Access to affordable, high speed or any internet is increasingly seen as a utility across the world. Especially at a time where we’re all forced into our homes, bringing with us our work and even school, having the right internet access is a must. 

In this episode, Abhijit Verekar explores with Mike Caffrey, the Vice President and Partner at Avèro Infrastructure and Avèro Advisors, wi-fi zones, 5G, StarLink, and Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). They break down each of these to help you gain insight into which ones provide the best solution for your needs. Plus, they also talk about the government’s role and how the COVID-19 changed the technological landscape.

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

AV: Mike, welcome to this episode. I know you’ve been busy solving a big problem of access for school kids who have been forced to go home because of COVID. They may not have the resources to not just have high-speed internet, but any internet that they can do homework with and effectively compete with people that are in urban areas with high-speed internet, who won’t have the money. In some cases, people may have money but they don’t have service to any part of town they live in. I want to dig into that a little bit. I know, in your words, you’ve kissed many frogs to find a solution. I know that you’ve arrived at a couple of either interim or we think long-term solutions. Tell us what the problem is and what we can do about that.

MC: You hit the nail on the head. We were asked to look at underserved areas. To paint it with a broad-brush stroke here, it is mostly a rural America problem. 

Everyone has heard of the digital divide – there are people that have access to the internet and digital things and there are people that don’t. The rubber meets the road when you start talking about K-12 education and what options would exist for those kids. As you said, even if they had the resources, the internet doesn’t come to their neighborhood or even their area.

You have those kids also who are on Title 1 Programs. They’re dependent on school systems for getting their meals. If they didn’t have money for meals, did they have money for the internet? There’s adequate internet. The state standard here in Tennessee is for it to be adequate, you need 25 down and 3 up which isn’t a lot. There are tens of thousands of Chromebooks out there that are useless if there’s no internet at home. Chromebooks are issued by the school systems so a kid can do his homework. That kid needs to log in once at the end of the day to get his homework downloaded to his Chromebook, take it home, work on it, and then upload it the next morning or whatever. When he gets back to school, that problem gets much bigger if he never gets to come to school to download the homework or to upload what he’s done.

We called it the Internet Access and Affordability Project not knowing what it would be, but we were also tasked with coming up with short-term and long-term answers. Quickly, we had a short-term answer, and this is going back to March 2020, it was, “how do you provide internet access in public places? What public places might those be?” By the way, (Tennessee is) not unusual that way all over the US. In particular, when we speak to what’s going on in East Tennessee, the county has access to dark fiber, optical fiber, which are useful in getting internet services to locations. The county had access to over 100 miles of dark fiber that we could use for any purpose. The thinking was if we could light up a public area with Wi-Fi that met the Tennessee standard and could be useful for a Chromebook, why wouldn’t we?

We went to the high school and middle school parking lot. I got that idea from the City of Lincoln in Lincoln, Nebraska. We already had our own experience with our library parking lot. When everything was on lockdown, one of the busiest places you might find in little old Blount County was Blount County Public Library parking lot. We counted over 70 cars there at one time. All of them on a device in the cold using the public internet that was available. When the local mall found out, they wanted to help out as well. We have now lit up the interior of the mall with internet service that meets not just the state standard but the school standard so kids with Chromebooks can go to the mall. They can hang out with their friends and do homework together.

That sounds against the grain of what separation that we all are looking forward to but people can go there. They can get their homework done in a safe and comfortable environment. Something that might not happen for some of these kids at home. When we started looking at long-term answers, it got a lot more difficult. A lot of things are into this, not only the technology but funding. Where do you get funding enough to implement solutions that you might read about in some of the more urban areas? While grant funding exists, you have to have those projects in plan stages for four months prior to August for that to be a project worthy of getting grant funding in this fiscal year.

When CRF, CARES funding becomes available, it became very clear that if it wasn’t a shovel-ready project which this wouldn’t have been, we didn’t have anything to spend the money on there either. That didn’t keep us from looking. We focused on a few things, Private LTE and CBRS seemed to jump out. It looked like the most affordable option that’s already in place in other areas around the country. In other words, a technology that’s already been used by school districts to provide a similar service to what we want to do here in East Tennessee, CBRS seemed to check most of those boxes.

AV: What is that? Is that Wi-Fi on steroids or how would you describe that?

MC: A good way to put it is that it’s Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). I’ve heard it likened to that or “Wi-Fi on steroids,” meaning I can put what you could call an access point on top of a pole instead of looking at a 300-yard limitation for that Wi-Fi signal that I could look at one to four-mile limitation. There are a lot of things that go into it. It isn’t exactly like an access point but there’s that. A more simplified version would be thinking back to those old enough CB Radios where I can have a conversation with a truck many miles away.

It might not be crystal clear but I can get digital packets across that I need. Nowadays devices are sophisticated so they don’t deal with a lot of junk on the line, I have to have a clear signal networking-wise to deal with. That being said, I’m only trying to meet a 25 down, 3 up standard. We went to several vendors and what we found was there were differences between them. CBRS with Company A is not equal to CBRS with Company B. Company C says their stuff is CBRS but not exactly. Private LTE can be different and proprietary.

In general, I didn’t care what the technology was, all I cared about was the outcome. The outcome we were looking for here was when you look at that group of folks that we mentioned earlier, those who need access but access isn’t in their neighborhood, those that need something affordable and that’s not available to them either. There’s another small group in there, a group of folks that choose to live off the grid. I don’t know who those people are, I’ve never met them, but when you put those all together and aggregate, you’re looking in rural areas of the country, as much as 30%-plus of all of those households out there have either inadequate or no internet. That is a huge part of the audience.

When you’re trying to target the students who we’re after because we’re looking at it strictly from, how do I provide service for kids that might need it, kids that will be forced to or whose parents want the option of going with a distance learning alternative offered by their school districts? The thought that in a district that has 10,000 kids that I might have to find a way to get to 3,000 to 3,500 of those Chromebooks in this case, that’s a challenge. With standard technologies that we would offer, meaning not CBRS, Private LTE or whatever, you’ve got terrain to consider, the device itself can be a limitation. If I’m trying to get the signal inside the home, the structure of the home is like with any office. I’ve got brick, aluminum studs, or interior space separated by several walls. There are structural things that might make it difficult.

AV: You mentioned CBRS, the upside to that is the range. I’m not going to get to watch Netflix on that but I can download and upload homework.

MC: We wanted to lock it down. It’s citizens’ broadband. We could light up an area and everybody gets instant access to Netflix and anything else on a mobile device. We don’t have unlimited bandwidth to offer so we just wanted to light up specific devices – you have a need at the address 123 Mulberry Lane, we can get to your device because you need it… but at 125 Mulberry Lane, they can afford the internet, they’ve got internet. They don’t need it, so there’s no reason to provide it. We also wanted to filter the content the same way the schools do. Schools won’t let you watch Netflix from your Chromebook.

If that’s a filter that the schools have put in place, then that’s the filter we want to honor also in our deployment. We weren’t looking at providing unlimited public broadband or Wi-Fi. What we’re looking at is providing the service that schools offer, only not at school. Depending on its deployment, CBRS gives you the ability in how we set it up to target that audience. In doing so, if I’m not streaming, and in our case most of the time, likely not, I can service 3,500 students with a modest pipe to get to the internet wherever I collect all this.

RelatedHow Blount County, TN Quickly Implemented a Virtual Circuit Court System During COVID-19

AV: It seems like a no-brainer. Why is it not more widely adopted or did you invent this?

MC: Where I’ve seen it deployed, I felt like, why am I the only one beating the path to this guy’s door? Why aren’t we making big news out of the fact that there’s a school district in Salt Lake City, Utah, that’s been doing this for a better part of a year? I don’t have an answer for that. 

I do know this: depending on the vendor, the deployment will change because each of them seems to be proprietary in their deployment. In other words, I can’t take elements from one implementation and use them. I can’t take Erickson’s components and use them in a Nokia implementation. The other thing that’s interesting is on the product side, you’ve got two segments that are coming together.

The Ericksons, Motorolas, and Nokias are all coming at it from the cellular side of the business so they understand networks and how to provide a boatload of digital content to a massive audience. They’re coming up from that and that is an expensive proposition, but then you’ve got this growing segment where they’re coming at it from the consumer Wi-Fi space. The small mid-range business would know these companies and they’re coming at it from a more affordable range. At that end of the spectrum, you’re talking about tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands for a deployment that are at the other side of the range there, you could spend three-to-five times that number and have a minimal deployment with one of the big guys.

They offer two different things. Affordability is all in the eyes of the implementer. What were you trying to do? Were you trying to light up a region with broadband or in our case, were you trying to reach 3,500 students with a minimal amount of service? There are reasons why you would go with more expensive Nokia-Motorola solutions, and there are reasons why you would want to stay at the opposite end of the scale and go with a much cheaper Dell Ruckus solution.

AV: In terms of pre-requisites, is it a certain size of the community that is more adaptable to CBRS with some fiber footprint? What does the community need for it to go forward?

MC: When I’m looking at this, I was also thinking, why now? It’s not just COVID-driven. When you look at funding sources, the restrictions that used to be in a place that would have driven us towards a certain solution are no longer in place there, that’s what’s opened the door for us to look at CBRS-like solutions as alternatives. In other words, if I’m going to spend $2 million to get to 500 students or 5,000 students if I have the money and I’m not spending my own what I’ve collected from my own tax base and that alone, it’s affordable. The other thing is when you look at funds available for digital deployments, every state has funds that have been available.

Until COVID-19 came along, that money was spent on deployments that look like traditional broadband. In other words, I’m going to put something pole-to-pole and I’m going to provide a broadband service with the triple play option so you’ve got your phone, TV, and digital content available. That’s your traditional offering. When you look at where the federal money has been placed for the states to disseminate, that’s what everyone thought. There’s money out there for the City of Podunk, Tennessee to come up with their own utility.

COVID-19 has forced us to think differently but opening up funding like that for us to spend to target students, in particular, I’ve got a number of avenues to go to, not only CRF funding but grant funding for schools, from the state for digital. I’ve got a variety of options to pay for that. Two million dollars now isn’t that big a number. You can cover a lot of territory with CBRS in a proper deployment and much cheaper than that same deployment had we gone with a more traditional wired coverage.

AV: We’re going to do a pilot. Let’s talk about that. We’ve done Wi-Fi deployments. For those that can come to the mall and high school parking lots, they can get their homework up and down. The next step is to do a limited rollout of CBRS. Tell me what you’re going to do with them.

MC: This is exciting because we already know the technology works. What we need to do is demonstrate for our elected officials and government leadership how this technology works and could work for these disadvantaged students. We’re going to do a two-week proof of concept. We got some funds together to allow us to deploy in such a way that the product that is brought in for the proof of concept stays on the pole. If the county decides to roll out in production later on or early 2021, that would be the beginning. Any appliances, virtual machines, the software itself that’s necessary for making it go, everything stays. We can even play with it a bit further after this official proof of concept to gain more experience.

The point of this is in my mind, that’s a giant leap forward. A small government does not get involved in technology that is, for our intents and purposes, a year and a half old. The technology has been out there a while. It is in this form that’s available to us. It’s been out there, just not a lot. Stuff that governments buy would be five-year-old technology. Something more stable, tried and true. To me, this is showing how great a need there is and how strong a desire there is to cross that digital divide and reach out to a tax base. Let’s face it, from a digital point of view, that has been ignored.

AV: That’s a good point because none of these things happen even to get a proof of concept in action. You could be talking about this for months and we’re fortunate that we have leaders here that can grasp the concept. What outcomes are you looking for in this two-week rollout?

MC: I want to bring out different advantages- of Chromebooks. We’re going to have a number of our folks, folks on the utility side or people that manage the utility, not the executives but the guys that are on the pole working on the electric side. We get those guys involved. We got our guys involved from putting the fiber up or fusing us into the existing network. We’ve got our architects involved, and then we got manufacturer guys involved in a large contingent from there. Some of us are there to learn but the biggest contingent from the manufacturer is to show us how it’s done. My expectation, other than elected officials seeing it for the first time how it works, if you want to touch it, you can touch it, this should be a non-event.

We are not implementing a technology that is new. We’re implementing technology that’s been implemented elsewhere, but it is new to us. When those guys show up for the POC, there should be no surprises. During this period of POC and while we have these engineers on hand, we want to measure in this terrain and this particular deployment, what coverage can we get? Can I get four miles or can I only get one? From there, I should be able to model. Do I need 40 antennas or do I need 10?

We should be able to come up with something where if this was to scale, if you were to say, “Avèro, this looks like something we want to invest in long-term.” We could come back to them and say, “It costs exactly this many dollars and cents over this period of time, and this is the coverage you’re going to get.” Nothing out there is going to give you 100% coverage. I don’t care what anyone says, especially if you’re near the terrain. If it’s flat with no trees and everyone’s living in canvas tents out in the wild, I’m sure we can come close to 100% there, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

This will be a great test for that technology. We have mountains, trees, and people that live miles away from the nearest fiber. This will be exciting. I’m not expecting any surprises there but I’m hopeful that the government leadership is impressed enough with what we’re able to put up, that we can get to planning for where this goes. Pandemics are followed by an endemic. This is not going away anytime soon. We need to plan for the long haul. I’m sure kids aren’t going to take a three-year break from education. If they are, that’s not the place I want to live. Sixth grade was a good year.

AV: What other competing technologies that are out there that are being discussed in other cities or groups? You’re a part of eKnox. Are they considering this and if not, what are they considering in line with this?

MC: We talk about this and other technologies. There’s a group out there that thinks 5G is going to save us. What we’ve been talking about for the last couple of years before 5G was even real is that 5G is a story that you get to tell in urban areas. In cities, 5G is not a story we get to tell out in the country. While 5G could work in these deployments, it’s an expensive way to get the same result. Private LTE has been kicked about, and similar in design and function. Can it be done to get the same coverage model for about the same money? Perhaps, but when you mentioned the task force that we participate in, it’s difficult as you know when you look at three or four different options to choose one. Not choosing, in my mind, it’s worse than choosing poorly. We haven’t learned anything from not choosing. If you chose poorly, we would know now what not to do next.

AV: You and I are big fans of imperfect action.

MC: It’s true. Perfect kill is good consistently when we can’t live in a world that is more than adequate.

AV: What about StarLink? Elon Musk is sending 3,000 satellites.

MC: I love that guy but that’s the other thing. I’m gearing up for something that we can deploy quickly because the need is now. It frustrates me when we’re sitting in meetings and we’re talking about things or even if we had the money now that we’re ready to move forward to deployment, that isn’t going to happen for one or two years. What I like about technology, tried and true, is even if it’s the most expensive form and not the best, CBRS, we can do that right away.

AV: You are doing it.

MC: We can talk about the future, StarLink, and all these other wonderful technologies that are out there. They will be here, but will they be here in a meaningful timeframe for a kid that’s a fourth-grader now. Will they be here in time for that kid? The answer is no.

AV: So say your CBRS trial goes well. You can collect more data, you have the tools, and then one of the school systems says, “Deploy and reach our 30,000 students in the county.” What does that then look like? Are you putting in antennas on light poles in different neighborhoods? Regardless of where these kids live, they can get access to what the school sanctions. They say, “Don’t let them have Netflix but they can have YouTube.” The school district, the county, or the utility, they control what gets consumed.

MC: Let’s go through that scenario. The limiting factor besides having the experience of being through the POC. The limiting factor is ordering a product. Everything else that we here at Avèro do with the utility is measured in minutes and hours. The time it takes to get delivery here with all the toys we need to assemble, I always think of it as two weeks. We can prep and pull that in but this is about manpower, devices, and how quickly can you get those two things in a particular location.

AV: The applications go way beyond school kids, the fifth utility comes up a lot. We talked to a couple of utility directors, and they didn’t want anything to do with it. It’s coming to a point where it’s not going to be an option. Could this be a solution for them to say, “We can offer this?”

MC: Absolutely. However, there are a lot of little things that are into it. Let’s talk about the service itself. Let’s not talk about what the TVA’s regulations are in getting into this business. It can be done. Can it be offered as a fifth utility? Absolutely, but in my mind, at the point in time where you start charging, where people pay for this service, there comes an expectation of a service level. Is it our intent to provide a call center or help desk type solution? What break-fix support are we going to offer? I can tell you in its simplest form, where we are now is we’re offering simple break-fixes.

If you have problems with your Chromebook to get into the content, I can see from the tools we have that are monitoring the network. I can see if I’ve got a device active or not on pole number 396. If it’s not, I send a guy out there with the new box, replace the old one, lights it up, test it, “Are we good? Yes, we’re good.” If the student still has a problem, the number you would have called for support for your Chromebook is the number you still call now. We’re not going to introduce another support element in this deployment. Those other deployments that we’re talking about for public safety, for other reasons that you might want to reach a device or car anywhere. Those things are now available at a fraction of the cost because I didn’t have to come that last mile to get to them. Even better, I can be mobile now. I can be traveling down the road without any ties to infrastructure and I can get the same service. It’s much cheaper.

AV: What do you think? Are you coming to present the findings and the results of this soon?

MC: I’m excited and I know you are too. It isn’t often that we in IT get to meet a problem head-on and deliver with near 100% assurance. This is one of those. It feels like this whole thing has come together and it’s taken companies like ours with the unique set of services that we offer. It’s all coming together here. It’s the right opportunity for a company like us to meet it. I love that.

AV: If people want to look up when this has been successful, what are some examples?

MC: What anyone could do is I would google CBRS, schools, Private LTE, you’ll see all stories out there of where people have been successful. A little history. If you want to do Citizens Broadband Radio, Google that and you’ll see how the Navy has been using it for a long time for their ships that are coming into port. This isn’t new and that’s what we like about it. This isn’t StarLink. This is something that’s been around for decades but has now been deployed.

AV: It’s like you’re telling me fire exists and we’re going to use it. Other people are going to use blowtorches, butane, this and that.

MC: My POC is I’m going to bring the fire to you. We’re going to cook some hamburgers and hotdogs. You’re going to love the taste of it and then you’re going to say, “We need more of that.” What else is there to show you but how that technology works. It’s that simple.

Read Part II: How Blount County is Making Internet Access More Affordable

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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