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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 333
This is the transcript for episode 333 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Will Mitchell and Sean Myers of VETRO FiberMap about how communities have been using their mapping platform to design, build, and manage their broadband networks and about the importance of GIS data. They also discuss the many broadband projects happening in Maine and what other communities can learn from them. Listen to the episode here.
Sean Myers: The real strength in these towns and the way towns are set up in Maine is that there's a lot of local control so the community can get together, they can get together with the adjacent community as well, but it's pretty easy to get together to make decisions like this — you know, do we want broadband or not?
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 333 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week Will Mitchell and Sean Myers from VETRO FiberMap joined Christopher. The company serves the telecommunications industry with open source mapping software. VETRO FiberMap helps entities in both the private and public sectors with fiber deployment. Will and Sean explain how they've worked with ISPs and other entities in unexpected ways, including marketing and planning. They share that working with Internet service providers and communities has helped them explore new uses for their product. During the conversation, Christopher, Will, and Sean touch on the data that VETRO FiberMap uses and the different sources for GIS information. They also get into some of the various projects they've worked on and the types of projects where they anticipate growth, including projects in Maine where local and state efforts are improving Internet access. Now here's Christopher with Will Mitchell and Sean Myers from VETRO FiberMap.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, and I've got a guest who's trying to steal my name, Will Mitchell, the CEO of VETRO FiberMap. Welcome to the show.
Will Mitchell: Thanks Chris. Happy to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Now with him we also have Sean Myers, recently moved out of Buffalo into Portland, Maine, Chief Operating Officer of VETRO FiberMap. Welcome to the show.
Sean Myers: Thanks Chris. Looking forward to talking with you.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So it's worth noting, Will, we have no relation whatsoever. At least none that we've discovered, I suppose.
Will Mitchell: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: So for people who are thinking, "VETRO FiberMap, what is that?" — what is it?
Will Mitchell: VETRO FiberMap is a fiber management GIS mapping platform. It's one that we've built from the ground up and launched into this marketplace of broadband design and planning and development. It's being used to deploy broadband networks, most specifically fiber optics and Fiber-to-the-Home networks, throughout the life cycle of that process.
Christopher Mitchell: And how does having a map make that easier to manage or to do?
Will Mitchell: It's interesting. Sean and I are both coming from mapping careers, careers in GIS and applied mapping, and it's really hard to imagine an industry that is more spatial in nature than wireline telecommunications. Everything relies on mapping: doing designs, laying out fiber into communities, backbones and trunks and distribution cables. You got to know where all the targets are and how you're going to get there, how splicing occurs along the way. So we're all about the physical outside plant, the physical infrastructure of the network, inventorying that and providing a container for broadband operators and network builders to design these networks and then to build and operate them as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Sean, I'm curious how you fit into this. You have a mapping background as well. What sort of stuff are you bringing to it?
Sean Myers: When we first started off as a company of course, about 11 years ago, we were just providing, you know, web mapping services to really anybody who was interested. So whether it was a government entity, nonprofit, or private organization, we were delivering these web mapping services. My particular background is in utilities and GIS for utilities, so we actually had this one customer who was interested in building this product. It's still out there. It's called FiberLocator, and we built it for them and we still maintain it for them. But we were looking at this and I said, "Wow, this is really just another network," so I said "There's probably more we can do in this industry." And sure enough, we started going to different shows, Fiber Broadband Association, Broadband Communities, and what we found out was a lot of people were just using what we'd call fairly primitive tools (a lot of Google Earth, a lot of KMZs and KMLs being passed back and forth), and we just thought it could be done better. So we started prototyping this product out. We worked with certain ISPs here in Maine. We worked with GWI and Fletcher Kittredge, who provided a lot of insight and information about what it is they need this kind of mapping tools to do, so we set out to do it. And you know, we started about three years ago, maybe four years ago — it's hard to tell with difference between Beta and prototype and all that — but we started moving forward and it started getting traction. And what we saw was people are saying, "Hey, I'm over here doing my mapping in Google Earth. I'm over here managing my circuits in an Excel spreadsheet," and we are now coming in there with a solution so you don't have to do that anymore. You can do it in one place through this map based, cloud based solution called VETRO. And so that's where it kind of all started.
Christopher Mitchell: So I'm just trying to have a sense of how this works. So people were using Excel spreadsheets to manage — I think anyone who's operated a network knows exactly what you're talking about, but I think everyone who hasn't is thinking, "What?!"
Sean Myers: Right. Yeah. And to be honest, we were kind of in the same boat when we first started this. We asked a lot of questions. But what it boils down to, when our customers think of a circuit they're thinking of that light path. So they know that it starts with, you know, to put it simply, it starts with some kind of switch in a central office, some kind of centralized building or location, and it terminates at a customer location. So whether it's a residence or a business, that's the termination point, and there's a path that originates at the CO and ends at the service location. So they were using spreadsheets to define that. So it starts here at central office number one, for example, and it ends here at 14 Maple Street, and here are the speeds that are being provided, and so forth. What we're adding to that definition is everything in between, right? So we're saying here's splice closure number one, here's fiber access terminal number two with certain kinds of equipment in it that help define the path, so now they can define a complete path from CO to service location, not just in a tabular form but in a graphical form. So it's the circuit, the electronic pieces that define it, as well as the mapped assets, that being the cables. So you're not just seeing a red line on a map; you can also see the red line and all of the circuits that are underneath it. So put simply, I click on the line, I'm seeing all of the circuits that pass through that line, i.e., that cable, and I can do that for my entire network right in one simple interface.
Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, that's a very lucid explanation. This gets a little bit beyond mapping, but I know that you'll know the answer to it and I can jump back to Will for this, but I'm curious. Just briefly, you know, I can imagine if someone cuts a fiber that would be useful. What are some of the other things that ISPs would want to have that capacity to be able to do? What does it tell them?
Will Mitchell: What Sean's describing is kind of inside the cables and inside the network. The engineering detail — the inventory of strands and splicing and ports and equipment — it's a lot of detail that needs a database to be managed. As you suggested, you might use that in an operational or maintenance context to figure out who is downstream of a problem, where do I have capacity along this route, or am I at max capacity. Then that brings us over to another piece of the puzzle that we also try to support. I'll mention two parts. One is at the very outset. It's evaluating the marketplace and planning at a feasibility level. What would it take to build a network over here? What's the potential return on the investment? You can model business case in our mapping platform as well. And this is before you draw any cables or any design out. You can also implement both manual and automated design techniques to take that to the next level and get sort of build level costs, build materials, and so forth. So you're doing a feasibility planning market assessment, costing and down, and then you're getting into some of the stuff Sean was talking about, the engineering and that detail. Another thing we're finding a lot of need for and interest in is a sales qualification. We're trying to record the paths of the network and in doing so you're getting to homes passed at a very granular level. We maintain address points of businesses and residences, and you can see exactly who's along the route. And maybe more importantly, you can invite the public, the would-be customer, to check their address and say, "Can I get service here?" So we're marrying the planning, the selling and the operational and engineering aspects all in one mapping database.
Christopher Mitchell: Again, I'm running a risk of trying not to reveal how ignorant I am of some of this, but Sean, I'm curious about where some of the data goes that fits into this because — let me ask you where or how the VETRO FiberMap solution fits in when — I'm guessing you have a whole bunch of data already where utility poles and things like that are. My understanding is it's best practice for when you are designing the network to basically walk all along it and to be taking notes, like "gravel driveway" or you know, a number of different features that you'd have to worry about when you're doing drops to the home and things like that. Is that something that then gets recorded in the VETRO FiberMap or what sort of information do you come prepopulating it with?
Sean Myers: Yeah. No, that's a good question because it is a GIS, right? So we can basically bring in any kind of — we call them layers — so any kind of layer or constraint or asset that you see in order to properly design your network. So for example, poles, and poles are these elusive creatures, right? Everybody wants to know where they are. We've actually talked to some fairly large customers, and I'm sitting in this room with engineers and they go, "Great, I want to buy it. Do the poles come with it?" And I kind of have to chuckle a little bit and go, "No. No, there's work to be done." Now some of our customers, particularly here in Maine, are very lucky in that the towns themselves may have conducted a large scale mapping effort. And when I first started getting into GIS, back in the nineties, I was working with a lot of municipalities, particularly in New England, and one of the first things these municipalities would do is they would literally map their assets, so whether that would be roads and sidewalks. A lot of it was driven by sanitary sewer and storm water concerns, so they were mapping manholes, they were mapping catch basins, different things like that. But in some cases, they were also capturing poles. So for example, here in south Portland, we were able to go into the community, we were able to kind of do an inventory of what they have, and lo and behold, they had an inventory of poles. So we've made that available in our platform, and our customers, those who are proposing to do work in south Portland, have been effectively using that. So as we're placing down the cables, the equipment with them, and so forth, they can align that with the poles. But it can be hit or miss whether or not a community actually has that information. Where we have been very lucky, and Will was talking about this earlier, where we're talking about helping in those planning stages where they want to know where the potential customers are and so forth, we can go into a community [and] look at their land records. Most communities have really gotten their act together in terms of generating GIS data, and they usually start with parcels or cadastral information. So we can go in there, gather the parcel information, it's all digitized, and develop points from those parcels that begin to represent the locations of homes. There's some work to be done. Most of the points start in the middle of the parcel and we might have to move it to the structure itself, but it's a great starting point. Will and I talk a lot about locations. There's lots of sources for that kind of information. We start with the community because we can get it quickly. Most of the time it's free — some communities do charge for it — but we can quickly gather that information and it's a great starting point. So we say, "Here. Here are all your potential locations, and if they have all that other mapping, like poles, we'll bring that in to.
Christopher Mitchell: So just between us, does this break down along state lines? Like, is Utah the best and Florida's the worst? Who's really good at having this mapping information available and who's not so good?
Sean Myers: Yeah. Will, what do you think?
Will Mitchell: Well, we've had a lot of experience and it's interesting. There are some jackpots that you stumble into. I'll mention a couple. One is in Montana, one is in Arkansas, one's here in Maine, where you might have a state GIS authority or office compiling data, oftentimes submitted upstream from counties and then compiled and redistributed down. If you can get a unified source of parcel and assessing type information to start with at that level, or address points by the same token, you're way ahead of the game. We've run into trouble in some states where certain counties treat this data not as a kind of public domain, but rather want to charge hefty fees to dole it out. There are also commercial vendors that we can turn to to source parcel mapping and address points. It's actually — that's something that we wrestle with quite a bit. You know, when we're working with a smaller local ISP who has a fairly local focus, it's definitely sensible to go to the county and compile this data ourselves because we're pretty good at it. If you're talking to a large regional player or a national player, you know, you don't have that same luxury and you might turn to a commercial source.
Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting what Sean had mentioned regarding the asset mapping, that this is something that it strikes me if communities are thinking about doing, whether it's trying to form a partnership or build their own network, they probably should be trying to collect this information if it's not already available.
Will Mitchell: Yeah, absolutely. You know when Google Fiber put out their community checklist, there were a number of data layers [and] GIS data sets that they recommended communities put together and in fact required that they put together if they wanted to be considered. We tell people that now, I mean when we're talking to community organizers who are getting into municipal broadband or want to. You can do some good legwork upfront collecting — it may not be poles, but even just your address records, your map of houses and targets and businesses. That's a good starting point because believe it or not, it's not always easy or accurate or available, and you gotta have rooftop mapping. We also deal with some customers who are accepting funding, like from the FCC, maybe A-CAM or CAF, and there are new reporting requirements that require them to report back upstream the latitude and longitude of the actual rooftop or the structure itself that's being served. Whereas in the past, you know, a lot of reporting is done at a polygon level, at census block level, which is not really good enough for a lot of the things that we're talking about.
Christopher Mitchell: I suppose we're going to have the data getting better and better over the years, hopefully a little more granular. Well, let's talk about real life use cases then. Who's using the platform and what are they doing with it?
Will Mitchell: We have a number of kind of segments I guess represented. We started building this input from small CLECs, competitive Internet service providers, ISPs, that you might call tier two or tier three or however many tiers down you want to go, right down to the smallest startup.
Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Tier x.
Will Mitchell: Yeah, and you know, they all shared a common pain around this mapping, and it was sort of mapping chaos that we're trying to bring some order to help them operate more efficiently and to scale. There are also wireless ISPs, WISPs, using this in the very same way. They just need to add a few elements to the map: towers and where they can reach from those towers, rooftop access points, antennas. We're working with a good number of rural electric co-ops now, who are adopting the platform to build Fiber-to-the-Home networks alongside their traditional electric plants. We have some dark fiber providers, including the main fiber company here in Maine that provide leased strands for transport in an open access manner. We have some rural telephone companies and we have some consulting engineers that do design build work for the network owners. I did not mention municipal, which I can't forget them. Chris, I know that's your area of focus, and we do have a number of towns and groups of towns getting together to build open access, municipally-owned fiber networks as a utility. And we're excited to get more and more involved in that space.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think many of us are hoping that that will be rapidly growing space because of how it neatly solves a number of the challenges, both political and technological, that we see.
Will Mitchell: As Sean mentioned, we're a couple years in the market and in production capacity we're sort of the new kids on the block. There's a lot of traditional mapping tools out there that deal with networks, you know, wireline networks, and a lot of them are a little bit long in the tooth and a little bit hard to maneuver. We've designed ours, we hope, to be really easy and simple, and it kind of looks like a Google map but it has a lot of sophistication. And it's in the cloud, which means we can service anyone anywhere. We do have folks in 28 states and 13 countries using the platform, and they're signing up pretty quickly.
Christopher Mitchell: Will or Sean, are there any particular clients you've had that have come forward and just surprised you, and you thought, "Yeah, I never really thought about that or that we could use our tool in that way"?
Sean Myers: Yeah, all the time, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Ok, do you have any clients that have boring uses for your tool?
Sean Myers: Let me try to answer it this way. Building software, which is what we're doing, it can be a complicated process, but the real challenge is, you know, you're always trying to improve it, you're always trying to listen to your customers, but you have to filter here and there. For the most part, we're getting great input from our customers. They ask if they can do some very interesting things. We always explore it and we say yes, let's try to do that. Some of it's kind of boring and engineering related, but we constantly have to evolve, right? So things like multiplexing and how you manage circuits along that. We have a customer right now we're looking at where we've got to begin to model wireless last mile, so instead of a drop to the house, they're now looking at setting up wireline to the nodes and going wireless from that point. Nothing new essentially, but we're seeing more and more customers going to that kind of model, and so our software needs to evolve with that. So I guess in summary, I'd say we're always hearing some interesting things. At first our reaction was, "Wow, nobody does it the same way," but as you get into this more, you start seeing some general patterns and trends that make a lot of sense.
Will Mitchell: There's a type of customer I didn't mention. We're now working with the Connect Maine Authority. And, you know, these state broadband programs, they're coming in looking at things from a 30,000 foot level, and they want to know what would it cost on a macro scale to build Fiber-to-the-Home or build a broadband network in community A, community B, or statewide for that matter. And so we're sort of going upstream in altitude there and helping them with that.
Christopher Mitchell: So you mentioned Maine, and Maine is a place where a lot of things are happening. The Maine Broadband Coalition I think is a model for other states. You know, Sean, this would be a time and if I was right in that, I think you did recently move to Maine. You can talk about how great Portland is. That seems to be something that people who've just moved to Portland do.
Sean Myers: Yeah, Portland's a great town. I actually lived here — Will and I, we met — I lived here from '99 to 2007. Will and I met because we were in the same industry. We actually served on the Maine GeoLibrary Board together. Just yesterday we were in a state building. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I haven't been here in a long time." That's how we met. So I am familiar with Portland. It has changed a lot, I will say Chris, over — I've been gone for 11 years. It has changed a little bit. A lot of activity here. A lot of companies, new companies, that have kind of sprung up, tech companies in particular. I've noticed a fair amount of them. So it's become a pretty cool place to be. I don't think Portland always had that reputation, but I definitely think it's got it now.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you, as two people who have paid close attention then as Maine has been wrestling with its broadband challenges and I think laying the foundation. I mean, by no means is it solved. There's a lot of enthusiasm around solving it. What's unique to Maine and what should other people learn from Maine, based on your observations?
Will Mitchell: You know, I grew up here and I sort of went away and came back. I've been back for 20 years now in Portland doing this mapping stuff. And sometimes we're just the technicians or the map guys or the data guys, but it is fun to be involved at a community and a policy level in this stuff in particular in Main. And I guess I would just comment that we're seeing what I would call a groundswell of activity in communities and towns around the state, kind of stepping to the plate and saying, "You know, we're going to take matters into our own hands here and take a take a run at some sort of partnership, public-private partnership." And there's everything along the spectrum there coming into focus. We've got this new ability or authorization, I guess you would say, to have broadband utility districts. That's brand new. There's one. The first one is called Downeast Broadband, way down in eastern Maine. There are more in the works. There are a lot of other towns doing varieties of things to build little incremental starter projects. There's an RFP in Millinocket right now for that to get quotes to build out groups of three or four towns together. There's a lot going on in the municipal space. And I will also mention that they're well-supported by our small ISPs. There's a spirit of cooperation I would definitely point out, and there's technical expertise being shared. There are some leading voices. We mentioned Fletcher with GWI. He's done amazing things and has big plans. We work with Pioneer Broadband up in Aroostook County. They've gone ahead and built Fiber-to-the-Home in Houlton, Maine, which is an amazing project actually. Several thousand homes are now lit up with world class Internet at the northern tip of I-95. We've got cooperation with this project called the Three Ring Binder, which Maine Fiber Company runs as that open access middle mile. We have the rural telephone companies participating. We work with OTELCO. They're doing all kinds of stuff to facilitate and promote and partner on these projects. So it just feels like a spirit of cooperation and a whole lot of can do, roll up your sleeves kind of activity going on to build broadband.
Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to jump in before I give Sean a chance to weigh in on that. Also, just to note that you mentioned Pioneer — they're an incumbent, right?
Will Mitchell: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: And I just wanted to flag that because sometimes we use sloppy language, and we're talking about frustration with some of the bigger companies that are often incumbents that haven't done a good job. But, you know, in a number of states, not every state but in a number of states, there's companies that are incumbents that are locally rooted and still make a lot of investments and are really helping their communities.
Will Mitchell: Actually, it's not Pioneer Telephone; it's Pioneer Broadband. I think it would be called a competitive ISP. OTELCO, on the other hand, would be called an ILEC or an incumbent. Although, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of these companies have multiple faces and facets and business lines. But in all those cases I mentioned, these are companies that are doing a lot of good work. Axiom is another one doing a lot of planning and broadband plans out there in Maine, and we've been fortunate to have arm's length exposure to some of these projects by some of our customers that are doing work in our platform for the towns, going back to Rockport and South Portland, and I'm sure you've heard about the project on Islesboro, the island that just recently completed the Fiber-to-the-Home build. So there's quite a few really interesting examples, and they're just really the tip of the iceberg I think.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, Page has been on the show in the past, and I was just thinking we need to get him back on now that the network is built. But Sean, let me ask you, what's going on in Maine that you think other people should be paying attention to and learning from?
Sean Myers: Yeah. I grew up in Rochester, New York, so you know, upstate New York and New York state as a whole behaves very differently from most new England states, meaning that there's a lot of local control. And someone who has a planning background, you know, it almost seems antithesis to the way decisions should be made. They should be made on a regional basis. But the real strength in these towns and they way towns are set up in Maine is that there's a lot of local control. So the community can get together, they can get together with the adjacent community as well, but it's pretty easy to get together to make decisions like this — you know, do we want broadband or not? There's referendums as well, so they're instruments to kind of facilitate this kind of stuff. And I think that this can do attitude, as Will mentioned, is very much a part of it. That Yankee can do attitude is very relevant because they know how to organize here pretty well. They know how to work through the issues very well. We were just up in Augusta yesterday talking with some people, and I was thoroughly impressed with the level of knowledge that the person we were talking to had. They understood what the issues were, you know, trying to do a statewide program. They had all the technical details we needed. I think they're well on the road to having a very successful program. I think Maine's going to be able to pull it off, and not just in this millieu. They also have a very robust ISP ecosystem, and I've talked to you several times and I know you've always said, "Well, you know, it's great to have these opportunities, but if there's no one to do it, right, then what are we going to do?" And I think Maine has enough ISPs to really kind of pull this off, and they're all engaged, right? As a community expresses interest, they know who to reach out to right away and they might even know them. It could be their neighbor. So the relationships are here, the ideas are here, and hopefully the money's coming to really make this work.
Christopher Mitchell: I've found this to be informative, but also fun and a reminder of what great things are happening up in Maine. For a few years, I think the legislature has been enthusiastic about expanding broadband while knowing that your governor would probably not implement anything they passed, so January is a whole new year. Legislature can can start working with the governor hopefully, and we'll see what happens next because there's a lot of potential.
Sean Myers: Yeah, I agree.
Will Mitchell: We totally agree, Chris. It's a turning of the page politically, and we're excited to see what comes.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you both for coming on and sharing some of the background of what it takes to build these networks, to operate them, you know, some of these tools, your tool, the VETRO FiberMap, and then chatting with me about one of my favorite states.
Sean Myers: All right, Chris. Well thank you very much. We appreciate the time.
Will Mitchell: Yeah, thank you, Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Will Mitchell and Sean Myers from VETRO FiberMap. You can learn more about the company VetroFiberMap.com. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 333 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
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