Deborah co-founded Althea in 2018, where she served as chief operating officer until 2020, when she began working as the CEO.
She has helped to find creative solutions for rural Oregonians in search broadband, through successful, holistic partnerships in the region.
Drew Clark: Good afternoon, welcome to the broadband.money, Ask Me Anything! I'm Drew Clark for Broadband Breakfast. I'm here with Deborah Simpier. I hope I pronounced that correct, Deborah. Hello and greetings.
Deborah Simpier: Thank you so much for having me today on this. I'm really excited to talk with everybody and answer the questions.
Drew: Well, Deborah, we've obviously known each other for some time, and I've always thought of you as this incredible visionary in tech and telecom, and you're doing some amazing things at Althea networks. Just tell us just a little bit about how you would describe what Althea networks is to the lay person.
Deborah: So Althea is a new way of buying and selling the internet, that instead of a big monopoly owning all of the infrastructure and doing all of the service, many different people can participate and own different parts of the hardware. And then the service layer, the folks that come in and install internet to your home and take care of things, that can be local and users can have choice over how they want to participate in the internet or how they wanna buy and sell it.
Drew: So is it an ISP? Would you describe it as... And again, our listeners are familiar with some of the differences between a wholesale or open access ISP and a non-retail ISP, but would you even characterize it as an ISP or is it something besides that?
Deborah: So that's a great question, and it can be a little bit complex, but the way that we look at it is almost like the Intel Inside. So Althea is the technology and the platform that empowers your local ISP to deliver internet in this way. So much the same as you might have a Dell computer that has an Intel chip inside, or you may have a Linux distro, we have lots of different Linux operating systems operate on different computers. Or you might have a Red Hat company that uses Linux for its business platform.
Drew: Okay, keep going. This is great. Right, so what's the Intel and what's the non-Intel in that analogy, Debra.
Deborah: Right. So Althea is all that magic underneath the hood of your internet, so it's a routing protocol that is agile and dynamic they call it SDN or software-defined network stack, so it's always gonna try to route out to the internet, so if one of your nodes in the network goes down, or one of those routers all the way back to the internet exchange, it'll route back through. It's also one of the other really cool things about what we do is we let users choose if they prefer a cost-effective route or a higher performance route through the internet, and then the routing protocol of moves your pockets to the internet based on that. So you have the choice kind of shifts, that kind of power dynamics from a rental market where you're paying to just have a subscription access to your choice of how you receive the internet.
Drew: I definitely wanna come back to that choice of cost-effective versus higher performance, but let's still just make sure we're understanding our term. So is this wireless, is this on a wired component? Where can I use Althea's magic under the hood, Intel Inside model here?
Deborah: Yeah, no, that's a great question. So we also sometimes refer to them as broadband legos, right? So basically, that protocol, that platform is a toolkit for people to build or to run their... Operate their networks with, so they can utilize this with a fixed wireless network, or now LTE or fiber or a mix of any of that kind of variety, so it's very modular kind of mix and match, like built-in network that fits for your community.
Drew: So let's say I live in rural Oregon and I'm in an area that I can use this. What do I need to do? Kind of like, what technologies do I need? And what knowledge do I need to get up and running on Althea?
Deborah: Yeah, that's a great question. So basically, it's gonna feel very similar to how you would normally interact with your ISP, so all of the kind of secret sauces underneath the hood. I always say this is a bit like, what if you had to learn TCP/IP in order to use Chrome? Well, of course, you wouldn't have to. TCP/IP is pretty great stuff. It's everywhere. So what would happen is that your local provider who's servicing in Althea network is who you would call, they come and install just a normal, whether that's a coax, fiber or a radio antenna on your roof, and then in your home would be an Althea router. And then that's where you would... I mean, this is gonna be a pre-paid system, I'm sure we'll dive into how that works. But you just load your router every month as you go along, and what happens behind the scenes is the router pays your local provider that you called, and then it also pays everybody in the upstream who's providing that connectivity.
Drew: Yeah, no, absolutely. And so how did you stumble... How did you and your co-founders stumble upon this model, both the mix and match Lego blocks piece of it, but also the decentralized piece of it?
Deborah: Yeah, and I think that's a really important piece because Althea really grew out of that problem statement. We didn't set up the right word one day and said, okay, well, you know let's make a cool thing, and let's see where it fits. No, all along since beginning when we started, we were working on the problem in rural Oregon, actually, this is where I live, and how do we solve this problem? And why despite the millions of dollars of grant money in these communities, were they not able to give connectivity that people could afford or use, and then why you would come in with some fiber or wireless solution, and then two years later you'd be back or even less than that at that same 1-Meg. So we really started in the community and iterated, the solution has evolved. Now we're very focused on LTE because that's what people needed, and we have a really tight feedback loop with actual people. [laughter]
Deborah: That had used the networks, and we've grown and operate the network. So we built out a whole management layer, we call it operator tools, and that has managed routers, we can reset people's Wi-Fi passwords, we can see the ping, the latency, and have a good understanding of how people are experiencing it. So what you'll see from Althea all along is we built these tools for people to use, it's been very human-centric all along.
Drew: Well, I think one of the things that brought us together originally when I first learned about you is we published a piece of yours on broadband breakfast, Big telecom isn't the answer to bridging the digital divide, and you've been kind of on this theme of local, local. And you've just reiterated that in this kind of statement about, you've actually gotten to know... So why is that a kind of a fundamental truth, Deborah? Why are like the big behemoths not able to crack the code the way smaller, whether it's Rural Electric Co-ops or decentralized entities like Althea? Why is it that you can get into that local groove when bigger entities can't?
Deborah: Yeah, and I think this needs a little bit of context here too, 'cause it's really about systems. Comcast isn't evil. It might feel like that sometimes, but they're not. Neither is Verizon or AT&T. These guys aren't out to get us. Why does this keep not really performing very well? But it's that the systems are kind of fundamentally misaligned. When you're buying something on a subscription, like the way they were kind of locked in right now, think about it like if you were buying a banana subscription, right? You go down to the grocery store, you get a banana, a subscription every month. The grocer's probably not gonna give you the best bananas, maybe he's gonna slip in some spotty ones. [laughter] Not gonna be great, but that's just because the incentives aren't matching. They're not aligned, and there's this sort of locked in silo-ness. It's very inefficient to build, for AT&T to have to build a fiber cable to your home and Verizon and CenturyLink. That's extremely capital inefficient and certainly magnitudes more as you get more rural and there's less population density building one bespoke infrastructure for each carrier becomes really untenable. So what we really did is build and I think the local systems do this as well. They build bespoke, kind of like a Lego-d system.
Deborah: That really makes everybody aligned, and so I think that's fundamentally that's what it's about. Better system design. Systems that we build in turn shape us.
Drew: So I want to get into some aspects of the business model of Althea and... But actually sorry. Before I do that, we've had a number of great technology innovators on this show, Jase Wilson, our CEO mentioned or had a session with Vint Cerf. And they really drilled into TCP/IP and why that's so important. Why that's so significant? And you've mentioned that here and what are... And what we haven't mentioned yet is kind of the Blockchain piece of it. Another building block of technology, of decentralized technology. Tell us just a little bit about the kind of Blockchain meets broadband. What is it that attracted you to Blockchain components and how they fit together with the broadband components?
Deborah: Yeah, and this might also need a little bit of context too, because I think it's important to realize that when people are using and paying for their internet, they're doing so with stablecoins, so it's essentially a digital version of the dollar. So all of these things were composable micro-fractions of a dollar as opposed to some of the... Some people have approached this by giving people kind of incentives in a speculative token for putting a hotspot up or something like that. So this is not what we are doing, this is a platform for composable micro-transactions, because if you think about in the future, you're not gonna be pulling out your credit card every time you need to do something. Well a lot of our transactions today are super manual or we send an invoice and then something happens, but in the future, things are gonna be sort of automatically transacted as that... As the track carrying all the grain comes in to load up the silo. The silo sees that it's filled and remits that kind of auto-transaction. You see this now with how toll roads have changed. You just drive.
Deborah: Remember how we used to all have to stop at the toll road and then get our card out or our cash... And then they'd only take cash. And how inefficient that was? Well, of course, they kept cameras, now they see your car come through, they auto charge you. So imagine if you have a wallet that's really interoperable and it has your tokens in there, your dollars in your car or in your phone, and in your... Then you... And if you're producing, let's say electricity back to the grid or your car becomes a hotspot, maybe you earn some as well. So what it gives us with blockchain is really that ability to do one, peer-to-peer transactions, and it also gives us that really amazing composability which is a big part of what's gonna be in the future.
Drew: Great, great. No, that's so awesome. And that's a great analogy to the toll booths. And boy, wasn't it a hassle for the people who stopped, and I was one of those people who stopped and couldn't... I didn't have any cash with me. I'm like a non-cash user before that was hip, and you're absolutely right, it's all become... Because we've adopted these technologies, they've become general purpose technologies for having processors in our cars. And keeping with this Friday afternoon theme, I have my Birch Beer here. Okay. There's actually a podcast called Beer and Broadband, which I've been on, so this is not that. But hey, it's Friday afternoon. We're practicing for it. So Deborah, I wanna talk about the pay-as-you-go model here, right? And I'm gonna do something we don't always do, I'm gonna just share my screen here. So this is from your page, this is the Althea FAQ, right?
Drew: And I'll pop this on the page for this event so people can see it. But what I'm showing here is how can I participate in the Althea network. And so you've got these categories here of commercial building owner, middle mile operator, capital provider, local technicians, and labor. And also I guess the network itself, could you just kind of walk the average user through, what are these numbers all about and how... What do I get from participating in the Althea network? Are you saying I can get paid instead of paying you to get broadband?
Deborah: Right. Okay. So a couple of clarifying things here. So one is the user experience is you get a text message when your balance is low. Saying "Hey, you should put some more money on your router or your account." You go to my.althea.net, you pop in your phone number, whip out, if you have a card, add in more money. And then for you, as you use the internet or as time goes by then the balance gets depleted or if you're one of these participating entities, what would happen is you just get paid into that same wallet. Just, but it's all automatically. And you can print a nice little CSV report and see how much money you've made, or... It's very similar to the concept of if you have solar panels on your roof and you are adding energy back into the grid, then you would have a deduction off of your biller in some cases, get paid extra revenue.
Deborah: So that's... The concept behind that is very similar. And then the other thing I wanna say is that these are infrastructure platforms. So there's a coordination effort that that local technician and labor, your local kind of entity that's providing the customer service layer in your area is gonna help coordinate you on. So you don't wanna just kind of throw up a crazy radio [chuckle] on your roof and it's not so great and it's gonna unplug it.
Deborah: No, I mean, it's all a very coordinated system but... So let's say you call up your local like for example, we have one of these networks at Enfield, North Carolina and there it's run by a company called Wave 7. So you call up Wave 7, they get you connected with the router or and in some cases, they had a church that participates by hosting a small tower and some radio equipment.
Deborah: So they coordinated with the church and the church gets a few cents per gigabyte. And then also is able to provide connectivity further out into the network. And so that all kind of happens automatically once they put that 55 in the router.
Drew: Cool. Cool. And can you speak to these different roles provider relay, network operator, network operations center? What is a relay provider? Is that kind of putting a tower up or how does that work?
Deborah: Yeah. So let's go back to the middle mile provider, that's a wholesale connection. So oftentimes we'll have a relationship, like for example, we are partnered with Hub Advanced Networks in Puerto Rico. So they have Althea instance and they charge a few cents or whatever for the transiting out to the rest of the internet. So that local connection, which is called the gateway they would be getting kind of part of that revenue share to their access like a relay, they connect into that network and then extend it to the last mile. And then the church is an example of a relay, maybe they are hosting a tower with a few radios.
Drew: Got it.
Deborah: Now a couple of things to remember too about relays is that oftentimes they're not having to provide capital upfront for that. And they're really just sort of doing passive hosting. They also don't typically have to maintain any of their equipment, that local provider is gonna do that as well.
Drew: We have some good questions here, and let me kind of stop the share and go to some of our questions here. So this is from Diane Garcia, would you say Althea net is like network orchestration, making it vendor agnostic, creating an intent-based network? What's your reaction to that from Diane?
Deborah: Yeah. I think there's a lot of... I think there's a lot of similarities to that. It's really meant to be so that anyone can, so the smaller providers can come in and run the network and interconnect and we've made a lot of the tooling around making it easy for example, a tribe could use it and build a sovereign type network with it. So I think that rings true.
Drew: Tribes, talk more about that. We, last week we had Joe Valandra on Ask Me Anything! And there's a lot going on with, and broadband got money is working a lot with a lot of tribes right now. What kind of projects have you got going with tribal communities, Deborah?
Deborah: So, yeah, so I think it's kind of twofold. One, we work a lot on the... We recognize the need for capacity building 'cause even a lot of decision making from tribal councils and things like that kind of comes with that needing to understand the way that pieces fit together. So we worked with George Mason and People-centered internet to start the tribal resource center. And so all that's up and running. And we participate in the tribal broadband bootcamps, which are also a super great really an excellent example of getting people together and kind of learning in an intensive environment. And then the other piece of what we did is, which I'm really excited about, is we made LTE more accessible.
Deborah: So tribes have 2.5 gigahertz, just Band 41 that became available to them back in what, 2020? Is that right? But there's two problems with LTE for our smaller operators, it was really expensive to get a core and the radios and everything else. And the second problem was it was really hard to understand. So what Althea has been doing is really focusing on democratizing and solving those two pain points. Since we actually embedded the EPC into a really... That's the core part of the network.
Drew: What is an EPC?
Deborah: Evolved Packet Core. It's the core piece of the logical network of a SN based network. And it's... We actually embedded it into the home router. So this is one thing you'll see with any kind of Althea network. There's no dead ends. You'll never find... So in traditional legacy types of networks, you build a fiber and that's it, you're done. You can connect the ENB, do smart... Which is the LTE radio to smart ag or if you're a tribe, you connect that in. You can do fire cameras and smart ag or whatever else that you wanna do or smart cities work or even connect that network and extend to more broadband. But what we wanted was an extremely lightweight plug and play. And that's what we built with what we called Key LTE.
Drew: Okay. Okay. We have another question here from Jace Wilson, "Hi, Deborah. Does Althea still use blockchain?" Okay. Yes. You are using blockchain. "How does it compare to Helium project?" And here I'm gonna show my ignorance on various blockchain things. Tell me what Helium is and what Althea's use of blockchain is different from Helium.
Deborah: Yeah, so Helium gives a speculative token and it's kind of that hotspot so they give you a four... And there's no coordination, it's just simply you put a radio on a shelf or on a whatever and they pay you a speculative token for that. So we think there's a pretty wide chasm between a coordinated and performant network and a bunch of radios. Similar to sometimes I say, "Okay. Well, if you think about delivering water systems, you don't typically take your hose and then just like, you know, uncoil it, put it in the street and turn it on." That's the very inefficient water delivery system. And I wouldn't pay you for that by the way either. You wouldn't pay someone a speculative token for spraying water into the road hoping that someone would catch it. So that's kinda how I see the kind of these more bandwidth incentive programs. This are really just sort of meant to... They're uncoordinated and they're probably not efficient at building performant networks that people need to use.
Deborah: So Althea, what we do with the blockchain layer is it really just lets us do that composable piece with stable coins. So you think then with more like a traditional type of internet where you have pipes, essentially you do have radio but there's an end user on that and then we're moving that revenue around. That's why we call it a revenue share 'cause it's these micro-transactions that are moving through the network. Right now we are on the XFI network, which is just a stablecoin platform. So we can move portions of digital dollars around. And we spent a bit of the last couple of years building an interoperable bridge that's also decentralised and secure between... So that we can actually move over to our own Althea blockchain. So that will be coming here soon as well.
Drew: Wow. Your own crypto coin?
Deborah: Well, think about it like our own blockchain. And I think there's certainly that aspect of it, but it's again, we wanna... It's a platform for... And actually other people will be able to build other tokens on it if they want or build other composable systems like a decentralised electrical grid or something like that on top of this platform.
Drew: Well, I think you're, again, you've got these great analogies, Deborah. Like the water hose, the garden hose, you wouldn't kind of use that as a delivery system for water. And it's been years since I at least have thought about this, but there was this movement for community radios and Wi-Fi a decade, a decade and a half ago. And again, we haven't heard much about that because I guess the performance was never really there, right?
Deborah: Yeah. We thought the same thing. So back in 2018, we were like, "Okay, we'll just have people put up their own radios and you know, kind of do this, you know, Wi-Fi sharing." We thought about that a bit too. But yeah again, I think what happens is that there's a big chasm between a performant network that's something that has those three nines of uptime. And it's a big lift for people to do a lot of the construction in an uncoordinated way. There's coordination that's needed to these kinds of networks. And so that's when we really came... We really started iterating. Remember earlier on in the conversation, I'm like, "This is something we've done very closely with the community and we found, hey, this doesn't work." But what does work is if we have that local service layer, people can still own pieces of the infrastructure. Like in many of the networks, the municipality will have the water tower and that'll be part of the network.
Deborah: And then they get the revenue automatically. But you need some kind of... And then that local service layer needed a knock, which is why we kind of also built out that part of it as well. So I think we've kind of gotten now to the point where things are working really well.
Drew: So we've got a question here from David Tate. He asks this question every week. But it's actually very appropriate and I'd love your take on it. "What are you all doing about bufferbloat and internet quality of experience? And do you ever pay theorists to look at your work?" He added that this time. He doesn't normally add that part. But what is bufferbloat again for the general audience? And talk a little bit about quality of experience. Quality of service. Quality of experience.
Deborah: It's interesting because on this call there's been some times that you and I are like I said, you have frozen for me. And I'm here at an Airbnb and I can speed test and I've got 125 megabits per second download. That... It should be great, right? But it's interesting. We're so blunt about these quality metrics and it's really that tells so little of the story what your download speed is. Because what happens is networks get congested and we... For bufferbloat we use FQ-CoDel which is kind of an open... They believe it's open source, but it's... Essentially what it does is put the smaller packets like for video kind of ahead of those bigger downloads. So I think there's some excellent videos on this kind of on YouTube that talks about people kind of in line, right? You get behind the people in line that have their carts full, right? [laughter]
Drew: Right, right.
Deborah: And all of this stuff and you're back there just holding your soda pop and you wanna get to the front of the line, and so what this kind of does is it opens an express line, so that you can go ahead of all the people that have all these things in their carts. So, which is pretty common, I think what's interesting about what we do is kind of two things, one, of course this is on the router level, but it's also a network-wide. So we do that... 'Cause the networks, Althea networks actually locally are very dynamic and interconnective, and then the other thing is that as we... Especially as we iterate, we're getting more and more specific about your choice of latency, because latency is really the metric of the future, like I was saying... A very small fraction of the story starts getting into that quality, and especially for a real-time video and things like that.
Drew: So without completely ending the stream, I wanna make sure I understand the pay-as-you-go aspect, right? We started... We mentioned this at the very beginning. So just talk to me about that, what is it that Althea enables from a paying upfront perspective, and why is that significant? And you did mention of course that there's a cost-effective route versus a higher performance route, so how does that work from a business and also a technical standpoint, Deborah?
Deborah: That was like eight questions, so I'll try. [laughter] But, so first of all let's talk about... Let's put a pin on the problem statement, so 29% of New York City has no access to broadband at home.
Drew: And what's at... A 25 three or are you saying at a higher speed?
Deborah: So this is a study that was done by the New York City Mayor's Office or at the city level, right? And they identified, I'm not exactly sure the metrics they used, but they identified that they had no broadband access at home, that's what they said.
Drew: Oh, okay.
Deborah: And then put it at roughly three million, over three million households don't have that, and this is the... We see this actually similarly, Portland, Oregon was 18 or what it's 13%, 13% of no connectivity. That number actually, interestingly enough, raises to close to 30% if you look at Hispanic population. But I think what we're really trying to get to is that the way that we pay for internet, the credit checks, the gating, everything else that goes into that. We look at people with broadbands and it's over $400 typically for folks that are accessing the internet. So this isn't working. [laughter] But what can work is what we sort of set with this kind of modularity, so it's an always-on free tier, so that it can be anywhere from some of our networks are 10 megabits per second up to where we're building here in Atlanta and Dallas it's a 50 mega bit per second, always on free tier. So that means when you run out of money that you ignore that text message that says your router is out of money, you're always gonna go back to that free tier, so you're always gonna have awesome internet.
Deborah: And, then when you add in whether it's five bucks, 10 bucks, 20 bucks, whatever you want into the system, that's gonna open that full throttle to take advantage of whatever your connectivity can be. So if that's fiber, you know your gig, if it's fixed wireless or something like that, maybe 7550 megs, whatever that looks like. But that... It is that flexibility that really enables and empowers communities to build networks holistically, 'cause our communities all have enough... We have lower income, middle income, high income folks, businesses, etcetera. So you can build networks in such a way that they're sustainable, people are paying in and sustaining the network and folks that can pay can pay more. And then you still are meeting the needs of the folks in the community that can't afford to pay, or can only afford to pay some of the time.
Drew: Okay, so is this the same as what we started before I interrupted with my questions, that is to say is this an example of cutting the line, right? Paying to cut the line?
Deborah: Paying to cut the line, I'm not sure I completely understand that.
Drew: Like paying to get a faster position in line, I.e...
Deborah: Oh I see, yeah, no. In some aspects, yes and no. So you're always... Everybody always has the choice of what you... How you wanna weight those packets, right? So whether you're on the always on free tier or you're in the... That's just system-wide, so you have a little slider bar and it just simply says cost or performance, you choose, you put yourself in the slider bar the packets are gonna do what you want. [laughter]
Deborah: So it's great. And then when you have money on your router, it's gonna open up that full throttle connection, there's no plans, there's no speed tiers, there's none of this BS. It's just you get the most amount your connection can give you, and that's also why a lot of our traffic shaping and prioritization and all of that network shaping has to make a lot of sense. Because normal legacy providers, they have to kind of artificially come in and throttle just to keep their networks online, and alive. [chuckle]
Drew: Right, right.
Deborah: We don't have to do that, we're fortunate that we do have some really great technology under the hood, and we can give you every... The best, so you're not getting some spotty bananas on a spotty banana solution. [laughter]
Drew: Right. So Deborah, could you explain what dynamic switching is, and do you make use of it and how?
Deborah: Yes, that's... There's several different points. So in the local network we use a variant of babel routing, which is a mass routing protocol or distance vector. So that's gonna look at the round trip time it takes to get somewhere, and there's some interesting things we can do with LTE and how we can do the core and scale that, right? Because we can put that really close to wherever you're trying to get to. So there's some interesting things that happen there. And then we have those kind of clusters of what we call exits. So those are places at the internet exchange where you're transiting over across the internet. And so you can... The eventual goal was that it's fully SDN. There's still a lot... We're still doing some BGP at the core. But the idea is that you, as this network sort of grows and becomes more interconnected, you can choose your latency with a lot of specificity, [laughter] But the... Yeah. So you might be able to say, "Look, I wanna pay two cents a gigabyte for 20 millisecond latency. I wanna pay for cheaper. I wanna pay more for 10 millisecond latency or less."
Drew: You've started to address this, but let me just read out R. L. Chapman's question. "Does the network allow for quality of service or traffic prioritization? If so, do you see customers shaping their traffic to benefit from the free network mode for less critical systems?" And he says how he would like to do that and would prioritize the traffic by device or by app. However, things like email, internet of things, social media and... I'm just asking his final question, "Do you view it as the intent of the network or the manipulation of free options by those who understand how to do it? So that's R. L. Chapman's great question.
Deborah: Yeah, I think there's a little bit of pieces here that like, "This is where we're at now versus kind of where we wanna be." So right now it's pretty blunt. You sort of select your... And it is blunt, meaning it's not down to the device level at this point. So LTE starts to let us get to that. But basically we have seen where people will... They'll leave for the day for work. I can tell you a story about a farmer who goes, he raises goats, his goats are pregnant. But he works in the city. So during the day he turns into most cost effective. 'Cause all he really needs to do is look at the goat cameras and make sure the goats are... If they're kidding or whatever. [laughter] And then when he comes home at night, he wants to watch movies and have a life online, then he turns it back to the higher performance.
Deborah: So that's kind of the example of where what we can do now and... But where we wanna get to is that kind of like idea was talking about earlier where there is device level, like he's talking about device level specifics. And I think that's what LTE is gonna get us, and then we get in eSIMs and so that you can do that with all of your different devices, whether you're on Wi-Fi or LTE or whatever else. And so there's a really exciting feature coming the ecosystem's in this weird 4G-5G evolution right now. That's really kind of interesting to navigate.
Drew: We have a lot of questions from different people about innovation and managing innovation. Richard Richmond Han says, "Althea is pushing forward so much innovation at once. What are some of the unique difficulties your organization have faced and how you overcome them?" David McGarry asks, "What difficulties if any, has Althea faced synthesizing its unorthodox set of projects into a cohesive business model?" How would you address those?
Deborah: 100%. And I think... I kind of talked a little bit about the weird 4G hybrid 5G thing, but you have this where it can be challenging to be kind of the earliest innovator. Being the early and less convinced that the first one to market has an actual advantage. I think number two or three is actually probably a little better poised. But, yeah. So when we started looking at what we needed to do for composability and we had to go into the blockchain space to build those systems, I mentioned we built, the Gravity Bridge. There was a lot of debt, technical debt to build. I mean Gravity bridge was 70,000 lines of code. It's now operated by an decentralized group of over 160 different validators across the world. It's the most widely adopted bridge in like the Cosmos ecosystem.
Deborah: So there's this big major project that had to live before the Althea blockchain could come along, and we could do the composable stablecoin transactions. So I think one of our bigger challenges was just going through that debt, but along the way we have realized that other people need these tools too. And we've sustained our business in the innovation by working together or having contracts with people that also needed these tools as well. And that's helped us grow and maintain that cohesive vision because it might look like we're doing eight things at once, but there's very deliberate stacking that's happening. It's just... It takes a long time to say, "We need a different routing protocol. We need a different billing system. And building, oh, we need a different operator system." All of those different pieces just kind of took a long time, but I'm excited to say were in the go to market stage now. So, it's super exciting.
Drew: So, off a couple more questions then I'll come back to some things I wanna ask. So another question from David McGarry, "Have you found on the pay-as-you-go model, have you found that customers are generally good judges of their own internet needs? Any references that 35% move between the paid and unpaid services? Your goat guy is, another example." He very much knows what he wants when he wants it, but is that common? Do people really know how much brand that they're going to use and what they want it... To do with it?
Deborah: That's kind of a multifaceted question because there's two kinds of things here. One you shouldn't have to think about your metrics in terms of numbers really you should just think about as... I don't know what the PSI of my water is at home.
Deborah: Can you imagine having to worry about that? [laughter] So you don't wanna think about things in terms of like, "Okay, do I have enough of this, that, or the other?" But what you do wanna think about is, setting things up in equality specific way. And this is also for things like businesses too who may want an air-gaped network with a low latency back to their core or something like that.
Deborah: But I do find that most homeowners, if you're watching the Super Bowl and you really care about your streaming latency right in that moment, [laughter] So I think about it more in terms of quality type of thing. And, yeah. I find we do have folks that that care and wanna have a little more control over it. But in general, I think we shouldn't have to worry about those numbers in a qualitative sense.
Drew: Here's a follow-up from Diane Garcia, she would like to hear your opinion on vendor lock-in. "I love hearing the word choice. When you describe Althea, I feel selecting a vendor which demands only using their equipment and software is not future-proofing yourself." So what's your reaction to that?
Deborah: Yeah, 100% agree with that. And that is why we always are firmware. Our firmware lives on consumer routers, but it also, which we're pretty agnostic too, it also lives on any X86 machine. You can throw us on a Raspberry Pi if you really want to. And that was huge to us is that we really wanted, that agnostic that we built the network operator tools so that people could look at their fiber deployments, their LTE deployment and their fixed wireless all under one hood. And it wouldn't matter. And it shouldn't matter. You should be able to use whatever kind of hardware you want in different types of the network. And 100% agree, and I think we're gonna figure out that pretty soon. [chuckle], as the supply line crunches get even worse, as you know, there's conversations about how, where the manufacturing should take place. You're gonna... I think we're gonna find that some folks are gonna be forced into flexibility. My other big thing is, is that LTE and SIM-based authentication is huge in terms of building these heterogeneous networks that connect millions of different devices. And we find some vendors are locking people in on CBRS, into a proprietary platform that really limits their future-proofing options. And I find that really concerning for future-proof.
Drew: So Deborah, I want us to make sure we give time to talk about open access as a concept and a practicality how it's worked and your thoughts on that. And then also the IIJA, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. And what you think is going to happen as a result of it. Big change, gargantuan change, little change, and obviously some of the controversies that we broadband.money have followed very closely. So we can take either of these, but for example, on open access. What is open access and how does it work in the context in which Althea is out there as the kind of Intel Inside, Althea should be Althea inside, right? That's kind of like... What does that mean for your business plan, your technology and how do you think open access has fared on some of the more common models here in the United States?
Deborah: Yeah, open access is a really interesting question. We're huge proponents of it. It can mean a little bit different things. So there's some different flavors, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. But what I always come back to and where we started back in 2018, we looked at how the internet exchange and how carriers peer over each others other's networking in an open way. And the by bandwidth is a commodity on the commit level. And it's burstable and really configurable. And there's like literally a meet me room and all of that bandwidth kind of becomes an open market. And this beautiful thing has happened over the last 20-25 years, year over year costs have decreased at the heart of the internet. And year over year the bandwidth capacities have increased. So this... Althea is really the idea that, "Hey, this beautiful open access network, the carriers enjoy, [chuckle] can come all the way down to the device level and to the way the humans interact with networks."
Deborah: And so we see many different players, like EntryPoint has built an open access type of network. Althea is an open access network. For me, it means no dead ends being able to connect to the network and grow the network and then share in that revenue across it, I think is really the kind of core thesis of these. And however those manifest itself. I think the other thing that you see with almost every open access network, including Althea, is we've decoupled service layer and infrastructure. And that's really, really important. And I think that's one of, like we were talking about the IIJA, we're talking about how we build networks and if we have these things coupled, then we're coupling the business, perhaps some of the not great parts of the business with building of the infrastructure. And that can lead us out some... Not so great paths.
Drew: Well, you're familiar with Aroostook Technologies in Northern Maine? Deborah, are you?
Deborah: I'm not as familiar as I am with the EntryPoint, like the element type model.
Drew: Okay. Well, I just... I actually recall this from a piece Jace wrote many years ago about, it's a fixed wireless ISP in far Northern Maine. How we get backhaul. How do we get backhaul to some of these areas? And so what's your thought on that? Are there ways to get backhaul in bulk to rural communities?
Deborah: Yeah, it kind of goes back to ownership models too, and I think there's probably a lot of different thoughts here. But yeah, it seems to me that the most efficient way that we deliver federal dollars is by focusing on a lot of the middle mile access, and then having ownership be distributed amongst a group of maybe it's a... Maybe it's the county or a government type of entity, or it's a... You can have a public private, there's lots of different ways to have aligned ownership of these assets. But if we... Like for example Facebook built a lot of middle mile...
Drew: It did.
Deborah: A lot of long-haul fiber, but no one can connect to it. It's not built with that alignment in mind. So there's a lot of... There's a ton of underutilized fiber and we can deploy more money and build more underutilized fiber or we can figure out how we have better kind of ownership models and better aligned incentives and certainly more open access. And it doesn't have to be all... I think there's also some inefficiencies on the government layer of things too. But we need to make it so that the carriers are also being able to have an open access network and benefit from that as well. But right now, there really isn't a whole lot of benefit from Middle Mile to open ports because they're not able to capture a lot of that revenue. But they could, as and that's kind of my point is like, if we have open access, you have more open markets. There's 3 million New York households, [chuckle] that don't have access to the internet. There's these markets are out there, and the underutilized fibers out there, this... It's more about pairing them than it is building infrastructure that gets more under utilization.
Drew: So what are your hopes for the IIJA? How closely have you been following it? Is there a way Althea gets involved to... Talk a little bit about your thoughts on IIJA, both in the rural section, but also in general.
Deborah: Yeah. So what we do, of course is we do a lot of working with local networks that are looking to fill needs, including their community, whether that's a community network or a community network or a small operator or a tribe. And it help them get the access to the grant planning that they need. And the things like the affordable connectivity program and all those different pieces. So we definitely are having our eyes on that and trying to support these networks to access those funding they need to build the networks. However, I think that and I kind of lost my train of thought a bit here.
Drew: Well, I was asking about IIJA in rural and the role that Althea plays in rural deployment and maybe might play with IIJA in mind.
Deborah: Yeah, exactly. So I think where we normally fit in is like as a kind of a system integrator and supporter of these kind of local networks that are running it up and all that would be running our technology on the edges, to get access to that funding. I think there's some difficulty right now with some of the requires you're thinking about for like, be around supply line matching funding and all of that to be able to have to access that. We were just actually talking about like he didn't do art off... So, it's not even if you're awarded the grant [chuckle] there's all these sort of barriers to actually being able to implement it. So we'll see how this progresses, but I think it is one of those more. Right now we're essentially looking at can we get folks planning grant money, 25K, 40K so they can get the fiber plans drawn out?
Drew: Would Althea be involved or want to be involved in either the planning grant or, I mean, would you actually be sort of part of bids to... Well, again, once the dollars are allocated, once the map, the elusive map gets completed, [chuckle] and the divides its numbers and then pours the money into each state bucket, and then each state broadband office needs to decide where it goes based on either the FCCs new and improved map or their own really improved map. However this shakes down, there's gonna be lots of funds coming to last mile deployment. And then the states are ultimately the ones deciding. So where does Althea potentially, or how do you see others who are watching this participating in this process, Deborah?
Deborah: Yeah. Now is the time to plan. So that's how we're looking at it right now is like now let's get that, get the your coverage needs allocated, get those plan and get the partners involved. And so that's where we come in. We're kind of a system integrator, is what I would call, our company piece of it. So Althea, of course, is the platform and protocol, actually Hawk Networks is the company underneath it all that runs stuff. So we also do that kind of system integration and support. We'll help you with planning, help you get access to ACP in the meantime too. And get ready 'cause there's the... You need to be ready to go when things are finally get themselves allocated.
Drew: Yeah. We do still have some more questions here, so we'll go for another 10 minutes here. And we'll supplement too, Deborah, we wanna learn a little bit more about you and what you know, things that really inspire you and your passion for rural broadband and for all these unique things that you're doing. Diane Garcia asks, "I'm hoping that the requirement for accepting broadband funding is to select an OEM, original equipment manufacturer, which is vendor agnostic, inclusive of other OEMs. Do you have any reaction or response to that, follow up from Diane?
Deborah: Yeah. I think that kind of, this is was my earlier point. I think what we're seeing is some of the bead bid requirements might be that people have to have their supply line locked in, which is really tough, especially when things like fiber. I know we've... I've gone to a Mexico, we're looking at other places for manufacturing. But I think that's gonna be, it's gonna be really difficult on the supply line stuff because there's already such a delay. And if we go into allocating funding, I think it's gonna be a further crunch. So as much as we can get manufacturing kind of I this hemisphere and I would love to see funding allocated too. I mean, we have CHIPS act, which is great, but [chuckle] if you're gonna set up a radio manufacturer or any kind of manufacturing in the US or Mexico, it's still really hard. So I would love to see further funding going to supporting smaller manufacturing plants. And maybe there's even something like a... We've toyed around with the idea of kind of starting a co-op for supply line...
Drew: Cooperative manufacturing plant. Interesting. Yeah.
Deborah: Yeah. Or just for supply line in general, for warehousing and things like that too, because that's part of kind of the granting process. They wanna see that you have that pipeline in place to be able to have access to that. Not only having new access to matching funds, sometimes there's been thoughts around like, "Hey, are, do you have supply line ready to go?
Drew: Yeah, yeah. Diane also asks another follow through, which is latency, latency, latency, that's the key. And we've kind of heard from this, you don't shy away. We sometimes have these conflicts or confrontations, strong word, but the fiber versus wireless debate. I mean like...
Drew: Oh, fiber is it, fiber. And then we have like the wireless people say, Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you, the way we're gonna reach people is you need to have a wireless component. Well, what's your take on all this? I mean, are there ways to get low or how do you get low with latency with wireless? Talk about that for a moment.
Deborah: Yeah. Well, I think there's a lot of, it just... Actually, there's a lot of interesting things about 5G that we could talk about. I'm pretty excited about how it really moves a lot of the compute power to the network, and we were actually just thinking of ideating on this kind of idea, we're calling it an ambient core, because once you get to 5G, really it's just software all the way through. And that's where you can really do all the fun things about selecting latency because you're really processing so much in the brick and maybe even things like... We think a lot about how do you make a permission-less network, meaning when you authenticate into a network, normally you have an entity number, your Verizon knows everything about you, including if you're a first born and where you go, and everything about you. Do they have to? No they don't, [laughter] right? So you could just do something like a public private key pair at the edge, or and many devices don't even need to go back to the internet. IoT doesn't need to go back to the internet. Probably not.
Drew: I know we could talk a zillion more on software-defined networking, but let's just say a little bit more about that. So like, what is... I don't even pretend to sort of know really what it does other than to say it's a way of making general purpose the things that were once specific purpose. And so how does software... How do you view software-defined network changing and continuing to change the telecom and broadband landscape?
Deborah: Yeah. So, so much now is very static, right? If we think about the routing protocols, you think about BGP, you think about the way devices connect, you think about, even your MC, in New York which is your number back to on a SIM card. It's a very static thing. It's not dynamic. It's just a change. What if you got a new MC number every day? There's no real reason you couldn't, but it's a limitation of how the software is designed to be sort of centrally controlled instead of this kind of open access to decentralized permission-less system. So yeah, I think that we're already seeing moves to this anyway, outside of all Althea's work, the models are changing. Things about, things like e-Sense that connect the... That will use a Wi-Fi profile, and so you can have local connectivity when you're local, most people actually do most of their traffic over a voice on a Wi-Fi network. So, I think we'll see this sort of evolution into a more agile type of... I think agility is what I see in software.
Drew: Now, why are you such a rural-focused person Deborah, what's kept you from kind of migrating into the big city?
Deborah: Well, maybe that was a thing of the... I mean, we're, I'm here in Dallas, actually, 'cause we're here building a network here for under-connected people in the city, and we're actually building a big network in Atlanta as well. So we worked in rural areas because it was a need, and we go where needs are. For most of our business development has been customers coming to us and saying, Hey, we need... We've been networking down there, they said, Hey, we need this protocol. And that was where the need was a lot of the time, and we still work very real rural, but as we... As we have evolved over the last couple of years, the needs have also been very urban as well, so that's where there's different challenges in each, and I think it was easier for us also to iterate on the software stack in rural.
Drew: I haven't looked at detailed numbers on this, but COVID clearly has pushed people back to rural and suburban, maybe we'll go back, ping back. But in terms of like, there was a long trend towards urbanization, and I think COVID maybe arrested that or checked that. What's your thoughts on the future of rural and even ex-urban areas, right? What I mean is, do you think it's true that you can work anywhere you want nowadays?
Deborah: Yeah, it's an interesting question in terms also as we're kind of looking at potentially climate migration that's going to happen too...
Deborah: So, yeah. And I think we are seeing that also because there just isn't affordable housing in cities and in a lot of places as well, or on the west. I know, I was just in Indiana, housing prices is so much cheaper out there than parts of the west coast. So I do think that the internet is sort of the great equalizer. Whether that's geographically or income class or whatever that looks like. It also, we need to be much more efficient about how we grow our agriculture, and I think supply line issues are affecting them too. I was just talking with farmers, like I said, in Indiana, and they're paying twice as much for their fertilizer and inputs, and they're not necessarily getting any extra out. That is a... It's an untenable situation. So we have water crisis, things like that, so, and I don't remember exactly what the question is. But of course, the internet is not only a big... Not only big for the people because they're living rural, but big because we have agricultural security to worry about, autonomous vehicles and trucking and shipping and all of that needs to also have connectivity. So there's kind of a... It's more than just humans living in a place, there's also just this holistic system of our country's like infrastructure.
Drew: Well, Deborah, this is an Ask Me Anything! So I get to ask the last question, What color is your hair right now and what color do you prefer for your hair color?
Deborah: So, I am... Yeah, so my hair is of many seasons and in this particular season, you can't really tell what is like actually...
Drew: You can't see, you can't see.
Deborah: Yeah I believe. It's blue and purple now, but it does change throughout the year from pink, red, sometimes green undertone sometimes. So, fortunately, we will meet again and there would be a different hair color to talk about.
Drew: So how do you decide what color to make your hair?
Deborah: That's a good question for which I have no good answer. [laughter] Maybe what we should do is actually make a whole software-defined system for the network. I'm even, I wear flannels as well, and so I'm always having trouble if I've worn the same flannel anywhere and I was thinking about making a sort of like flannel identification system. So maybe I should make one for my hair as well. [laughter]
Drew: Well, Deborah it's been a real privilege and a treat to have you, is there anything that you'd like to add or share with our listeners here at broadband.money?
Deborah: I wanna say thank you so much for the great questions. It was a really fun discussion and I really appreciate everyone taking the time out of their day, and I wanted to just end with, I think it's exciting to see this shift and change and how, what used to be very monopolistic seems to be sort of distributing out and I feel like it is bringing back the balance of power to users from these kind of overarching entities. So, it's exciting and I look forward to the next feature and maybe in a couple of years we'll have a conversation again, and it'll be in a really exciting place.
Drew: And I'll be able to see your hair color better next time.
Deborah: [laughter] Maybe, so. Yeah.
Drew: Well thank you again, before we go we wanna remind our listeners that there will be a broadband.money office hours with Scott Woods next Friday the 28th at 2 o'clock Eastern time and then a week from then on November 4th the next Ask Me Anything! Will be with Lori Adams of Nokia. On behalf of Deborah Simpier, I'm Drew Clark and we'll see you next week. Take care everybody.