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Trends And Challenges In Digital Infrastructure With James Childs Of GeoLinks

GeoLinks is in the business of solving the digital infrastructure problems of today. In this episode, Carrie Charles welcomes James Childs, GeoLinks’ Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Spectrum Strategy. GeoLinks services both primary and redundant connectivity, disaster preparedness and anchor institutions. To learn more from James about licensed and unlicensed spectrum, use of remote cameras for wildfire prevention, and the concept of digital divide, listen to the full episode below:

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Trends And Challenges In Digital Infrastructure With James Childs Of GeoLinks

Thanks so much for joining me on the show. I am thrilled to have with me James Childs He is the Senior Vice President of Spectrum Strategy at GeoLinks. James, thank you so much for joining me.

It’s great to be here and be able to spend a few minutes talking about some things that we’re both passionate about.

Before we get started, I’d like to hear more about how you got where you are.

It’s interesting. I look back sometimes and think, “What a strange trip it’s been.” As that adage so often applies to our life as it rolls out, I was a Behavioral Science student at university, and it’s still a passion of mine. I spend some time working on different things within my community that address some of the societal issues that we face, particularly addiction and different aspects of how to help an inmate population return to society. That might be the focus of another episode at some point, but it certainly began my university career and out of university went to work for big Fortune 100 Novell at the time. People will know Novell least historically from both their acquisition of the word perfect.

There was this rush to who was going to own the data processing side of life. Servers were a big thing for Novell. People think I was in K to 12 cells, but everybody needed these new servers and licenses for the ability for servers to communicate. I joke with people that I was ruined a little bit because it was such an easy sales process. I’d get school district IT people on the phone and they would say, “Where do I sign?” For a young person coming out of university entering the cell’s world, that’s not necessarily reflective reality on how difficult it is to move the needle from a sales and a business development perspective.

I had a brother working for Microsoft at the time. We would get together on the weekends having barbecues and both banter between the two of us about who was going to be the king of technology in the space. Some would say I lost that argument, but even more important, those weekend conversations turned into our paying attention to this trend of migration from dial-up to what was then considered broadband, which funny enough was 256,000 to 500,000. Even if you could get a T1 and a megabit, that generally was quite expensive and relatively rare. At the time, we were the cutting edge of that migration between dial-up then what became broadband.

GeoLinks is in the business of solving problems today.

There was an interesting thing going on in the West. In a lot of states like Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, there are quite a few that were dealing with the same challenges. The challenge was construction was happening at such a frantic pace. We’ve gone through a couple of other cycles. This was back in the late ‘90s, right before the turn of the Millennials into the year 2000. The construction trends were such that somebody would be building a house call to get telephone and broadband service and be told that, “Yes, we’ll put you on the list. We think we can get to you sometime 12 to 14 months from now.” That was the very typical answer at the time.

Let me step back. My brother and I, at work, had begun deploying some wireless broadband bridges to move data around from building to building. I started to become familiar with how that process was working and these were early Cisco workgroup bridges. In part of those weekend conversations, I said to him, “You have a T1 down at your clubhouse for the business and the property that he owned. Would they let you put some equipment on the roof?”

Honestly, that one question that we sent him on the errand to go ask then started what then became an ISP here in the State of Utah known as LightLink. We ran that from about 2000 to 2004. It was a weekend project for a while where we connected him and a neighbor heard about it. It was almost a wildfire-type experience.

Everybody wanted to get off of dial-up. There were very few choices to be able to do that. Wireless certainly moving around wireless in the way that we call Wireless ISP. There wasn’t a definition of a business like that at the time were part of the first club of people that created one of the first wireless ISPs in the country. That became a theme for my career.

Digital Infrastructure: We’re part of the first club of people who created one of the first wireless ISPs in the country.

Talk about GeoLinks. Give us a little more color there and also your role.

GeoLinks is an enterprise-fixed Wireless ISP and our network. We call it our core network, our native network. I’ll mention why we segregate certain parts of our network later, but that native network, which was founded by Skyler Ditchfield and Ryan Hauf, stretches from 50 miles North of the San Francisco Bay Area down to nearly the Mexican border. Services, a lot of different businesses, both primary and redundant connectivity, disaster preparedness, and a lot of anchor institutions.

I’ve only been a part of the business since May 2021, but the business year over year has grown tremendously. It’s been a 5,000 fastest growing company. I believe this conclusion will be the fourth year. They’re growing in revenue and their participation in the broadband ecosystem in the State of California, including trying to solve real problems.

This is what I’ve always been energized, appreciated, and respected about the company’s DNA and heritage. People were saying, “No,” that it was impossible to get faster data to certain areas. Think about California, San Francisco, Los Angeles and all these big Metro areas that people know about. California has a lot of rural areas where there is not a lot of wired infrastructure. It’s also a massive state, so maybe that isn’t too surprising.

GeoLinks is truly in the business of solving problems. They support the remote camera installations for the alert wildfire projects and everybody knows that’s become increasingly more important over the last years. Early detection of wildfire puts a beneficial angle to be able to respond earlier, those infrared cameras that are on remote, hilltops or some of the things that we provide the transport for. That’s one of the thousands of examples of places where we believe we’re making a solid difference in the State of California.

What excites you about your role? Maybe some cool things that you’re working on. What excites you about the future of our industry?

My function for GeoLinks is to manage spectrum assets. I probably left that out with the previous question, but GeoLinks successfully negotiated and acquired over 200 markets worth 29 to 31 gig spectrum. It’s called the LMDs bands. The 28 gigahertz band, in general, which is what this spectrum falls within that same range, used to all be part of the LMDs spectrum. Over recent years, the commission’s activities created what’s called the UMFUS bands, which are T-Mobile, Verizon, US Cellular, AT&T.

The biggest of the big mobile network operators in the country are utilizing millimeter-wave bands for both home’s fixed wireless access products and mobility to handsets. GeoLinks was uniquely in the right place at the right time to negotiate successfully with Verizon and gain access to these spectrum assets, which will allow it in effect both in California and Nevada to continue to build out using licensed spectrum.

To the second part of your question, my passion is to be able to help the organization leverage and utilize these assets for the benefit of many other wireless ISPs and other broadband service providers, utilities, especially rural utilities, universities and healthcare systems that operate all over the country. They can benefit from the use of licensed spectrum. My specific role within the business is to drive the strategy in which those spectrum assets will be utilized and monetized.

You talk a lot about the licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Can you define the two of these and also talk more about the benefits of the licensed spectrum?

The digital equity problem applies less to significantly rural environments.

It goes back to where the world started in the wireless broadband movement. I’d be dating myself, but I’d be talking about rotary phones, which is what was in my house growing up. Beyond that, we came into cordless phones. Those cordless phones were typically using 900 megahertz and 900 megahertz was part of an unlicensed segment of the spectrum and it still is. There are still IoT networks that are using 900 megahertz. I’m sure there are some cordless phones somewhere still running on 900 megahertz as well. At the time, you had 900 megahertz and 2.4 gigahertz. 2.4 gigahertz is the mainframe of Wi-Fi.

It was where Wi-Fi originated and its glory days were born from. It’d probably be a fairly common thing for your audience to be familiar with the ring, doorbell and cameras. Strangely enough, most of those technologies where they could use 5 gigahertz or other bands choose to use 2.4. Partly because the rest of the high bandwidth pack has moved on to 5 gigahertz, but 2.4 also does a lot better of a job with getting through windows, doors and walls. If you’re familiar with ring and home Wi-Fi, which I don’t know anybody anymore who doesn’t have home Wi-Fi, you are using these bands and affecting your house to be able to do what you do. When you pick up the phone and you’re using Wi-Fi, that’s also using those bands.

Unlicensed frequencies have been around for a long time. We’ve seen the explosion of Wi-Fi as a transport and connectivity means. The easiest way to describe the spectrum landscape as it’s matured is that you see a lot of activity around 2.4 and 5, a lot of commercial devices utilize those bands. Over the last few years, we’ve had 60 gigahertz that’s come up too. 60 gigahertz is quite familiar with a lot of people. There’s a lot of different broadband systems running at 60 gigahertz. People like Google are talking about glasses that will utilize 60 gigahertz to communicate. My kids that wear the headset Oculus utilized the 60 gigahertz as a transport. It uses massive channel sizes. It can’t move bandwidth as far as some of the other lower bands, but it’s still classified as an unlicensed spectrum.

In my role, I get passionate about the licensed spectrum. Not because I don’t appreciate everything that the unlicensed spectrum is and does, but because people like me who were in the business of moving bits around in the yard need to do so in a protected way at times. My business model, which I’m passionate about helping others build, requires the transport of data from point A to point B.

Digital Infrastructure: We need to lean on internal growth but also try to find contractors.

If you use an unlicensed band, it does work. I’m not saying that it doesn’t. There are thousands of wireless ISP in the country that still use unlicensed frequencies for many purposes of providing services. I’ve heard lots of stories in between that point A and B. If somebody puts an HD baby monitor up as an example, it might completely take down the ability for that link that you were trying to sustain to work. Licensed spectrum starts to remove some of the interference and challenges that are more typical with heavy noise for loud sub six environments, where the more typical unlicensed spectrum set. Hopefully, that’s a bit of a description that helps.

Let’s discuss this concept of the digital divide. Internet is everywhere for everyone. From your perspective, what does this mean to you?

The definition itself is a statement of reality. There are lots of places out there that don’t have the same set of broadband options at the same price. Although, that scenario is dwindling. Let me describe it this way. Significantly rural environments have long been served by what’s called the USF Program. Over time, everybody that has ever had a telephone line or bought broadband has paid a small sliver of that bill into what has been traditionally called the USF Fund. Very rural places, oddly enough, oftentimes have significant fiber to the home networks even. This is quite typical with rural environments out West that the USF-funded telephone companies have long been able to deliver quite a solid service.

The digital equity problem applies less to those significantly rural environments. More so with urban core-type scenarios. I don’t necessarily equate digital equity. If I was terming, I wouldn’t apply it to the presence or the absence of broadband infrastructure. That’s a small part of it. I would compare it this way. If I have an automobile sitting out in my garage that nobody has ever shown me how to drive, start, use or any of those things, it’s going to sit in my garage as an idle expensive, useless tool. However, if somebody guides me through the process of how to drive it, successfully maintain it, utilize it for my benefit so that it can get me to more opportunities, then I’m prepared to be able to utilize the tool adequately.

That’s more what we mean at the heart of what we talk about when we say a digital divide or driving for more equity within a digital landscape. It’s equally as important to have broadband, but then to be able to apply the lessons to how to use broadband, how is that going to help an individual, a family and community to take advantage of the things that broadband can do if it’s utilized properly. Distance education, work from home, the list is quite long about the things that you can do if you’re able to leverage broadband successfully. That’s more of what I think when we talk about that term.

I love that perspective because it’s not just making something available to someone, but it’s also teaching them how to use it and the benefits, all of what it can provide for them. Those points are important in this concept. The infrastructure bill has passed. Let’s talk about some updates. How much of this is going to go to bridging the digital divide as we were talking about? What are some challenges that we see ahead with this funding?

We need people on the ground who understand local problems.

I don’t doubt that government intention is right in regards to solving the problem. To think about it in terms of if you want an outcome that helps individuals, families and communities benefit from the broadband infrastructure, the total answer is not simply in the cutting of a check. That could be a powerful catalyst as part of the recipe that needs to be applied, but I worry simply in a scenario where we’re micro-focused about the race to grab as much money or write big checks if it’s not grounded by the proper programs that need to be in place for communities to be able to take advantage of getting their citizens and community members, the kinds of instruction and guidance that will enable them to move forward successfully in their life.

I think about my upbringing and opportunities. I remember sitting in front of a Commodore PET computer. That probably dates me, but that was in my middle school years. I remember being fascinated by being able to type something in and see it. For me, early on, getting exposed to technology led to an interest that has always remained. We do have computers in the schools, but the bar, which must be set for somebody to take advantage of internet connectivity, is more than sitting them in front of a Commodore PET computer and letting them play Oregon Trail, which a lot of people my age will fondly remember. The schools and community need to rally around to make these kinds of programs successful.

The other example I would give is that 20-22 states or something like that doesn’t have broadband committees or offices. If you have a whole bunch of money coming in that needs to be applied to the right problems on each state and county level, without those kinds of teams in place that have been evaluating that state or that regional geographies problem for years, you’re not going to have that in 20-22 states.

Hopefully, they can pull from anchor institutions and service providers if they do put those teams together very quickly. People that truly on the ground understand those local problems. Honestly, if I was in charge of any of that on a state level, that’s how I would find my committee and how I would assemble that. That’s extremely important to the responsible use of these remarkable amounts of money to make sure that projects truly do deliver on their promise.

Another way to make sure that projects deliver on their promises is to have the right people. We’re in the middle of a workforce crisis in our industry and there are simply not enough people, skilled labor. It is a concern for every business leader and everyone in any industry. Are you having challenges with finding talent at GeoLinks?

It’s a challenge. It’s not necessarily in my daily set of activities to worry about, but as a member of that executive team, I’m well aware of the open requisitions for different positions from customer service to infrastructure implementation to technical support. There’s a wide set of roles that are required to make an ISP run effectively. Thankfully, we’ve been blessed to this point to have pretty good people across our middle management, but the company is growing fast in part because of recent federal subsidy wins. That was the comment I was aiming to circle back to the differences between our core network. What we’re calling our expansion markets are funded by some federal subsidy programs, including the CAF II Program and RDOF.

With $300 million-plus of subsidies on their way into our business, we’re significantly challenged with what it will take to effectively be able to build within the timeframes that are required. I’d say significantly challenged. We’ve been great about being able to exceed the construction requirements on the CAF II program so far, but soon with RDOF, we expect at the start of 2022 to begin funding, then we’ll have multiple new projects on new fronts to be coordinating construction for. We will leverage different contractors so that we can build faster because we want to get the network out, built into the hands and make it usable to the people that those monies were intended to serve.

Our answer is to lean on some growth internally but then also try to find contractors. That highlights the problem because many of them operate great business units. I’m thinking of Tilson and T3. If I tried to give you that entire list, I would be keeping somebody off. There’s a lot of good programs out there, but even they are struggling to find qualified people. It’s not only people. It’s qualified people. It’s people that are trained to understand how to install fiber and wireless or qualified to be on roofs or towers. There’s a big process of getting an individual both trained and able to perform those core-filled infrastructure functions. Not only something you can study in your senior year of high school and be ready to be cinched up and climbing a tower. You have to have more specialized training and it is a challenge.

Training is the key. That’s the word. The companies you’ve mentioned and the ones you didn’t mention all have very strong training programs. They are faring better in this workforce crisis. Do you have any final thoughts on what you see trending in the industry? Maybe we can work together to create some solutions to some of the challenges we’re facing?

On the shortage of people, I hope that problem corrects itself because some would say that the pandemic, what not the ripples from that created elements that led to the shortage of both goods and human resources to apply to the problems that we all face within the broadband industry. Maybe that’s accurate but moving forward with the injection of so much money through this infrastructure bill and the native growth.

There are plenty of people that are running service provider business units out there that maybe aren’t federally subsidized but are growing exponentially fast. I can think of a lot of rural utilities that are deploying fiber as an example of a group of service providers that are growing. That will have to continue as an industry to incentivize instruction. There needs to be more programs on a community college and a technical college level that deal specifically with infrastructure.

Digital Infrastructure: We’re now using different transport mechanisms to provide solid enough connections to the most important of our societal institutions.

I’ve heard a couple of people that have talked about Weilenmann School that applies to the electrical utility. We need something like that because oftentimes, they’re trying to recruit those people coming out of Weilenmann School to incentivize them to possibly look at fiber optics or something tangential to electricity. With broadband’s utility, unfortunately, sometimes people pay their broadband bill before they pay their water and sewer bill because it is that important, so we need to apply our best answers to it. We’re glad that our entire team at GeoLinks and I are part of what we hope is the answer to supplying innovative ways to get connectivity to places that have not been able to be served adequately in the past.

The last comment I would make with the climate problems with the issues about disaster preparedness, you’re going to see more that multiple internet paths are going to be required, especially for key anchor institutions. I don’t want my 911 center to have a single fiber path out of that building. What happens if it gets cut? What happens if an earthquake disrupts it or there are floods? There needs to be a combination of different transport technologies. I would put a wire in the ground, whether that’s co-ax or fiber alongside terrestrial wireless like what we supply at GeoLinks.

Potentially LEO stuff within the satellite industry is set to explode in its growth over the next few years. We’re sitting at the start of what I would call the next phase of broadband, where different transport mechanisms are utilized to provide solid enough connections to the most important of our societal institutions. I’m glad to be a part of that.

The next phase of broadband, I love that. GeoLinks is at the forefront of that. Can you tell me the website for GeoLinks or where people could go to learn more or possibly even look at careers?

It’s GeoLinks.com. I believe we have a Careers tab at the bottom. We’d love to hear from people who are interested in joining our team. We expect we’re going to grow by a factor of 2 to 3 times the number of employees we have over the years. We’re somewhere around 140 or so employees if it gives you an idea of what we’re targeting as far as our growth pattern.

James, thank you so much for coming to the show. This has been fascinating. I agree with you. We could have talked about either any one of these points for hours. I appreciate your time.

You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

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About James Childs

In 1998, Mr. Childs started Light Link Broadband, the first wireless Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the Western USA. He and his team built the network from scratch and grew the subscriber base to over 30,000 businesses, MDU properties and residences using early 2.4GHz and 900MHz edge broadband access systems.

He later co-founded Velowave, a fixed wireless ISP serving Southern Florida and sold that company with over 25,000 customers to Sling Broadband in 2008. Mr. Childs has held senior management roles with Alianza (pioneering VoIP over WISP Networks), MSTAR, a FTTH ISP in the State of Utah and Broadcast International. From 2014 to 2021 Mr. Childs was VP of Corporate Strategy for Cambridge Broadband Networks, building mmW 12-40GHz licensed PtMP networks with over 50 carriers and ISP’s in the USA.

Mr. Childs is a 2018 MIT Sloan School of Management Executive Education passive participant in IoT, 5G innovation and implementation strategy, and received a BSc in Applied Analysis from Utah Valley University. He remains an Executive Advisor to Komodo Systems and Principal of mmWave.Tech / Fixed Wireless Partners, a consultancy composed of fixed wireless access pioneers.

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