Recently Chris Mitchell (Institute for Local Self Reliance) interviewed Travis Carter (US Internet). Chris is a proponent of municipal/community networks. Travis is Co-founder of USI, a local broadband provider in Minneapolis. USI has been around forever. Currently they are busy pulling fiber throughout Minneapolis. They seem to have a strong ethos of get ‘er done and customer service. Their customers are happy; their prices are very competitive.
I waned to pull out pieces of the interview (it’s all available both in transcript and podcast) because I think there’s a lot to learn from a provider that seems to be doing lots of things right. BUT I also want to recognize (as Travis does) that building a business in Minneapolis is different in many ways than extending service to a rural area – but still he makes some points
On the MN Task Force Speed Goals…
Chris Mitchell: I get the impression that you were unimpressed with the State’s broadband task force and even some of the other trade meetings where some of the telephone companies are in. They’re still trying to claim that DSL is broadband and people don’t really need very much capacity. It struck me that seemed like a reality shock when you’re first describing it.
Travis Carter: I often try to think, if I was in their shoes, that’s the story I would be telling as well because they have an infrastructure that’s built. I’m assuming the vast majority of it has been paid for so it is, from a business standpoint, quite frankly, it’s very profitable for them. Why take a huge jump when you can take a minimal jump and still fall within the confines of what the FCC today is saying is acceptable broadband. I, from a Minnesota standpoint … Again, I have to preface this by saying, we have the luxury of being in a high density area. When you go out into rural Minnesota, I took a tour one time out to the Renville area, just to see what it was. The logistics of taking a gigabyte or a multi-gigabyte service to a farm, that’s a big job. I think … You can still do the town. Then, you could take the income from the town and build out from there, which is no different than from what we’re doing here in Minneapolis. We’re taking the income, we’re re-investing it, and continuing to expand.
On wireless versus wired (how they work together)
Travis Carter: Pre-Netflix, WiFi was great. Post Netflix, it caused a lot of contention on the network. About 82% our bandwidth today is some sort of streaming entertainment. With high def and the other even 4K and things in the future, it put the heavy, heavy, heavy constraint on the backbone. Our initial foray into fiber was, “How do we solve this backbone problem between our WiFi nodes? We need to get those bits out of the air and onto a cable as soon as we can.” Quite frankly, I didn’t know anything about it, but I figured we’d run fiber all over plant Earth. Somebody must know about it. Our friends over at Corning came in with their van. Sat outside, opened the doors up, and said, “Welcome to fiber.” We went down to our friend at Ditch witch, and they said, “Here’s a drill. Here’s how you make a hole in the ground.” We started piecing all the puzzles together. Again, we’re Rodney up in the classroom going, “We should be able to figure out.” We’re not really inventing anything. We’re taking things other people invented and putting them together. That’s how we got into fiber. That was our initial plan was to hook these nodes together to bring egress or backbone to this to satisfy the ever-increasing, or at this point, the inconsequential thirst for bandwidth.
On working with a community
Travis Carter: If I was to rank Minneapolis, I would say they’ve been incredibly easy to work with compared to stories I’ve heard with other people. Right-a-way, the permitting department, these are all … This has been really, really, really a relatively easy process. We were willing to work with them to help us understand the process. Our biggest issues, quite frankly, was there was no precedent when we set up of a central office or a switching station, there was no precedent for where those sat. We got thrown into this other bucket of “other” from a zoning perceptive. Now, we had to zone ourselves a certain way. We had to build this little Taj Mahal in the middle of the neighborhood because they could make us. We were just assuming we could put up a little concrete building and off we go.
A little more on the rural difference (especially rural and northern!) …
Travis Carter: That’s the big Achilles heel in Minnesota here, is, unlike today, which is beautiful, we usually don’t start til April 15, and we’re done November 15. We have a very short window to build. Our network is completely underground, so we have to directionally drill everything. All the main line, all the backbone, all the drops to the homes. From a construction standpoint, it’s a big, big, big job. This isn’t just streaming some fiber down some poles in the alley that are already there. There’s a ton of benefit to this network. It’s underground. It’s very reliable. It’s Ethernet, so there’s no weird technologies or splitters or shared anything in there. It’s simple to troubleshoot. It’s simple to maintain. It’s consistent. It uses off-the-shelf electronics. It’s very, very, very reliable. It’s just we don’t have enough months out of the year. What we’ve looked at, is we’ve looked at maybe going to a city in the south, somewhere. The problem you run into is the bandwidth consumption is so high on these fiber networks, that we need to be close to someplace with adequate bandwidth. We can’t be way up in northern Minnesota, where our cost to deliver the service is to high. We have to be near a major metropolitan area to get that type of capacity.
Chris Mitchell: Or, if you’re familiar with some of the things like Allied Fibers, slowly building these neutral fiber routes across the US. You just need to tap in somewhere where you get back to a point of …
Travis Carter: Exactly. Exactly. We have to get back to somewhere. Cermak in Chicago, 511 here, NCC in Omaha. If we can get to somewhere like that, that solves a tremendous, tremendous problem. It’s a problem I saw at the Minnesota Broadband Association is, they were all talking about bringing bandwidth out to the farm, or bringing bandwidth out to the rural area. These people are going to use it. There’s no difference between a user up in the iron head of Minnesota and a user in Minneapolis. They’re all going to use the same amount of bandwidth. You’ve just to be able to get it out of your network somewhere. They have a much bigger challenge than we have here in Minneapolis.
Chris Mitchell: Although, fortunately, in the Iron Range, they have the Northeast Service Cooperative now. Increasingly, we do have some of these where it’s been smart, local investments. In that case, enabled by the stimulus, but people have done the work there to make sure that they have some of this available.
Travis Carter: If I were a town and I was looking to have somebody come in and be an alternate provider, that would be one of the very first things I would highlight is, “Here is the way to get onto some fiber transit to get out of our city, back to a place where you can buy bandwidth at a reasonable price.”