to host you. That would be fun.
Christopher Mitchell (14:26):
Alright, now let's get back to the, the partnership. So so just briefly, let's go over the one that I've already described. How did, how did you work with the town where they owned the, the fiber?
Joe Frannell (14:37):
So this actually is the Wheeler County story. So Wheeler County got a a grant from the state for workforce development. And Wheeler County really is, I mean, it's not adjacent to an interstate. I mean, it really is kind of middle of nowhere, Oregon. And one of the things that the state legislature did, and this is probably five years ago, is they recognized that, that they had an obligation to try and, and help all parts of Oregon with state level jobs. And so they actually dedicated a number of state hospital medical transcription jobs for Wheeler County, but there was no connectivity there. So they said, well, if you can build the, the infrastructure, we'll actually put some of these medical transcription jobs from Oregon Health and Sciences University in Wheeler County, which will boost the economy, that that could be really cool. So they give this, this grant.
So we, the judge in Wheeler County, who is effectively the head of the, the county board of commissioners, he's, he's, he's elected, but he's the judge. He had this brilliant idea of going out to RFP and seeing if somebody would build the infrastructure and then a second RF RFP to, to operate the infrastructure. And so we, we responded and we said, because we do fiber, we do fixed wireless, and we also our reseller of a satellite service. And so what we proposed is we could, we could actually serve 99.9% of the addresses in Wheeler County, even the remote cabins, because in that case we could serve them with one of the satellite solutions. And but for the communities, fossil Mitchell and Spray, we would build fiber to the home. They would own it, we would operate. There was a lot of discussion about, well, you know, we really would prefer to have competition because, you know, we've heard competition is good. So we had discussions about competition and you know, in a, in a remote frontier county like that, where there it's three remote communities with a population in, in just north of 1400. it you, there is no business model for a competitive environment because it, you know, and colloquially we say that that would end up having too many pigs feeding at the trough and everybody would starve and then the consumers would suffer. I
Christopher Mitchell (17:06):
Do think it is possible that if they were to build like an open system, you could have like companies that were headquartered in Atlanta and other places that might sort of fly in and provide service. And I'm in favor of of, of trying to figure out the balance between these things. I don't think it's preferable to be able to do that, but you're not gonna have multiple locally based companies. And I think that's, and I think that's the highest preference from my point of view, is that localness
Joe Frannell (17:31):
It is. And you know, and I was gonna say, yeah, if you do that, but then, then it's just a commodity. You know, they're not a part of the community. They're not, we do digital literacy training. I mean, we're involved in the local community, you know, we, we generally will help with local charities and, you know, and if it's just a commodity, if they're just a service provider on an open network, especially in a really, really lightly populated area like that, you know, there's no real business model for them to have local presence unless they're the only local presence. We found a way to answer that concern by actually building it into the contract with Wheeler County for oper the operations of the network, that they get all of the benefits of competition just without watering down on the market to the point where it was no longer financially viable.
and so, you know, they, they got urban class speeds at, at better than urban prices. you know, they got customer service level guarantees in the contract. If we violate any of that, then they can just kick us out and get another provider. But as long as we do a good job, we're a good community partner, it works really brilliantly. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and, you know, and I talked about some of the, the responses from the folks there and, you know, we've got it's, it's just south of 90% of all of those addresses are hooked to fiber. Now, the community response to that has been pretty good.
Christopher Mitchell (18:56):
So what are some other partnership models that you've used?
Joe Frannell (18:59):
The adjacent county, which is the second least densely populated county in Oregon. And it, it actually is a bigger county and it has more communities, but it it's a little bit more spread out. And it's Sherman County. Sherman County had a little bit of money. They didn't have enough money to, to build the infrastructure and to own the infrastructure, but they had enough money from some wind farm subsidies that the county got for economic development to actually subsidize the bill. So in this case, they subsidized the build, we built it, we own it, and we're the only operator on it, and they have the same gar. So what did they get for their, their contribution to help make the, the case to build the, the fiber to the home through the, the county? What they got was that, that guarantee of, of speed and price and customer service for their contribution.
So that one seems to work really well also. And, you know, some of the benefits of this model over the Wheeler County model is in this model, since we own it, we have to pay property taxes on it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so they get recurring revenue as a county off the property taxes. And Wheeler County, since the public owns it, there's no property taxes associated with it. So, you know, and I mean, it's not hu but I mean, it's real money for a small county like that, right? They're real trade-offs. Both of those seem to work really well. And I, and I'm not in favor of one over the other. Like I said, it really just depends on the circumstance. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and, you know, we've talked about three different models where it's just private sector investment. That was the, the Western Athena Adams, you know, the wheat farming communities where we just did that. And that's working great, the publicly owned infrastructure, but operated by the private sector and then subsidized infrastructure that is owned and operated by the private sector, but with the, the caveats because of the contribution that the community gets, what they were hoping to get out of that without having to water down the market with competition. Three great models and they all seem to be working really well.
Christopher Mitchell (21:03):
And now in order to to build the networks, you still need more more resources. So we talked a little bit about private equity and or we talked about equity partners and, and I had raised for you, you know, I'm deeply concerned about firms that are taking on private equity deals that are causing people like you to lose control of their firms. And I think it's, it can be a devil's bargain. you have been pretty savvy, I think, in how you strike deals for equity.
Joe Frannell (21:31):
It depends on what your end goal is, you know, so if it's, if it's all about money and profit, then it, it doesn't matter if you lose control as long as you've got, you know, part of the, if you've got equity in the company, you know, after the private equity firm comes in, you don't really care as long as you're gonna make money off of it. you know, for, for companies like mine and I, you know, and my company's not as rare as you would think. There are a lot of companies out there that are principally driven. You know, you just don't hear about them because mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, the, the big national providers kind of overshadow what the, the little folks like us are doing out, especially in rural parts of the United States. But there are a lot of great, you know, cooperatives and privately owned companies that are just doing really heavy lifting and hard, hard to serve places.
And, you know, and many of them are principally driven, and I think you have to start there. That was the framework which I started when we said, you know, we're profitable. We're free cash flow positive, we're making a difference. I just see so much need that I can't, I can't address with the resources that I have organically. And my partner, business partner had organically at the time. So we went in search of a private equity partner who was similarly, principally driven, and we found one, and it was just, it was one of those, you know, providential things. A buddy of mine was speaking at a, a conference back, I think in Minneapolis St. Paul actually. And and after, and he used us as an example of what can be done in rural markets without a bunch of subsidies. And then he was on an elevator afterward with the guy who is now my equity partner from back east.
And, and this guy's like, I wanna, I wanna talk about who is, you know, what is this company? Eastern Oregon Telecom. That's how we got connected. And so I actually, he, you know, he was in Manhattan. We actually met Minneapolis St. Paul. That was the first and only time I've been there, and I love it, by the way, <laugh>, what a cool twin cities that people were so nice there. And I, you know, so I, I enjoyed my visit, met him, and we talked about the why, why would he want to be involved, you know, what, what is he hoping to accomplish? And everything he said was echoing what drove us as a company. And and so we brought him on board and know he's, he's brought in some additional folks for resources and, you know, some cash. And that's what it's allowed us to grow so rapidly, really make a difference. I think I've got lucky <laugh>, my cautionary to, is there are a lot of private equity firms out there that are, it's just about the money and, you know, and I get that. But you know, if you're, if you really are gonna go down that path, you have to be super careful. You don't end up with the wrong partner. Because I've watched other companies in the Pacific Northwest go down that path and get the wrong partner, and it's just not been pretty, it's not been good.
Christopher Mitchell (24:22):
Right? So don't settle. I think that's, you know, like, don't
Joe Frannell (24:24):
Christopher Mitchell (24:25):
Joe Frannell (24:26):
It would be better to hang onto your company as a lifestyle company, you know, doing what you do and making small incremental advances. It would be better to do that than it would be to get the wrong partner.
Christopher Mitchell (24:37):
Now, you had mentioned champions and, and we're very positive about that. Now you've been helping to cultivate champions through something that we've seen both in Washington and in Oregon these broadband action teams. and, and so what, what do people need to know about the broadband action teams and how, how they can be effective?
Joe Frannell (24:55):
It's actually one of the coolest things I think that's popped up over the last couple of years in the broadband space, is these broadband action teams. And so a lot of this, yeah. You know, I remember pre pandemic, I, I'd got talked to the city council and I'd be met with ambivalence about broadband <laugh> like, oh I don't care. Whatever, get outta here. And and then the pandemic hit, and suddenly everybody was calling me going for, no, where are you? Why aren't you here already? I'm like, you do remember you guys yawned when I was there last time? And, and so, you know, one of the cool things that has happened because of the pandemic is there have been all these grassroots efforts to to solve the problem. And so they have taken the form of broadband action teams. Some of them are for a city only.
I mean, and when I say a city may be a town of, you know, 5,000 people, you know, they may have their own broadband action team. Many of them are a single county. Some of them are coalitions of multiple counties. And so in Oregon, 22 of our 36 counties are represented by broadband action teams. Now. So, you know, they're local leaders, they're educators, they're, you know, they're medical folks, they're folks from the library district, they're interested, you know, just individual citizens from that area. And they have pooled together and, and formed formal broadband action team. Two of them have received a big e d a grants from the federal government to do assessments. I I get so excited about the broadband action teams. It's hard to communicate how proud I am of the Citizens Oregon for doing that. And so I was in the role for more than a decade as chairman of the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, which advised the legislature and the governor's office.
And I was on the council appointed by the governor to represent rural Oregon. And so I'm not on the council now, but, you know, because of that work, I've been able to help many of these broadband action teams get started and then kind of guide them through the process. What do you do first? You know, so, and that's the, that's the first, well, what do we do? What's the first thing we ought to do? And you gotta quantify the, the problem. And so they, they started doing assessments in their, either their town or their county or their multi-county area, doing assessments, trying to gather good information so they could objectively quantify the problem, so that when we go after money, we're, we're able to say, this is exactly the problem we're trying to solve. And and then some of them have actually already taken the step to develop plans beyond that.
And so they've got strategic plans, broadband plans on how to address the issue. Now, one of the things, and I I don't know if this is on your list, but it's certainly on my list that that became really evident really quickly, is that we have horrible mapping <laugh>. And, and, you know, and that's, that's, I know anyone who's listing is shocked, you know, it might've come up once or twice <laugh>, it might've come up once or twice. and so we, we started trying to figure out how do we get, how do we get a good broadband map? And this conversation started with the broadband action teams. And we have a, we have a fairly new broadband office at the state level. And so they're just really trying to, you know, they're scrambling basically to keep up with, you know, the ARPA rulemaking and, and now the bead rulemaking and all of the things that they have to do, and it's a fairly small office on their list, is a map.
You know, they wanna build a map and they have money to build a map, but, you know, they have so few resources. So we're going, we can't wait. All of the broadband action teams say we can't wait. So we started doing some research and we found Russ Elliot up in, and he's not there anymore. He's moved on to a, another cool job. But he was the broadband office, and he was the manager of the broadband office in the state of Washington. And when he took that job, this pre pandemic, he immediately recognized he didn't have good data. So he partnered with a company called Geo Partners to develop his own state broadband map. And it's a super cool map. And so we talked with Russ, the leadership of all of the broadband action teams actually invited him to talk to us. He talked to us about this platform.
So we went to the state, we said, look for, you know, less than a hundred thousand dollars, we could build a state broadband. Now it's all, it's all grassroots. You know, it's, you have to feed it with mm-hmm. <affirmative> with people doing the speed test. So it's not gonna pull data. You're gonna have to actually push data to it. But, you know, with all the grassroots organizations, we can do that. And the state said, you know, we're probably at least a year out, maybe two on our broadband now. We, we just can't, we can't absorb that. So Link Oregon, which is our statewide higher education and research fiber network, the economic development districts, and the broadband action teams partnered to raise the money, and they're doing their own map. So we're building our statewide map. We're not waiting on government to do it, we're just doing it ourselves.
And so it's the faster Internet Oregon initiative. And so you can find it at fasterinternetoregon.org, and that all that data populates the map. Now here's what's really cool. You know, these folks are going, look, we're just trying to solve problems. We'll gather the data. The NT I A and the U S D A have already recognized that this is good objective data when Washington did it. So they've made funding decisions based on this kind of data. So we know that the data is gonna be well received. We're actually doing it right now, and once it's done and the state is ready for it, we're just gonna hand off the data to the state so the state can populate their map and take over ownership of this in a year when they're ready. It's a cool project. So the broadband action teams rock. They're amazing, you know, applause to everybody who's volunteered and been involved in them. I am so pumped about what they're doing.
Christopher Mitchell (30:52):
You, you can tell that the broadband mapping has been effective because the cable companies are putting, I would guess, millions of dollars into a campaign to try to de-legitimize the mapping tools. And and they're deeply, they're frustrated, and they were like, oh, we don't like the methodology of that test. We prefer our tests, which are secret, and nobody releases the data unless we release it. And nobody should trust this test that's open and available to the public. so that is going on behind the scenes. So you're aware
Joe Frannell (31:22):
Oh, I'm aware. Yeah. <laugh>, you know, I, I would say that, you know, through all of that rhetoric and all of the lobbying, both at the state and the federal level you know, because one existing providers are afraid, you know, this is created fear because the, the, the federal government, rightly so, and I love what the FCC is doing. I have, I'm not always a fan of
Christopher Mitchell (31:46):
The f I was just gonna say, I don't always you know,
Joe Frannell (31:48):
No, I'm not always a fan of the FCC, but, you know, Chair Rosenworcel has been really, really good about saying, we should set one, we should get good data. So she's like, I don't wanna spend more money until we have good data. And, you know, there's questions about whether their new map is gonna be good or not. But maybe eventually, at least, at least there's a finally, you know, political attention being given to that. And then two, she's saying, we should set aspirational goals for, for the spend that we're making because we're not spending our money, Chris, this is not yours of my money. This is our kids and our grandkids money we're spending, right? And so, if we're spending generational money, we ought to be spending it in a way that is gonna last for generations. We ought to have aspirational goals. And so those aspirational goals, when you look at the technology that's deployed just pragmatically, and I have some cable plant out there, so I, you know, I, and I, I'm an old cable dog.
I know what cable is capable of, and cable is not, even with DOCSIS four, cable is not gonna be scalable well into the future because just of the technology physics limits what you can do with a coaxial cable or a copper line. I mean, it just, that's ju you can't overcome physics, you know, they're afraid. And I think rightly so, and that's what all the lobbying is about. And I, you know, this is again, a message for, for policymakers, even at the local level. You know, we should be setting aspirational goals with this because we're not gonna spend this money again in 10 years. We're not gonna spend this money again in 20 years. So if we don't do it right today, if we settle for a substandard architecture and a substandard outcome, then that's what our kids and our grandkids are gonna have to live with for generations. And we, and I don't want to go, I'm ashamed at what we did when we were in charge. I wanna say, seeing what we did for you guys, we enabled all of this. And so that's my policy push.
Christopher Mitchell (33:52):
And I agree with you. I think it's interesting. This is going to come up as states decide the areas that are too high cost. so states have the authority or in fact even the requirement that they will determine where they draw the line for things being too high cost to meet the minimum speed requirements of the bead program. Right? And one of the things I find interesting is that you had mentioned that you dabble in fixed wireless. You said you use fixed wireless. I don't know if you dabble or not.
Joe Frannell (34:19):
We have, we have thousands of customers on,
Christopher Mitchell (34:21):
So yeah, so you used fixed wireless, but a lot of the fixed wireless providers are ones that are, are concerned about aspirational goals being too aspirational. And they'll say, you know what? Like what we're doing, it meet people's needs. We should get money too. so I'm kind of curious how you, how you respond to that. No,
Joe Frannell (34:39):
No. I, you know, and I I, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say, you know, we shouldn't spend any of this bead money on architecture or infrastructure that's not fiber based. I mean, we just shouldn't do it. you know, we sh we, we should push fiber as far out as we can get it. And then, you know, this is one of the things that I've often said pre arpo pre infrastructure fund, is that it, you know, if you get affordable middle mile there, I'll build the last mile with my own money. I mean you know, I've, I've said that. So, you know, the big barrier for me is affordable middle mile access. And when I <crosstalk>,
Christopher Mitchell (35:15):
Which I think is unique to Frontier, I mean, I think, I do think that that's more common in frontier areas than in other rural areas.
Joe Frannell (35:22):
It it is, it is. And I, it may be unique to the West, but you know, it's still, and that this is where some of those, those really, really expensive builds exist. You know, they're not, they're not in Connecticut, you know, they're not in Pennsylvania, <laugh>, they're out here. So this is where the discussion is relevant. And I, if we can get fiber closer, then at some point, I'll solve the problem. Or people like me will solve the problem. You know, companies like mine will solve the problem spending money on an interim solu. And that's what we've done. We just keep spending money on interim solutions, incremental advances, and, and then every five years we're coming back to the well going, well, let's spend the money again. Let's spend the money again. And I'm,
Christopher Mitchell (36:03):
Joe Frannell (36:03):
Wanna spend it
Christopher Mitchell (36:04):
Once. Well, there's, there's still another dynamic. I mean, I'm, that so resonates with me. I agree with you. Totally <laugh>. But the other thing is that as we're trying to spend the money, we find that communities, and, and actually you know, as you and I are recording this, this is gonna run a few days after you and I record it, but like we just recorded a, an, an episode of connect this our, our show on Thursdays, typically. And we had on two guests from Louisiana ...
Joe Frannell (36:27):
Have you done the monster truck commercial thing? You could do it a monster connect this I love
Christopher Mitchell (36:32):
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday.
So the the these folks from, from northeast Louisiana this is some of the least connected parts of Louisiana, which is not a well connected state. No. They've been organizing for years in the, in this Delta Interfaith Alliance around trying to improve connectivity in both the rural and what we would think of as a slightly more dense areas, but it's still quite small towns. Yeah. And they finally got it. The governor actually flew there on a helicopter to announce the grants to expand fiber to the home from the electric cooperative. It's nice. And at the, in, at the last second, even after it appeared that like the, the time should have elapsed for challenges, the cable company, which is one of the lesser known national cable companies cable one, which is now doing business as SparkLight is challenging it. And they've actually delayed the opening.
The network was supposed to have its groundbreaking yesterday, as you and I are recording it, and now it's caught because that cable company is claiming, oh, no, no, we actually provide these speeds. No one's ever seen 'em, there's no record of them existing. But we've made this claim now, and the whole award is thrown into doubt. And this is something I know you've had to deal with and and are frustrated with, is this idea of the incumbents having some sort of right of first refusal and how that is just deeply unfair to people who have lived for years without getting the investment that they need.
Joe Frannell (37:53):
Yeah. If I could throw up right now, I would, I would do it. But that would be rude on a podcast. So
Christopher Mitchell (37:59):
It would be a first too <laugh>, it
Joe Frannell (38:01):
Would be a first. I don't know where this comes from, but I, I actually had a senior vice president of an incumbent tell me that we didn't have a right to build fiber in a town where they were serving it with first generation DSL because it was their territory. And, you know, and, and and then we had, we had a bill passed here in Oregon in the 2020 legislature, Senate Bill 1603, that that had language in it that I still am astounded. And it, it did not go through the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council. They went around the council. It should have been vetted by the council before it was, it was submitted for for a vote. But it has language that that says two things. It says, and this, this came from the incumbents that the Oregon Broadband Office shall, may not award a grant or loan under the program for proposed project to develop broadband service in infrastructure to serve residential locations that at the time of application for the pro proposed project is received by the department, have access to terrestrial wire line or wireless broadband service at a speed of at least 25 / 3.
The second piece is that right of first refusal. But what they said was, anywhere that there's 4G cellular, which, if you look at, if you look at Verizon's map, and you know, it's not accurate, cuz I, I'm, I've got Verizon and they're great, but you know, their map says, oh, you've got ubiquitous 4G pretty much everywhere in the world, and that is just not true. Right? Like, if you're standing on the roof, you look at their map, they're sitting on the roof in a lot of places, maybe <laugh> right. Holding it up three feet of, you know, on a step ladder maybe. So basically they, they protected all of their territory by putting this language in, and this language is being challenged. Now, we're hoping to get it fixed in the next legislative session, but so, you know, so they've protected their territory and doomed until we fix this, doomed these communities to having what they've had for the last 10 years forever and, and maybe limited our ability to actually leverage the bead funds that are and the ar ARPA funds that are coming to the state.
And then they had the unmitigated call to add in there this right of first refusal. And it's not just a right of first refusal where you go, okay, we're gonna go out to rfp, are you gonna do it? No. This right of first refusal says if someone responds to the rfp, spends the money on the engineering and the response and wins the rfp, then, then they can exercise, exercise their right of first refusal and say, no, we wanna do that. And they're saying, but this is our territory. We should have a right of first refusal. And I, my answer to that is, listen, if if it's your territory, that means you already have infrastructure there. You should be able to respond to the RFP and win it, because the cost to build is naturally gonna be less than somebody who's a new entrant to the market.
And yet the, they put this language and I just, I find it almost criminal. And I know, you know, you can't, it's not against the law. Not when you're writing the law <laugh>, oh my gosh, I really, really struggle with that. That, and, you know, and I, and I've had conversations with the, the, the associations here that represent those folks. And, you know, I've tried to get them to say, look, you guys should be taking a leadership role on setting aspirational goals. I mean, if these really are your communities and that's the way that you view them, why aren't you the champion of a, a synchronous gigabit goal for our state? Why, why are you not leading the charge instead of protecting 25 3 as the standard? And the answer was, well, that's the federal standard. You know, we're just echoing the federal standard.
Christopher Mitchell (42:02):
So in 2014,
Joe Frannell (42:03):
I guess that's good enough, you know, in, in, in their mind that's good enough. And so we should just settle for what the FCC says is what we need for our communities to be able to be sustainable and competitive.
Christopher Mitchell (42:19):
Yeah. I'll say that in my mind, that is a pathetic dodge from people who otherwise would not accept anything coming out of Washington DC as being legitimate simply because it's coming from Washington dc
Joe Frannell (42:30):
It, it is, I, I think it is a failure of leadership. And, you know, and this is, this is one of the heart-wrenching things for me. I have not every state has a really, really robust, diverse group of internet service providers. You know, some states have one or two or three mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, and that's it in the entire state. And Oregon has always had this really, really competitive, really diverse group of, I mean, from ma small mom and pops to small cooperatives and family owned IECs all the way up to the big guys, you know? And and we have always, I mean, up until all of this money showed up, we have always worked well together to solve problems for Oregon. And as soon as just the, the first whiff of this money wafted over Oregon, we, I started seeing this kind of behavior and I, it, I I, it's very disappointing. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's heart-wrenching for me to see this kind of behavior from a state that used to be visionary. I felt like, and it's not, it's not the state I, I beat up the state, but the, the, the internet service provider community has really always been very visionary and worked together well, and, and it's so fragmented now and money has done it. I almost wish we weren't getting the money.
Christopher Mitchell (43:47):
That's too bad. I mean, I, I think that, I do think we're in that period where we're filled with our doubts and frustrations, and I'm hoping that we'll work past these and the way our human memories work, we'll actually forget a lot of the pain we're experiencing right now. We'll focus on the good that comes from
Joe Frannell (44:02):
It, <laugh>. I hope so. You know, and you know, and so I encourage, I encourage people all across, you know, your entire listenership. I encourage you, if you're a broadband champion and you're really, really, you understand that this is a multi-generational investment, you know, don't settle, don't settle. It goes back to, you know, picking a broadband partner, right? You know, picking a goal, don't settle, don't allow the rhetoric to cause you to settle. And and there's a lot of rhetoric out there and a lot of money being spent on lobbying right now. So don't listen to that. Listen to what you know to be right and let's pursue that like these broadband action teams are
Christopher Mitchell (44:43):
Well as no better place to leave it than that. Joe, it's, it's been wonderful. I look forward to having you on on an episode of Connect This, cuz I think you're gonna fit in really well with that format. So thank you for this and look forward to seeing you again soon.
Joe Frannell (44:55):
Thanks Chris. It was great.
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