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Ask Me Anything! with Sachin Gupta, Director of Government Business and Economic Development at Centranet

Ask Me Anything! with Sachin Gupta, Director of Government Business and Economic Development at Centranet Banner Image

Sep 1, 2023

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About Our Distinguished Guest

Sachin Gupta is the Director of Government Business and Economic Development at Centranet, a subsidiary of Central Rural Electric Cooperative. Over the last 18 years he has had a diverse career working in product management, business development and marketing for large government contractors. He has traveled to and worked with government officials in 32 different countries advocating for smart defense and security solutions. He has been a speaker at several domestic and international conferences and has talked about technical, legislative, and regulatory issues. He is well published in several broadband publications. He represents Cooperative Broadband Coalition (a coalition of 10 electric cooperatives) and advances its agenda at State and Federal levels. 

He is a voting member of Oklahoma Broadband Expansion Council. Formed by HB3363, the OBEC is in an advisory role to the Oklahoma Broadband  Office, a co-chair of the Tribal Outreach Workgroup at the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA).

He is also on the Steering Committee of the Power Utilities Committee and the Workforce Development Committee of the FBA and the Innovation and Business Opportunity Committee of the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association.

He has a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Telecommunications Management from Oklahoma State University. With his technical background and experience in marketing and business development he is a well-balanced blend of technocrat and diplomat, equally at ease talking about technology with engineers or explaining it in conversational terms to a non-technical person. Over his career, he has demonstrated the ability to accurately predict where technology-based challenges and opportunities exist as well as how to respond. 
Since he joined Centranet, he has forged relationships with local, county, state and tribal leaders in Oklahoma and has worked hard to ensure that broadband deployment, both last and middle mile and broadband adoption stays a topic of strong relevance with them. 

Event Transcript

Ben Kahn: And we're live.

Craig Corbin: Thank you, Ben, and good afternoon everyone, and welcome to another edition of Ask Me Anything. It's the webinar series featuring leaders from all corners of the broadband industry, and providing an interactive forum where our guests can share their insights, knowledge, and perspectives with our broadband community. I'm Craig Corbin, director of Public Sector Partnerships with Ready.net and I have the honor of serving as your host this afternoon. It should be a great conversation. Our guest is a man who needs no introduction, but we're gonna give him one anyway. Sachin Gupta, serving as Director of Government Business and Economic Development at Centranet, a subsidiary of Central Rural Electric Cooperative.

Craig: He is a member of the Oklahoma Broadband Expansion Council, and the Council with 14 members serving in an advisory role to the Oklahoma State Broadband Office to create recommendations for new policies and incentives. Sachin also serves as chair of the Tribal Outreach Working Group of the Fiber Broadband Association, coordinates outreach among FBernie members and tribal communities, and advises on outreach activities and policies. And Sachin, your introduction is so long that we would take probably 15 minutes to get through that today, but welcome my friend. It is so good to have you on Ask Me Anything.

Sachin Gupta: Thank you, Craig, for inviting me, and I'm delighted to be here, and I apologize for the long introduction. I should probably summarize the first paragraph into everything.

Craig: Well, I'll tell you. When I introduce Sachin and when I meet him at many of the conferences, I always say, "Man, myth legend." And I think that's very appropriate with how often we see you. Don't you agree? 

Sachin: So this is not planned, guys, but let me pick something up here from my table.

Craig: Excellent. Very apropos. So indeed. There you go.

Sachin: And somebody gave that to me to put on my table, so I have it on my table. I don't really believe it. I'm just trying to do what's right.

Craig: I love it. When we were talking about conferences, I guess the last time, we bumped into each other, Fiber Connect, if anyone saw any of the panel discussions, chances are they probably saw you. You were an extremely busy panelist during Fiber Connect. Tell us about your thoughts from that.

Sachin: Yeah, Fiber Connect 2023 was awesome. And if there's anybody from FBernie over here, I'm telling you, you guys did an awesome job. I was at Fiber Connect in 2022, and I thought that was good. And then after attending Fiber Connect in 2023, I was like, "Well, that was crap. This is awesome. This raises the bar so much higher than what they did last year." I was on five panels myself, one in general session, and then four in the breakout sessions. And I talked about travel perspectives and middle mile and power utilities and triple check. So yeah, it was exhausting. I think on Tuesday, I worked 18, 19 hours straight.

Craig: Wow. And many of those topics, Sachin, we will touch on in this conversation. And one reminder to our audience, we solicit questions during the entirety of the webinar, and we'll be sorting through those and lobbying them to the net. We greatly appreciate that, and we thank everyone in advance for that. When we talk about Sachin, your role in so many different efforts, one in particular that I would love to start with, and that's the Broadband Coalition, there in Oklahoma, tremendous work that's being done. For those who might not be familiar with the efforts of the coalition, give us that overview, if you would.

Sachin: Yeah. So the Cooperative Broadband Coalition in Oklahoma is a group of electric cooperatives that are in the broadband space. Not all co-ops tend to be in the broadband space, but a lot of them are. So here in Oklahoma we have 10 that are in that space. We serve roughly 250,000 Oklahomans. We have roughly invested about a billion dollars in developing infrastructure, fiber infrastructure here in Oklahoma. And if you believe the study out of Purdue, that every dollar in broadband leads to $4 in economic development, I would say we are responsible for $4 billion worth of economic development in Oklahoma.

Craig: That is staggering. And when we talk about the impact, we're not talking about just short term, but the long term impact. And I'm curious about how that factored into the creation of the coalition. Tell us a little bit about the impetus for that.

Sachin: Yeah, so I'll break it down a little bit. Co-ops by their very nature are member serving, right? We are member owned. Everything that we do is done with the perspective of how would this benefit our members? So each and every co-op looks at what are the services that we can provide to our members that'll uplift them, that'll provide them with services that allow them to do things that they have not been able to do till now. So that's the reason why co-ops tend to get into the broadband game. Also, Smart Grid plays a role, but we can talk about that later.

Sachin: The Cooperative Broadband Coalition coalesced together, man, I don't even know how to pronounce that word. It coalesced together, because each co-op has mutual understanding with each other. We are almost like brothers and norms, so we help each other out in different ways. So informally, we set up a working group and people just kind of went, "Oh, you don't know about this. We solved this problem a long time ago. Here's a solution to it." And here's something that you would get with Juniper routers, and here's a solution to it. So that informal thing kind of grew into a more formal coalition, and that's what we have right now here within Oklahoma. We are very well organized, much better organized than some of the other states. And what we're trying to do over here in Oklahoma is to provide service to as many rural Oklahomans as possible.

Craig: That is the bottom line. And you know what's interesting, to your point, I am certainly in the group that firmly believes that cooperatives are uniquely positioned to play a tremendous role in bridging the digital divide, and obviously the work of the coalition is speeding up that process. But there are many out there who are slow to adopt perhaps, the mindset necessary to make that jump into the world of broadband. Talk about that and how it is a big reach for many.

Sachin: Yeah. Electric co-ops are conservative by nature. There are a couple of factors that come into play when you're trying to move into a new space. So the electric services are something that the co-ops have been doing right from the very beginning. Jumping into the broadband space is a little more complicated. A, it's not a utility, at least not yet. It's not a utility. So there's fierce cutthroat competition. B, most of the co-ops serve really, really rural parts of America. So if you have your density at less than three meters per mile, it would be very, very difficult for you to put up that network and monetize it, and be able to get any kind of return back on that investment, even to break even.

Sachin: So for my co-op here, Central Rural Electric Cooperative, we have roughly 16,000, 17,000 meters households. There are more meters than that, but some of those are not households. And we have roughly 4,000 miles of fiber that we're building. So you're seeing an average density of about four and a half households per mile of fiber, which is right at that borderline. So we jumped into that game, but there will be several who will not jump into that game, because the density does not justify it.

Sachin: Now, that might change, because BEAD funding is going to come along, and now that equation would shift, because now you don't have to spend your own money. So we'll see how that uplifts us. About 200, 250 co-ops in all of US currently provide broadband services. My expectation is, and I'm an optimist by nature, my expectation is that that will at least double in the next two years to about 500, 550 co-ops that will start doing it.

Craig: That is exciting when you talk about those numbers. And before we leave that particular response, you made mention of the 16,000 plus meters, 4,000 miles of fiber. I wanted to get to a quick question here. Jake Ninan, reporter with Broadband Breakfast, talked about the fact that, that final stage of Centranet building the 4,000 miles of fiber was two years ahead of schedule. Let's talk about how you were able to make that become reality so much quicker than expected.

Sachin: Yeah. I would say a lot of that is really the effort of the co-op over here, people working in the co-op over here. I'm not in operations, so those are the guys who make it happen. My boss, Mark Prather, he's over the fiber division and he took over this role, I wanna say October of 2020, that is when the project had barely started. He started at the company or at the co-op a couple of months before the fiber division came online. It's really under his leadership that things have moved so quickly where when we were expecting that our bill would take about five years, we have been able to accelerate it and have been able to do it much faster. So we'll be done here pretty soon within... By the end of this year or early next year, we'll be done with our entire build and we'll be able to provide services to all of our membership.

Sachin: The other thing that I would point out is that, we have been fortunate to have enough resources within our co-op that makes it easier. One of the things that people don't realize is that a strong GIS group is what is the engine that will drive you initially. That's what's going to accelerate your stuff, and we have a very, very strong GIS group. So if there are other co-ops on this call who are trying to figure out how to do it, make sure that you have a strong GIS group. They are the ones who will really, really accelerate your project.

Craig: Well, let's follow up on that just a little bit because what you mentioned about having GIS in-house already is part of that equation that again gets back to the fact that co-operatives are uniquely positioned well ahead of the game with regard to infrastructure, to your point, GIS. Talk about that, and how much that makes a difference when you do make the jump into becoming a provider.

Sachin: So for electric co-ops, there are really three factors that make us favorably positioned to do last mile broadband networks. One, we have to build most of our network anyways, all these networks from somebody to be able to do our smart grid. We are an electric provider, we have to build smart grids. Smart grids require communications and require real-time communications. You can't do real-time communications over anything else except fiber. So we have to build fiber or lease it from somebody. So that's one. We have that requirement in place already. Two, we own infrastructure, so it allows us to readily build on top of our existing infrastructure. And then three, the resources that co-ops have such as GIS groups, staking engineers, these are the kind of things that already exist within us. We are already an infrastructure company, so building another kind of infrastructure, not that difficult for us.

Craig: All right. Yeah. Part of the equation too is the mentality of service that is part and parcel with the cooperative way of serving their members. And that's something that is lost sadly with many larger traditional providers in our industry. And so again, the service mentality, the fact that profit isn't first and foremost with why they're doing, getting into broadband. Talk about that component of the conversation.

Sachin: I'll tell you a story, Craig. So I moved from the corporate world into the co-op world a little more than two years ago. July, 2021 is when I joined the co-op. And before the co-op, I had worked for a very large defense contractor, which was for a profit. So when I would bring ideas over here, I would use my perspective in the defense industry, in that corporate world that I was in, and I would put profit as a reasoning as in why we should execute this project. I would get laughed out of the room because profit is never in the equation.

Sachin: So it took me a little while to realize that here in the co-ops, what you really want is to have a member experience. So we are member owned. So I say member experience, in common terms, it's known as customer experience. So everything has to relate to customer experience. If you are not providing a service that alleviates a problem or increases and enhances the customer experience, then we are not even choosing it. We are not even thinking about it. The term community-owned broadband gets thrown about quite a bit, and a lot of the time, people focus a lot on municipalities instead of co-ops when that term gets thrown about.

Craig: Sure.

Sachin: But co-ops are all community owned broadband. We are all in this to provide services to our community. We are not in this for profit.

Craig: Excellent. I wanted to get to a question and back to a comment that was made just a moment ago regarding benefit of having an existing GIS group, a strong GIS group in place, and Orloff Phillips asked the question, if we can dive into that just a little bit for you to provide an outline of how you would model success with respect to what is needed from a GIS group.

Sachin: So if you are an existing co-op with existing infrastructure, most likely, you already have some existing GIS information and it varies in degrees. Some co-ops have it in different formats, sometimes there are co-ops that do not have it digitized, whereas there are other co-ops like us who are running it in the 21st century. So if you're starting a broadband network, which is a new kind of infrastructure, and if you do not know where you're gonna build, you're not even going to be able to design easily. So if I go out today and I go out to a place that is not within my system, and I try to build there, it'll be remarkably difficult because I really do not even know where the fiber lines will go, what kind of drops would I need, what kind of taps would I need, what would I do over there. So your GIS group would be really the one to rescue you in that place. If you do not have GIS employees, hire some.

Craig: Gotcha. And then from the standpoint of how you would model that, what would you use as your description of, the head count that it would take to really be prepared as far as your GIS component? 

Sachin: So that is a, it depends question, right? It depends on how big a service you are. So if you look at us, we have 16,000 meters, 4,000 miles of fiber, and we have currently three people in our GIS team. If you talk to my GIS admin, she will tell you that that's not enough and we need at least two more. But we are getting by with three. I would say, look at how many people you are serving, how many miles you are at, what kind of area you are in, and that is really what will determine how many GIS people you need. If you have none, start with one. If you have one, add another.

Craig: I like it, that's very straightforward and makes perfect sense. Thank you for that. Question coming from Leonard Robinson, many of cooperatives are rural in nature and Leonard asks, rural communities are skeptical of government involvement in broadband expansion, what are some steps that State Broadband offices and others at various levels of government can do to earn their trust? 

Sachin: Yeah, it really boils down to trust, and trust has varying degrees associated with it. In rural America, nobody trusts the federal government. It's very, very difficult for the federal government to start up programs and say that we are doing this, come join this and it will be to your benefit. What's that line, right? We are new government, we're here to help.

Craig: Right.

Sachin: So, I mean, I'll take the example of ACP, right? Affordable Connectivity Program. It's a great program, it allows people who cannot afford broadband to be able to get broadband. But I mean, if you look at Oklahoma, we are roughly at 46% adoption rate right now. So of the total number of people who are eligible to get ACP right now, we are at 46% of that. And we are in the top 10 states, right? So below us, it actually drops to lower that. And the reason for that is that it's a federal program that is really not... The outreach is still not local. There's some state outreach and again, like I said, levels of trust, there's least amount of trust for federal government, there's a little bit more for state, but not so much.

Sachin: The most amount of trust for governments is really local governments. So if the mayor or a city manager sits up and says, yep, this is a bonafide program, it will help you. More people will sign up for it than if the state says it or the federal government says it. So levels of trust, that's what we have.

Craig: Good answer. Next question wanted to pose deals with digital equity in a tangential way. With IPv4 being tapped out, Dave Taught asks, to what extent is IPv6 availability considered part of digital equity? 

Sachin: Oh wow, that is a really, really good question. Craig, I'll ask you how much of my time would you like me to spend on it because I can get on my soapbox.

Craig: Let's limit it to five minutes.

Sachin: So I believe, and I'm in that place where not everyone agrees with me, but I believe that the transition of IPv6 from IPv4 to IPv6 has kind of, it has been hamstrung a little, because of various different reasons, right? There are multiple ways of transitioning which causes confusion. If you had one way, right, and that was the written procedure, then everybody would find it easy. But if there are 15 ways, then people are like, I don't know which was the best one. So we've been through this here at Centranet.

Sachin: We were a purely IPv4 network, and we converted to a dual stack recently, about a year ago. We converted to a dual stack, and we are now an IPv4, IPv6 network. And you need to be both, because some of the services would still run on IPv4 that you will need access to, right? It would be small hospitals and doctors would have their websites running off IPv4 that you would need to have access to. I think it is vitally important for us to move as many resources as possible to IPv6 for several reasons and without getting too technical. If you run just an IPv4 network, you will invariably get behind NATs, and NATs are terrible. They increase latency, they reduce the amount of point-to-point connections that you can have, and latency is going to become really, really important going forward. So IPv4 networks would just not be able to cope with it.

Sachin: So to answer your question, digital equity is going to be, whether I have capacity and whether I have latency, everybody will have capacity, hopefully. People will not be able to get latency if the newer technologies are not accepted and if they don't become the norm. And IPv6 is one of those technologies that will allow you to drive down that latency piece so that people living in rural areas have the exact same capabilities as people living in urban areas.

Craig: But as long as you're able to pay top dollar for the IPv4s that have been squirreled away, that makes the transition a little bit tougher.

Sachin: I have multiple problems there. I think most of it is just the technical portion of people saying, "If I transition, what is going to be the effect on my network, and what do I need to do?" And Aeron is really helping. So I have been in touch with the CCO at Aeron, and they have recently started doing outreach programs trying to convince people to move from IPv4 to IPv6. We are having a conference here in Oklahoma City in September, and Aeron is actually one of the NYTs. They're going to come talk about it and tell ISPs why they should transition and what's the easiest way to transition.

Craig: All right. Good deal, and thank you so much for addressing that. It is a topic that obviously does need to be looked at. This is Ask Me Anything, a phenomenal conversation going on with Sachin Gupta. This note, we invite you to put on your calendar, if you haven't already, future editions of Ask Me Anything on the 15th of the month. Andrew Clark will be visiting with Katherine Townsend of M-Lab. And then a bit later on the 22nd, Ben Kahn will have his guest, Marc-Andre Campagna of OXIO. And then on the 29th, Evan Marwell with Education Superhighway. And that is a trio of great events, so be sure to put those on your calendar. So much that we want to talk with you about, Sachin. Middle mile obviously is a passion, but before we get to that, I want to go back to the work that you do with the Tribal Outreach Working Group, because in Oklahoma especially, that is such an important bit of work. Talk to us about your efforts there.

Sachin: Yeah, I'll start with some statistics, Craig. If you look at America as a whole, roughly 42 million people do not have access to broadband. And all that comes out to about 12, 12 and a half percent, 13% of the population. So 13% Oklahomans do not have access to broadband. I'm sorry, not Oklahomans, Americans. 13% Americans do not have access to broadband. If you switch that to tribes, less than 65% have access to broadband, which means that that statistics is three times worse for tribes. And it's mostly because tribal areas are also some of the most rural areas in America. So, over the last two years, I have visited several tribes, and I have talked to several tribal broadband leaders and I've asked them questions as in, what is the biggest issues you see within your territorial boundaries? Within your tribe, what are the biggest issues you see? And their answer invariably comes back that they do not see a lot of economic development because there is a lack of infrastructure. And the lack of infrastructure is not in the form of roads or highways or electric lines, but it's in the form of not having communications, there is no fiber to these people.

Sachin: You cannot have a tribal member become an entrepreneur because he lives in an area where he doesn't even have access to 25.3. He doesn't even have access to 10.1, to let alone 25.3 Mbps. So, Oklahoma being Oklahoma, where we have 39 tribes, where 85% of the state is covered in tribal land. It has been a focus area for me. We have been working with several tribes to try to see what we can do to ensure that broadband deployment, adoption and use becomes a focus area here. So I have been pursuing that for some time. Fiber Broadband Association in all their wisdom, decided to appoint me co-chair. So, I'm co-chair of the Tribal Outreach Workgroup. They have been, this year, pushing to increase our membership. And every member ends up getting the resources of Fiber Broadband Association, but on top of that, we will develop resources that are very, very specific to tribes.

Craig: That's exciting. When we talk about the funding that can make a difference in that process, just this week, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program with $3.5 million dollars in awards to a total, I think, of seven tribes, but that is a but a drop in the bucket of what is necessary. And again, I know that the entirety of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program is much larger, but when you look comparatively at what is being offered through that program, as with other federal programs, it is a far cry from what's needed, how do we change that? 

Sachin: Really, it's going to be education, so the TBCP program has a total of $3 billion, two out of those $3 billion are already allocated. Another billion dollar will get allocated next year, the NOFO is already out. So, those are all known entities. A lot of the tribes already know about this. The piece that they sometimes are not aware of is that of the $42.5 billion in BEAD funding, for the project plans that're developed by states, as they prepare to spend that BEAD funding, they're required to have consultations with the tribe, where the tribes can guide them, as in what it is that they want, what are the biggest needs in their tribal lands.

Sachin: So, if you're a tribe and you're looking at expanding broadband access within your tribal boundaries, talk to your state broadband office. Ensure that within their five-year plan that they're submitting to NTIA for BEAD money, they are including things that you would like done in your tribal lands. Past that, I have hopes that the federal government will allocate more money to the TBCP program that is still to be seen. My estimate is that the tribes need at least $10 billion total to be able to develop networks within their tribal lands. So, the federal government has allocated three. There's another seven that they could allocate. Hopefully, maybe, I don't know, we'll see.

Sachin: Well, we will remain optimistic for that changes in a positive way, and hope that happens sooner rather than later. To your first point in that response, it is extremely time-sensitive to have those conversations with the state broadband offices with regard to having a seat at the table to make those needs known, because things will begin to move very quickly. From your perspective, and I'll ask you to project into the future. Knowing that $10 billion is your thought on what would be necessary to truly make a positive impact, what do you see as the state of connectivity for tribes across our country 10 years from now? 

Sachin: Oh, wow. So, that's such a difficult question to answer, because...

Craig: It's a toughie.

Sachin: You're asking me to look into the future, right? 

Craig: Yeah.

Sachin: My expectation is that the $3 billion that are being spent right now are going to make a difference. They will especially make a difference in the really remote parts of America. So, Alaska, Hawaii, places where there is minimal connectivity in tribal lands will really, really benefit from these.

Sachin: My expectation, I shouldn't say my expectation. My opinion is that on the flip side, the federal government will then say that there's BEAD money and that BEAD money requires further consultation, so we're not going to allocate any more for TBCP, this is it. Figure the rest out with your state. And that has its own set of problems because every state is different, and every state would have their own opinion on where to build and where to deploy. 10 years in the future, if the federal government puts in more money, then I would expect that at least from the 35%, 36% of tribal members who don't have access to broadband today, that number will go down to below 5%. If the federal government does not, and it's left to the states to do the BEAD, I think that number would stay at about 10%, 12%. So we'll have that new digital divide between tribal members and non-tribal members.

Craig: Right. Given what you've shared with regard to funding, obviously the fact that we're dealing with predominantly rural areas for the tribes, the challenge will always be from an infrastructure standpoint, needing to utilize in most situations, hybrid approaches with networks. Talk about that. We understand that fiber is without question, the gold standard, but that in reality, it will take in most situations, a hybrid approach in order to get the greatest connectivity in place. Your thoughts on that? 

Sachin: I hate that question, Craig, because I think you're right. There's not enough money, but what I also see is the writing on the wall that anybody who goes out and develops a hybrid network where they provide connectivity with fiber to some places and connectivity with fixed wireless to other places, they are just going to be signing up for failure in five, 10 years, because that is where speeds will become 50 gigs or a 100 gigs, and fixed wireless would not be able to provide those kinds of speeds. They would definitely not be able to provide those kinds of latencies that would be required for low latency applications that will come out in the future. So when somebody asks me, "What do you recommend? Should I do a hybrid network right now and serve all of my people or should I do a fiber only network right now and maybe only serve 70% of them?"

Sachin: You know, my answer is going to be serve the 70% now and then pick up the 30% in two years, because if you do the 100% now and at least half of them would have no service five to 10 years from now. Now, having said that, I think there is a great potential for fixed wireless when you talk about connecting the last acre. So right now we are in this place. We're talking about connecting the last mile. We're talking about connecting households, which I believe should be all fiber. From there, when you talk about connecting the last acre, when you talk about getting into the next century where you are doing precision agriculture, where your yields have to go up and they have to go up without having more land, right? There's only a fixed amount of land.

Craig: Greater productivity.

Sachin: So you have to have greater productivity. And if you're doing that, you need technological based farming and that is not going to happen without connectivity, which means that you're going to need fixed wireless to have connectivity to that last acre. So this is my prediction. And I may be wrong, but this is my prediction that in four to five years, if we play our cards right, if the government money gets spent correctly, every household, every farm, every dairy would have fiber. And then after those 5 years, there would be this big, huge investment into fixed wireless networks to build out connectivity to the last acre.

Craig: Alright. And the key to that equation though, is finding a way to get the funding for fiber construction. So that is where the challenge is. So much to talk about with regard to this particular topic. I do want to shift gears for a moment to another of your passions, and that would be the importance of middle mile. And we'll launch into that with a question from Drew Clark regarding the role of middle mile deployments and making sure that BEAD last mile deployments work successfully. And Drew asked that you talk a little bit about Centranet and your piece of that broadband puzzle with regard to middle mile.

Sachin: Yeah, let me get my soapbox because I'm going to stand up. I'm going to say something controversial. Middle mile is like that middle child that always gets that middle [0:38:26.2] ____. The optics for last mile networks are so strong that if you talk to any state government, if you talk to anybody who's talking about deployment, they're going to say, we've got to build last mile networks. This money is for last mile networks. If you look at the BEAD program, they have it all for last mile network, 42 and a half billion for last mile, one billion for middle mile. Big, huge discrepancy there. And here's the fact. If you're building in rural America, which is what this $42.5 billion is for, there is a scarcity of middle mile in those rural parts of America. My network itself right now, we buy transit, right? We have no way of getting to a large data center where we can bring down the cost of our transit. So we pay a lot of money for our transit.

Sachin: If I'm able to build just 50 miles of fiber to get to a data center, I can drop that cost to a third. It's not a big problem today. It's gonna be a big problem in two years when everybody starts pumping bits and bytes across that one gig connection that they have today. And in two years, they'll have these 10 gig connections that they're gonna start pumping bits and bytes across. So in rural America, we really really need to have middle mile networks. And we need to build these middle mile networks organically, right? We can't just say, "I'm Centranet, I'm gonna build across half of Oklahoma." I can't do that. I'm one rural provider and I have a small footprint, but then I have another provider right next to me with some more small footprint. And then another rural provider right next to them with some more small footprint. You put us all together, and now we have a large footprint. So coalition based middle mile networks, I think those are the future. Those are the things that will allow these rural networks to flourish.

Craig: I love the concept, and I know that that doesn't happen overnight. There are many challenges that come along with approaching such a concept. Talk about how that is being done now, from your experience.

Sachin: Yeah, so it's a new concept. Well, I shouldn't say it's a new concept. It's an old concept that has taken on new meaning today. So the biggest problem with doing middle mile this way, this coalition by base middle mile, is that you need to have small rural providers that are within spitting distances of each other. And that was not the case before, right? Before you got a rural provider here, you got a rural provider here, you had to connect them. Who comes up with the money, who owns this territory, right away as infrastructure. All of that comes into equation.

Sachin: Today, that problem is much simpler because there is so much influx of money building these last mile networks that you are going to end up with all of these overlapping networks, and I say overlapping, they will be direct, really close to each other. That'll cover most of a territory. So you look at Oklahoma today, if within Oklahoma, just with corporate of broadband coalition, I can cover almost all of the eastern part of Oklahoma with a middle mile network, and about 80% of that is already built. I just have to build the remaining 20%, of pieces that'll interconnect these smaller networks together. And then, of course, buy the really expensive DWDM equipment to make it run.

Craig: Excellent. On a related note, a question coming from Tara Whipple, how can states prioritize middle mile builds, and what are the first steps that the states would need to take? 

Sachin: They need to focus on it. Right now, it's correct, the optics says let's build last mile networks. Every congressman or senator who goes out, they want to make sure that their constituents have last mile connectivity. But the focus needs to shift a little bit to ensure that those last mile connectivities can actually serve the subscribers, because if there's no middle mile network, you are really not gonna be able to get internet to any of these people. The analogy I use is where you have these cities with nice, beautiful roads, but then each of these cities are not interconnected with each other because the highways are gravel roads. So you need to make sure that those gravel roads are actually not gravel roads, but nice paved highways, interstates, multiple lanes. So if the states start focusing on it, they should really devote some amount of money to build those middle mile networks. There's some states who are ahead, right? You look at Kansas, they're really ahead in their program where they have a program for middle mile, where they're developing it.

Sachin: There are other states who are saying, we're gonna take this money, whether it's ARPA or it's BEAD, and we are gonna dedicate it to middle mile pieces. So Alabama, for example, has given out in excess of $82 million to a group of cooperatives to build exactly this, a coalition based middle mile network. And then a bunch of co-ops just do it themselves. You look at Diamond States Network in Arkansas, they're building their own network, middle mile network, exactly based on this concept, coalition based. You go to Indiana, there's a cod, there's Hoosier's net, which is Telecom operated, but same concept. So it doesn't just have to be electric co-ops, it has to be rural operators though. Tt has to be every operator who's in the rural space working with another operator who's in the rural space to create these networks.

Craig: Interesting. Well, and it's a shame that many situations have to get to the point of pain before there is a response, reactive rather than proactive. So hopefully, enough states will take your recommendation on that, because that is such a vital part of the equation. I wanna shift gears here just a little bit, on a question coming from Jace Wilson, asking about what lessons you might have for broadband providers from working across many utilities, and he asks, do you see a poly-utility world in which more energy and phone providers become ISPs? 

Sachin: Absolutely. I think what he's asking is, is it possible for entities that have seen each other as competitors become collaborator in the coming future? I believe that's what he's asking.

Craig: Yes.

Sachin: And I see a big huge future in that. So there are two ways of solving a problem. Well, there are at least two things you need to solve a problem. You need strategic direction, and you need tactical stuff, right? And strategically, telco or a telephone cooperative and an electric cooperative can find similar principles that join them together, right? Most of the time, all of these entities are not in this business for making a profit. If they were, they would go to urban areas and make profit there. There is very little return on investment when you are in rural markets. So, that principle binds us all together. Tactically, if we can form coalitions, and my push is, let's form a coalition for middle mile, right? We'll see what happens past that, but let's form a coalition for middle mile, because that would benefit all of us. Past that, we can see what is the next thing that we can do that will benefit all of us. So I think that this is going to happen, and I'll give you a live example. Within Indiana called N-Hoosiers, they have tied their hands together. Accord is mostly owned by electric co-ops, except there are some telcos in the mix whose years is mostly owned by telcos and they have joined hands together. They're now on each other's board, they're talking to each other, they're doing things together.

Sachin: They have invested into each other to build an Indiana wide network. I mean, they now cover 75% of the state of Indiana. It's happening. That thing is going to come. I think I'm a big believer that rural operators just all need to bind together. Another thing I say is that associations like NTCA and NRECA can really bridge this gap, right? These associations can create the trust where earlier, there was a spirit of competition between these entities going into the future, there would be a spirit of collaboration.

Craig: And the beauty there is that the common man, the consumer, the members of cooperatives, etcetera, will invariably win when there is collaboration. And so that's another tremendous reason to see that come to fruition moving forward. One of the things that we haven't touched on that I think is so important in the conversation while we have you with us, the work that you've done internationally in looking back over your bio, you've worked with government officials in 32 different countries, advocating for network smart defence and security solutions. And so it goes very well to a question from the audience about how your experience in international development has aided your work in broadband.

Sachin: Oh, Don Craig, I thought you were going to ask me a question about my trip to Churnable, but I guess that we'll have to wait.

Sachin: So in multiple things, one is that here in the US the state of broadband is, in my opinion, dismal. It'll change because now the government has finally woken up and they have finally said that yes, we're going to start pumping in money into infrastructure that'll allow us to have better capabilities and better broadband. But I can name several small countries and several large developing nations that have much better internet than America, right? I mean Romania is the poster child most of the time. But you can look at Estonia, you can look at, I was in Ukraine multiple times. Unfortunately, their infrastructure is an issue right now because of the war, but before the war, they had excellent internet infrastructure. I was able to access WiFi in their small little coffee shops, no password needed, one gig connections. And this was like in 2017, 2018. I went to India last year to visit my parents. They have a 100 Mbps symmetric connection. They pay all of $6 for it.

Craig: Wow.

Sachin: If they up that to $10, they get Netflix. So I looked at that and I was like, "10 bucks for Netflix plus a 100 Mbps symmetric connection. You're kidding me, right?" Now, obviously the scale is different there. Billions of people there, a lot less people here, but still, we are the best nation in the world. We cannot lag behind in connectivity.

Craig: How do we make sure that the momentum that exists now with so many of the programmes that are providing incredible funding, continue moving in that direction? Because it is a shame that collectively as a nation, we are as far behind the eighth bar as we are. And to your point, the European countries that are head and shoulders above the US with regard to the level of internet and also to your point, the cost on average, I think the list delineates whatever percentage of your average salary. By country, we should not be nearly as expensive as we are, but how do we keep the momentum going in the right direction so that we catch up to where we need to have been a long time ago? 

Sachin: Infrastructure is the answer. If you develop the right infrastructure today, then you will have the tools you need tomorrow so that you don't get into a failure, right? So this goes back to your question about hybrid networks, right? Which I think a lot of the places will end up building because they don't have enough money. But if you don't put the right infrastructure in place today, then you will not be able to capitalize on it in the coming future. Unfortunately, broadband networks literally move at the speed of light. They're not like road networks or electric networks where innovation comes 10, 15, 20 years from today. In broadband networks, innovation comes six months from now. I mean, I'm telling you today, we are moving to XTS Pon. In two years, we will move to 50G Pon. It's guaranteed.

Sachin: So if you move to 50G Pon in two years, and all you have built is a fixed wireless network, you're never going to be able to reap the benefits of that. So infrastructure is the key. You have to make sure that what you're building today is scalable for the future. Past that, make sure that you get with your State Broadband Offices and you tell them what it is that you need in your areas. Community engagement is key. Community engagement is required both for ARPA as well as for BEAD funding. So all of the State Broadband Offices are required to engage the community before they help to start building, right? So engage with them, make sure that they understand what it is that you need in your community before they actually start building there.

Craig: Well said. As we wind down the final five minutes, and change in our visit with you today, Sachin, another of the topics we wanted to touch on and get your impressions of were the need for increased workforce development. We hear about the shortfalls, I've heard numbers as high as 60,000 today that we're short, but that number will only grow. How do we focus on fixing that challenge? 

Craig: Thank you for asking that question, Craig. That's actually one of the things that I like beating my chest on. So Oklahoma is leading on the front in this. In this effort, Oklahoma is leading on the front. And the numbers you have heard 60,000 today, somewhat accurate. I have heard a quarter of a million in the next four years, right? So 6 times 4, 240,000, there you have it, right? That's about the right number. And that's just fiber optic technicians. That's not even engineers and GIS personnel and project managers and people in construction that will be needed. So here within Oklahoma, we have OSUIT, who is providing courses to create this next generation of telecom executives and telecom technicians that would take up that mantle.

Sachin: But also, besides that, Oklahoma State University over here is trying to understand where the need exists. Right now, if you take out the fiber optic technicians, which everybody knows that we need, if you take them out, there is no clear understanding where does the need exist. Do we need more GIS managers? Do we need more network engineers? Do we need more network technicians? Do we need project managers? What is it that we really need? So, Oklahoma State University, Dr. Brian Whitaker over here, he's the chair of the Oklahoma Broadband Expansion Council. He, in collaboration with the Corporate Broadband Coalition, and the Oklahoma Broadband office, he pushed out a survey that's still open. It's gonna stay open till end of October. And it's available nationwide to allow us to understand where that need is. And if you need a link to that survey, I can send that to you, that you can then put up on your website. And any network operator or any contractor that hires people in the telecom space can take that survey, and then that will allow us to design new programs. We are talking about designing new programs at OSU, at OSUIT, the Fiber Broadband Association has a fiber optics program for creating the workforce of the future. It'll just help us. But yeah, we are leading from the front on this effort.

Craig: Awesome. Well, that is so important. And obviously the need for collaboration to address what you just mentioned, not knowing what we don't know of exactly where that need lies, puts the onus on everybody involved in the industry to take a greater role in playing a part because the need is not gonna go away. And the opportunity to take advantage of the funding opportunities that are there, will never come again to this degree. And so it would be a shame if we collectively stub our toe because we don't have enough folks ready to do the hard work out there. From your standpoint, what would be the easiest way for collaboration to take place in this particular area? 

Sachin: So I think mutual aid can help a little bit. And this is a concept that the electric co-ops use quite a bit when it comes to our electrical services, right? We have mutual aid agreements, which allow one electric cooperative to help with their workforce. Another electric cooperative, anytime something happens, right? Tornado raises by, some of our infrastructure goes away. We may not have the capability of fixing that quickly ourselves, but our mutual aid allows us to borrow from the other co-ops. And there are times when we have sent our people to Florida so that they can help the people over there raise up their infrastructure. So a mutual aid agreement like that amongst all rural operators is a hard ask, but that is one of the things that would most definitely alleviate this problem.

Craig: Alright.

Sachin: And again, I say rural operators, this coalition that we keep talking about that needs to happen between rural operators that allow us to operate more efficiently, mutual aid amongst these rural operators would take that to the next level.

Craig: Awesome. Such, and this has been a great visit. We've got just a few seconds left. So I wanna squeeze in one last question. By the way, a tip of the hat. Without question, one of the most sartorially, resplendent guests we've ever had on Ask Me Anything, although the bar set pretty high, Scott Woods, that sort of sets the level there. But your last question coming from a former colleague of yours, Paul Brakeman, who says, Sachin, where do you buy all those fancy suits? 

Sachin: I told him, I do not buy those suits, I get them tailored. I mean, who in their right mind would buy a suit? 

Craig: Well, said, my friend. Well said. This has been an absolute blast. Sachin, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and expertise with us for the last hour. We look forward to seeing you again down the line and on behalf of everyone here, thanks for letting us be a part of your day. Sachin, have a great Labor Day weekend.

Sachin: Thank you very much, Craig, for having me.

Craig: Absolutely. So bye, everyone.

Sachin: Bye.