Even as advanced as the world has gotten in terms of technology, many people still do not have access to the internet. Sometimes, it is just not available in the area; other times, it is not affordable. In this episode, Abhijit Verekar sits down with Mike Caffrey to continue their conversation around this topic. 

Mike discusses the results from his Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) – Proof of Concept, sharing with us its success and the reasons for it. He also talks about who was involved in the project and how the technology has the potential of building a learning environment of the future. Shedding light on the process, he also shares challenges faced along the way, offering insights into what goes into taking on an important project that could help internet accessibility in the Blount County Community.

Read Part I: How Do We Make Internet Access More Equitable?

AV: I have here Mr. Mike Caffrey with some exciting news. We’ve got the results back from our CBRS test pilot. If you recall, we did an episode that talked about us trying to do this. Mike is here to report that it’s successful. Mike, what do you have?

MC: We knew because this technology was already working in production elsewhere around the country. We knew it would work. What we didn’t know when we got into this demo was how it would work in Blount County with our terrain. We’re here on the peaceful side of the Smokies. When you’re walking it or riding a bike through it, it’s a lot hillier than you might imagine. All of those hills and the placement on poles matter when you’re looking for the best coverage. The purpose of this demo was to put two types of technology on the pole, private LTE, or what we call a CBRS, as well as more traditional-looking Wi-Fi using similar technology. Leveraging the fiber and power that we were already putting on the pole to drive this project, and then using Dell Ruckus equipment to do private LTE and Wi-Fi at the same time.

That part was a success. We were able to gather some great data that will help us do some planning. When we overlay that with some of the demographics that we have for the area, we should be able to come up with a model that shows how best to cover this not flat area, and provide the best coverage, the best service for these kids. Some of the results are surprising. We were hoping for something a bit better than 25 down, 3 up. We were seeing 140 down, 80 down. A lot of folks were getting service from their internet service provider better than a hotspot.

AV: Where did we test this? Was it a specific neighborhood in Blount County? How did you go about doing that? 

MC: We wanted to make sure we control all the variables. We had to pick a pole that had the fiber on it that would be easy to modify for the power needs that we had, but also not put us in a bind for data collection. It had to be a bit higher up than what you would normally look for. We’re setting the parameters here, but we’re also looking for data. We were able to find a couple of locations around the county. We did some testing before that and then finally arrived at a single place, a single location to put the equipment up. 

Setting up everything for the first time wasn’t easy, but now that it’s been set up, you can leverage that initial investment in time and technology to scale this out as big as you want. I don’t know how big this one will end up being, but for the infrastructure piece of this, we won’t have to do anything more than tweaks to add a second unit, a 30th unit, and a 50th unit, for example.

AV: The proof of concept was to determine if this idea works in Blount County, and what mix of equipment to use because this can be done in ten different ways. 

MC: It’s all proprietary. It’s not interchangeable. If we were looking to build a gaming computer, you can buy components from anywhere. There is standardization and interchangeability in play. When you talk about private LTE, unfortunately not so much. They all say they’re offering the same service, but it’s not interchangeable components. Once you make a commitment to one type of technology vendor, then you’re making your long-term commitments there as well. 

That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do here at Avèro. We’re trying to discover, is there some part of this that’s fairly generic whereas we build-out, we can save our customers money that way or is this something where we have to stay close to the game plan that the vendor puts out there to make this seamless? Unfortunately, the latter is what we found.

AV: Can you talk a bit about the results and what data you’re using? You’ve mentioned the speeds would be three times?

MC: Yes, and we didn’t expect that at all, speeds and then distance. What we’re expecting also that would be difficult to model is if you’re trying to get into a mobile home or a trailer park. For example, how do you cover that differently than a stick-built home out in a more rural area? That’s the beauty of going at this. It’s not with just one technology private LTE, CBRS, but going out there with traditional Wi-Fi as well. We know what we can do with Wi-Fi. 

The beauty of this though is we’re able to leverage both technologies using the same location to get a broader spectrum of coverage than we otherwise would have gotten had we just went in with one. It’s going to be difficult to get into a mobile home with a metal skin on it. Metal has always been the downfall of anything Wi-Fi-like. With this blended solution, we have a much better chance of success.

AV: You’ve proven that this works in Blount County?

MC: Yes.

AV: Does that mean it works in East Tennessee like in the Greater Knoxville area? 

MC: The thing that I liked about East Tennessee, especially in areas like Greater Knoxville, is it’s flatter than you would imagine. One other old wives’ tale that we can put to rest is if it’s not flat, then go high. Put a taller pole in or something like that. There’s an optimal pole height for your coverage. If it doesn’t work at 30 feet, put a 60-footer in there, it’s not that. When you do your modeling, you’re looking at the different bands of service you’re putting out there. The beauty of a Knox County type of implementation is flatter. You have a lot more poles to choose from. I’m sure there’s a rural segment of Knox County that needs this more than any other. It’s like here in this Blount County modeling, I don’t think we can go into this with any promises. I can’t promise you 100% coverage everywhere in a rural county, but I can promise you that if there is a will, we’ll find a way to make that happen.

Related: How Blount County, TN Quickly Implemented a Virtual Circuit Court System During COVID-19

AV: Let’s talk about who’s involved in this. It’s important to know that we didn’t do this on our own. We had vendors, electric companies, the counties, cities, 17,000 people were involved in giving approvals and finding the money. Who was involved and what is it going to take for a place like Knox County to get this to happen?

MC: Something that we’ve been doing at Avèro from the beginning is helping our clients understand the value of the partnerships we bring to the table. Partnerships that they already buy, but don’t leverage. Partnerships that in this particular case, as you’ll find more often than not, these guys want to step up the plate. They want to help out. We reached out to Dell. We reached out to IRIS-Net. We were already doing a lot of work with Maryville Electric. The City of Maryville, Blount County Government, is what started this whole thing and funded it. There were people that were intimately involved because they knew the technology and we needed their expertise.

There are people on the periphery that wanted to participate because they want to do what we want to do, which is to bridge that digital divide. That’s going to make distance learning impossible for a large segment of the population. It’s hard for me to believe that there are people that think that the internet is available to everyone that wants it or can afford it, and it’s not. 

That article that you shared on LinkedIn where it talks about 100,000 homeless kids in New York City, not the state of New York, that don’t have access to any distance learning alternatives. They’re in the city. There are a lot of buildings there, call that the terrain. Most of us, when we wake up every morning, we aren’t thinking, “What can I do for the less fortunate in my area?” Around Christmas, it’s sad and depressing for a lot of folks.

It’s because a lot of us retreat to that cocoon, our family, our kids, those closest to us. This is a lonely time for people that don’t have the means and the network. When I saw that article that you had shared, I was stunned by a huge number that is left unaccounted for when it comes to distance learning. You and I both know, the next wave of COVID-19 is going to have an even greater impact than any of the prior two. 

Who knows how much longer this is going to go for? Is there going to be a wave after that? What happens when a new strain evolves? We need to be better prepared. I’m proud of our association here in Blount County in East Tennessee, but it feels like elsewhere in the country, we have to learn the same lesson over and over again. That’s sad.

AV: Going back to the composition of your team, you said you had people that participated in this pilot. Maryville Electric, Baron Swafford is a great champion. He chairs MACnet, which is the consortium of cities and counties in East Tennessee that are connected through a fiber-optic network. He was instrumental, but Maryville Electric supplied the poles?

MC: The poles, the power on the pole, the people that made that happen. For example, we’ve got smart guys, but we don’t have a bucket truck. Something as easy as not just choosing the pole but putting it on the right pole. Baron is driving around Blount County, helping to personally select the pole that met the needs for us, and also made it a good trial for the county.

Once he selected that, I knew that he was all in on getting the right people. It’s not like we’re getting any pushback from these people either. We needed some technology help there, some power help, and some physical labor there to make this all come together. We’re talking about the City of Maryville folks.

AV: We’re riding the MACnet fiber. To a layman like me, you’ve got internet coming into the county. It’s riding the MACnet fiber, and you’re hooking up to that fiber through Maryville’s poles. That’s where Maryville Electric was instrumental. 

MC: To get to Blount County school content. The content provided by the schools is not managed by Blount County Government. Finding that network path that finds it from the Chromebook out in the field for testing with multiple Chromebooks, back through that thing that you described, back through the county government’s network, back to schools so to a kid sitting at home, it will look as if he was at school. That’s the magic of it.

AV: We’ll have pictures and diagrams. You mentioned Chromebooks. One thing that’s important to point out is that this trial or this pilot proof of concept was specifically built to reach Chromebooks distributed by the school system. 

MC: That’s where it started because we knew that was the technology of choice here in Blount County and across East Tennessee. Chromebooks are popular. They’re not my favorite, but that’s what everyone is buying. That’s where it started. As this thing evolves, what became more generic for the technology that we reach. 

This becomes more not how do you light up a Chromebook, but how do you light up a device? That’s where we were able to be successful also. Chromebooks that are purchased in the future, Chromebooks with SIM cards that are going to be available in great quantities here in spring of 2021. It’s perfect. We’ll look for that. This technology will work with any technology that has a SIM card. It will work with anything that can use Wi-Fi. It’s for us, the collective, to look for the security and the content filtering that will be provided, and to make sure that we’re using this technology for the right thing, education, and not ESPN Zone for dad.

AV: Who controls the content? Is it the school systems?

MC: It’s the schools.

AV: This technology can be as specific as a set of Chromebooks in a certain neighborhood only can get on it. As a school kid, I have the password. Can I share it with my friends?

MC: On the Wi-Fi side, yes. It can be as open or as closed as that. All it takes is one teacher or one administrator to say, “Here’s the password,” and the whole world is going to know. That is a bit looser for its controls, but still can be controlled. The private LTE option though works the same way as it does your phone in broad strokes. In other words, you’ve got a SIM card in your phone, there’s a tower somewhere that can speak to your SIM card because you paid your phone bill and not to my SIM card because I’m not even on your network. That’s how this technology works.

AV: What’s unique in Blount County and with this BOC is that we have certain arrangements with ISPs. You’ve got one pipe coming in, which is a large pipe that’s supplying the bandwidth for this. It may not be true in other jurisdictions. What do we have to do to get the ISPs to play ball?

MC: On the government side, we’ve got a big redundant pipe. On the school side, we work with Education Networks of America, ENA. They’re as interested in what we’re doing as any of our other partners. When you look at how this proliferates, how it gets locked down, how it’s supported. I look to ENA because they have the last mile to provide the same support as what they provide for the schools. To that end, what do you do if you have dark fiber, but you don’t have the bandwidth? What’s interesting is it doesn’t use that much bandwidth to do what we’re talking about. It’s not like you’re asking 10,000 kids to stream a video at the same time.

That is not what distance learning has been about. In some areas, some teachers are still thinking that the best way to do distance learning is to have a three-hour Zoom meeting with the classroom. That will use up more bandwidth. If this is a true distance learning environment, it’s going to be a mixture of a variety of things. One of them is, “I need to download my homework.” Another one is, “Does it need to be a video Zoom meeting, or does it need to be a conference call? Does Johnny need to have a one-on-one with me and I’m going to help him with his homework?” 

There are a variety of ways to do this. When you do that in that variety of ways, it uses surprisingly little bandwidth. I’m impressed by how little the offerings we already put out there are using. I thought this would be a free for all, and the next thing we know, we’re the Verizon Jr. of Blount County. It’s not been like that at all.

AV: What’s next?

MC: We’re putting some videos together to help get the message out. I’m proud of what our team is doing. I love that our vendors have stepped up to help us out here. I like that what we’ve created is shovel-ready when you look at what CARES funding is all about. There will be another round of CARES funding. I don’t think this is something we keep locked in a box in the backroom waiting for somebody to call Avero and say, “There it is.” I think that’s good. 

This is something we have to share with the world. Those that are open to new ideas are building for their future. CBRS, Wi-Fi, private LTE, I don’t care how you brand it, is building for the learning environment of the future. Colleges have been doing this for decades. It’s about time that we let this bleed down into the elementary school system.

AV: We’ve met some detractors. What are some of their objections? The obvious ones are the guys are trying to sell you a service. The unnamed ISPs of the world are trying to sell you a DSL.

MC: Also, a whole bunch of hotspots.

AV: The thinkers among us have said, “This isn’t going to work.” What were their points of saying, “This isn’t going to work?”

MC: When you first stated the question, immediately what came to mind was there are people out there who don’t believe that we all don’t have the same access to the internet. When you’re trying to tell them that there’s a segment of the population, and in Tennessee, roughly 12%, that can’t afford adequate internet, they don’t believe that. It’s fake news. When you tell them there’s a segment of the population that chooses not to have any internet at all, they’re off the grid. It’s fake news to them. When you tell them that it’s not an adequacy problem, that it’s an affordability problem, that these people can’t afford the internet, “What do you mean, can’t afford?” You don’t have to go too far in history here. 

We mentioned this in the first podcast. We’re saying, “We’re moving to distance learning.” Some of us are breathing a heavy sigh of relief. I’m guessing they’re all kids.Meanwhile, there’s a whole bunch of parents out there that are dependent on school lunch programs that are trying to scramble to figure out, “How do I feed my kids?” It’s not teaching my kids but feeding them. 

There’s a segment that, for the most part, goes unnoticed. It’s our job to put this video together, not just to share the technology, but to share the need. 

It’s like that article that you shared points out, there are some numbers out there that a lot of us would be stunned to hear, even those here in our backyard. I love Blount County because it reaches out to its community in many ways. When I saw the statistics that apply to Blount County, I was equally amazed that there are kids that it’s not, do they not have internet? It’s, do they not have food?

Case Study: How Avèro Helped Blount County, Tennessee Modernize its IT infrastructure

AV: Is Blount considered a rural county, still? For those that are not familiar, it’s the county south of Knox County, west of Sevier County, foothills of the Smoky Mountains, in the Knoxville metropolitan area.

MC: It’s not that rough, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to believe. We mentioned Dell a couple of times. Dell is partnering with us not just with the solution but getting the message out. We reached back to Dell and said, “What are you willing to do to get the message out?” As big as they are, Dell has a group that is dedicated to the digital divide. They are huge but as huge as they are, they recognize there is a group out there that is nameless that doesn’t get a lot of love, that can’t afford to buy Dell stuff. This needs to be addressed. We will be partnering with them on our messaging to make sure that we cross-brand there, that Dell’s executives are able to use Avero’s contacts and our messaging to get those digital divide type of questions answered. We’re going to be cross-branding with them to do the same.

AV: On a global scale, taking it up a notch, this isn’t doable just by people like us or Dell, or simply by the school system. If there was ever a case for a public-private partnership, this is it.

MC: What’s interesting is when you go to the State of Tennessee, which is where we’re most invested in terms of what we know and how the government works, even at the state level. Programs have been in existence for a long time to provide federal money to meet this specific need, but never has that need been made as clear as it is now. 

For example, there’s a county that you and I both know of just down the road and their interpretation of how to meet that need was to get into the broadband business. You’ve got a city-owned utility that is going to be extending internet services for $45, $50 a month, and competing with AT&T and Comcast.

AV: It’s going to cost them $100 a month. 

MC: It’s going to cost somebody a ridiculous amount of money because they’ve got to put hundreds of miles of fiber up on the pole to get started. That’s not what we’re talking about.

AV: That’s an unknown too. It’s glamorous to say that it’s a city-owned utility now, but the cost that goes into it is tremendous. Someone’s going to eat that.

MC: They wouldn’t do that without a healthy portion coming from a federal and state government. To your point, what are the hurdles? One of the great hurdles is people understanding there is a problem out there that needs some attention.

AV: What are some of the technical aspects that someone might say, “This isn’t going to work?” 

MC: You already touched on it. The basic building blocks might not already be there. For example, is there any dark fiber to be leveraged? There’s a chance that that might not be out there. Do you have smart guys that have created a network around the dark fiber that you have on the pole, that are able to see their way to this partnership to make it happen? This took a lot of smart guys to bring together in short order.

AV: In many years. This isn’t something we put together in March 2020. 

MC: It is something that started by the time that funding was approved and everything, which would have been the hard part. By the time the CARES funding was approved, it was late September, mid-October 2020.

AV: The prerequisites, we started putting the foundations in a few years ago, not knowing about the pandemic.

MC: They started many years ago with TVA.

AV: Greg McClain hanging the first fiber. 

MC: That might be one of those things. It’s not a showstopper, it means you’ve got more to do. For example, in our partnership with ENA, we’re looking at mapping out new routes with them because we know the cost of a mile of dark fiber. In that, we’re going to be able to provide multiple ways to get to a student population that isn’t available now. It’s going to take a few months to implement, but the hard part is, first of all, getting the people to recognize that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Second of all, getting those same people to find the funding source. There are multiple sources out there. Some of it is grant money. Some of it is the partnership with utilities or other vendors like IRIS-Net or ENA.

The thing that triggered a lot of public works projects in the last few months is CARES funding. Look around, there’s evidence of this everywhere, especially in state and local government. This would fit into that. Now that our federal government has found this way to extend the deadlines for utilization of that money, you’re going to see more of it. On one hand, you can say, “We missed the boat. We were behind. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. Woe is me.” On the other hand, what we have in front of us is still a great opportunity. The funding is there. You’ve just got to find it. The people are there. You’ve just got to find them. It starts with recognizing whether you have a problem there or not. We would all agree that anywhere you go in Tennessee, you’re going to find this problem. How great that problem is, it’s for the locals in that area to determine that it exists.

AV: For the whole country, 100,000 kids in New York City, well done. Are we going to do part three of this?

MC: We can do this on and on. I love what this company has been able to do and how we’re able to leverage our partnerships. Shout out to all those guys that we mentioned, and a bunch more that we haven’t mentioned for putting up with the stress of getting this all in before December 30, 2020, which was the CARES funding deadline. 

My point is they all had to come together, and they did an awesome job. It wasn’t perfect but we proved it. You can see how everyone cares. Had they thought, “It’s coming up at the end of the year, I’ve got other things to do,” they could have abandoned us along the way and they didn’t.

AV: The names should drop. We would be remiss if we don’t mention Mayor Mitchell, Randy Vineyard, who have taken our ideas and given us the leeway to run with it. To our credit, we haven’t failed them yet. 

MC: Their leadership. When you look on into the future, how this is going to pay. This isn’t one of those band-aid things that everyone else is gravitating to. You have to have real leadership to see that something might require an investment of months and of dollars that might have a payoff sometime in the future. That’s what all of these guys have seen. It’s part of their DNA. I love working with them as a result.

AV: Let’s go forth and spread the word. Thank you.

About Mike Caffrey

Mike Caffrey is the Vice President and Partner for Avèro Infrastructure with more than 22 years of experience solving the puzzles of efficient, secure, and cost-friendly modernization for various public and private sector organizations.

He is the recipient of InterCon 2019’s “Top 50 Tech Leaders” award for significant technology sector contributions. Also, Caffrey has been recognized by the following: National Top 50 Tech Advisors (2019), Small Business of the Year Blount County (2019), and Excellence and Innovation in Government Cyber Security (2020). His vast experience in Information Technology (IT) started as an IT Management Consultant and Senior Storage Specialist for International Business Machines (IBM) in 1998. Prior to becoming a Partner at Avèro, Caffrey was the President for Hosted Government Solutions and Chief Strategist for InfoSystems, Inc and other reputable IT organizations across the southeast. He has also been featured as a panelist with Dell (Virtual Courtrooms – 2020), GFOA (Government Finance Officers Annual Conference 2020), and Tyler Detect (Annual Conference 2020).



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