As CEO of SiFi Networks, Ben Bawtree-Jobson was involved in the formation of the company and continues to direct all aspects of its public-private-partnership offering in the fiber to the premises sector. Ben's experience touches on every facet of FTTP development with core skills residing within the structuring and financing of sustainable fiber infrastructure projects and the strategic formation of framework partner alliances.
Prior to SiFi Networks, Ben established his financial career at Close Brothers in the City of London before joining the Pickstock Group where he was responsible for evaluating new business opportunities and expanding core businesses in the UK and internationally.
According to SiFi's website:
SiFi Networks is North America’s leading privately owned telecom company that is funding, building and operating open access fiber networks across the US, providing freedom of choice and excellent customer service.
Their 10 gig enabled fiber networks deliver digitally connected and sustainable cities while closing the digital divide.
They appear to be growing rapidly, with SiFi FiberCities® active or under construction in California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: And we are live.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to Broadband.money's Ask Me Anything! Session. I'm very excited to welcome Ben Bawtree-Jobson to talk about the business of building fiber optic networks. Ben is the CEO of SiFi Networks, a company that's building privately-funded open access networks across the United States. I'm Sarah Lai Stirland, and I'm the Deputy Editor of this website, Broadband.money.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Broadbrand.money is a platform and a community that's designed to help independent ISPs and land federal grant funding from the various streams that Congress has authorized in the past couple of years. And you can find out more details about these streams from our resources section. And with that out of the way, let's learn more about SiFi Networks. We thought we wanted to have Ben on because we think that he has lots of useful insights to share about building open access fiber networks. After all, he's been at it for... What is it eight years?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, yeah. That's when we started.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yeah. So Ben tell us more about how it's going, what kind of cities do you target? Are there incumbents there? What's the population density? You recently announced that you're going to commit $2 billion to build these open access fiber networks across 30 cities by the end of this year, so how's it going?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah. It's certainly a busy start to the year, which is good, we're tracking okay, it's pretty early days we're only 28 days into the year, so a long way to go to meet those targets, they're certainly ambitious, but achievable. So yeah, it's a really exciting time over the next few years, I think, to be in this industry in general, whether you're doing open access, or closed networks, or supporting, or supplying. Yeah, the fiber optic industry, it's a fantastic time to be in the sector.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So you're in eight states right now, right?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Oh gosh. Yeah, I think that's right. Yeah, we signed up two new cities this week, they're both in California, but yeah, it's a moving feast. [chuckle]
Sarah Lai Stirland: So which cities have you just signed up?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Pico Rivera and Downey in California. So yeah, we're excited to get busy in getting to those markets, and building for every single home and business there too.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So tell us a bit about these cities, what made... Why those cities?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so your first sort of question is there around what types of cities we work with, we look for areas that typically have traditional telco and cable company, but have relatively limited existing fiber footprint in terms of fiber to the home, we look for a good density profile. Ultimately, we're... We at SiFi Networks we're a fiber optic network developer, we fund, build and operate the infrastructure and then we're a neutral operator that then wholesales the access to other ISPs. So for us, it's all about making sure that the infrastructure is incredibly robust capable of delivering all manner of different types of services, and the density profile is a big determinant in being able to drive the economics for us. So density is an important profile. So it's at the moment, certainly it's unlikely you'll find us in rural America, but we'll be more into sort of tier two, tier three cities, who knows maybe a tier one city or two in the future.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So can you give us a sense of how dense a city needs to be?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah. So yes and no, I guess for us, it sort of looks we've got quite a bit of a range, but if we're looking around a 100 feet plus, well, ideally below 100 feet per premise is when we can start to make the economics here work for us so, and that's in terms of construction, footage, so that's the main way we appraise our cities, we actually do a high level design for every single city, we've got an interest in to determine whether it's worth proceeding to the next step.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. So... I'm sorry, I'm not an expert in this area, I have a high level reporter's level view of things, so why wouldn't you try and wire up New York City for example?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Wow. Where do you start?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: There's probably quite a few reasons why we wouldn't target New York and with our model, yeah, there are providers out there doing very well, in Manhattan in particular, but they might be more MDU-focused, and they'll be branching off of existing fiber to reach those buildings. And that I think, there's a lot of good businesses going out there and will continue to be successful in that space, but for us, yeah, when we look at the entirety of a city footprint, which is what we typically do, we're looking at yeah, the competitive landscape as much as the cost per foot of a building in those communities and yeah, the competitive landscape in New York is well, high. [chuckle]
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: It's a highly competitive environment in New York versus a lot of other opportunities so I'm not saying there aren't large suburbs of New York that aren't desperate for better connectivity, but yeah, it's certainly not the entirety of the city. And trying to strike agreements with a city like New York is a little bit different to working with the cities that we work with, and we can get in and understand all the key stakeholders in the city and all the departments very quickly.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, I see, right. So let's back up a bit. I'm sorry, so I should have started off by say, asking you, "Can you please define what open access means to you?"
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, in its purest form, open access is a completely neutral network that's neutrally independently operated and there's zero barriers to entry for ISPs, that's the purest form of open access and everyone can access, everyone's on the same price, and in reality, open access always has a few different dials that are... When it's actually implemented, they are a little bit different to that, but enable a competitive environment. So for us, what it means is that we're enabling a competitive environment on that infrastructure over the long term, and it also means that we're able to deliver multiple different types of services that we're not restricted from providing smart city services or other government services, 4G, 5G connectivity or any other fiber city type applications that you might be wanting to deploy over the network, as well as ensuring there's competition for those services.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: But we have a fairly stringent criteria on the types of ISPs that can come on to the network to participate and deliver their services across the network, so it's not just any ISP, but very well-qualified ISPs that have got a good track record and good management teams, technical capabilities. They are the types of ISPs we want to encourage on.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Does that also mean they're well-capitalized and they're not going to go bust tomorrow?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: We hope so, yes. For the most part, yeah.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So how would you distinguish a fiber city from a more traditional municipality entering the broadband marketplace?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So a SiFi Networks fiber city solution versus others?
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yeah, so like, I don't know, Utopia or maybe what you're doing versus what a municipality might be able to offer?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah. So Utopia is... It's got a lot of great components to it, and inherently, it has a lot of restrictions because it's publicly-funded out of Utah, and so they're fairly constrained, I think, in terms of the footprint of where they can do business in that manner. But they also have a very low cost of capital being a municipality, and they're able to leverage that, but the private sector has some benefits to it in terms of its ability to be fairly nimble in the way that it operates, and we've got a little bit of a different structure on how we actually operate the network ourselves and how we have our relationship with ISPs as well, so we do a little bit more in some areas, a little bit less in others versus Utopia.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I think when you look at municipal broadband in general, it is brilliant for some communities and for others, it just makes little sense. I'm certainly a firm believer that tax-payer dollars should be spent where it's needed and not just as a want. And I think that is where those projects have been most successful as well in those communities where the private sector doesn't go, then certainly why restrict the municipalities from going into those markets and delivering the infrastructure that their community needs. So, there's pros and cons to municipal or PPPs versus what we do. We did, actually SiFi started out as being really focused on PPPs, nearly 100% of what we were looking to do as PPPs, and that's one of those...
Sarah Lai Stirland: That's public-private partnership. Yeah.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So yeah, public-private partnership. And what we were doing there was exactly the same business model where we would fund it, we would own the infrastructure, we would operate that independently and then wholesale access, we initially we'd wholesale it to the municipality, and then we would also bring in the ISPs who in turn would take capacity from the municipality, so they had the fixed cost of delivering operations, and then they had also guaranteed revenues coming through from the ISPs. So it was a really neat solution for municipalities, but ultimately we got lobbied out of, nearly out of existence with every single city that we went to despite the viability of the model. And so in 2017, we pivoted to do, focus 100% on private capital, so yeah, there's not a government dollar that goes in to our ventures.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. I was intrigued, in a discussion with our sister publication, Broadband Breakfast and with Chris Mitchell and GG Son, actually he's going... Hopefully, will be our next FCC Commissioner.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Fingers crossed.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yes. And Chris Mitchell of Mini Networks was talking about open access and how he was hoping that there could be special ISPs that deliver things like telehealth in rural areas that could subsidize the rest of the network. Have you seen this sort of thing in Europe by any chance?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Well, I practice... Whilst I'm currently living in London, our business 100% practices in the US so...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh right, right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Just my accent, we're an American business.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yes. Right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so I can't speak too well to that to be honest. Although I know there are service providers that specialize in niche services. I'm sure some of them provide medical type services. Although obviously, in the UK, in particular, we have a national health service. So, everyone's got healthcare already supplied to them.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. I've been through the system, yes. [laughter]
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so certainly, I'm sure there's merit for it. There could well be providers out there. But I haven't looked into it in too much detail. In the US, yeah, we certainly see that there will be a great market for allowing these specialist service providers onto these networks. But what you need is you need scale. So you need to have enough volume for these service providers to come on and be able to be successful. So the more we build, the more service providers we'll make room for just for their own business models because they'll have the scale to be able to reach enough customers to make their business models work. So it'll become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of its open access choice.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. Is your business model the same in every city? I have a question here that says are all the fiber cities that SiFi is currently building following the same financial structure laid out in Fullerton, California?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yes, yeah.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Is the easy answer to that. I don't have a complex one, sorry.
Sarah Lai Stirland: That's okay. I like easy answers.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so it's... To sort of describe what that is, that's... It's project finance. So we raise capital for each individual city. So any city that meet our KPIs, we have the capital available to deploy into it. So the $2 billion worth of capital for deployment into our projects through this year is not the end of the pot of capital we have essentially an unlimited pot of capital. It's just all about how effective we can be in delivery and getting to as many cities as possible will dictate how many billion we spend and how many millions of homes we get to service with this model.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay, what would you say to any officials who might be watching this now or later, do you have any words of wisdom for evaluating ISPs when they're considering entering a market?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Gosh, yeah. So we spend a lot of time evaluating ISPs. So I guess I can speak to that. But I start off by saying each community has its own unique criteria within it. So seldom is there a case of that one ISP would be the best for every single community out there. You do see differentiation. And then to keep out the open access piece as well, assume ISPs are very different not just in the brand, but in the customer service strategies or the product mix that they implement or some of the niche services they provide. So you go to a farming community. They may have a greater requirement for telemedicine because they're a long way away from the nearest hospital whereas you go to, say, a dense urban area with two hospitals next door, it might be less of a requirement or a younger population. Those indicators might be less of a need or if you've got a community that's very high... Got a very high volume of enterprise sort of class businesses that require that sort of level of service, then you want an ISP that can come in and provide those. So that's also the... Versus a more of a bedroom community that doesn't really have that requirement. So that's why it's really useful to have a blend of ISPs.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: There aren't... There's only really a handful of ISPs in the country that can provide every service that you think you may need. And typically, they're not operating on these infrastructures. They tend to be out there building their own. And I think we know who they are. So what we... That's why we embrace having a competitive or a neutrally operated network, so that you enable and attract different types of service providers in to a community.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So why did you choose this model? Was it just more profitable?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Many will look at it and say it's less profitable. Because you're not taking the retail component of it. You're a wholesaler. So your revenue is actually less in terms of your actual output, your average revenue per user. So actually, in some respects, that's less attractive for some investors, but far more attractive for others. So then it comes down to cost of capital. So it's really just a differentiation. So the differentiation we have is by being very infrastructure-focused and less on the retail component. We're more suited to infrastructure funds and pension funds, insurance companies to invest in, to create more secure, lower risk returns that are very capitally intensive. Whereas other different types of capital, private equity venture capital are looking for a lot higher returns. They require that additional revenue. But they also, as a result, are willing to take more risks. So it just depends where on the risk reward spectrum you are really. And for us and our certain skills and expertise, we're far better suited to working in the infrastructure space.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. So would you foresee any scenario where you would take any federal grant funding?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Well, never say never to anything. But at the moment, it's not on our horizon, mainly because all of the cities that we are working in don't even qualify, frankly...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Because we're not going into what the FCC or what the government mandate as being underserved or unserved. So everywhere, nearly every market that we go to has a telco and has a cable company. And so the cable company instantly, or nearly instantly has the ability to do 100 Meg or more. And so as a result, the latest infrastructure financing bill doesn't really get mixed in...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, sorry about that.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: No worries. Doesn't really get mixed in to our pool of pipeline of cities.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay, so one of our viewers, John Culbertson asks...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I should... Oh, sorry. One thing I would say on that bit...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Sorry, go ahead.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Where we certainly are willing to look at funds is when it's able to come in and help support closing the digital divide. So something that we've established in our own business is our own subsidy for qualifying homes, parts of the community that are a little bit more distressed, and so maybe the gigabit speed or 10 Gig speed Internet that our service providers are providing isn't affordable to them. So it's all well and good building past all of the community. But if some segments of the community still can't afford to take the benefit of the infrastructure, we see that as a massive lost opportunity. And so we try and balance out the scales a little bit there, where we provide a subsidy to support those communities. And I know there's a lot of funds both from government and from philanthropic entities that are looking to also help close that digital divide. So we're always open to funds if it helps us in that endeavor. But yeah, we haven't really utilized anything at the moment beyond our own subsidies.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So someone could possibly use the affordable connectivity benefit to hook up to your service.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yes, yeah.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay, so that would be $30 a month subsidy for a month.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So they'd pay that to the service provider. So they'd be benefiting from a subsidy, we don't benefit from it directly at all. Well, we don't think we benefit from it indirectly either, frankly. But those households may also qualify for additional subsidy through our own FiberCity Aid program. So that's how we're trying to give back to those parts of the community as well.
Sarah Lai Stirland: But if someone else is operating the Internet Service Provider, wouldn't they be doing it, not you guys directly?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Not quite. They'd be... Yeah, exactly, they'd be submitting for the $30. And they'd be the... They'd benefit from the $30 and they'd pass that saving on. But what I'm saying is that that home may also qualify additionally for our own subsidy program.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, I see. Cool.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So who knows, maybe they... I mean, what I'd love to get to is where they can get it for free or practically free. That would be great, when you compound... When you add both our subsidy and government subsidy together. That'd be brilliant.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yeah, it does sound good. [chuckle] So one of our viewers asks, John Culbertson asks, he said that he's actually founded a VC-funded company called Open Access, which has been purchased by Crown Castle. He asks, do you provide dark fiber?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Certainly the short answer is no, we don't really. But in unique sort of one off circumstances, perhaps we could evaluate it. But it isn't our business model to offer dark fiber.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. What other questions does the audience have? You've answered the one about federal grant funding. Go back to the top. Let's see what could be... I've got an interesting question here. What could be done to force cities to be more cooperative with private companies like yours and such in public-private partnerships. So I guess you'd be... The question is really if you were still doing the initial model, what do you think could be done to make municipalities more cooperative? [chuckle]
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Gosh, that's a loaded question. [chuckle] It could take up most of the rest of the time with that answer probably as well. But I think in short, I think a lot of the shortcomings that we had in that endeavor, pre 2017, was confidence in the market and the risk profile to the municipality. So I think there's a really unique period of time for companies that want to go to market with a similar business model to us back then, where you're making this proposal to a municipality. And actually this municipality can benefit from grant funding now. So it doesn't even have to worry about the financial risk. So it's gonna be a crazy time, I think for a municipal broadband, but a really, really exciting one. And I can see the grant funding for some communities being a real game changer in that. But they're going to need really strong private partners to help them in understanding how to deliver it, how to operate it, and potentially how to go to market and actually get their citizens on board although municipalities have obviously a unique stance on being able to do that versus private entities.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. So... Sorry, I had this other question teed up. I have a question here. Right, so another question that an audience member has is what kind of impact if any, I think I asked this to you yesterday actually, what kind of impact does federal funding have on your business model, specifically the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act? What... Does it have any impact on your business?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Not in terms of where we're taking the business, the pipeline of the business, it's wholly unaffected by that, there's an indirect impact and unfortunately it's unlikely to be a positive one, which is the availability of good labour, construction plants and materials and the supply of obviously the key materials and components required to actually build the networks.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: That becoming constrained will yeah, with the influx of capital and new projects that will probably materialise over the next 12 months, we see as a risk to the business' ability to build at the speed that we potentially could. Obviously, we've got a whole host of mitigants and partners to help mitigate that as much as possible but it's still out there as a risk 'cause we just don't know how much will get done and how quickly.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So someone at another conference said that companies are hoarding fiber like toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. Have you stocked up on your fiber?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: [chuckle] Yeah, I had my Weetabix and my cereal this morning. Yeah, we've... I wouldn't say we've stockpiled but we've got a clear line of sight on what we need when we need it, and a good degree of confidence in being able to do that. So we're not concerned in the short term but as I say in 12 months plus, it's incredibly hard to predict at the moment lead times when materials are pushing out week by week, so yeah, there's... We don't know how bad it could get for some parts of the supply chain and it only takes one or two components to be incredibly long lead times before you know you don't have a functioning network, so you need it all to be where you want it when you want it, otherwise you inherently have delays.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Well, are you gonna... Do you think you're gonna be able to find the number of people to install all of these networks?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I do, yes. I think that there is actually a lot of labour available and people looking for work, but it's going to require a lot of training in order to get all the right skillsets into the marketplace. So I believe it's there. I believe there'll be a short-term shortage, and then I believe that the market will catch up and jobs will be readily filled, placements will be filled as training is improved. We're going to be getting actively engaged in the training component ourselves as well actually.
Sarah Lai Stirland: That's really cool. But speaking of the price of everything, I was in the... I just have to get this in, I was just blown away when I was in the hardware store yesterday and the counter had a note on it saying you have to bring a receipt back if you want to return something because the prices are changing so quickly.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, no, it really is yeah, staggering inflation and it's undeniable. Yeah, the price in one month, the price of cement went up 16%.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Wow, gosh. So I also have a bunch of other questions here, so Jase Wilson, our co-founder says, Ben what's your thought...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Hey guys.
Sarah Lai Stirland: [laughter]] Ben, what are your thoughts on open access owner/operator controlling the price of services offered by ISPs on the network?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Personally, I don't like that idea at all. I think it stifles the competitive landscape really. It means you're starting to control the market, I don't know where... How that would be viewed in years to come in terms of regulation or anti-competitive policies, you're not allowing anybody to move the prices, how they proceed, but yeah, I'm not a huge fan of that, I prefer open market free economics than having constrained economics.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Do you think you could have... I'm just wondering as a customer, as a potential customer, I have... I didn't... I probably shouldn't say the name of my Internet service provider, but I'm just wondering could you... I'm really curious about this whole open access, well, it sounds really cool, I'm just wondering if you could have a range of services from like an ad-fueled no privacy network ISP to somewhere where you pay to have no one tracking you, pay lots of money for someone for no one tracking you at all?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, yeah, some of it's... Yeah, the customer that loves being on Instagram is completely free with their life and so they're like yeah, just give me free Internet and you can get all my data and do everything and anything you like, who knows? Yeah, it's a frightening new world and new generations coming up with completely different perspectives on privacy and what it means to them, and I think you could well have environments like that and again, I guess benefit of having neutrally operated networks you could have a service provider like that, one end of the spectrum... Both ends of the spectrum on the same network, and so those of, say, my generation and above that may be a little bit... Wanting to be a bit more private and then the new generation who may be a little bit more free with the privacy, being able to both have their needs catered, and thats's the key really to having a neutrally operated network.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay, speaking of a neutrally operated network, does network neutrality, someone has asked, has the conversation around net neutrality played a role in municipalities choosing to adopt your service is net neutrality add any impact on...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so net neutrality is really about like one step up the chain from us, so we just provide essentially a circuit-based pipe, we don't control constraints sort of prioritize the traffic outside of our network beyond that's really controlled by the ISPs.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So we do have policies in place within our terms and condition that mean they have to be operating with net neutrality philosophies in the way that they manage the traffic, but we don't technically touch that layer.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. How many... Is there an infinite number of ISPs that might be able to serve a city in your network. If I lived in Fullerton, California, or any of these other 30 cities, how much choice would I have?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So it depends sort of on what point of time and the dynamics there are changing as well, and that's fundamentally you get two things: One, our wish is always to be, always to have as much competition on the network as possible as early as possible, whereas private capital markets are the opposite, they want to have as much control over the market as possible, and they want to have as much certainty over their income streams, and they've viewed open competitive networks ultimately mean that you don't have guarantees, and so, certainly three years ago, four years ago, even two years ago, the question was still being had around the table with investors on do people really want fiber, is fiber really the right infrastructure to go on, will people just use Elon Musk's satellites to deliver us our Internet in the future? Those conversations aren't had anymore, or if they are certainly not in front of us, and the consultants have dealt with that in between.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So yeah, the conversation certainly shifted, and as a result, I can see there's definitely gonna be a lot more willingness from private capital markets to support networks that don't have as much revenue certainty, as say we were required to have in our early networks and still our networks now, certainly, but maybe in two, three years more time, you can have more open dynamics earlier on in the lifecycle of the project, but at the moment we have to have quite a lot of certainty in our revenue streams and our projections.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So again, it just goes back to how many customers probably each ISP can get maybe.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so and that depends, again, on the type of ISP. So you see sort of a new age ISP coming up that have got very lean systems, there's some... And are using full automation in all of their processes and so they operate very leanly. And so they don't need to have as many customers in order to reach break even. They operate on slightly high margins as a result of automation, sorry. And whereas other ISPs that may have been around 20 years or so still might have legacy operating system, may have. I'm not saying they all do, but may have legacy operating systems that mean that they are not quite as efficient and so they may require to have more customers available to them than say a new age ISP in order to access out but you're right. That's a key part of it, and it's one of our considerations when we open up a new market is how many ISPs do we think is the right mix for that market on day one?
Sarah Lai Stirland: I see. Okay.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, to make... 'Cause we want all the service providers to be successful.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right, thanks for that. So I have more questions. David Roedick asks, I hope I'm pronouncing the name properly, how many... Oh, sorry, I already asked that question. [laughter]
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I think you have a follow-up there.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Well, maybe it's a different version. How many ISPs do you plan to partner within a single city? So just a plan.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Again, yeah, it's a bit of a function of the size of city, yes. So we do have small cities such as Saratoga Springs in New York, which is only 15000 or 17000 units, where day one, we'll just have a single ISP on that network, but five years, six, etcetera, you may start to bring in other service providers onto the network, whereas you look at Arlington, Texas, that's certainly got space for three or four ISPs, day one to go in and everyone has got a lot of market to go for and be successful in.
Sarah Lai Stirland: It has room for more because it has a denser population. Is that why?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Not a denser population just a larger population. Yeah, sorry, Arlington, Texas is 175,000 units, something like that, so it's...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, the order of magnitude, it's significantly larger, so yeah, there's more homes for the ISPs to go for in order to reach the sort of break-even thresholds.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. Mark Milliman asks I've been a huge proponent of open access for decades. I like the fact that SiFi Networks is using capital markets to build their networks instead of taking government grants. They're increasing rural broadband penetration while providing competition, they are increasing rural broadband penetration while providing competition in those markets too. This is a win-win all around, I guess it's not really a question. It's a comment.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Well, I agree with him.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah. Yes, I agree. If that was a question. Yeah.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. Okay. Will you talk about the role of Smart City benefits available to cities from having a fully fiber city? Yeah, what are the benefits?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so this is a good point about the type of network you build, so fiber optic networks aren't all made equal. And what I mean by that is, typically you think about a closed access network, closed network, where the builder of the network, the owner of the network, is also the ISP on the network. They're building that network to serve the purposes of going out and selling services to retail homes and business. That's their bread and butter business. Whereas in the network that we build, we're building it slightly differently on day one, so we prioritize reliability, resilience in the network because we are building the network to be capable of delivering all services across that network on day one. Our business isn't just focused narrowly on retail services, our infrastructure needs to be capable of deploying 4G, 5G services, Smart City applications, enterprise class services across that same infrastructure.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So Ben let me just stop you there, so give us some examples of what these Smart City applications might be.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, so there's a lot, and there'll be more in the future, as everyone always says. So some of my favorites, just like a few of my favourites, one of them would be the city of Chula Vista, I think has implemented this, there might be some other cities also implementing this where they have... In the city, and this is a reasonably large city, the response time to a 911 call is two minutes in the city. And that's because their first responder is a drone.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh wow.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: So they have a network distributed throughout the city where the drone can get to site and beam live, high definition footage straight back through to the incoming human first responders, the real first responders. And also, so you think about a fire, you could have a multi-storey fire going on, that fire, the footage of that can be sent straight back to the fire chief. He could be controlling it himself from wherever he is in the fire station HQ, and able to instantly report and assess what's happening in the fire so they can prep the teams that are going in to the fire. Same sort of thing with police in any sort of altercation that the police are involved in, the same principle. So you can make the officers on site safer by having eyes everywhere. You're not having to rely on a helicopter, you've just got a much more affordable, more agile drone that's on-site to support them as well. So hopefully it not just helps solve cases, acts as a deterrent, but also helps preserve officers' lives and things like that. That's one of my favorites. I think that's fantastic. And then you... Gunshot triangulation systems throughout cities, the same as they have in schools.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh right, ShotSpotter.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, exactly. So you could instead of having them just focus around schools, which is heartbreaking, you can have it city-wide, use that to help solve crimes as well. High definition cameras, having them more widely dispersed in the cities that want it and I know privacy comes into debate there again but yeah, some will, some won't. Then you've got smart street lights. So smart street lights, so you convert your street light not just to an LED but to a smart street light, that means it's got the sufficient power and communications in it to deploy 4G, 5G cell sites LiDAR sensors that can detect that can get information from Manhole lids for stormwater drain systems...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Wow, that's cool.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: To detect where blockages are in your city, so you can reduce your risk of sewage spills and blockages. You can use it to assess your water systems, you can use the whole of the fiber optic cable itself, the actual strands itself as a detection system for earthquakes, for other types of breaking or traffic incidents and things like that. You can use the vibrations, and there's clever algorithms from a company out there called FiberSense that's really manipulated that technology very well to understand and interpret what those vibrations mean. And if you think about it in California for earthquakes you can... The insurance companies can use that data to help to better assess if your home has been had suffered more damage than perhaps it looks like. And so structural engineers can assess it in more detail than they maybe perhaps otherwise would. It might look okay, but actually it's actually been in a more severely impacted part of the city than otherwise anticipated. And so, all that type of data is really valuable to helping those technologies. And then you can get back down to things that they are less popular, like parking meters, so people can get billed for parking.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. [laughter]
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Or the more popular side of that is that people will know where the parking spaces are, so you can have, see a smarter parking in cities as well.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Well, I hope San Francisco doesn't get their hands on that because they've already got horrible parking...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: [laughter] Yeah.
Sarah Lai Stirland: They've got extremely punitive system going there.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: The barriers to Smart City are not the technology, it's the availability of affordable connectivity. And that's where our type of networks come in because you are amortizing the cost of that infrastructure across multiple different revenue streams. So you can bring down the cost for a municipal data point, connection point to something that actually makes it viable to deploy these sensors to make a business case work for the city 'cause unless it either generates revenue or saves money, they won't be deploying it.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. John Culbertson asks again, how... I don't mean that pejoratively, he's... I'm glad you're participating John, have you looked at the East Coast, particularly in under-served, low-income digital divide locations, there are areas where a couple of incumbents have neglected due to return on investment.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: We've looked pretty much everywhere in the country, so I don't know which cities you're referring to they may be on the list already, who knows.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay, well then, I think I can think of areas that people talk about digital red-lining in certain cities. So how do you deal with that for example?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Well, that's the FiberCity Aid program, so.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, those cities we go to we're saying we'll go past every single member of the community, but then we're also saying that we're gonna make it affordable for those that can't afford it.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh okay, okay, so we have some personal questions, we're drawing on to the end of the hour. So this is the fun part.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Alright.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: How personal? [chuckle]
Sarah Lai Stirland: Don't look so worried.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, yeah, personal questions, oh dear.
Sarah Lai Stirland: [laughter] How did you get into the broadband sphere of the tech industry? In other words, what did you learn from the real estate industry that applies to broadband?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Right, yeah, an interesting question. So initially, when we started the business eight years ago, investments in fiber was viewed as a technology-based investment, which essentially meant looking at the investment time horizons of 5-7 years. I'm gonna take an interesting question and make it boring, sorry. But yeah, so essentially what we viewed was that the asset was incredibly long life, much like a property or a piece of real estate, and it wasn't being treated like that, it was being... Fiber and telecommunications assets were being treated like technology with a 5-7 year lifespan. So we believed, and fortunately, rightly, it turned out to be that the private capital markets weren't assessing this infrastructure correctly, and that fiber was a future-proofed asset that would live for 30, 60, 90 years based actually on...
Sarah Lai Stirland: That's so interesting actually because there's just been a column in the Financial Times about that sort of thing, by Rana Foroohar, I'm not sure if I pronounced the name properly, but there's I wanna read you these lines 'cause it's so great. "I'd argue investors should pay less attention to the metaverse and more to those who are using capital to build out hard assets of the future." So the whole column is about investing in infrastructure, so that's...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: No, that's right.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Interesting to your point.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Metaverse is interesting though.
Sarah Lai Stirland: It is, it is.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I don't know enough about it, don't ask me questions on that.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Alright. Okay. Ben Bawtree-Jobson, what is the most interesting city or state that you've been to in the United States?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: For business or pleasure?
Sarah Lai Stirland: Pleasure.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: For pleasure. Oh gosh, I love Chicago.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Really?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: There's something about it. I just love the atmosphere. I love the architecture. I love the people. It's good fun. Yeah. But...
Sarah Lai Stirland: That's interesting. I went to Northwestern, so I've spent a lot of... It is a great city. It gets very cold though.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, no, it gets freezing, but I don't mind that either. It gives you character if you can walk around in minus 20 degrees. Sorry, well...
Sarah Lai Stirland: That is true. True.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I'm talking Celsius, so.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yes. Okay, universal... I've been given a list of questions to check off, so universal availability of SiFi Networks. Why is that important? Is there...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Well, obviously, I'd love universal availability of what we do, but in reality, there's a lot of people out there building fiber infrastructure at the moment, and I don't think we will get to every home. What I do think is important is universal acceptance of the FiberCity model. Ultimately, where you have it, a neutrally operated, open access model, where that way you're so much more efficient in the way that we are deploying the earth's resources in terms of all the materials in terms of how we're deploying people's time and energy. And then that ultimately means that you're going to get better quality of goods and services to consumers.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: It doesn't make a lot of sense to have three or four infrastructures in the same community trying to provide the same services. That doesn't happen in many other places in the world, in the developed world. So I think the encouragement through political avenues and commercial avenues should be far more towards creating these neutrally operated competitive networks. And whether it's us or whether it's other developers, and we are starting to see other developers now, privately funded developers coming out and advancing our type of model out there, at a slightly earlier stage obviously than us, but it's good to see others coming to the marketplace. We welcome it, we encourage it because it's the right way to do business.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So to sum it up, it's more efficient because you dig once, but you have competition on the network and everyone's happy.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Exactly. You get the best of both.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Actually, it's a quadruple win. The city wins, the consumers win, the ISP wins, and hopefully the investors win as well with a sustainable long-term investment.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. Someone asks, but within a city, do you want universal availability or a fiber hood approach? I'm not sure...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Universal availability.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. Why?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Because a fiber-hood approach ultimately means you're cherry-picking. And we don't advocate for cherry-picking, we think if you cherry-pick a city, you then make it even harder and more challenging for the areas that don't have it today to get it tomorrow.
Sarah Lai Stirland: That's interesting. Okay, question from... Oh, someone just made some point about supply training. Gary Bolton and the team at Fiber Broadband Association have developed a remarkable fiber training program. Everyone so it... [chuckle]
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Get on it. [chuckle]
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yes, get on it.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, publicise it, share it, yeah. Put it on Indeed.com.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. Another question from Jace. Another serious question from Jace, and for both me and you, why do folks with British accents sound so smooth to our American ears? [laughter] I have no idea on how to answer that question.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah. No idea, yeah, particularly.
Sarah Lai Stirland: What do you think?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Probably just Downton Abbey is being too successful.
Sarah Lai Stirland: [chuckle] Right, okay.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: No, I don't know. No idea.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yeah, no idea.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: James Bond set a good example early days or something.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh yes, yes, he did. Although I think the early James Bond probably is banned or cancelled at this point.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, yeah. Not very Me Too friendly.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. Okay, so let's see. Oh, right. Well, you have a very interesting successor next week in terms of our AMAs. So for everyone who's tuned in, please don't forget that we have a Q&A with Vint Cerf on February 11th, and he's a hero to many Internet builders. Do you have any Internet heroes?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Internet heroes? I'm always too young for Internet heroes I think. Yeah, I guess I would have to say that one of our founders would have to be my Internet heroes, he obviously has helped my career immensely. So postgres Harris was the first man in telecoms that I knew, so I guess he'd have to be my Internet hero.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, well, that's cool. Oh, I have a question for you. Could you tell us a bit about your last name Bawtree-Jobson, it's such an interesting name.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Gosh.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Do you know anything... What the origins of it are or...
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Oh, if you go back, it's sort of like Essex land-owners, I think they were fairly big in Colchester and bankers and solicitors, and that's about it. And then the family lost all of its wealth and so now I'm toiling away, trying to build fiber optic networks to get something back.
Sarah Lai Stirland: [laughter] Right, you're toiling away. Okay. In rainy old England and in America, it's really hard swanning around all the different cities around the world.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Yeah, well, I haven't done much swanning around. Yeah, I've been...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Yeah, that true.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: I've been pretty much stuck in the UK for both lockdown and family reasons. So it's...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: It'll be good to get back across. I know the team has been flooding into the US as soon as they're allowed, so some of the UK team, obviously we have all the US staff who were able to travel around a little bit earlier in time than our UK team but yeah, no, it's a fantastic country, I love it. And yeah, can't wait to move back.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So, I have another question here. We've got five minutes. How big is SiFi? How many employees do you have?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: We're growing fairly, fairly quickly at the moment. I'll have to ask HR for the latest headcount, but we're essentially a management and an executive team, so we don't do the construction on the ground ourselves nor the engineering, we hire that out, so I think we're around maybe 50 headcount now. We'll probably be 70 or 80 headcount by the end of the year, something like that.
Sarah Lai Stirland: So where are they all located?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: We're wonderfully remote. We're a business that was remote before the pandemic, and the pandemic hasn't encouraged us to build up a giant central office for a year or change that, change our original view. So yeah, everyone works all over the shop, we've got...
Sarah Lai Stirland: Oh, wow.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Employees in Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, in Arizona, in Colorado, in Massachusetts, yeah, all over the shop. And the UK, South Africa.
Sarah Lai Stirland: But your website says... Doesn't it say New Jersey at the bottom or something?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: New Jersey? Yes, we have someone in New Jersey. Yeah.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. Well, I think that's it. If there's anything else, do you think there's anything else that we haven't covered that you'd like to mention?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: No, I don't think so, just I think there's a lot of great advocates out there for broadband, and it's just a really exciting time, and hopefully everyone can just continue working together, support each other in this community, as we try and close the digital divide as much as we can. And I'm sure some of us in the community will end up being competitors in other places against each other and collaborators in other parts of the country. So yeah, I think there's just gonna be a really exciting time out there. And try and advocate for competition I'd say, wherever you can.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Okay. Well, and to sum everything up, why should a city consider SiFi as opposed to some other big giant telecom company building their network?
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Well, they can probably answer that question themselves probably, a little bit. Essentially, do you want... You're currently in a duopoly today, if you allow just the incumbents to come in and dominate the market that you're in now, excuse me, you'll have a monopoly perhaps, an outright monopoly in the future, whereas by working with companies like SiFi Networks, what you're enabling is long-term competition in the market, which assures you the best in class services and at the best prices, which is going to make your city more attractive to live in, work in and play in.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Right. Okay, well with that, thank you so much Ben Bawtree-Jobson, really enjoyed talking to you.
Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Thank you very much. No, thank you for having me. It's been great.