Building a fiber network is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Kara Mullaley, Corning’s market development manager, was a 2021 Fiber Connect conference panelist on the topic of “Rural Electric Utilities Choose Their Own Broadband Adventure.” In this episode, Kara recaps key issues that new ISPs should consider when choosing their own broadband adventure.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
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Intro: Broadband. We need it for work and for school, for our health and our economy. What’s being done to bring broadband internet access within reach of every American? Let’s talk about it now on Rural Broadband Today. Here’s your host, Stephen Smith.
Andy Johns: And thanks for tuning in to the latest episode of Rural Broadband Today. I am not Stephen Smith. This is Andy Johns substituting as the podcast host for Stephen here at the Fiber Connect 2021 Conference for the Fiber Broadband Association. Today, we’re taking a look at the people and issues shaping the rural broadband story. And I’m excited to have you join us. My guest today is Kara Mullaley, who is the Market Development Manager for Corning. Thanks for joining me, Kara.
Kara Mullaley: Thanks for having me.
Andy Johns: We are here once again with the episode here at the epicenter of the rural broadband universe this week, which is a Fiber Connect 2021 Conference from the Fiber Broadband Association. It has been a good conference.
Kara Mullaley: It’s been an amazing conference. Record attendance and just the energy is amazing compared to what we’ve seen in prior conferences.
Andy Johns: I think everybody’s so excited to get out and see people again. It’s been really good to see. I want to be sure that we have time to talk about some of what you have seen and heard from folks at the conference. But I wanted to start off with the session that you were a part of today. And I like the name of the session. It was called “Rural Electric Utilities Choose Their Own Broadband Adventure.” Tell me a little bit about the idea, where you all came up with the idea for that session. And for the folks who weren’t able to attend, tell us some of the highlights.
Kara Mullaley: Sure. The idea really came about when we were asked, you know, the call for papers as many conferences do. And there have been so many disparate builds that electrical cooperatives or municipal-owned electricity providers have built over the years. And with all the new federal funding, that started to look like it was going to go in that direction. And now new funding with the LIFT Act that might push even more money towards the states in these smaller rural operators. We thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase that there isn’t one way to build a network. There are a multitude of ways to build a network, and there is no one size fits all. And so we pitched the idea of a panel session where we could bring different operators and integrators that can share some of those disparate perspectives on why they built a network the way they built it, how it’s going, and what they would do differently. And so it was really great. We had one of our integrator partners in the ecosystem, Fujitsu. So Rick DeLisle was there, and he has several ongoing projects, whether they be middle mile or access networks that he spoke to. But then the operators, Aaron Young from Tri-Co Connections and Leslie Blevins from Bristol Tennessee Essential Services, which is a municipal-owned operator, shared their perspectives, which was great.
Andy Johns: Excellent. So like you said, there are different ways to do it, but somewhere along the path, it’s going to be a little bit of an adventure to build a fiber network like this.
Kara Mullaley: It’s always an adventure. You know, even when you think you have it all nailed down, there’s going to be something that comes up that deviates the plan. And you have to always prepare for the unexpected. I think one of the things that we’re trying to coach people through and just maybe open the aperture up so that they pay attention to is you’re not building a network for 5-10 years from now. You’re building a network for the next 50 years, and so make sure that you’re taking into consideration all the potential use cases down the road while you’re building today’s network as affordably as you can, as quickly as you can, but not with blinders on so that you build something that you then regret later.
Andy Johns: Sure. Now, you guys had pretty good audience participation in the session. What were some of the main things, I guess, that you wanted folks to know? And then what were some of the things that they were asking and some of the feedback you got from the audience?
Kara Mullaley: I think that one of the things we wanted them to know is that it’s okay not to know everything. It’s huge, right? When you don’t know what you don’t know and you’re unwilling to seek out the information… That’s one of the great things Fiber Broadband Association does is help to educate folks to the things that they may not inherently know. And so that was first and foremost, like specifics aside, just educate. And some of the questions were really around whether or not people were achieving the payback. That was one of the questions. Is the network getting paid back at the level you expected or the pace that you expected?
Andy Johns: It’s an important question.
Kara Mullaley: But aside from that, how to manage customer expectations came up. That was a theme across several of the panelists, too, because it’s one thing to come in and wave the flag and say “We’re bringing fiber,” and getting everybody jazzed. And then they find out that it’s not coming down their street for three and a half years or even longer. And so it’s deflating, and you don’t want to disappoint your end user base. And so that was one of the themes as well that came across. But, you know, find partners, educate yourself, look at the different technologies. It’s not a one size fits all. Those were kind of the main things.
Andy Johns: Excellent. And as you’ve gone around the conference — and it’s been a really good couple of days here — what are some of the other things that you heard? Obviously, your session, I think, perfectly fit the audience. There are a lot of electric co-op folks here who are either in the broadband business, are getting into it or are thinking about getting into it. What are some of the other topics that you’ve seen and heard folks discussing either in the sessions or out in the hallways this week?
Kara Mullaley: I think a lot of the additional conversation has been around public policy. All of the different funding vehicles. There’s been a lot of chatter about private equity and how much money you can get if you can’t get it from the government; you can probably get it elsewhere. So funding is no longer the roadblock to a lot of projects at this point. It’s access to labor and not just people that dig ditches and hang the cable and slice the cable, but folks that can help you design the network, who can help the architect the right vision for your company. Some of these electrical co-ops in particular legislatively have had the shackles removed in some states now to be their own ISP. So there’s been a lot of okay, now that I’m allowed, how?
Andy Johns: Yeah, What’s next? Right.
Kara Mullaley: So that’s been fun to witness. Because this show, three or four years ago, you would have had headliners talking about tier one operators and their exclusively built network. And to have some of the main stage stuff be about open access networks, it’s just a huge shift for the industry.
Andy Johns: Definitely. Now, one of the things with that, you know, there’s so much attention right now being paid to rural broadband in particular. There’s, as you mentioned, lots of government funding out there, which has gotten a lot of people interested. Corning is a company, obviously, that’s been in the space for a long time and the leader for fiber. What do you think it is that folks don’t understand about rural broadband? Maybe folks who are new to the scene. What is it, do you think, that people don’t understand about rural broadband, and how complicated of a problem it is?
Kara Mullaley: Yeah, just because it says rural doesn’t mean that vision that pops into somebody’s head is all that is the problem. So it’s not just expansive farmlands where it’s residences only. You might have opportunities where there are large industrial parks and some of these farms are highly sophisticated. And so assuming that a standard PON circuit or 100 mbps circuit is going to be sufficient, it might not be even in the rural. The other thing that we’ve seen is that the scope creep of urban areas into suburbia isn’t really stopping. And now that we’ve had the pandemic and all these folks have moved away because they didn’t have to stay in their urban apartments or suburbia, more and more people are probably going to work from home. They’re going to want to choose to stay in the countryside wherever they bedded down for the last 15 to 18 months. And so the demands are only going to grow, I think, in the rural areas, in the lesser populated areas, for quality of life concerns.
Kara Mullaley: The other piece is we talk a lot about rural, but we don’t talk about remote. Remote is also a problem, not just rural. So you might have a very densely populated area that just happens to be 25 or 30 miles from a good, robust backbone, and so getting to them is the cost prohibitive thing, not once you’re there. It might be really good business case in the town. It’s just getting to the town that is the problem. Some of the funding doesn’t really address that very well. So there’s that remote aspect that I think people need to start putting into their vernacular.
Andy Johns: Kara, as we’re wrapping up here. Last thing, was there anything that I didn’t ask that I should have, or anything else that you wanted to share before we wrap up?
Kara Mullaley: I would just say that there’s been a lot of talk and concern about the lack of potential skilled labor. The Fiber Broadband Association and Corning has been a part of looking at a technician training apprenticeship program. And so pay attention to that. If you’re a listener out there, there’s going to be some more information coming soon on the fiber broadband website. And we really need more folks interested in sharing their knowledge. And that’s a hard thing to do when you’re busy trying to do the things.
Andy Johns: And there are a lot of busy people here.
Kara Mullaley: A lot of busy people, but education is going to be key to it all.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for joining me.
Kara Mullaley: Thank you for having me.
Andy Johns: And thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Andy Johns, filling in for Stephen Smith. And this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company, an affiliation with Pioneer Utility Resources. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thank you for listening.
Outro: Rural Broadband Today is a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.