Cullman Electric Cooperative launched Sprout Fiber in 2020. Mark Freeman, Cullman’s manager of network operations, was a 2021 Fiber Connect conference panelist on the topic of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Lessons Learned from Network Operators.” In this episode, Mark discusses Sprout’s successes, plus challenges that other cooperatives looking to enter the fiber business should consider during the buildout phase of a network.
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 for this episode is Mark Freeman, who is Manager of Network Operations for Sprout Fiber, part of Cullman Electric Cooperative. Mark, thanks for joining me.
Mark Freeman: Anytime, Andy. I appreciate it.
Andy Johns: We are having Mark by the booth here at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber Connect 2021. So as you’ve noticed with the previous two episodes on here, we’ve got what I always like to say is not background noise, it’s ambiance as we’re here at the booth of the trade show. A lot of good discussions are going on throughout the week, including the session that Mark was a part of called “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Lessons Learned from Network Operators.” So, Mark, I wanted to get in what the panel talked about, but first, give us an update on kind of where you are and the network build.
Mark Freeman: Sure. Yeah. Thanks, Andy. Sprout Fiber Internet has been going, we publicly announced last year in July. So we just celebrated our one year birthday. We turned up our first customer or subscriber in January. So we’ve been deploying broadband internet for the past seven months, and we’re sitting right around 800 subscribers right about now. Our first phase that we’re actually developing and designing that is going on is we’re building a utility infrastructure. So we’re connecting. We have currently 13 substations that we are interconnecting with our fiber backbone ring. So we’re creating a 100 Gig redundant backbone ring, interconnecting our substations so that we can migrate our substation data connectivity off of a third party provider’s MPLS network over to our own. So we’ll have a faster response time and be able to utilize our own infrastructure to monitor our utility equipment in the substation and also in the field. So it’s not only helping the co-op, but it’s also helping our members to provide and prepare for a what we call smart electronics, where we can remotely monitor, manage, and make changes on the fly with our utility equipment. And also eventually add smart meters to our members’ homes so that they can monitor their power consumption on a daily basis and make changes to help them better equip and manage their money flow of their use of the utility.
Mark Freeman: So as we build this fiber ring, we’re also turning up subscribers along the route. So this first phase has about 18,000 homes passed that we’re doing. Cullman Electric has about 45,000 meters. So this is about a third, or a little bit less than that, of the number of homes past that we’re doing. And we’re about to present the next phase to our board for approval. And in fact, we’re pretty confident that that will pass. And once that passes, and we’ll focus mainly on the rural part and where the most need is for those members of Cullman Electric, who don’t have any internet at all. So there’s a large portion of our members that can’t even get internet right now. So that’s really our goal is to improve our infrastructure and then start providing the needs of our community.
Andy Johns: And I’m sure that they will be happy once you guys get them set up and connected and everything. That will be huge for the community. And full disclosure, we have worked with Cullman through most of that in helping them launch Sprout Fiber, and they have been great to work with. A mutually beneficial process there. I wanted to talk a little bit about your session because on this podcast, we have had a lot of people on the regulatory side, the policy side, the CEO types who are overseeing and talking high level rural broadband and challenges nationwide. But as somebody who’s in the trenches every day, you know, on that battle to connect all of rural America, I wanted to get into a little bit about what your discussion was yesterday with that session. Go ahead and touch on some of the highlights, if you don’t mind.
Mark Freeman: Sure. Yeah, it is a great thing to be able to say that we’re helping America and helping rural America by deploying broadband internet. And what we do, kind of, is one of the reasons why I’m doing this job is the benefits and just knowing and talking to people in the community and just hearing, “hey, I’ve never had Internet. And now I’m able to…my kids are able to do homework. And we’re be able to work and watch movies at home that we’ve never been able to do.” And, you know, those are great things. And that’s kind of what keeps us going through all the challenges and difficulties that we have. But yeah, so some of the highlights that we talked about yesterday is with designing. You know, you can plan and prepare for a lot of things. A lot of times things just don’t work out. You’re consulting a lot of times. You might have problems or bad engineering. And just knowing when you see the problem. Like one of the biggest things is that always when I’m talking to new co-ops that are deploying or thinking about deploying broadband internet is hiring somebody that knows fiber, knows the outside plant. Because as a co-op, all the co-op knows about is power. They just know the infrastructure, how to deploy power. But they don’t really understand the hardware and what’s required to design a GPON or a fiber architecture that sits on your utility poles. So having somebody that knows that to when your consultant or your engineering firm is designing something, they can say, “hey, that’s not right. It should be this way.” And if you don’t have that person, you’re literally taking that consultant that engineering firms truth and applying that. You’re putting that into production. So having somebody to vet that out that knows the construction requirements and parameters to be able to see and catch that is a very important thing. And on the flip side of that, is not only from the construction side, but from the network side too. You know having somebody that knows how to deploy the network architecture and infrastructure to actually get the data packets, you know, from the Internet into your central office, out the fiber and then into the home without any delay and getting that done in the most efficient and productive way is very critical. But those are probably the most important things.
Mark Freeman: And like for us, you know, one of the struggles we had is we had some problems with engineering. Actually, luckily, we had one of our contractors catch it and pull us to the side and said, “hey, your design is not per standard, per spec. It needs to be done this way.” And then when we started investigating and looking into it, we realized there is a lot of things wrong that we had to go back and adjust and change. So we actually had to go to our Board and say, “hey, we have to stop our construction and fix these issues.” And, you know, that was a hard thing to do.
Andy Johns: That’s not a fun conversation.
Mark Freeman: That was not a fun conversation when you had to go to your Board and say, “hey, we’re stopping production.” But it’s one of the things where as a co-op, we’re building this for our members, and we want to make sure it’s the best design, best implementation that’s going to last the longest time. We don’t want to just go throw up fiber just to get it to the home. We want to make sure that it’s designed, it’s planned for the next phases for the subscribers at the end of the line.
Mark Freeman: We want to make sure that we have enough fiber to get to the very last member of Cullman Electric, and that wasn’t being done. So we actually had to stop, redesign everything that had been done. And it took us about three to four months of no construction. And it was a hard, hard decision to make. But looking back, it was the right decision to make. You know, just having somebody to give you that insight and to know that is very critical and was a game changer for us. But, you know, we were able to correct it. We now have a very good installation, a very good construction team and engineering firm that’s working on that. And it is up to our standard. You know, one of the things I said was we want to have the best fiber construction in the state of Alabama. I think every co-op probably wants that. We want to make sure that it meets the standards that our utility guys have. So we go above and beyond, especially since the co-op is member-owned. You know, we want to make sure that we’re using their money wisely and developing the best product for our members.
Andy Johns: Definitely. Now, during the time that you guys are doing this, the overall atmosphere, whether it’s in Washington or Montgomery or wherever, rural broadband is a hot topic right now. And everybody’s talking about building infrastructure and building rural broadband. What are some things that from your experience building this network and previous experience, what are some things that people don’t understand about rural broadband and everything that goes into it for someone like yourself?
Mark Freeman: I think the biggest thing with rural broadband is probably just the amount of people that don’t have the internet and how difficult it is to get to those people that don’t have internet. And they’re rural for a reason because it’s hard to get to them. That’s why they’re considered rural America. Because if it wasn’t hard, they would have internet right now if that makes sense. So the difficulty is getting the internet to them because they live in the middle of nowhere. And no other service provider has found it beneficial to take their money or their investment and build an infrastructure to reach those people, or reach those chicken farms or to reach the farmers that are in the middle of nowhere on the end of our power grid. You know, that literally don’t even have cell phone coverage in their homes. And by being the utility company and providing power for them, if you’re getting power from Cullman Electric, you’re going to have the ability to get a one gig symmetrical internet service no matter where you live on our grid.
Andy Johns: That’s pretty remarkable.
Mark Freeman: It’s pretty remarkable. And the beauty is as we deploy this and as more subscribers get on… we’re not here to make a profit. We’re here to get even, and anything that we make, we’re just reinvesting that into the network, into the substations, get better equipment to help lower our other members on the power side. So it’s an evolving company and also product how the utility company with the subsidiary are working together to improve our members and our company. But the best thing, rural is rural for a reason, and that’s because they’re hard to get to. I think that’s the biggest challenge is, you don’t really know how rural it is until you get out there and start driving, you know, and seeing where these people live and how difficult, how far out they are from the city and what it takes to build an infrastructure to get there.
Andy Johns: Like you said, if it was easy, it would have been done already. As you’ve gone through the build here, what are some things — and I think you touched on a couple of them already — but what are some things that surprised you as you were doing this? You know, like you talked about the best laid plans and you guys had to redo a lot of those. But what have been some things, either positive or negative, that have been a surprise to you throughout this process?
Mark Freeman: My goodness. I was missing one of my big topics during the panel that I was on was addresses. Addresses have been the thorn in our side. It’s from the utility side at Cullman Electric, everything was done on a meter number and a map number. So they have a grid and your house is assigned. So if you needed power the utility guys would just send out somebody to this grid number, and it told you how to get there. And they never really had a service address. They had a billing address. So when we deployed Sprout Fiber Internet, you know, GLDS is one of our partners that does our billing system. They’re a great company.
Andy Johns: I think they’re right through the wall in the trade show.
Mark Freeman: So I highly recommend them. They’ve been a phenomenal partner. And one of the reasons that we are successful. They’ve been helping us. One of the things when we’re implementing them, they’re like, “hey, where’s your addresses? You know, you got to have an address in here for somebody to sign up with.” We’re like, what?
Andy Johns: Another uncomfortable conversation.
Mark Freeman: Yeah. So, you know, we get the import out of our utility system, and we realize that there are blanks in the service addresses. So here we are trying to now go back and cross-reference all these billing addresses, map numbers with actual service addresses. It’s just amazing that we can provide a utility service to your house, but have no idea where that service address is. Yes, it’s kind of mind blowing. So Bonnie, she’s who I work with. She’s on the marketing side. She’s has the unfortunate task of correcting all these addresses. And a lot of them, too, they’re just non-serviceable addresses. Like they could be like a sign or a chicken shack, or not chicken shack, but like some type of something is getting power that’s not a residence. You know, so we have to go filter, clean all that. But the biggest thing is just getting good addresses. You know, our addresses didn’t have plus four zip codes. And then when you get the addresses, then you got to create taxes, franchise codes. You know, it’s just a whole different ballgame when you start redeploying voice with data. But that’s one of the things. Again, you don’t really think about until you’re actually implementing it. And it’s like, oh, it might help if we have some good addresses.
Andy Johns: That’s the way less exciting part of the build than rolling trucks out there.
Mark Freeman: For me being on a network side, that’s the last thing I want to do is sit in a meeting all day long and go over tax codes and verifying addresses in a spreadsheet. So that’s not a network guy’s dream day to spend their day. But that’s probably one of the challenges. And one of the other challenges that we’ve been through is just with Covid, just the shortage of hardware and getting equipment has been a challenge. We had to actually delay our project six months because just not being able to get equipment in. So, again, we had to go to the Board again, and that wasn’t a good talk either. But again, we wanted to make sure we were prepared and had everything lined up. We didn’t want to take the chance of getting to that date and not being ready. So that was, again, another good decision that we made, just waiting a little bit longer. But that gave us a little bit longer to… we had some friendlies that we tested for a couple of months just to make sure everything was [inaudible]. So when we did launch…
Andy Johns: Always a good idea.
Mark Freeman: Yes. When we did launch in January, we had a full month of the billing, of internet, voice line. We knew everything worked well. So when we did start that initial launch, everything went very smoothly. We’ve already had burn time in the network. It was a lot smoother process. So, I mean, again, we still — I think any service provider out there right now, especially co-ops, are struggling with the hardware, with the chip shortages right now.
Andy Johns: Right. That’s been a very common theme here this week.
Mark Freeman: Yeah, getting your wireless routers, because it doesn’t matter how many installs you can do. If you don’t have the hardware to put in those homes, I mean, your project can come to a stop and your revenue stops. So, you know, that’s not a board meeting I want to have with my Board to let them know that we are unable to do home installs because we don’t have any equipment. So that’s a challenge that we have, and we’re still dealing with that. But I think everybody’s struggling with that. Proper planning and forecasting is very critical there. You know, I think some of the joys you talked about is just seeing the faces and getting the… Bonnie does a lot of our social media, but just seeing the reviews and the feedback from our members. And I hired on the network team, an installer from another ISP in town. And, you know, he went out and when he first was going out — we sent him out to learn some of the installs — and he had to go do a couple of installs. And he was out in the Fairview area in Alabama, and he did an install for this lady. And he said that when he was leaving, she was hugging him and just almost crying. Like, how happy was that? She said, no internet. He’s like, I’ve been doing this for ten years and I’ve never, ever seen somebody act like this because I just gave them internet, you know? I think that’s when you realize the difference between working for a cooperative who is doing something for the members, then just another ISP. They’re just turning somebody up as another number, another customer. So I think that goes to show how when you have cooperative’s, deploying broadband internet and they’re doing it for their members, they’re local for their members and they’re doing everything to help our members lives better and just how we bend over backwards to provide the best service possible.
Mark Freeman: One of the key words that I use with the team is our goal is to differentiate ourselves and to set ourselves apart. And a way we do that is through service. And if you think about it, one of the things we talked about in that panel was anybody can deploy internet. I mean, you can get internet from anybody. You get a 4G hotspot, and you can do whatever you want, but it’s the service and the quality of that network that’s in the home is how you’re going to differentiate from the competition. You know, when somebody calls up, you’re going to answer the phone. Can you be there in 30 minutes? You know, we’re able to when somebody calls up, if it’s during day we are there. Somebody from Sprout is in their home troubleshooting and replacing equipment. And we take that seriously. And we’re proactively monitoring their networks to make sure everything is well. So just going above and beyond to make sure that our members are getting the best service possible is, I think, one of the ways that we do that and to make sure that our members are getting what they signed up for and what they wanted with Sprout Fiber Internet.
Andy Johns: Last thing for you. If you’ve got somebody — and I know there are plenty of them here at this conference — who’s not as far along as you are, somebody who’s maybe thinking about it or getting into the broadband business. We’ve talked about a number of things here, but what’s a piece of advice, whether it’s something you’ve covered already or something we haven’t gotten to, what’s a piece of advice that you would give to somebody who was thinking about getting into the broadband business, but not there yet?
Mark Freeman: Yeah, I mean, the first thing that I would do is if — I speak more from a cooperative. But if you’re a cooperative or somebody is looking to deploy is to go find another co-op. Somebody who’s in the same line of business as you and go visit and spend time with them. You know, see their process. Who are they partnering with? Who is your consultant? Who’s your engineer? Who does your voice? You know, what equipment do you use? That is instrumental. And if you do use a consultant or a partner, make sure that you get multiple vetting of people that actually use them. You find out who they use. You contact them and call them and get their experience on what their pros and what their cons are with using that consultant, with using the engineering firm, because they are what carries that project. You want to make sure that the investment that you’re putting in, they indeed are able and capable of doing that work.
Mark Freeman: The other thing that I think has been instrumental for Cullman Electric and especially for me is the partners that we have. You know, I mentioned GLDS for my billing system. You know, we use Logicom. They are our voice provider. They provide our voice and also our tier one support. They are instrumental with providing that front line with providing a voice service. They also help us with some tier three networking consulting. So having good partners like them, having good partners like On Trac. On Trac does our home install. So when somebody signs up for Internet, the first person they see is an On Trac employee. So On Trac is the face of Sprout Fiber Internet when they walk in. They’re walking in with polo shirts on professionally dressed. You know, they do an outstanding job. They go out of the way for the customer education. And that’s one of the reasons why we partnered with On Trac is for that professional above and beyond. We’re willing to take on the responsibility of getting a good company like On Trac to come in and do that. But that’s the level of service that our members expect. So, you know, they are the front line of Sprout Fiber Internet. And so getting good partners like them, you getting good partners like Siana, ADTRAN, Walker, Wesco, Calix,getting good partners that you’ve had from other experience. I’ve worked with a lot of these from over the years. I have over 21 years in telecommunications. I’ve worked with a lot of these.
Mark Freeman: But if you don’t have that experience that’s where having that networking guy can help. But really just talk to other co-ops. Talk to each other and find out who they use, who they like, who they don’t like. And don’t just go make decisions on your own. And, you know, a lot of times it is helpful just to bid it out, bidding out the services yourselves and getting the best service for that. So hopefully those are good things. You know, don’t rush too. We were thrown into a lot of time schedules that I really didn’t agree with, but we were just in time crunches. A lot of times we had problems, and I just got thrown in and I just had to fix it. But making sure you give yourself enough time to test deployment. Don’t just let the Board predict your time frame. Make sure you plan and and give enough time. But this is a huge investment, right? You want to make sure it’s smooth, and it all goes well. So just giving ample time to do your testing and vetting and making sure the decisions you’re making are the right ones for your company or your co-op.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Big investment of money, of time, of energy, effort. I mean, everything that goes into it for sure. So, Mark, thank you for joining me.
Mark Freeman: Yeah, thank you. Andy, thanks for the opportunity and glad to be here.
Andy Johns: He is Mark Freeman, Manager of Network Operations with Sprout Fiber with Cullman Electric Cooperative in Alabama. Thanks, Mark. And we’ll talk on the next episode.
Mark Freeman: Thank you, sir.
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.